Background of Belarus

recent history

Human habitation in the Belarusian region has a lengthy history. Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) societies have been documented through archaeology, and Neolithic (New Stone Age) remains are common. The Slavs first established in the region between the sixth and the eighth centuries CE, making it one of their earliest locations. By the 8th or 9th century, the Dregovichi, Radimichi, Krivichi, and Drevlyane early Slavic tribes had established regional monarchies, including those of Pinsk, Turaw (Russian: Turov), Polatsk (Russian: Polotsk), Slutsk, and Minsk.

Beginning in the middle of the ninth century, Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic kingdom, had general control over all of these. Primitive shifting agriculture on burned-over forestland served as the foundation for the local economy, along with beekeeping and fur hunting. Trade grew along the rivers, especially the Dnieper, which, starting from 930, was a part of the “water road” that connected the Byzantine Empire’s capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul) with the Baltic Sea via Kyiv and Novgorod in Russia.

By the end of the 12th century, there were several trading communities, and many of the towns in modern-day Belarus had been established.  It was first mentioned in Brest (formerly Brest-Litovsk) in 1019 and Minsk in 1067.


Polish and Lithuanian rule

The collapse of Kievan Rus was brought about by the destruction of Kiev by the Mongol invasion in 1240. The Golden Horde, the western part of the Mongol Empire, established dependencies in numerous Belarusian cities that had been left in ruins. The grand duchy of Lithuania grew over the following 150 years, absorbing a sizable portion of the Belarusian population.

However, the conquered areas maintained a high level of autonomy under Lithuanian control. The Lithuanian state expanded throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, taking in the city of Smolensk (now in Russia), the regions to the east of Moscow’s suburbs, and the lands to the south of Kyiv and the Black Sea beaches. The development of the Belarusian language and ethnicity started during this period of Lithuanian dominance.


Under the Jagiellon dynasty, a personal union between the Lithuanian and Polish royal houses began in 1386 when the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila wed the Polish queen Jadwiga and later assumed the name Wadysaw II Jagieo to become king of Poland.

The great duchy of Lithuania adopted Roman Catholicism as its official religion, while the vast majority of its peasants continued to practice Orthodoxy. The Grand Principality of Moscow, which was gaining strength, and the Polish-Lithuanian realm engaged in a constant and acrimonious warfare for territory and power. Smolensk and Lithuania’s easternmost provinces were lost to Russia in the 15th and 16th centuries, although the Belarusian people was mostly still under Lithuanian rule.

In the 16th century, three statutes known as the Lithuanian Statutes established civil and property rights in areas under Lithuanian rule. A comprehensive agrarian reform program was put in place in 1557, redefining the duties of peasants toward landowners and adopting the three-field crop rotation method of agriculture.

The system was initially imposed on crown estates but was quickly embraced on noble domains. It was in use until the 20th century with few changes. The effects of the changes added together forced the peasants, who had previously had at least some mobility freedom, into complete serfdom.


Poland and Lithuania were united into a single, federated state by the Union of Lublin (1569). Podlasia, which had been densely inhabited by Polish immigrants, as well as the steppe areas and Kyiv were surrendered to Poland, however Lithuania kept its grand duchy status and its legal system.

A predominantly Polish-speaking Roman Catholic gentry emerged among the Belarusians, although the majority of the peasantry continued to practice Orthodoxy. The Union of Brest-Litovsk, which combined recognition of papal supremacy with Orthodox rites and traditions, marked an effort to unite the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom in 1596.

A small amount of progress was made by this new Eastern rite church, mainly among Belarusians and Ukrainians. (However, it eventually came under pressure from Russian—and, much later, Soviet—authorities, which caused some of its membership to convert to Orthodoxy.) While this was going on, the Polish landowners’ control was frequently oppressive and unpopular, and many Belarusians—especially those who didn’t want to join the Eastern rite church—fled to the steppe regions where the Cossacks lived.

Despite widespread Cossack-led uprisings in 1648–154, Poland continued to control the Belarusian regions until the second part of the 18th century. Economic growth was sluggish, particularly in the vast Pripet Marshes. Nearly all of the Belarusian population worked in agriculture, while Poles and Jews controlled the trade.

Rule by Russia

Catherine II of Russia obtained the eastern part of modern-day Belarus, including the towns of Vitsyebsk (Russian: Vitebsk), Mahilyow (Mogilyov), and Homyel (Gomel), during the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Minsk and the center region were given to Russia in the Second Partition (1793), while the remaining territory was brought into the Russian Empire in the Third Partition (1795).

Under Russian domination, the region was administratively divided into the governorships (provinces) of Vitebsk, Grodno, Minsk, Mogilyov, and Vilnia (now Vilnius, Lithuania). Belarusian history was closely correlated with what was happening in the Russian Empire and revolutionary Russia up until the establishment of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919.

French Emperor Napoleon I traversed the area twice: once during his advance on Moscow in 1812 and once during his retreat. During Napoleon’s Russian campaign, one of the bloodiest clashes occurred as French forces fled across the Byarezina River.

Small-scale enterprises with a strong reliance on regional resources started to develop in Belarusian towns in the 19th century. A few of these included working with wood, manufacturing glass, and building boats near the rivers. The pace of industrialization rose somewhat after the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s, especially with the advent of railways in the 1880s. Nevertheless, a significant amount of people left the country, particularly from rural areas, as a result of the generally bad economic conditions.

The provinces where modern-day Belarus is located saw almost 1.5 million emigrations in the 50 years prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. More than 600,000 emigrants moved to Siberia between 1896 and 1915, the majority of whom traveled to the United States or that region.

In the 19th century, small businesses in Belarusian towns began to emerge that were heavily reliant on local resources. Some of activities were making glass, dealing with wood, and constructing boats close to rivers. Following the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s, the rate of industrialization increased slightly, notably with the introduction of railways in the 1880s.

Nevertheless, because of the generally poor economic conditions, a sizeable number of individuals departed the country, especially from rural areas. In the 50 years before the 1917 Russian Revolution, about 1.5 million people left the territories that make up modern-day Belarus. Between 1896 and 1915, more than 600,000 people left Siberia, the majority of whom went to the United States or that area.


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