Evidence of human presence in Belarus goes back to the early Stone Age. For millennia the people were bounced between – mainly – Lithuanian, Russian and Polish spheres of influence, before Belarus finally became independent in 1991.
Arrival of the Slavs
Eastern Slavs from the Krivichi, Dregovichi and Radimichi tribes arrived here in the 6th to 8th centuries AD. The principalities of Polatsk (first mentioned in 862), Turau (980), Pinsk and Minsk were formed, all falling under the suzerainty of Prince Vladimir's Kyivan Rus by the late 10th century. The economy was based on slash-and-burn agriculture, honey farming and river trade, particularly along the Dnyapro River (Dnepr in Russian), a vital link between Byzantium and the Nordic Varangians.
Lithuanian & Polish Control
Belarus means 'White Russia', a name derived from the fact that this is the one part of Rus that, although conquered by the Mongols in 1240, was never settled by them. The term 'white' refers therefore to the purity of the people, who, unlike their Muscovite cousins, never intermarried with the Mongols.
In the 14th century the territory of modern-day Belarus became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was to be 400 years before Belarus came under Russian control, a period in which Belarusians became linguistically and culturally differentiated, both from Russians to the east and Ukrainians to the south.
After Lithuania became Roman Catholic following the unification of its crown with Poland's in 1386, the Belarusian peasantry remained in the Orthodox Church but were reduced to serf status. Lithuania nonetheless permitted its subjects a fair degree of autonomy, even using Belarusian as its state language during the early 15th century – an important fact for patriotic Belarusians today as they prove their historical legitimacy. All official correspondence, literature, doctrines and statutes at the time were written in Belarusian.
In 1596 the Polish authorities arranged the Union of Brest, which set up the Uniate Church (also known as Ukrainian Catholic or Greek Catholic), bringing much of the Orthodox Church in Belarus under the authority of the Vatican. The Uniate Church insisted on the pope's supremacy and Catholic doctrine, but permitted Orthodox forms of ritual.
Over the next two centuries of Polish rule, Poles and Jews controlled trade and most Belarusians remained peasants. Only after the three Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793 and 1795–96) was Belarus absorbed into Russia.
Under Russian rule, a policy of Russification was pursued. In 1839 the Uniate Church was abolished, with most Belarusians returning to Orthodoxy. The Russian rulers and the Orthodox Church regarded Belarus as 'western Russia' and tried to obliterate any sense of a Belarusian nationality. Publishing in the Belarusian language was banned.
The economy slowly developed in the 19th century, with the emergence of small industries such as timber milling, glassmaking and boatbuilding. However, Belarus' industrial progress lagged behind that of Russia, and poverty in the countryside remained at such a high level that 1.5 million people – largely the wealthy or educated – emigrated in the 50 years before the Russian Revolution in 1917, mostly to Siberia or the USA.
During the 19th century Belarus was part of the Pale of Settlement, the area where Jews in the Russian Empire were required to settle. The percentage of Jews in many Belarusian cities and towns before WWII was between 35% and 75%. The vast majority of Belarusians remained on the land, poor and illiterate. Due to their cultural stagnation, their absence from positions of influence and their historical domination by Poles and Russians, any sense among Belarusian speakers that they formed a distinct nationality was very slow to emerge. Nonetheless, Belarusian intellectuals were part of a wave of nationalism across Europe, and it was in this century that the concept of 'Belarusians' as a distinct people emerged.
World Wars & the Soviet Union
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 Belarusian armed resistance. The eastern half was left to the Bolsheviks and the redeclared BSSR was a founding member of the USSR in 1922.
In the 1920s the Soviet regime encouraged Belarusian literature and culture, but once under Stalin in the 1930s, Belarusian nationalism and 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.
When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Belarus was on the front line and suffered greatly. The 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 destroyed and much of Minsk was flattened. At least 25% (over two million people) of the Belarusian population died between 1939 and 1945. Many of them, Jews and others, died in more than 200 concentration camps; the third-largest Nazi concentration camp was set up at Maly Trostenets, outside Minsk, where more than 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 western USSR and Belarus becoming one of the Soviet Union's most prosperous republics by the 1980s.
The 1986 Chornobyl disaster, just over the border in Ukraine, was profoundly felt by the people of Belarus. The radiation cloud released left about a quarter of the country seriously contaminated and it still has effects today, particularly in Belarus' southeastern regions.
On 27 July 1990 the republic of Belarus 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.
In July 1994, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective-farm director, came to power and has ruled Belarus with an iron grip ever since. Batka (Papa), as he is known throughout the country and beyond, has altered the constitution on several occasions to allow himself to remain in office, drawing criticism from the EU and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Resistance to Lukashenko's reign has been muted, but there have been a few incidents. After Lukashenko won the presidential vote in 2006 with an apparent 83% of the vote and 98% voter turnout, thousands of protesters turned out on the city's main square for what was being termed the Denim Revolution – a 'mini-Maydan' echoing the events in Kyiv in 2004. 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, putting an end to the protests.
Similar events occurred in 2010, when Lukashenko was returned to the presidency with almost 80% of the vote. The election was immediately rejected as unfair by OSCE monitors, and protests in Minsk ensued. Over 600 people were jailed, including several opposition candidates, one of whom was forcibly abducted from hospital where he was being treated following a police beating.
Over the next five years Luka's confidence surged. In 2013 the president opened the enormous Independence Palace, a prestige project on the outskirts of Minsk tied to his name. In 2014 Belarus hosted the Ice Hockey World Championship at newly built Minsk Arena, a major feather in Lukashenko's diplomatic cap. He then went on to host the leaders of Russia and Ukraine (not to mention high-ranking representatives of the EU) at Independence Palace during crisis talks about the Ukraine conflict, a coup for a man who has been isolated from mainstream European politics for years.