Soviet Union Table of Contents
The ancestors of present-day Belorussians were among those East Slavic tribes that settled the northwestern part of Kievan Rus' territory, mixing with and assimilating the indigenous Baltic tribes. After the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century and the collapse of Kievan Rus', Belorussian lands, together with the greater part of Ukraine, became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. When in 1569 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania joined in dynastic union with Poland to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Belorussians shared with Poles and Lithuanians a common king and parliament. For the next two centuries, Polish influence in Belorussia was dominant. Belorussian nobles, seeking the same privileges as their Polish counterparts, became Polonized and converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. Only the peasants retained their Belorussian national culture and Orthodox religion.
With the partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, Belorussian lands passed to the Russian Empire. The tsarist government viewed Belorussians as simply backward, somewhat Polonized, Russians. It persecuted those Belorussians who had become Uniates in 1596 and forced them to reconvert to Orthodoxy (see Catholic , this ch.). Nevertheless, in the second half of the nineteenth century Belorussians experienced a national and political revival and developed a renewed awareness of their separateness from both the Poles and the Russians. The fledgling Belorussian political movement at the turn of the century reached its zenith during the February Revolution in 1917 and culminated in the establishment of the Belorussian Democratic Republic in March 1918. The newly created republic had its independence guaranteed by the German military. But when Germany collapsed, the new republic was unable to resist Belorussian Bolsheviks, who were supported by the Bolshevik government in Russia. On January 1, 1919, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was established and was subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union. The western portion of Belorussia was ceded to Poland. At the end of World War II, that territory was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Numerically the smallest of the three East Slavic nationalities, Belorussians in 1989 numbered about 10 million people and constituted about 3.5 percent of the Soviet Union's total population, making them the fourth largest nationality in the country. Although most of them lived in the Belorussian Republic, over 1.2 million Belorussians lived in the Russian Republic, with sizable Belorussian minorities in the Ukrainian, Kazakh, and Latvian republics. Belorussians, like Russians and Ukrainians, speak an East Slavic language. Prior to 1917, both Latin and Cyrillic (see Glossary) alphabets were used, but subsequently Cyrillic became the official alphabet. In 1989 about 71 percent of Belorussians in the Soviet Union considered the Belorussian language their first language, while the remainder considered Russian their native tongue.
In the late 1980s, the Belorussian Republic was the third most urbanized in the Soviet Union, with 64 percent of the republic's population residing in urban areas in 1987--a jump of 33 percent from 1959. Of the Belorussian population in the Soviet Union, about half lived in urban areas. This apparent anomaly was caused chiefly by the large number of Russians residing in the republic's cities. The capital and largest city in the Belorussian Republic, Minsk, had a population of almost 1.6 million people in 1989. Other major cities were Gomel', Mogilev, Vitebsk, Grodno, and Brest, all of which had populations of fewer than 500,000.
Although Belorussians were the fourth most prevalent nationality in the Soviet Union, they ranked only fifteenth in the number of students in higher education institutions and tenth in the number of scientific workers in the Soviet Union. They have fared much better in terms of sharing political power, however. Between 1970 and 1989, Belorussian membership in the CPSU has been fairly representative of their share of the population. In the CPSU Central Committee, Belorussians have actually held a somewhat higher percentage of full-member seats than warranted by their share of population. Paradoxically, they have not fared so well in their own republic. Although Belorussians made up 78.7 percent of the population of the republic in 1989, they had only 70 percent of the party membership in the Belorussian Republic. Russians, however, with only 12 percent of the population of the republic, constituted about 19 percent of the party membership.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents