Leonid Levin — an architect in harmony with his time
Vitebsk is soon to gain a Marc Chagall District, as this is where he spent his childhood. Architect Leonid Levin is helping to bring the project to life, having worked on such landmarks as the Khatyn Memorial Complex near Logoisk (honouring the memory of those burnt by the Nazis in Belarusian villages) and Yama Memorial in Minsk (on the site where Jews were murdered en mass during WWII). Mr. Levin also took part in restoring the Troitsky Suburbs and designed the impressive squares in front of the monuments to Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas in the Belarusian capital. He even designed Nemiga and Ploshchad Lenina (Lenin Square) metro stations.
His legacy is evident countrywide, although his major theme is the past war. This year, he celebrates his 75th birthday and is delighted to chat about his achievements and future plans.
Mr. Levin, I’d like to find out about the recreation of the Marc Chagall District in Vitebsk.
According to preliminary estimates, the project will cost around $200mln., with the suburbs situated around the city’s historical Pokrovskaya Street, where the artist was born. The design for this part of the city occupies 50 hectares, recalling the early life and creativity of the great master. It will explore avant-garde art and become a major tourist attraction in Vitebsk.
Hotels and restaurants are to be built, with the project implemented in three stages. During the first, Pokrovskaya Street will be reconstructed in the spirit of the early 20th century. Near Chagall’s House-Museum, souvenir shops and a small hotel will appear. After the second and third stages are finished, we’ll see shops, a cafй and a modern art centre with an exhibition hall, alongside an art school. This major project will also commemorate the memory of other prominent painters connected with Vitebsk: Malevich, Pen and Kandinsky.
You’ve drafted an architectural plan, similar to that of Minsk’s Troitsky Suburbs, near the Belarus Hotel. Tell us more.
When my team completed the Troitsky Suburbs in Soviet times, the City Executive Committee pledged to restore Minsk’s historical centre. I began to design the ‘Perespa’ cultural and business centre, located on the site of the former biscuit factory. Back in 1991, the project was awarded a gold medal at the last competition of architects of the USSR. It aimed to continue the Troitsky Suburbs as Minsk’s historical centre. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Minsk’s first industrial facilities were built there and, later, a biscuit factory appeared (demolished in the late 20th century). A two level square was to be constructed on the site, dedicated to Time, allowing visitors to trace the development of Belarusian architecture — from its foundation to today. Restored buildings of great historical importance would have been built along the perimeter of the square.
It’s a pity that we prefer to go abroad to admire old Prague or old Warsaw rather than recreating a similar district in our own city, which could be wonderfully interesting and unique. I hope that these unrealised ideas in Minsk will be brought to life in Vitebsk.
How did you become an artist and an architect?
After graduating from Minsk’s Polytechnical Institute, architecture became my life. In 1970, when I was 34 years old, I won the Lenin Prize — the major state award of those times — for designing the Khatyn Memorial Complex, honouring those civilians of Belarus who died during the war.
I began to work as an ordinary architect at Minskproekt State Institute, entrusted with our capital’s development. I spent many years working on such projects as the city’s historical centre, BelExpo exhibition pavilion in Yanka Kupala Street and the Foreign Ministry building.
I heard that you designed Khatyn during your own free time.
You may not believe me but I worked on it at night. I wasn’t working alone. In 1965, our team comprised young architects Gradov, Zankovich and Levin. Together, we created ‘Katyusha’ monument in Orsha. Piotr Masherov, who headed Belarus at that time, had the idea of a monument dedicated to those civilians who were killed by the fascists. On his personal request, Zankovich and I created a monument to the partisans who fought in Rossony, together with Masherov. At the opening ceremony, Mr. Masherov asked us to commemorate the village of Velie, burnt by the Germans in that region He was astonished by our design project. At that time, Masherov was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Belorussian SSR. He proposed that another site, close to the capital, be selected: Khatyn.
When our project was nominated for the Lenin Prize, Yekaterina Furtseva, the USSR Minister of Culture, familiarised herself with it and we were shocked by her reaction: ‘How? Who? Why didn’t Moscow know about this? What is this? This is a humiliation of art! What will our descendants say on seeing this old man? He is so shabby and unhappy’. This was her perception of our figure of a Khatyn resident, carrying a dying child in his arms. “Couldn’t you make a figure of a Soviet soldier, who saved children?” she asked. However, there were no soldiers in Khatyn — only Nazi soldiers burning people. However, Ms. Furtseva continued to insist that the monument should be revised. Today, it’s difficult to say how this reaction was perceived by the members of the Lenin Award Committee, but on April 1st, 1970, 36 out of 38 members of the joint plenary session supported Khatyn during a secret vote. Architects Yuri Gradov, Valentin Zankovich and Leonid Levin and sculptor Sergey Selikhanov became Lenin State Award laureates. The USSR’s only architectural
award went to Belarus.
Everything created for Khatyn was chosen carefully. My colleagues and I invented log structures where former houses stood and obelisks shaped as chimneys. The grass-covered field — which witnessed the tragedy — was deadly silent but we suddenly heard a skylark unexpectedly begin to sing and realised that some sound was needed. We then had the idea of creating ‘towers’ with bells, rising where
the houses once stood.
Foreigners sometimes confuse Belarusian Khatyn and Katyn near Smolensk where, in the spring of 1940, the USSR state security authorities executed captive Polish officers. They say that Khatyn was specially chosen to house a memorial to burnt Belarusian villages to distract from the atrocity of the ‘other’ Katyn. Is this true?
9,200 villages were burnt by the Nazis during their punitive operations against Belarusian partisans and those residents who supported partisans during WWII. Probably no other European country has seen such genocide of its peaceful rural population as has Belarus.
Confusion between Khatyn and Katyn does exist. I first faced this problem when I visited the USA and was directly asked about it. In English, the name of the Belarusian village is written ‘Khatyn’ — very similar to ‘Katyn’. Those abroad pursued this topic further, saying that Khatyn is a ‘counterbalance’ to Katyn. However, they do differ. The idea for the Khatyn memorial first originated in the village of Velie, where around 450 people were burnt by the fascists. This was where Mr. Masherov fought; he then advised that a monument to honour the destroyed villages of the country should be built closer to Minsk. I could spend a couple of days telling you about the various rumours connected with this topic. The choice was influenced by the village name of Khatyn, but not because of its connection with Katyn. The word ‘khata’ is a truly Belarusian word, meaning house. This monument is inseparably connected with our land. Could Khatyn be moved to Russia, Uzbekistan or France? No.
Will interest in WWII victims and your monuments continue?
There’s no `iron curtain`, so many tourists visit us from abroad. Evidently, tourists don’t always want to explore sorrowful events from the past. They’re keen to see beautiful places, castles and nature. In my opinion, only the high artistic level of our monuments can force people to view the war with fresh eyes. Khatyn undoubtedly touches their souls.
By Viktor Korbut
Art of collecting stones
[b]Leonid Levin — an architect in harmony with his time[/b]Vitebsk is soon to gain a Marc Chagall District, as this is where he spent his childhood. Architect Leonid Levin is helping to bring the project to life, having worked on such landmarks as the Khatyn Memorial Complex near Logoisk (honouring the memory of those burnt by the Nazis in Belarusian villages) and Yama Memorial in Minsk (on the site where Jews were murdered en mass during WWII). Mr. Levin also took part in restoring the Troitsky Suburbs and designed the impressive squares in front of the monuments to Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas in the Belarusian capital. He even designed Nemiga and Ploshchad Lenina (Lenin Square) metro stations. His legacy is evident countrywide, although his major theme is the past war. This year, he celebrates his 75th birthday and is delighted to chat about his achievements and future plans.