Belarus is a landlocked and moderately industrialized nation of Eastern Europe. A former part of Soviet Russia, it split from the USSR in 1991 and has endured a whirlwind of a political scene in the last decade. Devastated by World War I, and II, as well as the countless Russo-Polish Wars before then and the Chernobyl disaster in recent years, somehow Belarus has still managed to become and stay a rather strong industrial region.
Belarus is bordered by Russia to the north and east, Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest, Poland to the west and Ukraine to the south. The capital of Belarus is Minsk, which has around 1.7 million people, with other notable cities being Polotsk, Vitsebsk and Njasvizh.
Belarus’ total land area is 207,600 sq km (80,964 sq ml) and it has about 10.4 million inhabitants in the country. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is US$53.7 billion or about US$5,300 per person. The economy is currently growing at 7% a year, but is far outstripped by inflation which stands at 182% a year.
Belarus is a very low-lying country. The highest point is the hill Dzjarzhinskaja which rises only 345 meters (1132 feet). Mainly Belarus of today is characterized by low hills that are split by marshy lowlands and large lakes. The River Dnjapro flows down from Russian Smolensk into eastern Belarus and is the country’s major river.
During the late Middle Ages Belarus was still almost completely covered in broad forests. These forests were decimated in the ensuing centuries and by World War I had basically ceased to exist. The wide scale depopulation of the Belarus region that happened in World War I and II would be a major cause for the re-growth of the forests in many areas. At present the Belavezhskaja Pushcha Nature Reserve, on Belarus’ western border, is home to one of the largest primeval forests in Europe.
The climate of Belarus increases somewhat in severity as one travels from the southwest to the northeast, but is typified by extremely cold temperatures and long winters. Frost is generally on the ground 7 or 8 months a year, as well as snow cover from December to April. The coldest temperatures are typically in January, with the average being -4 to -8 Celsius and the warmest month is July with temperatures averaging around 19 degrees Celsius. The majority of rain falls from June to August.
Belarus is very much the boundary between Latin Christianity and Orthodox Christianity. About 70% of Byelorussians are Eastern Orthodox; with the rest being made up of Catholics (remnants of the old Polish influenced aristocrats), Protestants (what remains of the German population of Belarus) and Muslims (Tartar descendents) as well as some Jewish peoples from the time when the USSR had Belarus as an exile point for Jewish Russians.
The state language is Belarusian and is closely related to other Eastern Slavonic languages, most notably Russian and Ukrainian. Typically it is written in Cyrillic, but an alternate Latin based writing system does exist, though it is very seldom used. Russian is also a widely spoken language, as a remnant of the times when the Soviet leaders forced schools to teach in Russian and all business and government writing to be in Russian. With the independence of Belarus though the state language was made Belarusian and the country’s city, street and other names are starting to change as well as education focusing more on Byelorussian history and literature.
The writers that come from Belarus are notable for being some of the best in the region. Belarusian bibles were some of the first books printed in Eastern Europe and Belarus has a long history of poetry. The most notable of Byelorussian poets being Symeon of Polotsk, a 17th century Byelorussian poet who introduced Baroque to Russia. The modern age of Byelorussian literature was born in the 19th century and was pioneered by one Jakub Kolas. The author Natalla Arseneva, of the book Beneath the Blue Sky, exemplifies modern Byelorussian literature. Literature itself, somewhat stifled during Soviet rule, is undergoing a large revival in Belarus.
Belarus was first settled by Slav tribes, who would become modern Byelorussians, in the 6th century AD. It would be a matter of three centuries before the first distinct principalities rose in the area, with the most important being centered on Polotsk (Polatsk). This principality was inherited through marriage by Kievan Rus and became Orthodox Christian.
When Kievan Rus’ fell to the invading Mongol hordes in the 13th century, Belarus was seized by the then greatly expanding Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At first, the Orthodoxy of the Byelorussians exerted a large influence on the pagan Lithuanians, but after the conversion of Lithuania to the Latin Church and Lithuania's merging with Poland, Belarus’ status fell greatly. In 1596 Belarus’ church accepted a union with Rome as well, and though the nobility mostly converted to Catholicism, the common Byelorussian remained staunchly Orthodox. Over time, the ruling classes would become very much Polish and Catholic.
Belarus would suffer greatly in the wars between the rising power of Russia and the fading power of Poland that characterized the 16th – 18th centuries in Eastern Europe. The Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793 and 1795) would see Belarus swallowed up by Russia. Belarus would again be laid to waste by the Russians in 1812, but this time as they fled the armies of Napoleon. The destruction over the centuries led to wide scale poverty and caused many Byelorussians to emigrate from the area, primarily to the United States.
It was not until the end of the 19th century that the Byelorussians finally developed a national identity. A revolt led by one Kastus Kalinouski (Konstantin Kalinovsky) in 1863 would lead to this emerging national identity. The movement was further advanced by a small scale literary movement within Belarus. Among those writers of the time, such names as the poets Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala stand out.
World War I and II
On March 1st, 1918 Belarus became an independent nation by decree of the Byelorussian National Ruda in Minsk. The independence was not last long though as the Soviet government immediately moved in politically. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed at Smolensk and the Russian armies moved into Belarus. The Polish-Soviet War of 1920 saw Poland occupy western Belarus while the eastern areas were taken by the USSR and unified into Byelorussian SSR. The USSR’s 1939 invasion of Poland brought the entirety of Belarus under Soviet domination. During World War II, the massive fighting in the area would strip Belarus of about one fourth of its population.
Following World War II, Belarus was the site of rapid industrialization and economic growth. The first 5 year plan established, for Belarus, repaired much of the war damaged infrastructure of the area. Minsk itself would rapidly develop into one of the largest industrial centers of the USSR and people moved into the area from all over the Soviet Union. During this time Byelorussian politicians made a fine show of emphasizing their nationality, while being staunch communists.
With the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the 1980s, Byelorussian nationalism began to emerge again. The formation of a popular liberation movement, Adradzhene (Rebirth), helped to intensify the demand for Byelorussian independence. During this time though, Belarus was hit hard by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, which contaminated far more Byelorussian land than Ukrainian due to the prevailing winds during the time after the explosion. 1988 saw the formation of the Belarusian Popular Front, which met to address issues such as the Chernobyl disaster and the declining of the Byelorussian culture. The front would issue a statement of full sovereignty within the USSR on July 27, 1990.
The Republic of Belarus was formally declared independent from the former USSR, on August 25, 1991. The first Belarus head of state was the reform minded Stanislav Shushkevich. Along with Russia and the Ukraine, Belarus would be one of the original members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But Belarus’ future was not secure.
A power grab by former Byelorussian communist leaders occurred in 1994, as the communist members of parliament voted to replace Stanislav Shushkevich with their choice, Mechislav Grib, who was a former national police official. Instead it was Aleksandr Lukashenka who rose to lead the country in July of 1994. The parliamentary elections in 1995 would see most of the seats go to the communist party members.
As 1996 began, Russia and Belarus began to take real steps towards making the two countries more unified. While it is not an attempt at making a single state out of the two, it is an attempt at closing any cultural, political and economic gaps that exist between the two. The treaty was expanded and strengthened in 1997, 1998 and 1999 agreements. These agreements would develop common customs dues, taxation, currency and establish a joint defense policy.
1996 also brought Belarus into the realm of being a dictatorship. Lukashenka began seizing the reigns of power completely in this year, when he seized former parliamentary powers and extended his own presidency by 2 years. A new parliament was also formed, with handpicked members. Lukashenka’s human rights abuses also increased greatly during this time. Many of his political opponents have disappeared and political rights have been sharply curtailed. The 2000 parliamentary elections were boycotted by the few democratic party members still left and Lukashenka’s group maintained its hold in the parliament. Lukashenka’s own presidential election in 2001 is widely believed to have not been a free election.