The Belarusian capital has an astonishing peculiarity: that of having been rebuilt twice during the 20th century. In general, this is explained by the two world wars destructions. But this does not apply to Minsk. Because the first remodeling was decided by the USSR to partially erase the pre-revolutionary city. It was a metamorphosis with an essentially ideological goal. Each revolution ends up by transforming the capital of the country concerned. The second reconstruction results from less surprising needs, since World War II devastated almost 90% of the urban fabric.
In either of these crucial stages, the procedures for assigning orders – and the form given to large public facilities – reveal a lot about the power goals. During the decades 1920-1930, the authorities of the Belarus Soviet Republic preferred architectural competitions. The method appeared democratic, giving seemingly a chance to all architects. This is how a little-known Leningrad architect, Iosif Langbard (1882-1951) was able to build in 1929 the very modern House of Soviets. His project was preferred to that of more renowned colleagues, including Lev Roudnev (1885-1956). This consequent project led to his installation in Minsk, his professional capacities serving the urban and political expectations as well.
In 1934, local leaders decided to repeat the experience – announcing a competition to endow Minsk with an Opera Theater worthy of its European counterparts. In the meantime, Langbard had become familiar with the program, through his (unsuccessful) participation in another competition for a theater in Ukraine, for Kharkov in 1930. For the Opera, once again the architect faced some strong competitors, such as Grigori Barkhine (1880-1969). However, an additional competition was conducted simultaneously on the same program – for the Ashgabat Opera in Turkmenistan. It forced many of his Soviet colleagues to choose to compete either for the Belarusian capital or for the Turkmen one. Other great builders graduated from St. Petersburg, such Vladimir Shchouko (1878-1939) and Ivan Fomine (1872-1936) tried (in vain) their luck to provide Central Asia with a sanctuary of operatic music.
For Kharkov, Langbard had proposed a project that was still modern in spirit. For Minsk, he felt the need to send a project that tooks better account of the new Stalinist, more academic, cultural climate. Barkhine did the same choice. Already active before the Revolution, he had adapted well to constructivist modernity during the 1920s. Then he quickly grasped Stalinist expectations, knowing how to forge a viable synthesis between modern simplification and classical memories. The two architects therefore had a similar strategy, to gain the favor of power. However, drawing inspiration from the Roman Coliseum, Barkhine went further in assimilating the world past in the service of communism. Langbard was more cautious, relying on a geometric analysis, generally pursuing constructivist research. If the Belarusian authorities had been quite in tune with the latest cultural trends in the USSR heart, surely Barkhin's project would have been the best solution. However, its constructive complexity came up against the rather moderate means available. Although already politically outdated, Langbard's proposal seemed more suited to the economic context there. In addition, his good working relationship with decision-makers and his mastery of resources in Minsk worked for him.
Despite its transitional style, the Belarusian Opera therefore marked the consecration of its architect. Between geometric purism, Art Deco elegance, and classic quotes, this building even seems the architectural equivalent of the complete musical genre it houses. The opera synthesizing dramaturgy, orchestral music, dance, song, this program tended by nature to demand from the builders a keen sense of the total work of art. The Minsk monument meets these risky specifications, engaging in dialogue with its Western predecessors. Just as Verdi and Wagner responded to each other through their epic compositions? Aware of the political expectations, Langbard planned a statue of Stalin at a key location on the steps of the entrance hall. From the outset, the Minsk Opera Theater saw itself under the tutelary figure of the touchy leader of the USSR. A Commander ready to march, avenging, on Belarusian citizens potentially not docile enough to his absolute authority?
In addition to the Opera Theater, the architect simultaneously built the Academy of Sciences and the House of Red Army. All these buildings were designed in a vein combining classic quotes and formal modernization. Style reminiscent of the work of Fomine and his “Red Doric”. If in Moscow this approach was already giving way to a more historicist approach, in Belarus this vein still continued – the very rural country being transformed thanks to this modernity. It imposed a contemporary facade to Minsk, expressing revolutionary progress. However, there were tenuous indications everywhere that a new wind was threatening the Soviet cherry orchard. Langbard played the blower here, murmuring in the urban space the expected replicas of the ideological scenography actually staged by Stalin himself.
After 1945, the necessary recovery of Minsk facilitated the tacit aims of the Stalinist regime. Of course, consultations were maintained – to give the illusion of always egalitarian decisions. In fact, more than ever, everything was happening behind the scenes. For example, the loyal Langbard was removed from the reconstruction, to the benefit of Moscow architects. They brought to Minsk the last monumental reflexes of Stalinism. Bitter, the unfortunate disgraced man tried to assert his record of service to the new political leadership: his courageous protests were ignored. He soon faded into oblivion, as his city of heart quickly rebuilt itself through the work of younger builders – better prepared for the Stalin Era cruel habits.
The Opera Theater having withstood the bombardments fairly well, Minsk was not really completely devoid of theatrical facilities. However, other types of shows, then the demands of administrations wishing to mark their presence in the city, pushed for the construction of new monuments. In 1946 a competition envisioned an ambitious redesign of October Square – to make it a key Belarusian monumental space in the new triumphal USSR. Ostentatious colonnades, arches of victory, a skyscraper, could have been built... Almost nothing of these grandiose plans was realized, but their trace remains despite everything since they still determine the site outline.
This reduction in ambitions forced the government to focus on emergency solutions. This was done with a very theatrical sleight of hand! On the "garden side" of the square, a fairly commonplace complex was built, continuing the other buildings on Nezavisimosti Avenue ample scale. In the center, the space remained empty – waiting for a more monumental public building (finally erected after the fall of the Union, finalizing the urban decoration desired under Stalin). The Trade Union Theater was placed at "Courtyard side", perpendicular to the street in 1949.
This work, signed by Vladimir Erchov (1899-1984) and Leonid Pavlov (1909-1990), seems to come directly from the Roman Empire over the centuries. The majestic decastyle portico derives from the colossal Roman sanctuary of Venus and of Rome, produced in 135 on Emperor Hadrian’s order. In addition, its exterior form of an ancient temple accentuates the civic agora aspect desired by the regime. Even the interior spaces, with their Corinthian columns and coffered vaults recall the antiquity imperial pomp. Like a 19th century opera setting for a grand spectacle, but solidly built in the center of the city! Perfect box to operate an imaginary concordance of times with Norma or Les Troyens! Replacing the fallen bourgeoisie, the triumphant Stalinist proletariat could now taste the proud delights of epic frescoes extending into the urban environment.
However, the triumphant appearance of this theater did not only earn applause for their authors. Shortly after the curtain was raised, during the architectural de-Stalinization, they were accused of having lapsed into grandiloquence. The critics virulence put an end to the career of the sensitive Erchov. As for the more flexible Pavlov, he then managed to adapt well to the new Soviet modernity. It also betrays the theatricality of the Soviet architectural milieu, stoning its atoning victims, walled up alive – leaving others to get a second chance after a period of soul-searching. The punishment for those who do not bend; redemption for those playing the oppressive game of imperious Kremlin diktats.
With Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) or Aram Khatchatourian (1903-1978), Stalin had composers who were able to magnify the Soviet stage life according to his great ambitions. Prokofiev's opera War and Peace (written in 1942) extols Russian resistance to the French Napoleonic invader, while Khachaturian's ballet Spartacus (composed in 1954) praises the revolt of Roman slaves against oppression. Historical allusions, put at the service of Stalinized Marxism.
But only architects lastingly transformed the USSR: between efficiency and emphasis, their works have transformed urban landscapes everywhere. Monuments all subservient to a monolithic authoritarianism? Facades can be as deceptive as the painted panels of operas. Each play can take other forms in the hands of different directors. Choice of styles and manipulation of space remained in the creators hands. If they had to adapt to the demands of the regime – as each composer had to cope with the public tastes – in the end these two Minsk theatrical places create an offbeat, nonsense juxtaposition. Their topographical proximity seems to initiate an impossible dialogue, on irreconcilable registers – all worthy of the theater of the absurd.
Dickens spoke in parallel of Paris and London, using these cities to shed light on the terrible tidal wave caused by the French Revolution. In a tragic unity of place, Minsk offers dumbfounded eyes a double spectacle worthy of Janus. Two theatrical achievements where their creators wanted to express themselves freely despite constraints. Two divergent representations, via the comedy of the columns and the play of dupes behind the scenes. This reveals how within totalitarian regimes, for the peoples as well as for the builders, the path to freedom remains strewn with perilous adventures.