Belarus began its life as a nation torn into bits. In 1918, after a millennium of being under the control of empires such as those of the Scandinavian Varangians, the Mongols, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, the Russians and the Germans, the land we now know as Belarus formed in two parts: the German-occupied Belarusian People’s Republic and the Russia-dominated Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. Soon thereafter — follow closely now — as a result of a war between Poland and Russia, the part of Belarus under Russian rule became the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which then merged into the Lithuanian-Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Then, when the Polish-Soviet war ended in 1921, Belarusian lands separated into the Polish and Soviet territory, with the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic becoming a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

No matter whose land used to be whose, World War II devastated the entire region. Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and held the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1944, decimating more than 3/4 of Belorussian cities and 85% of its industry. By the end of the war there were between two and three million casualties — up to 1/3 of the total population — including almost all of Belorussia’s Jews. Belorussia’s struggles continued after World War II. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin installed a policy of “Sovietization” to keep the West from influencing the BSSR. Stalin moved Russians from all over the USSR into lead positions in Belorussia and substantially limited the the public use of Belorussian language and culture. When Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev kept Belorussian Sovietization alive, saying, “The sooner we all start speaking Russian the faster we shall build communism.”

After this long history of outside domination, Belarus finally became independent in 1991…hurrah! But independence from the Soviet Union hasn’t necessarily made Belarus free. Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994 and has presided over the implementation of Soviet-era policies like state ownership of the economy and increasing consolidation of his personal political power. International human rights organizations accuse the Belarusian government of human rights abuses, especially in its actions curtailing free speech and squashing political opposition. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even called Belarus, “the ‘last dictatorship in Europe.” Lukashenko has responded by accusing the West of unduly trying to undermine his government and boasts that he has overseen an unprecedented period of Belarusian economic stability. At the same time he’s been careful not to alienate the Ukraine’s pro-Western government, hoping that together they can exert influence on Russia, which relies upon both as East-West transport routes for its oil. A very tricky balance .

More information:
Wikipedia on Belarus | A fabulous guide to Belarusian culture — music, dance, poetry…it’s all in here | Belorusian nature…Exotica?? | Religious groups in Belarus, then and now | Alexander Lukashenko: “Dictator With a Difference.” | The U.N. says “no” to Belarus | What’s in a name?: The twists and turns of the name of this country | What is “White Russia?” | Is Belarus the true center of Europe?

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