Belarus: Early History through the Soviet Era
Early History through the Soviet Era
The region now constituting Belarus was colonized by East Slavic tribes from the 5th to the 8th cent. It fell (9th cent.) under the sway of Kievan Rus and was later (12th cent.) subdivided into several Belarusian principalities forming part of the Kievan state. Kiev's destruction by the Mongols in the 13th cent. facilitated the conquest (early 14th cent.) of Belarus by the dukes of Lithuania. The region became part of the grand duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 was merged with Poland. The large Jewish population (later decimated by the Germans during World War II) settled in Belarus in the 14th cent. The region flourished under Lithuanian rule; but after the Polish-Lithuanian union Belarus lost its relative importance, and its ruling classes became thoroughly Polonized.
Through the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, all Belarus passed to the Russian Empire. It suffered greatly during the wars (16th–18th cent.) between Poland and Russia and in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 (during which it was laid waste by retreating Russian forces). Great poverty under Russian rule, notably among the Jews, led to mass emigration to the United States in the 19th cent. A battlefield in World War I and in the Soviet-Polish War of 1919–20, Belarus experienced great devastation.
In Mar., 1918, the Belarusian National Rada in Minsk proclaimed the region an independent republic; but in Jan., 1919, the Soviet government proclaimed a Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic at Smolensk, and soon the Red Army occupied all of Belarus. In 1921, the Treaty of Riga, which ended the Soviet-Polish War, awarded W Belarus to Poland. The eastern and larger part formed the Belorussian SSR when the USSR was formally established in 1922.
In Sept., 1939, the Soviet army overran E Poland and incorporated W Belarus into the Belorussian SSR. Occupied (1941–44) by the Germans during World War II, Belorussia was one of the most devastated areas of the USSR. Its large Jewish population (dating from the 14th cent.) was decimated, and many non-Jews were systematically murdered as well. As much as half the region's population died or was displaced during the war. In 1945 its western border was adjusted slightly in favor of Poland, but the 1939 frontier remained essentially unchanged. The country has had a separate seat in the United Nations since 1945.
The massive nuclear accident (Apr. 26, 1986) at the Chernobyl power plant, across the border in Ukraine, had a devastating effect on Belarus; as a result of the radiation release, agriculture in a large part of the country was destroyed, and many villages were abandoned. Resettlement and medical costs were huge and long-term.
Sections in this article:
- Post-Soviet Belarus
- Early History through the Soviet Era
- Land and People
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