History of Belarus

Belarus finds its place at the strategic, historic and geopolitical crossroads of Europe. It is the country between East and West, the Baltics and the Black sea, “the Varangians and the Greeks”, it is a path of huge military conquests, major transport lines and deep versatile cultural roots. And now let’s dwell on the following thing: how Belarusian history evolved century after century.

Belarus in prehistoric times

Ancient history of Belarus started 100,000-35,000 years ago, when the first settlement were made. Archaeologists found tools near Abidavichy and Svyatilovichy villages (Mahilioŭ and Homieĺ regions). Some major sites date back to the Palaeolithic period (ancient relics have been discovered in the Mahilioŭ, Hrodna and Minsk regions).

First settlements were made on banks of multiple rivers and lakes. Local people were hunting, fishing and gathering and as early as in the late Stone Age they managed to switch from gathering to agriculture and cattle breeding. Such crafts as weaving and ceramics were developing.

In the VI-VII centuries A.C. Slavic tribes of the Krivichi, the Dregoviches and the Radimichi moved to the territory of modern Belarus, assimilating the Baltic tribes.

First Belarusian States of the Early Middle Ages

Polack is the first city in Belarusian history mentioned in chronicles. The city prospered due to the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks. And thus, the foundations of Belarusian statehood find roots in the Xth century, when Polack turned into an independent state – the Principality of Polack. It was baptized about 1000 and was known for its laws, education (Eufrasinia Polackaya), architecture (one of the three Saint Sophia Cathedrals was built here), art, etc.

Under the rule of Usiaslaŭ Czaradzei the Principality saw its greatest might. After his death it covered almost half the territory of present Belarus and then was divided between his sons into several principalities: Minskae, Viciebskae, Druckae, Iziaslaŭskae, Lahoyskae, Stryrzeŭskae and Garadockae Principalities, which remained the dominating force in the history of the region till the 13th century.
Moreover, in the same period of time there was another prominent state in Belarus – The Duchy of Turov and Pinsk (south of the country). Famous enlightener Kiryla Turaŭski was born here.


The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Golden Age

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogotia was one the most powerful states in Medieval Europe. It stretched from the Baltics to the Black Sea and spin Belarus, Lithuania, the Kiev, Chernigov and Volyn areas (Ukraine) and western Russia. The Dutchy began its rise due to Mindoŭg who was crowned Navahrudak in 1253.

Belarusian nationality starts with this state as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania covered all the lands of the modern state, which served as a cultural foundation. XVth century is known as “the Golden Age” in the history of Belarus. The Duchy represented an advanced European state with multi-level structure of authority (Grand Prince, Marszalki, Chancellors, Hetman, etc.). The state managed to win the battle of Grunwald (1410), after which the wars with the Teutonic Order finished. It was the time of culture and education, a lot of castles and palaces were built, the Bible was translated by Francysk Skaryna (1517 – 1519), the Statut of 1588 of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was published (written in the Belarusian language).


Rzecz Pospolita and Nobles’ Democracy

In 1569 the Union of Lublin between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland was signed in order to fight back the Moscow expansion. The Duchy and the Crown formed a new federative state on equal terms – Rzecz Pospolita. Thus another period in Belarusian history began.

Though the XVIth century was known as the time of religious freedom (unlike religious wars in Europe), the next century was marked by endless bloody wars: with Moskovia, Sweeden, the Ottoman Empire, etc. The central authority was becoming weaker, while the gentry was gaining more and more freedom (the so called “Golden Freedoms” or “Nobles’ Democracy”). Finally, after a century of anarchy, a civil war, despite the Kościuszko Uprising (1794), the country was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia in the framework of three Partitions (1772, 1793, 1795).

Belarus as part of the Russian Empire

Because of the division of Rzecz Pospolita Belarusian history became linked to the one of the Russian Empire for almost two centuries. There was a number of attempts to regain freedom: during Napoleonic wars (1812), Polish Revolt (1830 – 1831), Great Rebellion headed by Kastus’ Kalinoŭski (1863 – 1864). As a result Belarusian territories were subjected to the policy of russification. Nevertheless, the 19th century is the time in the history of Belarus when intellectual and artistic elite began to form, starting national and cultural revival.

Difficult XXth century

The beginning of the century was marked by World War 1 (1914 – 1918) and the Revolution in Russia (1917 – 1919). Belarusian lands served a battlefield between German and Russian armies. Year 1917 is known primarily for the Revolution, when in March Tsar Nicholas II was dethroned and in November Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. As a result of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (3.03.1918) Belarusian territories were released from German occupation. And then on the 25th of March 1918 the Belarusian People’s Republic declared independence. However, as early as the 1st January 1919 there was created another country – the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus a new period started.

The territory of Belarus was divided and the western part was annexed to Poland according to the Riga Peace Treaty (1921). From 1921 to 1941 Belarusian SSR followed Soviet economic policy (including NEP and collective farming), while the western part was subjected to Polish influence. This period is also one of the darkest pages in Belarusian history and heritage as the country suffered greatly because of the infamous political repression campaign the Great Purge (more than 86.000 representatives of Belarusian intellectual and artistic elite were oppressed and over 28.000 were sentenced to death).

World War II began on the 17th September 1939 and the Red Army almost immediately invaded West Belarus. On the 22nd of June 1941 Belarusian SSR was involved into the Great Patriotic War. By September 1941 all the territory was occupied by the German army. Terror, mass executions, ghettos – the Belarusians met all the horrors of the war. In the end of the first year of the World War II partisan movement began in Belarus and between 1943 – 1944 it became the biggest resistance movement in Europe. Finally in June-July operation Bagration marked the liberation of Belarus from fascist invaders (Minsk was liberated on the 3rd of July). The territory of the country was in ruins. In February 1945 Belarusian SSR and West Belarus reunited.

Right after the war the Belarusians started the reconstruction. In 1945 Belarus became a member of the Organization of the United Nations due to the impact in the wartime. In April 1986 another sorrowful accident occurred – Chernobyl Nuclear reactor disaster, which caused huge ecological harm to Belarus.

Modern history of Belarus

On the 25th of August 1991 the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was adopted, which was a step towards Belarusian independence. The official name – the Republic of Belarus – was proclaimed in September 1991. And at last, on the 8th of December 1991 the USSR was dissolved.

Year 1994 is known in the history of Belarus as the year the new Constitution was adopted and the first presidential election was held. Alexander Lukashenko became the first President of the Republic of Belarus. New State Emblem and State flag was approved in 1995.

Nowadays Belarus is moving towards integration with Russian and Kazakhstan, that is why after several negotiations and legal acts the Single Economic Space between these states was established in 2012 (with Armenia joining it in 2015).

The history of Belarus, which is one of the states in the centre of Europe, counts thousands of years. It was integrated in the common course of the history of the latter but managed to develop some regional traits and peculiarities, which are worth meticulous study.

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