The main sources of history for the old cities and duchies that existed on Belarusian territory are the annals and chronicles which have been preserved up to the present day. These include the Nestor Chronicle, the Hypatian Codex, the Bychowiec Chronicle and others. These chronicles make reference to and describe the 35 largest East Slavonic towns that existed in the early Middle Ages.
Most European and East Slavonic duchies came into being between the 9th and 10th centuries. In the middle of the 9th century two wide-ranging alliances were founded in Eastern Europe. One to the north in Veliky Novgorod in present-day Russia and one to the south in Kiev in present-day Ukraine. Between the two lay Polotsk (Belarusian: Polazk). The town was mentioned for the first time in 862. It is therefore the oldest town in Belarus, which has earned it the name of ‘mother of all Belarusian towns’. Polotsk was often at the centre of armed conflicts between Novgorod and Kiev and was an additional force to be reckoned with. The Duchy of Polotsk was the first stable governing system to emerge on Belarusian soil. In all probability, Polotsk belonged to the Duchy of Novgorod until the middle of the 9th century. As a result of the conquests made by the Kiev princes Dir and Askold, the Duchy of Polotsk was ceded to Kiev in 960. Historical reality in the 10th century indicates that independence was mainly a matter of power and had little influence on the administrative structure of the duchy.
Its proximity to the rivers Dnieper and Dvina was beneficial for the Duchy of Polotsk. The two rivers were part of the main trading route from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea and there was lively trade between the Slavonic tribes and the duchies. Polotsk was therefore located directly on the spot where the Varangians from Scandinavia converged on the Byzantine Empire.
The first officially recorded duke of the Duchy of Polotsk was Rogvolod (end of the 10th century). He supposedly came from “across the sea”, but from exactly where is not known. Be that as it may, Rogvolod was a resolute ruler. Under his influence the borders of the duchy were fortified and the administrative and political systems improved.
While the tribal princes of Polotsk were extending the settlements on their territory, they also built a fortress on the right bank of the River Palata, which gave the town its name. Polotsk gradually subordinated the neighbouring areas and imposed the payment of tributes on them. In this way, the duchy started to develop. However, expansion led to inevitable conflicts and confrontation with neighbouring dukes such as those in Turov, Pskov and Smolensk who were also striving for dominance in the area.
The political and social structure of Polotsk was very similar to that of Kiev and Novgorod. Whilst a stable ruling system was being established in Polotsk, town architecture was able to develop. The St. Sophia Cathedral was built in the middle of the 11th century and was one of the first Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe. The mighty sacred building was primarily a symbol of the power of the dukes.
After the duke’s death his descendants inherited the duchy according to the gavelkind system (historical term used when each inheritor receives equal shares of an estate). Therefore the area was gradually split up.
The most powerful Duke of Polotsk was Vseslav of Polotsk, who was often called the “magician”, because the people thought of him as a werewolf. Polotsk experienced its best years during his 57 year reign. After the duke died in 1101, the duchy was divided even further. The duke’s sons began fighting against each other, which contributed still further to the decline.
One person who made a particular mark on the duchy in the 12th century was Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of Vseslav’s granddaughters. Although a duchess, she decided to spend her life in a convent. In the scriptorium of St. Sophia’s Cathedral she wrote books, and also pursued an active peace and religious policy. She founded two convents with libraries and a scriptorium. The convents were considered to be centres of enlightenment in the Duchy of Polotsk.
Towards the end of the 12th century social life in Polotsk underwent a major change. While the Dukes of Polotsk were busy conquering new territory and integrating it into the duchy, a completely new form of people’s assembly – the veche – was developing in the town. The veche was a people’s assembly which tried to solve the most important issues and problems facing the town by open vote. The veche frequently restricted the power of the dukes in the 12th century, especially in the larger towns. It was the first body to implement a kind of self-administration.
The veche played an important role in Polotsk. For example, it could elect a new duke, although he had to be a member of the local ducal dynasty. In the history of Polotsk, there is one instance of the veche ousting the last Duke, Rogvolod Borisovich, in the year 1151, and appointing Duke Rostislav from Minsk. The veche in Polotsk was particularly well developed and continued functioning until the end of the 15th century, when Polotsk was granted the Magdeburg Rights.
The Polotsk veche was also involved in matters of war and peace and was in a position to conclude a peace treaty for example. It also deliberated on administrative and court issues, but without taking a direct decision. This was still the prerogative of the Duke. The Duke had an entourage (Russian: druschina) of advisers and carried out the administration and passed sentence in court with their aid. Taxes, levies and tributes were payable to the Duke. The civil and military administration of a Duchy was a relatively complicated affair. The overriding power was in the hands of the Duke, who divided the towns and their surrounding settlements among his sons and officials. They managed the towns at their own discretion.
In the year 1161, the Vitebsk Vasilkovich dynasty came to power in the duchy, the first prince being Vseslav Vasilkovich. At this time princes from the region of Smolensk (now Russia) began advancing on Polotsk territory. They were repulsed with help from the towns of Vitebsk, Logozhsk (now Lahoysk or Logoisk) and Izyaslav in 1180.
The “opoltschenije” (Russian for a kind of militia stemming from the local population) rallied to defend their town, under the command of a chiliarch or tysiatsky (Russian for the leader of a military group). The duke’s representatives were called “wirnik” and “tiwun” and they were the epitome of judicial power as far as the citizens of the town were concerned. The duke nominated his aides and representatives himself. There were also church courts which were responsible for infringements of church rituals or for matters of family law. The church was also in charge of education.
The duke’s troops were mainly boyars and mercenaries. Boyars were members of the aristocracy ranking lower than the duke and constituted the ruling class of large estate holders. They acquired increasing political influence, which they used to their own advantage.
At the beginning of the 13th century, a new threat to the Duchy of Polotsk developed in the shape of the Teutonic Order. In the year 1201, with the permission of Duke Vladimir, German missionaries and crusaders founded the town of Riga at the delta of the Dvina. The Teutonic Order spread further from Riga into East Slavonic territory. This was the beginning of the end of the sovereignty of the Duchy of Polotsk. Duke Bryachislav of Polotsk asked for help from Alexander Nevsky and Lithuanian dukes, who defended Polotsk with varying success.
In 1307, the Duchy of Polotsk was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the time, Polotsk was the largest town in the Grand Duchy and received special rights and privileges. However, it ultimately had to surrender these to the Grand Duchy in the year 1383, which saw the start of a new period in the history of the country.
One of the most prosperous periods of Belarusian history is associated with the emergence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The medieval state came into being in the 13th century through alliances of various Slavonic duchies (Polotsk, Turow, Pinsk, Smolensk), due primarily to the spreading of Baltic peoples such as the Lithuanians, Yotvingians and others. The decline of the Kiev Rus, the threat of the Teutonic Knights in the west and the weakening of Kiev and Novgorod by the rampaging Tatar and Mongolian tribes of the Golden Horde triggered the rise of the Grand Duchy. It became one of the most powerful states in medieval Europe. With the Union of Lublin in 1569, which was largely Polish-dominated, it became part of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania.
The heart of the Grand Duchy was on Belarusian territory. Political, economic and cultural life in the Grand Duchy was governed by Belarusian and Lithuanian tribes. The official language from the middle of the 14th century was Ruthenian, also known as Old Belarusian. The legal codification of the Duchy was written in Ruthenian, including the Statutes of Casimir the Great, the court records of Casimir IV and three versions of the Lithuanian Statutes (1529, 1566 and 1588).[caption id="attachment_600" align="alignleft" width="336"] Castle in Mir | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
Building activity was profilic during this period of Belarusian history. As the Duchy was threatened by numerous other countries, many fortresses and fortified castles were built. Some of these buildings exist in Lithuania and Belarus to this day.
The feudal monarchy of the Grand Duchy had a number of federalistic characteristics. The annexed territories enjoyed a certain autonomy and were partly allowed to maintain their culture.
The evolution of one of the largest nations in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages was a complicated undertaking and lasted many years. The Grand Duchy covered its greatest expanse in the second half of the 14th century. At this time its borders stretched from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from Brest in the west to Smolensk in the east.
The Grand Duchy emerged as a result of the continual division of the Duchy of Polotsk. Twenty minor duchies, which came about through the splitting up of the duchies of Polotsk and Turow, were feuding with each other. The Baltic tribes took advantage of this power vacuum, in particular a duke by the name of Mindaugas I (Belarusian: Mindoug). In the 1240s he was made the first ruler of the Grand Duchy, in Novogrudok. Around 1246, Mindaugas I converted to the Orthodox faith. In the 1240s and 50s he conquered Lithuania and united it with Novogrudok. His rise to power resulted in further conflicts with the duke of Galicia-Volhynia, to whom Mindaugas I had to succumb. Consequently, he made an alliance with the Brotherhood of Livonia (part of the State of the Teutonic Knights since 1237) and converted to Catholicism, out of diplomatic expediency. This led to recognition of the Grand Duchy’s independency by the Catholic world and to equality with other European states.
However, the Brotherhood of Livonia proved to be an unreliable ally and Mindaugas I lost his military power soon afterwards. On account of his defeats, he was replaced by his son Vaišelga, a former Orthodox monk. Mindaugas was murdered by his nephew, who was in turn murdered by Mindaugas’ followers. This left the stage open for Vaišelga, who extended the state by annexing Baltic and East Slavonic territory – in particular through the active arrangement of political marriages. The state united an increasing number of heterogeneous countries and multi-ethnic groups. As it was in the interests of both the Slavonic and Baltic people to form a political union for mutual protection, the alliance was for the most part peaceful. The feudal duchies which had developed in Belarus during the 10th-12th century were able to implement their experience with regard to statehood, economy and culture in the new Grand Duchy.
In the first half of the 14th century, Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-1341) endeavoured to extend and increasingly fortify the borders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1323, he founded the new capital of the Duchy, Vilno, today Vilnius. Gediminas also reinforced the western borders to the Brotherhood of Livonia (now Poland) and built numerous fortresses and fortified castles. He founded the town of Trakai, near Vilno, and made it the capital. His son, Algirdas (1345-1377), continued expanding the Grand Duchy and conquered the Russian territories of Smolensk, Briansk, Kaluga and Oryol. In the year 1363, the Grand Duke defeated the Tatar hordes on the River Siniuka (also called Battle of the Blue Waters), which meant that the territories of Kiev, Chernihiv and Volynsk fell to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These conquests contributed to the enhanced military and political prestige of the Grand Duchy in Europe.
At the end of the 14th/beginning of the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania began fostering a closer relationship with Poland. This eventually led to the Polish-Lithuanian Union. This process began due to internal conflicts between Algirdas’ son, Jogaila, on the one hand and his cousin Vytautas and his uncle Kęstutis on the other hand. The situation was further aggravated by the expansionistic policy of the Order of Teutonic Knights and tensions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. This, and Rome’s agitation against the Orthodox Church, helped accelerate the integration process with Poland. In 1385, the Union of Krewo was signed. According to this, Jogaila converted to Catholicism (under the name Vladislav), married the Polish Queen Hedwig and thus became King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. In 1397 Jogaila issued a decree putting Orthodox feudal lords in a worse position than their Catholic counterparts. This caused conflicts which ended in a political crisis. Vytautas used this crisis to his own ends. In the Ostrów Agreement of 1392 he was made Grand Duke of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy officially became independent in the union with Poland. Vytautas wanted to crown this achievement with military success of his own, but failed in his battle against the Golden Horde and suffered a bitter defeat. This led to a military alliance between Lithuania and Poland.
In 1409, the war between the allies Lithuania and Poland and the Order of Teutonic Knights began. The main battle was the Battle of Tannenberg (in Belarusian also Battle of Grünwald) on 15th July 1410. This battle altered the course of European history in the Middle Ages. The Polish/Lithuanian troops allied with the Tatars in this battle and defeated the Order of Teutonic Knights. This prevented further expansion of the Order into Eastern Europe.
The Battle of Tannenberg cemented the rapprochement between Poland and Lithuania. In the year 1413, the Union of Horodlo was signed, which guaranteed the independence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania under the protectorship of the Polish king. At the same time, discrimination against the Orthodox nobility continued: Orthodox feudal lords were not allowed to hold office and were not entitled to vote. Vytautas had effectively lost his authority. After his death, the younger brother of Jogaila, Švitrigaila, became the Grand Duke of Lithuania. He supported the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian princes and gave their civil rights back to them. This angered the Polish nobility and it came to a civil war (1432-1436). The fighting brought no decisive victory. Peace was only established after two privileges were granted in 1432 and 1434, according to which the Orthodox and the Catholic nobility were given equal economic rights.
In 1440 there was a change of power in the Grand Duchy: Casimir Andrew (1440-1492) became Grand Duke and King of Poland. In 1457 Casimir Andrew issued a charter granting the entire “Schlachta” (the nobility) certain rights, regardless of nationality or confession.
As a further consequence, the Polish nobility demanded that Poland and Lithuania unite as one state. Lithuania was strictly against this and an amicable solution was not found.
According to Casimir’s bequest, his son Alexander Jagiellon inherited the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He was later crowned King of Poland and attempted to “polonise” Lithuania. During his rule, the political union between Poland and Lithuania was confirmed once again. Unification did not become complete until the reign of Sigismund II Augustus. During the course of the Livonian War (also called the First Nordic War, 1558-1583, a military conflict for supremacy between Poland/Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark and Tsarist Russia in the region of the Baltic Sea), he also signed the Union of Lublin. This signalled the arrival of a new state on the political map of Europe: Poland-Lithuania. According to the union, it was to be governed by a jointly elected king and state affairs were to be debated in a joint Sejm (parliament). The legal systems and the army were to remain separated.
Belarus is a country with many denominations. There are currently 26 different denominations represented in Belarus, of which 15 are variations of Protestantism. The Orthodox Church has the absolute majority of believers, with 1224 congregations, followed by the Evangelical Church with 491 congregations and the Catholic Church with 432. Islam is represented with 27 communities and Judaism with 25. In addition, there are also United Catholics, Lutherans, followers of Krishna and many other denominations.[caption id="attachment_1059" align="alignleft" width="392"] Monument of Religions in Ivye | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
This religious diversity stems from the very origins of Belarusian history. Present-day White Russia lies at the crossroads of two contrasting traditions and cultures. East meets West and traditions intermingle.
Paganism was the only religion in Belarus up till the 10th century and despite numerous endeavours by local princes, it co-existed with Christianity for a very long time. Many heathen customs, for example festivals such as Maslitsa, Kalyady or Kupala are still part of Belarusian culture today. In 988, Grand Duke Vladimir I had himself baptised according to the Byzantine rite and proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion. This political move enabled the Grand Duke to tighten the bond with the Byzantine imperial dynasty.
Following the baptism of Vladimir I, numerous cathedrals were built and over time many Belarusian believers joined the Byzantine Orthodox Church. The first bishopric in Polotsk was founded in 992. In the East Slavonic areas, the structure of the Orthodox Church was adopted which meant that the religious community developed into a social institution in its own right.
In the year 1472, the ecumenical patriarch, the Orthodox Bishop of Constantinople, recognised the Orthodox Church of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania canonically.
Between the 13th and the 16th centuries approximately 40 Orthodox churches and monasteries were built, which developed into the most important centres of religious life, education and icon painting.
When the Church Union of Brest was concluded in 1596, hard times came upon the Orthodox Church in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Union prescribed that the Orthodox Church should conform to the Catholic faith. The service based on Byzantine tradition was allowed in Slavonic languages. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church had to acknowledge the Pope. Not all believers were ready to take this step. Consequently, there was a division in the Church which resulted in the followers of the Orthodox faith being persecuted. This turmoil in the history of the Church brought about the creation of a new denomination: the confession of the United Catholics. Although they are believers in the Catholic faith, they are closely affiliated in their traditions to the Orthodox Church.
In the year 1632, the Orthodox faith was recognised once again in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in Poland. Directly after being sanctioned by the government, four eparchies (eparchy: diocese of the Orthodox Church) were founded in the Ukrainian towns Lutz and Lviv, the Polish town of Przemysl and the Belarusian town of Mogilev. From the middle of the 17th century, the diocese of Mogilev was the only one in the Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita) alias Poland-Lithuania. Despite Poland being partitioned three times, nothing could stop the rapid development of the Orthodox Church, which had substantial influence in the Russian Empire. In 1914, there were already 3552 Orthodox Churches and 35 monasteries in Belarus.
The influence of the Orthodox Church in society dwindled with the October Revolution of 1917 and like all other denominations it was subjected to terrible repression in the 1930s. Churches were closed and some turned into cinemas, archives and party organisations. By the time the Second World War broke out, not a single place of worship was open to the public in Minsk. Priests of all confessions were persecuted and often exiled.
It was not until the 1980s that a revival began and in 1989 the White Russian exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate was founded.
Going by the number of believers, the Roman Catholic is the second largest confession in Belarus. Catholicism was mentioned for the first time in Belarus at the end of the 14th century, when the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Jogaila, founded the diocese of Vilnius in 1387. This covered nearly the entire area of Belarus. By the middle of the 16th century, 259 rectories had been founded and the first Catholic orders of monks came into being: the Franciscans (Lida, Ashmjany, Minsk), the Augustinians (Brest) and the Bernardines (Polotsk). Between the 16th and the 18th century there were 18 monastic orders and seven convent orders in Belarus, of which the Catholic Society of Jesus, alias Jesuits, was the most prominent. Not only did this religious order develop a progressive schooling system but it also initiated an extensive network of different schools on different educational levels. One of the educational centres of the Order was the Academy of Polotsk, which was one of the most important educational institutions in Europe. In the year 1773, the Pope disbanded the Order, but Catherine the Great allowed it to continue ministering in the Russian Empire. Although the Order and its institutions were banned in the Russian Empire in 1820, its traces can still be found in Belarus of today.[caption id="attachment_666" align="alignright" width="313"] Church of the Bernardines in Budslau | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
The Bernardine Order also played an important role in Belarus. Its legacy can be found to this day in the little village of Budslau, where the Church of the Assumption is still run by monks of the Bernardine Order. Despite its proximity to the front line, the church survived the First World War. It bears the honorary title “minor basilica” which is conferred by the Pope himself to important church buildings. In the church, there is an icon of the Virgin Mary, which supposedly works wonders and protects the village and the building itself from misfortune. Budslau attracts many pilgrims from White Russia, Poland, Russia, Lithuania and other countries thanks to this icon and its history. The wooden altar which is early baroque and dates from the 17th century likewise attracts many believers to Budslau from numerous countries.
After Belarus was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1773, the first Belarusian diocese was founded in Mogilev. As Catholic priests actively participated in the national freedom movement in the 19th century, they were persecuted by the tsarist government and as a result the Catholic faith was banned. After the October Revolution of 1917, the situation of the Catholic Church differed little from that of the Orthodox Church. Both denominations suffered considerably. In the western part of Belarus, which belonged to Poland, the situation was very different. The Catholic faith was deeply-rooted here, which was why many Catholic priests from Russia fled there.
A Belarusian diocese was founded again in the 1980s and since 1991 there are three Roman Catholic dioceses in Belarus, namely in Grodno, Minsk and Pinsk. According to the latest figures, there are 438 congregations in Belarus.
The Reformation also had an impact on Belarus. The most influential movement of the Reformation was Calvinism. The first congregation came into being in Brest in 1533. The Calvinist communities opened schools, hospitals and printing workshops and in 1565, the religious movement was put on the same footing as the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Nicholas Radziwill, also called the Black, was considered to be the religious leader of Calvinism. He aimed to unite the Shlachta – the Polish landed gentry – through faith.
Judaism was first recognised as a religious denomination in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1389, when the Grand Duke Vytautas granted the Jews of Grodno a privilege. This stated that the synagogue and the cemetery where exempt from tax from this time on.
The majority of followers of Islam were from the Tatar population. When the Tatar Khan Tokhtamish was conquered by Timur Khan in 1395, the former found refuge in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Grand Duke Vytautas offered Khan Tokhtamish and his courtiers protection and settled them in the town of Lida.
In return for helping Vytautas fight against the crusaders, the Tatars were allowed to bring their families to Belarus and so Islam came to Belarus. In 1591, there were approximately 100,000 Tatars, most of them Sunnis, in Belarus. Yet, the number of Tatar muslims in Belarus sank to about 30,000 in the 18th century. In order to preserve their culture, the Tatars formed segregated groups, with their largest community being in Ivje.
Discover the diversity of religions in Belarus on our Circular tour of Belarus and pay a visit to the town of Ivje and its inhabitants.
Many distinguished artists and architects, who enjoy worldwide renown to this day, were born on Belarusian soil. However, due to the century-old shifting of borders to various countries and empires, not all artists who lived on Belarusian territory are counted as Belarusian artists.
The first Belarusian artists were mainly architects and icon painters, but their names were seldom recorded in the Middle Ages. Many of them purposely did not want their names to be mentioned. It is known today that the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1030-1060) was built by the architects David, Toma, Mikula and Kapes and others, but they themselves had their names removed from the foundation stone.
Another name prominent in Belarusian art of the Middle Ages is that of Lazar Bogsha. He was a talented goldsmith from Polotsk and made a famous altar cross in honour of St. Euphrosyne in the year 1161. Unfortunately this disappeared in the Second World War. In 1997, goldsmiths made a copy of the cross, which is to be found in the Church of the Transfiguration in Polotsk. It is considered the most important religious symbol of the country.
Architects from Polotsk and Grodno attracted attention in the 13th to 16th century. Many skilled architects emanated from the schools of architecture in these towns and made an impact during this period.
However, during the baroque period many aristocratic families increasingly invited foreign architects to come and work in Belarus. Thus the first Belarusian church in the baroque style, the Catholic Corpus Christi Church in Nesvizh, was built by the Italian Giovanni Maria Bernardoni. It was completed in 1593. Another important project for Bernardoni was the Corpus Christi Church in Grodno, which is one of the most beautiful sights of the city today.
In the context of late baroque, the so-called Vilnius baroque was generally popular (also known as the baroque of the United Church). Typical of this style are the high, multi-tiered towers with broken contours, the distinct shapes of the gables and many apertures. The name of the Prussian architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz is particularly associated with this specific type of baroque. His works are to be found in Vilnius, Polotsk and Lida. His most important project in Belarus was the reconstruction of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1748-1765). Other architects who contributed to the proliferation of Vilnius Baroque in Belarus were the Italian Giuseppe Fontana III and the Belarusian Alexander Ossikevich. Around this time, several churches were remodelled in this style, whilst others were newly built in the regions of Vitebsk and Polotsk.
As in Western European architecture, in particular in Italy and France, baroque classicism began to influence Belarusian architecture. The famous Italian architect Giuseppe de Sakko (court architect of the Polish king Stanislaus II August) devoted much of his creative period to the region. His works can be seen in Grodno and the surroundings to this day. In the field of painting, very few names of baroque artists have been handed down, as they rarely signed their works in this period. However, staff at the Belarusian National Art Museum has been able to attribute some works to certain artists. So we know the names of some painters who lived and worked at the end of the 18th century/beginning of the 19th century, for example Vassili Markiyanovich from Slutsk and Thomas Silinich from Mogilev.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Belarusian architecture was governed by eclecticism. Parallel to the classical forms, more modern neo-baroque, neo-classicistic, neo-Gothic and neo-romantic forms developed. A striking example of this is the red brick theatre in Mogilev and a neighbouring building built by Peter Kamburov in pseudo-Russian style. After the annexation of Belarusian territory to the Russian Empire, Belarusian architecture was influenced by followers of two Russian schools of architecture, the Moscow and the St. Petersburg schools. These included the well-known Russian architects Vassili Stassov and Avraam Melnikov. The Russian architect Nikolai Lvov designed the St. Joseph Cathedral in Mogilev and Ivan Storow erected the castle in Krichev for Prince Potemkin, as well as the castle of the aristocratic family Rumjantsev-Paskewitz in Gomel. The reason for this was that the Russian empress Catharine the Great had generously given her favourites estates on Belarusian soil. These counts and princes invited only Russian architects to build their palaces and castles. Belarusian master craftsmen were not in demand.
In the 19th century, Belarussian artists were trained primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Therefore their work developed predominantly in line with Russian art and architecture. However, other Belarusian painters were influenced by Lithuanian and Polish arts. The most famous Belarusian painters of the 19th century are Joseph Oleshkevich, Ivan Khrutsky, Andrei Khrutsky, Sergei Zaryanko, Apollinary Goravsky (Horawski) and Theodore Yasnovski.
[caption id="attachment_1438" align="alignleft" width="276"]
The old 1000 rouble banknote Belarus[/caption]
The Belarusian artist Ivan Khrutsky was one of the founders of Russian still-life. He imitated the Dutch masters in his first works. All of his paintings were focussed on a central point and were always symmetrical. Today, everyone in Belarus knows the most famous still-life by Khrutsky as it was imprinted on the old 1000 rouble banknote which was withdrawn in 2016 when a new currency was introduced.
This style can also be seen in particularly vivid form in the works of the painter Sergei Zaryanko, which are considered today as archetypal of classical Russian portrait painting of the 19th century.
The 20th century – the century of scientific and technological progress and modernity – saw the turning point in both Belarusian and worldwide architecture. Building typology and structural engineering changed and new forms of architecture arose thanks to electrification and new construction options.
One of the most prominent architects of the 20th century in Belarus was Joseph Langbard, whose buildings are characteristic of the Belarusian capital to this day. He designed the government building, the opera house, the academy of science and the officers’ club house.
Many talented architects from all over the Soviet Union, including Mikhail Parusnikov, Alexander Voinov, Yuri Yegorov, Georgi Zaborski, Naum Trakhtenberg, Mikhail Barshch und Vladimir Korol, worked on the mammoth architectural post-war project of virtually rebuilding the capital of Minsk. Together with Abram Duchan, Korol worked for example on the design of the architecturally appealing Main Post Office in Minsk.
Inspite of two World Wars, the art of painting still developed in Belarus in the 20th century and many world-class painters emerged. Witold Byalynitsky-Birulya was a highly talented landscape painter and lyricist. His work was dominated by so-called pure landscape painting which entailed the depiction of nature in abstracto without any living beings.
In the post-revolution period of 1917, the town of Vitebsk became the most important centre of arts. A folk art school was inaugurated there in 1918. This was founded by the world-famous painter Marc Chagall, one of the precursors of the avant-garde and visual arts. Chagall’s painting was influenced by his teacher, Yehuda Pen, who was a prominent advocate of the Jewish renaissance.
Other famous artists who attended the Vitebsk Folk Art School were Lazar Lissitski, Vera Emolaeva, Zair Azgur and last, not least Kazimir Malevich. The latter developed a new movement in painting: suprematism. The painter and sculptor Zair Azgur became known thanks to his many sculptures which grace Minsk and other Belarusian cities today.
Painting in Belarus developed further in the second half of the 20th century and was fashioned by artists such as Nikolai Ishchuk, Mikhail Savitsky, Vladimir Tovstik, Felix Janushkevich and Valeri Shkarubo.
One of the most significant contemporary artists is Mikhail Savitski. He focuses primarily on historical subjects in his paintings. His best known series of paintings is called “Ziffern am Herzen” (Numbers ingrained in your heart), which examines the atrocities in the concentration camps.
[caption id="attachment_668" align="aligncenter" width="323"] Circus in Minsk | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
Currently the best known and most successful architects in Belarus are Victor Kramarenko and Mikhail Vinogradov. They are responsible for the designs of the Belarusian National Library and the Minsk main station. These architects construct their buildings largely of glass combined with ingenious metal structures.
Christianity came to Belarus after the Grand Duke Vladimir had himself baptised according to the Byzantine rite in 988 and proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion. The diocese of Polotsk was founded in 992 and Polotsk became the centre of Christianisation on Belarusian territory. Subsequently, other principalities also converted to the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Today, Orthodoxy is the most widespread denomination in the country. According to the last official census in 2010, almost half the population (about 4.5 million) are members of the Orthodox Church. In other words, the Belarusian Orthodox Church unites over three-quarters of all believers in the country. In 1989, the exarchate of the Belarusian Orthodox Church was founded, under the auspices of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Metropolitan Paul has been patriarch of Belarus since 2013. There are 10 dioceses in the exarchate of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In all, there are 1159 Orthodox Churches in Belarus and at the present time there are over 180 churches under construction. The Belarusian Orthodox Church also has five seminaries under its authority.
Below are some of the most important religious festivals in the Orthodox Church:
- [caption id="attachment_672" align="alignright" width="408"] Mariä-Schutz Church in Grodno | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption] Christmas (7thJanuary)
- Baptism of Jesus (19thJanuary)
- Presentation of Jesus in the temple (15thFebruary)
- Annunciation Day (7thApril)
- Palm Sunday
- Ascension Day
- Transfiguration of Jesus (19thAugust)
- Assumption Day (28thAugust)
- Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (21stSeptember)
- Feast of the cross (27thSeptember)
- Presentation of Mary in the temple (4thDecember)
On the basis of the Church Union of Brest, the United (Roman Catholic) Church was formed in the year 1596 and played an important role in the history of the country. The Church Union was a merging of the Roman Catholic Church with the Orthodox bishops of Poland-Lithuania who were under the control of the Constantinople Patriarchate. The aim was to safeguard Orthodoxy against the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the height of its expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries, it covered all of Belarus and parts of Russia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine.[caption id="attachment_593" align="alignleft" width="342"] Catholic brick church | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
In accordance with the Church Union, Orthodox believers from Poland-Lithuania had to recognise the fundamental dogmas of Catholicism and the authority of the Pope. Metropolitans could only be elected with the approval of the Vatican. Services could only be held in Church Slavonic. All possessions of the Orthodox Church were appropriated by the United Church.
These changes met with widespread opposition, which was frequently countered with force by the authorities. The struggle between United Catholics and the Orthodox Church continued to smoulder. On account of its privileges, the United Church prevailed over the Orthodox Church and over time a gradually increasing majority of the population on Belarusian territory (75%) became members of the United Church. In 1794, Catherine the Great’s Church Union was revoked. Members of the United Church were often cruelly persecuted by the tsarist regime and many consequently reverted to Orthodoxy. It was not until the “Edict of toleration”, issued by Tsar Nicholas II in 1905, that United Catholics could openly profess their faith. The United Church experienced a hard time once again during the period of the Soviet Union and only after its collapse was the Church able to emerge from illegality. As of 1994, Jan Sergei Gajek has been archimandrite of the Belarusian United Catholics. The office of overall head of the Belarusian United Church is not filled, but Jan Sergei Gajek acts in this capacity.
According to figures from the year 2008, about 10,000 United Catholics live in Belarusia and are divided into fifteen official rectories. A further ten congregations could not be registered yet, on account of certain peculiarities of the Belarusian legal system. There are only two Greek Catholic churches in Belarusia, namely in Polotsk and Mogilev. Greek Catholic centres have been established in some towns. Services are normally held in Belarusian.
It is estimated that there are 2,000 Belarusian United Catholics living in the diaspora today, with congregations in London, Rome, Prague, Warsaw, Kaliningrad and Chicago.
After the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century, many Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) came to Belarus from Russia. They did not accept the reforms and innovations introduced by the Orthodox Patriarch Nikon and distanced themselves from them demonstratively. Their main concern was to preserve the faith of their forebears. From then on, conservative Orthodox believers were called Old Believers. Despite living in different ethnic and cultural surroundings, the Old Believers retained their cultural traditions in Belarus. The little town of Vietka, in the south-east of Belarus near Gomel, became their centre. There were various subdivisions and ramifications in the confession, but differences faded in the course of time.
What is the difference between the Orthodox Church and Old Believers today? Basically the Old Believers have retained religious traditions in the same form as they were at the time when the Kiever Rus was formed in 988. The most significant liturgical differences are the following:
- Old Believers only acknowledge the eight-pointed cross. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church also tolerates the four-pointed cross. For the Old Believers, the four-pointed cross is a symbol of heresy (a conception of faith which deviates from official church teaching)
- the Old Believers always kneel when praying
- the Old Believers make the sign of the cross with two fingers (the Orthodox believers with three)
- Old Believer processions move in a clockwise direction (in the Orthodox Church anti-clockwise)
- Old Believers write Christ’s name Isus (Iсусь), the Orthodox Church Iisus (Iисусь)
- Old Believers have two saints more than the Orthodox Church: Avvakum Petrov und Paul of Kolomna
As can be seen, the Old Believers venerate their own cultural and habitual symbols. The icon painting school of Vietka is particularly renowned. Its painters combined ancient traditions with new elements in their works. One peculiarity of the Vietka icons was that they were studded with pearls. The mountings were mainly silver- or gold-plated.
Even the cuisine of the Old Believers was different to the Belarusian as it included hallmarks of Russian cuisine. However, over time and despite their conservatism, the Old Believers took a liking to the local cuisine. Nowadays Old Believers and Belarusians have identical dishes but with different names. Tobacco and alcohol used to be prohibited, while tea and coffee were considered unclean.
The Old Believers’ wedding traditions are also extremely interesting and differ from those of the Orthodox Church. The blessing by the priest is replaced by the blessing of the parents. On the one hand the wedding is considered as sacred, whereas on the other hand it is considered as sinful. Unmarried young people are not allowed to take part at wedding ceremonies.
Apart from New Year, the Old Believers do not celebrate any secular festivities and so New Year celebrations are an extremely popular festivity for Old Believer families.
It is difficult to ascertain how many Old Believers live in Belarus, as many conceal their religion or live in remote areas. According to data from the Pomorian Old Orthodox Church, there are 38 Old Believer congregations in Belarus (both registered and not). These have a combined number of 50,000 members. From year to year, the number of Old Believers declines, not only in Belarus but also worldwide. The young have lost interest in religion and many people migrate to towns where they lose touch with their identity which is rooted in village structures. But the greatest problem is that the Old Believers adhere strictly to their dogmas, which is increasingly hard to do in a modern, ever-changing world.
The Reformation in Belarus developed in the same direction and approximately at the same time as in Western Europe. The first Lutheran Church was built in Brest in 1553, but no longer exists today. The first congregations were founded by the Germans. Most Lutherans came from Germany or have German roots.[caption id="attachment_670" align="alignright" width="205"] Evangelical Lutheran Church | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
The first Lutheran congregation in post-Soviet times was founded in the year 1993. Until 1998 the organisation of the Lutheran congregations in the various regions of Belarus was largely uncoordinated. Some joined the ELCROS community (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Central Asia). In the summer of 1999 ELCROS nominated Pastor Leonid Tsviki from Vitebsk as deputy of the Bishop in Belarus. However, many congregations wanted to remain independent and founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Republic of Belarus together. ELCROS rejected this completely. Therefore a schism occurred and in 2004 the independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Republic of Belarus was founded and it now has 11 member congregations.
The congregations are relatively uncommunicative and therefore there are no precise details about the number of believers.
Go on a journey with us and discover the traces of Christian history in Belarus.
The Union of Lublin sealed the unification of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was signed on the 1st July 1569 and established the new state of Poland-Lithuania (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów; Belarusian: Retsch Paspalitaja), which endured for two centuries. During this period, there were several joint conflicts against Russia and Prussia, more than ten treaties and alliances and also much dissension and hostilities.
Despite being part of the union, the Grand Duchy strove for independence and secession and was allowed to keep its national borders, administrative bodies, its judicial system and its national currency. In 1588, the retention of the Lithuanian Statutes (codification of law in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) was legally reasserted, as a result of which many regulations of the Union of Lublin lost their validity.
Poland-Lithuania was officially a confederation, with a joint head of state (the king) and a joint parliament (the Sejm). However, the king’s powers were strictly limited. As far as the legislature was concerned, the king only had a right of initiative, i.e. he could propose draft laws for approval. Furthermore, he could endorse regulations made by the Sejm and prepare laws, although his jurisdiction was restricted by the courts. The king had no control over state finances.
The parliament, the Sejm, was composed of three elements: the king, the Senate (made up of Catholic bishops and dignitaries from both states) and the House of Representatives (Polish: Izba Poselska). The Izba Poselska, or lower house, was composed of delegates from the various administrative districts. Over the course of time the House of Representatives became the principal component of the Sejm and gradually supplanted the upper house, the Senate.
The Sejm dealt primarily with economic, administrative and judicial issues. The resolutions passed by the Sejm had varying decision-making authority. They applied either to the nation as a whole, or just to Poland or Lithuania respectively.
The central government was too incompetent and weak to control the political situation in the country and this eventually led to civil war and outside state intervention.
In the years 1769 and 1770, Austria occupied part of eastern Poland and the Ukraine, while Prussia occupied the north-western part of Poland. In August 1772, Austria, Poland and Russia drew up a treaty for the partitioning of Poland. This meant that some eastern towns of present-day White Russia were allotted to the Russian Empire.
In the year 1788, the Sejm of the parts of the country remaining after the partitioning proclaimed the eternal union of Poland and Lithuania. It was the first modern constitution in Europe and contained some of the most progressive elements of the time, such as the principle of popular sovereignty and the separation of powers. Based on this constitution, huge changes in political and daily life were to be expected. However, reactionary forces protested against the constitution and in the spring of 1792 the “Targowica Confederation” was founded by Polish magnates in the Polish town of the same name. Their aim was to quash the constitution passed in 1791 and reinstate the Golden Liberty, which granted the nobility extraordinary rights and privileges. As the reactionaries could not rely merely on their own supporters, they asked the Russian Empress Catherine II for help. The latter sent over 100,000 soldiers as reinforcements and consequently a rapid victory was won.
In July 1792, the Polish king August III, acknowledged the Targowica Confederation and dissolved the four-year-old Sejm. This sealed the reactionaries’ victory and led to the second partitioning of Poland. Russia and Prussia signed a treaty in January 1793, according to which Russia received the central part of present-day White Russia and the Ukraine. On the other hand, Prussia received Polish territory and towns such as Danzig and Thorn (Polish: Torun).
In March 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko organised a rebellion against the confederation and the military intervention on the part of Russia and Prussia. Kościuszko belonged to the middle Belarusian nobility but championed the freedom of the peasants. To start with, the rebellion was successful as it was supported by the majority of peasants and the poorer citizenry. Despite this, he was unable to make a stand against the all-powerful Prussian and Russian armies. Once the rebellion was crushed in November 1974, Poland was partitioned for the third time by Austria, Prussia and Russia (in October 1795). Lithuania, Courland and western Belarus were allotted to the Russian Empire, in other words Russia took over the entire present-day Belarusian territory after the third partitioning of Poland.
The 18th century saw the beginning of urbanisation in Belarus. Although the majority of the population were simple peasants, new towns were constantly founded. Most of the towns were subject to Magdeburg Law. This promoted trade and craftsmanship in particular. By the middle of the 18th century Belarus had 112 towns. Markets were held in these towns and villages several times a week. Belarusian merchants provided a link between Eastern and Western Europe through their trade with towns such as Warsaw, Poznan, Danzig, Tver and Moscow.
However, the numerous wars on Belarusian territory between the 16th and the 18th centuries had serious consequences and resulted in the decimation of the productive forces, especially of the peasantry, in an overall decline in population and to the stagnation of trade. Whilst there had been a population of 2.9 million people living on Belarusian territory in 1650, in 1670 there were barely half as many. The Russian-Polish War between 1654 and 1667 not only wiped out a large part of the population but also rendered fertile farm land barren for years to come.
The country did not recover until the middle of the 18th century. By the end of that century, more than 3.6 million people lived on Belarusian territory. The peasants still had no rights, which meant that any estate owner could sell, exchange or even kill his peasants. The peasants attempted to fight the repression by the upper classes and many small, local revolts occurred. The most significant of these revolts was lead by Vassili Vashchilo in 1743-1744 in Kritchev, in the eastern part of Belarus. Around four thousand armed men took part in this revolt, which was crushed with much bloodshed.
The development of the country continued as part of the Russian Empire; towns such as Minsk, Shklow and Ostrowo became important trading centres.