September 26, 2017

Minsk – City for Giants

Minsk – City for Giants
Maria Rylik {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Minsk is a city built for giants.

Criss-crossed by wide prospects and avenues that are blessedly un-clumped by the sort of traffic jams that plague Moscow or St. Petersburg, all its buildings – whether apartment blocks, official buildings, sporting facilities, or banks – stretch for kilometers (or blocks at least), boasting broad, Potemkin stairways and sweeping architectural lines.

Everything seems dialed up to 11 in this city of 2 million. It is impressive and jaw-dropping (if not exactly pedestrian-friendly), yet one cannot help wondering, as with a steroid-juiced, muscle-bound weightlifter, if someone is trying to compensate for something.

This, after all, is the city that post-War Soviet empire built. All but obliterated by WWII, Minsk was re-planned and rebuilt from the ground up. It was clearly meant to impress, to exhort: Fascism did not defeat us; this is what a Soviet city will look like. And so a great deal of excess capacity was built in. Which is nowhere more evident than at the airport, where huge, cavernous halls stand empty but for the zig-zagging nylon webbing that defines the empty passenger corrals.

The middle of a work day at Minsk Airport. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

Even the newer downtown areas – where there is an attempt to create inviting pedestrian spaces – nonetheless impress as sterile and un-welcoming, with blocks two Paul Bunyan strides long. Public parks and monumental spaces seem forced: you will relax here; here, honor this.

Still, we were repeatedly surprised by Minsk, usually in a "I bet you didn't expect to find that here" sort of way. Here are three examples:

A restaurant famous for its authentic Belarusan food... and its Brazilian music?
A bar named for Calvin Coolidge, apparently because he was the US President during Prohibition, not because he was from Vermont... {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}
A war monument tries to crush Planet Pizza. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

But for all that, Minsk is a clean, well-lit, and rather orderly place. Perhaps such is to be expected in “the last dictatorship in Europe” (or simply because there is plenty of space in which to sort things out).

Yet, interestingly, in our three days in the capital, we did not feel the heavy hand of authoritarianism. In fact, a bit to the contrary: we benefited from a new five-day, visa-free regime introduced here at the beginning of the year. Entry and exit via Minsk International Airport (the only way to travel visa-free to Belarus, for now; one must arrive from and leave from non-Russian locales) cost just $4.71 – the fee for three days of health insurance, and was rather easy and painless. Perhaps that was because there were only about 23 other passengers in the massive airport, which is (of course) located about 40 kilometers from the city, and which you get to and from via wide, un-trafficked avenues.

The most telling aspect of our time in Minsk is that we found little that appealed to our photographic eye when wandering about the center. Perhaps we didn’t find the right spaces or have enough time, but then we were not really here to photograph monuments and parks, but people and families.

Cleaning the war memorial.


*  *  *

Maria Rylik is like a human anti-incarnation of Minsk. Humble and self-effacing, regal in bearing and whatever the opposite is of ostentatious, she speaks matter-of-factly, without embellishments.

Born Maria Fyodorovna Borisovich in the Russian town of Velizh, her life soon became inextricably linked to Belarus. Her mother died when she was 10, and her father immediately remarried. But Maria did not welcome her father’s second marriage, so in 1930 she moved to live with her older sister Alexandra, in the village of Kozulichi, near Bobruisk (Mogilev region).

Maria looks through some old photos. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

In Velizh, Maria’s educational opportunities had been severely limited, because her father had been a priest before the revolution (and by all accounts continued to practice as one until his death in the 1930s). But when she moved to Bobruisk, at some point her sister (as she herself had done) changed Maria’s legal last name from Borisovich to Borisevich, likely because it sounded more Belarusan but, more importantly, to make foggier the link with their father’s priesthood.

This allowed Maria to continue her education, and in 1936 she fell in love with and married one of her teachers, Mikhail Rylik. The two began careers in education and had a son, but then the wars intervened. Mikhail was drafted to fight in the Finnish War (1939-40) and the World War (1941-45) that followed.

Maria's husband, Mikhail, later in life. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

During the latter, which killed about one-quarter of Belarus’ pre-war residents, Maria (along with her young son Alexander) hid out in a small village in occupied Belarus, where, as she indicated, her greatest fear was being shipped off to Germany.

“We hid everywhere, wherever we could. We learned that Germans were coming, and we hid in the bathroom, in the field, everywhere… we hid but thank God were not caught… The Germans were doing round-ups, gathering up people, sending them to concentration camps in Germany and there doing with them whatever they liked. Some lived, some were beaten up, others were raped, everything was done to them. And therefore we feared ending up in Germany. And so we hid…”

 And yet, as soon as the war was over, shipped off to Germany Maria was, only not as a prisoner, but as the wife of an occupying soldier. The family lived for a year in what would later become East Germany, and Maria was shocked and confused to find that the quality of life in defeated Germany was better than that in the victorious Soviet Union. The family returned to Belarus in 1947, where their daughter, Regina, was born.

First graduating class of the Bobruisk Teachers' Institute in 1951. Maria is in the third row, on the far left. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Three decades of teaching in Bobruisk followed, and retirement in the early 1970s. Since then, Maria has led an active life, to say the least, taking a vigorous interest in the lives of her relatives, whether caring for them in their last days or helping them to make life changes, often traveling on her own all over the country well into her nineties.

“I don’t remember my grandmother ever thinking about herself,” says granddaughter Yuliya. She and her husband Alexei are actually responsible for connecting us up with Maria. When they heard about our project through a mutual friend, they reached out and offered to connect us with their grandmother, who was born in 1917, even joining the project as sponsors.

Nikolai and Regina Belik (Maria's son-in-law and daughter), Maria Rylik, and Yuliya Bolshakova (Maria's granddaughter). {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

“My grandmother is a catalyst in my life,” Yuliya says. In 2004, when Yuliya and her husband decided to make a change in their life and move from Minsk to Moscow, Maria joined them. “We bought three platzcar [third class] rail tickets to Moscow, and she came with us. We could not have done it without her, and she was almost 90! I can’t remember her ever being self-concerned; but only concerned for others.

“Being a teacher all her life, she educated all her children and grandchildren. We all like reading thanks to her – she got me my first library card when I was 3 and pretty much taught me to read at that age.” 

Yuliya shares another telling story about her grandmother. Apparently, when Maria was 90, for her birthday she invited her friends to a party, yet had to meet some of them to help them navigate the metro. But then there was an accident when one of the women unfamiliar with metro travel fell on the escalator, and several of them were hurt, including Maria.

The ambulance driver took one look at Maria’s passport (which of course showed her age), Yuliya says, and said they needed to take her to the hospital, but Maria refused, saying she was fine and would take a taxi home. Which she did. And so, when all her family came home for the party, there she was sitting in the apartment, bandaged up like Van Gogh, and shrugging off the incident as if nothing had happened.

Today, in a proof of how life often comes full circle, Maria has returned to the faith that nine decades ago limited her educational opportunities under the Bolsheviks - a faith that she also tried to forget for a long stretch of her life history. She has become very religious, regularly reads Christian literature, and until recently was a regular parishioner at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral in Minsk.

And this week, on September 30, 2017, Maria turns 100.

Maria Fyodorovna Rylik. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}
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