Minsk architecture

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April 23, 2017 by AK

Peter Pomerantsev, writing about the Belarus Free Theater on the LRB blog:

The journey took me out of the unspoilt Stalinist centre of the city. (The architecture is known as ampir in Russian, which sounds like, though doesn’t mean, ‘empire’, and contains the word for ‘feast’, pir. ‘Feast of Empire’ is a good way to describe Minsk’s elephantine Soviet neo-classicism.)

Actually, ampir doesn’t sound that much like impèriya – “empire” – in Russian, but it undoubtedly refers to “empire,” in more ways than one. Ampir is derived, by phonetic imitataion, from the French term le style empire (or Second empire). It can be used to describe the architectural styles prevailing in the reigns of Napoléon I (le style empire) and of his nephew, Napoléon III (le style Second empire).

In the former Soviet block, the term can also refer to the pompous official style of Stalin’s late empire, roughly from 1945-1953. The full form is stalinsky ampir; in its eclecticism, the style combined influences from late classicism, baroque, the first and second empires, neo-Gothic and art deco. The Russian word rhymes perfectly with vampir, vampire. As Irina Bogushevskaya sang in the 1990s (all translations are mine and imprecise):

The night is dark. I’ll run alone past the bridges, past the palaces of the ampir age. I’ll praise it, my joyful one: greetings, Moscow, my tender vampire.

Often enough, people exclaim “ampir!” at any buildings they feel are too ornate, pompous or vaguely “Stalinist.” That can include the post-constructivism of the 1930s, which ought not to be classed with ampir proper. Minsk has its share of 1930s pre-ampir, most notably the public buildings by Iosif Langbard. However, most of the Stalin-era architecture in Minsk must date from the post-WWII years because the war left the city in ruins.

This page (in Russian) has images of the ruins, of people cleaning up, and of new buildings from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s: in Pomerantsev’s words, the “unspoilt Stalinist center.” This photograph shows a surviving pre-war building in the background, in all likelihood a “post-constructivist” work from the 1930s.


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