BELARUS BELORUSSIA or BYELORUSSIA, i.e. White Russia, though there is no agreement on why it is so called; Belorussiya (Russ); Bia³orus (Pol).
State in eastern Europe between Russia and Poland. The east of the country is crossed by the upper Dnieper and northern Belarus by the western Dvina (these districts, together with the centre of modern Belarus, formed the region originally called White Russia). Southern Belarus (once called Polesia) is crossed by the Pripet (Pripyat), while western Belarus (once called Black Russia) lies on the upper course of the River Neman (Niemen).
In the period of early Russia, most of modern Belarus formed the two principalities of Polotsk and Turov-Pinsk; the Dnieper district was divided between the principalities of Smolensk and Chernigov. The great Mongol/Tatar invasions of the 1230s and 1240s reduced most of the Russian states to dependence on what became the Tatar Khanate of the Golden Horde, but on the edges of Polotsk a new principality, Lithuania, was emerging and in the 1250s it absorbed Black Russia, until then part of Polotsk. By the early 14th century the rest of Polotsk and western Turov were Lithuanian; by 1341 all of White Russia was. Lithuania was further to expand – into the Ukraine and the western part of Russia – and had so many Russian inhabitants that Ruthenian became the official language of the state.
When Russia expanded westwards at the expense of Poland-Lithuania in the 16th century, only the Polotsk district in modern Belarus became Russian, and that only temporarily (1563-79). It was the three partitions of Poland in the 18th century that gave White Russia to Russia: the Dnieper and Dvina lands (including Polotsk) in 1772, the bulk of White Russia in 1793, the upper Niemen lands in 1795. The long rule by Lithuania and Poland had increased the divergence of the language of the region from Russian, but the Russian government regarded White Russian as a mere dialect of Russian and between 1859 and 1906 its use was forbidden in schools.
During the First World War German forces had occupied the later Belarus as far as Pinsk by late 1915. In the spring of 1918 they advanced across practically all White Russia, crossing the Dnieper, though the district around Vitebsk remained in Communist hands. An attempt to proclaim a Belorussian state, under German auspices, failed. The principal struggle once the war was finished was between Communist Russia and Poland. By the Treaty of Riga in 1921 the future Belarus was divided between them. In the south the region of the Pripet marshes was roughly divided in two; Pinsk lay well within Poland. In the north Poland’s northernmost border lay for some miles along the Western Dvina, though Polotsk lay well within Soviet Russia. In the centre White Russia’s capital, Minsk, was within Soviet Russia but not far from the border; of the River Niemen, only the very uppermost reaches lay in Soviet Russia.
The Communists had proclaimed the BELORUSSIAN SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLIC within Soviet Russia at the beginning of 1919, and it became one of the four founding members of the Soviet Union at the end of 1922 (effective July 1923). During the 1920s those Russian districts with Belorussians as majority of the population were added to the SSR. Although Belorussian nationalism was infinitely weaker than Ukrainian, so that there was little need for the Communists to appease it, the fact that many Belorussians lived in Poland gave point to the SSR. In September 1939 the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland and most of northeastern Poland was added to the Belorussian SSR.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the northern thrust towards Moscow crossed Belorussia (as Napoleon’s advance in 1812 had done). Belorussia remained in German hands until the summer of 1944. The Soviet victory in 1944-5 ensured that the expansion of the SSR in 1939 became permanent.
In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the SSR became the independent state of Belarus. It was a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and its capital, Minsk, serves as the headquarters of the Commonwealth. Belarus has endured economic difficulties and in 1996 entered into a closer relationship with the Russian Federation, many of whose politicians were hoping for a return to something like the old Soviet Union, a view shared by President Lukashenko of Belarus. On 13 November 1996 he spoke in the Russian Parliament a few days before a referendum in his own country of “further integration and, if necessary, reunification between our two countries”.
Belarus is divided into six regions (voblasts’ in Belorussian, oblasts in Russian), inherited from the SSR, and named after their capitals. Mahilou (Mogilev), in the east, drained by the Dnieper, and Homel’ (Gomel), in the southeast, drained by the Dnieper and the Pripet, lie in pre-1939 USSR. Brest (once Brest Litovsk), in the southwest, drained by the middle Pripet and bordered by the Western Bug, and Hrodna (Grodno) in the west, drained by the Niemen, are in former Polish territory. Vitsebsk (Vitebsk), in the north, drained by the Dvina, and Minsk, in the centre, both straddle the 1921/39 border.