views updated


ALTERNATE NAMES: Byelorussians; "White Russians"
POPULATION: 9.7 million
LANGUAGE: Belarusan
RELIGION: Christian (Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, other sects); minority of Muslim, Jewish, and other faiths


The history of the name Belaya Rus (variously translated as "White Russia," "White Ruthenia," "Byelorussia," "Byelorussiya," or "Belarus") is quite different from the history of the East Slavic Belarusan people. The name originated in the 12th century and initially designated various parts of northwestern Russia or Ukraine. Since the 14th century it has also been applied to eastern territories of present-day Belarus.

The meaning of "white" in White Russia, as applied to present-day Belarus (pronounced byeh-lah-roos«), is something of a puzzle. Historians have proposed various explanations for the term. "White" could refer to the beauty of the land, for instance, or to the abundance of snow, to the white complexion of the people, or to freedom and independence. The word "white" in those distant times signified "free," or "independent." Over the course of many centuries, the Belarusans have stubbornly struggled to defend their independence, language, culture, and national way of life. Another explanation of the color white has a religious context. The term beloruski was used for the first time by Prince Andrei Bogolubski who, having sacked Kiev in 1169, assumed the title "Prince Beloruski" to underscore true Orthodox faith.

The name Belarus, which in its contemporary meaning signifies either the modern Belarusan state or the entire ethnographic area settled by the Belarusans, dates back only to the last decade of the 19th century, when the Belarusan political movement began to develop. Its earlier variant was Belaya Rus.

Rus—distortedly translated by many as "Russia"—was a patch of land in the triangle formed by three cities: Kiev, Chernigov, and Perayaslavl in present-day Ukraine. But, as a result of the expansion of the Kievan Rus state, which spread during the 10th century over the vast territories of Novgorod, Pskov, Polacak, Muscovy, and other regions, Rus acquired a new meaning, and its scope was substantially changed. When the center of power in that empire moved by the mid-14th century to Muscovy, the quintessential Rus went with it.

The ancestors of the Belarusans have been known throughout history under various names. The earliest embodiment of statehood on Belarusan territories were the principalities of Polacak, Turau, and Navahradak (Novohorodak), named after their respective main cities. Ruled toward the end of the 10th century from Kiev, they asserted themselves early on as independent or semi-independent dominions. The Polacak principality, occupying more than half of present-day Belarus, was settled by a tribe of Kryvicans, one of the largest groups of East Slavs who moved into the area in the 6th century ad. The territory occupied by the Kryvicans stretched beyond the confines of the Polacakan princes. In the 13th century, the territories of Polacak, Navahradak, and other Belarusan cities merged to defend their territories from the German religious order of the Teutonic Knights. This merge established the new duchy, further known as the Grand Duchy of Litva, Lithuania, Rus, and Samogitia (GDL), or simply as Lithuania. At the time of the political union between the GDL and the kingdom of Poland in 1569, when Ukraine was transferred from the GDL to the Polish kingdom, Belarus remained in the duchy. During this period, some Lithuanian princes embraced Eastern-rite Christianity, and Belarusan was the official language of the ducal chancellery and courts. In 1562, during the war with Muscovy, the gentry of the Grand Duchy formed a so-called confederation (i.e., a temporary military-political agreement), exploiting the thrust of the moment, and demanded closer ties with Poland. In 1569 a real federation concluded in the Polish city of Lublin established the new relationship between the two states. When the Polish kingdom fell apart in the last half of the 18th century, Russia took over the Belarusans' homeland.

The first attempt at independence from Russia began in 1863, when about 75,000 Belarusan farmers and some of the local nobility led a violent rebellion against the Russians. Although the revolt failed, it helped to solidify the national spirit and helped the movement for independence grow during the late 1800s. In 1918, an independent Belarusan Democratic Republic was declared out of the collapse of the imperial Russian government, despite the German occupation of World War I. The new Bolshevik government in Moscow refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new republic and arranged the overthrow of the new Belarusan government. In 1919, the Communists formed the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). In 1920, the Poles occupied much of the new country, but they later withdrew from all but the westernmost parts. The BSSR formally joined the Soviet Union in 1922. For its subservience to the regime, the Soviet Union rewarded the BSSR by focusing on its industrial development. The BSSR was also awarded a large amount of territory in the west that had been part of Poland but was ceded to the Soviet Union in the famous 1939 deal between Hitler and Stalin, the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Much of this "new" part of western Belarus in 1939 was actually the same territory that Belarus had given up to Poland after World War I.

The Soviet plan of restoration and industrialization after World War II initially helped the Belarusans during the 1960s and 1970s. Many factories produced weapons-related equipment and heavy machinery. However, by the 1980s, a lack of consumer goods, poor quality of life, and environmental problems (like contamination and deforestation) caused the Belarusans to distrust the Soviet government. During the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power disaster in nearby Ukraine, the Soviet government delayed telling the people about the situation for several days. By that time, however, hundreds of thousands of people had been exposed to the radioactivity, and about 20% of the farmland was contaminated.

Labor strikes by factory and transportation workers in April 1991 helped further the cause of independence. After the failed coup in August 1991, Belarus became the sixth republic to secede from the Soviet Union. In December 1991, the capital of Belarus, Minsk, became the capital for the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). ( The CIS is a loose confed eration of some of the former Soviet republics that addresses military and economic issues.

The first constitution of the newly independent Belarus was ratified in March 1994, and Alexander Lukashenko was elected president in July of that year. Since then, Lukashenko has wrested increasing control over the government of Belarus to establish an authoritarian regime. In 1996, Lukashenko manipulated a national referendum to reform the constitution, giving him increased powers over the government and removing term limits on the presidency. He declared himself the winner of presidential elections in 2001 and 2006, both of which were deemed fraudulent by international observers, as were other local and parliamentary elections that solidified Lukashenko's influence. Belarusan opposition leaders and protesters have been harassed, beaten, jailed, or made to "disappear," and the media is controlled by the government. Freedom House, an organization that grades countries on civil and political freedoms, recently gave Belarus the lowest scores possible.

The political situation in Belarus has prohibited the development of international relations, isolating Belarus and inhibiting its economic development. The transition from Soviet republic to independent nation continues to prove difficult for Belarus.


Belarus is situated in the eastern part of the European continent. It borders Russia in the north and east, the Ukraine in the southeast, Poland in the west, and Latvia and Lithuania in the northwest. The Belarusan homeland is a landlocked nation that occupies 207,600 sq km (83,040 sq mi), which makes it about as large as the U.S. state of Minnesota, or about three times as large as Belgium and the Netherlands combined.

The major cities of Belarus are the capital Minsk (also spelled Miensk), with a population of over 1,800,000 people in 1992; Homel (Gomel), 506,000; Mahilou (Mogilev), 363,000; Viciebsk (Vitebsk), 356,000; Brest, 269,000; and Hrodna (Grodno), 255,000. Other large cities include Pinsk, Sluck, Baranavichy, Orsha, Hlybokaje, and Salihorsk.

The terrain of Belarus is predominantly flat, with hilly areas occupying only 8% of its territory. The Belaruskaya Hrada is a range of elevated terrain that runs from the southwest to the northeast part of Belarus. The highest point is 346 m (1,135 ft) above sea level. The climate of Belarus is temperate continental with a mild and humid winter, a warm summer, and a wet autumn. Annual precipitation ranges from 55 cm to 70 cm (21–28 in). The mean temperature in January is –6°C (20°F) and 18°C (64°F) in July, with high humidity. The climate of Belarus is favorable for agriculture. The territory of Belarus includes 3,000 streams and 4,000 lakes that are used for transportation and power generation. The largest lake is Naroch, which covers 80 sq km (31 sq mi) and has a maximum depth of about 25 m (82 ft). The principal rivers of Belarus are the Dneper, the Pripyat, the Berezina, the Western Dvina, and the Neman. The average density of river networks is 43.6 km for every 100 sq km of land (or about 70.1 mi of rivers per 100 sq mi of land). There are also sources of mineral water.

The inalienable part of the Belarusan landscape is bogs and swamps, which are of large climatic and hydrological significance. Their total number is about 7,000, and they occupy about 13.4% of Belarus's territory. Much of the swamp-land is in the south and is sparsely populated. The forests of Belarus constitute over 33% of its territory, with a total area of 8,055,000 hectares (19,900,000 acres). The territory of the Republic of Belarus includes deposits of oil, oil shale, coal and lignite, iron ores, nonferrous metal ores, dolomites, potassium and rock salts, and phosphates. There are huge deposits of peat, fire and refractory clay, molding sand and sand for glass production, and different construction materials. The industry of Belarus has developed a number of deposits, making it possible not only to meet the requirements of the republic, but also to export natural resources.

About 25% of the population of Belarus was killed during World War II. Combined with the numbers killed in the Soviet purges, the population of Belarus in 1945 was only 67% as large as it was in the early 1930s. The population did not return to prewar levels until the mid-1970s. As of 2008, Belarus had 9.7 million inhabitants, of which 81% were ethnic Belarusans. The ratio of ethnic Belarusans to non-Belarusans has increased due to the emigration of ethnic Russians to Russia since independence. A law passed in 1992 made every inhabitant of Belarus a citizen, including all the ethnic Russians who had moved there over the years. Many of the Russians, however, declined to accept Belarusan citizenship but still live in Belarus.

There are also many ethnic Belarusans in Poland and in other parts of the former Soviet Union (such as Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), as well as large numbers living in the West (primarily in Great Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, the United States, Canada, and Argentina). The total population of Belarus has declined since independence due to emigration in search of better economic opportunities.


The development of the Belarusan language was stifled by Polish and Russian dominion for centuries. For example, during the time of the Russian tsars, the public use of the Belarusan language was strongly discouraged. Baltic influences also have helped shape the Belarusan language. The Belarusan language of the 1500s was the same as that used throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These influences caused the language to remain in a somewhat dormant state throughout those centuries. Modern Belarusan, therefore, is still very close to the old Eastern Slavic language, with some words borrowed from modern Polish and Russian. There are three primary Belarusan dialects: southwestern, northeastern, and central. Written Belarusan is based on the central (Minsk) dialect. A person who knows the Belarusan language can understand Russian and Ukrainian very well and will also comprehend Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, and Slovenian.

During the Soviet era, the Belarusan language suffered because of the dominating influence of Russian, which is similar. Belarusans came to know the Russian language through exposure, and the Soviet government tried to change the Belarusan language by making the words and grammar sound more like Russian. Many Belarusan children were taught their own tongue as a second or even a third language in school. By the early 1940s, there were no Belarusan-language schools operating. It was estimated that only 11% of the population in the early 1990s was fluent in Belarusan. The constitution of Belarus proclaimed Belarusan as the official language in 1991, but a new constitution was adopted in March 1994. The Russian language has become so much a part of everyday life for Belarusans that it was voted an official language in May 1995 by leaders sympathetic with Russia.

Since independence, Belarusan has become the primary language of instruction. Belarusan and Russian are both offi-cial state languages in Belarus, though the government plans to phase out the use of Russian gradually. However, pro-Russian officials in Belarus have recently slowed down or stalled the implementation of this policy. The population of Minsk is almost entirely composed of Russian-speakers. Metro and street signs are now posted in both Russian and Belarusan, more courses at the university are now being taught in Belarusan, and most local radio stations now broadcast in Belarusan.

Everyday terms in the Belarusan language include dobraga zdarovya (hello), tak (yes), nye (no), kali laska (please), dzyakooi (thank you) and da pabachenya (good-bye).


The image of the tragic Rahnieda has sunk deep into the memory of the Belarusan people. There are numerous tales of the heartbroken princess who wanders across her native land consoling those in grief, healing the wounds of injured soldiers, and helping the unfortunate. The story of Princess Rahnieda begins with Prince St. Vladimir.

In his younger pre-Christian days, the future Christianizer of Rus, Kievan Prince St. Vladimir, ruled Novgorod, which was given to him by his father Svyatoslav (d. 972), the warrior-builder of the Kievan empire. To Vladimir's dismay, his father gave the prestigious Kievan seat to another son, Yaropolk. Knowing he would have to fight for Kiev, Vladimir decided to secure himself an ally by marrying Rahnieda, the daughter of the Belarusan prince Rahvalod from the city of Polacak. Rahnieda, however, preferred Yaropolk. Rahnieda not only pricked Vladimir's pride by her refusal but also injured his ego by calling him rabynic (born of a servant). Rumor had it that Vladimir's mother was a servant in the household of the grand prince Svyatoslav. This was sufficient pretext for Vladimir and his cunning uncle, Dobrinya, to descend on Polacak, kill Rahnieda's parents and two of her brothers, and force the princess to become his wife. Soon afterward, Vladimir gained the Kievan seat by killing his brother Yaropolk.

Rahnieda gave birth to a boy, whom she named Iziaslau. She continued to hate her husband. Rahnieda decided to kill Vladimir in his sleep, but the scheme did not work: Vladimir awoke in time and thwarted his wife's revenge. He wanted to punish Rahnieda by death, but, as the chronicler states, their young son, Iziaslau, made him change his mind. Iziaslau stood up for his mother. With a sword in his hand, he said, "Don't think that you are all by yourself here!" Impressed by the courage of his first-born, Vladimir decided merely to banish both Iziaslau and Rahnieda to their native Polacak and even ordered a city built for the two of them, appropriately named Iziaslau (today known as Zaslauje, located near Minsk). According to legend, Rahnieda became a nun, taking the name of Anastasia, and spent the rest of her life in a monastery near the newly built city of Iziaslau, where she died around the year 1000.


Christianity came to Belarus soon after Rahnieda's husband, Kievan grand prince Vladimir, baptized his subjects in 988. The Byzantine variant of Christianity became the state religion and was spread throughout the realm by force of decree. Some historians believe that Polacak's first bishopric emerged as early as 992, and that Turau's came in 1005. One of the most famous religious leaders was St. Euphrosyne of Polacak (c. 1120–1173). Christened Pradslava, the young princess chose to become a nun. She transcribed books, initiated the building of churches and monasteries, and founded schools, libraries, and orphanages. St. Euphrosyne is remarkable not only for her works, but also for her courage and devotion to Christian ideals. During the Second Crusade she visited the Holy Land on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where she died in 1173 and soon afterward was canonized.

Revered today by Orthodox and Catholics as the patron saint of Belarus, St. Euphrosyne symbolizes the civilizing power of Christianity. Her name was immortalized by (among other things) a splendid gem-studded cross created at Euphrosyne's behest by a Belarusan master, Lazar Bohsa. Of exquisite beauty, the relic survived centuries of turbulence until World War II, when it mysteriously disappeared.

The Belarusan people, Christianized originally in the Byzantine rite, became multiconfessional as a result of the advantages Catholicism enjoyed in the Grand Duchy, followed by the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Polish as well as Russian counterpressures. Over the centuries, however, the peoples of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus, and Samogitia were able to work out a peaceful compromise marked by religious tolerance and interethnic cooperation between Orthodox and Catholic, Jew and Tatar. In 1622 King Sigismund III prohibited any public controversy against Catholics. A wave of takeovers of Orthodox Church buildings and monasteries swept Belarus. Just as Protestants a century earlier had taken over Catholic churches, now the Uniates, instigated and supported by state authorities and the Vatican, did the same to Orthodox shrines. Catholicism, having lost much ground to the Reformation in Western Europe, found a small counterweight in the East.

When the Polish element began to dominate the political life of the Belarusan territory, the religious union inadvisably became a tool to make the Belarusan people more Polish. Many Belarusans, dissatisfied with social conditions and opposing the growing pressure to join the Uniate Church, fled south into the Ukrainian steppes to join the Cossack group. In 1696, by decision of the General Confederation in Warsaw, the Belarusan language in the Grand Duchy lost its official status and was replaced by Polish. Moreover, Catholicism became increasingly identified as the "Polish creed," thus deepening and complicating the Russo-Polish antagonism.

In their geopolitical striving toward Western Europe, the tsars used the convenient pretext of "liberating" their co-religionists of the "Russian faith" from Polish Catholic domination. In 1839 the Uniate Church in Belarus, to which about 75% of the population adhered, was forcibly converted to Russian Orthodox. The name Belarus was officially banned, replaced either by the name of individual governorships or by the term West Russia, (with such variants as Northwest Russia and Northwestern Province).

Before 1917, Belarus had 2,466 religious congregations, including 1,650 Orthodox, 127 Roman Catholic, 657 Jewish, 32 Protestant, and several Muslim communities. Many congregations were destroyed during the early Soviet years, and religious leaders were typically exiled or executed. Congregations that were allowed to exist were often controlled by the government in order to advance a nationalist agenda. During the 1980s, the relaxation of controls against religious institutions (coupled with the celebration of the millennial anniversary of Christianity in Russia) initiated a small religious revival in Belarus.

The new constitution of Belarus guarantees religious freedoms; however, a 2002 law and 2003 concordat with the Belarus Orthodox Church (BOC) give the BOC a privileged status and effectively repress the practice of other religions. In 2008, about 80% of Belarusans identified themselves as Orthodox, 14% as Catholic, 2% as Protestant, and the remaining 4% as Jewish, Muslim, or other faiths. Those who are not members of the BOC, particularly Protestants and Jews, suffer harassment and discrimination.


Kolady (Christmas) is one of the most prominent traditional holidays in Belarus. The holiday season starts with a solemn, elaborate supper on Kootia (Christmas Eve). Twelve or more dishes are prepared and served. The pot containing a dish called Kootia is placed on a stand in the corner under the icons. The head of the home starts by saying grace. The dishes are served in a specific order, with a portion of each put aside for the ancestors. Kootia is the last course of the supper.

The tradition of Christmas caroling dates back to the Middle Ages. Young people would travel from house to house. They carried a giant lighted star, representing the Star of Bethlehem, and sang carols called Kaladki; some would dress in animal and bird costumes. The goat was always the favorite—a reversed sheepskin coat and a goat's head, complete with beard and horns, were used. They sang and entertained with humorous presentations and games. Along with the merrymaking, the carolers would praise the host and his family. In return, they received goodies, money, and small presents.

Another beautiful Christmas tradition was the Batlejka Show. This was a puppet show of the Nativity, performed with wooden puppets. This tradition has become popular again. Christmas tree decorating and the Christmas tree show are also very popular in Belarus. Young people usually decorate the tree with handmade toys. They also prepare grab bags for the Christmas Tree Show. The show is an elaborate presentation of singing and dramatic readings. After the show, Dzied Maroz (Father Frost) or Sviaty Mikola (St. Nicholas) distributes the presents.

Easter is one of the most joyous holidays in Belarus. The Easter festivities usually begin with Palm Sunday, which is called Verbnica in Belarusan (from the word viarba, "willows"). Each girl brings a bouquet of pussy willows, decorated with artificial flowers and evergreen twigs, to church. After the service, there is a contest to select the girl with the prettiest bouquet. After Mass and the blessing of eggs on Easter morning, a common brunch called a razhaveny is held in the church hall; babkas (Easter bread), kaubasy (sausage), and other traditional foods are served. The people then go home to take a brief nap because the Easter Mass lasts the entire night.

Easter Sunday is a day of enjoyment. People play games, crack eggs, and have contests to select the best painted eggs. It is also traditional to visit friends, relatives, and neighbors on Easter Sunday. The Easter celebrations in Belarus last for two or three days. This tradition is especially popular with young people.


Completion of high school and university are important moments that mark the passage into adulthood. Entrance into military service is also revered in the same way.


Belarusans typically shake hands upon greeting each other, but family members and close friends will often greet each other with a hug. Unlike Russians, the Belarusans do not use patronymics when addressing each other. Family ties among Belarusans are strong, and a traditional sense of kinship among families is still apparent in modern society. There is a custom among Belarusans that "no one should walk the street hungry," and this tradition has led to an informal system where individuals respond to others in need. Belarusans do not have the custom of avoiding eye contact with those who appear destitute.


The health care system for Belarusans in the homeland today is in bad shape, as is common throughout the former Soviet Union. There is a lack of both trained personnel and adequate technology. The burden of the 1986 Chernobyl fiasco completely overwhelmed the health care system, and it has yet to fully recover. Various forms of cancer brought about by radioactive contamination have affected many adults and children, and birth defects and infant mortality rapidly increased after the accident. The most common causes of death are cardiovascular disease, cancer, accidents, and respiratory disease. There is mandatory HIV testing of all hospital inpatients.

About 75% of all the housing in cities and in many of the villages was destroyed during World War II. Many people lived in makeshift shacks after the war while massive urban housing projects were being constructed. Now, many of these same housing projects are in disrepair. A shortage of urban housing was common throughout much of the former Soviet Union, but the problem was made much worse in Belarus because of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which required the resettlement of thousands of people from the contaminated area. About three-fourths of the population lives in urban centers today. Most urban Belarusans have small apartments in multistory, prefabricated buildings. The process of privatizing housing has been slowly progressing.

Because of the flat terrain, an extensive railroad system has developed into the major method of transportation across Belarus. Minsk is an important railroad junction for lines that connect the Baltic states with Ukraine and for the line that links Moscow with Warsaw. The railroads have historically had an important role in the development of industry, as well as strategic military importance. Since there is such a reliance on railroads, cars are a secondary form of transportation for many Belarusans. As a result, many of the roads outside of urban areas are unpaved, making it hard to transport agricultural products to the cities. A vast system of canals and navigable rivers is also widely used to transport both freight and passengers within Belarus.


Marriage and family are very important to Belarusans. One traditional Belarusan wedding gift is a rushnik— a handcrafted towel. Wedding guests are traditionally greeted with round rye bread and salt on a rushnik.


The male Belarusan folk costume consists of a long, embroidered white linen shirt, girdled with a wide embroidered belt (sash), white linen trousers, and black leather boots or bast sandals. Wide-brimmed straw hats are worn in summer and jerkins and sheepskin coats are worn in winter.

The typical female folk costume is a loose white dress. Occasionally, a blouse with embroidered shoulders was worn over a flounced skirt. An embroidered apron and kerchief completed the outfit.

National costumes are still worn in Belarus, especially in the southern areas. There are regional variations. Many modern clothes are now decorated with traditional embroidery.


Belarusan cuisine includes dishes made with potatoes, beets, peas, plums, pears, and, particularly, apples. The dishes are relatively simple and healthy and vary with the seasons. The inclusion of a large variety of grains and mushrooms reflects the land and soil characteristics.

Potatoes are the most abundant and popular food. Belarusans boast of being able to prepare potatoes in over 100 different ways. Carrots and cabbage are also popular. Veal, pork, fowl, and venison are the most common meats. Kaubasy (sausages), pork chops, and other meats are often smoked. Belarusans also love freshwater fish. A small river lobster, ugry, is considered a Belarusan delicacy.

Many Belarusan dishes are similar to those of Slavic groups. Some typical Belarusan specialties are potato pancakes with bacon, vireshchaka (pork ribs with gravy and pancakes), varlley kuccia (hot barley cereal with bacon and fried onion), birch and honey kvass (a fermented drink), and holodnik (cold beet soup with cucumbers, dill, hard-boiled eggs, radishes, and sour cream). Belarusan cooks honor their guests with traditional greetings such as, "Guest into the house—God into the house."


Required public education lasts about nine years, after which students may attend two or three more years of secondary education. Many of the secondary schools are trade and professional schools. Most Belarusans who want to go to college in the homeland attend the University of Minsk or the Academy of Sciences. Several theological schools have also opened in recent years.


The Belarusan culture was originally developed in the old principalities of the Belarusan cities of Polacak, Smolensk, Turau, etc. Belarusan culture reached its highest stage of development as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where Belarusan was the official language. Francishak Skaryna, Vasil Tsiapinski, Symon Budny, Symon Polacki, Sciapan Zizani, and other scholars contributed to the development of Belarusan and other Slavic cultures. Cultural ties with the West were also maintained through the universities in Prague, Germany, Italy, and Krakow.

Dr. Francishak Skaryna printed the first book in Belarusan—the Bible—in 1517. The Belarusan Bible was the second Slavic Bible to be translated into a native language. Skaryna's Bible also established the first printing press on Belarusan soil, and Belarusan printing owes its beginning to him. He published 23 books of the Bible between 1517 and 1519. After moving from Prague to Vilna (Vilnius), then the center of Belarusan political and cultural activities, Skaryna published several more books of the Bible, beginning in 1522. All his books have lengthy introductions and epilogues in Belarusan explaining the book's content, meaning, and relation to everyday life. He also included comments on literature, history, geography, philosophy, and the sciences.

As stated in the draft of the new Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, modern Belarusans pride themselves on having a "centuries-long history of the development of Belarusan state-hood," as reflected in "the Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania." The Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which, as codes of law, were promulgated in 1529, 1566, and 1588) stand as a monument to the role played by Belarusan culture in the early period of the Grand Duchy. Written in Belarusan, the official language of the ducal chancellery, these statutes contain local-custom laws as well as decisions of the administration and courts. The 15th and 16th centuries left behind a wealth of documents, including historical chronicles, original literary works, translations of the classics, religious treatises, and biblical studies that attest to the fruitful development of Belarusan culture in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Belarusan literature developed most strongly in the 19th and 20th centuries. The most famous Belarusan writers are Maksim Bagdanovich (1891−1917), Janka Kupala (1882−1942), Jakub Kolas (1882−1956), Alojza Pashkevich (Ciotka) (1876−1916), Ryhor Baradulin (b.1935), Janka Bryl (b.1917), and Vasil Bykau (b.1924).

Folk dancing, which originated centuries ago, expresses the feelings, work habits, and lifestyle of the Belarusan people. Dances, such as Bulba, Lanok, and Ruchniki, reflect work processes; the Miacelica and Charot demonstrate humanity's relationship to nature; and the Liavonicha, Mikita, and Yurachka express human feelings and folk tales. Belarusan folk dances are characterized by richness of composition, uncomplicated movements, and a small number of rapid steps. The dances can be adapted for varied groups and solos. Ethnographers have identified over 100 Belarusan folk dances. Belarusan dances are unique in that they are often accompanied by singing.


Underemployment was a problem during the Soviet years and is still present today, which accounts for the low official unemployment rates. Rather than just lay off workers, factories and businesses often will shorten the number of work hours, reduce wages, or force employees to take unpaid leave. In 2004 the government instituted a policy of short-term contracts for state employees (about 80% of Belarusan workers), effectively allowing them to fire workers by not renewing their contracts. Contracts may last up to five years, but most are only one year.


Soccer and hockey are popular team spectator sports that Belarusans also enjoy playing. Sports societies and organizations were prominent in the Soviet years, and the government liberally advocated public participation in a wide variety of sports. Many of the former "sports palaces" built by the Soviet government have been converted to health clubs. International competitions, such as the Olympics, have become very important national rallying events for Belarusan athletes. Belarusans have become internationally prominent in gymnastics and acrobatic activities.


Until the 19th century, during the spring and summer it was common for Belarusan boys and girls to gather together outdoors in groups at twilight for singing. People would also traditionally gather around the fireplace in the winter for singing. Fishing in the rivers and streams of Belarus was formerly a popular activity, but irrigation projects and pollution of waterways during the Soviet era have greatly diminished sport fishing.


Ceramics and pottery are traditional Belarusan crafts. The most famous type of Belarusan ceramics is probably charnazadymlenaya—a type of black, smoked pottery developed centuries ago. Other famous styles of ceramics are named after the Belarusan place of origin, such as Garadnianskaya (from Garadnaia village, in the Stolin region) and Ivianetskaya (from Ivianets, in the Valozhyn region).

Weaving and textiles are also popular traditional crafts. Different types and colors of straw are woven together to make contoured pictures for hanging on walls. Traditional Slavic color motifs make frequent use of red (which signifies goodness and joy) and white (which represents purity). Red and white are also the national colors of Belarus and are used in patriotic designs. Flowers and trees are often the objects depicted in Belarusan handicrafts. Textiles from the upper Dzvina River region often show a Baltic influence because of the historical connection between Baltic and Belarusan cultures.


Belarus has long been caught in the middle of Central European history, which has made it necessary for the Belarusans to get along with their neighbors. Ethnic tensions in Belarus are less substantial than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, and relations with Russians remain generally good. This situation must be maintained because, as a people in a landlocked nation, the Belarusans cannot economically afford to be unfriendly to their neighbors. The transition toward a market economy has been greatly slowed, however, by President Lukashenko's authoritarian policies.

Increased crime, particularly organized crime activities, such as drug and human trafficking, plagues Belarus given its geographic position as a transfer point between Eastern and Western Europe. The failure of Lukashenko's government to provide civil liberties has resulted in the isolation of Belarus from the international community, and Russia is beginning to exert pressure on Belarus to repay its debts, placing Belarus in a tight position politically and economically. These realities have caused a rise in conflicts between those who identify themselves as pro-Western versus those who are pro-Eastern, or European versus Slavic.

Belarusans also continue to suffer the economic and social costs of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power accident in Ukraine. About 70% of the radiation from that accident blew across Belarus, affecting over 2 million people, including about 600,000 children. The costs of this accident decades later include an increase in various forms of disease (such as leukemia and other cancers) and birth defects, which have risen by 40% since the accident. Much of the cropland was ruined with radiation, and contaminated water, livestock, produce, and soil are still widespread. Some marshlands in the south still retain high levels of radiation. In 2004, the government nevertheless introduced plans to reopen some of the contaminated land to agriculture.


Belarusan culture holds fast to its traditional patriarchal values, resulting in oppressive conditions for both women and homosexuals. Although women are guaranteed equal rights in the Belarusan constitution, they still struggle for equal representation in government and the workplace. Motherhood is considered more important than individual women's rights, making it difficult to institute reforms providing better treatment of women in the workplace. Women represent the highest percentage of the unemployed in Belarus, and about 12% have suffered sexual harassment at work. Many women work in unsanitary or unsafe conditions.

Life at home is no better. Nearly one in three women have experienced domestic violence, and rates of poverty among women continue to increase. All this leaves Belarusan women vulnerable to sexual trafficking. Promises of jobs or marriage in foreign countries lure disadvantaged women to place themselves in the hands of traffickers, who sell them into prostitution. The Belarusan government has been in the forefront of the eastern European efforts to combat human trafficking, establishing shelters and hotlines for women at risk.

Although homosexual activity is not illegal in Belarus, a strong stigma is still attached to homosexuality. The Belarusan Orthodox Church, to which the vast majority of Belarusans belong, views homosexuality as a sin. Most homosexuals remain closeted and keep their social life underground. Discrimination is widespread and there are no laws specifically against homophobic crimes.


Bely, Anatol. Uladary staraszsytnay Belarusy. Skryzaly Spadzhny 1996, #2.

Fedor, Helen, ed. Belarus and Moldova: Country Studies. Lanham, MD: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1995.

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. "Responses to Information Requests: BLR100656.E," (11 August 2008).

Kipel, Vitaut. Byelorussian Americans and their Communities of Cleveland. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University, 1982.

Korosteleva, Elena A., Colin W. Lawson, and Rosalind J. Marsh, eds. Contemporary Belarus: Between Democracy and Dictatorship. New York: Routledge Courzon, 2003.

Stop Violence Against Women. "Freedom House Report Labels Belarus, Russia (Chechnya), Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as Among the World's Most Repressive Societies," (11 August 2008).

UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. "Campaign Needed to Raise Awareness of Women's Human Rights in Belarus," (11 August 2008).

US Department of State. "Background Note: Belarus," (7 August 2008).

Virtual Guide to Belarus, (7 August 2008).

Zaprudnik, Ian. Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

—revised by Dianne de Mott

About this article


Updated About content Print Article