Once part of Kyivan Rus, Belarus was gradually taken over by Lithuania in the 14th century and became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Grand Duchy. It was to be 400 years before Belarus came under Russian control, a period during which Belarusians became linguistically and culturally differentiated from the Russians to the east and the Ukrainians to the south.
At this time, trade was controlled by Poles and Jews, and most Belarusians remained peasants – poor and illiterate. After the Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793 and 1795–96), Belarus was absorbed into Russia and faced intense Russification policies.
During the 19th century Belarus was part of the Pale of Settlement, the area where Jews in the Russian Empire were required to settle, so Jews formed the majority in many cities and towns.
In March 1918, under German occupation during WWI, a short-lived independent Belarusian Democratic Republic was declared, but the land was soon under the control of the Red Army, and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was formed. The 1921 Treaty of Rīga allotted roughly the western half of modern Belarus to Poland, which launched a program of Polonisation that provoked armed resistance by Belarusians. The eastern half was left to the Bolsheviks, and the redeclared BSSR was a founding member of the USSR in 1922.
The Soviet regime in the 1920s encouraged Belarusian literature and culture, but in the 1930s under Stalin, nationalism and the Belarusian language were discouraged and their proponents ruthlessly persecuted. The 1930s also saw industrialisation, agricultural collectivisation, and purges in which hundreds of thousands were executed – most in the Kurapaty Forest, outside Minsk.
German occupation was savage and partisan resistance widespread until the Red Army drove the Germans out in 1944, with massive destruction on both sides. Hundreds of villages were decimated, and barely a stone was left standing in Minsk. At least 25% of the Belarusian population (over two million people) died between 1939 and 1945. Many of them, Jews and others, died in 200-plus concentration camps; the third-largest Nazi concentration camp was set up at Maly Trostenets, outside Minsk, where over 200, 000 people were executed.
Western Belarus remained in Soviet hands at the end of the war, with Minsk developing into the industrial hub of the western USSR and Belarus becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most prosperous republics.
The 1986 Chornobyl (spelt Chernobyl in Russian) disaster left about a quarter of the country seriously contaminated, and its effects are still felt today, particularly in the southeastern regions of the country.
On 27 July 1990, the republic issued a declaration of sovereignty within the USSR. On 25 August 1991 a declaration of full national independence was issued. With no history whatsoever as a politically or economically independent entity, the country of Belarus was one of the oddest products of the disintegration of the USSR.
Since July 1994 Belarus has been governed by Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective-farm director, from which his derogatory nickname, Kolkhozni (a member of a collective farm owned by the communist state), is derived; his favourable nickname is Bat'ka (Papa). His presidential style has been seen by many as autocratic and authoritarian, and the country was declaimed an 'outpost of tyranny' by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Lukashenko has on several occasions altered the constitution (using referenda widely regarded in the West as illegitimate), rendering the parliament essentially toothless and extending both his term and the number of times he can campaign for president. Media distribution is handled by the state, so independently produced publications are easily quashed. Online publications are all that is left for independent Belarusian media, and even those are on shaky ground as internet access remains state controlled, and antigovernment sites are easily blocked.
On 19 March 2006, Lukashenko officially won another five-year term as president, with 83% of the vote and 98% voter turnout. However, newspapers such as the Guardian have claimed that his opponents - the most popular being European-styled Alexander Milinkevich - were harassed and deprived of public venues throughout the campaign. On the night of the 19th, thousands of protesters turned out on the city's main square for what was being termed as the Denim Revolution - a 'mini-maydan' echoing what happened in Kyiv 11\2 years earlier. A peaceful tent city started, and hundreds of people, mostly students, withstood freezing temperatures for almost a week. But once the international media left the scene to cover Ukrainian parliamentary elections, protesters were beaten and arrested by riot police.
Since then, Lukashenko has tightened his grip on power, and Amnesty International reports that democracy activists continue to be harassed and arrested. Many Belarusians reject foreign criticism of their political system, however, citing the stability and relative economic prosperity that Belarus has enjoyed compared with many post-Soviet states. Yet Russian hikes in the historically low gas prices it sets for Belarus are likely to change things in the near future. Putin and Lukashenko, rumoured to hate each other on a personal level, have nevertheless enjoyed a useful anti-European partnership for the past decade. But as the cheap gas supplies dry up, Lukashenko has been courting the EU in a bid to increase its bargaining position with Russia.
Despite some nearly miniscule reforms in Minsk, such as the release of certain political prisoners designed to placate the EU in 2008, parliamentary elections held shortly afterwards saw all 110 seats going to Lukashenko loyalists. The elections were again declared unfair by observers and, for the time being at least, Belarus remains isolated on the edge of the EU.