The early stage of the ethnogenesis of Belarussians is linked to the Slavic colonization of eastern Europe in the seventh to ninth centuries A.D. , which was accompanied by the assimilation of the ancient Baltic population. Tenth-to twelfth-century sources register several ethnic formations on the territory of Belarus, the identities of which are still in dispute: Slavic Kriviches in the northeast, Dregoviches in the center and south, Radimiches in the southeast, and Baltic speakers in the southwest. In the eleventh to thirteenth centuries they were replaced by territorial entities—"lands" ( zemli ) and kingdoms. The local group of Kriviches, Polochans who were centered in Polotsk (the city was first mentioned in 862), established the earliest of these kingdoms. During the period of its prime (eleventh to twelfth centuries) the Polotsk Kingdom became one of the three largest political and cultural centers of East Slavs. The conversion of the population of Belarus to Christianity, which began at the turn of the tenth to eleventh centuries, contributed to the development of the culture. In the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries the Belarussian and Lithuanian lands were united into the Great Kingdom of Lithuania, Russia, and Zemotia. Its creation allowed both nations to retain their political independence in the struggle against the Tatar-Mongol invasion and the German expansion. Historic Lithuania—a region in the northwest of Byelorus with a mixed Slavic and Baltic population—became the center of the new state. Belarussians made up the majority of the population of the kingdom, and their language, peculiarities of which are noted in written documents beginning in the thirteenth century, became official.
In connection with east Belarussian lands, White Rus was first mentioned in the beginning of the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries the names "Byelorus," "Belarus," and the self-name, "Belarussians," had finally became associated with the territories of the Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Smolensk regions. There are several interpretations of the etymology of the name. It is linked to the predominance of the color white in the traditional costume, the fair anthropological type, independence from Tatars in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the relatively early adoption of Christianity relative to the other region—Black Russia, to the west of the ethnic territory of Belarussians. The term "Polessje" was used for the southern part of Byelorus from the thirteenth century on. In the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries the Belarussians created a complex system of ethnonymic names, which combined local territorial forms (Belarussians, Chernorussians, Litvins, Paleshuks) with confessional (Litvins-Catholics and Ruthens-Orthodox) and common-state (Litvins) forms that were independent of the place of residence or confession. The name "Litvins," as applied to Belarussians, became accepted by Poles, Russians, and Belarussians in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Lithuanians called the Belarussians "Gudasi" and the Latvians called them "Krives."
Belarussian Renaissance culture attained its zenith at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries. The marked transformation of traditional state structures contributed to this process: trade was developing rapidly because of the disintegration of communal agriculture beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century; the peasantry became involved in the trade network, and the number of cities and the urban population increased. The development of printing in Belarussian (1517), the spread of Protestantism and humanistic ideology, the creation of an extensive network of educational establishments—all promoted the process of national consolidation, the codification of literary language, and the formation of ethnic self-consciousness.
The continuing expansion of the Moscow kingdom, however, forced the Great Kingdom of Lithuania to enter into a federal union with Poland. The creation of a new state—"Retch Pospolitaja"—together with the development of the Counter-Reformation, led to a noticeable strengthening of the position of the Catholic church and Polish culture, especially among the landed aristocracy. In 1596 in Brest the church Unia was proclaimed, as a result of which the Orthodox church, although retaining its rituals, became part of the Catholic church. In the first half of the seventeenth century Belarussian gradually lost its dominant position in the social sphere. The war with Russia (1654-1667) led to a catastrophic loss of population, mainly in the urban areas, and to the final ethnocultural separation of the feudal elite from the peasantry. This conversion of Belarussians into a "small" nation with an incomplete social structure greatly complicated the process of national consolidation in the ninteenth to twentieth centuries.
The slow rate of national formation was also determined by a number of other factors. The occupation of Belarus by Russia toward the end of the eighteenth century slowed down social and economic development—up to the beginning of the 1960s. In the nineteenth century almost 80 percent of the population were peasants. The Russian administration enacted a policy of assimilation with regard to the Belarussians, who were considered a separate ethnic group, but part of the Russian nation, "spoiled" by Polish influence. In 1839 the Uniate church was abolished. The Belarussian political movement was repressed. The anti-Russian insurrection of 1863-1864 had a national character; on its eve the Belarussian primer and a landestine newspaper (1862) were published. Between 1860 and 1870 a Belarussian political organization of Socialist trend was formed in St. Petersburg. In its journal Gomon the main postulates of national ideology were presented in full for the first time. National ideology started to form in the 1910s. The appearance of literary works in Belarussian can be traced to this period.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century the structure of Belarussian ethnic self-consciousness underwent considerable change. The terms "Belarussian" and "Belarussians" replaced most local names. The name "Lithuania" at this time stabilized in its use relative to the Lithuanian ethnic territory. Belarussians did not have a national identity and were affected by religious tensions between Catholic Poles and Orthodox Russians. retained its importance. In the northwest the self-name "Tuteishia" (locals) was relatively widespread. National consciousness per se was common only among the relatively narrow stratum of intellectuals. In 1903 national parties appeared. In 1906 legal newspapers and publishing houses and national artistic culture took shape rapidly. The sign of the maturity of this Belarussian movement was the declaration of a national state—the Belarussian Peoples Republic (February to November 1918) and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (January 1919 to August 1991). These events, however, could not prevent the disruption of the territorial integrity of the Belarussians. In 1919 the lands of East Byelorussia were alienated by the Communist leadership in favor of Russia, and in 1921 West Byelorussia was given to Poland.
Despite this, the 1920s became the period of the highest national activity in the history of Belarussian people. The relatively liberal character of the political regime of that time allowed the creation of a national infrastructure in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR): a system of public education, including university education; mass media; artistic culture; and research institutions. The Belarussian language was granted its dominant role constitutionally. At this time the Belarussian national movement within the territory of Poland was particularly extensive. As a result of the establishment of a totalitarian regime in the USSR by the end of the 1920s, the ethnic crisis of Belarussians became global. By the 1930s the national intellectual elite was near complete destruction, the use of Belarussian was restricted, and Belarussian history was rewritten. As a consequence of the Soviet-German division of Poland, West Byelorussia was returned to the BSSR. This event was accompanied by mass repressions against the activists of the national movement and mass deportations.
A considerable acceleration in Russification in the postwar period entailed the replacement of the Belarussian language in the official sphere and in education. By the beginning of the 1960s Russian-based culture occupied a dominant position in urban life. Its high social status determined a rapid deethnicization of migrants from the rural areas during the period of great urbanization of the 1960s through the 1980s. The dominating Communist ideology, which was oriented toward an integration of nations, was the vehicle of this unimpeded development.
By the middle of the 1980s practically all the structures that provided the ethnocultural identity of Belarussians were either destroyed or heavily deformed. There was not a single Belarussian school left in the cities. The Belarussian language was retained only by a small number of intellectuals and in the rural areas. On a mass level, national self-consciousness lost its ethnic identity and acquired instead an administrative-regional character. The national artistic culture, which was retained by the regime for purposes of propaganda, lost its link with the consumer and turned into a self-contained system. At the same time, in the 1970s the first signs of a national rebirth of the Belarussian became apparent. At first, this took the form of cultural resistance to the regime by the intellectual elite. In the beginning of the 1980s the first informal national-cultural educational organizations appeared, and in 1988 political organizations (the Belarussian National Front) appeared, as did an uncensored mass press. The development of the national democratic movement resulted in the restoration of the Belarussian language as the official one, the declaration of independence in 1990, and a noticeable growth of national self-consciousness on a mass scale. In September 1991 the new name—Republic of Belarus—was adopted, and the white-red flag and the coat of arms "Pogona" were introduced as national symbols.