ALTERNATE NAMES: Byelorussians; "White Russians"
POPULATION: 10.5 million
RELIGION: Christian (Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, other sects); minority of Muslim, Jewish, and other faiths
Belaya Rus, the name for the Belarusan homeland, dates back to the twelfth century. Belarusans have stubbornly struggled for centuries to defend their independence, language, culture, and national way of life. In the last half of the eighteenth century, Russia took over Belarus. By the late nineteenth century, an independence movement was growing. In 1918, an independent Belarusan Democratic Republic was declared. However, Russia arranged to have it overthrown. It was replaced with the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), which formally joined the Soviet Union in 1922.
In August 1991, Belarus became the sixth republic to secede from the Soviet Union. That December, Minsk, the capital of Belarus, became the capital of the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS is a loosely united group of former Soviet republics. It was formed to further their shared military and economic interests.
Belarus is a landlocked nation in Eastern Europe. Its capital is Minsk. Its area is 80,154 square miles (207,600 square kilometers), about the size of the state of Minnesota. The land of Belarus is mostly flat. Belarus has a temperate continental climate, with a mild and humid winter, a warm summer, and a wet autumn. As of 1994, Belarus had a population of ten and one-half million. Nearly four-fifths (or 8.4 million) were ethnic Belarusans.
The influence of political control by Poland and Russia is evident in the Belarusan language. Modern Belarusan is very close to older forms of the Slavic languages, and some words are borrowed from modern Polish and Russian. While part of the Soviet Union, Belarusans were pressured to use Russian as their main language.
Everyday terms in the Belarusan language include dobraya zdarovya (hello), tak (yes), nye (no), kali laska (please), dzyakooi (thank you), and da pabachenya (goodbye).
A historical event that is now part of Belarusan folklore is the sad story of princess Rahnieda.
The story begins with Prince Vladimir, who later brought Christianity to Russia. When he was a young man, Vladimir became angry when his father, Svyatoslav, made Yaropolk, Vladimir's brother, ruler of the city of Kiev. Vladimir decided to fight Yaropolk for Kiev and wanted to marry Princess Rahnieda and receive her father's help. But Rahnieda turned Vladimir down because she liked Yaropolk. Then Vladimir (helped by his uncle, Dobrinya), attacked and killed Rahnieda's family and forced her to marry him. Then Vladimir won Kiev by killing Yaropolk.
Rahnieda gave birth to a boy and named him Iziaslau. She continued to hate Vladimir and decided to kill him, but she failed. Vladimir wanted to punish Rahnieda by death, but Iziaslau made him change his mind. Instead, Vladimir banished both Iziaslau and Rahnieda to a city built for them. It was named Iziaslau (today it is known as Zaslauje, and it is located near Minsk). According to legend, Rahnieda became a nun. She took the name Anastasia and lived in a monastery until she died around the year AD 1000.
Rahnieda's story has inspired many tales about a heartbroken princess. She wanders across her native land comforting grieving people, healing wounded soldiers, and helping other unfortunate people.
The Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity came to Belarus in about AD 1000. It was spread through the country by order of its ruler, Vladimir. Later, Belarus' ties with Poland encouraged the spread of Roman Catholicism.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, many parishes were destroyed, and religious leaders were often sent away or killed. In the early 1990s, about 60 percent of Belarusans identified themselves as Orthodox.
Major holidays in Belarus include New Year's Day (January 1), Eastern Orthodox Christmas (January 7), Labor May (May 1), Victory Day (May 9), Independence Day (July 27), and Christmas (December 25).
The Kolady (Christmas) celebration starts with a solemn, special supper on Kootia (Christmas Eve). Twelve or more Lenten dishes are served in a specific order. A portion of each dish is set aside for the family's ancestors.
A beautiful Christmas tradition that has come back into practice is the Batlejka show. This puppet show depicting the Nativity of Jesus is performed with wooden puppets. Decorating Christmas trees is also very popular. Young people usually decorate the tree with handmade toys. The Christmas Tree Show, another favorite custom, includes songs and dramatic readings. After the show, presents are given out by Dzied Maroz (Father Frost) or Sviaty Mikola (St. Nicholas).
The celebration of Easter begins with Palm Sunday (Verbnica). Each girl brings a bouquet of pussy willows, decorated with artificial flowers and evergreen twigs, to church. After the service, there is a contest to select the girl with the prettiest bouquet.
After the service on Easter Sunday, Easter eggs are blessed and everyone goes to a brunch called razhaveny, held in the church hall. Babkas (Easter bread), kaubasy (sausage), and other traditional foods are served. The people then go home to take a brief nap because the Easter service began at midnight and has lasted several hours.
During the day, people play games, crack eggs, and have contests to select the most beautifully painted eggs. It is also traditional to visit friends, relatives, and neighbors on Easter Sunday.
Graduation from high school and from college are seen as important events that mark the beginning of adulthood. Entrance into military service has a similar significance.
Belarusans typically shake hands when they greet each other. Family members and close friends often greet each other with a hug. Belarusan cooks welcome their guests with traditional greetings, such as "Guest into the house—God into the house."
Unlike members of some other cultures, Belarusans do not avoid eye contact with poor people on the street. They believe that "No one should walk the street hungry," and it is customary for them to help people in need.
About 75 percent of all the housing in Belarusan cities and villages was destroyed during World War II (1939–45). Housing shortages were even worse after 1986, when there was a very serious accident at the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in Ukraine. Thousands of people in Belarus had to move because their homes were contaminated with radiation.
Most Belarusans living in cities have small apartments in high-rise apartment buildings.
One traditional Belarusan wedding gift is a rushnik— a handcrafted towel. Wedding guests are traditionally greeted with round rye bread and salt on a rushnik.
Most people in Belarus wear modern, Western-style clothing. Traditional ethnic costumes are also worn, especially in the southern part of the country. The man's folk costume includes an embroidered white linen shirt, a wide decorated belt or sash, white linen trousers, and black leather boots or sandals. The woman's folk costume is either a loose white dress or an embroidered blouse with a full skirt, embroidered apron, and kerchief. Modern clothes are often decorated with traditional embroidery.
Belarusan cuisine includes dishes made with potatoes, beets, peas, plums, pears, and apples. The dishes are relatively simple and healthful, and they vary with the seasons. Potatoes are the most plentiful and popular food. Belarusans boast that they can prepare potatoes in more than a hundred different ways.
Some typical Belarusan dishes are potato pancakes with bacon, vireshchaka (pork ribs with gravy and pancakes), varlley kuccia (hot barley cereal with bacon and fried onion), kvass (a fermented drink), and holodnik (cold beet soup with cucumbers, dill, hard-boiled eggs, radishes, and sour cream).
Required public education lasts about nine years. Students may then attend two or three years of secondary school. Many secondary schools prepare students for specific types of jobs. Colleges with the largest enrollment are the University of Minsk and the Academy of Sciences. Several religious colleges have also opened in recent years.
Dr. Francishak Skaryna printed the first book in the Belarusan language—the Bible—in 1517. Belarusan literature developed most strongly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among the most famous Belarusan writers are Maksim Bagdanovich (1891–1917), Janka Kupala (1882–1942), Janka Bryl (1917–), Vasil Bykau (1924–), and Ryhor Baradulin (1935–).
Folk dancing reflects the feelings, work habits, and lifestyle of the Belarusan people. Dances such as the Bulba, Lanok, and Ruchniki represent kinds of work. The Miacelica and Charot demonstrate humanity's relationship to nature. The Liavonicha, Mikita, and Yurachka express feelings and illustrate folk tales. Belarusan dances are often accompanied by singing.
Although Belarus officially has a low unemployment rate, many workers are underemployed. Instead of laying off workers, factories and businesses often reduce the number of hours to be worked, reduce wages, or force employees to take unpaid leave. Because of generous benefits such as clinics, day care, and affordable housing, employees often hesitate to quit low-paying jobs.
Soccer and hockey are popular as both spectator and participant sports. International competitions such as the Olympics have helped bring together and encourage Belarusan athletes. Belarusan gymnasts are now known internationally for their skill.
Fishing in the rivers and streams of Belarus was once a popular activity. However, irrigation projects and pollution of rivers and streams during the Soviet era have greatly reduced sport fishing.
Ceramics and pottery are traditional Belarusan crafts. The most famous type is charnazadymlenaya— a style of black, smoked pottery developed centuries ago.
Weaving and textiles are also important. Different types and colors of straw are woven together to make pictures. Traditional Slavic color motifs often are red (which stands for goodness and joy) and white (for purity). Red and white are also the national colors of Belarus, and they are used in patriotic artwork.
The change to independence from the former Soviet Union has been difficult for Belarusan society. There are serious economic problems, including high unemployment, inflation, and shortages of needed goods. There has been an increase in crime, especially muggings and murders. Organized crime activities have also increased. In addition, Belarus has become a major transfer point for illegal drugs headed for Western Europe. There is continuing corruption among public officials.
A serious problem for Belarusans today is the continuing economic and social cost of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
Fedor, Helen, ed. Belarus and Moldova: Country Studies. Lanham, Md.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1995.
Gosnell, Kelvin. Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1992.
Zaprudnik, Ian. Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993.