Present-day Belarus was first settled by humans as early as 100,000 years ago, as evidenced by the discovery of dwelling remnants dating back to the Stone Age in the southeastern Gomel region. Settlements dating back to the Paleolithic period, approximately 26,000 years ago, have been uncovered in the Kalinkovichi area as well. By the time of the Iron Age from the 8th to the 6th century BCE, the future lands of Belarus were dominated by three major settlements, each concentrated around the Dneiper, Dvina and Pripyat river basins: the Milogradskaya, Pomorskiy and Dneiper-Dvinskiy (Republic).
The emergence of the first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, paved the way for the consolidation of the Belorussian territories. Following the death of the first leader, Yaroslav the Wise, the state’s holdings disintegrated into a number of smaller territories, of which the city of Polatsk developed into the central unit for Belorussia. With the defeat of Kievan Rus by the Mongols in 1240, Belorussia was brought under the domination of the Duchy of Lithuania. Following the Union of Krevo in 1385, in which Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila converted to Catholicism in order to gain the Polish lands by marrying Queen Jadwiga, the Belorussian nobles followed suit and converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism as well. Events such as the Union of Lublin in 1569 and the widespread adoption of the Polish language by the Belorussian nobles widened the gap between the assimilating nobility and the stagnant Belorussian peasantry, which had retained the traditional religious beliefs and language (Library).
Russian incursions into the area that had gone on for centuries intensified in the 17th century. Russian forces occupied Smolensk in 1654, which at the time had been a key holding of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since 1611. After the Muscovite occupiers were forced out, the Belorussian peasants made up the vast majority of the population (Kappeler 69). The Belorussian lands and her inhabitants were also caught in the midst of two major wars: Poland-Lithuania’s war with Russia from 1654 to 1667, and the Great Northern War against Sweden from 1700 to 1721 (Republic).
The three partitions of Poland in the late 18th century led to the constant handoff of the Belorussian lands between Russia and Poland-Lithuania. The eastern half was ceded to the Russian Empire in the first partition in 1772. With the completion of the second and third partitions in 1793 and 1795, nearly all the lands inhabited by the Belorussians was under the control of Russia, which declared that its land grabs were “of the lands and towns which had once belonged to the Russian Empire, had been populated by their fellow Slavs … and illuminated by the orthodox Christian faith”. By 1778 the Russian language and court system were both introduced into Belorussia, on the grounds that the area was regarded as indistinct from Russian territory. Tsar Paul declared in 1796 that the Belorussian holdings would fall under special administrative rule (Kappeler 79-82).
The first recorded attempts at a Belorussian national movement occurred in 1863 in the midst of the Polish uprising, but were low-key affairs attempted by political agitators and students and thus failed to materialize or draw any support. In 1902 the Belorussian Revolutionary Party was founded, although their low level of distinction from Russians and lack of political elite left the movement without a strong momentum compared to those of other ethnic groups in the western borderlands (Kappeler 226-7). The revolutionary movements of 1905 brought Belorussian nationalism to the forefront. Even while the Russian and Polish languages and cultures continued to dominate much of society, periodicals and journals in the Belorussian language emerged and gained widespread following. In the first elected parliament called by Nicholas II in 1906, there were twelve Belorussian deputies seated out of a total of 220 non-Russians (Kappeler 339-42).
Belorussia’s physical location made it a battleground on the Eastern Front with the outbreak of World War I. An Austrian-German force captured large parts of Lithuania-Belorussian territory in mid-1915, leading Lithuanian and Belorussian figures to form the Confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to re-establish their own state against the newly-formed “Kingdom of Poland” allied with Austria and Germany. The loss of these territories by the Russian Empire also meant that the Belorussians were technically no longer subjects of the tsar (Kappeler 349-50). The Belorussian Revolutionary Party, now renamed “Hramada”, lacked both the intellectual and political capacity as well as the support of the peasantry, allowing the socialist movement in Belorussia to be dominated by ethnic Russians and Jews. (Kappeler 358).
Belarus and the Soviet Union [Kara Kolbe]
On March 3, 1918, the signing of the Brest-Litvosk treaty formally split Belarus in two separate spheres. This strategic treaty withdrew Soviet forces from World War II and reduced tensions through deliberate retreat. The large western side of Belarus (including the capital city Minsk) was given to Germany. However, this occupation was brief; in December 1918, Soviet troops marched into Minsk. Belarus was quickly torn between Poland and the Soviet Union in the Polish-Soviet War, which lasted from February 1919-1921 (Lubachko, 43). In the peace negotiations following the war, Poland and Russia divided Belorussian territory. The majority of the eastern territory was consolidated into the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, with only a small section of land belonging to the Belorussian SSR (Lubachko, 46).
In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Belarus teetered on the edge of complete economic collapse. The transportation system had been “completely paralyzed after six years of war and revolution; its industry, underdeveloped as it was before the war, had practically ceased to exist (Lubachko, 63). Agricultural production collapsed to well under half of pre-war output. Societal tensions and unrest across Belarus prompted repressive reactions from the Cheka, the Communist Security Police force. In order to placate society and “save the socialist revolution from threatened disaster, the Soviet government introduced…the New Economic Plan (NEP)” in the spring of 1921 (63). The NEP promoted economic policies that benefited the peasantry, allowed for minimal private property and essentially sanctioned a mixed economy for the purpose of modernization. This plan was well received in Belarus; through the “Leninist Decree on Land” state-owned property was redistributed among the peasantry. Moscow also expanded Belarusian territory and “permitted a flowering of Belarusian ethnic culture” (Olson, 94). During this period, Belorussian national identity flourished. The government sanctioned the establishment of the Institute of Belarusian Culture in 1921, and dedicated it to the study of Belarusian culture and history. Schools and universities emerged, lecturing primarily in Belarusian as opposed to Russian (94). However, the openness of the NEP period did not last; by the early 1930s, Stalin’s regime began ruthlessly cracking down on Belarusian national expression and freedom.
After the period of burgeoning Belarusian nationalism in the 1920s, Stalin’s ruthless implementation of industrialization and collectivization in the BSSR utilized brutal and oppressive tactics to procure results. Though Stalin initially supported NEP as a way to consolidate power, he quickly eliminated political competition and started retracting social freedoms and nationalism across the USSR. Collectivization in the BSSR drastically increased as early as 1930, despite mass resistance from peasants. Between 1928 and 1930, the number of collective farms across Belarus more than doubled; while individual collectivized farms increased twenty fold (Lubachko, 97). The suffering endured by the Belarusian peasantry during this time rivaled even Southern Russia, who were experiencing massive famine. Moscow sent Russian party members to serve as leaders and chairmen of the collectivization movement. However, these “shock-workers” relied on cruelty and punishment to achieve production goals. With total collectivization their only order, these leaders employed “mass arrests and brutality… emphasizing repeatedly, “Moscow does not believe in tears” (Lubachko, 101). Stalin “deported approximately 15 percent of all Belarusian peasants to concentration camps eat of the Ural Mountains”, where many died (94). As a result of inefficient and misguided farming techniques, food availability in rural Belarus rapidly diminished; almost all produce grown through collective farming was exported. This had massive consequences for the domestic populace: over five percent of the Belarusian population died from mass starvation (Olson, 95). Through terror and oppression, Stalin implemented his extensive plan for collectivization and industrialization in the Soviet Union.
On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a secret nonaggression pact, effectively dividing Polish territory between them. Following the German invasion of Poland, Soviet troops crossed the Polish border protect the life and property of the people of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. Within three weeks, Western Belarus had been incorporated into the USSR, increasing territory by over 39,000 square miles and the population of the BSSR by 4.5 million (Zaprudnik, 88). Political propagandists were immediately sent into Western Belarus to indoctrinate the locals with Soviet ideology.
In spite of the 1939 nonaggression pact, Germany launched an attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Because Belarus was “on a direct route between Berlin and Moscow,” it suffered devastating losses (Olson, 95). Belorussians were essentially trapped between the two powers, and suffered under the hands of both the Soviet Union and Germany. During the initial Soviet retreat, thousands of Belorussian political prisoners were executed instead of evacuated. Over seventy five percent of Belarusian towns and cities were completely destroyed during the war (95). Under the three-year-long German occupation, Belorussians were subjected to Nazi racial concepts, which required that “segments of the native population, such as Jews, Gypsies and most of the Slavic people, be exterminated”(Lubachko, 153). Many Belorussian youths were seized and shipped back to Germany for forced labor. In response to the ruthlessness of German troops, many resorted to guerrilla warfare. By the end of the war, over two million Belorussians had lost their lives. More than “two hundred and nine cities and townships, and 9,200 villages had been burned or destroyed” (Zaprudnik, 101).
Despite their resistance and suffering at the hands Nazi occupiers, Belorussians were not graciously reintegrated into the Soviet Union in 1945. Though Stalin demonstrated an” outward display of appreciation for the fighting of the Belorussian peoples… they were inescapably stigmatized by the mere fact of having lived under an anti-Bolshevik regime, having been exposed to anti-Bolshevik arguments and evidence, and having participated in one form or another in anti-Bolshevik activities” (Zaprudnik, 103). Anyone suspected or accused of collaborationism was immediately purged, and officials in the Belorussian Communist Party were replaced with ethnic Russian party members. The brutalities of the Nazi occupation were substituted for Soviet oppression; politicians, teachers, intellectuals faced deportation and murder as punishment for their ‘crimes’ against the State. Intensive and continual political terror dominated the BSSR. As a consequence of forced collectivization, deportations of collaborators to Siberia, “massive recruitment of youth to cultivate the ‘Virgin Lands’ in Kazakhstan under Khrushchev, and general poor living conditions”, the BSSR did not regain prewar population and industrial and agricultural capabilities until the 1970s (Zaprudnik, 113).
During the 1970’s, the BSSR was subjected to a massive Russification campaign. Under the Kosygin-Brezhnev period, communist policies promoted the notion of the “Soviet man” and russification over “parochial national and ethnic identities” (Olson, 96). The Belorussian educational system operated solely in Russian: by 1980, over thirty percent of Belorussians identified Russian as their native tongue. The Soviet Union simultaneously promoted widespread urbanization and industrialization campaigns across the BSSR. As more people migrated to urban centers, the vast majority of workers developed bilingual language skills. Despite successes of the russification campaign in Belarus, dissent continued to simmer below the surface; by the 1980s, perestroika and the Chernobyl disaster combined to catalyze the eruption of Belorussian nationalism.
In the 1980s, the economic situation of Belarus mirrored the stagnation and depression across the Soviet Union. Many Belorussians felt growing resentment over inefficiencies and hardships in daily life. However, tensions were further amplified following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986. The disaster occurred in Ukraine, but massive amounts of radiation drifted over Belarus’s border, exposing hundreds of thousands to radiation contamination (Olson, 97). Over 100,000 Belorussians were resettled permanently following the Chernobyl disaster, and many more were temporarily displaced. Rates of thyroid cancer drastically increased in children in the decade following the disaster (87). A team of archaeologists discovered a mass grave at Kuropaty, near Minsk, and uncovered the remains of over 250,000 purge victims (87). These events dramatically influenced the nationalism movement in the BSSR. Protests across Belarus weakened the authority of the Communist Party. On July 27, 1990, Belarus declared independent national sovereignty and officially became the Republic of Belarus in 1991. The current president of Belarus is Alexander Lukashenko, who was first elected president in 1994. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has held multiple elections, but is often criticized by the international community for its undemocratic electoral process. After a brief period of increased Western relationship in the 1990, Belarus has since reoriented itself with the Russian Federation.
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire. (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001).
- James Stuart Olson, An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires (Greenwood Press, 1994).
- Ivan S. Lubachko, Belorussia Under Soviet Rule: 1917-1957. (University of Kentucky Press, 1972).
- Republic of Belarus. “Belarus history.” Accessed April 15, 2012. http://www.belarus.by/en/about-belarus/history.
- The Library of Congress. “A Country Study: Belarus.” Last modified July 27, 2010. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/bytoc.html
- Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. (Westview Press, 1993).