Minsk History:
Renaissance Minsk

In 1499 Grand Duke Alexander Jahajlavicz granted to the city of Minsk a specially favoured autonomous status known as the Magdeburg privelege, manifestly to stimulate trade. This weak and vaccilating monarch in an attempt to pacify his increasingly aggressive Eastern neighbor, the self-proclaimed Tzar Ivan III of Moscow, sought the hand of his daughter, the Grand Dutchess Helen, whose mother was Sophia Paleogos, a relative of the last Byzantine Emperor. Alexander unwisely signed a marriage contract fraught with opportunities for Muscovite interference in Lithuanian religious affairs and the matters of state. Urged on by her Muscovite chaplains, Helen pressed the candidature of her confessor Jonas, Archimandrite of the Ascension monastery in Minsk, to be appointed Metropolitan of Kiev in 1502. This simple but inflexible man was to be the first Lithuanian Metropolitan since 1439 unwilling to support the Florentine Union, entered in between the Latin and Greek churches in the face of Muslim Turkish threat. The highly critical historian Vakar observed that, until the appointment of Jonas, the Catholics and Orthodox, maintained quite friendly relations in Belarus: "The Orthodox clergy in the Grand Duchy took a sympathetic attitude towards the Union of Florence (1439), and would not have rejected it, save for the direct pressure from Moscow". Therein lay the root of the religious discord in the country over the next five centuries.

Grand Duke Zhyhimunt II

The visit to Minsk in 1502 the Grand Duke Alexander and the Grand Duchess Helen did little to avert a succession of disasters. The Eastern principalities of the Grand Duchy were progressively lost to Moscow. Minsk was besieged by the Muscovites, relieved by Prince Hlinski and again sacked, (with the exception of the castle) by the Crimean Tatar Khan, Machmet-Girej(1506). The key Eastern fortress of Smalensk was taken by Tsar Basil III(1513), scarcely before the Grand Duchess of Lithuania, his sister, was cold in her coffin. Fortunately, by his victory over the Russians at Orsza in 1514, the Hetman of the Grand Duchy, Prince Constantine Astrozhski, saved the city from further immediate misfortune. Prior to the battle, the Grand Duke Zhyhimunt II(Pol. I) and the whole court came from Vilnia to Minsk to direct the campaign, in which the Namiesnik(Sheriff) of the city, Prince Bahdan Zaslauski, also took part. However, whilst Zhyhimut was away fighting the Teutonic knights in Prussia, the Muscovite in 1519 once again returned to ravage Lahojsk, Minsk, Hajna, Radaszkaviczy, Barysau', and other towns, despite the stout resistance put up by Mikalaj Radzivil, Albrecht Hasztold and the then sheriff of Minsk, Mikalaj Zaslauski. Both Hasztold and Radzivil attended the Vienna congress in 1515 to set up a coalition against the Turks, and banner were depicted by Skaryna in his allegorical engraving of the March of the Twelve Tribes(1519) as examples of "worthy princes and commanders to protect us from the hand of the heathen". Evidence of the impoverishment of the city is to be found in the military levies for 1529 fixing at 1500 kop hroszau the contribution from Vilnia, 300 from Kouna, Mahiliou: 200, Biarescie: 150, whilst Minsk was only required to underwrite 50 kop.

A Reformist church in Zaslaue

The sorry decline of the traditional Greek- and Latin-rite churches in Belarus, both of which had become corrupt and refused to adopt the Belarusian vernacular, coupled with the failure of attempts to renew the Florentine Union, to consolidate the national church in the face of Muscovite intrigues and the continuing Turkish threat, led many of the most eminent noblemen and soldiers of the age -- Radzivil, Sapieha, Kiszka, Chadkevicz, Pacz, and others as well as some of the ablest writers and thinkers of the day, such as Vasil Ciapinski(1530 - 1603), Symon Budny(1530 - 1593) and the engaging diarist Todar Eulaszeuski(1546 - 1616) -- to embrace the Calvinistic reformed faith. For the less reputable, it was a convenient means of revoking church endowments secured by their forbears on family estates, the churches now being divided. Some of the finest Belarusian church architecture of the period in the Byzantino-Gothic style is to be found at the evangelical churches at Zaslaue(1590), Dzieraunaja(1590), Novy Sverzhan'(c. 1550), all near Minsk, and Smarhoni(1554) amongst many others. The development of a peculiarly art-form in music -- the kantyczka or hymn, was also largely a product of the Reformation. It was the exodus of the nobles and burghers to Calvinizm, rather than any schemings of the Jesuits (who in any case were not then established in Minsk), which resulted in the dereliction of the 13 Greek-rite churches, which according to the local historian Spileuski(1853) had flourished in Minsk at the close of the Middle Ages, including the ancient monastery of the Ascension. Moreover, in 1547 the city was once again devastated by fire, which destroyed the castle and the number of churches in the Lower Town. As a result, in the latter part of the 16th century the Upper town was laid out with broader streets and greater recourse to brickwork in the reconstruction of the city. There were no stone or brick ramparts, the rivers Svislocz and Niamiha served as moats to the east and north, whilst to the south and west the main defence was made up of semi-circular earth-works. In the light of the growing threat from the East, the stockade and redoubt in Trinity suburb were strengthened. The defence of the inhabitants of Minsk, however, depended on the superior fire-power of their artillery, the dense forests to the East, and the embargo by the Catholic European powers on the sale of fire-arms to the troublesome Muscovites.

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