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Belarus has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The first recorded settlements date back to the 6th century AD. Initially, the entire Belarusian ethnic area was inhabited by Baltic tribes. In the sixth to seventh centuries A.D., Slavic tribes came from the west. The Slavs fused with the Balts to form a new Balto-Slavic nation: the ancestors of today's Belarusians. The prevalent language became Slavic - Old Belarusian - but retained many Baltic elements in its pronunciation and vocabulary.
These Slavic tribes all adopted Christianity in its Eastern Orthodox from the Kievan Rus. For some time they were also politically dependent on Kiev. However, the Kryvicy soon established their own state in the north - the Duchy of Palacak. Later, the duchies of Turau-Pinsk and Novaharodak (Novgorod) were established in the south and southwest respectively. The territory of the duchy of Novaharodak, which had been colonized by both the Kryvicy and the Dryhvicy, extended along the Nioman river between Horadzien (currently know as Hrodna or Grodno) in the west and Novaharodak in the east.
The "Tale of the Bygone Years" records the first mention of the city of Polotsk (Palacak) in A.D. 862. This city grew in power through the tenth century A.D. until it rivaled Novgorod and Kiev. St. Sophia Cathedral was erected in Polotsk during the period 1044-1066 (when William the Conqueror invaded Britain) to match similar buildings in Novgorod and Kiev, as a symbol of independent power
The duchy of Novaharodak was virtually surrounded by unassimilated Baltic tribes: the Jacviahi (Yatvegians) in the west (who were later belarusianized), the Nalscany in the north, the Litva in the east and Northeast, and the area called Aukstota in the south-eastern part of modern Lithuania. Another Baltic tribe, the Samogitians, who lived between Aukstota and the Baltic Sea, did not merge with the Slavs but remained a separate ethnic group. It was the Samogitians and the inhabitants of Aukstota who became the ancestors of today's Lithuanians.
The next two hundred years were spent in nearly constant warfare with the Princes of Kiev, to the south, and the German Crusaders, to the west, as both groups repeatedly invaded to seize territory. Polotsk broke up into several appanages, which warred among themselves as well as with the external enemies. In A.D. 1240 the Mongol invasion resulted in the destruction of Kiev, as well as most other towns in the southern part of what is now Belarus.
The Grand Duchy of Litva and Rus
At about this time, a mercenary Litvanian duke named Mindouh came on the scene. According to the chronicles of the period, Mindouh suffered military defeats in his mercenary activities and domestic rivals forced him to flee from Litva to Novaharodak. In Novaharodak, Mindouh converted to Orthodox Christianity and was elected its duke. Then Mindouh attacked Litva. Mindouh was ready for revenge and, according to the chronicles, "he occupied Litva" and ousted his enemies. He appointed a regent in Novaharodak, and ruled from his native Litva. Thus was born the Grand Duchy of Litva and Rus (the GDL).
Novaharodak developed into an important political, economic and cultural center in Eastern Europe and played a key role in the growth of the Grand Duchy, and in uniting the other Belarusan lands under its rule. The emblem of Novaharodak - Pahonia, a rider on horseback with a sword in his hand - became the emblem of the Grand Duchy.
The adjoining Baltic areas of Litva and Nalscany had been subdued by force; but the old Belarusian principalities of Turau-Pinsk, Polacak, Viciebsk and others joined the new state voluntarily. The unification of Belarusan and Litvanian lands was part of the historical process of rapprochement and helps to explain the dominant role of the Belarusian culture and the official status of the Belarusan language in the Grand Duchy.
In 1385 Grand Duke Jahaila (Jogailo, Jagiello; baptized Wladyslaw) concluded a personal union with Poland by marrying the Polish queen and promising to Catholicize the GDL. For centuries, the Poles and the Muscovites struggled bitterly over Belarus. In 1772, Catherine the Great gained control over part of the country, and, by 1795, Russia ruled all of Belarus.
Modern History -- the Soviet Era
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the country again became a European battleground. Napoleon passed through Belarus--and fought there--in 1812, and the Germans fought the Soviets on Belarusian territory in World War I.
In March of 1917, the Russian Revolution caused Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. In November, Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power. In December, the First All-Belarusan Congress in Minsk proclaimed a republican government in Belarus -- but it was disbanded by the Bolsheviks
On March 9, 1918 the Executive Committee of the Council of the First All-Belarusan Congress again declared Belarus a democratic Peoples' Republic, in protest of the occupation of Belarus by Germany with the de facto approval of Russia. The creation of the BPR was intended to send a message to the Bolsheviks that the creation of a totalitarian regime on the territory of the former Russian Empire without taking into consideration the national interests of the peoples that it wanted to envelope would be next to impossible. On the 1st of January 1919, on the initiative of Belarusans in the Russian Communist party, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was created to counterpoise the BPR. Of course, none of this really meant anything until the Germans were driven out of Belarus in 1921!
On the 30th of December 1922 the Communist governments of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Caucasus created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which included the major part of the former Russian Empire.
Belarus suffered heavy losses in World War II, when some 2.2 million inhabitants perished. Brest was the first Soviet city attacked by Hitler's forces in June 1941. It held out for 29 days against the combined might of the German Army and Air Force and earned the title "Hero City". Before World War II, Belarus had a large Jewish population, but hundreds of thousands were killed by the Nazis (many entire families and towns were wiped out during the war).
Based on their formerly independent status, and in recognition of the heavy casualties they had sustained during the war (as well as the effectiveness of their underground resistance movements) Russia negotiated seats for Belarus and Ukraine (as well as Russia) in the General Assembly of the newly formed United Nations Organization, thereby giving the U.S.S.R. three seats. (The Belarussians later used their membership to justify their declaration of sovereignty in 1990 and their independence in 1991.)
In Feb. 1988 a dispute erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh which resulted in mass demonstrations and strikes in the two republics. In April, 1989 troops violently repressed demonstrations in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. In December, 1989 the Lithuanian Parliament adopted multiparty politics. In January, 1990 Gorbachev visited Lithuania and was met by some 250,000 pro-independence demonstrators. In May, 1990 Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation and on November 1, 1990 launched a 500 day plan to give the Russian Republic a free market economy. In June 1990 Nakhichevan an Azerbaijani enclave bordering Iran declared its intention for a unification with Iran while a civil war was escalating between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the same month around 150 people were killed during ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan.
On July 27, 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR adopted the "Declaration On the State Sovereignty of the BSSR".
In January, 1991 another 15 people were killed as the Red Army seized a television station in Lithuania; while in Latvia the Soviet Black Berets killed 5 people in an attack on the ministry building. In the same month troops were being deployed in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova.
On August 18, 1991 as Gorbachev was vacationing in the Crimea, the Politburo hard liners attempted a coup to remove Gorbachev from power through the declaration of a State of Emergency under the control of a State Committee. Almost immediately republic leaders declared the emergency committee illegal as well as unconstitutional and began to barricade their parliaments. Troops and tanks were deployed throughout the republics. By August 20 senior officers had refused to order their troops to use force against civilians and on August 21, 1991 the coup collapsed as troops were ordered to return to their barracks.
Immediately following the unsuccessful coup many republics suspended or purged the communist party. On the 25th of August 1991 the BSSR Supreme Soviet declared the political and economic independence of Belarus. On September 5, 1991 after 3 days of debate the 74 years of centralized communist control came to an end. On 19 September 1991 the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR passed a resolution renaming the country as the Republic of Belarus, and Belarus officially re-emerged as an independent state.
On the fifth of December 1991 The Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus ratified the "Agreement on the Creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States"; it was signed on the 8th of December 1991 by the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in Viskuli in the Belavezha National Forest of Belarus.