By Viktar Korbut
An unprecedented event occurred on June 22nd, 1941. At 3.15am, gun fire was launched upon Brest Fortress. At 3.45am, this led to an attack by the Germans, who faced strong opposition from the Volynsk and, especially, Kobrin fortifications. By the evening of June 24th, the fascists had seized the Volynsk and Terespol fortifications. The surviving garrison soldiers moved to the Kobrin fortification during the night, realising their inability to defend their other positions. About four hundred — led by Mayor Piotr Gavrilov — struggled against the Germans until June 30th. Even when the capital of Belarus, Minsk, had already been seized, Brest Fortress continued its battle.
Writers Sergey Smirnov and Konstantin Simonov worked hard to popularise the memory of those heroes. In 1956, Immortal Garrison — based on Konstantin Simonov’s script — was screened; it was later awarded an honorary diploma at the Venice International Film Festival.
History in stone
The fortress by the Bug River gained its ‘Fortress-Hero’ title in May 1965. An artistic team then developed a memorial; only sculptor and architect Valentin Zankovich remains from that team. He recollects, “The memorial complex — which was launched in 1971 — was developed by a large team, headed by People’s Artiste and academician Alexander Kibalnikov.
Two loaded lorries were sent to Brest, for the all-USSR contest of projects. The jury was headed by Belarus’ Architecture Minister, Vladimir Korol. He invited Ms. Kibalnikov and me to his office, telling us that we’d be making the fortress memorial and that he wouldn’t forgive us if it lacked taste!”
“The creative team was given the whole floor of the Belarusian Museum of Great Patriotic War History to work in. The images currently seen on the memorial were born there,” continues Mr. Zankovich. “The famous ‘Bravery’ monument [a soldier’s head against the background of an unfolded banner] came to us accidentally. Mr. Kibalnikov wired from Moscow with a request to promptly send miniature figurines for the Brest memorial. However, when the lorry arrived in Moscow, they had shattered. Only the gypsum head of a soldier survived. This was fixed to a granite lump and shown to the public, which produced an enthusiastic response. People saw it as a true symbol, so the soldier’s large head was installed as a central part of the memorial. Now, the stone-cut image of a warrior against a flying banner symbolises both the fortress and our country.”
Mr. Zankovich was recently entrusted to bring to life one of the ideas planned for realisation back in 1971. On June 22nd, 2011, a new sculptural composition was unveiled near the Terespol Gates: ‘To the Heroes of the Border, and those Women and Children who Stepped into Immortality with their Courage’.
From Berestie to UNESCO
The Director of the memorial complex, Valery Gubarenko, aims to restore many sites from the original fortress, which were destroyed during the war. However, some remain from the times of ancient Brest, when it was known as Berestie.
Construction of the fortress began in 1833, on the site of the old town, following designs by engineer Karl Opperman. It is surrounded with 10m tall earthworks, with casemates, and five of the fortress’ eight gates remain visible: Kholmsk, Terespol, Northern (or Alexandrovsky), Northern-Western and Southern.
On March 3rd, 1918, the Brest Peace Treaty was signed at the ‘White Palace’ — a former Basilian Monastery. On September 2nd, 1939, Brest Fortress was for the first time bombarded by the fascists, with ten bombs damaging the building (it might be restored in the future). Not long ago, the Kholmsk Gates were revamped, following old plans. They are a globally known symbol of the fortress, being depicted on the Belarusian National Bank’s 50 Rouble banknote. Now, the fortress is applying to join UNESCO’s World Heritage List.