The Менская ўрбаністычная платформа (from now on referred to as Minsk Urban Platform) website displays a distinctly stylish and well-crafted aesthetic. It conveys the sense of a driven collective that not only takes itself seriously but also strives to present itself as such, bridging the realms of politics, urbanism, design, and art in its outreach.
I recall learning about Minsk Urban Platform during its early years in the mid-2010s. I was inspired by the impression its materials left on me. They always seemed to represent cutting-edge insights on urban matters, exhibiting a critical but constructive tone.
As a Helsinki native, I am geographically relatively close to Minsk. Despite (and precisely because of) this proximity, I had always postponed my visit to the city, but one thing was always certain to me: when I eventually went there, my first order of business in the city would be attending an event organised by Minsk Urban Platform.
Most of the text seems to be written in Belarusian. I translate the website and start reading the first paragraph:
“We, the team of the Minsk Urbanist Platform, express solidarity with all Ukrainians, Belarusians, and people around the world who are compelled to be entangled in the war of the 21st century.”
Like all aspects of Belarusian society, Minsk Urban Platform finds itself in an increasingly difficult spot amidst the political repression exerted by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. Learning about the difficulties of this activist community, which I have come to revere so much over the years, sadly does not surprise me.
While this account may not offer the most cheerful depiction of civil society activism within an oppressive context, it is noteworthy how a dedicated group of urbanists successfully established a network of like-minded individuals in Minsk, collaborating to enhance their city environment and create knowledge on urban matters.
Their work, characterised by its insightfulness and impact, extends beyond local relevance, making them significant to a broader audience beyond their native communities.
Their story deserves to be told.
Minsk Urban Platform is a Belarusian non-profit organisation that boasts an interdisciplinary community of activists, researchers, students, and professionals, all united by a common objective: sharing knowledge to gain a deeper understanding of urban issues and collaboratively enhancing urban spaces for the people of Belarus. It serves as a platform for the interaction between diverse stakeholders, ranging from architects and communicators to anthropologists and sociologists.
In practical terms, the community at Minsk Urban Platform is involved in urban research, education, participatory design, the creation of new urban spaces, and the concentration and exchange of knowledge concerning Minsk's urban challenges.
Some of the recent projects of Minsk Urban Platform are visible on the main page of their website. The material, mostly in Belarusian and Russian but some also in English, include events, articles, audio products, and videos.
The themes of Minsk Urban Platform are not only captivating but seem to engage in topical debates of contemporary academia at large. In addition to urban planning topics such as architectural heritage preservation or urban growth and master planning in Belarus, one can find a podcast about decolonisation in Belarusian cities as well as delve into the orientalist aspects in socialist architecture.
The distinctive and insightful perspectives offered on Belarus by Minsk Urban Platform undoubtedly break away from the conventional coverage of the country in the western mainstream consciousness.
I want to know more of Minsk Urban Platform and the people behind it. I decided to contact someone who knows the story better than most.
To understand the intricacies of the story of Minsk Urban Platform, I sat down with Andrei Vazyanau, an urban anthropologist and ethnographer, currently holding a position as a lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the European Humanities, University in Vilnius. His research delves into fascinating and important aspects of post-socialist everyday life.
Vazyanau's research interests encompass collaborative ethnography, Eastern Europe, poverty studies, infrastructure, precarity, and sound studies. He defended his PhD at the University of Regensburg in 2018, with his dissertation focusing on the experiences of public transportation infrastructure in Ukraine and Romania.
Beyond his noteworthy contributions to academia, Vazyanau also assumes the role of an editor at Minsk Urban Platform.
In the Belarusian urban activism space, Minsk Urban Platform emerged as an early pioneer after being established in 2014. It brought forth various issues related to the city, including unequal gender dynamics, while advocating for fair and inclusive environments, universal design, and sustainable mobility.
"The yearly Minsk Urban Forum was one of our most visible projects in the city. We would stick posters on the streets, and there were quite many people who attended. It raised some interest", Vazyanau reflects on the prominent yearly event by the collective.
This interest extended beyond Belarus, as the platform welcomed collaborators from countries such as The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and more. I can also note that Minsk Urban Platform had already gained recognition in the urbanist circles of Helsinki years ago for its topical perspectives on critical urban activism.
When talking about Minsk urban issues with Vazyanau, it becomes painfully clear that the city has undergone a seismic shift in its political and social landscape as a result of the tumultuous events of 2020.
Despite getting brutally crushed at the end, the protests around the presidential elections in 2020 grew into a mass movement. The historical flag of Belarus has come to symbolise the opposition movement against Lukashenka’s regime. While the protest movement could perhaps be aptly described as mobilisation of the Belarusian ‘political society’, one of the main battle grounds for the competing visions of the country’s future is its civil society. Before 2020, NGOs took on roles that a state would traditionally fulfill and which are now largely left unattended.
“They received financing from the EU to carry out infrastructure projects related to alternative energy projects, renewables, and cleaning water bodies. Many initiatives were enacted by civil society. Before 2020, it was a part of the social contract of Belarus. Now the material traces of the European presence are decaying”, Vazyanau explains.
COVID-19 allowed Lukashenka to further tighten his grip on the Belarusian people, escalating the hostile repression of civil society. The radical transformation post-2020 was marked by a crackdown on all kinds of activists. Vazyanau describes the direct threat of imprisonment and the harsh reality for those involved in women's rights, environmentalism, and Belarusian language advocacy.
Unfortunately, leaving the country has not erased their struggles. Those who, like Vazyanau, now live in different countries mostly in Europe, have to deal with the precarity of temporary residence permits and a constant fear for their loved ones back in Belarus.
"We are displaced people who live in different countries now. We are afraid that our parents will be visited by the police at home because it is a frequent practice nowadays."
Contemplating the future of urban activism in Minsk, Vazyanau emphasises its dependency on geopolitical developments. The resolution of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the development of Russia's influence on Belarus will determine whether the city becomes what he sees as “an underdeveloped periphery of the Russian empire” or not.
Vazyanau points out the critical role democracy and civil rights play in shaping the future of activism. In their absence, activism is in a sense forced to become more focused on fundamental issues. While the repression and its ensued personal experiences also played a key role in the ever-worsening lack of democratic civil rights has undoubtedly made activism itself less diverse.
Vazyanau explains: "Urban activism is not something you have at the very basic level, then you need human rights
activism. If you look at Belarus now, there are people who used to do a very broad range of things, but are now occupied with the most fundamental modes of activism: evacuating people, helping political prisoners and their families, and basically that’s it. They are just trying to mitigate the immediate consequences of mass repression. There are understandably very few people at this moment who have resources, including emotional, to deal with issues of urban development."
Still, the issues mobilising Minsk Urban Platform activists in the first place have not become obsolete, quite the opposite. Despite the dire situation of having to de-prioritise urban issues, urban activism, according to Vazyanau, is inherently politically relevant. The issues urban activists deal with are hardly apolitical either: radical green solutions for energy transition, redistribution of power in decision making, inclusion and exclusion in public spaces, to name a few.
"Urban activism is about impacting the general logic in which the state develops. It can point us to important inequalities and how they are linked to extraction and misuse of resources."
Vazyanau continues to analyse the impact of urban structures and planning paradigms to the political agency of citizens.
"The urban structure of Minsk has impacted the ability of communities to organise for decentralised resistance. These microrayons in Minsk and other cities in Belarus, they started to be a base for the local community. And there are many of them and they are very decentralised.”
Understanding and studying urban structures in the spirit of Vazyanau’s reflections may be an unfamiliar thought to others than urban scholars and activists. Nevertheless, they are highly important backgrounds to our everyday lives and analysing them can provide novel insights that may prove very valuable in political contexts.
In addition to highlighting inequalities and proposing sustainable solutions, people with expertise in urban planning and community organising can help citizens get mobilised and politicised, Vazyanau argues. This kind of applied knowledge that urbanists disseminate on urban matters can become highly useful under political repression.
As our conversation with Andrei Vazyanau unfolds, it becomes clear that urban activism in Minsk is a story of resilience and determination. Despite the repression, Minsk Urban Platform stands as a testament to the power of community engagement and sustainable urban development, providing a glimmer of hope for a brighter, more equitable future. Still, the stark reality of the current situation in Belarus is undeniable.
“I would be glad if urbanists could not be preoccupied with this. In democratic contexts, they should be able to dedicate their time to something different than fighting political repression. If they have to do that, it usually means they can not be just urbanists anymore”, Vazyanau remarks.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has understandably transformed the discursive political reality all over Europe, pushing some political questions in the margins. For urban activism to thrive, a shift in focus towards green politics and energy transition is essential. It is especially important for Central Eastern Europe according to Vazayanu.
“It is what can hit the empire. The empire has usurped the agenda: everyone is talking about war and militarisation and weapons but people are talking much less about urban development, equality in the city, sustainable mobility and transit and so on.”
Green issues were more prominent in the 2010s which also meant people talked a lot more about urban development then than now. “For CEE, it is important to locate the entire discussion on cities within this energy transition context, within environmental and climate change context, to understand in a way how to resist this extractivist imperial aggression. These things are quite interconnected even if they don’t seem that way from a distance”, Vazyanau concludes.
Urban activism is sometimes broadly categorised as a strand under the umbrella of ‘new social movements’, referring to various political mobilisations since the late 1960s that are usually based on social identities and minority rights rather than traditional class consciousness and identification15. However, as opposed to many other NSMs that have broader non-material aims, urban activists are often also preoccupied with the empirical intricacies of practical governance issues related to urban planning and design. Furthermore, urban activism plays a pivotal role in shaping the articulations of urban political agenda all over the world.
As we grapple with the ongoing struggle to bring an end to Russia’s war against Ukraine, our lives persist within the urban landscapes of cities like Kyiv, Minsk, Helsinki, Berlin, and beyond. Envisioning the post-war era for Europe, these cities will endure in one way or another while empires around them are bound to succumb, embodying the continuity of our daily lives.
My conversation with Andrei Vazyanau has reminded me of the pivotal role cities will play in shaping our species’ destiny. Looking ahead, the policies formulated within our cities at the local level will be particularly central in the existential battle against the climate crisis. Urban activists remind us of the interconnectedness of our urban choices with broader global issues – and the need for practical design and policy solutions to cater for the overcoming of those systemic problems by reducing our environmental footprint and cutting down emissions.
Even after the war, our cities will demand our attention and efforts to promote equity, justice, sustainability, and liveability. In this ongoing pursuit, Minsk Urban Platform stands as a valuable resource, offering inspiration, awareness, delight, and useful tactics for activists and communities around the global urban landscape.