Belarus: a European country with a European future

Despite its position out on Europe’s eastern flank, Belarus has historically and culturally been at the heart of European civilisation. Sooner or later, its time will come to rejoin the family of democratic nations, writes Uladzimir Arlou

For some of my compatriots the title of a book of translations from the Belarusian recently published in Poland was unexpected and even somewhat outrageous.  It was called “Belarus: a country surrounded by high mountains” and there are no mountains, either inside Belarus or on its borders. Yet the metaphorical title was not devoid of meaning.  How many Europeans would, for example, be able to pinpoint Belarus on a map without hesitation; how many could recall anything of its history?  Perhaps only Swedish hockey fans, who will gloomily remind you of the sensational defeat of their team by Belarus in the Winter Olympics of 2002. 

I should like to think I am wrong when I say I fear that for most Europeans our country is a kind of “lost world” lying somewhere outside Europe.  But for many centuries Belarus was the eastern outpost of European civilisation and very much part of it.

In the 10th century a large part of what is now the Republic of Belarus was occupied by the Principality of Polatsk.  This was a strong state, similar in size to its contemporaries, the Duchy of Bavaria or the Kingdom of Portugal.  The capital, Polatsk, is mentioned in the Russian Primary Chronicle in 862 and there were another 15 or so towns, including the current capital of Belarus, Minsk.  The Principality had access to the Baltic Sea, where it traded with Scandinavia and the German cities of the Hanseatic League.  From the 10th to the 13th centuries Polatsk was ruled over by the princely house of the Rogvolodovichy: in 1157 Sophia, the daughter of Prince Volodar, married the illustrious Danish king, Valdemar I.  Their children would ascend the thrones of Denmark, Sweden and France..

The Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, passed
in 1588, were the most progressive code of laws in
Europe at the time. Litanus.org

Christianity spread to Belarus in the 10th century. It was not forcibly imposed, but accepted voluntarily and this lies at the root of centuries of religious and national tolerance.  Belarus is the only European country where Christmas and Easter are officially celebrated according to both the Gregorian (Catholics and Protestants) and the Julian (Orthodox) Calendars.  Uniquely, the official state calendar also includes holidays of pre-Christian origin, originating from the cult of ancestors: Radaunica in the spring and Dzyady in the autumn.

The ancient Belarusian principalities were no less developed than their neighbours. Saints Euphrosyne of Polatsk and Kirill of Turaw were stars of the first magnitude in the Eastern European cultural firmament and were later canonised.  Euphrosyne founded schools where music, rhetoric, Latin and Greek were taught as well as writing and arithmetic.  The magnificent Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Polatsk, floating like a white ship above the river Dvina, dates from that time and is one of the symbols of Belarus today.  The Church of the Saviour was erected in Polatsk in the 12th century: its unique frescoes are more than 800 years old and it is the pearl of old Belarusian architectural monuments.

The thousand-year old tradition of Belarusian statehood was continued during the period of unification with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which started in the 13th century at the time of the union between the old Belarusian Principality of Nowogrodek and the Lithuanian prince Mindaugas.  He was acknowledged as king by Pope Innocent IV in 1253.  The unification of the Slav and Baltic lands in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania enabled them to avoid a humiliating dependence on the Tatar-Mongols.  The Russian principalities were crushed and, therefore, not able to escape this fate.  One of the suggestions for the etymology of Belarus is indeed connected with this independence: “belaya” [white] means pure and free.

The invitation to Grand Duke Vytautas (Witold) to ascend the Czech throne at the beginning of the 15th century is an indication of the Grand Duchy's significance in the geopolitical situation of the time.  This was during the period of the Czech national liberation movements known as the Hussite Wars.  Responding to the invitation, Witold managed to avoid confrontation with the Catholic world by sending a military force of 5,000 to help the Hussites.

Belarusian lands were dominant in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, or Lithuania tout court: Old Belarusian was the state language until the end of the 18th century.  At the same time our ancestors, at the behest of the state, called themselves Litvins, which is what their neighbours called them too.  The names Belarus and Belarusians to designate the territory and people of our country today only became current at the end of the 19th century.  The fact that today's Belarusians were for a long time called by a name which was subsequently used to designate a neighbouring people has given rise to a multiplicity of confusions and historical mishaps.

In the Middle Ages and the Modern Age Belarus was the eastern border of a united European world, as today's travellers can see from art and architecture in all the artistic styles Europe has known.  The life of our towns was based on the Magdeburg Law of self-government.  Craftsmen and merchants formed workshops and guilds to protect their interests, as did their colleagues in England or Spain.  Thousand of young Belarusians were sent to acquire knowledge in the universities of the Czech lands, Germany, Poland, Italy, Switzerland and France.  In 1579 Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, opened its own academy with the status of a university.

Mosque, Minsk. Unlike its Eastern neighbours in
Muscovy, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (present-day
Belarus) was a model of tolerance

The Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were passed in 1588. They were, in the opinion of today's specialists, the most progressive code of laws in Europe at that time.  They promoted the idea of a state governed by the rule of law and religious tolerance, introduced the concept of the presumption of innocence and protected the country's natural riches.  These days first year law students at the Sorbonne spend a whole semester on a special course dedicated to studying the Statutes.

The Grand Duchy was the most tolerant country in Europe.  In Belarusian towns and villages Orthodox and Catholic churches sit peacefully side by side and opposite synagogues, sometimes even mosques.  Our ancestors knew nothing of the horrors of the Inquisition: an attempt to introduce it in the 15th century ended in failure. The Union of Brest (1596) meant that most of the population of Belarus became members of the Uniate Church, which combined traditional Eastern ritual with Catholic dogmas. 

Belarus was the Eastern border of the European Renaissance.  Evidence of this is to be found in the castles at Mir and Nesvizh, which are on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.  At that time our country produced some giants, including Francisk Skaryna, the first Belarusian printer, a translator and publisher, who was educated at the universities of Krakow and Padua.  His work in 1517-20 ensured that Belarus became the fourth country in Europe to have a printed bible in the vernacular. 

In Belarus the Renaissance was closely linked to the Reformation, as it was in other European countries.  Calvinism was the most widespread theological system.  In the 16th century our Protestants had 10 printing houses, so Belarusian readers had access to the works of Erasmus of Rotterdam, Michel Montaigne and Francis Bacon, to name but a few.

The castles at Mir and Nesvizh: evidence of Belarus' enlightened European past (photo amended 15/04/11 in light of an error - ed.)

The situation to the east of Belarus was, unfortunately, very different.  There was no religious tolerance in Muscovy and the despotic Tsar was an autocrat, ruling with a rod of iron.  Moscow declared itself the Third Rome and the saviour of true Christians.  Her closest neighbours were the first to experience the aggressive nature of this doctrine 

The history of the relations between Muscovy and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is one of endless armed conflict and war, which was concluded at the end of the 18th century when the Belarusian lands were occupied.  The most terrible war was in 1654-67, when Belarus lost half its population and endured a series of crises - demographic, economic and cultural.  After the annexation our cities lost the Magdeburg Rights and their ancient coats of arms.  The Tsarist authorities destroyed the Uniate Church, which was such an important part of the Belarusian DNA.  Belarus lost its professional army, which was replaced by levies.  The Belarusians were no longer recognised as a separate people with their own language.  Our ancestors even lost the right to their own names and surnames, which were re-fashioned Russian-style.  Russia's new citizens lost the right they had enjoyed for many centuries to study in Western universities.  To run ahead, I should point out that during the whole 150 years of Russian domination, the authorities did not permit a single Belarusian school to be opened.

Discontent with the new order led 25,000 soldiers to fight in the Belarusian regiments of Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812.  They focused their hopes of regaining their independence on him.

The situation of dependence in the region, together with the ban on the Belarusian language and publishing, compelled many talented Belarusians to leave their homeland and serve other cultures and peoples.  One such was Tadeusz Kosciuszko, hero of the American War of Independence, who headed an uprising against the Tsar in 1794.  The outstanding Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who in his youth wrote in the language of his forebears, was another.  Scions of Belarusian noble families include Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Dmitry Shostakovich and the famous French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, whose ancestors had fought for freedom in the national liberation revolt of 1863.

The Belarusian National Republic was declared in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian Empire.  It was crushed by the Bolsheviks and for 70 years Belarus was behind the Iron Curtain, but no amount of repression could succeed in uprooting the dream of an independent state.  In 1991 a new state appeared on the map: the Republic of Belarus.  The historic end of the USSR was negotiated in Belarus' Bialowiesza Forest, one of the most ancient protected forests in Europe, where Russian Tsars and Soviet leaders used to hunt.

The reader will already have concluded that the history of Belarus is European history, which is our passport to a European future.  Belarus lies on the EU border, but the return to the family of democratic nations has turned out to be more difficult than was supposed.  With Lukashenka as President, time has not just stopped – it has gone backwards.  But this is for another conversation. I am sure that eventually we shall return to the European fold and that Belarusians will once more pleasantly surprise their neighbours far and wide, as they did with their Bible and their Statutes.

About the author

Uladzimir Arlou is a Belarusian writer, poet and historian. His works have been translated into some twenty languages, making him one of the most translated Belarusian authors.

Born in 1953 in Polotsk, Arlou has built his publishing career in defiance of the Lukashenka regime, and has actively supported the democratic opposition. In 1997 he was dismissed from the state publisher Mastackaja litaratura "for publishing historical and another suspicious literature"; later, in 2007, his works were removed from the national school curiculum. In 2010, his work was recognised as he became the first European Poet of Freedom