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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Belarusans/Madeline Ziniak

Belarusans are an East Slavic people who trace their origins to one of Europe’s newest independent countries, Belarus. For centuries Belarusans found themselves within the boundaries of several states, including Lithuania, Russia, Poland, and the Soviet Union. This is in part the reason why Belarusans never developed a distinct national identity. Whether at home or as immigrants they frequently identified with the countries they lived in, that is, as Russians or as Poles or even more often simply as “locals,” the people “from here” (tuteishyia/tutashniia).

Their designation in English has also varied. Some older sources speak of White Ruthenians and White Russians (not to be confused with the political descriptor that implies opposition to the Bolshevik “Reds”). For most of the twentieth century, the term Belorussian has been used, although since independence was achieved the name Belarusan (sometimes spelled Belarusian) has become increasingly widespread.

Beginning in the late ninth century, Belarusan territory was gradually brought under the political hegemony of a loose medieval federation known as Kievan Rus’. It was during Kievan times that the Belarusans received the Byzantine form of Orthodox Eastern Christianity. With Christianity came written texts in the Cyrillic alphabet which to this day is used for writings in the East Slavic Belarusan language. When in the thirteenth century Kievan Rus’ began to disintegrate, Belarusan territory was gradually annexed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Under Lithuania, the Belarusans retained their Orthodox faith and their literary language, called Ruthenian, which was also used by the rulers of Lithuania for the country’s governmental administration.

From the late fourteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania together with Belarus gradually drew closer to its western neighbour, Poland, until in 1569 a joint state known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed. The new union brought with it Polish cultural and religious influences. After 1595 a portion of the Belarusan Orthodox populace accepted union with Rome and became part of a new Uniate, later renamed the Greek Catholic Church. Other Belarusans converted directly to Roman Catholicism.

When Poland-Lithuania itself ceased to exist between 1772 and 1795, Belarusan lands were annexed by the Russian Empire. The new tsarist administration divided the country into several provinces named after their chief cities: Grodno/Hrodna, Vilna/Vilnius, Minsk, Mahilioâ /Mogilev, and Smolensk. The Russian imperial government was intent on removing Polish and other non-Russian influences in Belarus. To achieve this, the Greek Catholic (Uniate) church was abolished, restrictions were placed on Roman Catholic activity, the Belarusan language was banned in publications, and the population was urged to identify itself as Russian. The local economy stagnated, even after the emancipation of serfs in 1861, so that by the last decades of the nineteenth century thousands of Belarusans began to emigrate to other parts of the Russian Empire (Siberia) as well as abroad to the United States and eventually to Canada.

In response to the tsarist government’s policy of russification, a small group of Belarusan intellectuals became active in the 1860s, and by the outset of the twentieth century they had formed a political party and were publishing the first newspapers in the Belarusan language. This national revival culminated during the Russian Revolution of 1917. In December of that year an all-Belarusan Congress gathered in Minsk, and in early 1918 it proclaimed an independent Belarusan People’s Republic. Although the new Bolshevik rulers of Russia quickly brought an end to Belarusan independence, in January 1919 they recognized a Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic which in 1922 became a founding member of the new Soviet Union. During this same period, about one-third of Belarusan territory was awarded to the restored state of Poland. Henceforth, those from Polish-ruled lands were commonly referred to as western Belarusans.

At least during the 1920s, Belarusan culture was encouraged and allowed to flourish in both Soviet Belorussia and Poland. For the first time, the Belarusan language was taught widely in schools and a whole generation of people was taught to have a clear sense of a Belarusan national identity. These promising developments came to an end during the 1930s, when both the Soviet and Polish governments placed severe restrictions on Belarusan culture and education. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Belarusan lands were to feel the brunt of the conflict. After Poland fell in September, that country’s Belarusan territory was annexed by the Soviet Union. Two years later, in June 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union and two-thirds of Belarusan territory was annexed to Nazi Germany as part of its Reichskommissariat Ostland. Under Nazi rule, the population suffered from the military battles on its territory as well as the systematic liquidation of certain elements in the population, most especially Jews, Communists, and other suspected Soviet sympathizers.

When World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet Union regained all of Soviet Belorussia, including territories annexed from Poland in 1939. Aside from enormous material destruction, hundreds of thousands of Belarusans were displaced during the war and many refused to return to their Soviet-ruled homeland. Postwar Soviet rule eventually restored the country to a modicum of prosperity. Although Belarusan culture and language were nominally recognized, Russian once again came to dominate most spheres of public life.

With the political changes that came about in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, a new Belarusan national revival took place and culminated with the declaration of an independent state of Belarus in August 1991. Since that time, the country has been a member of a loose political federation of former Soviet states known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, and it maintains especially close economic ties to Russia.