The History of the Statehood of Belarus

The traditions of the Belarusian statehood date back to more than thousand years. Under different names, the independent Belarusian state has existed for many centuries.

In the early Middle Ages, several Eastern Slavic kingdoms (Belarusian: княствы, also translated as duchies, or principalities) were created on the territory of today’s Belarus.

The largest of them, the Duchy of Połack (Polatsk, Polotsk), existed from the 9th century till the 14th century in what is now northern Belarus. It had vassals among Baltic tribes in what today are Latvia and Republic of Lithuania, and competed for influence with other, larger, Eastern Slavic kingdoms such as Kiev and Novgorod.

The city of Połack was actively involved in northern European trade with the Hanseatic League.

Duke Rahvałod and Princess Rahnieda of Połack

The Dukes of Połack

960s — 978 Rahvałod
985—1001 Iziaslaŭ Uladzimieravič
1001—1003 Usiasłaŭ I.
1003—1044 Bračysłaŭ I.
1044 — 1068 Usiasłaŭ II. the Sorcerer
1068—1069 Mścisłaŭ Iziasłavič
1069—1070 Śviatapołk Iziasłavič
1070-1101 Usiasłaŭ II. the Sorcerer
1101 — 1128 Rahvałod II.
1128 Davyd
1128 — 1129 Rahvałod III.
1129—1132 Iziasłaŭ Mscisłavič
1132—1144 Vasil II.
1144—1151 Rahvałod III.
1151—1159 Raścisłaŭ Hlebavič
1159—1162 Rahvałod III.
1162—1167 Usiasłaŭ III.
1167 Vaładar I.
1167—1181 Usiasłaŭ III.
1181—1186 Bračysłaŭ II.
1186—1216 Vaładar II.
1216—1220 Vasil III. Bračysłavavič
1222—1232 Śviatasłaŭ Mścisłavič
1232—1256 Bračysłaŭ III.
1256—1263 Taŭcivił the Good
1232—1256 Bračysłaŭ III.
1263—1264 Kanstancin the Handless
1263—1267 Hierdzień
1267 — 1270s Iziasłaŭ II.
1270s — 1280s Kanstancin the Handless
about 1310s — 1336 Vasil IV. the Warrior
1336—1348 Narymont-Hleb
1348—1377, 1382—1387 Andrej Alhierdavič

Following a feudal fragmentation and decline of the Duchy of Połack, by the 14th century the centre of the Belarusian statehood moved westwards, to Navahradak, where, on the borderland between Eastern Slavic and Baltic lands, the next major Belarusian state emerged: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia (Вялікае княства Літоўскае, Жамойцкае).

Seal of Grand Duke Vitaŭt of Lithuania

In the form of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia, medieval Belarus has gained its widest territorial extent. Under Grand Duke Vitaŭt Kiejstutavič, it has been Europe’s largest state with access to the Baltic and Black seas, competing with major regional powers such as Russia, Poland and the Teutonic Order.

Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 1588

The Statutes of Lithuania, written in Belarusian language, have become one of the great medieval examples of legal thought.

The medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania is a common heritage of today’s Belarusians, Lithuanians and of the Polish people from the Belarusian-Lithuanian borderland.

The Grand Dukes of Lithuania

c. 1236–1263 Mindoŭh
1263–1265 Traniata
1265–1268 Vojšałk
1268–1269 Švarn
1270–1282 Trajdzień
1282–1285 Daŭmont
1285–1291 Budzikid
1291–1295 Budzivid
1295–1316 Vicień
1316–1341 Hiedzimin
1341–1345 Jaŭnut
1345–1377 Alhierd
1377–1381 Jahajła
1381–1382 Kiejstut
1382–1392 Jahajła
1392–1430 Vitaŭt Kiejstutavič
1430–1432 Śvidryhajła
1432–1440 Sigismund (Žygimont) Kiejstutavič
1440 — 1492 Kazimier Jahiełončyk (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk)
1492 — 1506 Alaksandar (Aleksander Jagiellończyk)
1506 — 1548 Žygimont І.
1544 — 1569 Žygimont ІІ.
The Union of Lublin (1569), creating the unified Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Following exhausting and bloody wars against Russia, which several times resulted in the loss of half of Belarus’ population, in 1569 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia has created a common state with the Kingdom of Poland.

As time went on, the Polish language has replaced Belarusian as the language of the elite. The Belarusian nobility increasingly adopted Polish customs and the Polish identity.

The Grand Dukes of Lithuania following the Union of Lublin with Poland

573—1574 Henry Valois
1576—1586 Stephen Báthory
1587—1632 Sigismund III Vasa
1632—1648 Ladislaus IV Vasa
1648—1668 John II Casimir Vasa
1669—1673 Michał Karybut-Višniaviecki (Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki)
1673—1696 Jan Sabieski (John III Sobieski)
1697—1704 Augustus II the Strong
1704-1709 Stanisłaŭ Laščynski (Stanisław Leszczyński)
1709—1733 Augustus II the Strong
1734—1763 August II of Poland
1733 Stanisłaŭ Laščynski (Stanisław Leszczyński)
1733–1763 August III of Poland
1764–1795 Stanisłaŭ Aŭhust Paniatoŭski (Stanisław August Poniatowski)
The 1863 Uprising in Belarus

As a result of a joint aggression by Russia, Prussia and Austria against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the late 18th century Belarus became part of the Russian Empire. In 1831 and in 1863, two national liberation uprisings took place in Belarus and Poland. Both were brutally defeated by the Russians and were followed by political repressions and increased cultural, linguistic and religious Russification in Belarus.

20th century

In 1918, after failed attempts to reestablish the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a federation of modern Belarusians and Lithuanians, the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic has for the first time in history declared Belarus an independent democratic country within the borders with a Belarusian majority population.

The Government of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, 1918

Several months later, the Government of Belarus has been forced to go into exile by the advancing Russian Bolshevik armies. As their first decree, the Bolsheviks declared the Rada BNR as overthrown. After several months of occupation, they established a pro-Soviet Belarusian puppet State within the borders of the Belarusian Democratic Republic. In 1921, the territory of Belarus was divided in half between the Russian Bolsheviks and the nationalist interwar Polish state. In 1924, East Belarus was formally incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Presidents of the Belarusian Democratic Republic

1918 Jan Sierada
1918-1919 Jazep Losik
1919-1928 Piotra Krečeŭski
1928-1943 Vasil Zacharka
1944-1970 Mikoła Abramčyk
1970-1982 Vincent Žuk-Hryškievič
1982-1997 Jazep Sažyč
1997- Ivonka Survilla

Between the wars, the Belarusian national liberation movement had to face two enemies on both sides of the Polish-Soviet border. In the East, Belarusian intellectuals and activists have faced repressions from the totalitarian Soviet regime. Thousands of Belarusians were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan, sent to concentration camps or executed in numerous mass extermination sites such as Kurapaty near Minsk. In the West, the Belarusian population faced discrimination in the increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic Poland.

Jewish Belarusians in the Minsk Ghetto created by the German Nazis

At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, and West Belarus became annexed to the Soviet Belarusian Republic. This was accompanied by a new wave of political repressions in West Belarus. In 1941, Belarus became occupied by Nazi Germany. The Nazis carried out mass terror against the civil population of Belarus, especially against the Belarusian Jews. In total, Belarus has lost more than a quarter of its population during World War II.

In 1944, Belarus became liberated from the Nazis but remained occupied by the USSR for several decades. The Soviets continued intensive Russification of Belarus. In 1986, Belarus became the biggest victim to the Chernobyl nuclear incident, caused by Soviet mismanagement and technological flaws.

Pro-independence demonstration in Minsk, August 1991

In 1991, the Belarusian Soviet Republic declared independence as the Republic of Belarus. It adopted the state symbols of the Belarusian Democratic Republic.

In 1994, Alexander Lukashenka was elected President of Belarus. Following a Russian-supported coup d’etat, which was formalized as two illegal referenda held in 1995 and 1996, he established an authoritarian regime which became has for many years been called “Europe’s last dictatorship”.