hidden europe 28

Belarus: the making of Vitebsk

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Three generations on the Pushkin bridge in the heart of Vitebsk, Belarus (photo © hidden europe).


Tumbling off the train and riding the trolleybus over to the other side of the river is a fine introduction to Vitebsk. The Belarusian city is precise and orderly: Swiss efficiency colliding with Soviet style. And at the annual Slavianski Bazaar, Vitebsk is a city that knows how to party.

The crowds spill over the concrete footbridge, cascading down the worn staircases onto the plaza in front of the railway station. If the architect of Vitebsk railway station were to see what has become of his grand scheme, he would be appalled. Boris Mezentsev’s plan for Vitebsk train station was one of the last gasps in Stalinist design. It is one of those regal buildings full of polished marble and huge chandeliers. But nowadays passengers walk around Mezentsev’s very Soviet space rather than through it. Alexey Dushkin was another architect of the same era. His job title — Chief Railway Architect — was as grand as his design for the train station at Simferopol in the Crimea.

Then along came Khrushchev. A new broom. A man keen to mark a break with the design excesses of the late Stalinist period. The heavyweights of Stalinist design, men like Mezentsev and Dushkin, were banished to write their memoirs or design apartment blocks in Hanoi. And the crowds that spill off the blue and white trains arriving in Vitebsk opt for the modern elevated concrete walkways rather than the crystal chandelier route to the waiting trolleybuses.

Five hundred roubles for a ride on the trolley. Belarusian, not Russian roubles. Almost nothing. Be it just for a short hop over the river on a trolley or a long haul out to the far suburbs on the smart green bus. The long haul is very long. Vitebsk sprawls way out to the east, ranks of multicoloured apartment blocks gobbling up fields speckled with wooden cottages. In western Europe, planners would make a clean sweep, destroying trees and cottages in their quest for a greenfield paradise of all-too-perfect low rise suburbs: Cherry Lane, Meadow Drive and Orchard Close. Orchards, meadows and cherries there may be none.

Belarus does things differently. High rise marches boldly out towards the distant forests. A grand boulevard, once named after Bukharin but now styled after Pushkin, rolls off into eternity.

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Related note

Rail update: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

New rail timetables for the former Soviet Union come into effect later this month. There remains some uncertainty about some services, but for travellers heading east, here are a few thoughts on what to expect: the return of the Berlin to Kaliningrad night train, a new link from Riga to Minsk, a direct daily train from Berlin to Ukraine and more.