Japan in the Great Patriotic War Museum Minsk 大祖国戦争史国立博物館
We recently visited the Great Patriotic War Museum Minsk, Belarus, and the Japan-related exhibits there were particularly interesting.
As a whole the capital city, Minsk, is beautiful. Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship, and Minsk very much feels like an archetypal dictator’s showcase city. The streets are quiet and clean, there are a lot of parks and landscaped areas, much of which is purposefully grandiose, borrowing not a little from 1930s German and Russian ideas of public space design. A lot of the architecture, too, echoes “glorious,” “heroic,” “ever onward” totalitarianism.
One of the most striking architectural presences in Minsk – and by far the most modern – is the Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War.
The Belorussian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War is unique because it began even before the “Great Patriotic War” was over, i.e., in 1942.
To provide a little background … Belorussian history is complicated. Belarus began in about the 6th to 8th century when peoples from further east settled there. And since about the 13th century it has been something of a ping-pong ball paddled between East and West. Over the centuries, neighboring Lithuania, Russia, Poland and Germany have all been heavy hands shaping Belorussian history.
Belarus was torn between Poland and the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. And the Soviet part of the country became one of the founding states of the Soviet Union. Until Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-38, Belorussian culture and language enjoyed something of a revival. However, this well and truly ended with Stalin’s Great Purge, when all-out Russianization of the country began.
In the Second World War, Germany occupied Belarus between August 1941 and August 1944. And it was during this time that the War Museum’s collection began, organized by Belarusians living in Moscow. The collection began with artifacts from the Belarusian resistance, which was doing a heroic job of fighting the German army.
The (at that time still virtual) Great Patriotic War Museum Minsk’s first exhibition was in Moscow in November 1942. The title says it all: “Belarus lives, Belarus is fighting, Belarus will remain Soviet.” The Belarusian capital of Minsk was liberated in August 1944. Then, in October, the Museum got its first real home in one of the few buildings left standing in Minsk.
Then, in July 2014, the Great Patriotic War Museum Minsk got ultramodern new premises. And they are right out of Flash Gordon, with three striking features. First, there is the 45-meter silver plinth, partially surrounded by a dazzling array of what look like zany stylized mirror panels, and, just behind them, the massive glass Hall of Victory dome, which comprises the biggest open space in the Museum. Also, all the dimensions, shapes and numbers of things are laden with historico-statistical significance. For example, the 170 jets of the fountain in Heroes’ Square, surrounding the plinth, represent the number of Belorussian-populated localities liberated by the Soviet army.
The impact on first seeing the Museum is strong: an all-out blare of pride and passion. At that time, I recalled the effect of first catching sight of the gargantuan Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue east of Ulaanbaatar – another stainless steel monument that took my breath away with its unbridled (forgive the pun) and overweening ambition.
Meanwhile, inside, the Museum collection is huge. And the vast amount of space in there allows for creative and memorable presentations of memorabilia as big as actual tanks and planes. We only had an hour or two, so couldn’t closely peruse everything. Therefore, we focused on the Japan-related exhibits. (We were first alerted to their presence by our noticing what was clearly a Japanese visitor methodically photographing them.)
Japan in the Great Patriotic War Museum Minsk
So there are ten themed halls in the Museum, and the Japan-related exhibits are in the one with the theme: “Liberation of Belarus.” And this hall covers “the defeat of Nazi Germany, its allies, and militarist Japan.”
There were a couple of showcases dedicated to Japan’s role in the war. One of them contained water bottles used by Japanese soldiers. Also, another had exhibits relating to Japan’s surrender at the end of the Pacific War. With Belarus being in Europe, there was very little connection to the Pacific War. Therefore, having even two exhibition cases of Japan-related memorabilia was more than we had expected.
Strange as it was to see Japan so far from home, it gave the exhibition a sense of completeness. But I wonder how many Japanese museums have exhibits relating to Belarus’s war effort?
Finally, want to know more about Belarus? Maybe the Belarus Embassy in Tokyo is a good place to start.