“…We, the Council (Rada) of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, have cast off from our native land the last vestige of national dependence which the Russian tsars imposed by force upon our free and independent land. From this time on, the Belarusian Democratic Republic is proclaimed and independent and free state.”
Those are the words from the Declaration Independence made by the Council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic in Minsk on 25 March 1918. The independence did not last long owing to unfavourable political situation. All the same, from that day on Belarusians all over the world keep the 25 March as their Independence Day.
Belarus became part of the Russian Empire as a result of partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772-95. The tsarist authorities regarded it simply as the North-Western province (Severo-zapadnyi krai) of Russia, inhabited by people speaking a kind of peasant Russian dialect. Consequently all signs of individuality were systematically eradicated, including the destruction of the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church to which the majority of Belarusians belonged. The opposite view was held by Poles, or rather by polonised Belarusian landed gentry, for whom Belarus was a Polish province. Despite this, Belarusian national movement began to manifest itself early in the 19th century, and gathered momentum especially after emancipation of peasants in 1861.
In 1862 the revolutionary leader Kastus Kalinouski (hanged by Russians in 1864) began publishing clandestine paper Muzhytskaia prauda (Peasant truth). Some twenty years later the Belarusian group of the movement Narodnaia volia (People’s freedom) in their underground paper Homon was already raising the question of Belarusian autonomy. The end of the 19th century saw also the appearance of new Belarusian writers and poets, the most prominent of whom was Frantsishak Bahushevich (1840-1900) who reminded the Belarusians: “Do not abandon our Belarusian tongue that we may not die”. But it was not until 1903 that the first Belarusian party, the Belaruskaia Revaliutsyinaia Hramada (Belarusian Revolutionary Party) was founded. Two years later, under its definitive name of Belaruskaia sacyialistychnaia hramada (Belarusian Socialist Party) it played an active role in the revolution of 1905-1907.
In the years that followed members of the Hramada were closely connected with the newspaper Nasha niva (Our field) which, until its closure in 1915 was the focal point of Belarusian political and cultural life. The Hramada was the only Belarusian political party during that period. Other parties then active in the area – Russian, Polish, Jewish, – were, with few exceptions, indifferent or even openly hostile to Belarusian national aspirations.
One year after the outbreak of the First World War, in summer 1915, Belarus was divided by the frontline between German and Russian armies. The hardships caused by the war were aggravated by the refugee problem: before abandoning Western Belarus to the Germans, the Russian authorities evacuated over a million of its inhabitants who were taken inside Russia and largely left to their own fate. This was the situation in Belarus at the time of the February Revolution of 1917. From then on the events began to move rapidly.
The Provisional Russian government of Kerenski was replaced in November 1917 by a Communist one who, in their turn, in February 1918, abandoned the area to the Germans. In December of the same year the Germans retreated, and Communist Soviet rule was established again in Belarus with the exception of the Hrodna region in the West. During the late spring and early summer of 1919 Belarus was invaded by Poles who remained there until summer 1920.
Against this background of ever-changing political scene the Belarusians tried to establish their own independent state. Their efforts led to the convocation in December 1917 in Minsk of the All-Belarusian Congress and, finally the proclamation on 25 March 1918 of the independent Belarusian Democratic Republic (Belaruskaia Narodnaia Respublika, abbreviated as BNR). The odds were, however, against them. In December the Council and Government of the BNR left Minsk and established themselves in Hrodna which at that time was the centre of a semi-autonomous Belarusian region within the Lithuanian Republic. The Polish invasion in spring of 1919 put an end to this, and the government of the BNR went into exile. The hopes of some of its members that the Poles would help in re-establishing Belarusian independence were soon dispelled.
In the meantime the Soviet authorities who, like the Russian Provisional Government before them, were hostile to the idea of Belarusian independence, began to take notice of the strong national feelings among Belarusians and of the pressure exerted by various Belarusian refugee organisations inside Russia. On 1 January 1919 the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (abbreviated as BSSR; initially it was called Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus or SSRB) was proclaimed. The new “state” did not exist long as a separate entity: In February of the same year it became part of a new creation called the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
As the hopes of establishing Soviet rule in Lithuania receded, the idea of the latter was abandoned, and in summer 1920 the BSSR was restored in its pristine form. Territorially, however, the Republic comprised only a tiny part of Eastern Belarus (six counties of the Minsk province), while the Western part remained under Polish domination. This partition of Belarus was finally ratified in 1921 by the Soviet-Polish Treaty of Riga, and lasted until 1939.
The foregoing account may give an idea of the complexity of the problem faced by the student of Belarusian history during the first two decades of the 20th century. His task is not made easier by the absence of reliable bibliographical guide. What follows is not intended to be such a guide, but merely a description of relevant material available in the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library in London.
Among the few bibliographical works there is A Bibliographical Guide to Belorussia by N. Vakar (Harvard U.P. 1956). Its section on the period in question (Nos 1022-1160 and 1384-1590 is useful at least as a beginning. Another work, Bibliahrafiia pa historyi Belarusi by M. Krakene and A. Sakol’chyk (Minsk 1969), contains a large section (Nos 3782-4453) on the period from 1900 to the February 1917. Only works in Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian are listed, and by no means not all of them. Works of authors such as U. Ihnatouski, A. Stankievich, A. Lutskievich, A. Tsvikievich, J. Naidziuk and others have been omitted.
To understand the events of 1900-1921 a knowledge of preceding period at least from 1861 is useful. An account of the whole period 1861-1921 in vols. 2 and 3 of the five-volume “academic” Historyia Belaruskai SSR (Minsk 1971-75) represents the official Soviet point of view, and suffers from the usual defects of works of this kind, namely partiality and omission of inconvenient facts. The new “academic” work, Narysy pa historyi Belarusi, ed. Kastsiuk et al. (2 vols., Minsk 1994-95), is an attempt at a more balanced view of history. The other general works on Belarus history, including chapters on the period in question, are Belarus uchora i siannia by J. Naidziuk (Minsk 1943; 2nd ed. Minsk 1993); Weissruthenien: Volk und Land by E. von Engelhardt (Berlin 1943); and Belorussia: the Making of the Nation by N. Vakar (Harvard U.P. 1957), the latter being written in a somewhat patronising tone. The latest addition is J. Zaprudnik’s Belarus at the crossroads of History (Boulder-Oxford 1993; Belarusian edition Minsk 1996). Historyia Belarusi XIX i pachatku XX staletstsia by U. Ihnatouski (Minsk 1926) deals with the period of Belarusian history from the beginning of the 19th century to 1921. Da historyi belaruskaha palitychnaha vyzvalennia by A. Stankevich (Vilna 1934) is an interesting study of the Belarusian national movement between the years 1862-1921. Another work, covering roughly the same period, but concentrating particularly on the years 1905-1920, is Belorusskoe dvizhenie by F. Turuk (Moscow 1921; reprint Minsk 1992). It is a comprehensive and factual study of the period in question, written with rare objectivity and supported by the mass of documentary evidence. Ocherki po istorii revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia v Belorussii (1863-1917) by S. Agurski (Minsk 1928) is also well documented. Unlike Turuk, however, its author is mainly concerned with non-Belarusian parties, especially RSDRP (as the Communist party was then called).
Byelorussian Statehood, ed. V. & Z. Kipel (New York 1988) is a source book on the Belarusian history of 1917-21, containing writings of persons who were directly involved in the events of 1917-1921, such us Krecheuski, Varonka, Zakharka etc., articles by historians J. Zaprudnik, P. Urban and J. Menski, biographical notes on over 60 Belarusian leaders of the period, bibliography and chronological table of events. It is a must for everyone interested in the history of Belarusian struggle for national independence.
There is a scarcity of published documents on the period in question. The bulky vols. 3 and 4 of Dokumenty i materialy po istorii Belorussii (Minsk 1953 & 1954), contain documents of 1900-1917 and 1917-1919 resp., all in Russian, and one would in vain look in them for any mention of Belarus, let alone BNR. As far as Belarusian documents are concerned, apart from the above mentioned book by Turuk (39 documents), one should mention Kryvavy shliakh belaruskai natsdemokratyi by A. Ziuzkou (Minsk 1932). The author, hostile to Belarusian national movement, in an appendix gives texts of 31 documents of 1917-21.
Another major collection (58 documents) is found in Za dziarzhaunuiu nezalezhnasts Belarusi, ed. I. Kasiak (London 1960). A truly monumental work is Arkhivy Belaruskai Narodnai Respubliki, ed. S.Shupa (2 books, Vilna-New York 1998), containing over 3000 documents of the BNR from the Lithuanian State Archives.
Among the works on the period 1900-1917 there is first of all Za dvatstsats piats hadou by A. Lutskevich (Vilna 1928; 2nd ed. Minsk 1991, with postscript by A. Sidarevich). The author, one of the pioneers of the Belarusian national movement, traces the history of the first Belarusian political party, the Belaruskaia Satsyialistychnaia Hramada, and remembers the persons and events connected with it. The chapter “Belaruskaie natsyianalnaie adradzhennie (1902-1915)” in the book Z historyi Belarusi by J. Stankievich (Munich 1958) contains much interesting material on the Belarusian national movement, in which the author took active part. An assessment of the role played by the Communists in Belarusian movement is found in Bol’shevizm v revoliutsionnom dvizhenii Belorussii by N. Nedasek (Munich 1956). An important aspect of the Belarusian national activities before 1917 is considered in J. Zaprudnik’s doctoral thesis Political struggle for Byelorussia in the Tsarist State Dumas 1906-1917 (Typescript, New York 1966) and a number of his articles on the same subject, such as “The struggle for Byelorussia’s Autonomy in the First State Duma” (The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, Vol.II, No.3, London 1971), and “Byelorussia’s Representatives in the Second State Duma” (Ibid., Vol.III, No.3, 1975). The development of Belarusian press, and in particular the newspaper Nasha niva, is the subject of the book Putsiaviny rodnaha slova by S. Aleksandrovich (Minsk 1971), and the article “Nasha niva” by the present writer (The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, Vol. I, No.3, 1967). Incidentally the sets of papers Nasha dolia (1906), and Nasha niva for the years (1906-1909) are now available in facsimile editions. Belaruski litaraturna-hramadski rukh u Petsiarburze by R. Semashkevich (Minsk 1971) is a study of the Belarusian colony (mainly students) in St Petersburg and their role in the Belarusian national movement.
There are several eyewitness accounts of the events from February 1917 to 1921. E. Kancher, his Belorusskii vopros (Petrograd 1919) left one of the first written accounts of the All-Belarusian Congress of December 1917 and the events leading to the proclamation of independence on 25 March 1918, of which he was not in favour. J. Varonka, the first prime minister of BNR, gave his version of events in Belaruski rukh ad 1917 da 1920 hodu (Kaunas 1920).
Other contemporary publications are Korotkii ocherk vozniknoveniia Belorusskoi Narodnoi Respubliki by A. Tsvikevich (Kiev 1918), and Uskhodniaia Belarus by A.I. (Minsk 1918), the latter giving a detailed picture of the growth of Belarusian movement leading to the declaration independence. There is also the first and only issue of the journal Varta (Minsk 1918), a semi-official organ of the Belarusian Government. P. Krecheuski, a member of the first Belarusian government and later President of the Council (Rada) of the BNR writes about the events of 1917-18 in his article “Belarus u minulym i suchasnym” in the first (and only) issue of the journal Zamiezhnaia Belarus (Prague 1926).
“Da Piershaha Usiebelaruskaha Ziezdu 1917” ed. I. Zaprudnik (Zapisy, Munich, No.2,1963; No.3, 1964; No. 4, 1966) is a useful collection of materials and documents on the All-Belarusian Congress, compiled from publications, not easily accessible today .
Attempts to form Belarusian army are described in various articles, such as “Belaruskiia vaiskovyia farmatsyi na Rumynskim frontsie” by S.K. (the journal Kryvich, No.1, Kaunas 1923), “Belaruskaia Vaiskovaia Tsentralnaia Rada” by K. Iezavitau (Ibid., No.7, 1924, No.9, 1925); “Histarychny kalendar belaruskikh addzielau litouskaha voiska” by A. Sam. (Krynitsa, Vilna, No.4, 1939; Nos 7, 16, 27, 40, 1940); “Piershy belaruski polk u Horadni i iak paliaki razbroili iaho” by A. Uspienski (Ranitsa, Berlin, No.44, 1943, et seq); “25 Uhodki Horadzienskaie Hubernskaie Upravy” by V.B. (ibid. No.49-50, 1943; 1-2, 1944). The only issue of Na chuzhynie (Riga 1920), organ of gen. S. Buklakh-Balakhovich and his “private army”, is of interest for the study of this controversial figure who caused BNR more embarrassment than help. Bialoruskie formacje wojskowe 1917-1923 by O. Latyszonek (Bialystok 1995) is the first comprehensive study of Belarusian military units. Another recent publication is “Polskaia palityka na Bielarusi u chasie Polska-Balshavitskaie vainy 1919-1920 h.” by F. Kushal in his Sproby stvarennia belaruskaha voiska (Minsk 1999).
Very little was written about BNR by Soviet historians, and almost invariably in a negative manner. The book by Ziuzkou (see above) is a good example. Among the more recent publications there are Niepazbiezhnaie bankrutstva by M. Stashkievich (Minsk 1974), and also his and I. Kovkel’s Pochemu ne sostoialas BNR (Minsk1980), with its English version Why was the BNR never formed (Minsk 1983). On the other hand there is great number of works on the establishment of the Belarusian Soviet Republic, practically all suffering of the same defect, namely one-sidedness and suppression of inconvenient facts. Such are Utvarennie Belaruskai Sacyialistychnai Respubliki (Minsk 1946) and Belorusskii narod v bor’be za sovetskuiu vlast’ (Minsk 1963) by N. Kamenskaia; Sozdanie i uprochnenie belorusskoi gosudarstvennosti by S. Margunskii (Minsk 1958); Pobeda Sovetskoi vlasti v Belorussii, ed. I. Mints (Minsk 1967). More serious, although still in the same spirit is Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki by V. Krutalevich (Minsk 1975). His most recent work, Stanovlenie natsional’noi derzhavnosti (Minsk 1999), written in somewhat different circumstances, contains a wealth of concrete material. Among works by non-Soviet writers one should mention Bol’shevizm na putiakh k ustanovleniiu kontrolia nad Belorussiu by N. Nedasek (Munich 1954), and his “National self-determination under the Soviets” (Belorussian Review, No.8, Munich 1960), as well as “The Establishment of the Belorussian SSR” by J. Menski (ibid, No.1, 1955).
Belarusian-Polish relations, and in particular the Polish occupation of 1919-1920, are dealt with in Adradzhennie Belarusi i Polshcha by A. Tsvikievich (Berlin 1921); Belorussy i poliaki by K. Iezavitau (Kaunas 1919); Belorusskii vopros k momentu Versal’skoi Mirnoi Konferentsii by I. Varonka (Kaunas 1919); Polskaia akupatsyia Belarusi by A. Lutskievich (Vilna 1920); Uspaminy ab polskai akupatsyi Hrodzienshchyny by I. Antonau (n.p. 1921); and in the clandestine journal Sielanskaia dolia (n.p. 1921-22). The Polish position with regard to Belarus is stated in Les confins orientaux de la Pologne (Paris 1919), an official publication for the Versailles Conference. Other works include Zywiol polski na ziemiach litewskich by M. Swiechowski (Zakopane 1917), Polska a Litwa i Bialorus by J. Sorokowicz (Warsaw 1919); Panstwo polskie a kwestia bialoruska by Szczesny Bronowski (Warsaw 1919); Litwa i Bialorus by L. Wasilewski (Warsaw 1925); Sprawa bialoruska by S. Elski (Warsaw 1931); Federaliam. Litwa i Bialorus w polityce obozu Belwederskiego (XI 1918 – IV 1920) by J. Lewandowski (Warsaw 1962); Polityka wschodnia Polski wobec ziem Litwy, Bialorusi i Ukrainy (1918-1919) by A. Deruga (Warsaw 1969) and others.
The position of Belarusian Catholics and their role in the Belarusian national life have been studied by A. Stankievich in his Rodnaia mova u sviatyniakh (Vilna 1929) and Bielaruski khrystsiianski rukh (Vilna 1939). K. Svaiak (Fr. K. Stepovich) in his diary Dzieia maioi mysli, serca i voli (Vilna 1932; 2nd ed. London 1991), draws the picture of difficulties encountered by a Belarusian Catholic priest in his pastoral work. An interesting work, dealing to great extent with this subject is Stosunek Biskupa Jerzego Matulewicza do spraw jezykowych w Diecezji Wilenskiej, 1918-1925, by T. Gorski (Warsaw 1970). No similar work exists with regard to the Orthodox Church, but some information may be found in the book Belarus by Archbp Afanasi (Buenos Aires 1966; 2nd ed. Minsk 1990).
Much useful information can be found in the contemporary papers, namely Homan (Vilna 1916-1918), Bielaruskae zhytstsio (Vilna 1919); Belarus (Minsk 1919-1920).
There are incomplete sets of these publications in the F. Skaryna Library. Starting with 1989 many interesting and valuable articles and hitherto inaccessible materials have appeared in journals Polymia, Neman, Belaruski histarychny chasopis and especially Spadchyna, all published in Minsk.
The foregoing description does not pretend to be a complete bibliography, but it is hoped that it shows the wealth of material on the struggle of Belarusians for their national identity early in the 20th century, and the proclamation independence on 25 March 1918. In the years that followed those who were in power in Belarus did their utmost to make Belarusians forget this event as well as the rest of their history. The consequences of this policy are felt today.
In 1991, with he collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus obtained its independence. However, the euphoria created by that event was short-lived. Now Belarus resembles not so much an independent country, but a reservation for aborigines of an almost extinct species known as Homo Sovieticus. It is governed by a regime of doubtful legitimacy and Belarusian only in name. Thus if Belarusians want to have any future as a nation, it is of utmost urgency for them to regain the sense of their history and national dignity. Those are the thoughts on the eve of marking the anniversary of the proclamation of Belarusian independence on 25 March 1918. Incidentally, just like in Soviet times, the commemoration of this date in the present-day “independent” Belarus is banned.
by Fr. Alexander Nadson
London, March 2000