History

Flag of the Eurasian Economic Union

The EEU is an economic alliance between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. It evolved on 01.01.2015 from the customs’ union between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. The main objective is to simplify and streamline the exchange of services, goods and capital. The five countries want to coordinate their economic policy along the lines of the European Union. The principal milestones on the road to development of the EEU were:

– in 1994 the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, proposed the idea of a Eurasian Union

– in 2000 Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan founded the Eurasian Economic Community

– in 2010 the customs’ union between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia came into being

– in 2012 the Eurasian Economic Union was created between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, with the aim of promoting a free transfer of goods, services, capital and workforce.

Each year a different member country chairs the EEU. In 2015, this was Belarus, followed by Kazakhstan in 2016 and Kyrgyzstan in 2017.

The ambition of the Union is economic cooperation. The member countries also aim to coordinate key issues of mutual interest such as transport, agricultural and industrial policy.

Among the most important targets of the EEU are:

–  creating conditions for the stable development of the economies in the member countries, with the aim of improving the standard of living of the population;

–  attempting to create a common market for goods, services, capital and workforce;

–  implementing extensive modernisation, cooperation and improvement in economic competitiveness.

Moreover, the EEU aims to create a common finance market by the year 2025. This should make a free transfer of capital within the EEU possible. The common finance market should include banks, stock exchanges and insurance.

The EEU also hopes to extend its sphere of activity by concluding free trade agreements with other countries. A free trade agreement with Vietnam was already signed in 2015. Negotiations over free trade are currently underway with about 50 countries, for example with Singapore, Egypt, Iran and India.

At the present time, the Commission is working with China on the “new Silk Road” project, in other words a joint trade and economic agreement with China. This cooperation would provide opportunities for both sides. On the part of the EEU, Russia in particular would be able to supply its hydrocarbons to the Far East. In return, China would obtain a reliable transit route to the West for its goods. The Silk Road could also include the regions of Western Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran also seem to be interested in cooperating. This would lead to a trading area from China in the east via India and Iran in the south to Belarus in the west.

In the summer of 2017, a new customs code came into force with the intention of standardising and modernising import regulations and the work of the customs authorities.

As some of the member countries are lagging well behind with regard to modern technology, the Eurasian Economic Commission has set itself the goal of encouraging industrial innovation and promoting industrial cooperation between the member countries. In addition, the production of technology products will be stimulated and completely new branches of high-tech industry developed.

To achieve this goal, the Eurasian Economic Commission plans to modernise industrial and innovation structures. This includes industry and innovation clusters, industry and technology parks, economy and technology centres.

Eurasian Technology Platforms

Furthermore, platforms are to be created in priority fields of technology so as to encourage important key branches. Scientists and design engineers from all EEU countries will work together to find solutions for specific innovations for particular industrial branches. The results of the research and development work will subsequently be implemented in the production process.

Digital factories

In the EEU countries, so-called digital factories are to be created. The Eurasian Economic Commission is eager for the member countries to synchronise their national digitalisation strategies in order to create digital technology platforms, system and interdisciplinary projects. Digital technology in the fields of industry and agriculture is still negligible, but this should be remedied in future by digital factories.

Eurasian Centre for machine tool construction

The EEU is planning to create a Eurasian Centre for the machine tool industry, which will be instrumental in the technological development of machine tool construction.

Environmental technology  

The demand for modern, environmental technology is extremely high at the moment. The global market for environmental technology and services is one of the most dynamically growing sectors. With the aid of the Eurasian platform “Technology for ecological development”, the EEU is planning to open up this market for companies within the union. A top priority is the development of environmentally friendly transport facilities and modern solutions for climate and environmental protection.

According to a survey made by the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, the majority of German companies questioned consider the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has advantages. Apart from abolishing customs duties between the countries and creating a larger sales market, some of the advantages mentioned included savings in logistic costs and technical regulations.

The EEU provides easier access to five markets simultaneously through unified customs duties and a common certification process. This is beneficial in particular to companies which are active in other EEU countries as well as Russia.

According to Tigran Sarkisjan, the chairman of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the work of the Eurasian Economic Union is primarily of an economic and not a political nature. The Commission offers solutions for improving the business environment in the five countries and providing a single market for goods and services as well as freedom of movement for the workforce and investments.

It will take some time to be able to judge whether the EEU can fulfil these expectations in the long term.

15/04/2017
Memorial Second World War Belarus

Below is a summary of the most important dates in Belarusian history, from the 7th century to the present day:

7th – 9th century First settlement of Slavonic peoples on the territory of present- day Belarusia: Krivichi, Dregovichi, Radimichi
862 First mention of the towns Turov and Polotsk in the Nestor Chronicle
980 First mention in the Nestor Chronicle of Polotsk as a principality, ruled over by Prince Rogvolod
988 Foundation of the Kievan Rus
10th century Start of the spread of Christianity in Belarus
992 Foundation of the first eparchy (a diocese in the Orthodox Church) in Polotsk
1044 – 1066 Construction of the first Orthodox Church in Polotsk, the Cathedral of Saint Sophia
3. March 1067 Battle on the Nemiga, first mention of Minsk
Beginning of the 13th century Crusades of the Teutonic Order on Belarusian territory
1237 – 1241 Invasions and conquest of Belarusian territory by the Tatars (the Golden Horde)
Mid 13th century Foundation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
1253 Coronation of the first Lithuanian King, Mindaugas, in Novogrudok
1384 The „Pahonia“ became the coat of arms for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
1385 Union of Krewo between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
1390 Adoption of Magdeburg Law in Brest
1410 Battle of Tannenberg
1499 Adoption of Magdeburg Law in Minsk
1506 – 1510 Construction of the castle in Mir (today: UNESCO World Heritage site)
1517 Franzysk Skaryna prints the first book (Book of Psalms) in the Ruthenian language in Prague)
1529,1566,1588 Textualisation of the statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the first codification of legislature in Eastern Europe
1558 – 1583 Livonian War – conflict between Russia, Sweden, Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania over the Baltic
7th May 1583 Laying of foundation stone for Nezvish Castle (today: UNESCO World Heritage site)
1st July 1569 Union of Lublin, founding of Poland-Lithuania
1596 Church Union von Brest
1604 – 1618 Intervention of Poland-Lithuania in Russia
1700 – 1721 Great Northern War
1772,1793,1795 Partitioning of Poland
3rd May 1791 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania
1794 Kosciuszko uprising
23rd May 1794 Decree by Tsarina Katharina II concerning the settlement of Jews in a homeland of their own
1798 – 1855 Years of birth and death of the Belarusian-Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz
24th June 1812 Napoleon crosses the River Neman, beginning of the Russian Campaign
1812 – 1820 Development and establishment of the Jesuit academy in Polotsk
1820 Founding of the religious order Society of Jesus, the Jesuit academy in Polotsk and other educational institutions in Belarus
1824 – 1839 Construction of the Augustow Canal linking the Rivers Neman and Vistula near Grodno
1830-1831 National liberation movement for the revival of Poland-Lithuania
1861 Abolition of serfdom in Russia and Belarus
1882 – 1942 Years of birth and death of the Belarusian national poet Yanka Kupala
1882 – 1956 Years of birth and death of the Belarusian national poet and author Yakub Kolas
13–15th March 1898 First congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in Minsk
October 1917 October Revolution, Proclamation of Soviet rule in Belarus
1st August 1914 – 11th November 1918 First World War
25th February 1918 Start of German occupation in Belarus
3rd March 1918 Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
25th March 1918 Founding of Belarusian People’s Republic
1st January 1919 Proclamation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (BSSR)
27th February 1919 Proclamation of the Lithuanian Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic
17th July 1919 Dissolution of the Lithuanian Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic
8th August 1919 – 11th July 1920 Occupation of Minsk by Polish troops
1920 Opening of the first Belarusian dramatic theatre (today: Yanka Kupala Theatre)
October 1921 Founding of the Belarusian state university
1921 Transition from the economic policy of war communism to the New Economic Policy (NEP)
1st January 1929 Inauguration of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences
1st September 1939 Outbreak of the Second World War
22nd June 1941

24th June 1941

Outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (Russian for Second World War)

Founding of the first partisan units under the leadership of Vasily (Vasil) Korzh

Winter 1941/42 Construction of the first concentration camps and ghettos on Belarusian soil
23rd June – 28th August 1944 Soviet liberation offensive called “Bagration”
3rd July 1944 Liberation of the Belarusian capital, Minsk
27th April 1945 Affiliation of the Belarusian SSR to the UN, as founding member
16th August 1945 Treaty between the USSR and Poland concerning the Soviet/Polish border
14th December 1947 Monetary reform in the USSR (incl. Belarus), abolition of food coupons
1st January 1956 Broadcast of the first television programme from the Minsk television centre
26th June 1974 Minsk: conferral of the honorary title “Hero City”
15th June 1977 – 30th June 1984 Construction of the Minsk underground
14th April 1978 Passage of the new constitution of the BSSR
26th April 1986 Chernobyl: worst imaginable accident, contamination of about 23% of the total Belarusian territory
26th January 1990 Belarusian becomes the second official language alongside Russian
19th September 1991 Alteration of the state’s official title from Belarusian SSR to Republic of Belarus
26th December 1991 Break-up of the Soviet Union, founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States
30th January 1992 Belarus becomes a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
13th – 27th February 1994 First participation of an independent Belarusian team in the Winter Olympic Games
15th March 1994 Passage of the constitution of the Republic of Belarus
8th July 1994 First International Slavonic Bazaar Arts Festival in Vitebsk
10th July 1994 Election of the first Belarusian president Alexander Lukaschenko
Deсember 1999 Agreement between Russia and Belarus on close cooperation and possible establishment of a joint union
Septemer 2001/td> Re-election of Alexander Lukaschenko, still in office today
May 2014 78th Ice HockeyWorld Championship in Minsk
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Belarus Polotsk Sophia Cathedral

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.

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Courtyard of Mir Castle Belarus

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).

Castle in Mir Belarus

Castle in Mir | Photo: Benny Reiter

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.

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Catholic St. Francis Xavier Cathedral Grodno Hrodna 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.

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Minsk central railway station 1873 Belarus

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.

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Lenin monument in front of the government building Minsk Belarus

The path of Belarus as part of the Soviet Union began with the February Revolution in 1917, with the abdication of the Tsar and democratic reforms in the dissolving Russian Empire. The defeat of the Central Powers in the First World War and the November Revolution of 1918 in Germany allowed the Lenin government to terminate the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty. When the entire territory of Belarus was liberated from German occupation, Belarusian statehood began to re-establish itself. The Belarusian people aspired to independence. The Bolsheviks could not allow this in their efforts to preserve as much of the territory of the former Russian Empire as possible. But the existence of the self-proclaimed Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) and the requests of some political parties and organizations helped the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus to decide to create the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on December 24, 1918. But there was no Soviet Union yet, only on 29 December 1922 did the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic (RSFSR), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) and the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic sign the treaty establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with the capital in Moscow. The Soviet Union was a confederation of states with unified governments and common executive and legal organs of power, which aligned their legislative and legal systems with the socialist theory of society. According to the Soviet constitution, the Union republics were considered sovereign states; formally, each Union republic was allowed to leave the Union. A Union republic had the right to communicate with other states and to participate in the activities of various international organizations.

After the founding of the Union, the territory of the BSSR was enlarged and several districts (Russian: Ujezd) in the north were connected to the country. In 1924 a new territorial division was introduced, the country was divided into 10 Okrugi (the largest administrative unit), 100 Rajoni and 1,202 municipalities (Russian: Selskij Sowet). Separate communities were established for national minorities such as Jews, Poles and Ukrainians.

In the 1920s, a one-party system developed analogous to the rest of the Soviet Union. Opposition parties and organizations were gradually suppressed and eliminated. The Communist Party became the central power in the state.

The economy in Belarus experienced a great crisis after the First World War and the civil war. In order to overcome the crisis and revive the economy, the reforms of the New Economic Policy (NEP), designed and implemented by Lenin and Leon Trotsky, were intended to give an impetus to the entire Soviet Union. What was new about this policy? Lenin introduced market economy processes into the state-controlled economy. This gave farmers the right to dispose of some of their production themselves. From then on, they only had to pay a so-called natural tax and were allowed to sell the rest freely. The cooperative system developed very quickly. The farmers joined together in cooperatives to increase their labour productivity and thus their profits. Thus the agriculture of the BSSR was rebuilt until 1927.

Calves on the collective farm Belarus

Calves on the collective farm | Photo: Benny Reiter

The New Economic Policy also gave private trade scope for development. Between 1922 and 1923, for example, about 90% of commercial enterprises belonged to private entrepreneurs. They generated over 85% of the country’s value added. The NEP also covered the industrial sector. A new management and administration system was introduced for the large nationalized industries. The Supreme Economic Council and its local representatives were the supervisory bodies, but they left the companies room for manoeuvre in their decision-making. This had a positive effect on the mood of companies, employees and consumers.

A special feature of the Belarusian economy was that small private enterprises in particular were able to develop rapidly during this period. In addition, new industries and large enterprises were established in the republic, which had a positive effect on the small craft enterprises. In 1925, pre-war production levels were surpassed for the first time.

The reconstruction of the national economy was driven not only by the effectiveness of the New Economic Policy, but also by the active participation of the population and their will to rebuild. The NEP was partly at odds with the socialist social system. It was of an interventionist nature and was implemented without the reconstruction of the political system and without the legal reforms that were actually necessary. Politics does not refer to objective economic laws, but to social needs and voluntarism. It was an auxiliary mechanism for the concerns of the time and the lack after the war and was a decisive factor for the consolidation of the power of the communists. However, its inherent systemic weaknesses eventually led to problems. Since 1926, taxes rose, and small industry and commerce were gradually pushed out of the market. The New Economic Policy, which at the beginning triggered a boost in industry, trade and agriculture, failed.

The year 1927 in Belarus was marked by supply crises, especially for grain. The Soviet government saw the solution to the problem in the collectivization of agriculture, i.e. the integration of private farms into a state system of collective farms (agricultural production cooperatives). This process of collectivization took place under great pressure. The peasants who resisted were severely punished, threatened prison or deportation to penal camps. Despite the active resistance of peasants, collectivization in the BSSR was completed by the early 1930s. At that time, 87.5% of all farms were organized in collective farms. The exchange of production, however, was disappointing. The collectivization deprived the farmers of the right to their own means of production and prescribed the results of their work. For this purpose there was a centralized system of planning and management in the collective farms.

Man with horse-drawn carriage Belarus

In today’s Belarusian collective farm | Picture: Benny Reiter

Employees on the collective farms had no passports and were de jure bound to the place of their work, the collective farm. This completely restricted their freedom of movement in the country.

The social and economic results of economic reconstruction in the 1920s and 1930s were highly contradictory. On the one hand, the economic development of the Soviet Union provided an enormous boost to development, and the country caught up internationally. On the other hand, the socialist construction of the economy and society led to high material and human losses. Almost all forms of ownership were gradually abolished and the state became a monopolist.

It should be noted that, despite its orientation towards Moscow, the BSSR consolidated the Belarusian people and Minsk became the centre of Belarusian nation-state revival. The Stalinist government closely observed, monitored and controlled the socio-political processes in the republic. To this end, many Moscow party cadres were installed in important leadership positions. The best example of this was the position of the chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the head of the Committee for State Security.

The nationality policy of the Soviet Union was also reflected in Belarus. The so-called “policy of national rebirth” continued when the BSSR was founded in 1920. Since 1921 the entire state file management was transferred into Belarusian. The Belarusian State University Minsk (today – the largest university in the country), which was opened in 1921, made a substantial contribution. Until 1928, 80% of the employees of the central state institutions spoke Belarusian. The policy of national reconstruction was successful and received extensive support from the Belarusian people. The construction and development of the language helped to shape the feeling of belonging to a nation

Since the beginning of the 1930s, however, a contrary policy was pursued. The central Soviet administration strived to eliminate everything connected with the Belarusian nation. At that time, a myth was spread about a broad network of counterrevolutionary nationalist organizations. According to the OGPU (United State Political Administration), all areas of the national economy, scientific institutions and universities of the BSSR were permeated. This provided the excuse to nip the revival of Belarusian national identity in the bud.

On April 11, 1927, the constitution of the BSSR was adopted, in which the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared a socialist state of the dictatorship of the proletariat. According to the constitution, the BSSR voluntarily entered the Soviet Union.

After 10 years, a new constitution of the BSSR was adopted, as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) itself adopted a new constitution in 1939. The Constitution of the USSR required full conformity with the Constitution of the BSSR. The laws of the USSR were fully valid on the territory of the BSSR, since every citizen of the BSSR was also a citizen of the USSR. In the Constitution, it was formally a voluntary union of the BSSR with the USSR, although the sovereignty of the republic was substantially limited. Thus, all important issues of state life fell within the competence of the USSR. The economic life of the Republic was developed and coordinated according to the plans of the USSR.

Place of murder of victims of political repressive measures Kurapaty Belarus

Kurapaty. Place of Stalin mass graves | Photo: Benny Reiter

Many constitutional laws had the character of declarations, but often did not correspond to reality (e.g. with regard to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly).

The Soviet economy aimed to develop heavy industry and build large machinery and industrial plants. This entailed a fundamental transformation of the entire economy. In the BSSR, as in the entire Soviet Union, this process took place under the slogan of Socialist Industrialization. The transformation into an industrial society was relatively rapid in Belarus and took between ten and fifteen years. This industrialization in the blink of an eye required considerable financial resources, which the state took from the people. Many national cultural artefacts and valuables, especially ecclesiastical ones, were sold. The working class was paid less and the peasantry was subject to high taxes.

In the BSSR, the fuel, wood, paper, textile, shoe and food industries developed during the interwar period. Heavy industry was hardly developed at that time.

Economic activity was prescribed by the Communist Party in so-called five-year plans. These plans had to be strictly followed. There were socialist competitions of the so-called Stakhanov movement. According to the great deed of Stakhanov (overfulfilment of the daily plan by 1.457%) the workers throughout the Soviet Union were supposed to make more efforts to increase their labor productivity, so was the hope.

On August 23, 1939, Hitler and Stalin concluded the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, whose secret Additional Protocol was to divide the zones of influence of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. After Germany had attacked Poland, the Red Army entered western Belarus. This territory was annexed and incorporated into the Belarusian SSR. Despite the non-aggression pact, the Third Reich entered the war against the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. More about this topic you can find here.

During the subsequent German occupation, enormous damage was inflicted on the Belarusian people in all areas of their lives. After the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies in the Second World War, a new period began in the historical development of Belarusian society. Its main characteristic was a spiritual resurrection. But the joy that accompanied the victory over the enemy was overshadowed by the huge human losses. In comparison with all other countries involved in the war, Belarus suffered the greatest losses: approximately three million people, or one in three inhabitants, lost their lives.

Victory Square Minsk Belarus

Victory Square in Minsk | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

In the post-war period, agriculture lay in ruins, other Soviet republics supplied Belarus with livestock, grain and agricultural technology. Great efforts were needed to overcome the post-war damage. Many cities such as Minsk were rebuilt from scratch.

In the post-war period, many forces and resources were invested in the reconstruction of heavy industry. In the Belarusian SSR, mechanical engineering and the electricity industry developed at a particularly rapid pace. By 1950, the economy had returned to pre-war levels in almost all areas. In the following decades Belarus developed into the most progressive of the Soviet republics. It was an important centre of technical progress, strategically important large enterprises were settled, among other the first Soviet microchips were manufactured locally. The excellent level of technical education has been maintained to this day.

In sympathy with the heavy losses of the country during the German occupation in the Second World War, the BSSR was admitted to the UN as a founding member alongside the Ukrainian SSR and the USSR. It had its own vote in the Plenary Assembly, but it was always cast in the USSR bloc.

The Belarusian SSR experienced the same political history as the entire Soviet Union. After Stalin’s death, the thaw period began (1953-1964). This was followed by a period of stagnation from 1964-1986. On 7 October 1977 the last constitution of the USSR was passed.

The political processes of the Perestroika period led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the independence of Belarus. The end of the Soviet Union was sealed on 8 December 1991 in the Belovezh Agreement on a Nomenklatura estate in the Belavezhkaya Pushcha near Brest, which transferred the Soviet Union to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

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Memorial Shunevka Belarus

In Belarus, the Second World War is often equated with the Great Patriotic War, but the two are anything but identical. The “Great Patriotic War” began on 22nd June 1941 when the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union, almost two years after the commencement of the Second World War.

Soldier's memorial in Turov Turau Belarus

Memorial to fallen soldiers in Turov | Photo: Benny Reiter

The Second World War began on 1st September 1939 with the invasion of Poland. In accordance with the secret agreement appended to the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact on the partitioning of Poland, Belorussian troops from a special military district advanced on Poland in the night of 17th September 1939 under the pretext of liberating Belorussian fellow countrymen and Ukrainians. This was the start of the Polish-Soviet war. The Soviet Union wanted to exploit the situation in order to increase its power in western Belarus and the Ukraine. Western Belarus was incorporated into the Belorussian Socialist Soviet Republic (BSSR) in the autumn of 1939 thus becoming part of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Nazi Germany was preparing for war on the Soviet Union. As of June 1940, the preparations for Operation Barbarossa were forging ahead. The plan was to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941 and defeat the Red Army in a lightning war before the winter of the same year. To this end, Germany and its allies Italy, Romania, Hungary and Finland massed large parts of its forces on Polish territory near the border to the USSR, where the powerful Army Group Centre was stationed. The Soviet secret service reported on Hitler’s intention to attack the Soviet Union well in advance, but the Soviet leaders did not recognise the urgency of this intelligence and dismissed it as lies and provocation. They simply failed to consider the fact that Germany might unilaterally terminate the Soviet/German non-aggression pact.

In the early hours of the 22nd June 1941, German troops crossed the Soviet border.  Thanks to successful battles in Western Europe, the Germany army had already acquired enormous combat experience and possessed one of the most powerful armies in the world. The Wehrmacht started by advancing on Brest, where the first heavy fighting took place. Within just four days it had fought its way through to Minsk, 350 kilometres away, and Minsk fell two days later. At the beginning of the war, the Red Army was hopelessly inferior to the German Wehrmacht, the defence of the western military districts was inadequately – or rather not at all – prepared. This was aggravated by the fact that about 40% of the most experienced officers and generals of the Red Army had fallen victim to Stalinist terror in the 1930s. The country’s defence at this point was in the hands of mostly simple, inexperienced soldiers. In the first days of the war, the administration appealed to the people to stay calm and implied that the enemy would soon be fought back. However, the administration itself was evacuated immediately after war broke out.

It was not until the 29th June 1941 that general mobilisation of the Red Army began. Between June and August 1941 over 500,000 Belarusians were conscripted for national service. Many people, even young girls, voluntarily reported for service on the front line. This was the subject of a book by the authoress Svetlana Alexievich (The Unwomanly Face of War), for which she received the Nobel Prize in 2015.

Right from the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, Belarusian territory was the main arena for the horrific confrontation between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The civilian population suffered dreadfully under the war: the constant air raids wrought havoc, the country was flooded with refugees, the supply situation was catastrophic.

Nevertheless, the Red Army managed to evacuate about 1.5 million people, the industrial plant from various factories and an incredible amount of livestock beyond the Ural Mountains.

Brest Fortress Belarus

Brest Fortress | Photo: Benny Reiter

At the beginning of July 1941, the Soviet Supreme Command attempted to establish a defence line along the Dvina and the Dnieper. Soviet soldiers were literally fighting to the last man to save many towns, such as Barysaw, Bobruisk, Mogilev, Gomel and others. Despite this, the entire country was occupied by the Wehrmacht by the beginning of September. The Red Army lost more than 1.5 million men during defensive operations, in addition to thousands of machine and weapons units.

The troops garrisoned in the Brest Fortress fought resolutely until the end of June 1941. The defence of White Russia was of immense significance for Stalin from a military policy point of view.

German plans for a “lightning war” ground to a halt in the gruelling, bloody battles. The myth of the invincibility of the Third Reich received its first damper.

Following the occupation of White Russian territory, the occupying forces introduced their new regime. The occupation – which lasted about three years –affected about eight million inhabitants and 900,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Hitler’s Master Plan for the East envisaged leaving 25% of the population alive and using them as a workforce, 75% were to be exterminated or exiled. The new regime was backed by the SS, SA, SD (security service), security police, Gestapo and police force. Special task forces were also established, whose main function was to combat partisans and underground fighters. There were 260 extermination camps in Belarus, with various subsidiary sites. According to Soviet figures, about 206,500 people were killed in the Maly Trostinets extermination camp. Ghettos were set up in the main towns and one of the largest ghettos in Europe was the Minsk ghetto, in which more than 100,000 Jews died.

Central sculpture at the Khatyn memorial site Belarus

Central sculpture at the Khatyn memorial site | Photo: Benny Reiter

In the course of the occupation, the occupying forces carried out more than 140 major punitive expeditions against partisans and the civilian population. They destroyed a total of 5,295 villages, 628 settlements were razed to the ground together with the inhabitants. Many of these villages were never rebuilt. The burnt village of Khatyn, not far from Minsk, became a tragic symbol of these atrocities and an impressive memorial site was erected there in 1969.

The remainder of the population was systematically exploited. Many were forced to work in factories under inhumane conditions. 380,000 inhabitants were deported to Germany as forced labourers.

In the spring of 1942, a land reform was carried out in the general district of White Ruthenia. According to this, all kolkhozes were abolished and the land was officially returned to the local farmers.

Head of the German administration in Belarus was Wilhelm Kube, the regional (Nazi) party leader. He was assassinated in 1943, when two Minsk partisans Elena Masanik and Maria Ossipova placed a bomb in his apartment. In retaliation, 300 prisoners from the Minsk prison were shot. Kube was replaced by Curt von Gottberg, a top-ranking member of the SS.

During the occupation, widespread resistance was organised on White Russian territory. After the war, Belarus was known worldwide as the country of classical partisan warfare. The first partisan division – with sixty members – was established on the first day of the war in the town of Pinsk in the south of the country. The division fought against the mutual enemy under the command of Vasily Korzh.

During the occupation 1,255 partisan divisions were set up. They fought against the Nazi regime, helped by the local population. According to information from the Belarusian staff of the partisan movement, there were about 374,000 partisans in Belarus. There were about 30 areas which were completely under the control of the partisans and  which the Wehrmacht was unable to overcome. By the end of 1942, about one third of White Russian territory was controlled by the partisans and a year later almost two thirds. The partisans’ most successful tactic was the “railway war”, which played a key role in liberating the country. The partisans destroyed the railway lines on occupied territory, caused German transports to derail and consequently hampered the essential supply of weapons, ammunition and food.

As a result of the strategic advance of the Red Army in 1943, the front line to Belarus was relocated. The first Belarusian county town of Komarin was liberated on 23rd September 1943. The Belarusian operation ‘Bagration’ was one of the largest military operations in the Great Patriotic War. It took place between 23rd June and 29th August 1944. The aim was to destroy the German Army Group Centre, liberate the entire territory of White Russia and to compel the enemy to retreat as far as the neighbouring countries Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

The Belarusian capital of Minsk was liberated on 3rd July 1944 and this day is known today as Independence Day. By the 28th July the entire country had been liberated and the Red Army was not far from the border to Eastern Prussia.

Tank in Bobruisk Belarus

Tank in Bobruisk | Photo: Benny Reiter

The Second World War had grave consequences for Belarus. Of all the countries involved in the war, Belarus was the worst hit. 209 towns and 9,200 villages were completely razed to the ground or destroyed. The loss of life was tremendous. Historians estimate the number of victims to have been between 2.5 and 3 million. In other words, every third Belarusian lost his life during the war.

This war is remembered in Belarus to the present day and the 9th May is celebrated everywhere in Belarus as the Day of Victory over Nazi Germany. On this day there is an annual parade in the capital Minsk, reviewed by the Belarusian president in person.

Go on a journey with us and discover more about the history of the country.

05/04/2016
Maly Trostinets extermination camp Belarus

Unbeknown to most people, Maly Trostinets was the largest German extermination camp on the territory of the Soviet Union. Until the 1990s it was not even mentioned in standard works on the Shoah.

Work was started on erecting the camp – under the auspices of the commandant of the security police – soon after the invasion of the German army on 28th July 1941. Maly Trostinets counts the fourth highest number of victims in the Nazi extermination camps, after Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. Civilians and prisoners of war, Jews from Poland, Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia were all murdered in Trostinets. After the war a Soviet commission estimated a total of 206,000 victims but western historians consider the figure to be more like 60,000.

The name Trostinets comprises three different locations:

  • the woods near Blagovshchina, where mass executions by firing squad took place
  • the actual camp, 12 km southeast of Minsk
  • the woods near Shashkovka, where a provisional crematorium was erected and where mass cremations took place.

Most people were killed by firing squad. They had to undress, line up along the edge of long ditches and were shot either in the head or neck. The bodies were buried and the earth compacted with caterpillar tractors.

In the autumn of 1943, when a defeat of the Wehrmacht seemed more and more likely, the Nazis tried to obscure the traces of their crimes.  An SS special unit was formed, which was responsible for digging up the bodies of those shot and burning them. This horribly inhumane task was allotted to prisoners from Minsk prisons and prisoners of war, who were then also shot and cremated. In the autumn of 1943, about 50,000 bodies were exhumed and burnt. Inhabitants of the neighbouring villages had to supply several thousand cubic metres of wood for the purpose.  After the bodies were burnt, the bones were crushed and all jewellery and gold teeth collected from the ashes.

At another place nearby, in the woods of Shashkovka, the Wehrmacht built a temporary crematorium for cremating the bodies of those shot. It was a ditch with gently sloping entrance. On the floor of the ditch were six rows of rails, 10 metres long, on which lay a grating. The place where this temporary crematorium was situated was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded around the clock. It was in continuous operation from October 1943 until June 1944.

The last documented act of mass extermination took place in July 1944, just a few days before Minsk was liberated. 6,500 people were shot in the Trostinets extermination camp and then burnt in a barn. They were prisoners from the prison in the Wolodarskogo Street and from the camp in the Schirokaja Street in Minsk. On this day Stepanida Sawinskaja and Nikolai Walachanowitsch escaped death. Sepanida Sawinskaja remembers that there were many women and children between three and ten years of age among the victims.

A Soviet State Commission started work in July 1944 and discovered 34 mass graves in the woods near Blagovshchina. Some of the ditches were up to 50 metres long. When the graves were opened, cremated human remains were found to a depth of three metres and layers of ash up to a metre thick. According to Soviet information, about 150,000 people were murdered and buried in the woods at Blagovshchina, including about 60,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 50,000 prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and over 20,000 deported European Jews.

The tragic fate of Soviet Jews also awaited Jews from Western Europe, in particular from countries occupied by Nazi Germany such as Austria, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia. They were deported eastwards under varying pretexts. For example, for settlement in the East or to work in German armaments factories. The first stop for transports from the German Reich and West Europe was in the little Belarusian town of Volkovysk (Vawkavysk). The new arrivals were divided up and were loaded into goods trains. If a train was delayed, then it was diverted to another station (e.g. Baranavichy, Stolbtsy, Koidanovo), where a similar fate awaited them as in Minsk.

The deportation of Jews from Germany began in September 1941. The plan was to deport approximately 50,000 Jews to the newly designated General Commissariat for White Ruthenia. The first transport from Hamburg arrived in Minsk on 11th November 1941. In the following months, 6,963 Jews from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bremen and Poland arrived in Minsk. Some were brought immediately to the extermination camp, others became victims of the killings in the Minsk ghetto. Jews from Germany and West Europe were strictly separated from the Jews from the Soviet Union. There were two separate districts for this purpose in the Minsk ghetto. About 19,000 German Jews were deported to the Minsk ghetto. Till the very end, the German occupying forces maintained appearances to the effect that the German Jews were being resettled.

There was also another separate area in the ghetto: the children’s home. Here, the children were left more or less to their own devices. They slept on musty straw and suffered from malnutrition. The purpose of this children’s home was of a military nature: the children served as blood donors for German soldiers.

Like other camps, the Trostinets concentration camp was part of the brutal war of extermination. However, this extermination camp was singular in that all aspects of the killing machinery were rampant here: extermination of the civilian population and prisoners of war, planned murder and spontaneous execution of people of various nationalities and confessions.

After the war, many places where mass extermination had taken place were turned into memorials, as a reminder of the Nazi atrocities. Museums and places of remembrance were built; the public was confronted with the past. Trostinets has been largely unaffected by such remembrance processes. It was not until 1963 that an obelisk with an eternal flame in memory of the victims of Trostinets was erected, albeit quite some distance from the actual extermination site and the concentration camp, in the village Wieliki Trostinets. Two simple gravestones remember the victims who were murdered in the crematorium of Shashkovka at the end of the war. In addition, in 2002 a small memorial was erected in the woods near Blagovshshina.

In the same year, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus decided to set up the Trostinets memorial complex. Leonid Levin, a famous Belarusian architect who has created many monuments to the holocaust and the Second World War in Belarus, drafted the main design for the entire complex. Unfortunately he was not able to carry out his plan; he died in 2014 at the age of 78. In the meantime, his daughter Galina Levina is continuing her father’s work. A monument was inaugurated in Maly Trostinets in 2015.

In European archives lists of the names of many western European victims of Trostinets are still preserved. Of the Jews deported from Western Europe, the majority came from Vienna. A figure of approximately 10,000 is assumed. Of those, only 17 survived. As far as Soviet citizens are concerned, only about 600 names are known today, 400 of those being prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and 50 members of the underground movement.

To this day, relatives of the victims of Trostinets come to Minsk every year to pay tribute to their forebears and to raise awareness of what terrible things happened in this place. In this way, the subject and interest in it is passed on to the younger generations.

In this context, the History Workshop, Minsk, plays an important role. It is located in a historic building on the site of the former Minsk ghetto. The History Workshop is a joint German/Belarusian project which remembers and tries to help come to terms with the atrocities of Nazi history, implements educational programmes on this theme and supports surviving victims. It is open to visitors at all times and houses an interesting exhibition on the holocaust in Belarus and on the work of the architect Leonid Levin.

Learn more about this subject and go on a trip to Minsk with us.

05/04/2016
Minsk Ghetto Monument Belarus
Monument for victims from Minsk ghetto Belarus

Monument to the victims of the Minsk ghetto | Picture: Anna Kovaliova

The murder of the Jews was taken into account during the preparation of the attack on the USSR and was part of the Third Reich’s war of extermination in the East. With the commissar’s order of June 6, 1941, all Bolshevik commissars of the military and internal administration, including many Jews, were executed without military trial. On the territory of Belarus the Einsatzgruppe “B” operated under the command of Arthur Nebe, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department.

According to the last census before the Second World War (1939), there were 70,998 Jews in Minsk, almost one third of the total population of the Belarusian capital.

On 19 July 1941, the Wehrmacht issued an order to create a ghetto in Minsk. The order clearly defined the boundaries of the ghetto not far from the city centre. The Minsk Ghetto consisted of about 40 streets and crossroads and was located in the northwestern part of the city. The ghetto territory was bounded by Kolkhoznaya, Nemiga, Respublikanskaya, Shornaya, Kollektornaya, Obuwnaya and Zaslavskaya streets. After the announcement of the order, the Minsk Jews had five days to move to the ghetto. They were only allowed to take what they needed with them. After the resettlement, the ghetto was walled and fenced in, isolating it almost completely from the outside world. There were two entrances and two exits, and the ghetto could only be left if the ghetto inhabitants could prove that they were working outside. Disobedience had the most serious consequences. Jews were forced to wear the Star of David.

The administration of the Minsk ghetto was taken over by the so-called Jewish Council (german: Judenrat). The Judenrat was an institution between the German occupying authority and the ghetto inhabitants. It consisted of influential citizens of the Jewish communities, rabbis, elders and members of the intelligentsia. Among other things, its task was to regulate the registration system. In the Minsk Ghetto, it was common practice to recount the Jewish population after each punitive action.

The reality of life in the ghetto was characterized by hunger, narrowness and extraordinary hardship. Several families had to share a room, there was only one central kitchen in the ghetto. Food was allocated according to the category of work. Thus “non-working” Jews received only 150 grams of bread, 10 grams of barley and 3 grams of salt per day. Those who fell into the category of “working Jews” also received a slice of bread and a plate of soup a day. This severe situation provoked several riots. The people lived in constant fear, the basic laws of the ghetto were arbitrariness and violence.

There was no medical care, the hygienic situation was catastrophic. Due to the many deaths, which were only sporadically transported away, epidemics and diseases quickly spread.

The Judenrat also had the task of creating a police force among the inhabitants of the ghetto. The police of the ghetto, the so-called Jewish Ordnungsdienst, was the executor of the orders of the Judenrat and the German occupation authorities. This “police” was forced to collaborate with the German occupiers in actions against ghetto inhabitants.

Despite the most adverse conditions, the prisoners of the Minsk ghetto managed to organize resistance. Up to 22 underground groups were active in the ghetto at various times. The leaders of the resistance were people like G. Smoljar, M. Pruslin, M. Gebelew, N. Feldman. The underground resistance was concerned, among other things, with communication with the partisans outside the ghetto, coordination about conspiratorial meeting places, and propaganda work in the ghetto itself.

Many Belarusians risked their lives and those of their families by rescuing refugees from the ghetto and hiding them in their houses and apartments. Some took Jewish children under Russian names or placed them in children’s homes.

The extermination of Jews in Belarus began immediately after the beginning of the war. By the beginning of 1942, Jews had already been murdered in more than 40 towns and villages in eastern Belarus, as this territory was part of the hinterland of the Central Army Group. By then an estimated 5250 Jews had been killed in Bobruisk, about 7000 in Borisow, 4000 in Gomel, 3000 in Retschitza, and 6800 in Witebsk.

The surviving prisoners of the Minsk ghetto mostly remember the black days of November 7 and 20, 1941, March 2 and 31, 1942, and July 28, 1942, when the SS carried out the largest murder operations. Due to the enormous number of people shot by SS occupying forces from spring 1941 to summer 1942, the SS sought more effective methods of killing. From the autumn of 1942, so-called “gas vans” (Dushegubka, Russian: душегубка) were in use for the first time in Belarus. Post-war research refers to specially converted trucks used by the SS to gas the occupants as gas vans. There were four gas vans in the Belarusian capital, each of which could accommodate up to 60 people.

After two and a half years of existence, on 21 October 1943, the Minsk Ghetto was dissolved. The remaining 1,000 inmates were killed in the Blagovshchina forest near Minsk.

By 1942 almost all Jews had been murdered in the cities of Brest, Baranovichi, Volkovisk, Klezk and Zhlobin. In December 1942 Baranovichi was declared “Jew-free”.

In April 1942 the head of the security police of the general district Weißruthenien, Obersturmführer Strauch, announced that 130,000 of 150,000 Jews were destroyed on the territory of the general district.

Memorial stone for Jewish victims from Hamburg in Minsk Belarus

Memorial stone for murdered Jews from Hamburg | Picture: Anna Kovaliova

In the years 1943 – 1944 the murder actions against the Jews continued in the west of the country, in Grodno, Nowogrudok, Wolozhin and other cities.

Jews from Western European countries suffered a similar tragic fate as the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. They were deported from Austria, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia to the occupied territories in Belarus. The deportations of Jews from Germany began in September 1941 and it was planned to deport about 50,000 Jews. The first transport from Hamburg arrived in Minsk on 11 November 1941. A further 6963 Jews were then brought to Minsk from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Berlin, Bremen and Poland. Two areas separated by barbed wire and barriers were erected in the Minsk ghetto, one for Western European Jews and one for Soviet Jews. More than 19,000 German Jews died in the Minsk Ghetto.

During their retreat, the SS occupation troops tried to cover up their bestial crimes. In autumn 1943, mass graves were opened by so-called Sonderkommandoos in top secret actions and the victims of the shootings and gassings were burned.

Although the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest ghettos in the territory of the Soviet Union at the time, little was known about its history. Only former prisoners of the ghetto took the initiative in 1946 and erected a memorial in the form of a black obelisk on the site of a mass grave in the former centre of the ghetto, where thousands of Jews had lost their lives.

History workshop in Minsk Belarus

History workshop in Minsk | Picture: Anna Kovaliova

Today, it is above all the Minsk History Workshop that is actively engaged in historical research. The History Workshop is a Belarusian-German project, which was founded in 2002 by the International Education and Meeting Center in Dortmund (IBB), the International Education and Meeting Center “Johannes Rau” Minsk and the Association of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities. The History Workshop is located in a historic building on the site of the former Minsk Ghetto, which allows learning from history in authentic places.

The central tasks of the History Workshop are to accompany and support surviving victims of National Socialist tyranny, to develop and implement programmes of historical education and to promote newer research trends in Belarusian war and occupation historiography as well as German Nazi research.

05/04/2016