BELARUS - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of Belarus
Formation 1991 / 1991
Population 9.6 million / 120 people per sq mile (46 people per sq km)
Total area 80,154 sq. miles (207,600 sq. km)
Languages Belarussian*, Russian*
Religions Orthodox Christian 80%, Roman Catholic 14%, Other 4%, Protestant 2%
Ethnic mix Belarussian 81%, Russian 11%, Polish 4%, Ukrainian 2%, Other 2%
Government Presidential system
Currency Belarussian rouble = 100 kopeks
Literacy rate 99%
Calorie consumption 3086 kilocalories
Belarus has a long history of wars, conquests, and invasions, including Lithuania’s seizure of Belarus in the 14th century C.E. Through it all Belarusian culture and language have managed to survive. The Slavs settled in Belarus between the sixth and eighth centuries. In the ninth century Scandinavians, called Varangians by the Slavs, began to raid the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea and entered Eastern Europe under their leader Rurik (c.830–c.79). The Varangians, some of whom were known also as Rus or Rhos, made their way down the Dnieper River and established the great trade route from Kiev to Byzantium. By the 13th century the Belarusian region formed the core of the new Grand Duchy of Lithuania. By the 15th century the Grand Duchy included most of eastern Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
Despite wars and invasions, the 14th through the 16th centuries are considered to be the “golden age” of Belarusian culture. During that time Lithuania was one of the main cultural centers in eastern Europe; consequently Belarusian artists, painters, and architects were in demand all over Europe. In the beginning of the 16th century, the first books were printed in the Belarusian language. However in 1569, when Poland and Lithuania were united in a federal state called the Rzeczpospolita (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), Polish culture was introduced in the country and gained a strong foothold.
By the end of the 18th century Russia had encroached on the area, and the Rzeczpospolita and Belarus were absorbed by the Russian Empire. Russian gradually replaced the Belarusian language, and publishing anything in Belarusian was banned.
As a result, Russian soon became the main language, and only the farmers in the countryside spoke Belarusian.
During World War I Russia and Germany waged a series of battles against each other, and a large part of Belarus was destroyed. Germany eventually took over Belarus, but in 1921 the Peace Treaty of Riga was signed, which gave western Belarus to Poland.
Later, when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, the Polish section of Belarus was returned to the Soviet Union. However in violation of the nonaggression pact that Germany and the Soviet Union had signed, Germany invaded Belarus. In retaliation the Soviet Union declared war on Germany. Soviet forces, with the help of native Belarusians, launched the Great Patriotic War. In 1944 the Red Army defeated the Germans and forced them out of Belarus. The joy of liberation felt by Belarusians on July 3, 1944, was short-lived as the Soviet Union reclaimed Belarus. Moreover in the process, Belarus was totally destroyed again. Minsk, the capital of the country, was ruined, and almost 25 percent of the country’s population died. Over the next few years the country made efforts to revive its economy, but Russia once again began to dominate Belarusian culture by making Russian the official language of Belarus. Minsk soon became the industrial hub of the Soviet Union.
In April 1986 Belarus suffered a serious setback when an explosion occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station in northern Ukraine. This explosion released 100 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although the disaster happened in Ukraine, winds carried the nuclear detritus into Belarus. Nearly a fifth of the country was severely affected, with drastic increases in cancers, genetic mutations, and leukemia. Belarus is still reeling from the consequences of this tragedy.
Over the years, nationalist sentiment in the country had been growing steadily, and in July 1990, with the dissolution of the Soviet Republic, the Republic of Belarus adopted a Declaration of State Sovereignty. In August 1991, a declaration of complete national independence was issued. Alexander Lukashenko (b.1954) has headed the authoritarian government of Belarus as the president of the republic since 1994, and Sergey Sidorsky (b. 1954) has served as prime minister since 2003.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Belarus is a landlocked country and shares borders with the Russian Federation in the east, Poland in the west, Lithuania and Latvia on the north, and Ukraine in the south. The terrain is largely flat and marshy.
The Belarusian ridge called Belaruskaya Grada runs across the country from the west-southwest to the east-northeast and consists of low hills. The highest point in the country is 1,198 feet in Gara Lysay. River valleys cut across this ridge and form a series of uplands and lowlands. Major rivers of the country are the Zakhodnyaya Dzvina and the Nyoman. Lake Narach, the country’s largest lake, covers 263 square miles. Nearly one-third of the country is forests.
Belarus is characterized by a fairly moderate climate.
Winters are cold, and the average temperature in January hovers around 25ºF, while summers are warm and humid, with the average temperature in July reaching 71ºF.
Almost half of the land of Belarus is arable, and state-run farms are the chief producers of agricultural products. Potatoes, flax, hemp, sugar beet, rye, oats, and wheat are the main agricultural products.
The leading industries of the country are machine building and metal processing.
The most valuable mineral resource is peat, which is used for fuel and fertilizer.
Belarus imports oil and natural gas from Russia.
The major trading partners of Belarus are Russia, Germany, Ukraine, and Poland.
In the 21st century, the World Bank has been providing assistance to Belarus to help the disabled and to build schools and hospitals throughout the country.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Belarus has a rich cultural heritage, which is deeply rooted in religion. Its culture is a blend of Eastern Orthodox and other religious traditions. Almost 80 percent of Belarusians adhere to Eastern Orthodox beliefs, while the remaining 20 percent of the population are Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, or Muslims.
Jews were once an integral part of Belarusian culture, following their arrival in the lands once encompassed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century. But some 800,000 Belarusian Jews died in the Holocaust during World War II, and only 70,000 remain in Belarus. The great modern artist Mark Chagall is perhaps the most prominent among those Belarusian Jews who have contributed significantly to Belarusian modern culture.
Before 1990, when Belarus was under Soviet domination, Russian was taught in schools and was the official language for all government and business activities.
However, since independence, Belarusian, an Eastern Slavonic language, has been declared the official language of the country. Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet.
The traditional dress of Belarusian men consists of a belted shirt (kashoulya) over trousers. Women wear a shirt that is longer than those worn by men and a skirt called a palatnyanik, which is wrapped around the waist. The skirt is made from wool and is embroidered with multicolored threads and ornaments. Ornaments with rhomb-shaped symbols are supposed to protect the woman’s arms from evil spirits and give her strength to work. Aprons, worn over the skirts, are decorated with lace (karounkas) and fringe (machrami).
Belarusian folk music is based on traditional Orthodox hymns and sermons that originated in Belarus around the 12th century. Most Belarusian folk songs reflect on aspects of a peasant’s life, such as work (crop gathering, harvesting), religion (traditional hymns), and life events (birth, life, death). Rock music is very popular among young Belarusians.
Traditional Belarusian musical instruments include the bagpipe (duda), the double pipes (parnyia dudki), the drum (baraban), the Turkish drum, the horn (roh), and the button accordion (harmonik).
Belarusians love mushrooms and use various kinds in their cooking.
Some popular dishes are hrybi v smtane (mushrooms with sour cream) and hribnoy soup (mushroom and barley soup). The most popular drink is called kvas; it is made from malt flour, sugar, mint, and fruit. Most dishes are accompanied by bread, which comes in different forms and flavors; the most widely eaten is black bread (made from rye).
Draniki (potato pancakes with sour cream or stuffed with meat) is a typical Belarusian meal. With increasing Western influence, however, pizzas and hamburgers are commonly eaten in Belarus.
In ancient Belarus weddings took place in the order of priority, which meant that the eldest daughter of the family married first, followed by her younger siblings in the order of their births. Wedding rituals in Belarus lasted for three days; half took place at the bride’s home, and half at the groom’s. Gifts were exchanged between the families.
Today, as in earlier days, brides wear veils; the veil is traditionally believed to protect the bride from evil. It is also customary for brides to buy their own wedding shoes with money they have saved for the occasion. This is considered a sign of thrift, an essential quality that every Belarusian woman is expected to have. The groom is forbidden to look at the bride’s face before the wedding. According to tradition he will have bad luck if he does.
The wedding takes place in an Orthodox church in the presence of the priest, friends, and family. Traditionally, the bride is surrounded by her bridesmaids, who are supposed to confuse the evil spirits that are determined to ruin the marriage by entering the bride’s body. Thus bridesmaids play a vital role in safeguarding the bride on her wedding day. After the wedding the bride tosses her veil toward a group of single women, and it is believed that the one who catches the veil will be the next to get married.
The wedding is followed by a lavish reception where singing, dancing, feasting, and drinking take place. The highlight of the occasion is a wedding pie. It is an integral part of Belarusian weddings because it symbolizes good luck, happiness, and prosperity for the newlyweds.