The capital city of Belarus is a textbook example of Soviet city planning with its lengthy boulevards, modernist architecture, and rows of apartments on superblocks. Lost in the rubble of the Second World War and postwar rebuilding is the city’s natural history that includes more than a dozen streams that have been consigned beneath the surface.
The Svislach River bisects Minsk as its main waterway. Under the Soviets this river was dammed, and its banks have been set in concrete. But its oxbow turns have been preserved in a manner resembling the Moscow River. On the city’s eastern side, the second longest stream, the swampy Slepianka River was transformed into set of connected waterways with concrete waterfalls, embankments, islands, and terraces. The waterfall near the Agat Hotel is of particular interest as it allows visitors to walk behind the stream’s veil of water.
Where it Flows
On the 1960s plan for the waterways of Minsk, the Slepianka appears on the city’s eastern side inside the urban beltway. The plan was to dam the Vileika and Svislach rivers north of Minsk and diver some of their water into the Slepianka and Loshitsa rivers.
On the city’s south, these two side streams would merge back into the Svislach at the Chikovskoye Reservoir.
The multiple reservoirs would serve to reduce flooding, provide drinking water, and create recreational spaces for boating, swimming, and ice skating in this landlocked country. On a humorous note, the largest of these reservoirs, Zaslauskaye is nicknamed by city residents as the “Minsk Sea.” The Soviet plan for Minsk as a city of beltways and that its main river flows with dozens of oxbow turns is reminiscent of Moscow. Belarus regards itself as a sister nation to Russia, closely following its political and cultural models.
A 1930s map of Minsk shows the city with an organized central core and fingers of development following the main roads leading out of the city. Circled in blue is the Slepianka, an apparent afterthought that would later be surrounded by urbanization. Its name is derived from Slepnia, a village on its banks that would also become absorbed into the Partizansky District of Minsk.
An undated early 1950s plan shows the city richly illustrated in colors denoting zoning categories. Similar to Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Loshitsa and Slepianka rivers would serve as centerpieces for a series of connected parks running long their banks. Likewise the Svislach would also have parks running down its course through Minsk.
The 1967 map from the British-based Pergamon Atlas shows that the city plan had yet to be implemented. At this point the Nemiga River in the city center had been covered but the Loshitsa, Tsnya, and Slepianka are still flowing undisturbed. The devastation wreaked by the Nazis took a huge toll on Belarus and its population returned to prewar numbers only in the 1970s. Likewise it took decades to build up Minsk in the aftermath of the war. Construction on the 22-kilometer Slepianskaya Waterway System began in 1981. Its designer team was comprised of architects N. Zhlobo, B. Yurtin, L. Zhlobo, L. Beliakova, D. Gerashchenko, and engineers A. Samonchik and L. Derevianko.
On the Slepianka
Prior to development, the Slepianka River originated near a village called Bol’shaya Slepniya, but under the Slepianskaya Water System, much of its water comes form the Tsnia River which was dammed to form a reservoir with a picturesque island. The reservoir includes three beaches used by city residents in the summer. Water flows out of the reservoir and flows for a kilometer towards Mirašničenka Street. It then flows beneath a linear park on Hamarnika Street before returning to the surface in the Zialyony Lug (Green Lawn) neighborhood.
The decorative waterfall here is near Karbysheva Street and the nearby tram terminal. It continues through Polatski Park, where it alternates between a straight canal, and s-shaped meanders. Along the way are concrete fountains continuing water to the stream and a circular isle.
The stream leaves Polatski Park and then flows past the Agat Hotel with the nearby walk-under cascade. The channel widens into another reservoir that is also fed by the actual Slepnia River.
Overlooking this reservoir is the Olympics Reserves Complex where the country’s leading athletes train and the All Saints Church. In a city dominated by modernism, the churches are decidedly traditional in their appearance, hearkening to the Byzantine and Russian imperial periods. In reality, many of them were built after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the Orthodox Church regains its following.
The waterway then follows Kiedyški Street to its next barrier at Independence Prospect. The neighborhood here is Uskhod (Vostok) One, a series of postwar apartment superblocks. In this section, the ninth cascade on the Slepianskaya Waterway System features concrete diving piers. That was the intention of the architects but throughout the attached parks are signs reminding park goers not to swim in the stream.
Images of Minsk residents (shall we call them Minskers, maybe Minskovites?) in bathing suits diving from this cascade appear on the Onliner.by news site, which has an exhaustively detailed photo essay on the Slepianskaya Waterway System with architectural renderings and photos from when it was completed.
Its photo essay contains the schematic map which has a triangle marking each cascade on the waterway. According to the author of the photo essay the waterway’s design closely mirrors that of its neighborhoods, Vostok, Serebryanka, and Serova, all built in the 1970s on the city’s eastern edge.
Visually the stream these days could use an update as the naturalistic look is back in fashion among the world’s urban parks. Likewise with so much open space along its banks, Minsk authorities can easily transform the waterway’s parks into an outdoor sculpture collection that tells the story of Belarus. This would complement the National Library of Belarus and enhance the city’s image as the nation’s capital. Completed in 2006, it is the only rhombicuboctahedronal building in the world. The modernist landmark features illuminated windows at night and a rooftop observation deck.
The library’s presence by river is a good time to make note that I’ve used Russian toponyms along the course of the Slepianka. Unlike other former soviet states, Belarus retains Russian as an official language alongside Belarusian.
Most of the country’s residents speak Russian rather than the native language, a situation akin to the Irish language, which is official in its country but spoken by only a tenth of the natives. Among Slavic languages, Belarusian is the closest to Russian in understanding. Across Independence Avenue is the new Mayak Minska (Beacon of Minsk) neighborhood that is defined by the National Library of Belarus. The giant object of geometry lights up at night and also features a rooftop observation deck.
Each of the cascades on the stream and each of its nine parks has a unique design, giving value to a hike along its course. The river is broken up into 14 basins separated by cascades, roads, and railroads. Like the artificial streams of Central Park and Prospect Park, every rock, tree, and bend of the Slepianka is by design. As one photographer described it, the Slepianka is brutalism coexisting with a natural landscape. The Slepianskaya Waterway System reunites with the Svislach River at Chyzhov Reservoir on the city’s southern side. In turn the Svislach flows to the Berezina River, which itself feeds into the Dnieper. This mighty river flows through Belarus and Ukraine, emptying into the Black Sea near Odessa.
In many of my recent out of town posts, I’ve documented more than one urban stream for each city. While the Slepianskaya Waterway System is quite visible, in the city center there is a more historic stream that is nearly entirely under the surface but played a role in the city’s origins.
The only visible instance of the Nemiga River is its confluence with the Svislach, a sewer drain beneath an embankment that resembles the mouth of Harlem Creek in Manhattan.
The river’s name is derived from “not blinking,” or sleeplessness, in reference to the knights guarding the fortress at its confluence. In this location, the river bifurcated and a fortress was built on the island in the stream. The stream served as a natural moat. This design is similar to the Kremlin in Moscow, which overlooks the Moscow River and used the now-buried Neglinka as its moat. Many ancient Slavic cities have their own kremlins, or citadel. But unlike Moscow, Smolensk, and Novgorod, the “kremlin” of Minsk did not survive the centuries of development and war.
The Nemiga and Minsk were first recorded in 1067 as the site of the Battle on the Nemiga, where Kievan Rus forces defeated the army of the Polotsk principality. The stream remained visible on the city’s landscape into the early 20th century, as seen in the photo below where the Nemiga flows into the Svislach. Today this view would be nearly unrecognizable, with only the bend in the Svislach offering a clue to this once-pastoral scene.
In 1912 city authorities agreed to cover the stream with Nemiga Street but the First World War put a halt to the plan. Instead, wooden planks in the middle of the street kept the stream hidden as seen in the above 1924 photo. Two years later, Soviet authorities concealed the Nemiga in the city center and by 1955 the entire course of the stream was channeled through a collector sewer.
Nature has a habit of reclaiming what belongs to it. Above is a 2014 photo of Nemiga Street from the city news site Blizko.by. The deluge raised the question whether it would be preferable to reduce the number f traffic lanes and transform the median of this road into a pedestrian path with a daylighted Nemiga River.
Earlier this year local architect Elena Schasnaya wrote an article on the proposal, providing a before-and-after rendering of Nemiga Street with the stream restored. In 2014 the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty also pondered daylighting this creek while pedestrianizing Nemiga Street. The news site Tyt.by has its own photo essay Traces of the Nemiga with its own collection of historical maps that follow the course of this stream. As with Kissena Creek in Queens, New York, there are spots along the buried course where sizable puddles form after heavy rainfall, briefly providing a glimpse of a stream on the surface.
My favorite site for Minsk history is by far Minsk Old & New, with its photo essays and interactive map. Authored by a team of nearly three dozen authors, it is the Minsk counterpart to Forgotten-NY, a vital resource for tourists interested in urban history.
Other Minsk Rivers
The Slepianka and Nemiga are not the only hidden rivers flowing beneath Minsk. The news site Minsk News documented on its map twelve such streams in 2014 based on the research of Stanislav Holev. The Perespa, Krushitsa, Slovst’, Tarasovka, Tsnya, Serebryanka, among others. Each has its own history and impact on the development of Minsk.
“Молодость Моя- Белоруссия”
Not exactly as this famous song is titled, as I was born in Latvia. But my family has deep roots in Belarus, specifically in Gomel, Rogachev, and Mstislavl’. My wife was born in Lida, and her cousins reside in Minsk. Another connection to Minsk is my NYC Parks colleague Svetlana Filipovich, who worked on the architect team that designed the Slepiankaya Waterway System. I would love to visit the country, deposit my book in its National Library and check out its mix of Soviet architecture, natural beauty, and family history. Truly an understated but fascinating country.