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European Kingdoms

Eastern Europe

 

Belarus / Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic

The history of Belarus is tied closely to that of Lithuania and Poland. Formerly known as Byelorussia or Belorussia, its prehistory essentially begins in the seventh millennium BC with the Dnieper-Donets culture and a series of successors. One of the first waves of migrants of the Yamnaya horizon to settle outside of their traditional steppe environment in Europe formed the Corded Ware culture from about 2900 BC. Initially (and in part) this witnessed settlement along the Vistula and up to the Baltic coast to form populations that would later become the basis for Belarussians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Prussians. These populations appear to have included a range of ethnicities, however, rather than being purely Indo-European, making the Corded Ware very much a melting-pot culture.

The proto-Slavs were generally incubated in forest territory well above the northern coast of the Black Sea (largely falling within modern northern Ukraine, plus the southern edge of Russia and modern Belarus), between the rivers Bug and Dnieper (the latter of which runs through Belarus and Kiev before draining into the Black Sea). However, a precise location for the proto-Slavic homeland is little more than conjecture. Prior to Slavic outwards expansion the higher Dnieper basin which encroaches into southern Belarus from Ukraine was occupied by the Dnieper Balts, a theoretical grouping of Eastern Baltic tribes whose existence can be ascertained through hydronyms. Further populations of Balts could be found to the north of this until Slavic expansion absorbed them between the fifth and tenth centuries AD. Roman sources localise the Neuri - more Balts - at the headwaters of the River Dnieper (in Belarus). This region was within a broad band of territory along the northern edge of Scythian-dominated lands during a large part of the first millennium BC. Precise levels of Scythian control here are largely impossible to calculate.

From around 250 BC, Germanic expansion and migration from the southern Baltic coast continued a slow progression into modern Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, principally driven by the Ostrogoths. This eastwards and southwards extension allowed them to dominate the Venedi who already occupied a great swathe of territory between eastern Prussia and modern Kaliningrad to western Belarus and western Ukraine. The Chernyakhiv culture which subsequently formed across southern Belarus, western Ukraine, and in Moldava and Romania was a fusion of previous cultures (including the Zarubintsy) and the newly-arrived Gothic influence.

Various steppe empires subsequently dominated much of Eastern Europe, including those of the Huns and Avars. The Kievan Rus subsequently emerged to dominate the Volhynian territories which included south-western Belarus, but the arrival of the Mongols largely destroyed this state. As it faded, the grand duchy of Lithuania vastly extended the size of its state to the east and south, quickly taking command in Belarusian territories, followed by Polotsk (south-eastern Belarus), Vitebsk, and the Volhynian half of Galicia-Volhynia, before extending to the north coast of the Black Sea, and east to Smolensk. That vast Slavic area of the Lithuanian duchy became known as Ruthenia, from a Latinisation of 'Rus'. 'Black Ruthenia' came to be used for lands inhabited by Balts, and 'White Ruthenia' for the Slavs of Belarus ('belaya', or 'white' Rus - although other origin theories for 'white Rus' are also available). The Slavic ancestors of the Belarussians had already borrowed many words from the Balts they came to dominate, and now the process was renewed from Lithuania's peasant vocabulary. Many of the loan words remain in use today.

In 1397 the principality of Polotsk was abolished and became an administrative division of Lithuania, known as the Polotsk voivodeship. It shared Lithuania's fate as the grand duchy was united within a commonwealth that was led by the kingdom of Poland. This was eventually partitioned into extinction in 1795. Today the city of Polotsk forms part of Belarus. It was during this latter period that Russia began to administer an area of the former commonwealth known as the Pale of Settlement. Initially this was small, but it increased greatly from 1793 after the 'Second Partition' of the former Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. By the mid-nineteenth century it incorporated Belarus (eastern Poland at the time), eastern Latvia, Lithuania, the province of Bessarabia (modern Moldova), and western Ukraine. Having formerly been citizens of the commonwealth, the Jewish population of the 'Pale' was restricted from moving eastwards into Russia proper.

The territory that formed Belarus remained a province of the Russian empire until the collapse of all three of the central and eastern great powers at the end of the First World War. The Polish people united to declare a free and independent Poland on 7 November 1918, incorporating Galicia & Lodomeria and Pomerania into their new state. This, though, was not a stable and secure Poland. It had to fight off German irregular troops in the west, and had to fight for its life against Bolshevik Russian troops in the east during the Russo-Polish War, as it tried to push its borders as far east as historical claims would allow. That push saw it occupy areas of western Ukraine and all of Belarus, which also ended the short-lived independent Belarusian People's Republic. In the end, those borders went too far. Under the terms of the 1921 settlement, White Russia, or Belarus, was partitioned between the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic and Poland.

The first independent Byelorussian flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Karl-Heinz Gabbey, from Getica, Jordanes, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), from Belorussia under Soviet Rule, 1917-1957, Ivan S Lubachko (University Press of Kentucky, 1972), from God's Playground, Norman Davies (Columbia University Press, 1979), from Confession, Ethnicity, and Language in Belarus in the 20th Century, H Bieder (Zeitschrift für Slawistik 45, 2000, in German), and from External Links: The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and The White Ruthenian Problem in Eastern Europe, Jozef Lichtensztul & Joseph Lichtensztul (Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, Vol 2, No 4 (July 1944), pp 1170-1197, via JSTOR).)

1918

The Second Polish Republic (or Second Commonwealth) is formed on 7 November with the declaration of a free and independent state in the face of the collapsing great powers that had previously occupied it between them. Austria, Germany, and Russia are in no state to argue. Polish general and nationalist figure Józef Piłsudski is asked to take control of the new state, which also includes Galicia & Lodomeria (now almost entirely within Ukraine, except for its westernmost edge).

Belarus experiences its first attempt at creating its own state out of the chaos, known alternatively as the Belarusian People's Republic (BPR), or the Belarusian National Republic (BNR). Historically it is also referred to as the White Ruthenian Democratic Republic,with a flag of white-red-white being adopted (inherited from the former Polish Commonwealth). The Lemko-Rusyn republic that is formed in western Galicia tries to link up with Russia, while eastern parts of Galicia are claimed as the West Ukrainian People's Republic, and the competing claims lead to war between Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.

Polish-Lithuanian War
A parade of Polish uhlans at Sejny, a town in Poland today, but initially Lithuanian (after 1915), which swapped hands several times in the Polish-Lithuanian War of 1919-1920

1919

The Russo-Polish War is ignited between Poland and Ukraine on one side and Soviet Russia on the other over the creation of the Second Polish Republic and the somewhat uncertain borders on its eastern flank. Józef Piłsudski considers this the best opportunity to restore Poland to its former greatness, and he leads his troops into both Lithuania's Vilnius (part of the fairly brief Polish-Lithuanian War) and Kiev, occupying a welcoming western Ukraine (part of the former Polish Commonwealth). The latter move also sees Byelorussia occupied and its independent republican government extinguished.

1920 - 1921

The short-lived Galitzian Socialist Soviet Republic is declared at Ternopol in eastern Galicia, and the Polish-Lithuanian War is briefly fought over the control of Vilnius. With Poland the victor, the short-lived 'Republic of Central Lithuania' is formed (later to be transformed into a Polish voivodeship). Red Army pressure causes the Poles to fall back temporarily, but Piłsudski leads his forces to a notable victory against the Russians at the Battle of Warsaw.

As the Poles again advance, a ceasefire is agreed with the Soviets in October 1920 and Vilnius is regained (to be held until 1939). The Peace of Riga is signed on 18 March 1921. This formally divides disputed territory between the Soviets and Poles, with the area that forms modern Belarus effectively split in half. Galicia remains within the new Poland (modern western Ukraine), including the now-suppressed Lemko-Rusyn republic, and the easternmost parts of Lithuania also remain part of Poland.

1927

With western Byelorussia still within the Second Polish Republic, an early phase of liberalisation is turning towards repression and Polish nationalism, while the very same process is also taking place in Germany, albeit with more dramatic results. Belarussians and Ukrainians have generally been refused the right of undertaking any free national development. A Belarusian organisation by the name of the Belarusian Peasants' and Workers' Union is now banned, and opposition to the Polish government is met by state repression. However, Belarussians at this time are much less politically aware and active than their Ukrainian neighbours, with the result that they suffer fewer repressions.

Gubernatorskaya Street in Minsk
Gubernatorskaya Street in Minsk in the years immediately before the First World War shows a fairly well-off class of shopper and a very clean and tidy street scene, much of which was not to survive the Second World War

1935

With Józef Piłsudski now dead the minority populations within the Second Polish Republic are hit by a fresh wave of repression. Large numbers of Orthodox churches and Belarusian schools are closed, the use of the Belarusian language is discouraged, and the Belarusian leadership is sent to the prison at Bereza Kartuska.

1939 - 1940

The Nazi German invasion of Poland on 1 September is the trigger for the Second World War. With both France and Britain pledged to support Poland, both countries have no option but to declare war on 3 September, although nothing can be done to alleviate Poland's suffering at the hands of the invaders. As part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets invade Poland from the east on 17 September, and they annexe western Ukraine and west Byelorussia on 28 September.

On 6 October the last Polish troops surrender, but thousands of Poles both military and civilian escape the country to form Polish units with the Allied powers, including Polish Navy vessels that serve in the Atlantic and fighter pilots who help defend Britain during the Battle of Britain. The German-occupied zone of Poland, which includes Danzig, Pozen, Silesia, and West Prussia, is partly annexed to Germany. Six days later, the remaining sections of Poland are formed into the 'General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories' which, on 31 July 1940, is re-titled the General Government. The Soviet section, which includes Byelorussia, is organised as the Byelorussian SSR.

1941

Following its invasion of Soviet-controlled lands, Germany takes over the Soviet-occupied areas of Poland on 21 June 1941. These are divided between the General Government and the Reichskommissariat Ostland and Ukraine. On 1 August, eastern Galicia is added to the General Government. Much of Minsk is destroyed by the subsequent warfare between Germany and the USSR.

1945

The last German troops surrender on 17 January in the face of the relentless Soviet advance. The conclusion of the Second World War sees Poland benefit from the addition of the southern half of the former East Prussia to its territory, including the regions of Pomesania, Culm, and Warmia, once the seats of medieval bishops. The northern half of East Prussia is annexed to Russia as the district of Kaliningrad. Poland's western border is shifted further west, to the Oder-Neisse line, but it loses a vast swathe of eastern territory to Byelorussia, most of Galicia to Ukraine, and Vilnius to Lithuania.

Berlin 1945
Poet Yevgeny Dolmatovski recites his works on Berlin's Pariser Platz just a few days after the German surrender - a remarkable poetry recital with the bullet-riddled Brandenburg Gate flanked by ruins and two tank barrels hovering above the heads of soldiers

As a result, Poland's total territory falls by twenty per cent, but Byelorussia itself has been devastated by the brutal warfare of the Eastern Front. Minsk has been all but levelled, and the country's mixed population has suffered a casualty rate of about twenty-five percent of its former total, with the Jewish remnants of the former Pale of Settlement have suffered an unrecoverable loss of numbers. It takes almost thirty years for the population figure to recover.

1955

The USSR forms the Warsaw Pact in direct response to the admission of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) into Nato whilst itself being barred from joining. The states involved in the founding of this eastern alliance are Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Russia. Byelorussia, meanwhile, is undergoing a process of Stalinisation which involves the strict imposition of Russian language, and a Russian influx of workers and key government personnel designed mainly to cut off any possible western influence.

1986

On 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine suffers a catastrophic meltdown. The disaster immediately rings alarm bells around the world but the Soviet government attempts to invoke a cover-up. About eight per cent of Ukraine's territory is contaminated by the resultant radiation cloud, while the majority of the fallout takes place over neighbouring Belarus. Millions suffer as a result, not least those closest to the explosion who are quickly and painfully killed by radiation sickness.

1990

On 11 March 1990, Lithuania becomes the first Soviet republic to declare its renewed independence. The following year the declaration becomes fact as Poland, Lithuania and Byelorussia finally regain independence with the fall of the Soviet Union. Former East Prussia, renamed Kaliningrad, remains directly part of Russia, and is now an isolated coastal enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania.

Belarussian independence in 1990
The Chernobyl disaster and the subsequent attempted cover-up by the Soviet authorities was the spark that brought down the already-fragile USSR, allowing Belarus amongst many other subject territories to gain its independence

1991

Thanks to behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the newly-elected president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, on Christmas Day 1991 Communist USSR President Gorbachev announces the termination of the Soviet Communist state. The Soviet republics become independent sovereign states (if they had not already become so since 1989 - Belarus included), including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, North Ossetia, Romania, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Modern Belarus
AD 1991 - Present Day

The republic of Belarus (formerly Byelorussia or Belorussia, both officially retired in 1993) is a landlocked state that is located in Eastern Europe, with its capital in the largest of its cities - the city of Minsk that largely had to be rebuilt after the war. It is neighboured to the west by the country that dominated it for much of its existence as a recognisable region or state - Russia - while Ukraine is to its south, Poland to its west, and Lithuania and Latvia to its north. In terms of size it is roughly half as big as Ukraine, and roughly comparable to Romania.

The dominant culture in modern Belarus is Slavic, but its heritage includes various influences - some stronger than others - which include Neolithic foragers, proto-Indo-European cattle-herders, Balts, Venedi, Ostrogoths, Avars, and Slavs. The Kievan Rus dominated from about the ninth century AD, followed by the Mongols. Finally, as they faded, the history of Belarus was tied for about four hundred years to that of the grand duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Domination by the Russian empire followed this golden period and, by the mid-nineteenth century, its region of Belarus was still technically part of eastern Poland. Belarus remained a province of the Russian empire until the collapse of all three of the central and eastern great powers at the end of the First World War. Then Poland declared its independence in 1918, trying to extend its eastern border as far east as historical claims would allow. In the end, those borders went too far. Under the terms of the 1921 settlement, White Russia, or Belarus, was partitioned between the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic and Poland.

On 11 March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its renewed independence from the decaying Soviet Union. The following year the declaration became fact as Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus finally regained their independence. Thanks to behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the newly-elected president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, on Christmas Day 1991 Communist USSR President Gorbachev announced the termination of the Soviet Communist state. The Soviet republics become independent sovereign states (if they had not already become so since 1989), including Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, North Ossetia, Poland, Romania, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Since the country gained independence, the first elected president of Belarus - Alexander Lukashenko - has solidified his hold on office as a latter-day dictator. Known irreverently as 'Europe's last dictator', his administration has ensured authoritarian rule, a poor human rights record, a degree of continuance of Soviet-style state ownership, and the continuation of the death penalty, the only European state to do so. The country's formation out of the chaos of the Russo-Polish War and the Polish-Lithuanian War gave it a population which is dominated by indigenous Belarussians, with large Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian minorities, and various smaller regional groups. Soviet era Stalinisation increased the percentage of Russians in the country. Relations with post-Soviet Russia were initially close, but Lukashenko has seemed determined to follow his own path in the twenty-first century. This has led to tensions between Minsk and Moscow, but Russian support was still provided to shore up Lukashenko's destabilised rule in 2020.

The post-Soviet independent flag of Belarus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Karl-Heinz Gabbey, from Getica, Jordanes, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), and from External Links: The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and Belarus: inside Europe's last dictatorship (The Guardian), and CIA World Factbook, and Country Studies: Belarus, and Women unite in maverick attempt to unseat Lukashenko in Belarus (The Guardian), and Calls for EU to impose sanctions on Belarus after disputed elections (The Guardian).)

1991 - 1994

In 1991 the supreme Soviet of Belorussia begins the process of drawing up a new constitution now that it has gained independence from the former Soviet Union. The final draft is submitted to the supreme council on 15 March 1994, creating the office of president of Belarus. It contains influences by western governments and by experiences during Soviet occupation, and specifies a five year single term and a maximum of two terms for the president. The winner of the second round of voting during the subsequent elections is Alexander Lukashenko, a former state farm director and current deputy director of the supreme council.

Alexander Lukashenko in 2020
Alexander Lukashenko in 2020, by which time he had maintained his grip on power for twenty-six years, although the question at the time was regarding how much longer he could manage it

1994 - Present

Alexander Lukashenko

Elected president. Became dictator.

1996

A referendum is held in the country, with the president framing a series of proposals in the form of questions for the electorate. The most important proposals are accepted, with the result that the country's national day is changed to 3 July, and the constitution is amended to give the president more powers. Elections that are due in 1999 are pushed back to 2001. The referendum is condemned by external bodies as failing to meet democratic standards, using many examples of state pressure on voters to ensure the 'right' result. The same tactics are used in each subsequent election to ensure that Lukashenko remains in office.

1999 - 2000

Belarus has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. On 8 December 1999, Belarus and Russia sign a treaty to ensure two-state union between the countries, envisioning greater political and economic integration. Although Belarus agrees to a framework within which the accord will be carried out, serious implementation does not take place.

In the same year of 1999, Gennady Karpenko, the leader of the opposition to Lukashenko, dies, either of a cerebral haemorrhage or of poison. Jury Zacharanka, former minister of internal affairs who has joined the opposition, disappeares in the same year. So does Victor Gonchar, opposition politician, and Anatol Krasouski, a businessman who was with him that evening. A year later, cameraman Dmitriy Zavadski disappears. They are all presumed dead, victims of Lukashenko's regime.

2004

Along with a large selection of former Soviet-occupied Eastern European states - which fails to include Belarus - Poland becomes a member of the European Union. The relaxation of borders across Europe leads initially to a large number of people migrating to the west, and even Belarus is not immune from this phenomenon.

Aerial view of south-western Minsk in 2016, with the Palace of Sport and buildings old and new visible
This aerial view of south-western Minsk in 2016 shows a good deal of post-war concrete construction in the distance, but the the Palace of Sport in the foreground offers an example of architectural evolution in Belarus

In October of the same year, and facing the prospect of having to step down in 2006 as his two (extended) terms of office are concluded, Lukashenko holds a referendum on the elimination of those presidential term limits, winning with an approval figure of 79.42%. Again, external bodies state that the referendum falls far short of international standards.

2020

The usual pattern of deeply flawed elections has continued to ratify Lukashenko's stay in office, but the 2020 elections are seemingly the most highly-rigged yet. Official results state that Lukashenko wins 80.23% of the vote, enabling him to claim a sixth term in office. His main rival, the highly popular Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who is a stand-in candidate for her jailed husband, officially takes 9.9% of the vote. She has already taken her family out of the country after facing threats and intimidation, but in the days following the election, when vast numbers of angered Belarussians are out on the streets in protest at the rigged elections, she is forced to seek asylum in Lithuania.