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The City and the Writer: In Minsk with Valzhyna Mort

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Minsk as you feel/see it?

Minsk is not a city of moods. Rebuilt from the ground after World War II, it is measured out in perfect squares, with wide streets balanced out by long, tall buildings, and populated by gigantic statues and busts—it is, rather, a city of rules, codes, and discipline. The human population, on the other hand, permanently hormonal, unstable, and vulnerable to any stimulus, bedazzled with rhinestones, enormous belt buckles, and gold jewelry, short old women with huge plastic bags, and tall men with tiny men's purses—all trapped in this geometrical perfection, among marble flower beds that bloom if not into some dates and slogans, then into the national colors. It is a city that allows you to be moody and irrational because it gives you space. The main avenue is generously wide and stretches forward for eleven miles, while also stretching out to the sides with the spacious empty squares and parks one associates with European aristocracy. It is imperial in its architecture, but unbearably provincial in its habits—a combination that can work, in my opinion, only in the presence of a marvelous sense of humor. With that absent, it's quite a dreadful characteristic.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The memory of our old apartment, where I lived from the age of three to nineteen. It was a traditional Soviet residential area, built up in the ’80s in long and tall blocks of flats that stretched sometimes for more than one block (the building had an arch over a road for the cars to get through). You know those long clay walls in Moroccan cities that stretch for blocks and you have to go inside, behind the wall, to actually see how people live there? That's how these residential areas are built: only the stretches of blocks have windows and balconies, and they are not made of red clay but of concrete, and you are not in a desert, but in former woods and bogs. And when you enter the courtyard through an arch, there are no intricate tiles and railings, and nobody rushes to bring you a cup of mint tea. The courtyards are large, usually housing a state-run daycare and a school, and whenever you enter there's a high-pitched screeching of swings, and some little girl with pigtails laboring on them as if it were a clock mechanism, or a metronome that should never stop.

Our apartment was very awkwardly planned out and a lot of our family issues were eagerly blamed on rooms being too narrow, or too dark, or on the bookshelf in the hallway that always fell down with a horrendous roar, but there was nowhere else to put it. The window in the children's bedroom came looked out on a dental clinic and a small patch of cemetery across the street from it. When walking to the grocery store or to the bus stop, I'd always have to step over bloody cotton balls, which looked particularly striking on the snow in winter. I'd give a lot to be able to go back to that apartment and stay there for a while with our old furniture, our never-changing curtains and wallpaper.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I must be the “most” since I cannot think of any extraordinary detail. Or maybe the truth is that small details in Minsk are discovered and adored for their most ordinary beauty, while extraordinary things are all around—large, visible, present: the lineup of the most ridiculous palaces (the monstrous Palace of the Republic, the numerous Ice Palaces, the Palace of the Post, the Palace of the KGB, the Academy of Science Palace, the Trade Union Palace, and the Circus Palace down the street), the enormous diamond-shaped glass library, morbid busts of dubious heroes, marble flowerbeds that look like monuments to flowerbeds, and of course that famous and most extraordinary Minsk cleanliness, which is an answer to everything: “At least it's so clean!”

What writer(s) from here should we read?

That's a hard one! Almost nothing is translated into English. I believe that the only two authors whose books are easily available in English are Svetlana Alexievich and myself. Alexievich, however, is not from Minsk, and I cannot say with any certainty where she is living right now. Vasi Bykau, a fantastic Belarusian prose writer, wasn't born in Minsk either, and had to live in exile abroad for many years.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Firstly, I love the old residential streets behind the Minsk Opera House. Three- and five- storey yellow buildings with small grocery shops on the ground floor where it always smells of spilled milk. Chestnut trees blooming in spring or shedding in the fall. Old women with self-sewn cotton grocery bags carrying milk, bread, potatoes, and cookies.

Secondly, I have to admit, I do love coming back to those long, peeling, and generally horrendous blocks of flats situated further from the city center, the kind where I grew up, with their claustrophobic elevators smelling of urine and cheap perfume, with their vandalized mailboxes. I do find it comforting to see all these windows, and windows, and windows, lit and open, and busy, when standing in front of my own. And roofs, and roofs, and roofs, of these identical gray boxes where people build their lives out of seemingly nothing. But that's probably because I don't return to visit that often. That's most certainly why.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I'm afraid nothing as iconic as Siberia. After massive deportations of intellectuals in the ’30s, the post-war ideologized literary scene, with the exception of Vasil Bykau and Yanka Kupala, was rather stale. Neither Bykau nor Kupala, however, saw much inspiration in the city itself. Kupala wrote his best poetry inspired by rural Belarus, and Bykau's best work is on World War II, and is also set in rural Belarus. Several years ago Artur Klinau wrote a book called Minsk: The City of the Sun, in which he creates a Minsk-utopia, Minsk-experiment, but I don't think it's available in English.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Yes, those cities, however, are hidden not only in space, but also in time. Contemporary Minsk is yet another incarnation of itself. It's a city that has died many times, and was, like a dead human buried underground, and then many times it was resurrected in a new form, spirit, with a new purpose. For instance, underneath Minsk there's a river running inside a culvert. Invisible today, it was a river that Minsk stood on for centuries. In fact, the first mention of the city of Minsk in historical chronicles is in regard to the battle on the Niamiha River in 1067. Minsk was rebuilt again and again as an Orthodox, as a Catholic, and as a Soviet city . . . In the ’90s Minsk briefly became Mensk in an attempt to bring back its original Ruthenian pronunciation, and today you can hear both names used, depending on the company you keep.

Where does passion live here?

Passion certainly lives in the heavy bosoms of the female cashiers in meat, milk, and bread shops. They leave no passion for anybody else—they use it all up when choosing a new color to dye their hair, when applying their lipstick, that can send signals all the way to the sky, to pilots to assist them in landing their airplanes, their passion for long, painted nails and poorly fitted bras is unmatched by anybody or anything in Minsk.

What is the title of one of your poems about Minsk and what inspired it exactly?

Most of the poems in Factory of Tears are inspired by the rhythm of Minsk since when living there I wrote a lot while walking, measuring lines and stanzas by the length of blocks, by the time it takes to wait for the bus, by the distance between bus stops. I knew very little about prosody, but the Minsk environment with the formalism of its architecture, its imperial symmetry punctuated by park urns and garbage bins, the brutality of its past, and the sentimentality of its poverty, all of that was my first lesson in poetry. Minsk also appears in Collected Body as a setting for the poem “Zhenya.”

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Minsk does an outside exist?”

Is the world on the other side of the looking glass real? When we look outside Minsk we see only ourselves. For a long time Minsk, just like the rest of the country was a very isolated place. Then, in the ’90s, we started learning about the outside from the instant coffee commercials: the glimpses of bedrooms and kitchens different from ours, people happy to be waking up and looking already showered and not at all swollen-faced. We longed for the outside, feared it, adored it, despised it, embraced it as our “common European home,” felt banished from it, and alienated by it. To leave Minsk for a short trip to another European capital, one has to apply for a visa and prove his or her worthiness to be let out from the utopia into the real world where nobody drinks instant coffee after all. Outside of course exists, but not outside Minsk.


Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus, and moved to the United States in 2005. She's the author of Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and the newly published Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2011). Most recently, she is the recipient of the Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, and the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine. She teaches creative writing at the University of Baltimore.

NH’s Discovery of the Month:

It is sort of difficult to find, hidden in the courtyard near the town center. The closest metro stop to reach it is Victory Square, then by walking behind the huge building enveloped around the northwest corner of the square—and there, you will find Ў Gallery (also a café, bookstore, publishing house and art education center where lectures and workshops are frequent). Why is it so important? Because it’s the place to go if you want a feel of what’s culturally happening in Minsk today. To begin with, no one speaks Russian in this venue, just Belarusian. In fact, the name of the gallery— Ў—is the only letter in the Belarusian alphabet that doesn’t exist in the Russian. And the books, of course, are only in Belarusian. You might ask why this is such a big deal since it is Belarus after all. Belarus is surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. It got its sovereignty in 1990, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, its independence from Russia in 1991. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko came to power and has refused to leave (although he has won the elections over the years, the election-monitoring organization ruled the elections flawed). Lukashenko’s alliance is with Russia (he has attempted but failed to reattach Belarus to Russia), and has made Russian one of the official languages. Although Belarus is an official language, the country was under Soviet rule since the early twentieth century, thus the majority have spoken Russian. Today, many choose to speak Belarusian but it has also become a political act against Lukashenko and his government. The literary and artistic community enforces their position by solely using Belarusian, and increasingly translating popular authors into Belarusian to inspire the youth to speak it. These artists and writers are also helping build a Belarusian identity since they have been under Russian rule for so long, their notion of themselves is better defined by who they are not—Russian, Polish, Ukrainian.

About two million people live in this rather plain city, representative of Stalinist city planning. All seem to await exploring—Soviet shadows, literary bohemians, vodka and salo (pork fat), the colors of Marc Chagall (he was born in Vitebsk 1887), and mostly, pages and pages of untranslated treasures. Belarusian literature is terribly under-represented. From what I know, it started with religious writings in the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. Some of the authors we will hopefully get to read in translation, past and present: Valeria Kustava, Uladzimir Arlou (first laureate of “European Poet of Freedom” Award), Vera Burlak, Slavamir Adamozich, Michal Aniempadystau, Maksim Bahdanovic, Maxim Bogdanovich, Viktar Martynovych, Anatol Vialuhin, Vladimir Korotkevich, Yakub Kolas (I’ve been told that he is the founder of modern Belarusian literature), Yanka Kupała (a national treasure, one of the greatest Belarusian-language writers, and a key force in the creation of modern Belarusian literature and the Rebirth Movement). I am particularly interested in knowing more about the famous Natalya Arsiennieva and Vasil Bykov, and the writers in the Disapora (I found the book, Belarusian Literature of the Diaspora by Arnold McMillin). A Belarus PEN Center exists ( I was introduced to the poet and director of the centre, Andrei Khadanovich, at a poetry festival in Colombia.

Minsk is a feast of still skies and electric vibes, a city that wants to write new songs in old bomb shelters and build dreams not from what remains but from what never left—an unbroken voice alive and fierce in its new generation.

Published Feb 15, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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