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Belarus History, Language and Culture

History of Belarus

The territory now known as Belarus emerged during the 9th to 12th centuries, from the all-encompassing Slavic territory known as Kievan Rus. As Kievan Rus splintered into smaller territiories, Lithuania and then Poland began to expand and acquire Belarusian lands during the 13th century. Over the next two hundred years assimilation was gradual and the Belarusians were allowed a certain amount of autonomy, maintaining their own language and keeping their Orthodox religion. However, they took on the status of serfs. It wasn’t until 1596 that the Belarusian church was brought under the authority of the Vatican.

At the end of the 18th century and after numerous wars between Russia and Poland, Belarus was absorbed into Russia and a long period of Russification began. The Russians increasingly saw Belarus as a western Russian state and tried to suppress any sense of a Belarusian national identity, even banning the Belarusian language. During the 19th century the economy developed but despite industrialisation many Belarusians remained in the countryside both poor and illiterate. Their absence from positions of influence and the lengthy dominance by both the Poles and the Russians was beginning to take its toll and the emergence of a distinct Belarusian nationality took time.

However, the early 20th century saw a blossoming of nationalism and a brief period of independence during World War 1, but it was short-lived and the Red Army soon took control after the 1917 Russian Revolution, moving quickly to create the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The same decade saw the brutal collectivisation of agriculture, industrialisation on a grand scale and purges leading to mass killings, most notably in the Kurapaty Forest outside Minsk.

World War 2 saw even more suffering in Belarus as it found itself on the front line and the location for many battles. Misfortune struck again in 1986, as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster left a quarter of the country contaminated, the effects of which are still being felt to this day. Since 1994 Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an authoritarian iron fist, earning it the dubious honour of being widely viewed as Europe’s last dictatorship, and although not unpopular within the country, he has lead Belarus down an ever more uncertain path, ruling a country that finds itself increasingly isolated. However, in 2000 Belarus and Russia signed a treaty for greater co-operation.

Did you know?

 The national dish is draniki, potato pancakes made with flour and egg, topped with savoury or sweet condiments.

 With a population of 9.49 million, it is reckoned there are 8.639 million mobile phones in Belarus, 3.718 phone landlines and 3.107 internet users.

 Pioneering modernist artist Marc Chagall was born in Belarus in 1887.

Belarus Culture

Religion in Belarus

Christian (majority Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic with minority Protestant), and some minority Jewish and Muslim communities.

Social Conventions in Belarus

If meeting a stranger, shaking hands is the usual form of greeting. Hospitality is part of the tradition and people are welcoming and friendly, although Belarusians are also known for their brusqueness. If you are invited to someone's house, be sure to bring a small token as a gift. The same goes for power lunches - company gifts are well received. Avoid taking photographs of military or government installations. Take care not to use the 'thumbs up' sign to say 'OK'; in Belarus this gesture this is considered rude. You may see people spitting in public – this is acceptable in Belarus. Belarus is quite a religious and conservative society, and homosexuality, whilst not illegal is kept very low-key so as not to invite unwanted attention.

Language in Belarus

The official languages are Belarusian and Russian. Other languages spoken in the country include Ukrainian and Polish.