The first written document of the Belarusan statehood goes far back as 980 AD when Prince Rogvold began his reign on Polotsk lands which are the historic and religious center of the Belarusan nation and culture. The formation of the features of Belarusan people began in special socioeconomic and political conditions of the Polotsk Principality. The young, fast growing state made close trade ties with German (Hansa) cities, with Scandinavia, neighboring eastern and southern principalities. On the Polotsk territory under the influence of local cultural views the traditions of Byzantine architecture were revaluated and as a result the outstanding Polotsk architecture school emerged in the 12th century. It greatly influenced the architecture of Smolensk and Vladimir-Suzdal principalities and later of the Moscow state.

From the 13th till the 16th century the territory of contemporary Belarus was the center of a medieval polyethnic state-Grand Duchy of Litva. The Grand Duchy of Litva which is sometimes called by historians Belarusan-Lithuanian state was one of the largest, most powerful and flourishing states in medieval Eastern Europe. The lands of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine and a part of Russia comprised this state. The large role of ethnic Belarusans in this state is proved by the fact that the state language in the Grand Duchy of Litva was Belarusan.

The period that started in the 15th century, when the crusaders' expansion was crushed in the west, and lasted until the middle of the 17th century, when Moscow launched its widescale aggression, is considered the Golden age in Belarusan history. In this period there was a wide growth of old and the foundation of many new cities and towns. There occurred significant evolutionary processes in the culture and economy of Belarusan people. A number of historic facts provide evidence for that. In 1517 the great Belarusan scholar from Polotsk Doctor Francisc Skaryna published the Bible in the Belarusan language. Thus the Belarusans became the third nation after Germans and Czechs that had a printed Bible in their native language. In 1588 the third edition of Grand Duchy Statute came out. It was a comprehensive and elaborate state code of laws that stood above the local legal norms. Written in the Belarusan language it was the only full code of laws in Europe since the Roman Law and until the Napoleonic Code adopted in 1804. The above historic facts prove the Grand Duchy of Litva to have been a major political and cultural center in Eastern Europe at that time.

Grand Duchy of Litva-Belarusan-Lithuanian State in 13-16 centuries

In 1569 the Grand Duchy of Litva and the Polish Kingdom established a political union according to which the Litva-Poland confederation- Rzecz Pospolita-emerged. As a result of three divisions of Rzecz Pospolita in 1772, 1793 and 1795 between three empires - Russia, Austria and Prussia - the Belarusan lands were incorporated into the Russian Empire. So the third division of Rzecz Pospolita in 1795 practically checked the development of Belarusan statehood for more than 100 years.

Rzecz Pospolita - a political union of the Grand Duchy of Litva and the Polish Kingdom in 16-18 centuries

But the Belarusans under the Russian rule did not want to lead slaves' lives. In 1794 on the territory of contemporary Poland, Belarus and Lithuania a national liberation uprising broke out. It was headed by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Belarusan nobleman by birth who received his military education in France (1770-1774), took part in the War of Independence in North America (1775-1783). The uprising was directed against Russia and Prussia that made the second division of Rzecz Pospolita and against the local reactionary aristocracy that had taken power in the lands. To support Russian and Prussian troops Austria entered the fighting against the rebels. Tadeusz Kosciuszko was injured in a battle, captured by tsarist troops and imprisoned in Petropavlovskaya Fortress in the Russian capital of that time - Sankt Petersburg. The uprising started in mid-spring and was brutally suppressed in mid-autumn 1794. The result of its suppression was the third division of Rzecz Pospolita in 1795. Nowadays a monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the brave soldier, national hero of the U.S.A., honorable citizen of France, born on the territory of the contemporary Brest Region of Belarus can be seen in Lafayete Square opposite the White House in Washington.

Sophia Cathedral in Polatsk built in 11th century

During the Franco-Russian war of 1812 the Belarusan lands were the war arena of those two armies when the "Grand Armee" under Napoleon's command marched to Moscow and when it was in retreat. Of great significance for both armies was a battle near the Berezina river where French army was utterly defeated. During this war some divisions of the Russian Army fighting against Napoleon were manned by Belarusan soldiers. At the same time a lot of Belarusans, mainly the gentry and peasants, took part in the war on Napoleon's side which showed the will of Belarusans to overthrow the yoke of their slavemaster the Russian tsar. After Napoleon took the lands of Lithuania and Belarus he renewed the Grand Duchy of Litva but after the defeat of the Grand Armee the Russian rule on Belarusan lands was reestablished.

Castle in Mir built in 16th century

The displeasure of the Belarusan gentry with the divisions of Rzecz Pospolita and the breach of the Polish Constitution of 1815 by the Russian Empire led to the outbreak of a national liberation uprising in November 1830. It enveloped Poland, Lithuania, Western Belarus and Western Ukraine. This uprising, suppressed in October 1831, had the character of a conservative revolution and prevented a joint Prussian-Russian intervention into revolutionary France and Belgium.

An outstanding feature in the development of the Grand Duchy of Litva, later of Rzecz Pospolita, and in particular of the Belarusan lands proper was the peaceful coexistence of different religious communities - Orthodox that emerged here in the 11th century, Catholic that started in the 14th century, Hebrew in the 15th, Protestant in the 16th. In 1596 after the creation of Litva-Poland confederation at the decision of the Brest synod the Greek-Catholic or Uniate church was created. It became the national religion of Belarusans. The church was under the Pope and recognized Catholic dogmas but kept to Orthodox rites. But in 1839 the Uniate church was liquidated at the decision of the Russian government forced onto the Polotsk synod. The Russian tsarism was based on the Orthodox church and was against other religions, that's why the Uniate books were burned and the Uniates were forcibly convened into the Orthodox religion. At the same time the use of the Grand Duchy of Litva Statute on the territory of Belarus was banned. Soon the tsar's edict was issued that banned the name Belarus.

Starting from this moment the Belarusan lands began to lose their independence, and the majority of their national peculiarities. The Belarusan language was banned in the official sphere and Russian took its place. As a result of the Russian expansion to the west, Belarusan lands together with the peasants were given to Russian landlords. The senior positions in the local administration were taken by officials sent from the inner regions of Russia. The Russian Orthodox church that was the preeminent and supreme one in the Russian Empire started to persecute and push out other religious communities. Belarusan lands were settled by representatives of other nations. There came hard times for the Belarusan people.

The Russian emperors conducted the systematic liquidation of cultural and spiritual centers of the Belarusan nation, pursued the official policy of russification that included the banishment of, and property confiscation from the Belarusan officials and religious activists and replacing them with the Russian officials and Orthodox church clergy. Belarusans were mostly limited to receiving primary education in church schools. It was forbidden to send young Belarusans abroad to continue their education there. Thus Belarus became a Central European colony of Russia. Since the 19th century it was known as the North-Westem Region of the Russian Empire and the Belarusan people were assimilated into it by force.

But despite the oppression the Belarusan people did not want to put up with the tsarist policy. In 1863 the young Belarusan patriot Kastus Kalinousky started a new stage of the liberation struggle of the Belarusans. The cause of the national liberation uprising of 1863-1864 led by Kastus Kalinousky in Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland was the strive of the progressive people of the western parts of the Russian Empire for national independence, liquidation of the feudal relations, for social and political changes. Kastus Kalinousky led the enslaved people against the colonial regime of the Russian tsarism and at the age of 26 was publicly executed by the gendarmes in March 1864 in Vilnia (Vilnius), which was at that time the political and cultural center of the Belarusan people.

But nevertheless under the pressure of numerous oppressed peoples that inhabited the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century various political changes started. In 1905 the Belarusans got some rights for their cultural self-expression including the right to publish books and newspapers in the native language. Though the concessions of the tsarism were minor in fact, they breathed in a new life into the national rebirth of the Belarusans. But the quick renewal of the statehood became possible only after the fall of the Russian monarchy towards the end of World War I in February 1917, when the Belarusan national organizations became more active. In December 1917 the All-Belarusan Congress opened in Minsk. 1872 delegates from all the regions of Belarus, from all political and public organizations took part in it. The participants discussed the national problems of the Belarussian people and supported the creation of the new Belarusan state.

But after the 3d of May 1918 when Soviet Russia, Germany, and Austria signed the Brest peace treaty Belarus, without the agreement from the Executive Committee of the All-Belarusan Congress, became the subject of annexation by Germany. On the 25th of March 1918 during the German occupation the All-Belarusan Congress Executive Committee declared the creation of the Belarusan People's Republic (BPR). A temporary Constitution in the form of statute decrees was adopted. It guaranteed the right to vote, freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly, the right to the 8-hour working day and the right to strike. Unfortunately, the new Belarusan state was shortlived and was liquidated by Soviet Russia with the help of the Red Army in 1919, but some leaders of the BPR managed to emigrate to the West and establish a Belarusan government in exile.

The creation of the BPR made the Bolsheviks with Lenin at the head understand that the creation of the totalitarian regime on the territory of the former Russian Empire without taking into consideration the national interests of the peoples that it wanted to envelop would be next to impossible. So on the 1st of January 1919 on the initiative of Belarusans in the Russian Communist party of Bolsheviks to counterpoise the BPR the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was created. But the Russian Bolsheviks did not look upon Belarus from the point of view of providing the Belarusan people with the right to national self-determination and the creation of an independent state. They saw it as the buffer zone during the realization of the world communist revolution. To enlarge the sphere of influence the Lithuanian-Belarusan Soviet Socialist Republic was created in February 1919. But on the 31st of July 1920 because of the changed political conditions (the Polish army was advancing east) the BSSR was reestablished.

On the 18th of March 1921 according to the Riga peace treaty signed by Poland and Bolshevik Russia headed by Lenin, without the participation of Belarusan representatives Belarus was divided into two parts. The Westem part of Belarus (the Brest and Grodna regions of today's Belarus and the Bialystok region of today's Poland) was given to Poland. This part of Belarus was given back to the USSR in 1939 and became part of BSSR.

On the 30th of December 1922 the Communist governments of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Caucasus created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which included the major part of the former Russian Empire. Since that time on the territory of Belarus as well as in the whole of the Soviet Union a severe communist dictatorship had been established which existed till 1990 when the first more or less democratic elections were held in Belarus. Belarus as well as the other Soviet republics of the former USSR had gone through all the stages of the creation of mythical communism and suffered enormous cultural, spiritual and human losses. During the construction of communism there were destroyed practically all the churches And religious institutions, private property was liquidated a lot of industrious, enterprising, educated people were repressed. Now Kurapaty forest near Minsk reminds us of communist repressions in Belarus. In the 30s hundreds of thousands of innocent people were shot dead there. Stalin's repressions and the fascist occupation were severe blows to the genetic fund of Belarusans. Therefore the renaissance of the Belarusan nation that started only in the late 80s will take a lot of time.

During World War II from 1941 till 1945 the Belarus territory was completely occupied by the Nazi Germany troops. The Belarusan people didn't resign to the status of an enslaved nation and resisted Nazi occupants. There were over a thousand partisan detachments on the territory of Belarus. They paralyzed the communications as well as a great number of troops and thus made a great contribution to the victory over Nazism. The Nazis burned down a lot of villages and ruined many towns. In this war 25% of Belarusan population was lost. Numerous common graves all over Belarus remind us of the terrible tragedy of the last war. The apotheosis of this tragedy is to be seen in the memorial complex of Khatyn near Minsk. Before World War II the population of Belarus was 10 million and only 40 years later, by the end of the 80s it had reached the pre-war level.

A new stage in the history of Belarusan statehood began on the 27th of July 1990 when the BSSR Supreme Soviet adopted the Declaration "On the State Sovereignty of the BSSR". On the 25th of August 1991 the BSSR Supreme Soviet declared the political and economic independence of Belarus. On the filth of December 1991 The Supreme Soviet ratified the Agreement on the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, signed on the 8th of December 1991 by the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in Viskuli in Belavezha Forest. Simultaneously the Supreme Soviet denounced the treaty on the creation of the USSR. The final legal act that pronounced Belarus a new democratic state in Eastern Europe was the new Constitution of the Republic of Belarus adopted by the Supreme Soviet on the 15th of March 1994.

The city of Minsk is the capital of Belarus. It is an ancient city known from 1067. During its long history it was several times ruined by foreign invaders. When the Red Army soldiers and partisans liberated the city during World War II, 95% of Minsk lay in ruins. Only after many years the Belarusans managed to restore the city. Now Minsk has a population of 1.8 million. After the USSR's collapse Minsk became the Coordination Center of the CIS, the headquarters of the Executive Secretariat of the CIS. This fact strengthens the reputation of Belarus as a state of social stability and economic reliability.

Copyright(c)1994 by Vladimir Novik
Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus

Maintained by chimtcho@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu.

Visit one more WWW history page of Belarus