Belarus as part of the Russian Empire
From the middle of the 16th to the end of the 18th century, Belarus’ fate was closely linked to that of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. After the third partitioning of Poland, in the year 1795, Belarus and its three million inhabitants came under the control of the Russian Empire. Annexation to the empire led to fundamental changes in the administrative and physical structure as well as to the governing bodies, which were adapted in accordance with Russian law. Once the decree on annexation of Belarusian territory had been proclaimed, the local population had to swear allegiance to Catherine II. Anyone not swearing allegiance had to leave the country within three months and lost his possessions.
After the first partitioning of Poland in 1772, two governorates, Mogilev and Pskov, were formed. Once annexed to the Empire, in 1801, Belarusian territory was divided into five governorates: Vitebsk, Mogilev, Minsk, Vilna (present-day Vilnius) and Grodno. These divisions continued to exist until 1917. The immediate administration of the governorate was in the hands of the governor, who was elected by the Senate.
The governor was endowed with extensive rights and bore responsibility for running the governorate. The governorates were divided further into so-called “ujesde” (smaller administrative districts). Integration into the Empire put an end to Magdeburg Law and the Russian principle of urban self-government came into force. The urban authorities were headed by a police commissioner (Russian: gorodnichi) and beneath him a town council. The council was comprised of two mayors and four elders, who were usually elected from amongst the wealthy merchants and citizens. Special regulations applied to some towns (such as Minsk and Retshisa), but these were all abolished in the year 1830, when Alexander I issued a decree establishing Russian law in the whole of Belarus. The Tsarist regime aimed to transfer officials from Russian governorates to Belarus, putting them in key positions. However, members of the nobility who swore allegiance to the Tsar were allowed the same rights and privileges as the Russian nobility. Nevertheless, members of the higher nobility were not allowed to keep their own armies and fortresses. Many Russian landowners, in particular the Tsarina’s favourites were allocated estates and serfs in Belarus. Among the richest landowners were Prince Grigory Potemkin, Count Pjotr Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky and General Alexander Suvorov. During the reign of Catherine II and Paul I, over 200,000 serfs were “bestowed” on these protégés. The serfs were in a difficult situation. In order to avert conflict, they only had to pay little or no tax after annexation.
Despite serfdom, agriculture was modernised step by step. The cultivated area was gradually increased until by the middle of the 19th century it was three times as large as in the previous century. The booming agriculture contributed to the establishment of a new trading and merchant class in the towns. In every Belarusian governorate there were regular trade fairs.
Belarusian territory gradually became more habitable. After annexation to the Russian Empire, the Oginski Canal System (a canal linking the River Neman with the River Dnieper, which was started in 1776 and was named after Hetman Kasimir Oginski) was finished. New roads and bridges were built and investments were made in the infrastructure. As of the year 1773 the Russian Academy of Science undertook expeditions to the rural areas of Belarus to research natural resources, climate conditions and how people lived.
The Jewish population was seriously affected by a law introduced in 1794 concerning the establishment of a new settlement. It involved an area to the west of the Empire (in present-day Belarus and western Ukraine), in which the rights of the Jewish population with regard to work and taking up residence were restricted. Where religion was concerned, the Russian government strengthened the position of the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church lost its predominant position in Belarus, although Empress Catherine II allowed the foundation of a Belarusian Catholic diocese. An estimated 1.5 million people converted to Orthodoxy.
The Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831 (also called the November Uprising) led to marked changes in the policy of the Empire, in particular as far as the western regions were concerned. All major autonomies in the Belarusian governorates were abolished. The Statute of 1588 (Codification of Law in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) became invalid and was replaced by all-Russian legislation.
In the middle of the 19th century, rule in the Russian Empire was in the form of an absolute monarchy with strong autocratic traits. The tsar was the unrivalled ruler, with unlimited power. He was supreme head of state and controlled the ministers and authorities. However, from a purely practical point of view, the system eventually reached its limits. Over time state machinery – in particular the legislative – was fundamentally reformed. In 1857, the first step was to found a council of ministers. Other reforms involved the ordinary citizens, especially the peasants. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II signed a manifesto abolishing serfdom, giving all peasants equal civil rights. This was one of the most revolutionary reforms of the time. Other reforms during this period concerned the self-administration of smaller towns and local governing bodies, which received more powers. As the tsar feared that the Polish upper classes might increase their power, these reforms did not become effective in Belarus until a later date. Nevertheless, the reforms accelerated social and economic development in Belarus and furthered the evolution of a modern society.
The revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century – which were to fundamentally alter social structures in Europe – encouraged the upsurge of a national Belarusian movement. The idea of the Belarusian people as an autonomous, independent nation was fostered for the first time by a group of students, “Gomon”, in St. Petersburg in the 1880s.
During the First World War (1914 – 1918), there were many bloody battles on Belarusian territory. The German advance began in the direction of Kaunas, Vilnius and Minsk. On 31st August 1915, German troops occupied the small Belarusian town of Vileyka in the north-west. For fear of being surrounded, the Russian army abandoned Vilnius, Grodno, and Brest. The headquarters of the supreme command was moved from Baranovichi to Mogilev. The front line was stabilised in October of the same year. It stretched from Dvinsk (Daugavpils), via Pastavy and Smorgon to Baranovichi and Pinsk. This front line remained unchanged until the beginning of 1918. As a result of the war, devastating inflation broke out as nearly the entire population in the frontline area was drafted for armament and military purposes.
In the occupied territories in the west of the Russian Empire, the military occupied zone Ober Ost (abbreviation for Supreme Command of All German Forces in the East), covering an area of about 50,000 km², was established, controlled by the German Supreme Command. The local population was subjected to a series of control measures and reprisals. Under the German administration, a new currency – the Oberost Mark (also called Eastern rouble) – was brought into circulation. Taxes were imposed on the local population as of 1915: poll tax, business and trading taxes. A mandatory levy on agricultural products was also common practice. Livestock and poultry could not be slaughtered without special permission and a part had to be handed over to the authorities. As of 1915, men between the ages of 16 and 50 and women between 19 and 45 had to do forced labour. The German occupying forces also attempted to revive the local timber industry. Seven sawmills were erected in the Białowieża Forest in 1915. This caused considerable damage to the flora and fauna in Europe’s last virgin forest. Towards the end of the First World War, the suppressed social conflicts and problems worsened and led to a major crisis in the country, which flared up into revolution and civil war.
With the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, after the February revolution of 1917, the Russian part of the country became a republic. The first free and democratically elected parliament (Russian: Duma) gave the population full civil rights and freedom for the first time. However, this did not help solve the most pressing issues in the country. Russia was still a warring party, the population was still impoverished and the economic crisis continued to grow. The new government was divided and undecided, mainly through fear of left-extremist ideologies and parties.
The provisional government abolished the national borders and special regulations on 3rd March 1917, making it possible for the Belarusian Socialist Hramada (Belarusian Socialist Assembly) to become a social democratic party and start its political activity. Its policy reflected the interest of the middle classes in implementing democratic reforms. The Belarusian Socialist Assembly joined forces with the provisional government and demanded Belarusian autonomy in the Russian Federal Republic. In July 1917, national forces organised the second congress of Belarusian national organisations and drew up plans for the autonomy of Belarus.
After the October revolution of 7th November 1917, the Congress of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, the 3rd Congress of the Peasant Deputies and the 2nd Congress of the Armies of the Western Front took place in Minsk. A provisional government was formed at these congresses. It concerned itself primarily with the problems on the war front. In December 1917, the first All-Belarusian Congress took place which proclaimed the Executive Committee to be the central government of Belarus. However, the Bolsheviks refused to participate in the Executive Committee. On 21st February 1918, the Executive Committee declared itself to be the provisional power on Belarusian territory. All responsibilities of the new authority were invested in the People’s Secretariat with Jazep Varonka as its chairman.
On 3rd March 1918, the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, according to which Russia withdrew as combatant from the First World War. A large part of Belarus came under the control of the German Empire. In the occupied territories, the People’s Republic of White Russia (also People’s Republic of White Ruthenia or Belaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika, BNR) was proclaimed on 25th March 1918. According to the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty, Germany was to recognise the independence of the People’s Republic as a nation, which – in practice – did not happen. After the German occupiers left Belarusian territory, this was seized by the Red Army. In the ensuing conflict between the reinstated Poland and the Soviet Union, both powers raised claims to the national territory of the People’s Republic. Belarus’ borders were modified once again in the Soviet-Polish War from 1919 to 1920. Thus, Belarus’ absorption into the Soviet Union started in the year 1919.