With deep historical ties to Russia, Belarus remains perhaps the closest thing on earth to the old Soviet Union.
Want to learn more about Belarus?
- Capital (and Largest City): Minsk
- Population (2017): 9,498,600 (93rd)
- Total Area: 207,595 km² (85th)
- Official Languages: Belarusian, Russian
- Currency: Belarusian ruble (Br) (BYN)
History of Belarus
Early and Medieval History
During antiquity, Belarus was settled by first the Baltic people and then the Slavs. Moving forward to the Middle Ages, Belarus found itself at the middle of struggles between powers such as Kievan Rus, Lithuania, and Poland. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania reigned supreme for the majority of the time period.
The later union and commonwealth between Lithuania and Poland in 1569 resulted in Polish culture and language superseding that of Belarus (who remained under the sway of this powerful neighbor). While the Russians fought to bring the lands under their control, it would be many years before this came to fruition.
The Russian Empire
When the union between Lithuania and Poland broke apart in 1795, it was the powerful Russian Empire that claimed Belarus. Just as the Belarusian language and culture had previously been pushed aside in favour of Polish, Russification was now the new order of the day. This continued until World War I, when the country was occupied by Imperial Germany. Though it declared independence at war’s end, Belarus was nonetheless divided up between the new Soviet Union and Poland.
War and The Soviet Union
In 1919 the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was formed from Russia’s section of Belarus. The interwar period was a time of famine and repression. During WWII, the formerly Polish section of the country was occupied by the USSR and reunited with the other half. However, in 1941, Belarus was occupied by Nazi Germany. The republic was absolutely decimated during the war – with industry crippled and vast amounts of buildings and cities destroyed. Casualties numbered upwards of a third of the population (around 2 to 3 million people). Eventually the USSR succeeded in driving out the German forces.
Following the war, Belarus signed the UN Charter – giving the country a separate vote apart from the USSR (despite still being a republic of the larger state). Belarus was isolated from the West under Stalin, while Belarusian language and culture remained diminished in favour of a larger ‘Soviet’ identity.
Independence and Modern Era
Belarus declared independence in 1990 with a new constitution and elections four years later. The presidency was awarded to Alexander Lukashenko. Since winning the election, he has held onto the office and rules Belarus as an effective autocrat – with Belarus viewed by many observers as Europe’s final dictatorship (the Russian question aside). Lukashenko has brushed off human rights concerns and lack of freedoms to maintain power. The regime is known for maintaining many Soviet elements – not least among them the style of military dress. Recently, tensions have risen with Russia (as well as an increase in Belarusian identity) and it remains to be what the fate of Belarus and its longtime president will be.
Belarusian culture has gone through many ebbs and flows. There have been periods where a distinct identity (whether through literature, folk music and dance, etc.) has been strongly pushed, while other times the culture of the ruling foreign power is preeminent. Traditional dress can still be seen in Belarus and dates back to the time of Kievan Rus.
The current design of the flag was adopted in 2012 (though it is close to the one used from 1995). It consists of a large horizontal red stripe atop a smaller green stripe. There is an ornamental red and white pattern on the left side. A white and red flag is sometimes used (often as protest against the government), though the regime has restricted this.
Belarusian food has much in common with other nearby countries, and often consists of veggies, meats (especially pork), and bread. Slow cooked or stewed meals are most common. A traditional offering of bread and salt is used to show hospitality to guests. Draniki (a type of potato pancake) is the national dish.
The most popular sport in Belarus is soccer, followed by ice hockey – with the latter receiving much government promotion and funding in the last couple decades. The national ice hockey team finished a very respectable 4th at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 (beating Sweden in the quarterfinals). While the national soccer team has not been very successful, the club team ‘BATE Borisov’ has qualified for the group state of the UEFA Champions League.
Geography of Belarus
Belarus is a mostly flat landlocked country with large areas of forest and marshland. Many rivers and lakes are found throughout the landscape while the highest point in the country stands at only 346 metres.
Cities and Towns
The capital, Minsk, is by far the largest city in the country – numbering around 2 million people. Gomel is Belarus’ second largest city with slightly over half a million calling it home.
Facts about Belarus
- Minsk has been destroyed 8 separate times…though it is older than Moscow!
- Birch sap is a favourite drink of locals
- More treasure is found here than anywhere else in Europe
- The Chernobyl disaster in next door Ukraine still renders 25% of the land uninhabitable
- The unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the world
- There is only one privately owned bank in Belarus
- Belarusians consume the most alcohol per year
- Belarusians also smoke the second most in the world
- In keeping with the Soviet theme, the intelligence service is still called the KGB
- There is a ‘Lenin Street’ in every town
While the Soviet style dictatorship raises eyebrows across Europe, Belarus still looks to forge its own identity as the country moves forward.
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