Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
History of Belarus
This article describes the history of the Eastern European nation of Belarus and the Belarusian people.
The history of Belarus, or, more correctly of the Belarusian ethnicity, begins with the migration and expansion of the Slavic peoples throughout Eastern Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries Anno Domini. East Slavs settled on the territory within present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, assimilating local Baltic (Belarus), Ugro-Finnic (Russia) and steppe nomads (Ukraine) already living there, early ethnic integrations that contributed to the gradual differentiation of the three East Slavic nations. These East Slavs were pagan, animistic, agrarian people whose economy included trade in agricultural produce, game, furs, honey, beeswax and amber.
During the 9th and 10th century, Scandinavian Vikings established trade posts on the way from Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire. The network of lakes and rivers crossing East Slav territory provided a lucrative trade route between the two civilizations. In the course of trade, they gradually took sovereignty over tribes of East Slavs, at least to the point required by improvements in trade. The Rus' rulers on few occasions invaded the Byzantine Empire, but eventually they became their ally against the Bulgars. The condition underlying this alliance was to open the country for Christianization and acculturation from the Byzantine Empire. The common cultural bond of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and written Church Slavonic (a literary and liturgical Slavic language developed by 8th century missionaries Cyril and Methodius) fostered the emergence of a new geopolitical entity, Rus' -- a loose-knit network of principalities, established along preexisting trade routes, with major centers in Novgorod (Russia), Polatsk (Belarus) and Kyiv (Ukraine) — which claimed a sometimes precarious preeminence among them.
Between the 9th and 12th century, the principality of Polatsk (northern Belarus) emerged as the dominant center of power on Belarusian territory, with a lesser role played by the principality of Turaw in the south. It repeatedly asserted its sovereignty in relation to other centers of Rus', becoming a political capital, the episcopal see of a bishopric and the controller of vassal territories among Balts in the west. The city's Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (1044-1066) remains a symbol of this independent-mindedness, rivaling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kyiv, referring to the original Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (and hence to claims of imperial prestige, authority and sovereignty). Cultural achievements of the Polatsk period include the work of the nun Euphrosyne of Polatsk (1120-1173), who built monasteries, transcribed books, promoted literacy and sponsored art (including local artisan Lazarus Bohsha 's famous "Cross of Euphrosyne," a national symbol and treasure stolen during World War II), and the prolific, original Church Slavonic sermons and writings of Bishop Cyril of Turaw (1130-1182).
In the 13th century, the fragile unity of Rus' disintegrated due to nomadic incursions from Asia, which climaxed with the Mongol Horde's sacking of Kyiv (1240), leaving a geopolitical vacuum in the region. The East Slavs splintered along preexisting tribal lines into a number of independent and competing principalities. Due to military alliances, dynastic marriages and previous assimilation, the Belarusian principalities gravitated toward the expanding Lithuanians, beginning with the rule of King Mindowh (1240-1263). From the 13th to 15th century, Baltic, Belarusian and Ukrainian lands were consolidated into the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus' and Samogitia, with its capital in Navahradak (in western Belarus) and later in Vilnius (now in the Belarusian-Lithuanian borderland). The Lithuanians' smaller numbers and lack of written language or Christian culture in this medieval state gave the Belarusians and Ukrainians a major and important role in shaping Lithuanian political, religious and cultural life, and further assimilation between the Slavs and Balts occurred. Owing to the predominance of East Slavs among the state's population and ties with greater Europe that literacy, Christianity and culture facilitated, Old Belarusian became the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus' and Samogitia, used for its official chancery, legal, diplomatic and judicial needs until 1696, when it was eventually replaced by Polish.
This period of political breakdown and reorganization also saw the rise of written local vernaculars in place of the literary and liturgical Church Slavonic language, a further stage in the evolving differentiation between the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian language.
After Russian Revolution
Main article: Belarus National Republic.
For a brief period within 1919, between the German and Polish occupations, there existed a joint Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, informally known as Litbel. In December 1918 the Germans left the land, and on January 2, 1919 the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared, which was joined with the Lithuanian SSR into the BLSSR in February 1919, which existed until August 1919 (the onset of the Polish-Soviet War). In 1920, the lands of Belarus were divided between Poland and Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Initially, the national culture and language had a significant boost of revival. This was tragically ended during the Great Purges, when almost all prominent Belarusian national intelligentsia were murdered.
When the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17 1939, following the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, much of what had been eastern Poland was annexed to the BSSR. Eighteen months later, Germany and its Axis allies invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Belarus suffered particularly heavily during the fighting and the German occupation, as well as from the results of a slash-and-burn policy pursued by retreating Soviet troops. Following bloody encirclement battles, all of present-day Belarus was occupied by the Germans by the end of August 1941. The Germans imposed a brutal racist regime, burning down some 9,000 Belarusian villages, deporting some 380,000 people for slave labour, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians more. Since the early days of the occupation, a powerful and increasingly well-coordinated partisan movement emerged. Hiding in the woods and swamps, the partisans inflicted heavy damage to German supply lines and communications, disrupting railway tracks, bridges, telegraph wires, attacking supply depots, fuel dumps and transports and ambushing German occupation soldiers. It should be noted that not all anti-German partisans were pro-Soviet. In the greatest partisan sabotage action of the entire Second World War, the so-called Osipovichi diversion of July 30, 1943, four German trains with supplies and Tiger tanks were destroyed. To fight partisan activity, the Germans had to withdraw considerable forces behind their front line. On June 22, 1944, the huge Soviet offensive Operation Bagration was launched, finally regaining all of Belarus by the end of August. In total, Belarus lost a quarter of its pre-war population in the Second World War. For the defence against the Germans, and the tenacity during the German occupation, the capital Minsk was awarded the title Hero City after the War. The fortress of Brest was awarded the title Hero-Fortress.
Republic of Belarus
- History of Russia
- Soviet Union
- Collapse of the Soviet Union
- Commonwealth of Independent States
- History of Europe
- History of present-day nations and states
- Belarus, by CIA World Factbook, 2000
- Belarus, by United States Department of State
- Belarusian diaspora
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