Minsk History:
The Muscovite Wars and the Polish Ascendancy

In 1633 a Dutch founderer Witte established a cannon-factory at Tula, the first in the domains of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovicz, thus finally breaking the arms embargo with the Empire, the Hansa and the Grand Duchy had sought to impose on their unruly Eastern neighbor. This sounded the death knell of the peaceful interregnum enjoyed by Minsk since 1580. By 1648 the Muscovites rearmed the Cossacks and in 1652 they were ready to resume hostilities against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Belarus. A host of 700,000(as large as Napoleon's Grande Armee), embarked on a campaign equipped and financed -- according the the Syrian eye-witness Paul of Aleppo -- by the merchants of Moscow, grown enormously wealthy since the fall of Kazan and Astrachan(1554, 1556) on "merchandise from Persia and India"), and anxious further to enrich themselves by elimination their Grand Ducal trading competitors between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The Moscow's Patriarch Nikon added his widow's mite of 20,000 armed men, recruited among his monastic servants to join the expedition. Smalensk fell after a short seige in 1654; Nikolas Radzivil and his captains were held prisoners in Kazan. The Belarusian fortress cities of Viciebsk, Mahiliou, Polacak, and Orsza were also taken in swift succesion.

The Grand Duke Jan Cazimir

The account of the fall of Minsk among other cities, and the manner of the legendary "reunion of Belarus with the Russian State" by Tsar Alexei, is best left to the contemporary Orthodox Deacon Paul of Aleppo, then in Moscow(1653 - 1655): "His variuos officers subdued upwards of ninety four towns and castles, by storm and voluntary surrender; killing God knows how many Jews, Armenians, and Poles, and throwing their children packed in barrels into the great river Dniepr withour mercy; for nothing can exceed the hatred that the Muscovites bear to all classes of heretics and infidels. All the men without exception they cut to pieces without sparing one; the women and children they carried off into slavery, after destroying their habitations so as to leave their town entirely desolate. Thus the country if the Poles, which formerly was proverbially rich, and bore comparison with the finest provinces of Greece, now became a vast scene of ruin, where not a village or inhabitant was to be found in fifteen days journey in length and breadth. We were informed that more than one hundred thousand of the enemy were reduced to captivity, so that seven or eight boys and girls were sold for a dinar or less; and many of them we ourselves saw. In the towns which they took by capitulation, they spared all those inhabitans and allowed them to remain, who embraced the faith and were baptized; the rest were all expelled. But the towns which they captured at the point of the sword they totally cleared of their inhabitants, and levelled their houses and the fortifications to the ground." Other sources set the toll of ruined cities and towns in Belarus between 1654 and 1656 at over two hundred.

Minsk on the 30th of June, 1655 "readily surrendered to the Orthodox Tsar", and two Muscovite Princes, Arseniev and Chvorostin, were appointed as governors. The inhabitants were given choice of "accepting Russian Orhtodoxy (pravoslavije) or of being removed from the city by order of the Tsar". The manner of their "removal", whether by chain-gang or by river, as described by Paul of Aleppo, needs no further elaboration. Subsequent exactions and ill-treatment of the population, however, moved the remaining Orthodox citizens to rebellion after two years, which was swiftly dealt with by the Muscovites. By the 1660, however, the tide of war had changed. The Russian forces were overstretched and in 1661 Jan Casimir regained Harodnia and Vilnia after long sieges. The Cossack Ataman Zalatarenko was killed before Stary Bychau and Minsk was retaken. The citizenry of Mahiliou rose up to massacre the Muscovites, dispatching their leaders in chains to Warsaw. Recovery from the holocaust was slow and only got under way in the latter part of the 18th century. "The glorious city of Polacak" which, according to Vakar, "once had 100,000 inhabitans and was larger and wealthier than London", had "only 360 frame houses inhabited by 437 Christians and 478 Jews in 1780". In the latter stages of the war the fortunes of the Commonwealth improved, and Minsk again became an advanced camp for the liberation of Belarus by the Grand Duke Jan Kasimir(1648 - 1668) who, together with the future sovereign Jan Sobieski, visited the ruined and plague-ridden city of Minsk on no fewer than three occasions in 1664.

The Upper Town

Peace was restored by the city of Anrussovo in 1667. Its terms, however, untimately proved to be the death warrant of Belarus as an independent state, for it contained a clause giving Moscow a right to intervene on behalf of the small Orthodox community to the Grand Duchy and Poland, a right confirmed in 1686, and repeatedly and oppresively invoked by succeding Russian ambassadors almost yearly thereafter. However, another three decades ensured for Minsk a period of reconstruction and growing prosperity with an increase in brick- and stone-built houses, and in the embellishment of new churches. The convent of the Franciscans was restored in 1673 by the city Stolnik(High Steward), Todar Vankovicz. In 1679 the priveleges of the Jews in Minsk were confirmed by the King and Grand Duke Jan Kazimier. The Calvinist chapel was also rebuilt in 1671, thanks to a gift of timber from Janus Radzivil, and a minister Krysztaf z Jarnau'ca was relieved from holding his services in the open air. By 1680 however, his office had to be conducted with some circumspection, on occassion in a private house to avoid molestation from rowdy pupils of Jesuit school. Established in Minsk since 1654, the order was richly endowed by benefactors after 1667, in particular by the Vajavod of Troki, Cypryjan Brzhastouski, whose family remained patrons of the Jesuit college for many years. Other benefactors included Stanislau Zabloc'ki, Jan Philipovicz, Juri Furs, who contributes gifts to building a new church from 1701 - 1705. A Benedictine convent was later established in vul. Zbarovaja (Internacyjanalnaja) in 1700 by Anna Steckievicz, widow of the Banceret of Minsk, and a Carmelite house was founded in the Rakouski suburb by Todar Vankicicz in 1703. In addition to the Church of the Holy Ghost on Cathedral Square, the Uniates had at the end of the 18th century two other churches in the Lower market, at the southern end of the Tatar suburb and by the southern fortifications of the city, near the site later occupied by the Russian Orthodox cathedral of the Holy Cross and the Jubilejny dom BNR.

Fearful of further Russian claims to the Grand Duchy, official policy sought to integrate the Belarusian population into the Polish sphere by downgrading their institutions, including the Uniate Church, and smoothing out the differences between the Polish language and its Belarusian "dialects". In 1697 all documents were required to be written not in the Cyrillic, but in the Latin script -- latinka. Even in some Uniate service books, prayers and hymns in Polish were introduced, often disguised in the old Slavonic script, to gain acceptance and promote the "unification" of the Commonwealth. The policy was to some extent understable in the face of continuing Russian encroachments, the more so because even ethnographers of Belarusian descent such as A. Rypinski, were unclear as to the true place of the Belarusian people between the Western and Eastern Slavs. Its effect however was dire to the future of Belarusian language and culture.

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