Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe with a population of about 9.4 million people. The capital of Belarus is Minsk. As a former republic of the Soviet Union, Belarus has been an independent nation since 1991. Belarus is often referred to as White Russia. This comes from a literal but historically inaccurate translation of the name as it is written in the Belarusian Latin alphabet, Biełaruś. Bieła- means white, but the interpretation of -ruś as Russia is incorrect. While Russia's own name does in fact stem from the word ruś, the -ruś in Biełaruś actually stems from Ruthenia, a non-native name for the medieval state of Kievan Ruś that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus originated from. Belarus was formerly called Belorussia during the reign of the Russian Empire, and later Byelorussia until its independence in 1991. It has since been known as Belarus.
The area of Belarus is approximately 207,600km² (80,154mi².) Belarus is a landlocked country, bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Belarus's terrain consists of low, rolling hills (the Belarusian Ridge.) About 40 percent of Belarus's land is forested. Many rivers flow through Belarus, including the Pripyat and the Neman. The Pinsk Marshes are in southern Belarus. Belarus has a continental climate with strong seasons. The country experiences about 600 mm of rainfall each year. Belarus is divided into six oblasts: Brest, Vitebsk, Gomel, Grodno, Minsk, and Mogilev.
Belarus was born out of Kievan Rus', a medieval state that existed from the ninth to the thirteenth century. The center of the Belarusian region in Kievan Rus' was the principality of Polotsk. In 1392, Polotsk became an administrative unit of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1795, the Russian Empire took control of Belarus after the third partitioning of Poland. After the land was annexed, Belarusians were forced to declare allegiance to Catherine II or else leave the country. Belarus was divided into its first five oblasts in 1801. In 1830, Alexander I established Russian law throughout Belarus.
In 1915, during World War I, German troops began advancing toward Belarusian cities. They occupied Vileyka on August 31, 1915, which led to the Russians abandoning their occupancies in Grodno and Brest, then moving their supreme command headquarters from Baranovichi to Mogilev. The year 1917 saw two Russian revolutions that later proved essential to Belarus's status as a free state. The February Revolution––triggered by the war, inflation, and food shortages––led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the subsequent freedom of the Russian people under his rule. The Provisional Government established in his place immediately abolished national borders and special regulations, which made it possible to establish the Belarusian Socialist Assembly, a social democratic political party. Both the BSA and Provisional Government demanded autonomy of Belarus within the Russian Federal Republic. In July 1917, national forces began organizing a congress and plans for the autonomy of Belarus.
The second revolution of 1917––the October Revolution––resulted from problems with the Provisional Government. The government had little power or ability to solve most of the issues plaguing Russia that had caused the first revolution. During the February Revolution, Russian workers and soldiers began forming the Petrograd Soviet, an alternative form of government that held more power than the Provisional Government. On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and arrested its members. This action was ratified the next day, and the new socialist government, led by Vladimir Lenin, was named the Council of People’s Commissars.
Shortly after the second revolution, several German and Russian congresses met in Minsk, where they formed a new Provisional Government. In December 1917, nearly 2,000 delegates of the All-Belarusian Congress met in Minsk to establish a new government, but Bolshevik soldiers disbanded the meeting before deliberations were finished. During the congress, it was said that the Executive Committee should be the new government of Belarus. Between February 19 and 21, 1918, Belarusian and Polish volunteer troops removed the Bolsheviks from Minsk. On February 21, the Executive Committee passed the First Constituent Charter to the peoples of Belarus, which declared the committee to be the new government of Belarus.
On March 3, the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk was signed, which resulted in the withdrawal of Russia as combatant from World War I. Much of Belarus then fell under control of the German Empire. The Second Constituent Charter was issued on March 9, and the Third Constituent Charter on March 25, which declared the independence of Belarus and established it as the Belarusian National Republic, (also called the Belarusian People's Republic or Belarusian Democratic Republic.) After Germany was defeated in World War I and its troops were withdrawn from occupied Belarusian territories, the Bolsheviks reclaimed the territories and the Belarusian People's Republic (BPR) fled from Minsk to Hrodna.
On January 1, 1919, the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (SSRB) in Smolensk, but moved operations to Minsk after a few weeks. In February 1919, the SSRB became one with the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and was then known as the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Meanwhile, the BPR was fraught with disagreements between Council members, and both Councils left Belarus in July 1920 and established themselves elsewhere––the Supreme Rada in Poland, and the People’s Rada in Kaunas. Since then, the BPR has been in exile. On August 1, 1920, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was founded.
The Treaty of Riga, a peace treaty signed by Poland and Soviet Russia on March 18, 1921, ended the Soviet-Polish war and divided the ownership of Belarusian lands between the two countries. Poland took control of the western side along the Baranavichy-Slonim-Pinsk line, while Soviet Russia received the eastern side along the Minsk-Slutsk-Turau line. The BSSR was absorbed into the Soviet Union as a founding member in December 1922. More territories were added to the land in 1924 and 1926––other Belarusian ethnographic regions that became part of Russia under the Treaty of Riga. These acquisitions more than doubled the total area of the land from 51,800 km² (20,000 mi²) to 124,320 km² (48,000 mi².) The population soared from 1.5 million to nearly 5 million.
Throughout the 1920s, Belarusians under Poland's rule were forced to undergo Polonization, while those in the Soviet Russia portion of the land were given Belarusian-language schools and a cultural institute. However, in the late 1930s, Josef Stalin ordered purges of the Belarusian people, in which tens of thousands of Belarusians were killed between 1937 and 1941.
In 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed by Germany and the Soviet Union. This reunited the eastern and western portions of Belarus that had previously been separated under the Treaty of Riga, and the Soviet Union took full control of the land. On September 1 of that year, Germany invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II. Over 300,000 Belarusians were deported to Soviet labor camps between that time and June 1941.
On June 22, 1941, German troops crossed the border of the Soviet Union. Within days, they fought their way inward and defeated the city of Minsk. On June 29, the mobilization of the Red Army began, and over 500,000 Belarusians were conscripted to fight against the Germans. A ghetto in Minsk was established on July 19, 1941. Partisan divisions against the war were swiftly established throughout Belarus. These divisions, of which there were over 1,200 by the end of the war, also fought against the Germans and Nazi regime. Still, the Germans had completely overtaken the country by September, and the partisan divisions would not see any victories until later in the war. 260 extermination camps were set up throughout Belarus. After occupation, the majority of the Belarusian population were set to be exterminated or exiled, while a small minority would be kept alive for forced labor.
Belarus's partisan divisions eventually proved successful in the fight against the Germans. About one-third of the territory was controlled by the partisans by the end of 1942, and nearly two-thirds in 1943. On September 23, 1942, the first Belarusian town of Komarin was liberated. The Minsk ghetto was liberated on October 21, 1943, and Minsk was liberated on July 3, 1944, which marks Belarus's Independence Day. Belarus as a whole was entirely liberated by July 28.
By the end of World War II, hundreds of cities and close to 10,000 villages in Belarus had been destroyed or looted, and its economic sectors were devastated. More than one-quarter of the Belarusian population died, and it took nearly thirty years for the population to return to pre-war levels. An estimated ninety percent of the Jewish population in Belarus had been killed––about 800,000 people.
Belarus was one of fifty-one countries that served as a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. The United Nations was established after the end of World War II in the hopes of preventing another World War from occurring. The UN works to maintain international peace and human rights for all.
After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union aided Belarus in post-war reconstruction efforts and helped the country rebuild itself. Other assistance included agricultural supplies and livestock. With the help of the Soviet Union came the overarching Sovietization and then Russification of Belarus and the Belarusian language, the usage of which was almost nonexistent by the 1980s––by that time, only about five percent of circulating journals were in Belarusian, and all Belarusian-language schools had been purged in the prior decade. Only one-third of the citizens still spoke Belarusian, mostly those in rural areas. Some of these efforts were set to be reversed in the 1990s but were shut down after the election of Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarus was severely affected by seventy percent of the radiation fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, in which a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The disaster was devastating to both the Belarusian people and the economy. Fifteen years after the explosion, it was found that within the affected areas, thyroid cancer rates had risen by 2,400 percent and suicide rates by 1,000 percent; the numbers were predicted to grow with more time.
On July 27, 1990, the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the BSSR was passed. On August 25, 1991, Belarus was declared independent of the Soviet Union. The nation's name was changed to the Republic of Belarus on September 19. On December 26, the Soviet Union was dissolved. The Belarusian constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.
The first presidential election in Belarus since its independence was held in 1994. Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, was elected with about eighty percent of the vote. Lukashenko has since been elected president five additional times and is now serving his sixth term. While the results of the first election have been accepted as legitimate, Lukashenko's consistent reelections have been met with resistance and allegations of fraud and fake vote counts.
In the 2001 election, Lukashenko claimed to have received seventy-five percent of the vote, but opposition officials stated that both he and his opponent received less than fifty percent of the vote each, which would have been cause for repolling under Belarusian law. In 2004, Lukashenko passed a referendum that rid Belarus of presidential term limits, enabling him to continue to hold power. In the 2005 election, he claimed to have won eighty-four percent of the vote. He was reelected in 2010, 2015, and 2020. Over the years, critics and opponents of Lukashenko have been silenced or disappeared. He has been called Europe's last dictator. Protests of the 2020 election were met with violence from police and thousands of arrests.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The attack has been almost universally condemned by all other nations. Strict sanctions were placed on Russia by multiple countries immediately after the attack was launched. Belarus has also received sanctions for aiding and enabling Russia in its attack by providing military support and allowing Russian troops to use Belarusian lands to reach the Ukrainian border. Belarusian banks have been banned from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) global financial system, and the White House placed sanctions to limit Belarusian imports and target military officials.