A Few Words About Towns of Those Days

 Towns are sometimes called "books made of stone" with streets being its pages. Indeed, old buildings can tell us a lot about the past, carrying us many decades back to early days. Sadly enough, such buildings are few. The majority of old town buildings were made of wood and when fire occurred it destroyed almost everything. However, the economically better developed residences of rich magnates were composed of stone-made castles, palaces, churches and monasteries which have stood till [sic] today.

 Nearly all factories, workshops, warehouses and stores were concentraed in Belarusian regional and sometimes district centres. The most common industries in them were soap, brick, paper, tobacco and matches manufacture. Timber processing, textile production and tanning were also popular. Dozens of people were involved in some of these productions.   The most highly developed towns were becoming not only administrative but cultural centres. All public life in the towns was concentrated around churches and in market squares. Those were the places where all major administrative buildings -- the Governors' houses, govenment offices and shops were located. Some towns (Magileu, Vitsebsk, Grodna, Nyasvizh), once they wre granted the Mageburg Right, would build a City Hall where the Magistrate sat. Market squares were usually lined with rows of shops -- protypes of contemporary department stores. They were built as a complete rectangle (Brest) or as an elongated structure, or as several buildings (Navagrudak, Babruisk, Pinsk). In some places (Nyasvizh, Vaukavsyk) the shopping rows formed the Cyrllic letter [like the math sign for pi]. Inside the buildings were small rooms used as multi-purpose shops. To link the rows there were arcades or colonnades (Brest, Navagrudak, kobryn).

 As fires destoyed big parts of wooden towns, their centres were gradually filled with stone or brick houses. Streets were laid with cobble stone, had sidewalks of wooden boards or even, in some towns, of brick. In the evening, they were lit with gas lamps. Living in the new buildings were wealthy industrial tychoons [sic], traders and white collar workers. The architecture of the houses was either modern or pseudostyle. Many houses were plastered, their facades being decorated with beautiful stucco-work. Other buildings stayed unplastered but had intricate brick- or stone-work, specific architectural forms and details. Basically, these were profit-making enterprises, with ground floors occupied by various shops which had numerous colourful sign-boards. Upper floors were used as residence or were rented by private businesses. Streets in the centre of a town were more busy than in other parts. There would be a threatre and a cinematograph where the first mute films would be shown. in Minsk these cinemas were called Arts Theatre, New Illusion. In Ragachou--Modern. in Babruisk--Gigant, All the World, Eden, etc.

The townsfolk would spend their free times in parks, gardens, and on river banks.  A city part would normally have a wooden stage from which an orchestra would play and actors would perform. in winter there would be a skating rink. Some towns had sports grounds and cycling tracks. In Minsk, the cycling track was situated in the Governor's Park (today the Central Children's Park). There was a big cycling track in Gomel which was then located in Maximov Park which now has turned into the Gomselmas factory stadium. Vitsebsk had a yachting club.

 One would not imagine a town of those days without a cathedral, a church, a mosque or a synagogue which would wonderfully match the town's architecture. Together with the City Hall, the fire and water towers, they created a unique charateristique [sic] silhouette of every town. The streets of old-time towns were normally straight (Polatsk, Ragachou, Asipovichy, etc.). However, certain town (Mazyr, Navagrudak, Slonim) were located on hilly terrain or along rivers, so the streets in them were not symmetrically straight. Streets in towns would normally originate in the centre, around market places, cathedrals and churches and gradually flow into main roads or highways. Such streets were given the names of towns or cities to which those highways took you. St Petersburg Street in Orsha and other towns, Smalensk and Surazh Streets in Vitsebsk, Brest Street in Vaukavysk and Pinsk, Vilenskaya Streets in Minsk and Lida. The names of streets of those days would obviously reflect the then popular Merchants Streets, in Minsk--Governor and Asylum Streets, in Brest -- Police Street, in Pinsk, -- Prison Street, in Bobruisk -- Muraviev and Stolupin Streets.

Horse-drawn transport was the most popular one at the time. From early morning till [sic] late at night the streets were filled with the rattle of wooden, iron-bound wheels of coaches and village carts that flooded towns. In winter wheels would be replaced with a sledge and the sweet ding-dong of the bells fixed to the harness could be heard from afar. In 1892 the first street-car appeared in the streets of Minsk. It was a small carriage drawn by two or, on hilly streets, by three horses. In 1898
Belarus' first electric tramway began to run the streets of Vitsebsk. This was also one of the first trams to come into being in the entire Russian Empire. In the early 20th century the bicycle was becoming common in city ctreets and presently cars appeared.
The outskirts of old-time towns looked like village streets. They were lined with wooden houses surrounded by a fence. As a general rule, the streets were not cobbled, had no pavements and were not lit at night. In spring and autumn they were so muddy that crossing them was a problem. Poverty reigned there.

Some old towns were surrounded by boroughs and settlements. There was a Trans-Nieman borough in Grodna, Berezina and Minsk boroughs in Babruisk. Minsk had a Tatar settlement and Grodna--the Alexander settlement. In Barysau and other towns such places were simply called settlements and were populated by people who moved to live here from other parts of the country or abroad. Boroughs often had the names of villages that were joined with towns. In Minsk this was the case with Kamarouka and Luakhauka. There were extraordinary, off-hand names, though. In Gomel of the early 20th century
there were boroughs called American Caucasus, Whistle. ...

 Towns of Belarus on old-time Postcards, Viachka Tselesh, Minsk
Belarus, 1998.pages 12-17.

Copyright © 1999, Ellen Sadove Renck

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