The History of Belarus in Times of Rzeczpospolita, Polish period
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.