Once part of Kyivan Rus, Belarus was gradually taken over by Lithuania in the 14th century and became part of the Polish–Lithuanian Grand Duchy. It was to be 400 years before Belarus came under Russian control, a period during which Belarusians became linguistically and culturally differentiated from the Russians to the east and the Ukrainians to the south.
At this time, trade was controlled by Poles and Jews, and most Belarusians remained peasants, poor and illiterate. After the Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793 and 1795–96), Belarus was absorbed into Russia and faced intense Russification policies.
During the 19th century Belarus was part of the Pale of Settlement, the area where Jews in the Russian Empire were required to settle, so Jews formed the majority in many cities and towns.
Belarusian is an Eastern Slavonic language, related to Russian and Ukrainian. It’s usually written in Cyrillic, but there’s a rarely-used Roman Belarusian alphabet. Under Soviet rule, 80% of Belarusian children were taught exclusively in Russian, and Russian was the official language of all business and government transactions. In 1990, Belarusian was made the country’s official language. Street names are now changing, and education is shifting its emphasis back to Belarusian history and literature. However, Russian is still the most widely-spoken language.
World Wars the Soviet Union
In March 1918, under German occupation during WWI, a short-lived independent Belarusian Democratic Republic was declared, but the land was soon under the control of the Red Army, and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was formed. The 1921 Treaty of Rīga allotted roughly the western half of modern Belarus to Poland, which launched a program of Polonisation that provoked armed resistance by Belarusians. The eastern half was left to the Bolsheviks, and the redeclared BSSR was a founding member of the USSR in 1922.
The Soviet regime in the 1920s encouraged Belarusian literature and culture, but in the 1930s under Stalin, nationalism and the Belarusian language were discouraged and their proponents ruthlessly persecuted. The 1930s also saw industrialisation, agricultural collectivisation, and purges in which hundreds of thousands were executed – most in the Kurapaty Forest, outside Minsk.
In September 1939 western Belarus was seized from Poland by the Red Army. When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Belarus was on the front line and suffered greatly.
German occupation was savage and partisan resistance widespread until the Red Army drove the Germans out in 1944, with massive destruction on both sides. Hundreds of villages were decimated, and barely a stone was left standing in Minsk. At least 25% of the Belarusian population (over two million people) died between 1939 and 1945. Many of them, Jews and others, died in 200-plus concentration camps; the third-largest Nazi concentration camp was set up at Maly Trostenets, outside Minsk, where over 200, 000 people were executed.
Western Belarus remained in Soviet hands at the end of the, war,with Minsk developing into the industrial hub of the western USSR and Belarus becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most prosperous republics.
Belarus, has always been a crossing point between Latin and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Around 70% of Belarusians are Eastern Orthodox, but there is a sizeable Roman Catholic population as a result of centuries of Polish rule. There are also Protestant (a remnant of the once-large German population), Muslim (mainly Tatar) and Jewish communities.