Belarus and White Russia: How the two are related
The phrase White Russia is the literal translation of the word Belarus (Russian: белый – white, Русь – the Rus). In earlier times the countries belonging to the Rus were given many epithets or qualifying adjectives. For example, the different regions were called Red Rus, Galician Rus, Black Rus, White Rus, Great Rus or Little Rus. White Rus proved to be the most viable name and over the centuries this became the name of the sovereign state. In textbooks and reference books it is generally stated that the origin of the term is not finally explained. However, there are five possible versions which are most commonly cited.
According to the first, the territory which was not overcome by the Mongolian khans in the 13th century was called white. Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered the territory from China to the Volga between 1237 and 1242 and controlled this until 1480. However, the princes of Polotsk and their neighbours resisted successfully and remained independent. So in this case, white meant independent, free.
According to the second alternative, the name comes from the white hair or colour of the clothing worn by the indigenous peoples in the respective area.
The third variation propounds that the White Rus were Christian, whereas the Black Rus remained pagans for quite some time. In the 13th to 14th century, the Black Rus inhabited the catchment area of the River Neman (Memel), with the main settlements between the actual Belarusian towns of Lida and Novogrudok.
A further interpretation supposes that the points of the compass were implied as follows: white – west, blue – east, black – north, red – south. As the territory of modern Belarus lay in the western part of Rus between the 9th and 13th century, it was therefore called white. At that time the Rus stretched from the Taman Peninsula (now in Russia) in the south to the upper reaches of the Northern Dvina in the north and from the Dniester and the upper reaches of the Vistula in the west to the tributaries of the Volga in the east.
The fifth variant is headed by the White Russian historian Vaclau Lastouski, who sees a link to paganism. According to him, in the 12th century Baltic and Slavic peoples worshipped the god Belobog (Russian: white god).
However, there is no documentary evidence beyond doubt on which to base any of these interpretations. Be that as it may, White Russia (Belarus) is nevertheless a very old term. The Russian scholar, Vladimir Lamanski, calls attention to it and refers to the Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt (14th century) who mentions the „White Rus“ in his poems and calls the inhabitants „Di Weissen Reuzzen“ (the White Russians).
The Polish author Yan Charnkovski (also 14th century) mentions in his notes that the Polish King Jogaila and his mother “in guodam Castro Albae Russiae Polozk diсto”, i.e. “were imprisoned in a castle in White Russia”. Similar references to the term Belarus or White Russia can be found in letters by Vytautas (1350-1430). Vytautas was the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1392 and founded the Polish/Lithuanian Union together with his cousin Jogaila. During his reign the Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached the height of its prosperity. These sources talk about White Russia as if it were something generally known and comprehensible. This confirms the supposition that the term has been in use for a very long time. According to Lamanski it can be said that in all probability the term “White Rus” has existed since the middle of the 13th century.
By all accounts, the term seems to have been widely used in Moscow in the 17th century. There, the inhabitants of White Rus were called “Belorusszy”. This is proved by various charters of the time. In Moscow, the term White Russia was appropriated from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The word “Belorusszy” occurs frequently in documents from the 17th century. In the Moscow “Otpiski” records (1648) one can read the following: “Lithuanians and Belorusszy do not attack the kingdom” or “Belorussez Iwaschko” (proper name). Consequently, Belarusians (Belorusszy) were already recognised as a people in their own right.
The territory of White Rus was of particular importance for the Russian tsars. After Tsar Alexei Michailowitsch (Alexei I, also called the Gentle) captured the town of Vilnius in 1655, he added an honorary title “Ruler over Great, Little and White Rus) to his title as tsar. His sons, Ioan and Petr, who succeeded him to the throne, also used the same honorary title.
In the 18th/19th century, orthodox bishops from Mogilev were called White Russian bishops. During the time of the Church Union of Brest (1596-1815), all Union bishops from Polotsk as well as the Union metropolitan were also called White Russian. (Church Union of Brest – a union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox bishops of the then Eastern Poland whose intention was to foil the demands of the Muscovite patriarch and to maintain the traditional liturgical Byzantine rite.
In tsarist Russia, one of the dragoon regiments bore the epithet “White Russian”. This confirms that the term was already of considerable importance at that time.
A White Russian province was established for the first time in 1796. The centre was Vitebsk, which was surrounded by 16 administrative districts (Russian: Ujezd).
Since the end of the 18th century, White Russia is the generally accepted name for all the territories which from an ethnical point of view are considered to be White Russian. The term “Belarus” is a national designation introduced by ideologists of the Belarusian nationalist movement at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century.
The national territory covers the historic regions of White Rus (White Russian Podwinje and Podneprovje), Black Rus and Polessje (Gomel and surroundings). The country, which has been independent since 1991, bears the official name of Republic of Belarus.