Minsk is the capital and largest city of Belarus. It is also the center of the Minsk province. Known as "Mansk" in the Belarusian language, Minsk is also a major center of industry and trade, as well as the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a consortium of former Soviet nations. Minsk is the cultural and political center of Belarus, and although it was instrumental in the dismantling of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Minsk is distinctively Soviet in character.
Minsk has been an important part of European trade routes since the prehistoric era, and some historians believe that the city's name comes from the Slavic word "miena," which means barter. Another possible origin for the city's name has to do with an ancient legend about a giant, named Menesk or Mine, who lived by the river. Yet another origin for the city's name comes from the Slavic verb "meniat," meaning "to change," which reflects the city's expeditious development.
Minsk is located roughly in the center of Belarus, on the banks of the Svisloch and the Niamiha rivers, both of which link the Baltic and Black Seas. Because of its location, Minsk has been an important trading route since ancient times. The city lies among the hills of the Belarusian Ridge, with a total area of about 207,600 square kilometers (80,155 square miles). Specifically, the city is on the southeastern slope of the Minsk Hills, about 280 meters (920 feet) above sea level. While the western end of the city is almost entirely in the hills, Minsk expanded to include the plains of the southeast during the twentieth century.
The city is home to many pinewood and mixed forests, thanks to its moderate, continental climate. However, Minsk has volatile, unpredictable weather patterns. Minsk features mostly modern architecture, a side effect of the destruction the city suffered during World War II; its wide boulevards and tall buildings are characteristic of twentieth century architecture. Minsk is made up of nine administrative districts, most of which are named after revolutionaries or important events from the city's history.
The population of Minsk is approximately 1,830,700. Prior to World War II, the city had a large Jewish population, which composed approximately a third of the total population. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, they killed most of the Jewish population and razed the city. Following this devastation, Minsk's population rebounded from 1959 to 1989, during which time the number of residents more than tripled, from 500,000 to 1,600,000.
Most recent estimates indicate that the population is mostly (79.3 percent) made up of ethnic Belarusians, who are descended from the early East Slavic peoples. Although there had long been an influx of Poles into the city since the partition of Poland, more and more Minskers have identified themselves as ethnically Russian. Currently, Russians are the second largest ethnic group in Minsk, accounting for about 16 percent of the population. Since the genocide of World War II, the Jewish population has shrunk to less than 1 percent of the city's entire population. About 70 percent of Minskers are Russian Orthodox; 15 to 20 percent of the population practices Catholicism while another 5 percent practices Protestantism. Over 113 different religions and denominations, including Judaism and Islam, are practiced in Minsk.
Because of the perpetually changing demographic, the city's official language has changed numerous times during its history. The Belarusian language is descended from Ruthenian, which most early Minskers spoke. Polish became the official language during Poland's occupation, while Yiddish gained prominence as the city's Jewish population grew. Although there has been a struggle between Belarusian and Russian since the nineteenth century, Russian is currently the most widely used language, though some rural inhabitants employ the hybrid pidgin language known as Trasyanka.
Military and police officers are ubiquitous in Minsk, but beyond their physical presence, they are not known to regularly impose on locals or visitors. The crime rate in Minsk is low compared to its neighbors. Because of the rationing of the Soviet years and the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, food is often in short supply in Minsk, and most of the local cooking relies on staples such as bread, potatoes, cabbage, pork, and mushrooms.
Despite having sloughed off the yoke of Soviet rule nearly twenty years ago, Minsk retains much of the Soviet character, including numerous statues of Vladimir Lenin. The most important holiday for many Minskers is Victory Day, which falls on May 9. Victory Day celebrates not only the city's liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991, but the Soviet Union's liberation from Germany in 1945. Not everyone is in favor of continued government control, however, and demonstrations in the Minsk streets are a common sight. Mostly these demonstrations are peaceful, but violence has occasionally erupted.
As the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Minsk is an important and powerful economic hub. Historically, Minsk has been a major trade hub, but the city's economy has been based more around manufacturing in the late nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries. Significant products include trucks and tractors, as well as other machine parts including motors and bearings, in addition to refrigerators, watches, and radio and television equipment. Foodstuffs are also an important part of the local economy, although local produce is essentially inedible because of the Chernobyl disaster. Likewise, the water is known for causing stomach problems in many people, due to its high radioactivity.
The construction of the Moscow-Warsaw and Liepaja-Romny railways during the 1870s cemented Minsk's position as an important industrial center. Minsk is also home to an international airport, known as Minsk 2, and the busy Brest-Moscow Highway. Because of the enduring influence of communism, the government runs most of the industry in Minsk. The Belarusian Rouble (BYR) has been subject to considerable inflation over the years. As of 2011, the exchange rate was approximately 3,000 BYR to 1 USD, or 4,000 BYR to 1 EUR. Belarus does not use coins. Belarusian bills come in denominations of $100, $50, $20 and $10.
Among the few relics of pre-War Minsk that are still standing are the Mariinsky Cathedral and the church of the Bernadine monastery. Aleksandrovsky Square, in the center of the city, is another important landmark with a long history of destruction and revival, much like the city itself. The square is home to a public garden and a large fountain depicting a boy with a swan, which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Minsk.
Other important landmarks include the music conservatory, the Belarus State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and the Academy of Sciences of Belarus, which is home to several museums, including one dedicated to World War II (which Belarusians call the Great Patriotic War). Minsk has two major sports complexes, the Palace of Sports, and the Ice Sports Palace. Popular nightspots in Minsk include the Yanka Kupala Theater, the Russian Drama Theater, the Minsk Puppet Theater, and the State Theater of Musical Comedy, as well as a number of dance clubs and bars.
Minsk was officially founded in 1067 as a border fortress to defend against the powerful state of Kievan Rus, although the city was already an established Slavic village by then. Ultimately, the fortress was ineffectual, and the city was conquered and destroyed by Kievan Great Prince Vladimir Monomakh in 1087, thus making the city a part of the Kievan empire.
Likely due in part to its prominence and importance, Minsk has been attacked, destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its history. The first recorded sacking of the city occurred in 1084, when the prince of a rival town destroyed it. Beginning in about 1165, the Minsk Princedom began to rely on its Lithuanian neighbors for advice and support. Within thirty years, a Lithuanian prince named Mingaylo had become the prince of Minsk, and shortly thereafter the Minsk princedom was conquered by and incorporated into the Great Lithuanian Princedom, of which it remained until 1791.
At different times during the fourteenth century, the city was controlled by both Lithuania and Poland, before being reclaimed by Russia in 1793, following the third partition of Poland. The French occupied the city in 1812, and then the Germans took over in 1918. The Poles made their last grab for Minsk in 1919, and kept the city for itself for over a year before Minsk became one of the founding cities of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union formed in 1922, the country of Belarus, then known as Belorussia, was one of the first members to join.
On June 22, 1944, German forces invaded Minsk during World War II. The Nazi campaign in Minsk eventually killed one third of the city's population, including most of Minsk's Jewish population. More than 90 percent of the city was razed. Nevertheless, in the wake of this tragedy, Minsk has rebuilt significantly, and Belarus has experienced greater population growth than any other former Soviet country. Because of this rapid growth and revitalization, Minsk was dubbed a "Hero City" by the Soviet government in 1974.
Minsk was struck another heavy, if not immediately apparent blow in April 1986 when a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine exploded. The plant was a mere 12 kilometers (7.45 miles) from the Belarusian border, and the territory absorbed 70 percent of the fallout from the disaster. Radiation levels in Minsk in the days after the explosion were twenty-five times greater than the normal background levels.
Just as Minsk had been one of the founding members of the USSR, it also led the way toward independence for the Soviet states. In December 1991, leaders of several Soviet states met in Minsk to sign the peace accord that dissolved the Soviet Union. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Minsk thus became the capital of the newly formed nation of Belarus. Minsk also became the headquarters of the association of former Soviet States known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.
During the 1990s, Minsk's unemployment rate grew significantly, and the city suffered an economic downturn. Minsk recovered in the early twenty-first century, with a housing boom that began in 2002, bringing stability and development to the turbulent city. The suburbs, or mikroraions, have also seen considerable development, which has relieved the extreme population density in those regions.
Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of US President John F. Kennedy, lived in Minsk during the year 1941, and met his wife in the city.