Our expert in issues of forming identity and mentality on local visual codes, professional designer and artist Michal Aniempadystau prepared a special report for our meeting in Brussels and further at a Belarusian discussion. We found it so deep and touching, that soon it became a distinct material. Here we suggest the whole text to your attention.

Photo: Alisa Akhramovich

Text: Michal Aniempadystau

I was born and grew up when a city’s historical or cultural heritage used to live its own life separated from the city residents. The heritage facilities did exist physically, some of them even protected by virtue of their legacy status; yet, they were devoid of any substance and there was little we knew about them, if anything at all.

Individual buildings or their groups and ensembles, streets, squares, roundabouts or parks used to constitute part of a physical urban space which was deprived of history or stories, or any associative relations inside. It was just a space, flat and monotonous, like a newly built asphalt road pavement: distances between random points on an imaginary map.

The TV-set failed to say anything about the city history; neither the newspapers brought anything about it, nor the schools taught. This kind of approach was not accidental: the Soviet ideology consciously silenced up the pre-Soviet past. The only exception made dealt with the latest war history and it safely camouflaged everything which had happened before it. That being said, the World War 2 historical sites by themself were of not much interest; their role of a spatial marker or a symbolic place for preserving token senses was something which mattered.

In practice, the concept was implemented in the form of memorial signs, monuments and monument compounds. Filled with contents, significances and myths, they have integrated so solidly with the mass scale conscience, that till this very day provide a universal world outlook valuable by supporting with their presence the foundations of the Belarusian state ideology. As well as used by our eastern neighbour as a geopolitical influence leverage.

As of 1970 the government had recorded in registries the total of 525 architectural monuments. But as far as the memorial signs of all kinds and descriptions are concerned, an impressive number of 6,000 of them were installed between 1965 and 1972 alone. The Belarusian Monument Protection Society was entrusted with installation of such signs in the Soviet times. It provided the major objective for the association which had in the early 1970s about a million members who paid on a voluntary-compulsory basis their membership fees, including my modest self.

I grew up at Kamaroŭka. We were taken from our day care centre to see Marat Kaziej’s monument, and later his sister came to our school for a visit. The school was situated at the corner of Kuibyshev and Viera Charužaja Streets, which is why we were also told a lot about Viera Charužaja. Except that in Western Belarus she had been engaged, among other things, in subversive, or as we would have put it today, terrorist activities. Besides, we also knew where an underground printing house was situated at war times, but we were not told anything about a Soviet prisoner of war camp at the site just next to our school, because the big guys from the top failed to give relevant instructions.

Neither did they ever mention that the Bird Market was situated at the old military hospital cemetery or that the Spartacus movie theatre was built at the Staražoŭka cemetery, that the building behind the movie theatre was a former church, and that all these things stood at Piarespa hill named after the rivulet flowing into the Svislač behind the hill near a former grain storage building, where now a synagogue is, and where a long time ago, as the legend has it, the Mianiesk mill ground.

Everything I knew about the city from my early years was heard from my parents or from some people I communicated with. The people around me were reluctant to speak about the past affairs. They were scared. While when speaking out was no longer disallowed, there was no one around who could tell. My generation’s ideas about the non-war-related bygones were profoundly personalised and failed to create a cohesive unified system of values, where the values involved did not need being explained or proved to each other.

In the early 1970s the attitude to our own history and, appropriately, to our historical and cultural heritage, began undergoing a change. The way I see things, the changes in question were inspired by a number of endowed books targeting a mass-scale audience written in an original historical genre.

The literature of the kind appeared almost simultaneously in various ex-USSR republics. Russia’s Soloukhin wrote so and Latvia’s Ziedonis did, just like Belarus’ Karatkievič. Their works were distinctly featured by declaring love of their “little” homelands and by a poetic elevation of its history and nature.

The authors who fit into the literary trend succeeded in finding a weakness in the official ideological wall and in setting up a special cultural foothold which grew bigger and bigger as time flew by. The local focus literature was added up by a new wave of historical prose. It was represented in Belarus by works of Adam Mal’dzis, Leanid Daineka, Kastuś Tarasaŭ, Aleś Pietraškievič and, last but not least, Uladzimier Karatkievič.

Their books impregnated with verbal or symbolic essence the historical or cultural patrimony facilities, interconnected these with sense bearing and associative relations and brought back into the physical space its forlorn historical and cultural dimension.

Against the background of the acute interest in own history and culture, the early 1980s saw the rise of independent youth groups. To name just a couple of them, Majstroŭnia or Talaka. The former emphasised the ethnographic domain, whereas the latter focused on tangible heritage protection. Informal associations of the kind sprung up in Homiel’, Lida, Polacak and in other Belarusian towns. Some intellectual think tanks or discussion clubs came to life, such as Sumoŭje based on the Academy of Sciences, Histaryčnaja Haścioŭnia at the Literary House or study groups active around the Ancient Belarusian Culture Museum and the Restoration Workshop.

The first legal non-government organisations in Belarus in the 1980s had an educational historical or cultural nature. No human rights advocacy or social and political focus involved, but history and culture emerged at the forefront. A similar situation was formed in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. They were exactly the organisations and hubs which somewhat later, at the Perestroika times, provided a basis for the pan-national civic and political movements which have eventually changed the course of history.

Within the process of bringing back the contents and essence of the national legacy not just the men of letters were engaged, but also representatives of such other professions as researchers, scholars, scientists, restorers or creative people. The historical and cultural agenda was pro-actively worked through in visual arts, including the one targeting a wide range of consumers, i.e. illustrations. A special role was played by illustrations of children’s publications. So did posters which brought back into the public domain some historical events, objects, facilities or persons by creating their laconic and recognizable symbolic images.

These sources are likely to explain our deep sentiment to the times of the Great Duchy Lithuanian which, when combined with the old Soviet era desire for gigantomania, has outlined the state policy concept in the sphere of historical or cultural heritage protection. The relevant policy priorities included such ambitious renovation projects as castle, palace or town hall reconstructions. This being said, it was just the renovation methods which came under critical fire, not the facility choice as such, with regard to which there was (and still is) a consensus in place between the authorities and the public.

At the same time, the facilities where the essence or value had not been articulated, submitted publicly or realized by the public, kept on being destroyed. Sometimes they did so helped by some responsible persons and not without a silent consent on behalf of all the others. The bitter irony of such situation is that conservation of these facilities did not require any special financial spending. More often than not the spending could be limited to current expenses or no expenditures at all were needed. What was not there for the purpose of the preservation was one trifling thing – collective realization of their value.

This kind of realization does not come about all by itself. It emerges following our intellectual and creative efforts being exerted and propagates by personal embracing, education or mass media. So far this kind of realization has failed to cover some types of both tangible and intangible patrimony. For instance, we still fail to comprehend the value of an entire historical landscape as a whole, but tend to single out and protect some of its individual fragments. We fail to see aesthetics and history of thought in the industrial architecture. We fail to respect our own culinary tradition. We fail to perceive the aesthetic value of parks or the role they play in our culture.

The Asmaloŭka conflict is an exemplification of such a situation. The heritage facility is in a fair condition and, apart from a trivial overhaul, is in need of no special measures. Its contents and value have been articulated and recognized, although not by all, because some voices can be heard which doubt its value. The voices are few and far between, but they are here. It is a regular thing. Comprehension takes some time, it does. However, comprehension is not here yet, because we have already now some persons eager to lay their hands on the area and monetise it to their benefit, whereas the value of an existing historical facility, which has been articulated and recognized by the public, raises the costs of a facility scheduled to emerge in its place. Such is the paradox.

As a matter of summing up the above, we should emphasize the following points:

Filling a tangible or intangible heritage facility with contents and substances always precedes realization of the facility as a historical or cultural asset.

In this way, heritage becomes an achievement. Inheritors’ responsibility is to preserve the achievement and pass it on to the generations to come.

The content of a historical or cultural heritage facility, be it either tangible or intangible heritage, may not be just a verbal one, in the form of facts, stories or myths, but also sacral, symbolic, visual, spatial, sensorial and even gastronomic one.

(Usually, the non-verbal or difficult to verbalise contents are specified with words spirit, aura, mood, symbol, beauty, harmony, etc.).

The facility contents affect the facility’s image and style in case it is rehabilitated.

The facility contents determine the available options and methods for its revitalisation.

It is exactly the contents of a cultural or historical heritage site which provide a cultural and identity war zone.

At the same time, the heritage facility contents are capable of serving as a consolidating factor.

In any case, the heritage facility contents constitute the facility’s significant and inalienable attribute which determines its value in public conscience.

Therefore, the heritage facility contents are in need of protection, the way the heritage facility is.

However, the question arises how to protect from destruction the heritage facilities where their contents have not been articulated and their value not realized by the public. For example, no first-hand sources were available, or else there was no one around to articulate the contents, or else the contents have not been properly brought into the public domain. The only way out from the conundrum may be seen in a sui generis ‘presumption of value.’ It means that every patrimony object should be considered a potentially valuable one. Ideally, any facility elimination decision must be preceded by an independent historical and cultural expert evaluation and public debate. A democratic society renders it possible.

Historical and Cultural Heritage and Its Substance