Wednesday 20 September 2023

Two's Company

A 1980s postcard of Victory Square in Minsk
(source: eBay listing)

I've been sitting here trying to think what I know about Minsk. As it turns out, the sum total of my knowledge of Minsk is zero. Also, every time I think of its name, I think of minxes, which is not helpful. Internet to the rescue...

Minsk is the capital of Belarus, which is bordered by Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia, and has close links with the latter. Prior to its independence in 1991, Belarus was one of the fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics.

Minsk sounds like one of those very cold places where you have to wear a furry hat most months of the year. A quick check reveals that the average temperature HIGHS for November, December, January, February and March are 3, -1, -3, -1 and 4 respectively. Brrr.

Until 2022, Minsk was one of Nottingham's twin cities. However, when those pesky Russians invaded Ukraine, Nottingham City Council acted quickly to end the arrangement, along with that between Nottingham and Krasnodar in Russia. The Minsk Twin City Administration Department (should such an entity exist) may not be shut down just yet, though, as Minsk is twinned with quite a few other places, including seven cities in Russia and four in China.

Nottingham's links with Minsk were formalised in 1966, when the respective councils signed an agreement to exchange information and exhibitions and to encourage communication between other institutions of the two cities. This arrangement had its origins in the establishment of the Minsk branch of the USSR-Great Britain Friendship Society in 1961. Communications were suspended between 1980 and 1984, but resumed following the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader.

As of January 2021, Minx, sorry, Minsk, had a population of 2 million, as compared to the City of Nottingham's total of around 324,000 in the same year.

On 16 October 1989, part way through the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, and just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Nottingham Evening Post published the first in a series of articles called 'Breaking Down the Barriers' - 'Tales of the Twin Cities Nottingham and Minsk'. These articles were the result of a reporter 'exchange' between the Evening Post and the Novosti Press Agency. The Post's reporter, Lynne Curry, travelled to Minsk, while Minsk's representative, Vyacheslav Khodosovsky, visited Nottingham.

Curry doesn't mince her words when describing Minsk as it was at that time. She speaks of 'hostile, grey and depressing' high-rises and of '...the apathy caused by the onerous, suffocating, bureaucratic political machine that preceded Gorbachev'. No doubt there were many privations and little freedom, and the mood of the moment must be taken into account, but even so, the message is laid on a little thickly:

'For the first time in decades of dull, dull lives, there is the small but penetrating light of liberty. Liberty to speak freely. Liberty to admit that there are weeds among the paving slabs, prostitutes in the streets. That the USSR is not necessarily one step below heaven... Their lives have been goal-less, grey places; lacking incentive. No fun. No glamour.'

Khodosovsky is, conversely, gentle and generous. He describes Nottingham as a 'truly beautiful city; where ancient architecture and flowering parks compete with the richness of its museums, where every stone breathes romantic legends and traditions honoured even to this day.'

His comments on Maid Marian Way are thought-provoking indeed: 'I was shown the street...which locals call the ugliest highway in Europe. I found difficulty in understanding this judgement, however, as from my eyes I saw a quite lovely street where contemporary buildings harmonise with the old quarters.'

He visits Newstead Abbey (where he is delighted to discover a tree planted by members of a delegation from Minsk), notes that ' agreement has been reached for souvenirs from Minsk to be sold in Nottingham' and tells us how, 'At a family supper to which I was invited, the hostess (to the applause of the gathering) brought out a steak and kidney pie decorated with a hammer and sickle. I have the impression that peristroika has a sweet taste to the English. How I wished at that moment it would not be replaced with the bitter taste of disappointment.'

Minsk continued to feature in the local news over the next few years.

The Evening Post of 30 May 1992 contained an appeal from Chernobyl Children's Lifeline (which still exists today, in expanded form) for Nottingham families to host children who had been relocated from Chernobyl to Minsk, for 'month-long holidays'. Chairman Victor Mizzi was keen to point out that, 'The children are very easy to look after and language is not a problem...But it's sad to say some have never seen sweets, ice cream or milk. They are amazed at our shops and love our way of life.'

An article later that same year refers to 'Nottingham's five-year-plan to provide aid to the victims of the Chernobyl disaster', with a charity, Open Hands, detailing its aims to visit Minsk to distribute medicines and food, to organise an exchange of doctors and nurses between the two cities and to 'either build holiday homes for the children in a safe haven, or to build part of a hospital named the Nottingham Wing.'

In the previous month, images by photographers from Nottingham, Minsk and Karlsruhe (another of Nottingham's twin cities) had gone on display at Nottingham Playhouse in the Twinned Cities International Exhibition, which marked the centenary year of the Nottingham and Notts Photographic Society. The exhibition consisted of forty prints from each city.

Sadly, in more recent times, with Russia turning once more towards authoritarianism, relations between Nottingham and Minsk seem to have faltered, before last year's events finally brought them to a grinding halt.

Let us hope that these links of friendship will be restored and rejuvenated at some point in the future, because it would be a shame not to be able to build on what seems to have been a beneficial relationship for both cities, demonstrating, for once, a more positive side to humanity.

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