History of Belarus

From Academic Kids

This article describes the history of the Eastern European nation of Belarus and the Belarusian people.


Early history

The history of Belarus, or, more correctly of the Belarusian ethnicity, begins with the migration and expansion of the Slavic peoples throughout Eastern Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries Anno Domini. East Slavs settled on the territory within present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, assimilating local Baltic (Belarus), Ugro-Finnic (Russia) and steppe nomads (Ukraine) already living there, early ethnic integrations that contributed to the gradual differentiation of the three East Slavic nations. These East Slavs were pagan, animistic, agrarian people whose economy included trade in agricultural produce, game, furs, honey, beeswax and amber.

The modern Belarusian ethnos was probably formed on the basis of the three Slavic tribes - Kryvians, Drehovians, Radzimians and some Baltic tribes.

During the 9th and 10th century, Scandinavian Vikings established trade posts on the way from Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire. The network of lakes and rivers crossing East Slav territory provided a lucrative trade route between the two civilizations. In the course of trade, they gradually took sovereignty over tribes of East Slavs, at least to the point required by improvements in trade.

The Rus' rulers on few occasions invaded the Byzantine Empire, but eventually they became their ally against the Bulgars. The condition underlying this alliance was to open the country for Christianization and acculturation from the Byzantine Empire.

The common cultural bond of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and written Church Slavonic (a literary and liturgical Slavic language developed by 8th century missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius) fostered the emergence of a new geopolitical entity, Rus' -- a loose-knit network of principalities, established along preexisting trade routes, with major centers in Novgorod (currently Russia), Polatsk and Kiev (Kyiv, Ukraine) — which claimed a sometimes precarious preeminence among them.

First Belarusian states

Between the 9th and 12th century, the principality of Polatsk (northern Belarus) emerged as the dominant center of power on Belarusian territory, with a lesser role played by the principality of Turau in the south.

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Kiev duke Vladimir and princess Rahneda of Polatsk (painting of 1770).

It repeatedly asserted its sovereignty in relation to other centers of Rus', becoming a political capital, the episcopal see of a bishopric and the controller of vassal territories among Balts in the west. The city's Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (1044-1066) remains a symbol of this independent-mindedness, rivaling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kiev, referring to the original Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (and hence to claims of imperial prestige, authority and sovereignty). Cultural achievements of the Polatsk period include the work of the nun Euphrosyne of Polatsk (1120-1173), who built monasteries, transcribed books, promoted literacy and sponsored art (including local artisan Lazarus Bohsha's famous "Cross of Euphrosyne," a national symbol and treasure stolen during World War II), and the prolific, original Church Slavonic sermons and writings of Bishop Cyril of Turau (1130-1182).

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

In the 13th century, the fragile unity of Rus' disintegrated due to nomadic incursions from Asia, which climaxed with the Mongol Horde's sacking of Kiev (1240), leaving a geopolitical vacuum in the region. The East Slavs splintered along preexisting tribal lines into a number of independent and competing principalities. Due to military alliances, dynastic marriages and previous assimilation, the Belarusian principalities gravitated toward the expanding Lithuanians, beginning with the rule of King Mindouh (1240-1263). From the 13th to 15th century, Baltic, Belarusian and Ukrainian lands were consolidated into the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus' and Samogitia, with its capital in Navahradak (in western Belarus) and later in Vilnia (now in the Belarusian-Lithuanian borderland).

The Lithuanians' smaller numbers and lack of written language or Christian culture in this medieval state gave the Belarusians and Ukrainians a major and important role in shaping Lithuanian political, religious and cultural life, and further assimilation between the Slavs and Balts occurred. Owing to the predominance of East Slavs among the state's population and ties with greater Europe that literacy, Christianity and culture facilitated, Old Belarusian became the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus' and Samogitia, used for its official chancery, legal, diplomatic and judicial needs until 1696, when it was eventually replaced by Polish.

This period of political breakdown and reorganization also saw the rise of written local vernaculars in place of the literary and liturgical Church Slavonic language, a further stage in the evolving differentiation between the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian language.

After 1385,

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Main article: History of Poland (1569-1795)

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"Union of Lublin" of 1569, oil on canvas by Jan Matejko, 1869, 298 x 512 cm, National Museum in Warsaw.

The Lublin Union of 1569 constituted the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as an influential player in European politics and a vital cultural entity.

By the 18th century the nobles' democracy gradually declined into anarchy, making the once powerful Commonwealth vulnerable to foreign influence. Eventually the country was partitioned by its neighbors and erased from the map in 1795.

Russian occupation

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View of Polatsk in 1912

The independence of the Commonwealth ended in a series of partitions (1772, 1793 and 1795) undertaken by Russia, Prussia and Austria, with Russia gaining most of the Commonwealth's territory including nearly all of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (except Podlachia and lands West from Niemen river), Volhynia and Ukraine. Austria gained the populous southern region henceforth named Galicia-Lodomeria, named after the Duchy of Halicz and Volodymyr. (The Duchy was briefly occupied by Hungary between 1372 and 1399 and Habsburgs claimed were inherited after Hungarian Kings, despite the fact that Volodymyr was not a part of Galicia). In 1795 Austria also gained the land between Krakw and Warsaw, between Vistula river and Pilica river. Prussia acquired the western lands from the Baltic through Greater Poland to Krakw, as well as Warsaw and Lithuanian territories to the north-east (Augustow, Mariampol) and Podlasie. The last heroic attempt to save the state's independence was a Polish-Belarusian-Lithuanian national uprising (1794) led by Tadevus Kasciuska, however it was eventually quenched.

Following the French emperor Napoleon I's defeat of Prussia, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was again set up under French tutelage.

With Napoleon's defeat, Belarus became part of Imperial Russia. National uprisings in 1830 and 1863 were bloodily subdued by the Russians. The opportunity for freedom appeared only after the World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Still, the 19th century was signified by the rise of the modern Belarusian nation and self-confidence.

After Russian Revolution

The Belarus National Republic

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The Belarus National Republic, 1918

During World War I, when Belarus was occupied by Germans according to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Belarus National Republic was pronounced on March 25, 1918.

When the Red Army entered Minsk on January 5, 1919, the Rada (Council) of the BNR went into exile. As of 2004, Ivonka Survilla is the current chairperson of the Rada.

During the World War II the Nazis attempted to establish the puppet Belarusian government under the name of BNR, with its symbolics.


For a brief period within 1919, between the German and Polish occupations, there existed a joint Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, informally known as Litbel. In December 1918 the Germans left the land, and on January 2, 1919 the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared, which was joined with the Lithuanian SSR into the BLSSR in February 1919, which existed until August 1919 (the onset of the Polish-Soviet War). In 1920, the lands of Belarus were divided between Poland and Byelorussian (Belarusian) Soviet Socialist Republic.

Belarusian Soviet Republic and West Belarus

Within the USSR, the name of the country was Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was declared on January 1, 1919 in Smalensk.

The frontiers between Poland, which had established a shaky independent government following World War I, and the former Tsarist empire, were rendered chaotic by the repercussions of the Russian revolutions and civil war. Poland's Jzef Pilsudski envisioned a new federation (Miedzymorze), forming a Polish-led East European bloc to form a bulwark against Russia and Germany, while the RSFSR attempted to carry the revolution westward. When Pilsudski carried out a military thrust into Ukraine in 1920, he was met by a Red Army offensive that drove into Polish territory almost to Warsaw. However, Pilsudski halted the Soviet advance at the battle of Warsaw and resumed the offensive. The "Peace of Riga" signed in early 1921 that split the territory of Belarus between Poland and the USSR. (see also: Polish-Soviet War)

Until 1939 the territory of Belaru was divided into East Belarus (The Belarusian SSR) and West Belarus (Nowogrodek (Navaharodak), Bialystok (Bielastok), Polesia and Wilno (Vilnia) voivodships of the Second Polish Republic). Initially, the national culture and language had a significant boost of revival in the Soviet Belarus. This was tragically ended during the Great Purges, when almost all prominent Belarusian national intelligentsia were murdered. West Belarus was undergoing a strong policy of polonization by the Polish nationalist government. Around 300 thousands of Poles were settled in Belarus, Belarusian language was prohibited for official use and education.

Belarus in World War II

When the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17 1939, following the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, much of what had been eastern Poland was annexed to the BSSR. Eighteen months later, Germany and its Axis allies invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Belarus suffered particularly heavily during the fighting and the German occupation, as well as from the results of a slash-and-burn policy pursued by retreating Soviet troops. Following bloody encirclement battles, all of present-day Belarus was occupied by the Germans by the end of August 1941.

The Germans imposed a brutal racist regime, burning down some 9,000 Belarusian villages, deporting some 380,000 people for slave labour, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians more. Almost the whole, previously very numerous, jewish population of Belarus was killed. Since the early days of the occupation, a powerful and increasingly well-coordinated partisan movement emerged. Hiding in the woods and swamps, the partisans inflicted heavy damage to German supply lines and communications, disrupting railway tracks, bridges, telegraph wires, attacking supply depots, fuel dumps and transports and ambushing German occupation soldiers. It should be noted that not all anti-German partisans were pro-Soviet. In the greatest partisan sabotage action of the entire Second World War, the so-called Asipovichy diversion of July 30, 1943, four German trains with supplies and Tiger tanks were destroyed. To fight partisan activity, the Germans had to withdraw considerable forces behind their front line. On June 22, 1944, the huge Soviet offensive Operation Bagration was launched, finally regaining all of Belarus by the end of August.

In total, Belarus lost a quarter of its pre-war population in the Second World War. For the defence against the Germans, and the tenacity during the German occupation, the capital Minsk was awarded the title Hero City after the War. The fortress of Brest was awarded the title Hero-Fortress.

BSSR in 1945-1990

After the end of War, in 1945 Belarus became one of the founding members of the United Nations Organisation.

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50 years of Soviet Belarus - a Soviet stamp of 1969

During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union first rebuilt and then expanded its economy, with control always exerted exclusively from Moscow. Belarus became an important part of the Soviet economy, huge industrial objects like the ByelAZ, MAZ, the Minsk Tractor Plant were built in the country.

On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. It is regarded as the worst nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power. It produced a plume of radioactive debris that drifted over parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. Large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of roughly 200,000 people. About 60 percent of radioactive fallout landed in Belarus.

Republic of Belarus

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Coat of Arms of Belarus in 1918 and 1990-1995

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared its independence on July 27, 1990.

In 1994 the first presidental elections were held, Alexander Lukashenka was elected president of Belarus. During his term of presidency an authoritarian regime was built up in the country. Belarus is considered to be Europe's last dictature.

See also

External links

de:Geschichte Weirusslands et:Valgevene ajalugu lt:Baltarusijos istorija pl:Historia Białorusi pt:Histria da Bielorrssia ru:История Белоруссии


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