Vitebsk – Beautiful City in Belarus
Vitebsk or also Vitsebsk (White Russian: Віцебск; Russian: Витебск) is the hub of northern Belarus. With over 360,000 inhabitants it is the fourth largest city in the country.
The town was erected on the high banks of the Rivers Dvina and Vitba, the latter lending the town its name. Legend has it that a Princess Olga founded the town of Vitebsk in 974 and built it as a fortress. The town was inhabited first by Baltic tribes but it was soon settled by Slavs and the Krivichi. In the course of the next centuries, the town grew rapidly and flourished on account of its favourable geographical location. Vitebsk was mentioned in the Nestor Chronicle for the first time in the year 1021.
In the centre of town one can still find the Schlossberg, where the princes’ residence stood. The simple folk, traders and craftsmen lived at the bottom of the hill. The first stone church in the town, the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, was erected in the 12th century. Attached to the church was a scribe’s workshop, in which important religious scripts and chronicles were drawn up and copied.
After the death of Vseslav of Polozk in the year 1101, his six sons divided the principality up and the Principality of Vitebsk came into being under the rule of Sviatoslav. He later passed the principality on to his son, Vasilko, who later became Prince of Polotsk.
Between the years 1165 and 1167, the Principality of Vitebsk gradually lost importance and the Prince of Smolensk (Russian town in the east) began to exert his influence over the area. His rule was not long-lived and Vitebsk soon regained its independence.
Towards the end of the 12th century and in the first half of the 13th century, Vitebsk fell under the sphere of influence of the Lithuanian princes. The first Lithuanian prince in Vitebsk was Tautvilas, who consolidated the dynastic relations between Lithuania and Vitebsk. From the year 1320, Vitebsk belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The voivodeship of Vitebsk was founded in the year 1508. In 1597 Magdeburg Law was conferred on the town, but was lost again in 1623, as were other privileges, after the people revolted against introduction of the Church Union.
At this time the aristocratic Sapieha family (Belarussian: Сапега) exercised the greatest influence in Vitebsk and surroundings. The Sapiehas owned vast estates in the Vitebsk voivodeship.
During the 17th century, Vitebsk developed into a significant centre of trade and craftsmanship, but as a result of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), the population was largely decimated and the importance of the town dwindled again. However, at the end of the 18th century the town saw a revival, the population grew and Vitebsk was soon the second largest town on Belarusian territory, after Mogilev.
As a result of the first partitioning of Poland in the year 1772, the Vitebsk voivodeship became part of the Russian Empire. This provided the town with the opportunity to access trade on the Russian market. In the wake of this, many Jewish settlers came to the town.
During the war against France in the year 1812, Vitebsk was occupied by Napoleon’s soldiers. Napoleon arrived at the town on 28th July 1812 and – bearing in mind the poor supply situation and bad transport links – was confronted with the dilemma of whether to stay put and spend the winter there, or to advance to a more fertile area with better accessibility in Russia. After the Russian armies united in Smolensk, Napoleon’s only option was to continue his campaign in the direction of Moscow. As is generally known, this was his undoing and he was defeated by the Russians in the decisive winter battles.
Napoleon’s Russian campaign (known as the Patriotic War, not to be confused with the Great Patriotic War which the Russians use to depict the Second World War), caused major destruction in the town and the pre-war level of prosperity was only reached again in all aspects of daily life by the middle of the 19th century.
Further development came with the improvement of the infrastructure such as the construction of roads and the railway. Modern production methods were introduced in Vitebsk at the end of the 19th century. A Belgian corporation built the first water pipelines and the first tramway in Belarus, as well as erecting the “Dvina” flax mill.
According to the census of 1897, over 50% of the population were Jews. Russians and Belarusians made up just 40% of the total population. Vitebsk was therefore one of the most important Jewish centres in Eastern Europe.
Soviet power came into effect in Vitebsk on 9th November 1917. Workers’ councils took control of the factories. Consequently and thanks to continued modernisation, productivity increased rapidly. By the time the first five-year-plan was introduced, various branches of industry, such as tool-making and mechanical engineering, as well as the shoe and furniture industry, were manufacturing almost a third of the total Belarusian industrial output.
In the second decade of the 20th century, Vitebsk became the centre of the modern art scene. Marc Chagall founded the Vitebsk Arts College, where artists of different orientations and styles, such as Yehuda Pen, Kasimir Malevich, Robert Falk and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky worked. They organised exhibitions, took part in seminars and congresses and shaped the entire town like a living museum, according to their perception of art. Kasimir Malevich and like-minded people put their mark on the art world with their UNOVIS (“Champions of new art”) group. The art school is renowned world-wide as the Vitebsk School of Modern Art. During this period, the famous Russian philosopher and literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin also lived and worked in Vitebsk.
Vitebsk was occupied by the Nazis from 11th July 1941 to 26th June 1944. The war inflicted serious damage on the town. Very few inhabitants of the pre-war population of 180,000 survived. Up to 90% of the town was destroyed. Reconstruction began immediately after the end of the war; the first factories started production in 1946. Like many other towns in the Soviet Union, Vitebsk developed in the post-war years according to the master plan of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
Present-day Vitebsk is one of the largest industrial centres of the Republic of Belarus and a centre of culture and science. The historic centre – with its churches and squares – is one of the most beautiful in Belarus and the position – directly on the Dvina – contributes to the overall tranquillity.
Vitebsk is known beyond the borders for its Culture and Song Festival Slavianski Bazaar. The festival is an annual event which takes place from 9th to 13th July and attracts thousands of participants and spectators from far and wide.
Discover the town and its surroundings on your own personally organised trip within the scope of our 5-day Vitebsk tour.