Belarussians - Economy

Belarussians are a typical agricultural people. The most important traditional agricultural crops were rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, flax, and from the second half of the eighteenth century, potatoes. The three-field system was the dominating one in agriculture. In the northeast in the second half of the nineteenth century, orchards and horticulture played an important role (for example, cabbages, beets, carrots, maize, legumes, and tobacco). The main agricultural tools were a two-tooth wooden plow of the sokha type and a harrow. Plows had started to appear by the end of the nineteenth century; at first they were wooden, with metal only at the points. In the northeast horses were used as draft animals, and in the southwest oxen were so used. The crop was harvested with the help of a sickle. The scythe was used for hay and to harvest oats, buckwheat, and peas. The stacks of the cut-down crops were tied into sheaves and dried either in the fields or in special buildings. Threshing was done by hand or with the help of wooden staves. Flour was ground in watermills or windmills or sometimes in the household itself with the help of millstones or in wooden mortars.

Animal husbandry traditionally was subordinate to agriculture. Its main purpose was to provide draft animals and, to a lesser degree, to provide dairy or meat products, wool, or leather. Belarussians bred horses, oxen, cows, goats, sheep, and pigs. Most of the year the cattle were fed forage crops; in winter they were kept in special premises. During the period when they were penned in, cattle were most often fed straw; horses and sheep were fed hay; and pigs were given chaff fortified with potatoes and flour.

In the north (Poozerje) and south (Polessye) fishing played an important role in the traditional economy. Nets of various kinds (for example, sweep nets) were in widespread use, as were stationary and mobile traps, harpoons, and hook tackles.

Hunting was much less important. Its objects were boars, moose, deer, and hare. Bear spears, rifles, traps, and snares were used in hunting. Gathering forest and swamp berries, mushrooms, and nettles was an additional economic occupation in summer and autumn. Beekeeping traditionally played an important part in the economy. Boats were the main means of water transportation.

Industrial Arts. Home trades and crafts were an important addition to the main occupations of the Belarussians. The timber industry was oriented toward the production of tools and implements, means of transportation (sleighs and sledges), and household utensils (barrels, churns, cooking appliances, and trunks). Weaving was highly developed—linen, hemp, and wool fabrics for clothes, linen, tablecloths, towels, and bed covers were produced. Such weaving equipment as the distaff ( kolovrot ) and the vertical loom (krosni) were widespread. Braiding and plaiting were also widespread. Containers for storing grain and clothes were made out of straw and willow, footgear ( lapti ) and bags were made out of bark, household utensils and caskets were made out of tree roots, headgear and toys of straw, and furniture of willow. Usually, there was one blacksmith for several villages. He made the metal parts for agricultural tools, joiner's and fitter's tools, parts of the interior (locks and screens), and furniture. Pottery was highly evolved. Ceramic kitchenware—pots, bowls, and mugs—was made and then burnt on potter's wheels. Leather making was also developed to a high degree.

Clothing. Local variations, in the traditional costume of Belarussians were congruent with the composition and style of dress throughout the ethnic territory. The main part of the woman's costume was a tunic shirt ( kashul'a ) made of bleached linen fabric. The sleeves, collar, and cuffs of this shirt had an embroidered or fabric ornament, usually of red thread. The skirt ( spadnitsa ) was of two kinds: the summer skirt ( letnik ) was made of linen, with a fabric ornament of hemp or red wool; the winter skirt ( andrak ) was made of wool, checkered or striped, with a red, blue, or dark-green background. In the southeast the archaic form of costume consisting of two separate sheets ( poneva ) was retained. A long white linen apron was a necessary part of the costume; it had an ornament and lace. Often a short woolen vest ( garset ) was added to the costume. Namitki —long linen sheets wrapped in a peculiar way around the head and neck—were a characteristic feature of the woman's costume. The man's costume included a linen shirt and pants made of cloth or wool ( spodni ), often also a vest ( kamizelka ) and headgear—a straw hat ( bril ') or a felt cap ( magerka ). Men's and women's seasonal clothes consisted of a long, Ukrainian-style outer garment svita made at home out of a white, gray, or (rarely) brown felt wool fabric and decorated with an embroidery of woolen threads. In the cold time of the year men and women wore sheepskins. An ornamented belt woven with woolen threads was a necessary part of the costume. Woven linden or willow lapti were a universal peasant footgear; at the same time leather shoes became popular, too. In winter felt boots were worn. Within the ethnic territory of the Belarussians up to thirty local types of traditional costume were known, differing in the color pattern, technique of weaving, and the character of decorative ornaments.

Food. Cereals constituted the basis of the traditional diet of the Belarussians: bread, blinis, and rye, rye sourdough, oatmeal, buckwheat, and pea-flour pancakes. Cereals formed the basis of kissel or blancmange ( zur ), porridge ( culaga, saladukha ), and various soups ( kalatukha, kulesh ). Potato dishes became a characteristic feature of traditional Belarussian cuisine (there were over 500 different ways of preparing them). Potatoes were fried, baked, or boiled and cooked in a casserole; draniki (pancakes made of minced potatoes) as well as kletsks and dumplings were consumed. Meat, pork mostly, was eaten relatively rarely, primarily on winter holidays. Meat was used to make sausages and aspic, cooked in casseroles in a sauce, and eaten with buckwheat pancakes ( machanka ). Dairy products were mostly fresh and sour milk, sour cream, farmer's cheese, and butter. Farmer cheeses became common. Among the traditional beverages there were bread, birch, and linden juice kvass; herbal infusions; and dried-fruit compote ( uzvars ). Of alcoholic beverages vodka ( garelka ) was the most popular one; beer and mead medovukha were less so. The traditional Belarussian food was seasonal: in winter and in the autumn the food was most nutritious and plentiful; in summer vegetarian food prevailed. Belarussian peasants would usually eat three or four times a day. Breakfast ( snedanje ) was very early and nutritious: it included first courses (e.g., soups), a main course, and always porridge. Dinner included several very high-calorie dishes. The afternoon snack ( padvacherja ) and supper ( vacherja ) were lighter meals, but they also included several courses.

Division of Labor. There was a clear division of labor in the economy of the Belarussians. Men would plow the land; sow and mow; take in the hay and sheaves from the fields; thresh; store timber; construct and repair buildings; make carts, sledges, and boats; and weave iapti (boat shoes) and baskets. The women would reap; harvest hay, hemp, flax, and potatoes; take care of cattle; prepare the food; and provide the family with clothing. Beginning at ages 5 to 6 children would take care of the younger ones. From the ages of 7 to 8 boys worked as shepherds, and by age 12 they helped with the haying. From the age of 15 they mowed and threshed, and after about 16 they had to do every kind of job. This rule was also applicable to young women relative to women's jobs.

Trade. As a rule the traditional Belarussian economy was not closely connected with the large markets; it was a semisubsistence economy. Mestechki were local market centers where goods were sold once or twice a week fairs ( kirmash ) were held several times a year. Trade operations were an activity mainly of members of the Jewish ethnic group.

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