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NOTES FROM THE HISTORY OF BELARUS
from ancient times to the present moment
Translated and compiled by Jauhen Reshatau, Minsk - Meadville, 1994
Editing by Peter Kasaty, December 1995
Document design by Dmitry Zelenko
The Republic of Belarus is one of what is called for convenience the former Soviet republics. This country is relatively new to most of the world, and people in the West as a rule only know what rare comments in modern history textbooks can tell them. These comments are mostly related to the years after the 1917 revolution in Russia. However, the independence of Belarus is not occasional and even not the first in its history.
Belarus has its own language, culture, heritage and, of course, history, as does any other country of the world. The reason why Belarus is still generally unknown to the world is that most of its historical facts were hidden or artificially assimilated with Russian and Soviet histories. The current situation in Belarus does not encourage a lot of information about the republic to be disseminated. I myself have learned most of the facts a relatively short time ago, when true historic evidence of Belarus past became available. I hope that these notes will be helpful for all interested people who are eager to find out more about the history of this old and original country.
Primordial Belarus - From Forest Tribes to the Decline of Polatsk
The history of the Belarusian people and land can hardly have a definite origin, since the territories between the rivers Dnieper, Pripyat, Dvina, and Bug were inhabited from time immemorial. However, the first evidence of Slavic tribes living there date back to the very first centuries AD. These tribes lived in small communities located in forests or near rivers and lakes.
The land of Belarus looked different in those times. The area was completely covered by secular forests. Numerous lakes and rivers were full of fish; woods were the homes of lots of animals. This allowed our Belarusian ancestors to live by hunting, fishing, and gathering. On small plots of land near water they also started farming; growing mostly rye, wheat, oats, buckwheat, and flax. In the villages, they kept domestic animals; in addition, bee-keeping was started and spread among the communities.
Each community had its chief, who was the top authority. The family as a social unit was very important, too. The father was its head, and the mother was its heart. Both men and women were tall, strong, and hardy. Most people had light brown hair and blue or grey eyes. The clothes of our Belarusian ancestors was usually white, made of flax or wool.
The belief of these tribes was paganism. They had their own pantheon of gods, each responsible for different aspect of their lives. All this information about the prehistoric times of Belarus has been determined, to a large extent from kurgans, or ancient graves, which are still numerous all over Northern Europe. These kurgans contain lots of things from their creators' everyday life: earthenware, weapons, jewelry, clothes, and also Arabic, Indian, Scandinavian, Roman, and German coins, which show that our ancestors had established trade with many neighboring lands.
The tribes, which actually were historical ancestors of the Belarusian people, can be distinguished from other Slavic tribes after the 6th century. The largest tribe among them were the Kryvichy, or "relatives by blood." They occupied the northern part of today's Belarus. In the central part of Belarus lived the Dreulane; in the south, the Drehavichy; in the east, the Radzimichy. The northwestern part of the territory was occupied by a Baltic tribe, the Yatviags. All these tribes had much in common in their languages, customs, and beliefs, and therefore they merged into one Belarusian people. The Kryvichy in the north founded the principalities of Polatsk and Smolensk and the Pskov republic; Dreulane united into the principality of Turau. The principalities of Polatsk and Turau became the first states on the territory of modern Belarus. They are first mentioned in the chronicles of the 9th century, and are also the oldest centers of Belarusian culture. Some Scandinavian songs mention Polatsk as already being a strong and powerful town in the 6th century.
After the people of Kiev were baptized in 988, the Belarusian principalities adopted Christianity together with the other Slavic states. However, some historians believe that Christianity came to Belarus much earlier from Scandinavia.
The power in early Belarusian states belonged to the vecha, or council of all of the citizens of the town and vicinity. All the decisions about war and peace, trade, and internal affairs were made by the vecha. In case of war, the vecha chose a prince for commanding the army. The prince usually also had power over the army in peacetime.
One of the first known Polatsk princes was Rahvalod who lived in the 10th century. He struggled against the Kiev prince for influence in the Turau and Smolensk principalities but lost the war and died in battle. Another historical figure in Polatsk was Prince Useslau "the Magician" (1044-1101), who lived at the time Polatsk achieved its highest power and wealth. It traded with many neighboring and remote countries, controlled other Belarusian towns, and had developed manufacturing. Useslau lead the war against the Kiev princes for the control of Pskov and Novgorod - other Slavic principalities. One of the battles of this war occurred near the river Niamiga in 1067, and this is the first mention of the town of Minsk in a chronicle. In fact, the town was called Mensk1 from the word mena - change.
Mensk was on the crossroads from the Baltics to the lands to the south, and therefore was a convenient marketplace. The town kept this name until the 20th century. Unfortunately, the irony of history is that in 1067 - the official date of Minsk's birth - it was totally destroyed in the battle. After the battle which was won by Kiev, Useslau was imprisoned in Kiev. However, the Kievan prince was also fighting the Turkic tribes in the southern Ukraine at the same time, and this war was fatal for him. Seeing this, Kievans discharged Useslau and elected him as the Kiev prince. The newcomer defended Kiev from the enemy and governed the principality for eight months, after which he returned to his native Polatsk. During Useslau's reign, many lands were joined to Polatsk, among them the Minsk, Vitebsk, Orsha, and Slutsk principalities, as well as parts of Livonia and other territories. Useslau was very popular among the people due to his intelligence, courage, and strong character. Many legends and stories about him were created; he was even called "The Magician".
At that time the Slavic state in Kiev was called Rus, from which later the name Russia was derived. But the original Rus has nothing to do with Moscow or Siberia. It was the state on the territory of modern Ukraine, and only later, when Moscow was founded and gained power to unite other principalities, it took this name. At the time that Kiev and Polatsk flourished, Moscow and other eastern Slavic states were weak and unstable.
The name Belarus means "white Rus", and there's still no exact version of its origin. Some historians believe that "white" in old Slavic languages meant "free," pointing to the fact that Belarus was never invaded by the Tatars or under their control, unlike the other principalities later in the 13-15th centuries. Others think that this name is older and served as a difference between Kievan Rus, Black Rus - a small territory in the western part of modern Belarus, and the territory known as White Rus. Whatever the source of this name, it is clear that it is very old and originally corresponded to the territory where the ancestors of the Belarusians lived and where the modern Republic of Belarus is situated.
Another remarkable figure in Belarusian history is Euphrasinnia, the granddaughter of Useslau, the Magician. She was one of the first Belarusian enlighteners. She founded a nunnery in Polatsk and lead extensive educational work between the nuns and the neighboring people. Later she was canonized by the Belarusian Orthodox Church. The diamond-decorated cross of Euphrasinnia from her nunnery in Polatsk is a Belarusian national treasure; however, it was stolen during World War II and still there is no information about its location.
After Useslau the Magician, the glory of Polatsk began to diminish. The principality of Polatsk was divided into several smaller principalities which were half-dependent on their more powerful neighbors, mainly Kiev and Novgorod. Sometimes they managed to conquer some lands to the north of Belarus - Livonia and Estonia, but these victories were short-lived and insignificant, because the crusaders who occupied those territories quickly restored the status quo.
Meanwhile, to the northwest of Belarus, in the territories with mixed Baltic and Belarusian populations, a new state started its growth and development. It was called Lithuania(Litva 2) and initially consisted of Belarusians and the Orthodox Baltic tribe, the Yatviags, which later merged with Slavs. Later two Pagan Baltic tribes - Zhmudz and Aukshtota3, which were the ancestors of modern Lithuanians - were forced to join the new state. The first capital of Lithuania was Kreva (now a village in northwestern Belarus); later Prince Mindaug moved it to Navahradak (now a town in the Hrodna region, Belarus), which used to be the center of Black Rus. Mindaug was one of the first known princes of Lithuania; he ascended to the throne in 1242. His father, Ryngold, was the first to conquer some Belarusian principalities. Mindaug and his successors, Lutavar, Viten, and Gedymin expanded their power over Polatsk, Vitebsk, Smolensk and Turau, mostly by the smart policy of marrying their children to Belarusian princes or princesses. According to some historic evidence, Mindaug himself belonged to the stock of Polatsk princes. This proves the tight connection between the Baltic and Belarusian tribes. The new state was called the Great Lithuanian Principality, and it was a federation of Belarusian lands under the power of the Great Prince. The Belarusian principalities in Lithuania were half-independent - they had their armed forces; local princes, kept their customs and traditions. In spite of the fact that Mindaug adopted Catholicism in order to avoid war with crusaders, most of the population of the principality remained Orthodox Christian.
The Development and Flourishing of Great Lithuania
The Great Prince Gedymin4, who
accepted the throne in 1316, limited the power of the members of the
federation and, so, the Great Lithuanian
Principality became a true monarchy. Gedymin, using the Tatar
invasion in Kievan and Eastern Rus, joined the principalities of Kiev,
Chernigov and Volyn. The Tatars5
were not able to reach Belarus mostly
because of swamps in the south of the country, in the area called
Palesse. However, in the time of Mindawg, when they were stronger, they
managed once to enter Belarus, but were defeated by Lithuanian
troops in 1249. Thus, Gedymin strengthened Lithuanian power in
Eastern Europe, and the Lithuanian-Belarusian state gained its authority
and influence. Gedymin also moved its capital to Vilnia (now
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania). The wisdom of Gedymin was in his
policy towards the conquered lands: he never oppressed the local
beliefs, customs, and freedom of people. He understood that he could
achieve more by goodness and loyalty than by brutal force.
Gedymin's son, the Great Prince Alherd 6 (1341-1377) continued his father's expansion of Lithuania's borders. He unyoked the Ukraine from the Tatars and joined the rest of the Ukrainian lands to the Great Lithuanian Principality, including the seashore of the Black Sea. But at this time a new enemy appeared at the East - the principality of Moscow, the ancestor of today's Russia. They constantly attacked Lithuania's eastern neighbor and vassal - the Smolensk principality. Alherd had to help Smolensk, and he defeated the Moscow troops three times - in 1368, 1370, and 1373. Alherd's army fought to the gates of Moscow, but the Moscow prince Dmitry Donskoy, unable to resist the Lithuanian army, asked Alherd to spare his native town and promised him lots of trophies. Alherd took compassion on him and did not destroy Moscow, but expanded Lithuania's borders yet farther to the East. Alherd wanted Lithuania to become the strongest power of Eastern Europe, and also a center of Orthodox belief. He asked the Constantinople Patriarch, the head of the Orthodox Church, to found the metropoly in Navahradak. The Moscow prince asked for the same thing for Moscow, and both requests were granted. Thus started the extreme rivalry between Lithuania and Moscow for religious and political influence in Eastern Europe.
After Alherd's death in 1377, his younger son Yahaila (Jagiello7) became the Great prince, in accordance with the treaty between Alherd and his wife. This caused great discontent in Alherd's older son, Andrei, and in the population of the western parts of Lithuania who hoped that the throne would be accepted by Alherd's brother and councillor Keistut. In a short struggle for the throne, Keistut won; he imprisoned Yahaila and proclaimed himself the Great Prince, and soon released his nephew. Shortly after that Yahaila started a revolt against Keistut and occupied a part of the Vilnia region. He invited Keistut and his son Vitaut to Kreva for negotiations, and when they arrived, he captured them and killed Keistut five days later. Vitaut managed to escape from the execution having dressed in woman's clothes. He turned for help to the crusaders who were always ready to participate in Lithuanian internal discords in order to weaken their competitor. Therefore Yahaila, trying to avoid conflicts with the crusaders, allowed Vitaut to return home and gave him the Harodnia(Hrodna8) principality.
Still Yagaila's position was not stable since he was surrounded by crusaders from the north and west and Muscovites and Tatars from the east. That's why he decided to unite with neighboring Poland, which had the same problems with the crusades. He asked to marry the Polish princess Jadzwiga, and though she had already been engaged to the Austrian prince Wilhelm, Polish aristocracy, which had always been searching for influence in Lithuanian ruling circles, decided to promote Yahaila's proposal. Before their marriage in 1385 in Kreva, a dynasty union was signed between Lithuania and Poland, according to which the Great Prince also became the Polish king and ruled the two countries. Yahaila agreed to change his confession to Catholicism and also baptized the still Pagan tribes of Zhmudz and Aukshtota. He hoped to convert the Belarusian population to Catholicism, too, but only a small part accepted. According to the Kreva union, both countries still had their independent internal governments, but defense and international affairs were united. In the Polish-Lithuanian union, Lithuania was stronger and bigger, and the cultural development was also higher in Lithuania. When Yahaila moved to Krakow, the Polish capital, he took with him many Belarusian painters to work decorating his palace. Until the end of his life, Yahaila couldn't speak Polish and used his native Belarusian. His second wife, Sonka, was a Belarusian patriot; she brought up her sons, Wladyslaw and Kazimir, in the spirit of love of Belarus.
But for most of the Belarusians, the Kreva union was not satisfying. They believed that it tied Poland and the Great Principality too closely, and were apprehensive that in the future, the Polish king could be of non-Belarusian origin and he would nevertheless rule Lithuania. Yahaila's cousin Vitaut was especially discontented, and in 1392 he managed to occupy the Great Prince's throne by force. Yahaila, seeing that a fight with Vitaut would not be easy, had to accept him as an independent Prince under his wardship. Thus Vitaut 9 became the Great Prince of Lithuania.
The first thing Vitaut did as the Great Prince was to calm the princes under Lithuanian influence who didn't want to obey anybody and were always ready to ask the crusaders or the Tatars for help. Vitaut succeeded in establishing his power over most of them and joined new lands to Lithuania. Smolensk and parts of the Tula and Kaluga principalities became territories of the Great Principality; the Ryazan principality and republics of Great Novgorod and Pskov - the states of congeneric Kryvichy - became Lithuania's protectorates. The Tatars of the Golden Horde respected Vitaut and even invited him to be a judge in Tatar internal conflicts. In 1398 the Golden Horde was invaded by a new conqueror from Middle Asia - emir Timur (Tamerlan) who, together with his huge army, was ready to take the field against Europe. The Khan Takhtamysh of the Golden Horde asked Vitaut for help, and the Great Prince agreed, seeing the possibility of expanding his influence up to the Volga river. He started thorough preparations for the war. He signed a peaceful union with the crusaders and gathered an army, which included in addition to the Belarusians, knights from all of Christian Europe. This force met Timur's army in 1399 near the river Vorskla (in modern Ukraine). The cruel and bloody battle didn't bring victory to anybody - Vitaut's soldiers were defeated, but Timur's troops were also weakened so that he did not feel strong enough to continue his campaign against the West and returned to Asia.
After this battle the crusaders renewed their raids on Lithuania and northern Poland, having grown bolder after Vitaut's failure to defeat Timur. Sometimes these raids turned into real wars. The Great Prince Vitaut and the Polish king Yahaila decided to stop the raids, and gathered a huge army of 100, 000 warriors, which included representatives of all the East European peoples, and under the command of Vitaut this united army moved to Prussia, the nearest crusaders' state. The battle which took place on July, 15, 1410, near Grunwald (now in northern Poland) was hard and severe and the crusaders were utterly defeated by the united troops. After this battle, the Great Lithuanian Principality expanded its borders to the Baltic Sea and became the most powerful state in Eastern Europe. It occupied large territories from the Baltics to the Black Sea, having many neighboring states as vassals. The Moscow prince Vasily was Vitaut's grandson, and the princes of Tver and Ryazan called him their master. In addition, the Czechs wanted to grant him their crown; in response to which Vitaut sent his nephew to be a regent in Prague.
The difficult thing was to get rid of the Polish influence and the consequences of the Kreva union. All Vitaut did for Lithuania was not good for Poland or, to be exact, for the Polish ruling aristocracy which did not want Lithuania to be free from the sphere of their influence. Of course, the Poles were afraid of any open conflicts with Vitaut, but they used all their slyness and insidiousness to interfere with Lithuania's policies. Vitaut wished Lithuania to be completely independent from Poland, and in 1429 he proclaimed his state a kingdom. Yahaila's councillor, bishop Olesnicki, persuaded him to let Vitaut have the Polish crown, but Vitaut refused - he wanted only the Lithuanian throne. Then the Poles captured the Roman Emperor's envoys who carried a crown for Vitaut from the Vatican and took the crown away from them. Vitaut who was sick at that time didn't outlive the new misfortune and died November, 27, 1430, before the coronation was to occur.
Vitaut's reign and several decades after it are considered to be the period of the highest flourishing of Belarus and Belarusian culture. The Belarusian language was the state language of the Great Lithuanian Principality; all documents, laws, charts, and other official documents were issued in Belarusian; it was used also as an official language in some neighboring states like Moldavia. The statehood in Lithuania was also one of the most liberal in Eastern Europe. The Principality had a parliament consisting of two chambers - Soym and Rada, which replaced the vecha.
The population belonged to three groups - shlakhta (or aristocracy), merchants and artisans, and peasants. The conditions for the lower groups of population were generally better than in the Moscow principality or Poland. The majority of Belarusian cities had their right of self-government, the so-called Magdeburg right, based on elections. All these conditions attracted oppressed people from other countries. Thus, in addition to the Belarusians who occupied so-called Old Lithuania, Zhmudz; the Ukrainians, the indigenous population of the Principality; Tatars from the Golden Horde; and Jews from Germany and other countries of Europe also settled there. The liberal policy of Vitaut towards these peoples attracted them - they could feel free to use their language, religion, and traditions.
Belarus after Vitaut: Its Golden Age and Decline
After Vitaut's death the conflicts between the Orthodox and Catholic aristocracies of Lithuania started growing. After several years of palace intrigues, which were first won by the Orthodox with the Great Prince Svidryhaila, who was later replaced by Vitaut's brother Zhyhimont(Sigizmund10), in 1440, the Orthodox party elected Yahaila's son Kazimir to be the Great Prince of Lithuania, and in 8 years he also became Polish king after his brother Wladyslaw, king of Poland, died in the war with Turkey. Kazimir tried to find a compromise between Lithuania's independence and union with Poland, since he was very afraid of civil war in both countries. He issued some special laws (so called privileges) where he gave equal rights to the Catholic and Orthodox populations and also promised to observe the integrity of Lithuania. However, being too busy with internal affairs, he lost the Black Sea shore and the Crimea, which became occupied by the Turks.
Meanwhile, the Moscow prince Ivan III united the surrounding lands and proclaimed himself the Tsar and the head of all Orthodox people in Europe after marrying the daughter of the last Byzantine emperor. Therefore all Orthodox lands including Lithuania, according to him, should be joined to Moscow. Still being under the Tatar yoke, Ivan III started the campaign against the Tatars. The Tatar khan Akhmat asked Kazimir for help, but the Great Prince was too busy fighting with the Turks and with internal troubles, and he refused. In 1480 Ivan III liberated Moscow from Tatars and in 1499 he started the war with Lithuania. The Great Prince Alexander who replaced his brother Kazimir after his death in 1492 (at that time Columbus approached the new world!) was first defeated and Smolensk was occupied, but in 1501 Alexander drove the Muscovites away to Moscow after which the truce started. It lasted until 1509 when Moscow occupied Pskov and entered Belarus. In the battle near Orsha, the Belarusian troops under the command of getman (general) Kanstantin Astrozhsky managed to defeat the huge Moscow army and stop the war for a short period. The war was renewed in 1516, 1518, 1519, 1534, 1535, 1536, 1537, 1542, and 1549; and in actuality, the struggle for Belarus was continuous. It was extremely hard for the Belarusian people; the cities of Polatsk, Vitebsk, Homiel, Amstsislawye, Orsha suffered most of all. It can be said with confidence that around these cities there's not a single inch of land that has not been washed by blood. Thousands of graves still remind us of this war with Moscow. In 1558 the Moscow tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) assaulted the Livonian Order of crusaders, the Lithuanian neighbors. The Great Prince Zhyhimont August decided to help the crusaders on the condition of joining it to Lithuania. The 20-year Livonian war started. At first Ivan's army of 280,000 warriors occupied eastern Belarus devastating it all through; it took Polatsk in 1563. But in 1564 general Mikalai Radzivill defeated the Moscow army; and other Lithuanian generals also won victories in 1568. Ivan the Terrible had to sign the truce, according to which, however, Polatsk and eastern Livonia remained under Moscow's power.
In 1569 Poles raised the recurrent question about the unification of Poland and Lithuania. They wished a union in which Poland would dominate, but Belarusian and the Zhmudz aristocracy refused. But Zhyhimont August treated the proposition positively because of wars with Moscow, Swedes who attacked Livonia, and Crimean Tatars who renewed their raids in southern Ukraine. Though Lithuanian magnates entreated Zhyhimont August for not betraying the country's independence, he ignored them and in 1569 in Lublin, Poland, the state union was signed. According to it the two states united into one - Rech Paspalitaya11 with joint economies, military, and the king in Krakow. Ten times before the Poles had tried to join Lithuania completely to Poland and with the eleventh attempt, they finally succeeded; the Great Lithuanian Principality became extinct. However, after victory in the Livonian war, the Belarusians managed to create the local government for Lithuania with Belarusian as the state language and with a separate army and budget. The king of Rech Paspalitaya Stephan Batory, who replaced Zhygimont August after his death in 1576, managed to drive the Muscovites away from Polatsk and Livonia, thus winning the Livonian war. Unfortunately, during the battle for Polatsk, many architectural and written monuments were destroyed by fire.
In spite of the wars and troubles, the 14th through 16th centuries are considered to be the "Golden Age " in Belarusian culture. Lithuania was one of the main cultural centers in Eastern Europe. Belarusian artists, painters, and architects were in demand all over Europe; written Belarusian was a very highly developed language. In the beginning of the 16th century, with the spread of book-printing, the first books were printed in the Belarusian language. The first church books in Belarusian started appearing in 1483 in Krakow, and in 1517 the first Belarusian Bible was translated and printed in Prague by Dr. Francysk Skaryna from Polatsk (1492-1550); thus Belarusian became the second Slavic language after Czech in which the Bible was printed. Only years after that was book-printing started in Ukrainian, Polish, Zhmudzin, Latvian, and Russian. Francysk Skaryna worked in Prague till 1520 and then he returned to Vilnia, were Belarusian typography has already been founded. He translated from Latin other religious texts supplying them with his forewords and afterwords.
The book-printing activity of Skaryna was a very important factor in enlightening and educating the Belarusian people; that is why he is considered the biggest contributor to the Belarusian culture of the Renaissance. The year of his 500th anniversary, 1992, was proclaimed by UNESCO the year of Skaryna. After him education and book-printing rapidly spread all over Belarus; schools and typographies were opened in many towns and many books were printed there by Skaryna's successors Vasil Tiapinski, Symon Budny, Symon Polatski and others. Many Belarusian cultural achievements were adopted by other East European countries; for example, many church books in Russian and Ukrainian were later translated from Belarusian; the first Moscow code of laws of 1649 copied many laws of Lithuania issued in Belarusian more than a century before. At that time most of the Belarusian chronicles which are known now were written. The Belarusian scientist Kazimir Semianovich was one of the first who studied rocket theory; another scientist, Gallash Kapievich from Vitebsk invented a simplified variant of the Cyrillic alphabet which was more suitable for printing and later started being used by all Cyrillic-writing peoples. Lots of young aristocratic Belarusian people at that time visited Western Europe where they studied in universities and lived in the spirit of the Renaissance. One of them, the poet Mikola Husouski, left a wonderful monument of Belarusian literature written in Latin while he lived in Italy - "Song about the Aurochs". This youth was the first to bring the Reformation from Western Europe to Belarus.
After Vitaut's death the obscured contradictions between the Orthodox and Catholic population of Lithuania started growing, mostly due to the expanded influence of Poland and Russia since both Catholic and Orthodox churches in Belarus depended on religious centers outside Belarus - the Vatican and Warsaw, and Moscow. Even Navahradak eparchy after Vitaut's death appeared under the Moscow Patriarchate's influence. That's why many educated people of Belarus believed that the Protestant church may serve as a shield for Belarusian independence; special activity in promoting the Reformation in Belarus was performed by prince Mikalai Radzivill, the Black. He founded 163 Calvinist (Presbyterian) parishes, schools, and gymnasiums in Belarus, wishing to turn the whole country to Calvinism. But soon after that Polish Jesuits expanded their activities in the country aiming at strengthening Polish influence. The Jesuits worked it out in all branches of culture founding schools, universities, and monasteries.
The revolution of the Reformation moved all people's thoughts, customs, and ideals; new support was needed, and the Jesuits turned out to be stronger in this battle for human minds. They managed to win the Protestant moods in Belarus and turned to Catholicism a big part of population. In their urge to establish control over the Orthodox population, they suggested a church union which would unite both churches and be headed by the Roman Pope. Belarusian patriots saw the possibility of creating a church independent from Poland and Moscow, and they agreed to the union, which was signed in Brest in 1595. Thus the Uniate, or Greek Catholic church, was founded. Unfortunately, the Uniate church was ruled by the Jesuits who tried to eliminate all Orthodox traditions in the new church. This caused a wide wave of people's protests and killed the idea of Belarusian independence for centuries, due to the failure of Greek Catholicism to become the Belarusian independent religion. The history of Belarus turned out to be the history of popular protests against its oppressors.
In the beginning of the 17th century the internal fights for power in Moscow started again; the so-called False Demetrius 12 started a revolt against the tsar Boris Godunov, and Belarusians used these conflicts for rejoining the territories occupied by Moscow. Thus, in 1609 Zhyhimont August liberated Smolensk and entered Moscow. The truce was signed only in 1618, according to which Smolensk joined Rech Paspalitaya. Meanwhile, the oppressed Orthodox people started escaping from Belarus to the southern Ukraine, were since old times there lived Cossacks - free farmers who did not recognize any power over themselves. They sometimes attacked the neighboring Turkish villages causing indignation of the Turks who started threatening Rech Paspalitaya with war. In response, the Polish authorities limited many rights of the Cossacks and forced them to accept the Uniate church by closing Orthodox churches or renting them to the Jews.
The Cossacks started revolts against the Poles and against Polish and Catholic influence. The biggest revolt occurred in 1648 under the command of Bohdan Khmelnitski. He managed to gather a huge army of Cossacks - about half a million people - which defeated the Polish troops in several battles. These victories were heartily supported by most of the Belarusian farmers; some of them started their own revolts but were defeated by getman Radzivill. The Cossack war lasted till 1654 until Khmelnitski had to ask Moscow for help. Moscow established its control over most of the Ukraine and together with the Cossacks, the Muscovites occupied the whole of Belarus as well as its capital Vilnia. At this same time, the Swedes renewed their war against Poland and quickly occupied it and started negotiations with Moscow about the division of conquered territories. But the Muscovites didn't trust the Swedes; they believed the Poles, who had promised to give them all of the Belarusian and Ukrainian lands. Moscow stopped its war against Rech Paspalitaya after which the Polish troops defeated the Swedes, and the Lithuanian army managed to defeat the Muscovites and drive them away from most of the Belarusian lands. This victory made some of the Belarusian magnates think about the restoration of independence of the Great Lithuanian Principality, but their leader, Yanush Radzivill, who had tried to create a union between Lithuania and Sweden in 1655, perished in the war with the Poles. Another attempt was undertaken by the Belarusian magnate Paul Sapega, but it failed, too. In order to kill the spirit of resistance, in 1697, the Poles forbade the use of the Belarusian language in the courts and other official cases, and in 1699 they forbade the election of Orthodox citizens in local governments. These acts were a knife to the back of the Belarusians - they blocked the development of Belarusian culture and deprived Belarusians of many rights.
In 1697 the throne of Rech Paspalitaya was occupied by August II, the Saxon, German by origin. He wanted to subordinate Livonia, which was under the Swedes; and jointly with Denmark and Moscow he started the war against Sweden in 1700, the so-called Northern war. Most of the military events took place on Belarusian territory, resulting in terrible devastation. Each side, in order to destroy possible reserves and benefits for the enemy, systematically burned Belarusian towns and villages. Finally the war was won in 1721 by the tsar Peter I who proclaimed himself the Russian emperor, after which Russia became the strongest power in Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, the religious conflicts reached their zenith in Rech Paspalitaya. In 1768 the Orthodox and Protestant authorities founded a confederation, in response to which the Catholics founded their own confederation and started a war against the first one. Orthodox leaders turned to Russia for help and received it since Russia was eager to support any internal conflicts in Rech Paspalitaya. The force of Russia on the state grew year after year, and in 1773 Russian troops again appeared in Rech Paspalitaya as if to defend the Orthodox belief. After the occupation, the first division of Rech Paspalitaya occurred; and according to its conditions, Belarusian territories up to the Dnieper were joined to Russia. As a result of the continuation of internal discords in Rech Paspalitaya, Russian troops were again involved in 1793, and this resulted in a second division in which the rest of Belarus as well as northern Ukraine appeared under Russian power. After that, revolt against the Russians took place in Poland. It was lead by Tadevush Kasciushka (Cosciusco), Belarusian by origin, who later took part in the War for Independence in America. But this revolt was suppressed and the third division of Rech Pospolitaya occurred, by which Poland also became Russian territory; Rech Paspalitaya together with Lithuania disappeared as a state. The will of the Russian tsars, beginning at the time of Vasily, finally came true, and Belarus was an endless battlefield for nearly 200 years as a result.
The Russian Bondage
The Russians in Belarus immediately started persecuting everything Belarusian. The goal of this persecution was to destroy all thoughts of Belarusian statehood and to Russify all Belarusian people. This policy, of course, cared very little of people's needs and wishes. "People" in the sense of those times were primarily knights, the aristocracy, and merchants; farmers and the peasants (serfs) were not considered as representatives of the Belarusian people. Russia announced to other countries that the newly conquered territories were Russian and that the conquest itself did not happen - it was just a reunification of the same people.
Thus, in attempting to destroy Belarusian culture, the Russians closed the University in Polatsk in 1820, in 1832 the same thing happened to the University in Vilnia. In 1839, the Russians forbade using the Belarusian language in churches and schools, and also abolished the Uniate church, which at the end of Rech Pospolitaya started being a defender of Belarusian and Ukrainian culture and education. In 1840 the Lithuanian Status - the Belarusian Code of Laws - was abolished, too, and Belarus was named the "Northwestern Region." Simultaneously, the glorious historical Belarusian name Lithuania related only to a purely Baltic tribe, the Zhmudz, which had never been called Lithuanians; since then, they have kept this name as the name of their country13. The rapacious taxes and exploitation of the Belarusian people strongly deteriorated the economic situation of the country; Belarus became a poor and retarded outskirt of the Russian Empire.
In 1812 the war between Russia and Napoleon started. Both the route of Napoleon to Moscow and his escape from there passed through the territory of Belarus, devastating it yet again to ashes. However, Napoleon turned to be a supporter of the idea of the Belarusian state, though in a shape that suited his interests. During the short period of occupation, he created two Belarusian states - "Lithuania" which was on the territory of the Belastok(Bialystok14), Harodnia(Hrodna), Vilnia, and Minsk regions (again without Zhmudz), and "Belarus," which occupied the eastern Belarusian lands. In case of a truce, Napoleon was going to give "Belarus" to Moscow leaving "Lithuania" under his power. Belarusians, certainly, did not like these intentions and raised the question of unification of the two states. But this situation did not last too long - still in 1812, Napoleon was defeated and the Russian invasion of Belarus started again even more severely.
The ideas of the French Revolution of 1789 - Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity - reached the souls of all the oppressed peoples of Europe including the Belarusians. Before the closing of Vilnia University, a new wave of Belarusian renascence started there. Under the influence of its professors and a progressive group of students, other Belarusians also became interested in the history and the idea of Belarusian ethnicity. Since the Belarusian language under the Russians was not allowed to be used in education, Polish was opposed to Russian as a language of the Belarusian intelligentsia. The first Belarusian poets of this period - Yan Chachot who wrote both in Polish and Belarusian and Uladyslau Syrakomlia - also came from the progressive students' organizations. Chachot's close friend poet Adam Mickewicz, a Belarusian from Navahradak who wrote in Polish, greatly enriched Polish culture by his talent. Even the closing of Vilnia University in 1832 could not stop the Belarusian cultural enthusiasm of the 19th century. New cultural artists appeared in Belarus, among which were Vincent Dunin-Martsinkevich, a very fruitful Belarusian playwright, and polonized Belarusian composer Stanislau Maniushka - the authors of the first Belarusian opera.
Together with the cultural renascence, the spirit of protest against the Moscow occupation was growing among the Belarusian youth. The preparation for revolt was actively taking place and finally exploded into rising in arms in 1863.
The revolt was started in Poland and soon was expanded to Belarus and Lithuania where it achieved its culmination. There were 80,000 rebel troops, and they managed to fight more than 260 battles against 200,000 Russian soldiers. The goals of the rebels were first of all independence of Belarus to the extent of the borders of the Great Lithuanian Principality, freedom and land for the farmers, and free access to education. The soul and the leader of the revolt was Kastus Kalinouski - a national hero of Belarus. In 1863 Kalinouski was only 25, but before the revolt started he and his friends lead a wide and active agitation of people in order to convince them to protest against the Muscovites. They talked to farmers, merchants, and artisans and explained the importance of armed revolt. The people who were very tired of and angry at the Muscovites eagerly supported Kalinouski's ideas. For wider publicity, Kalinouski illegally issued a newspaper "Muzhytskaya Prauda"("Peasant's Truth") in which under a pseudonym, he wrote about the ways of liberating Belarus from Russian and Polish oppressors. Few European politicians of that time were brave and prescient enough to claim the reforms in agriculture and the equality of peasants and others as did Kalinouski. The Russian tsar Alexander II sent his general Muravyov to put the rebels down. He literally sank in blood many troops of rebels. Kalinouski started the struggle for total mobilization of the people in Belarus and Lithuania, and soon the revolt embraced the territory of Belarus completely. In response, the Russians sent in a whole network of spies and police in order to capture the leadership of the revolt, and in 1864 they located Kalinouski's headquarters and arrested him. He was soon sentenced to death and hanged in Vilnia on March, 22, 1864. When Kastus Kalinouski was standing under the gallows and heard the hangman calling out "Nobleman Kastus Kalinouski!" he shouted: "We don't have noblemen, we are all equal!" After his execution the revolt was quickly suppressed; lots of people were hanged, shot, or exiled to Siberia. In order to prevent further riots, the tsarist government forbade any printing in the Belarusian language.
But this interdiction did not stop the Belarusian cultural renascence. Belarusian ethnologists Karski, Nikifarouski, and others who were forced to work for the Russians, but still continued their investigations and proved that in spite of repressions, the Belarusian people, language, and culture goes on in its historical development. Also the political protests of Belarusians kept going on. Thus, the Belarusian student Ihnat Hryniavitski made a bomb and blew up the Russian tsar Alexander II in 1881 in St. Petersburg together with himself - a brave, but useless, terrorist action since this could not stop the oppression. The most outstanding representative of Belarusian renascence of this period was author Frantsishak Bahushevich, also a rebel of 1863. In his poems he showed Belarusians their glorious past and claimed them for preserving and restoring Belarusian culture and statehood. He had to print his books abroad. Together with Bahushevich, the enlightenment was lead by the writers Yanka Luchyna, Adam Hurynovich, and others. Due to their works, the foundation for the further education and renascence of Belarus was laid, and the country entered the 20th century ready for a new wave in the movement for liberation.
Independence again - and its rapid loss
In 1902 in Minsk, the first Belarusian political organization was founded - the Belarusian Socialist Hramada (Union) - BSH. It illegally printed books by Frantsishak Bahushevich, Yanka Luchyna, and other writers. At its congress in Vilnia in 1903, the BSH aimed to create the Autonomous Belarusian Republic with its parliament in Vilnia. The revolution in Russia in 1905 and the military misfortunes of the Russo-Japanese war forced Russian authorities to grant some freedoms to the national minorities, after which the BSH started legally printing the newspaper "Nasha Niva"("Our Field") which became a voice of the Belarusian cultural Renaissance. All the best Belarusian poets and writers, the founders of contemporary Belarusian literature, such as Yanka Kupala, Maksim Bahdanovich, Yakub Kolas, Ales Harun, and Maksim Haretski were published in "Nasha Niva." From this newspaper dozens of Belarusian writers, journalists, artists, and political leaders started their careers. For example, one of them was Vatslau Lastouski - a future Prime Minister of the Belarusian People's Republic and historian whose book was one of the main references for these notes. Also among the participants of "Nasha Niva" was Belarusian poetess Alaiza Pashkevich whose revolutionary poems and charity activity was very helpful in the functioning of Belarusian organizations. Artist Ihnat Buinitski who created a Belarusian ensemble of song and dance also participated. The Belarusian intelligentsia often went abroad and took part in different congresses and festivals getting support for its activities.
World War I started in 1914 and again made Belarus a battle field. Vilnia was occupied by the Germans while another Belarusian center - Minsk - remained under the Russians. The contacts between the different parts of Belarus were broken. The revolutions of 1917 in Russia first drove away the tsarist bureaucrats from the "Russian" part of Belarus, but in October they were replaced by Bolsheviks. Under this unstable political situation all the Belarusian public organizations gathered in the All-Belarusian Congress, the purpose of which was to decide the political future of Belarus. The Congress decided to proclaim the autonomous Belarusian Democratic Republic, but was disbanded by the Bolsheviks.
In the spring of 1918, the Germans renewed their attack and pushed the Russian communists from Minsk and central Belarus. The Rada (Council) of the All-Belarusian Congress in Minsk proclaimed itself the temporary power in Belarus and on March, 25, 1918 proclaimed the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic (BPR) which was to embrace all the territories with a majority of Belarusian population. But in fact, it occupied only the central part of modern Belarus. Its parliament proclaimed all the main principles of democracy like freedom of speech, printing, religion, unions, strikes, personal inviolability, and the equal rights of all the peoples of Belarus. The Belarusian People's Republic was the first Belarusian independent state after the Great Lithuanian Principality. It was recognized de jure by the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Finland, Poland, Turkey, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, and Georgia; most of the other countries of the world recognized Belarus de facto. The new government of the country started the work of restoration of the land which had been devastated, robbed, and oppressed for centuries.
Meanwhile, the Germans, who did not recognize the BPR, caused different obstacles for its functioning. Soon, however, Germany was defeated, and the young Belarusian People's Republic found itself in between the two huge aggressive forces - the Russian Bolsheviks from the east and Polish marshal Pilsudzki with his army from the west. Both forces were against an independent Belarus and tried to occupy it. In 1919, to counterbalance the BPR, Smolensk communists proclaimed the Byelorussian15 Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). In his turn, Pilsudzki informed Belarus about his plans to create a federation of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. Belarusians did not trust him, and later it became clear that Poles cared very little about the autonomy of Belarus - they just adjoined all occupied lands to Poland. This happened in 1921 after the Soviet-Polish war. The armed forces of the Belarusian People's Republic were too weak to protect their country from the two aggressors; however, in many places the resistance was extremely severe and even successful, for instance, in Slutsk, were the defense held for 5 weeks. Nevertheless, the Belarusian People's Republic was smashed and divided between Soviet Russia and Poland. The Bolsheviks took over the bigger part, where they placed the BSSR with its capital in Minsk, which later in 1922 was the co-founder of the USSR; Western Belarus with its 4 million people was joined to Poland. The government and Rada of the BPR lead by P. Krecheuski and V.Lastouski had to escape abroad - to Lithuania.
Dismembered and Oppressed
During the first years of Soviet Belarus, the communist regime encouraged Belarusian cultural development, hoping for more loyalty of the population towards the Soviet communist government. Many Belarusian scientists, writers, and artists returned from emigration and started active work in re-opening Belarusian educational, scientific, and cultural institutions. Wide explorations of Belarusian history, ethnology, economy, and natural resources were made at that time; lots of journals and books in Belarusian started being printed. Several universities and institutes including Belarusian State University in Minsk were opened in the 1920s; lots of conferences, including international ones, took place in Minsk as well. The foreign guests often were surprised by the vitality of Belarusian cultural life. Belarusian economists prepared agricultural reform close to Danish and Dutch patterns, which had, of course, nothing to do with Soviet collective farms. In spite of these achievements, the freedoms of communist Belarus were very limited; everything was covered by strict Bolshevik ideology, and it was dangerous even to think about a free press or speech.
But even this progress was stopped in the early 1930s, when Stalin gained power and started waves of repression against any sign of different trends of thought. Hundreds of Belarusian scientific and cultural leaders were arrested by fictitious accusations and sentenced to death or exile to Siberia. Among the victims of Stalinist terror were the Belarusian politicians Zmiter Zhylunovich, Vatslau Lastouski, the writers Maksim Haretski, Mikhas Zaretski, Yanka Kupala, Kuzma Chorny, and the scientists Smolich, Azbukin, etc. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were exiled to Soviet concentration camps in the process of the creation of the collective farms - collectivization. Over a million innocent people of the BSSR were arrested, shot, tortured to death, or died in concentration camps during the Stalinist terror. People were frightened to the point of panic by the possibility of arrest all over the USSR. The KGB agents and informers slandered more and more people; the bloody 30s, 40s, and early 50s were the dark years of the history of all the former Soviet republics.
The situation of Western Belarus under the Polish power was not better. Belarusians were deprived of all the rights to national self-determination. In its urge to polonize them, Poland liquidated all Belarusian schools, forbade the Belarusian language in the Catholic churches, and took more and more land from Belarusian farmers. The Poles did not even use the word Belarus - the official name for the occupied lands was Wschodnie Kresy. The Belarusian political organizations and their leaders Tarashkevich, Rak-Mikhailouski, and others, fought for protection of the rights of Belarusians. They gained more and more supporters, and finally, in 1927, the Poles liquidated these organizations and arrested many of their members. In 1939, according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Western Belarus was joined to the USSR while Hitler started World War II by occupying Poland. The Soviet "liberation" put Western Belarus in a situation similar to that of the BSSR with its waves of terror. Nearly a half-million people from Western Belarus were exiled to Siberia. According to the German-Soviet treaty of 1939, the USSR also occupied the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These Baltic countries were able to maintain their independence longer than the Belarusian People's Republic. In order to get the military bases and to win Lithuanian favor, Soviet government gave Lithuania the Belarusian city of Vilnia - "Belarusian Jerusalem", the center of Belarusian culture became the capital of another country.
The short period of German-Soviet friendship ended on June, 22, 1941 - the two monstrous dictatorships started their war which was the most terrible war ever for Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Belarus was, as usual, the place of heaviest battles; it was occupied by the Germans very soon after the war started. The only resistance that could occur under those conditions was an underground partisan movement, and it was started immediately and aggressively. The plans of Hitler were to make Belarusians German slaves, exploit the whole nation and the entire country. They continued the policy of mass terrorist killing, burning, and devastating whole villages together with their inhabitants. A quarter of the population of Belarus was killed; that's 2.5 million people. Together with the Belarusians, the Jewish, Ukrainian, and Russian populations of Belarus were kept in dozens of concentration camps and killed. Of course, the German military prevented any manifestations of Belarusian national feelings. Only at the end of 1943 - when it was already too late - they changed their policies to some extent. They permitted the creation of the Belarusian Central Rada to manage the internal affairs, though it was controlled by Germans. In 1944 in Minsk, the Second All-Belarusian Congress again proclaimed the Belarusian desire for independence and self-determination. But the Soviet Army which by that time succeeded in turning the Germans back, took over Belarus in the summer of 1944, liberating it from the German occupation and restoring the conditions of the earlier one, which used to be before the war.
For the extraordinary losses of World War II, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was granted a seat in the United Nations; so was the Ukraine. Thus, the USSR controlled 3 places there. In the post-war years, Belarus started being rebuilt, mostly with the help of other USSR republics. But the pre-war population of Belarus was restored only in the late 1970s. Nobody will also return to Belarus the dozens of architectural and other cultural monuments which were destroyed, burned, or stolen during the war. Minsk was ruined almost completely; Polatsk, Vitebsk, Brest, Hrodna - all Belarusian cities were severely damaged, as a result of this war, which along with World War I, deprived Belarus of a great share of its cultural heritage. Belarus also suffered territorial losses - the Belastok region was granted to Poland.
A Long Way to the Fall of the Soviet Era
All the Soviet events of the post-war period were, of course, all reflected in Belarus, too. It came through the end of Stalinism, the Khruschev "thaw," the durable stagnation of the Brezhnev government, the Cold War, and perestroika. These years were tragic for Belarusian culture and language. All the creative work was under communist control and was made to serve the Soviet ideology. Russians who occupied all the dominating positions in leadership of the Soviet Union attempted to russify all the peoples of the USSR, including the Belarusians. They started doing it in 1933 when the first "reform" of the Belarusian language was held. Then other "reforms" followed it. The purpose of these "reforms" was to make Belarusian as much like Russian as possible in order to finally assimilate it with Russian and to annihilate it. The same policy was to lead towards other languages of the USSR, but since most of them were too different from Russian, less success was achieved. Belarus, which carried its language through centuries of interdictions, was not able to resist this ideological attack. Belarusian was slowly replaced by Russian which was artificially called "the educated language" while Belarusian was called "rude " and "farmer's." Thousands of Russians, who settled in Belarus after the war, were supporting this situation, and many Belarusians started to forget their language in favor of Russian. The communist influence in post-war Belarus was especially strong since many people were grateful to the communists for liberation from the German occupation. As a result of this, in the larger Belarusian cities, Russian became the main language; Belarusian remained only in the countryside.
In April, 1986, a new and terrible tragedy happened to Belarus - the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant equal to the explosion of 150 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Though the station itself was situated in the Ukraine, the winds blew in the direction of Belarus the whole time after the incident. As a result, 70 per cent of all radioactive fallout fell on Belarusian land, turning one fifth of it into a zone of radioactive contamination. The population of this zone is about 2.5 million - these are people who were affected most of all, but the rest of Belarusians were also exposed to radiation, to a large degree, due to the misinformation provided by the communist officials. This resulted to a decrease in the national health of Belarusians - the level of cancers, genetic mutations, and leukemia has strongly increased. On the first World Summit in 1993 in Brazil, the Belarusian leader Stanislau Shushkevich declared Belarus a zone of ecological catastrophe; Belarusian scientists gave the alarm to the world about the danger to the Belarusian genetic fund. But still the consequences of the disaster are mostly obscured - it will take several generations for all of them to become expressed. Nobody knows what effect it will cause for the long-term existence of the Belarusian nation.
For its patience and suffering carried out through the centuries, Belarus was arrogantly called by the Soviet leaders "a tolerant republic." Even during perestroika Belarus was a stronghold of conservatism. But recently, new progressive organizations have started to appear, the most active and progressive of which is the Belarusian Popular Front "Adradzhenne" ("Renascence"). Primarily due to its efforts, that after the events of 1991-1992 in the USSR, on August, 25, 1991, the independent Republic of Belarus was proclaimed in Minsk, and the historical white-red-white flag and the coat of arms of the Great Lithuanian Principality became its official symbols.
The Current Situation - Still Dramatic
Unfortunately, this was not the beginning of Belarusian self-determination and new independent life, though independence, achieved the second time after Great Lithuanian Principality was certainly a huge step forward. Together with independence, Belarus inherited the disastrous economic situation, collapsing crisis with inflation, unemployment and flourishing organized crime.
The first Belarusian parliament elected on the so-called democratic principles, on 70% consisted of the communists of former-Soviet nomenclature who undertook all their efforts to make the step backwards and betray Belarusian sovereignty. Belarusian government, elected by this parliament and headed by Prime Minister V.Kebich was not able to manage the economy of the country. However, the communists who took power in 1917, as it is known, don't resign themselves; Kebich & Co, clutching at their positions, humiliatedly begged Russia for takeover, and signed so-called economic "unions" with Russia, whose economy isn't in a much better condition either. This is, probably, the only case in history, when the government of the country voted against country's sovereignty. Kebich's government tried to assure the population that the result of the unification of Russia's and Belarus's economies would be first of all cheap oil and gas, common currency would stop inflation rate, the Belarusian debt to Russia would be postponed, etc., etc. This is a myth.
Russia can't care less for Belarusian interests - first, because it's got its own piles of problems, second, the imperialistic ambitions of this country are still high and the union will just be a new form of dependence. Russia will not sell fuel to Belarus or any other country for less than world prices because monopolistic structures controlling oil business in Russia follow pure market laws, not the political ones. Belarusian business and banks would be absorbed by stronger Russian ones and huge Russian mafia.
Besides, parliament ratified a military treaty with Russia and other countries of so-called CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Now Belarus would have to contribute in the multiple conflicts on the territory of the former USSR. With great hardships speaker of Belarusian parliament Stanislau Shushkevich prevented adopting the paragraph by which Belarusian troops would have to serve outside Belarus. All these treacherous treaties were desperately fought against by parliament opposition, the minority consisting of Popular Front members and democratically minded deputies lead by Zyanon Paznyak.
The opposition which includes economists and other scientists, suggested their plan of way out of crisis. This is starting of market and first of all agricultural reforms; creating Belarusian monetary and financial system according to the example of Baltic countries and Poland, with its custom-house and real border with Russia and the Ukraine and tariff system; real privatization of state property; attraction of not the Western credits, but rather Western investments in Belarusian economy, because the credits are being used to "fix" other holes in Belarusian economy; and of course, staying aside of any unions with Russia whose historical example and present situation shows the fatal danger of these unions.
The international doctrine of Belarus should be neutrality and non-participation in any military blocks; the economy should be completely opened to the West, though, having Russia as one of trade partners. Only this can strengthen Belarusian sovereignty and economy. Belarus is not a poor country; the state property per capita is enormous. The geographic position of Belarus is extremely comfortable; it could become European transport station and be wealthy only by that. The educational base in Belarus is highly developed, especially in physics, biology, chemistry, technologies - with sufficient sources for development we could have enough human resources. Opposition leads active propaganda trying to persuade Belarusians in these points and hold new elections; they managed to collect sufficient number of votes for referendum for new elections, but the parliament ignored people's will, automatically putting itself in the non-legitimate position. seeing that nothing can change the situation, population is finally tired of all the political claims and their fruitlessness. Most of people who are struggling for existence are reluctant to take any part in Republic's destiny; apathy and indifference are very strong. On the contrary, communist pensioners are very active ( they have nothing else to do), they organize meetings with Soviet flags and support of the parliament. They pour floods of dirt upon everything Belarusian; this probably didn't happen even in the worst times of Polish or Russian occupations.
Few people could predict the dramatic changes in the Belarusian political scene that the year of 1994 brought to the country. In January, two Lithuanian Communist leaders who were hiding in Minsk, were arrested by Lithuanian secret service and deported from Belarus. Such an act outraged their ideological allies in the Belarusian parliament, and the two "force" ministers, Uladzimir Jahorau of internal affairs, and Eduard Shyrkouski, of KGB, were forced to resign. But this was not enough for the hard-line parliament, and put the position of Stanislau Shushkevich on vote. Of course, the speaker had few chances to remain on his position, and he was successfully dismissed from the chair by the majority of deputies on January, 27, 1994. The country started its way to its first presidential elections in history, which were to be held in June of 1994. Seven candidates started their campaign, the most influential of which were Henadz' Karpenka, the chairman of center-leftist party "Zgoda", Zyanon Paznyak, leader of Belarusian Popular Front "Adradzhennie", Stanislau Shushkevich, who, in spite of his removal, didn't lose his will to lead the democratic reforms in Belarus, Alyaksandar Lukashenka, head or parliament anti-corruption committee, and, of course, Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich, whose chances and existing power were by far the highest.
But the people of Belarus decided differently. They were tired of seeing corrupted, Soviet communist party bosses in power. On the other hand, internal contradictions within the democratic forces didn't let a single candidate gain enough voted to advance to the second round of elections. However, if Paznyak's and Shushkevich's votes together (around 20% of votes) were combined to a single candidate, maybe he would have passed through. But these are only guesses. The reality was, that the second round of elections consisted of Vyacheslau Kebich and Alyaksandar Lukashenka, who made his popularity on anti-corruption and anti-Kebich slogans, as well as playing on people's nostalgic moods about "good old" Soviet times, when shops had enough sausage and meat, and when there were more economic security. Lukashenka proudly stressed that he was the only Belarusian MP who voted against Belavezha agreements, which put an end to the Soviet empire. As a result of such populist activity, former director of a collective farm Lukashenka, to Kebich's surprise, won elections on July, 10, 1994, and became the first president of Belarus.
But then not many people could predict the true face of president Lukashenka. For the West, he remained a mystery, or, rather, an erratic leader who is eager to do something, but doesn't know where to start. During the first several months of his rule he switched from extremely pro-Russian and pro-Communist statements to criticism toward Russia for gas shortages and assurances in his will to strengthen independent Belarus. But his real aspiration became clear eventually: strong, authoritarian power in the country, achieved by all means. To enforce his rule, he created the so-called presidential vertical of power, which consisted of his representatives in all regions of Belarus who were subordinate only to the president and didn't have to obey the local executive authorities. Lukashenka surrounded himself by agrarians from his native Mahilyow region, whose competence hardly goes beyond managing a collective farm. These people are representing the true power in the Republic of Belarus.
Soon after the Lukashenka's first 100 days of presidency, a well-planned attack on the independent mass media was launched in Belarus. Many popular TV shows and newspapers which did not always approve actions of the president, were closed; in others, editors were replaced by more loyal ones. This happened to the most popular Belarusian newspaper, "Narodnaya Gazeta", whose editor-in-chief MP Iosif Syaredzich was fired by the decree of president Lukashenka. The opposition newspaper, "Svaboda", was forced first out of Minsk, and soon, out of Belarus, and is being currently printed in Vilnius, Lithuania.
This was too much even for the communist Supreme Soviet of Belarus. President Lukashenka practically ignored the legislative branch of power in the country and ruled by his decrees. The protests of the deputies were neglected and even brutally suppressed, as it was in case with a group of democratic deputies who held a hunger strike in the parliamentary building in protest of upcoming referendum on the integration with Russia. By the order of Lukashenka, they were beaten up by police and forcefully taken outside. Lukashenka suggested that the parliament dismisses itself, however, this anti-constitutional attempt was turned down by the Supreme Soviet.
The referendum of May, 14, 1995 was designed by the president , who sought to obtain people's approval of his actions and get a green light in all his ventures. The four questions were put on referendum: do you approve economic integration with Russia? do you approve the statehood of Russian language in Belarus? do you approve replacement of Belarusian state symbols by the old communist ones? do you allow the president to dismiss the parliament if necessary? Even conservative deputies agreed upon the anti-constitutional character of these questions, but nevertheless a massive mass media campaign was started by the president in support of positive answers to all four questions. From the screens of TV's and pages of newspapers, tons of dirt were flowing on the Popular Front and the idea of Belarusian revival, which the president associated with Nazi regime in Belarus. Dozens of foreign observers registered this propaganda as a violation of freedom of speech. Although only 64.7 per cent of population took part in the vote, "yes" was voted on all four questions of the referendum. Falsifications of votes and direct instructions on how to vote, especially in the countryside, were alleged, but that fact remained, that the majority of Belarusian population was still urging for old Soviet times and saw unification with Russia as the only way back to old times.
Immediately following the result of the referendum, Belarusian state white-red-white flag, flag of medieval Belarusian history and Belarusian glory, flag which was approved by the parliament and could only be removed by the parliament, was taken off the presidential palace and torn into pieces. Presidential associate, who ordered the act, signed the rips and gave them away as souvenirs. The old red-green flag of Byelorussian SSR was hung instead, and eventually replaced the historic one everywhere by the presidential decree. A small rally organized by the students of Belarusian State University in support of the white-red-white flag was broken by the police, beating up and arresting the participants. As a silent protest against the treacherous decree, many students, who were previously apolitical, started wearing pins with Belarusian state flag and coat-of-arms "Pahonia", sixth oldest state symbol in Europe. Instead of investing in the Belarusian economy, paying salaries to people who have been working for free for months, contributing to liquidation of Chernobyl consequences, the president decided to spend money on replacement of all stamps, banknotes, official papers with new symbols, as well as wasting billions of Belarusian rubles on the Soviet-style military parade on the Victory Day.
As president Lukashenka was getting more and more pro-Russian, his anti-Western moods were growing and reflecting themselves in the foreign policy of Belarus. Despite of neutral status of Belarus, talks are being held about forming a military treaty with Russia to help the Eastern "brother" oppose NATO expansion. The president keeps blackmailing Western countries with interruption of nuclear weapons dismantling in Belarus, if the West does not contribute more money or even does not accept other Eastern European countries to NATO. On September, 12, 1995, a terrible act of Belarusian self-alienation with the West occurred: two American sport balloonists were shot down dead over the Belarusian territory. The sportsmen were participating an international race, and they had permissions to fly over all European countries. They were thought to be spies by the Belarusian Air Defense. However, Belarusian government never even apologized for the incident, causing strong indignation of the American authorities.
Even the strong supporters of Alyaksandar Lukashenka among the WWII veterans were shocked when the president praised some of Adolf Hitler's policies in his interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt on November 23, 1995. In that interview, Lukashenka compared his own role in Belarusian history with Hitler's role in strengthening Germany and putting the country to order. However, following Hitler's policies in suppressing the freedom of speech and democracy in Belarus, Lukashenka failed to accomplish any economic reforms. In spite of numerous agreements with Russia and president's assurances that Belarus gains from Russian cheap fuel, Belarusian oil and gas debt are continuing to grow. Due to lack of established export policy and privatization, Belarusian enterprises, having no cash on hand, delay paying salaries and wages to employees for months. Treacherous tariff policies directed to protection on Russian markets have lead to increases in prices on many consumer goods in Belarus. Presidential decrees directly interfered into Belarusian National Bank's policies of issuing credits, forcing Bank's president Stanislau Bahnadkevich to resign. A constant threat to nationalize commercial banks inhibits any credit circulation in the country.
But the most dangerous result of Russian-Belarusian accords is the militarization of Belarus with Russian Army. Lukashenka openly says that Russian western border is the river Bug (between Belarus and Poland). While Russian economists are reluctant to take the burden of Belarusian economy, Russian politicians and especially neo-communists, build long-term strategic plans of expanding of the new Russian empire and oppose NATO and the West as a new military entity. For them, Belarus is a flagship of Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
One might ask, why would president Lukashenka urge so much for a closer integration with Russia? Wouldn't this limit his presidency to a simple position of a governor of "Russian province Belarus"? The aspirations of Belarusian president seem to be much bigger than the role of the first president. He is trying to become the major architect of the renowned Soviet Union, competing with his influence on masses with Russian political leaders. In Russian relative reluctance to accept some of Lukashenka's offers, one could see that Russian president Yeltsin and his surroundings fear to lose the control of the situation, when Lukashenka's neo-communist zealousness can help him conquer sympathy of Russian people as well. And the anti-democratic moods of majority of Russian people is shown by popularity of communist leaders and communist party in Russia. What are Lukashenka's true aspirations? To lead the new gigantic union? To become the Herostratus of Belarusian state? The time will show. Until 1999, when the new presidential elections are due in Belarus, we can only pray Belarus remains a country on the world's map.
Meanwhile, the world must know that there are people in Belarus who are strongly against of giveaway of their country initiated by Lukashenka. And as oppression grows, so does the anger of the people and the spirit of Belarusian Independence, especially among the younger generations. We have gotten our own independent country in 1991, and we shall not allow traitors to sell it. I strongly believe that whatever happens to Belarus in the next couple of years, the country, the culture, the spirit, and the soul of Belarus will survive in hearts of millions of Belarusians, and eventually it will rise to the sun of Freedom, as described in a Sonnet by Maksim Bahdanovich back in 1911:
In the Egyptian age-long desert land,
Washed by the Nile's azure sacred waters,
Handful of seeds buried by ancient potters
Was found in crypt, covered with prehistoric sand.
Although the grains were dried in thousand years
The force of life in them that still was gleaming,
Had woken up and started magic beaming
Which pushed the cornfield up to spring rain's tears.
My poor country, this is your immortal symbol.
Your people's spirit, cheerful and nimble,
Believe me, won't drop off again.
It'll jet ahead, and roll like thunder
Which pushed the sprout out of the grain
And managed to create a wonder.
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