For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!
The geographic area compromising modern day Belarus has a history of human occupation and activity, dating into Prehistory. The Bandkeramik cultures of the region appear to have been dominant towards the end of the 6th Millennium BC and continued to c. 2000BC. During the Iron Age, the land was inhabited by various nomadic tribes. The area, unlike most of Europe between the 3rd Century BC to the 5th Century AD, did not become of the Roman empire, and so it’s Iron Age is not broken by what many European nations refer to as their “Roman Period”. In Eastern Europe, areas can occasionally reveal some evidence of interaction with the Roman world in terms of Trade and exploration, but certainly nothing relating to any military expeditions or provincial settlements. However, although Belarus was not subject to Roman hegemony, it could be vulnerable to the same threats Rome face. During the Western incursions of the Huns, led by the famous Atilla the Hun, Belarus was subject to Hunnic aggression during the 5th Century, but it was not until the 6th Century of the Early Medieval Period, that Belarus’ history would take its next step.
The 6th to 8th centuries AD saw Belarus undergo a major migration of Eastern Slavic peoples, who through settling, incorporated the local populations. The Major Slavic groups who made Belarus their new home were possibly the Kryvians, Drehovians, and Radzimians; these peoples, along with the incorporated local Baltic societies already present in Belarus now made a new ethnos group for the region. The migration appears to have been peaceful, though there is debate to whether this was truly peaceful assimilation of cultures, or whether the migration was military in intention but the Baltic tribes had no uniformity or coalition so as to form any serious resistance.
In the 9th century, Europe – and indeed the wider world – experienced the Scandinavian phenomena known as the Viking Age. Between the 9th and 10th Centuries, Norse expansion stretched from Northern Europe, to even the heartland of the Byzantine Empire. Due to Slavic territory in the Baltic consisting of numerous waterways providing ideal trade routes between the Byzantine Empire and Europe, the Baltic area, including Belarus, became attractive regions for Norse control. It was during this point that the Belarus began to see Norse rulership and hegemony in the form of the Rus rulers. It is with the Rus, that Belarus appears to gain her name. Belarus is associated with the term Belaya Rus – White Rus. Why the term White Rus becomes so prominent is still debated. One standing theory is the term refers to the lands of Old Ruthenia, and the Slavic population who became Christian relatively early compare to the rest of the Baltic and thus white becoming the dominant shade in Religious matters – and a stance opposition to the Black Ruthenians of the still-Pagan areas. Another view is that religion was not the determining factor, but simply referring to the while clothing often worn but the region’s Slavic population; while another places the name as attempting to associate itself with Western Europe and the colour often associated with that – white. Whatever the theory – White Rus would prove to be a title that becomes globally recognised in the name, Belarus.
The first Rus rulership was the Rurikid dynasty. The dynasty, under the first prince and founder, Rurik, established their rulership in Novgorod c. AD 862. The final Rus ruler, Yaroslav I, or Yaroslav the Wise, ruled from 1019 to 1054 – the year of his death. After the death of Yaroslav, the state of the Rus’ kingdom split into principalities, resulting from the fail in cooperation from Yaroslav’s seven sons and successors. These principalities would last into the 13th century, but many would fall victim to the brutal and unstoppable conquests of Genghis Khan. Belarus fortunately was ignored by the Mongols for the most part, and would come to be part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: a state compromising of several modern day Baltic countries that existed from the 13th century, in the aftermath of the Mongol invasions, and would last until 1795, when the state was partitioned between the Russian Empire and the Prussian kingdom. The inclusion of Belarus into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would see the last major event of the Medieval period for Belarus.
I hope you enjoyed this little snippet into Belarus’ history – personally it was a nice change from writing about something Roman!