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Thomas M. Bohn. From Jewish Shtetl to Soviet Industrial Cities – Paradoxes of Urbanization in Belarus

The essay explores the question of whether there was an urbanization of society or a ruralization of cities in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) in the course of the 20th century. Reference is made to the drastic demographic change that was associated with the Holocaust. Before the First World War, there were no Belarusian cities characterized by the titular nation. They were inhabited by a majority of Jewish merchants and craftsmen. Their cultural heritage was erased under the Nazi occupation. With regard to the deficits of socioeconomic development after World War I, the explosive character of industrialization, urbanization and urban growth after World War II, and the discrepancy between the claim and reality of the “socialist city,” two further phenomena are named. On the one hand, the transformation from an agricultural country to an industrial state in the BSSR did not take place until the 1960s. Second, for a long time the cities remained populated with one-story wooden houses, which differed only slightly from village farmsteads. Overall, the urbanization process was characterized by four features: the pace of growth of the capital city, known as the “Minsk phenomenon,” the increasing concentration of the population in large cities, the weak development of small towns, and the neglect of villages. In the end, there was a lack of what had always distinguished the “European city,” namely a bourgeois public sphere and an oppositional working class.