The Treaty of Riga and Belarus Partition of 1921

By Vitali Voranau 

                 This is a story of the historical event, which took place in 1921 in Riga. We investigate here to what extent is it true to say that The Treaty of Riga, signed on 18 March 1921, was a partition of Belarusian lands by Poland and Russia? 





         After Polish-Soviet War and a successful offensive of Polish army, both sides decided to start negotiations, which were arranged in Minsk (Mensk) in 1920 and then moved to Riga in 1921. In the meantime of I World War, on 25th March 1918, was proclaimed People’s Republic of Belarus (PRB)[1], or as some historians translate, Belarusian Democratic Republic[2] (BDR). The members of The National Convention who assembled in Minsk in the name of all Belarusian nation declared Independence. The National Convention proclaimed PRB with its capital in Minsk and including all Belarusian ethnic borders with its main cities (Minsk, Vitebsk, Mahilou, Homiel, Brest, Hrodna, Smalensk, Pskou, Bielsk, Bielastok and Vilna). The independence of Belarus was recognized by many democratic countries (Poland, Finland, Turkey, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Germany). But during signing of The Peace Treaty in Riga neither Poles, nor Soviets wanted to take, voices of Belarusians under consideration.

         It should be mentioned that at negotiations were invited only representatives of Belarusian Social Revolutionaries headed by Alaksandar Cherviakou (whom plan was to proclaim Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, which would be strongly connected with Russia). When during the conference, A. Cherviakou started to present Belarusian point of view the head of Russian delegation, A. Joffe said to him that peace is signed with Poland but not with Belarus.

         In spite of numerous demands of The Government of PRB, which was firstly in Kowno and later in Riga, they were ignored and by this fact all Belarusian nation, about 15 million, were refused right for self-determination. In reply to ignorance Belarusian Government headed by V. Lastouski wrote the protest in the name of all nation to all countries. And this document will be deeply analyzed in next section.

         Also Polish representatives informed soviets that if they were not interested in inviting Belarusian experts and Belarusian delegation they would prefer not to ask them too.

         A. Czubinski, Polish historian wrote book entitled “Fight for eastern borders of Poland in the years 1918-1921”. The title of this book indeed shows how looked the dispute between Russian and Poland over Belarusian territories what is more how Polish make an issue of Treaty of Riga. The head of Polish government, W. Witos said: “The eastern borders established Treaty of Riga in decisive way, and removes all doubts because it establishes on the basis between two involved countries (Poland and Russia).”[3]

         The attitudes of both delegations were almost the same. In spite of the fact that Polish representatives had two different conceptions, one represented by Roman Dmowski – incorporative and another one represented by Marshal Józef Pilsudski[4], which proposed autonomy for Belarusians in Polish borders. Russian similarly to Poles had one coherent theory of incorporation of Belarusian lands to Soviet Russia.

         Some other politics, from the national camp[5], claimed that there is no such nation like Belarus, and they have no right to build own country, have own government and army justifying it by everlasting right to this land. Poles called these lands “borderland” and Russians called them “Northern Eastern Land”.  Negating of existing of 15 million nation was common between both delegations.

         Eventually after many hours of discussions the Riga Treaty was signed by both sides with satisfaction and happiness. Neither Poles nor Russians were harmed. Only one of Polish politics, Felix Perl said one year after negotiations: “ Eastern border is a result of striking a bargain with Russians…apart from Poles and Russians exist also borderland nations, who have own right, which are damaged by this treaty, and ignored…Belarusians did not stop to exist”.[6]





         Researches in historical library and archives of The Belarusian Democratic Republic,    (published in 1998 in Minsk, New York, Prague and Vilnius) enabled to reach to two primary sources. Both sources will help in answering the research question and give wider spectrum of the then events.

         First source is a postcard[7], published by publishing house “Liberation” in Berlin a year after signing The Treaty of Riga. The postcard portrays a cartoon, which in sarcastic way presents treaty signed in Riga in 1921. Cartoon presents two persons: one of them, on the left side is a stereotypical Pole - nobleman, who wears Polish historical suit, rounded saber (used by polish army) is attached to his belt. The person on the right side is Russian – Bolshevik. As a typical Bolshevik – Revolutionary he wears characteristic cap, and five-angled communist star attached to it. He has also artillery cartridges hung over his shoulders.

         Both figures tear apart the map of Belarusian Democratic Republic between themselves. The author of this cartoon presents in this way the partition of Belarusian lands and territories of BDR.

         On the part torn by Polish nobleman are marked such Belarusian cities as (Hrodna, Vilna, Baranavichy, Pinsk, Bielsk and Slonim). These are cities incorporated by Poland on the basis of The Treaty of Riga, on the basis of border proposed by incorporative plan introduced by S. Grabski – one of the Polish representatives in Riga. These are also Roman Catholic territories, these on which Polish church wanted to carry out strong polonization.

         However, Russian has torn Eastern territories of Belarus (Mensk, Polotsk, Vitebsk, Smalensk, Starodub, Homel, Mahilou, Ragachou, Turau, Slucak). These are lands mostly Orthodox, which were to be russified by Russian Orthodox Church.

         Figures on the cartoon avariciously want to tear apart possibly the biggest part of Belarus. There are also names of bordering countries “Lithuania”, “Ukraine”, which may have symbolic meaning, as these are countries, which recognized Belarusian independence.

         There are two slogans on the cartoon. First says: “Let’s damage dishonorable Treaty of Riga!” which is directed to Belarusian (because written in Belarusian language) to fight for their right for self-determining and to fight against imperialistic conquerors. Second slogan: “Long live free, indivisible People’s Republic of Belarus!” what mean that Belarusian territories cannot be divided to parts as it makes up integrity.

         The source is consisted with materials of the period, because was published just after signing the treaty, to protest and encourage nation to resistance. The value of source can be questioned by some because it may be perceived as a propaganda document. Cartoon was published in Berlin because in already occupied Belarusian territories it would be possible because for the sake of propaganda and politics.

         Postcard was published by Belarusian activists under free will. The fact that it was published for propaganda means that the situation presented on the cartoon can be exaggerated, but we have to remember that such is an aim of every cartoon. Presented situation is supported by many other proofs from that time.

         The second primary source I want t consider is protest of The Government of Belarusian Democratic Republic titled “To all civilized world” published on 25.03.1921.

         From the very beginning it informs that Russian-Soviet Republic and Poland committed serious crime against 16 million nation of Belarusians. Next protest says that these two countries were fighting and plundered for three years this land and eventually tore it into two separate parts.

         “Riga Treaty is a ghastly derision over democratic ideas”. Authors of protest want to draw world attention and to show that country that claims to be democratic (Poland) mocks democratic ideas.

         At the end of protest there are two resolutions:

1.      The peace tearing apart the living body will never be recognized by Belarusian nation.

2.      Belarusian nation fought and will always fight for freedom and independence till the very end.




         At the very beginning after proclamation of independency by Belarusian nation it was recognized by many countries, which saw advantage in rising of Belarus. Some countries (Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) recognized Belarusian borders because they wanted to have their own borders recognized by BDR. Also some countries were favorable to Belarusian Government and recognized its border disinterestedly (Finland, Turkey).

         It is difficult to analyze attitude of Polish politicians toward Belarusian independency. There were many favorable Polish activists who wanted independency of Belarus. There were different reasons of that. Some wanted to have no border with “dangerous” and “unpredictable” soviets and wanted Belarus to be a peculiar buffer country. Others were afraid of incorporating of Belarusian territories as it could have caused disagreements between nations and instability of Poland. However, superpowers preferred to have clear situation in this region and gave more favor to Polish politicians. The European superpowers (France and Great Britain) did not want to arise the same problem as in the Balkans (a lot of small countries constantly in the conflict). 

         From the other hand there were countries directly interested in incorporating of BDR. These countries were obviously Soviet Russia and Poland. Both sides saw advantage in seizing of new territories. Soviets continued Permanent Revolution bringing communist order to the west and east (Belarus, Ukraine). Poland wanted to rebuilt border of Poland before partition in 1772 (what in fact means Belarusian eastern border of Belarus). It would have given them stability and power in this region of Europe.

         As easily can be understood both closest Belarusian neighbors could not come to terms with Belarusian independency. Common business caused both sides to meet and establish good agreement. As evidences show, any presence of Belarusians would be unfavorable to both negotiating sides. Thus it is obvious that Russians and Poles did not take under consideration Belarusian rights.

         However analyzing primary sources it should be admitted that Belarusian activists, politicians and nationalists were extremely against agreement reached in Riga. They were aware of political interests of Russian and Polish elites in incorporating of BDR. Numerous protests and other actions show that The Government of BDR will never reconcile itself to ridicule decisions of Riga Treaty thereby defending of the right for self-determination of the Belarusians.  





         After analysis of sources and evidences it is necessary to state that The Treaty of Riga was undoubtedly a partition of Belarus. Russia and Poland under a pretence of Peace Conference in negotiated division of Belarusian Democratic Republic to almost equal parts thereby negating the existence of Belarusian nation, proclamation of BDR by The National Convention, refusing its independency. Though, both sides knew that Belarusians exist as a nation, have own language, own government own history and want to have independency, officially and knowingly deprived Belarusian nation of this historical chance.



[1] Oleg Łatyszonek, Belorussian politcal elite towards the treaty of Ridga  (The treaty of Riga 1921 after 75 years) (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, Toruń 1998), p. 293,

  Oleg Łatyszonek Belarusian army (Białoruskie Towarzystwo Historyczne, Białystok 1995), p. 8.

[2] Archives of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (Belarusian Institute of Arts and Sciences, Minsk, New York, Prague, Vilnius 1998), p. 1.

[3] W. Witos, Chosen letters and speeches, Lwów 1939, p 185.

[4] Studies edited by Mieczysław Wojciechowski, The treaty of Riga 1921 after 75 years (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, Toruń 1998), p. 46, 60, 73, 108

[5] Studies edited by Mieczysław Wojciechowski, The treaty of Riga 1921 after 75 years (Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, Toruń 1998), p. 60,

Krystyna Gomółka, Między Polską a Rosją (Warszawska Oficyna Wydawnicza “Gryf”, Warszawa 1994), p. 133.

[6] Stematogrraphical report from 223 session of the legislative seym.

[7] Eugeniusz Mironowicz Białoruś (Wydawnictwo TRIO, Warszawa 1999), p. 88.


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