The Topicality of Cultural Heritage notes

Belarus and its neighbours: A concise history by IFZO expert Mathias Niendorf

"Lithuania - Help" Photo by B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT
"Lithuania - Help" Photo by B. Gerdžiūnas/LRT

In the light of current events, the name "Belarus" is often mentioned, sometimes in addition with "formerly known as ‘Weißrussland’"(the former German name for Belarus). But has this country between Russia and Poland, between Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine ever become known to a wider public?

Besides allusions to its location between East and West, one must recognise the Republic is also connected to the Baltic and Black Seas via its river system. As early as the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League maintained its own office in Polotsk on the Duna River, but also had close links with Mogilev on the Dnieper. This trading place received Magdeburg city rights in 1577. Its citizens thus enjoyed more rights than city dwellers across the border in the Moscow Empire.

When pagans still ruled over large parts of Pomerania and Scandinavia, there were already Christian principalities in Belarus, and some people see Polotsk as the beginning of the formation of the Belarusian state. The impressive cathedral dates from the third quarter of the 11th century. It was deliberately named after Saint Sophia. This was not only to claim power against the similarly named church in Kiev, but also a link to the common model, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The Mongols, who in the middle of the 13th century had subjugated the largest part of "Old Russia", or as one should better say: the Kiev Empire, did not reach out to the northwest. Whether at that time, the term "White"-Russia (or "Bela"-Rus) came up as a counter term to the "black", unfree part of the former empire, will hardly be ever clarified. Other explanations attribute the name “Bela” to the designation of cardinal points in the Mongolian language or to the light-coloured clothing and the light-coloured hair of the people.

However great the independence of Polotsk and other principalities may have been and however great the political influence of Kiev - in the end Belarusians came under the sovereignty of Vilnius, if not Moscow. Vilnius was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which stretched from the border of East Prussia to the gates of Moscow, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Over time, it became closely entangled with Poland. However, even under Polish-Lithuanian rule a legacy of the Belarusian principalities remained there until the end of the 17th century: Up to the northwest of present-day Lithuania, i.e. up to the Baltic Sea coast, a Slavic official language was used, which was written in Cyrillic letters.

With the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian empire, the entire territory of the present-day Republic of Belarus came under the sovereignty of Petersburg at the end of the 18th century. Czarina Catherine II was amused by the mixture of nations there, as she felt reminded of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Napoleon failed in exploiting the differences between landowners and farmers, between Russians, Poles and Jews. He suffered his great defeat in 1812 at the Berezina, a tributary of the Dnieper.

A hundred years later, after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, it seemed for a short time as if a bourgeois and democratic "Belarusian People's Republic" could be established. Its territory, which had existed more on paper than in politics, was then divided between Poland and the Soviet Union in the Peace of Riga in 1921. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 reversed this arrangement. Stalin justified the fact that the previously East Polish territories had been occupied by the Red Army at the beginning of the Second World War by the protection of the brothers of Belarusians and Ukrainians living there. Accordingly, there was talk of a "reunification" of Belarus. However, the German occupation soon overshadowed the Moscow terror regime. No other part of Europe had to cope with such a high number of victims as the present-day republic. The world of the Jewish shtetls, which Marc Chagall, who came from Vitebsk in Belarus, invoked again and again, came to a violent end with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

For a long time, World War II appeared to be the biggest catastrophe in the country's history, until 1986, after the reactor accident in Ukrainian Chernobyl large parts of the Soviet Republic were radioactively contaminated. Both catastrophes were portrayed in literature by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, who was born in the Ukraine and grew up in Belarus. The remembrance of those events, partly state-sponsored, partly suppressed, still determines to a large extent the identity of the country, far more than its language.

For a long time, people discussed whether the Belarusian language was a bastardized Polish or a bastardized Russian. Even if knowledge of one of the two languages is quite helpful, the verdict of science is clear: Belarusian is an independent language. It is usually spoken in the countryside or by intellectuals who consciously want to use it as a sign of autonomy. However, it does not imply any commitment to the great neighbour to the east when people speak and write Russian - just as flaming pleas for an independent Ireland were already written in English and not in Gaelic.

In a figurative sense, however, Minsk's intellectuals found it harder than elsewhere in the Soviet sphere of power, harder also than in Ukraine, to find a common language with the rest of the population. This was one of the main reasons for the support of Lukashenko who was rather a folk-like figure. In a patriarchal manner, the former director of a collective farm saw himself as someone who, unlike Gorbachev or Yeltsin, personally took care that everyone working honestly and decently got their wages, that pensioners got their pensions paid on time.

Whether the medieval empire of Kiev ("Old Russia", until the middle of the 13th century), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (until 1795), the Tsarist Empire (1795-1917), the Republic of Poland (1918-1939) and finally the Soviet Union (1917-1991) - the territory of today's republic has always been part of larger empires and states. The eventful history of this border region now seems to be taking a new turn. Whether one would like to express the claim to independence in German by the name "Belarus" or prefers to remain with the traditional "Weißrussland" - it is obvious that its inhabitants are coming together across previous borders to act together, possibly to form a social unit that has always been denied to them from outside - a nation.


translated by Alexander Drost