The origins of the Belarusian people extend back in time to the great ancient kingdom of Kievan Rus. During the time in which all of Russia was ruled from what is today the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, there lived three tribes along the upper Dnieper River in what is today western Russia and Belarus: the Dregovich, Radmich, and Krivich. These tribes likely served as political entities formed from the same ethnic group.
Further west, the Yotvingians, a Baltic people, thrived on the left bank of the Nieman River. This ancient people, first mentioned in Greek chronicles during the time of Ptolemy, occupied the middle ground between the Lithuanians and the ancient Prussians (the non-German namesake tribe of what later would become Germany’s most powerful kingdom) in what is today the Hrodna Region. Their eastward migration under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would later result in their merging with the people on the upper Dnieper, and by the 1200s, the characteristically blue-eyed Belarusian people came into existence.
During the centuries under the Lithuanians, Belarusians were known as Litvins (or sometimes as Ruthenians). Essentially, they spoke a Slavic language, but aligned themselves with Lithuania, rather than the emerging Muscovite Grand Duchy. Their bravery was such that by the 17th century they nearly became equal partners with Poland and Lithuania in its great Commonwealth, the Rzeczpospolita. Even today, Belarus’ ties with Lithuania remain the closest of any of the countries that are part of the European Union.
Then came Catherine the Great. Taking advantage of weaknesses in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Tsarevna of Russia coordinated with the Austrians and the German Prussians to partition the weakening state. In three stages, Poland and Lithuania were eliminated as independent countries, and the land that the Litvins lived in became an extension of northwestern Russia. Under Tsar Nicholas I, the Russians attempted to remove both Polish and Lithuanian culture from its territory, and as such the Litvin people became known as White Russians. The name both tied their identity to the region in which they occupied, an area that was so named because it was the only part of Russia not occupied by the Mongols during their 13th century invasion of Kievan Rus, and served to remove their past affiliation with the Lithuanians, whom they were trying to divide and Russify.
Of course, Russification never really took hold in Lithuania; the country was one of the first to declare independence from Moscow when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. It did, however, manage to gain some ground among the newly-designated “White Russians” or “Belarusians”. When Lithuania and the other Baltic States broke off with Russia at the end of World War I, the former Litvins retained White Russia as their national identity, and their briefly independent state was easily subdued by Moscow when the Soviet Union was organized under Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic would remain effectively the northwestern part of a thinly-disguised Russian Empire for another 70 years.
Today, the majority Belarusians (the former Litvins) make up almost 84 percent of the 9.5 million people living in modern independent Belarus, according to official statistics. The second, third, and fourth largest ethnicities are the Russians (at more than 8 percent), the Poles (at more than 3 percent), and the Ukrainians (at almost 2 percent), respectively. Genetically, these three minorities are considered closely related to the majority Belarusians, with Ukrainians being the closest (according to patrilineal ancestry). Because of the legacy of Russification under both Imperial and Soviet Russia, Russian is today the main language in use in Belarus, spoken by some 70 percent of the total population. In the capital and further west, or out in the countryside, Belarusian language takes on a more prominent role. Reportedly, some 26 percent of Belarusian households, most of which are in these sorts of areas, use Belarusian as the language they speak at home.
The majority of Belarusians are Orthodox Christians, but a rather sizeable minority are Roman Catholics (almost 15 percent, according to the church’s numbers). Catholicism represents a legacy of Interwar Poland, which once extended throughout much of Hrodna and Brest regions. Today, the cathedrals for both the Orthodox Exarchate and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese stand within blocks of each other on Minsk’s Trinity Hill.
The fifth largest ethnicity, Jewish, had been considerably larger prior to June 1941. The 0.1 percent that remain represent just a shadow of the vibrant Ashkenazi Jewish culture that once played a major role in defining the culture of Belarus (particularly its western part). Scholars at one time thought these people to be surviving migrants from the ancient Khazar khanate, which after adopting Judaism as the state religion was destroyed by the fledgling Russian state in the 9th century. Modern genetic studies, however, seem to point to a Middle Eastern origin, with a significant Greek component, indicating a possible historic migration out of Judea through Greece to Eastern Europe. Today, the Jewish community in Belarus is actively trying to reorganize, mostly from the reconstructed main synagogue in Minsk. The remaining Belarusian Jews are today working hard to save the legacy of their once considerable contribution to the country made in the last few centuries before the Nazi holocaust. Among the Jewish community’s most famous descendants include former Israeli president Shimon Peres and influential painter Marc Chagall.
Among other ethnic groups found in Belarus, the Armenians and the last of the Lipka Tatars stand out. The latter, many of whom hold strongly to traditional Muslim beliefs, can be found around Lida, Navahrudak, and Ivye in the Hrodna Region. This area of Belarus became the center of their culture shortly after the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, a decisive confrontation they helped with that ended the crusades of the Teutonic Knights against formerly pagan Lithuania (the last medieval country in Europe to convert to Christianity). American actor Charles Bronson is perhaps their most famous representative descendant. The Armenians, meanwhile, arrived more recently as either traders who settled in the country during the Russian Imperial period, or were encouraged by gainful employment to migrate to Minsk under the Soviets. They remain a well-respected community in Belarus’ capital.
One of the biggest annual events for many ethnic communities that live in Belarus is the Festival of Ethnic Cultures that takes place in Hrodna, usually in the week after Victory Day each year. Over 900 communities were represented in 2014, including some 44 diaspora representatives, showcasing the cultural crossroads that is modern Belarus.
Etiquette in Belarus does not differ very much from that found in Russia. This is a cultural legacy of the Soviet Union. Indeed, many Western observers in the past have remarked that visiting Belarus resembles much the same experience as visiting the Soviet Union had some 30 years ago (a somewhat more unfair assessment within the tourist-oriented capital city than out in the countryside).
You should remember a few important things when doing business in Belarus. People do judge you on the basis of how you are dressed, so dress to impress. A smart business suit can make the difference between whether you succeed or fail. You will need to establish a good working relationship with new partners before any significant business can hope to succeed. Trust is difficult to come by, and establishing a personal relationship with the person with whom you are trying to sell makes achieving this easier. This may mean alcohol, or sharing activities outside the office, such as going to a banya. Indeed, it pays to be open to try anything that is offered to you (in moderation). Once you have established a friendship, what you have to say will be viewed with considerably less skepticism (though you’ll likely never be free of the need to work through your partner’s doubts).
People from the West in particular should remember to defer a greater level of respect for people older than you. When meeting such people, use both the first name and middle patronym (a name taken from that person’s father). Failing to do so may be considered a sign of disrespect, even if practically nobody practices this in your own country.
Bear also in mind that for Belarusians the rules for smiling differ from the West. In places like the United States, smiling at someone can be a form of greeting. In Belarus, this is not common. In general, Belarusians will smile at things that please or amuse them rather than at people. Smiling at someone may make a person uncomfortable, thinking that there might be something amiss with an article of clothing, or that they look overly amusing, or otherwise stand out in a crowd. Of course, with increased exposure to Westerners, many Belarusians do become more used to their more casual application of smiles, but realize that smiling at people remains mostly a foreign concept.
Bringing a business card (called a “vizitka”) to any first meeting is a must for anyone doing business or seeking a working relationship with someone in Belarus. Foreigners can print particulars in English on one side, but the other side must have the same information in Russian. Your card generally should be presented at the start of any introduction. When receiving a business card, do read through the card, and do make a show that you are stowing the card in your wallet or other safe location for future use.
As with most anywhere in the world, when in Belarus, criticizing the country you are visiting will often be considered bad form. Although you may regard your surroundings as a step down from home, Belarusians often feel very proud of their country, and in many personal cases they have good reason to be. Alternatively, your host might turn out to be critical or cynical about things in his or her homeland, but you should avoid joining in the criticism where possible. Expressions of personal admiration about your host can be a good way to change the direction of the conversation.
Lastly, Belarus numbers among the countries where people prefer to do business through negotiation. Although most stores, ticket cashiers, etc., operate on the basis of a set-price inventory, outside of those locations, prices are subject to bargaining. As such, when you go into negotiations with your new business partner, keep in mind that the price you open with will be negotiated downward, possibly quite severely. Strategize with that in mind.
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