Belarus and Belarusians

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Bounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine, Belarus is an independent country of about the size of Kansas. In 2000 its population was about 10.5 million. Over the course of its

history, this territory has been of part of Kievan Rus, the Grand Principality of Lithuania, Poland-Lithuania, the Russian Empire, interwar Poland (western Belarus only), and the Soviet Union.

The origin of the name Belarus is obscure. Its territory, encompassing much of the drainage systems of the Pripyat River and upper reaches of the Nieman, Western Dvina, and Dnieper Rivers, comprises the medieval Polotsk and Turov principalities, with the addition of the western lands of Smolensk and Chernigov around Mogilev and Gomel, but minus the territory south of Pinsk.

Some specialists consider the forests and swamps of southwestern Belarus part of the original homeland of Slavic speakers and possibly the Indo-Europeans. Baltic speakers inhabited much of Belarus before Slavic speakers migrated there after 500 C.E. Around 900 the Slavic Dregovichi and Radmichi inhabited the eastern half of Belarus, while Baltic Iatvingians dwelled in the northwest. Specialists' opinions differ as to when and where a distinct Belarusian language and people formed and the degree to which they represent a Baltic and eastern Slavic mixture.

Around 980 Polotsk was under a separate Varangian prince, the non-Riurikid Rogvolod, whom Vladimir of Novgorod slew en route to seizing Kiev. Vladimir's son Iziaslav, by Rogvolod's daughter Ragneda, founded there the first lasting Rus territorial subdynasty, and the latter's son and grandson, Briachislav and Vseslav Briachislavich (d.1101), built up Polotsk. Vseslav's granddaughter St. Evfrosynia founded a noted convent there.

In the 1100s Polotsk split into subprincipalities and by 1200 Volhynia controlled the Brest region, while Germans were eliminating Polotsk's traditional loose overlordship over the tribes of modern Latvia. In the early 1200s the Smolensk princes spearheaded commercial agreements with the Baltic Germans and Gotland Swedes, which included Vitebsk and Polotsk.

By the mid-1200s, Lithuanian princessome Orthodox Christians, some pagans controlledPolotsk, Novogrudok, and nearby towns. With the pagan Lithuanian absorption of all the former Polotsk and Turov lands in the 1300s, the surviving local Rus princes transformed into territorial aristocrats. Rus institutions spread into ethnic Lithuania, and Rus became the domestic chancery language of the ethnically mixed realm. For about half of the fourteenth century, a separate Western Rus metropolitanate was located in Novogrudok. Minsk grew in importance at this time near the divide between the Nieman and Dnieper watersheds. The Orthodox Lithuanian prince Andrei of Polotsk (d. 1399) fought at Kulikovo against Mamai in 1380.

The 1385 Polish-Lithuanian dynastic Union of Krevo (in western Belarus) privileged nobles who converted to Catholicism. After a civil war in the 1430s, the local Orthodox Rus nobility obtained these same, Polish-inspired rights, but Orthodox prelates never acquired the same political privileges as their Catholic counterparts. Starting with Brest in 1390, several Rus towns obtained a form of Neumarkt-Magdeburg, the most prevalent form of medieval autonomous city law to spread into east-central Europe. After the misfired Church Union of Florence of 1439, Moscow's authority split with the metropolitanate of Kiev, which retained the dioceses in Belarus.

With the dynastic union, some Rus acquired a genuine Western education, and Rus writers created a set of Lithuanian chronicles with a legendary foundation of the leading families and the realm. Jewish culture flourished, and some holy scripture and other Jewish books were translated directly from Hebrew into the local Rus dialect. In 1517 Frantishek Skoryna of Polotsk initiated systematic Kirillic and Slavic printing with his Gospels.

During the 1500s, with growing estate agriculture, a form of serfdom binding peasants to the land with about two days of labor dues per week became the dominant peasant status, but the Ruslanguage First Lithuanian Statute of 1529 was one of the most advanced law codes in Europe at that time. Moscow's occupation of Polotsk in 1563 led to the stronger Polish-Lithuanian Union of Lublin in 1569, whereby Lithuania transferred its Ukrainian lands to Poland, but retained the Belarusian territories. The brilliant, Orthodox-turned-Catholic Leo Sapieha (Leu Sapega) compiled the Ruslanguage Third Lithuanian Statute in 1588, which remained in use for more than two centuries. He also organized the renowned state archive or Metrika.

Under the impact of the Protestant Reformation, the Lithuanian Radvilas (Radzivil) family turned their central Belarusian fortress town of Nesvizh into a center of Calvinist learning and printing, but with the arrival of the Counter Reformation, Nesvizh became a Roman Catholic stronghold. Jesuits founded schools there and in six other Belarusian towns and helped cause the polonization of the local Rus nobility.

In 1596 the Polish crown, but not the Sejm (parliament), tried to force the Church Union of Brest on the Orthodox in 1596, creating at first an Eastern Rite Uniate hierarchy without many faithful, and leaving most of the faithful without a hierarchy. Over the course of time, however, the Uniate Church grew and a Catholic-influenced Uniate Basilian Order of monks took over the great monasteries in Belarus. In 1623 angry Vitebsk Orthodox murdered their fanatic Uniate bishop Iosafat Kunchvich, who had confiscated their churches and monasteries, and the crown responded with mass executions. In 1634 the Orthodox Church regained its legality but not much property. Some talented Orthodox clerics, such as Simeon Polotsky (16291680), made splendid careers in Moscow. A 1697 decree banned the use of Rus in official state documents. By the late eighteenth century, the Uniate Church was far stronger than the Orthodox in Belarus and in the western regions many commoners had become Roman Catholic.

Belarusians constituted perhaps one-eighth of the insurgents in the mid-seventeenth century who rebelled against the serfdom and Catholic-Uniate privileges in Poland-Lithuania, but then suffered heavily from the Muscovite invasions in 16541655 and 1659. Ethnic Belarus urban life declined, and Jews, despite some heavy losses in the uprisings, became more prominent in many towns. Brest, however, lost its regional cultural preeminence among the Litvak Jews to Vilnius in Lithuania.

The Belarus lands suffered again during the Great Northern War, especially during the period from 1706 to 1708, due to the Swedish-Russian fighting there. Later in the eighteenth century the economy recovered, stimulated by domestic and international markets and led by enlightened estate management and manufactures.

Polish-language serf theaters appeared in 1745, and Poland's educational reforms of 1773 established an ascending network, with divisional schools in Brest, Grodno, and Novogrudok, and a university in Vilnius. Several Belarusians were active in the Polish Enlightenment.

The three-stage annexation of Belarus by Russia during the partitions of Poland (1772, 1793,1795) had profound effects. The emperors respected Polish culture and educational and religious institutions only until the Polish uprising of 18301831. Subsequently, cooperative Belarusians played a major role in weakening Catholicism, suppressing the Uniate Church, restoring Orthodoxy and Russianizing education, as well as publishing historical documents and doing normal administrative work.

Though not a main center of heavy industry, Belarus shared in the Russian Empire's social and economic development in the nineteenth century and had many small enterprises.

Belarusian national consciousness developed relatively late. Polish and Polish-language intellectuals promoted the idea of a separate, non-Russian, Belarusian (or White Ruthenian) folk. After Belarusians did not support Poles in the 18631864 uprising, interested Russians became more sympathetic to the notion of Belarusians as a distinct provincial group and started to collect local folklore. Genuine Belarusian-language literature started only in the 1880s. Circles of Belarusian students and intellectuals in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Dorpat, and other university cities sprung up in the 1890s. Only after the Revolution of 1905 was publication in Belarusian legalized. Hramada, the socialist and largest Belarusian political organization, could not compete with the more developed Russian, Polish, and Jewish parties or elect a delegate to any of the four Dumas.

The German advances and defeat in World War I and the Russian Revolution and Civil War stimulated a dozen competing projects for reorganizing Belarus, including a restoration of a federated prepartition Lithuania and/or Poland. The revived Poland and Communist Russia divided Belarus in 1921, the eastern portion becoming the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) of the USSR in 19231924. In western Belarus, Polish authorities favored polonization, suppressing a variety of national and autonomist strivings. The BSSR authorities, including Russians there, at first promoted belarusianization of domestic life, and national, cultural, and educational institutions grew apace, including a university and academy of sciences in the capital Minsk. However, the rhythms of inter-war Soviet developmentNew Economic Policy, collectivization, five-year plans, bloody purges, and reorientation to a Russian-languagedominated all-union patriotismaffected the BSSR.

The Soviet-German Pact of 1939 and World War II brought a quick unification of an expanded BSSR, a harsh Nazi occupation and requisition of labor, the extermination of most Belarusian Jews, widespread partisan activity, and the total death of maybe a million inhabitantsabout one eighth of the population. Allied diplomacy resulted in the BSSR (and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) acquiring a separate seat in the United Nations General Assembly in 1945.

The BSSR also followed the rhythm of postwar Soviet developments, becoming heavily industrialized with its own specialty tractors and heavy-duty trucks, as well as a variety of other basic goods. The country achieved virtual universal literacy, but the Russian language and culture predominated in the cities and in higher education. Due to prevailing winds, Belarus suffered heavily from the Chernobyl explosion in 1986.

The BSSR played a secondary role in reform and national movements leading to the end of the USSR and an independent Belarus. Its first leader, Stanislav Shushkevich tried to balance between Russia and the West, but lost the 1994 presidential election to the Alexander Lukashenko, who proved adept in using referendum tactics and police measures to establish an authoritarian regime with a neo-Soviet orientation, and perpetuate his power. Dependence on Russian energy resources and markets have cemented close ties, but plans for a state union with Russia have faltered over Russian demands that Belarus liberalize its economy and Lukashenko's insistence that Belarus be an equal partner.

See also: chernobyl; jews; lithuania and lithuanians; nazi-soviet pact of 1939; orthodoxy; poland; polish rebellion of 1863; uniate church; union of soviet socialist republics


Marples, David R. (1999). Belarus. A Denationalized Nation. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

Vakar, Jan. (1956). Belorussia. The Making of a Nation, a Case Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zaprudnik, Jan. (1993). Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

David M. Goldfrank

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Belarus and Belarusians

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