Information on History
Human settlement in Belarus started in Mid Palaeolithic (100 000 – 40 000 years BC), the first permanent settlements emerged about 27 – 24 000 years ago. In the 7th – 9th centuries AD Belarus was inhabited by the early Slavic tribes, the Dregovichi, Radimichi and Krivichi that had formed the first local principalities, such as those of Polotsk, Turov and Smolensk. The city of Polotsk has been known since 862 AD. The earliest-mentioned prince who ruled there in the late 10th century was Rogvolod. The principality of Polotsk flourished in the 11th century under Vseslav Tsharodey.
The principalities of Polotsk and Turov, alongside with other regions, came under the general suzerainty of Kievan Rus but later broke up into smaller territories as a result of feudal disintegration. In the 10th – 12th centuries feudalism began to shape, which at the earliest stage was combined with a communal order of life.
In the late 10th century Christianity in the form of the Eastern-rite church began to spread over Belorussian region, and this had a positive impact on the development of culture, bringing stone architecture, painting and literature into being.
In 1050-ies the first monument of architecture in the country – St. Sophia’s Cathedral – was built. In 1161 a craftsman and goldsmith Lazar Bogsha designed a unique cross for the distinguished enlightener St. Yefrossinia of Polotsk. This cross is considered to be one of the finest works of East Slavic craft. A prominent exponent of the art of ecclesiastical oratory was Cyril, bishop of Turov, who wrote the so-called “Words”, i.e. sermons. One of the oldest surviving manuscripts is the Turov Gospel, copied in the 11th century. The Belorussian language began to take shape in the first half of the 13th century.
In the early 13th century the threat of the crusaders and the Tatar Mongols, who in 1230–40ies subdued the eastern and southern parts of the Kievan Rus, caused Belorussian principalities to participate in the creation of the great duchy of Lithuania. Prince Mindovg came to power and in 1253 was invested as the king. First the capital of the duchy was in Novogorodok (today’s Novogrudok) and since 1323 in Vilno (today’s Vilnius). Over the 13th and 14th centuries conquests, political treaties and dynastic marriages contributed to the expansion of the grand duchy which gradually subdued all Belorussian lands as well as part of Ukrainian and Russian ones. The administrative structure, social conditions and cultural development of the duchy were shaped primarily by its Slavic population. The official language since the mid 14th and up to the late 17th century was Old Belorussian.
In 1385 the grand duke Jogaila (1377 – 1392) and the Polish ruling house signed up the Union of Krev which made Jogaila king of Poland. Jogaila was obliged to join his lands to Poland and to convert pageant Lithuanians to Roman Catholicism which gave them special privileges. This caused tension between the Orthodox and Catholic population as well as the discontent of the adherents of entire political independence. The latter were led by Jogailo’s cousin Vitovt (or Vitautas), who, supported by the crusaders, in 1392 restored political independence of the grand duchy and became the Lithuanian grand duke. Under his rule the state reached the height of its power. Vitovt made every effort to maintain his influence by carrying out domestic reforms that resulted in increased centralism. His consistently independent foreign policy was aimed, in particular, at resisting the crusaders and encompassing new eastern lands and he also made diplomatic attempts to acquire the royal title. This allowed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to widely expand and gain international recognition. The battle of Grunwald in 1410, in which the Teuton order was defeated by the joint effort of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was of great significance to further consolidation of the state.
Vitovt’s policy was continued by his successor Svidrigailo. Kazimir Jagiellon (1440 – 1492) was elected King of Poland in 1447 and restored the dynastical union between the grand duchy and Poland. In 1468 Kazimir passed the so-called “Sudebnik” – the first codified set of state laws. The official head of state was the grand duke while separate principalities were ruled by princes and major feudals subordinate to him. At that time the Privy Council – the Rada– was appointed. At first it was a consultative body and in the late 15th century it became the supreme authority. The combining of the responsibilities of the king with those of the grand duke in hands of one person resulted in the decline of the external political activity of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in the loss of the initiative in the process of uniting the east Slavic lands. The latter were encompassed by the Muscovy in the late 15th century which soon started to claim its right to control all the lands of the former Kievan Rus. During the 15th and early 16th centuries as a result of a continual military struggle a number of easternmost lands, including Belorussian ones, were lost to the Moscow principality. Some of those lands were returned in 1534 – 1537.
In the 16th the state system of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania acquired a definite shape. Its foundations were codified in three sets of laws, known as the Lithuanian Statutes issued in 1529, 1566 and 1588. The supreme power was administered by the grand duke who was designated head of state and the Rada which comprised the aristocracy. The territory was subdivided into larger and smaller provinces – voyevodstvo and povet. There was a also body of feudal representatives – the Sejm – which comprised delegates of the nobility elected by their provincial diets (the sejmiki).
The struggle for influence over the eastern part of the Baltic region led to the Livonian War between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Muscovy which broke out in 1558. The defeats of the army of the grand duchy and the loss of Polotsk resulted in a closer military and other alliance with Poland. The Union of Lublin (1569) made the Polish kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania a single federated state – Rzech Pospolita – ruled by a king and the Sejm. The grand duchy retained its own government, finances, army and State Emblem. The Union allowed the new state to successfully end the war, return the territories that had been lost during the latter as well as to establish its firm control over Livonia. In the course of a new war with Russia at the beginning of the 17th century its control over the territories that had been lost to Russia in the early 16th century and over the city of Smolensk was reestablished.
Since the early 16th century a new agrarian reform had been actively promoted. The plan was instituted in 1557. A growing demand for agricultural products in western Europe made the local feudals adopt the new system on their estates. The vast lands of the landlords were worked by peasants who were ultimately reduced to full serfdom by the Statute in 1588. At that time cities which had enjoyed an autonomous municipal administration since the late 14th century according to the Margdeburg Law, started to develop intensively as well as crafts in them. Guild cooperation began to get established.
In the 16th century the Reformation movement brought Lutheran, Calvinist and other Protestant trends to Belarus. There was a fairly long period of religious tolerance which was followed by Counter-Reformation in the late 16th century. A compromise between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania resulted in the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596 that acknowledged papal supremacy over the Orthodox church which accepted Catholic doctrines but retained its rites, traditions and organization. The advancement of the new Eastern rite church encountered resistance on behalf of the Orthodox and this, together with poor economic conditions in which the peasantry and urban masses appeared, gave rise to anti-feudal revolts.
Russia took advantage of the difficulties that Rzech Pospolita was going through and started a new war on the Polish territory (1654 – 1667), annexing much of Belorussian lands. The war caused a grave economic and demographic crisis. The population of Belarus reduced by half, the development of cities was stultified while Polinization expanded, encompassing wide circles of nobility and burghers. The growing independence of the nobility who possessed an excessive amount of privileges stirred up political instability.
Belarus suffered great damage as a result of the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721) between Sweden, Russia and Rzech Pospolita. The hostilities took place on its soil and caused considerable destructions. The war led to a new economic crisis that the country managed to overcome by the mid 18th century only. At that time the economic conditions on Belorussian lands gradually improved and capitalist tendencies emerged.
The anarchy that reigned in Rzech Pospolita as well as the growing influence of the neighbouring states caused a long-lasting political crisis with serious consequences. The last Polish king and the grand duke of Lithuania Stanislav August Poniatovsky (1764 – 1795) strived to maintain the central power but encountered strong resistance on behalf of the opposition that sought support from foreign states. Taking advantage of this and appealing to the social inequality of the Orthodox and the Protestants, unlike the Roman Catholics, the three states: Russia, Prussia and Austria organized the First Partition of Poland in 1772 by which the Russian empire acquired the eastern portion of present-day Belarus.
On the 3rd of May 1791 the Four-Years Sejm (1788 – 1792) adopted the Constitution that maintained the central power, gave more rights to petty bourgouise and established state supervision over the serf peasantry. By the Second Partition of Poland (1793) Russia got the central part of Belarus. The growth of patriotism in the society led to a rebellion headed by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, which was ultimately suppressed by the Russian troops. By the Third Partition of Poland in 1795 Russia acquired the western portion of Belarus while Rzech Pospolita ceased to exist as a state. The area of present-day Belarus was divided administratively in accordance with the pattern existing in Russia. Russian taxes and obligations were introduced as well.
During the war against the aggression of the Napoleon France Belarus was the main theatre of operation and consequently suffered tremendous material losses, its population reduced in number considerably.
After the war of 1812 democratic ideas began to spread. In 1830 – 1831 a national liberation rebellion broke out, aimed at the restoration of Rzech Pospolita and the reinstation of its boundaries along the lines of 1772. The suppression of the rebellion was followed by the so-called “reexamination of shliakhta” (the lower nobility), i.e. the inspection of the papers that verified the noble origin. Catholic churches, monasteries and nunneries were closed, the estates of the participants confiscated. The university of Vilnius was closed and effect of the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of 1588 was put an end to.
In 1861 an agrarian reform was carried out that abolished serfdom in Russia including its northwest part (the term was used at that period in relation to the Belorussian territory).
In 1863 – 1864 a new rebellion against tsardom and for the national liberation broke out in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. In Belarus it was headed by Kastus Kalinovsky. His stood up for transferring all land to the peasants as well as for the political sovereignity of Belarus and Lithuania. In 1862 – 1863 the first underground newspaper “Muzhytskaya Pravda” (“The Peasant’s Right”) was issued. After the rebellion was put down new suppressive edicts were passed that remained in effect up to the early 20th century.
In the first half of 1880s Belorussian students of St-Petersburgh institutions of higher learning organized a revolutionary circle “Gomon” (Hubub, or Talk). They issued a newspaper under the same title where they specified and substantiated the idea of “autonomy for Belorussian people in the family of other nations in Russia”, claimed the uniqueness of the Belorussian language and the necessity to develop its national literature and culture.
A new uprise of the democratic and national liberation trends in the late 19th and early 20th century encouraged the revival of Belorussian culture and the political self-determination of Belarus. In 1903 the first political party in Belarus –Belorussian Socialist Gromada – (the Belorussian Socialist Community) was formed. It stood up for the overthrow of tsardom, for the national identity and cultural autonomy of peoples.
At the beginning of the 20th century revolutionary revolts of the working class and peasants made Russia embark on an new agrarian reform of the “allotment land” system which demolished the peasant commune and transferred all land into individual peasant possession. Those peasants who had no or very little land started emigrating to Siberia. In 1907 – 1914 more than 335, 000 people left Belarus.
During World War II in 1914 – 1918 heavy fighting took place on Belorussian soil. In 1915 western Belarus was occupied by the German troops. After the February Revolution of 1917 the Soviets of working-class, peasant and soldiers’ delegates were appointed. These Soviets were dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and members of Bund. The Congress of Belorussian nationalist organizations that took place on March, 7 – 9, 1917 adopted a resolution that Belarus should acquire national autonomy within Russia. After the victory of the October Socialist Revolution Soviet power was declared in Minsk on November, 8, 1917. The Bolsheviks came to power in Belarus. In December 1917 they violently broke up the All-Belorussian congress that favoured the formation of a Belorussian capitalist state. In February and March, 1918 the German troops occupied most of Belarus. While the country was still under German control, a number of delegates of the All-Belorussian congress and representatives of political parties declared an independent Belorussian Democratic Republic on March, 23, 1918. On Jan. 1, 1919 the Bolsheviks announced the formation of The Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in Smolensk. The provisional Soviet government of Belarus issued a manifesto which declared the Belorussian S.S.R. with a capital in Minsk. On Feb., 27, 1919 The Belorussian S.S.R. and the Lithuanian S.S.R. were united into The Lithuanian-Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. In April 1920 during the war between Russia and Poland the Polish troops seized much of Belarus. In June 1920 The Red Army reinstated the Soviet power in the country. On July, 31, 1920 The B.S.S.R. was declared another time, now uniting 6 regions of the Minsk province. By the Treaty of Riga (signed in 1921) western Belarus was surrendered to Poland. Belarus was one of the founding republics of the U.S.S.R., which was established on December, 30, 1922. In 1924 and 1926 Vitebsk and Gomel provinces were transferred to Belarus. In the 1920 – 30s mass collectivisation and industrialization took place. Purges of the 1930s were a terrible ordeal. At the beginning of World War II in September 1939 The Red Army liberated Western Belorussian territory that was reinstated as part of the Belorussian S.S.R.
In the pre-war period around 1000 new plants and factories were built and over 900 reconstructed. The industrial development rate in Belarus was the highest in the U.S.S.R. Science developed as well as national art and culture. However, the political purges strongly affected all social layers.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 Belorussian territory was occupied in 2 months. Around 400,000 people took active part in the partisan resistance and 400,000 were in its reserve. Underground Communist party groups, patriotic and anti-fascist organizations were actively involved in the struggle against the invaders. Under the pretext of fighting against partisans the Nazi carried out 140 punitive expeditions in the course of which hundreds of villages were burnt, often together with their inhabitants. The Khatyn memorial, which was built in Logoisk region on the spot where a village had been burnt together with its dwellers, is dedicated to the memory of all victims of Fascism.
In June and July 1944 the Soviet troops liberated Belarus. World War II devastated the republic: every fourth person died, cities were ruined and industries wiped out, over 9,000 villages were burnt. About 380,000 people were forcibly deported to Germany.
All the Soviet republics participated in the restoration of Belorussian economy.
Recognizing the contribution of the Belorussian nation to the rout of the Nazi and the tremendous losses that Belarus suffered during this struggle the Belorussian S.S.R. was given a seat in its own right in the United Nations.
In conformity with a treaty between the U.S.S.R. and Poland 17 regions of Belostok and 3 regions of Brest province were transferred to Poland. By the late 1970s Belarus, formerly predominately agrarian, had turned into an industrial and agrarian republic, which effectively cooperated in many aspects with the republics of the Soviet Union and the Socialist community states.
On July, 27, 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the B.S.S.R. adopted the Declaration of sovereignty. In August, 1991 this Declaration acquired the status of a constitutional law. On September, 19, 1991 the Belorussian S.S.R. changed its name to the Republic of Belarus. In December 1991 heads of states and governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed an act denouncing the Treaty of 1922, which had established the U.S.S.R. The latter was dissolved. The Republic of Belarus became and independent sovereign state.
On March, 15, 1994 the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus adopted a new Constitution, which declared Belarus a unitary democratic state governed by law.
On July, 10, 1994 Alexander Lukashenko was elected the first President of the Republic of Belarus.
In conformity with the results of the referendum of Nov, 24, 1996 a new edition of the Constitution with changes and additions was adopted.
In March, 1996 the Republic of Belarus signed an agreement which allowed closer economic cooperation as well as declared the formation of the common customs territory with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation. In April, 1996 Belarus signed a treaty with the Russian Federation, which declared the formation of the Union State.
On October, 10, 2000 heads of the member states of the Customs Union signed a Treaty, which established the Eurasian Economic Community. This organization was established to facilitate the formation of the Customs union and the common economic territory.
Belarus celebrates the Independence Day as a national holiday on July, 3.