Based on "Narysy z Historyi Vjalikalitvy-Belarusi" by Ian Stankevich.
There were several words used for referring to Belarusians and Belarus throughout the centuries. Perhaps, the oldest one, which surprisingly survived to the present time, is "Kryvichi". This was the name of one of the earliest Slavic tribes living on the territory of Belarus. In the 12th century its meaning was expanded to denote most of to-be-Belarusian tribes. This trend was still extant in the 13th century but the use was gradually diminishing and eventually came to refer to the people living in a certain part of Belarus, who supposedly were descendants of the original tribe. Yet Latvians(Letts) employed the word up to the 18th century(Krews) to embrace inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania(GDL) so, when the Commonwealth was forcibly disintegrated, they started applying the word to Russia as well.
About "Litva": historically two similar words were in existence -- "Litva"(one -- Licwin) and "Letuva"(one -- Letuvis). The former developed through the 13th century to represent people living in the GDL, the latter was applied to Baltic tribes occupying approximately one fourth of the territory of present-day Lithuania. The word "Litva" also possessed an ethnic meaning since since it was not used for Jews, for instance, living in the GDL. Therefore, during the epoch of Belarusian statehood (13-17 centuries) and later the inhabitants of the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania were called "licwiny". Nonetheless, the word was not employed for Ukranians or Zhmudzians despite their being in the GDL for more than a hundred years.
The word Rus appeared in Eastern Europe with advance of Varyagans(Scandinavians) to the south. "Ruotsi" was a common name of Suomi Finns. Later the word spread to all Finns. Hence, in the 10th century the word was used to describe Scandinavian newcomers in contrast with Slavic people. After a number of Ukrainian tribes(e.g. Palyane) had been conquered by Scandinavians, they adopted the names of their victorers, and eventually word "Rusi" meant mainly inhabitants of Ukraine, which, consequently, was called "Rus". At the same time people living in the lands around Moscow were referred as Maskouci or Maskali. Similar derivatives were common for other principalities. Litwa was NOT included in Rus in the same sense as Zhmudz(present-day Lithuania) was different from Litva.
One of the most important aspects that has led to the current naming conventions is that of religion. As known, in 988 Christianity was introduced by prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus and spread quickly to Litva, Moscovy, etc. Moreover, this religion was labeled as Rusian religion because of its Rusian origination in Slavic lands. This created a phenomenon when people in Litwa and Moscowy were called Russians based on their religious beliefs. These happenings resulted into a paradoxical situation with the written language. Since most writings in that period of time were of religious nature followers of Rusian religion had to "write in Rusian". On the contrary, creation of the strong Lithuanian state induced the use of "Lithuanian" language. For this reason we have "Biblia Ruska" by Fr. Skarina and a number of other books where the language used in the GDL is termed as Rusian. On the other hand, "Litouskaya mova"(Lithuanian language) was also very common expression and is still used by few Belarusians. Ukranians also used the same Rusian literary language but referred to the folk language in the GDL as Lithuanian.
Belays Rus( White Rus ) -- this expression was mainly used to refer to Moscovy after Tatar yoke had ended as well as to the Novgorod principality in the 14th-15th centuries for it had been less dependent on Tatars. The meaning of the word stems from Tatars using word "white" to mean "free", "non-taxable", etc. Then it is clear that this expression could be used in Moscovy for the GDL as having religious connotations; however, it is nowhere to be found within the GDL up to the 17th century. During the war of 1654-1667 between Moscovy and the GDL the tzar Alexei I proclaimed himself "The emperor of Great, Minor, and White Rus". Here we have a precise reference to the lands of the GDL as "Belaya Rus" inspired by etymological and religious reasons. "Belaya"(White) appeared because the lands of the GDL were deemed by Moscowy as occupied(and now "freed"?!) whereas Rus was associated with Rusian church. These naming was enforced by Alexei's decree to guarantee its rapid proliferation. During the next one hundred years the expression was used widely by Moscovians and others. Still it should be emphasized that inside the Commonwealth Rus' and Belaya Rus' had mostly religious meaning.
After the divisions of 1773, 1793, 1795 the GDL part of the Commonwealth was incorporated into Russia(Moskovy); the terms "Litwa" and "Licwiny" were banned from use and replaced officially by "Belarus" and "Belarusi". "Litva" was applied just to Zhmudzian lands. The reaction of original Lithuanians was not uniform. A part of intelligentsia started using the word "Kryvichi" since it had been used for long time to refer to a part of Lithuanian people. Yet, despite all the decrees, the name "Litwa" was very common not only among ordinary people in the former GDL but also in Russia and Poland. What then happened to the name "Belarus" by the end of the 20th century? It almost disappeared! How come the word resurfaced anew?
After annulment of the Uniat church in 1839 use of Lithuanian language was forbidden in schools. After the revolt of 1863-64 even publishing in Lithuanian became impossible. Also, after the uprising of 1831 Nikolai I started using "West Russia" for Litwa, which was superseded in the 1860s by "North-Western Region". The policy of russification promoted by czarism deemed Belarusian inadequate for its purposes and used Russian instead. Partially for this reason and because of the danger to use "Lithuanian" the period of Belarusian national renaissance started with "Nasha Niva" came with name "Belarus". Fr. Bagushevich also used this word in his poem collections ("Belarusian fife"). As a former participant of an anti-regime uprising Bagushevich did not want to attract attention of Russian police by using "Litwa". In such a way the word "Belarus" replaced "Litwa" and was widely used in literature by 1920. However, in the 1920s a trend was developed among the Belarusian intelligentsia to use "Kryvichi" but the movement was nipped in the bud with a wide-scale terror in the 30s, when the word served as one of the labels of "enemies of people". During the 1930s the national intelligentsia in Belarus was virtually annihilated. The word "Belarus" or, even better, "Byelorussia" has stuck and is very likely to be used in the future.
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