Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: BELARUS
From World and Its Peoples: Europe

Belarus became a sovereign nation upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; previously, it had been the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). From the Middle Ages, the region, home to the Belarussians (also given as Belarusians), or White Russians, was part of Lithuania and, from 1569, part of Poland-Lithuania. In the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795), the region was annexed by Russia. The Belorussian lands were the scene of heavy fighting during World War I (1914-1918) and, in 1919, much of the region was invaded by Poland, while a Soviet republic was established in the east. From 1919 through 1991, the region was a Communist republic, from 1922 part of the Soviet Union. Much of the Belorussian SSR was devastated during World War II (1939-1945), when German forces occupied the region, most of whose Jewish population was killed in German concentration camps. Because of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station accident in neighboring Ukraine, some areas of the south had to be abandoned, and an unknown number of people developed cancers. Since independence, under the name Belarus, the country has remained a Soviet-style dictatorship.

Permission: Marshall Cavendish


Except for the absence of the hammer and sickle emblem, the flag of Belarus (adopted in 1995) is a version of that flown when the country was the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The field (background) is red to represent the Soviet Red Army, which liberated the region from Nazi German occupation. There is a horizontal green stripe along the base, representing hope and the future. In the hoist (the side next to the flagpole) is a vertical decorative bar, in white and red, representing traditional folk art.

The flag of Belarus.


6th century CE

Slavs settle the region that is now Belarus.

mid-9th century CE

The region comes under the control of the Kievan Rus principality to the south. Scandinavian Vikings establish trading posts along the region's main waterways.

9th-12th century

Most of what is now Belarus is included in the principality of Polatsk.

13th century

Mongol invasions topple Kievan Rus and Polatsk, and the region that is now Belarus becomes part of Lithuania.


Russia begins attempts to wrest control of the region from Lithuania.


Poland and Lithuania enter a formal union, the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania.

1772, 1793, and 1795

In the three partitions of Poland, the region is annexed to Russia and generally becomes known as White Russia.


White Russia is the scene of heavy fighting during World War I, as German forces push back the Russian imperial army.


White Russian (Belorussian) nationalists declare independence in 1918, but, in 1919, the Polish army invades Belorussia from the west, while Soviet Russian troops invade from the east. A Communist republic is established.


Poland and the Soviet Union divide Belorussia between them.


The Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) becomes a constituent member of the Soviet Union.


In World War II (1939-1945), Nazi Germany invades and occupies the Belorussian SSR. Most of the republic's substantial Jewish population are deported to German concentration camps and are murdered. Around 2.2 million Belorussians die in the war.


Western Belorussia is ceded by Poland to the Soviet Union and is merged with the Belorussian SSR.


Fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power station in neighboring Ukraine affects southern Belorussia. Many people later develop cancers, and a region in the south has to be abandoned for agriculture and settlement.


The Soviet Union collapses, and the Belorussian SSR becomes the republic of Belarus. However, the country does not dismantle its Soviet-era governmental or economic systems.


Alexander Lukashenko (born 1954) becomes president. He begins to establish a dictatorship.


Belarus draws closer to Russia, proposing a new union between the countries.

2006 and 2007

Demonstrators protest flawed elections; opposition figures are detained.



Eastern Europe, between Poland and the Russian Federation


Cold, snowy winters; cool, moist summers


80,134 sq. miles (207,546 sq. km)



Highest point

Dzyarzhynskaya 1,135 feet (346 m)

Lowest point

Neman River 295 feet (90 m)


Largely flat: marshy in the south; the low Belorussian Ridge runs east to west through the center of the country

Natural resources

Peat, building materials, potassium, potash, lignite, salt

Land use

   Arable land

26.8 percent

   Permanent crops

0.6 percent


72.6 percent

Major rivers

Western Dvina (Daugava), Neman, Pripyat, Dnieper

Major lakes

Narach (also given as Naroch)

Natural hazards



Source: Belorussian government estimates. 2005. In modern times, more than one transliteration of Belarussian names is used; the most common version is given aboveOther frequently used spellings and former Russian names, which are also stili widely used, are given in brackets.

Urban population

73 percent



Hornyel' (Homel; formerly Gomel)


Mahilyow (formerly Mogilev)


Vitsyebsk (formerly Vitebsk)


Hrodna (Hrodno; formerly Grodno)




Babruysk (Bobruysk)


Baranavichy (Baranovichi)


Barysaw (formerly Borisov)




Orsha (Vorsha)


Mazyr (formerly Mozyr)


Salihorsk (formerly Soligorsk)


Navapolatsk (formerly Novopolock)




106 miles (171 km)


423 miles (680 km)


376 miles (605 km)

Russian Federation

596 miles (959 km)


554 miles (891 km)



9,751,000 (2005 government estimate)

Population density

122 per sq. mile (47 per sq. km)

Population growth

-0.4 percent a year


9.6 births per 1.000 of the population

Death rate

13.9 deaths per 1.000 of the population

Population under age 15

14.4 percent

Population over age 65

14.7 percent

Sex ratio

106 males for 100 females

Fertility rate

1.2 children per woman

Infant mortality rate

6.5 deaths per 1.000 live births

Life expectancy at birth

   Total population

70.3 years


76.4 years


64.6 years



Belarussian ruble (BYR)

Exchange rate (2008)

$1 = BYR 2.142

Gross domestic product (2007)

$103.5 billion

GDP per capita (2007)


Unemployment rate (2005)

1.6 percent; many underemployed

Population under poverty line (2003)

27.1 percent


$24.4 billion (2007 CIA estimate)


$28.3 billion (2007 CIA estimate)


Official country name

Republic of Belarus

Conventional short form


Former names

Belorussian Soviet. Socialist Republic; Byelorussia



Belarussian or Belarusian


Belarussian or Belarusian

Official languages

Belarussian. Russian

Capital city


Type of government

Presidential republic; dictatorship

Voting rights

18 years, universal

National anthem

"My Belarusy" (We Belarussians)

National day

Independence Day, July 3 (1944; anniversary of the liberation of Minsk in World War II; the actual date of independence from the Soviet Union was August 25, 1991)



3,426 miles (5,512 km)


58,904 miles (94,797 km)

   Paved roads

52,213 miles (84,028 km)

   Unpaved roads

6,693 miles (10,769 km)

Navigable waterways

1,554 miles (2,500 km); little used commercially


   International airports


   Paved runways



* Subject to active persecution

Ethnie groups


virtually 100 percent (of which Belarussians form 81 percent; Russians 11 percent; Poles 4 percent; Ukrainians 2 percent; others 2 percent)


   Russian Orthodox

40-45 percent; fewer than 8 percent practicing

   Autocephalous Belarussian Orthodox Church*


   Roman Catholic

10 percent; 5 percent practicing

   Belarussian Greek Catholic Church

1 percent

   Baptists. Seventh-Day Adventists, Evangelical Christians, Old Believers, Lutherans, and other Christians

2 percent

   Jewish, Sunni Islam, and others

1 percent


more than 35 percent



81 percent as a first language


12 percent as a first language but almost universally understood


4 percent


2 percent


1 percent

Adult literacy

over 99 percent


Unlike almost all European countries, Belarus is not a democracy, nor does power reside in the legislature. The nation has been called "the last dictatorship in Europe."

Belarus is a presidential republic in which the chief of state is elected by universal adult suffrage for a five-year term. The voting age is 18 years and over, and there is no limit to the number of terms that a president may serve. The president appoints a prime minister and other ministers—who need not be members of the national legislature—as well as all the principal officers of state. Although there is a prime minister, the president effectively heads the executive. The president may override the legislature and rule by decree. The premier and government are responsible to the chief of state rather than to the legislature.

Since 1994, the chief of state has been Alexander Lukashenko (born 1954), who has reinstated many elements of the Soviet era. European and other international observers have condemned presidential and legislative elections as flawed, and political opponents of the regime have been detained. Lukashenko is on record as saying he has "an authoritarian ruling style."

Permission: Shutterstock, Alexey Zarubin

The official residence of the president of Belarus, in Minsk.


The bicameral legislature comprises the 64-member Council of the Republic (upper house) and the 110-member Chamber of Representatives (lower house). The upper house comprises 8 members appointed by the president and 56 chosen by members of local governments. In theory, the council has the power to impeach the president and to block bills passed by the lower house. The members of the lower house are directly elected for a four-year term. The chamber, theoretically, appoints the prime minister, but, in practice, the premier is chosen by the chief of state, and the vote in the house is a formality. The lower house may make constitutional amendments and can call for a vote of confidence on the premier, and, although the chamber has the right to suggest policy, legislation originates with the executive.


Criticism of the executive is restricted. As a result, Belarus does not have an effective system of political parties. At the (flawed) legislative elections in 2008, 98 of the 110 members of the lower house were "independents," with no party affiliation. These members are representatives of workers' collectives, public associations, and other public organizations. The remaining 12 members represent the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, all of which support the government. There are two pro-Lukashenko parties not formally represented in the legislature.

Opposition is led by the United Democratic Party of Belarus, the (social democratic) Belarussian Social Democratic Assembly (Hramada), the Belarussian Christian Democratic Union, and other small parties. These organizations may not campaign freely and are unable to win any representation because of restrictions.


Belarus is divided into six regions and one city of regional status, Minsk, the national capital. The most significant local government official is the regional governor, who is appointed by the president. Regions are, in turn, divided into 118 districts, which are subdivided into communes (municipalities), each with an elected council, headed by a mayor.


Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) became independent. At that time, a dictatorship was established by Alexander Lukashenko (born 1954; in office as president from 1994).

In the early Middle Ages, the Belarussian (also given as Belarusian) lands were divided between several principalities, and, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these were annexed by Lithuania, which in 1569 merged with Poland. In the late-eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, the area that is now Belarus passed to Russia but had no separate identity within the Russian Empire.


In World War I (1914-1918), the area that is now Belarus saw heavy fighting between the Russian and German imperial armies. In 1918, after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Belarussian Democratic Republic was proclaimed within an area that had a majority Belarussian population. However, in 1919, the Soviet Red Army invaded, and the republic's government went into exile. Russian Communists then established the Belorussian SSR, whose eastern districts were annexed to Russia. Following the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), the Belarussian lands were divided between Poland, Russia, and the Belorussian SSR. In 1922, the republic was a founding member of the Soviet Union. In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, adding it the Belorussian SSR. In 1941, German forces occupied the republic during World War II (1939-1945). Most of the republic's Jews were deported to German concentration camps and murdered, and around 2.2 million Belorussians died in the war. After the war, western Belorussia was ceded by Poland to the Belorussian SSR.


In 1986, fallout from an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in neighboring Ukraine affected southern Belorussia. Many people later contracted cancers, and a region in the south was abandoned for farming and settlement. This episode occurred in the period when the Soviet system began to unravel. Belorussia shared some similarities with other parts of the Soviet Union: a shortage of consumer goods and hyperinflation, growing demands for local rule, and dissatisfaction with Communism. However, Belorussia had a relatively high standard of living, an economy dependent on other Soviet republics for energy, raw materials, and exports, and an advanced level of Russification. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 resulted in an independent Republic of Belarus but also mixed feelings, as many felt nostalgia for the economic stability of the Soviet Union.

In 1991-1994, the economy collapsed with the disruption of the supply chain and loss of export markets. Economic collapse led to deteriorating health care, education, and social security, and the introduction of a market economy increased crime, corruption, and social inequality. As chief of state, speaker of the legislature Stanislau Shushkevich (born 1934; in office 1991-1994) promoted national revival, democracy, and demilitarization but became unpopular for facilitating the dissolution of the Soviet Union and moving Soviet nuclear missiles from Belarus to Russia without any compensation from Russia or the West. Although the Communist Party lost its leading role, the former Communist elite still dominated the civil service and administration.

Alexander Lukashenko became president in 1994 and installed an authoritarian regime. Lukashenko was elected on a populist and anticorruption platform. He purged the civil service of opponents and replaced elected local councils with appointees, reduced civil liberties, and imprisoned critics, some of whom disappeared. Two referenda, both heavily criticized by international observers as rigged, extended his powers and term in office. He replaced national symbols with the old Soviet ones, introduced Russian as a second official language, and proposed the union of Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko abandoned market-oriented reforms in favor of Soviet-style state control and regulation. In foreign policy, he accused the West of conspiracy against Belarus and, in 1998, Western diplomats were briefly forced out of Minsk, the national capital.

The period from 2001 was characterized by economic growth, state-building, and growing international isolation. After a failed attempt to merge Belarus and Russia on his own terms, Lukashenko focused on promoting the nation-state. A 2004 referendum allowed him to be elected a limitless number of times. Even though outside observers have declared Belarussian elections to be neither free nor fair, the regime enjoys genuine support because of pro-Russian policies and the reversal of the economic crisis. Abroad, however, Belarus is criticized for human rights violations.


The culture of Belarus has been shaped by various factors, including the early influence of Balts and Scandinavians; an East Slavic heritage; the sharing of a state with the Lithuanians from the fourteenth century; the significant influence of Jewish culture; Polish and then Russian rule; the devastation of World War II (1939-1945); and the Soviet era (1919-1941 and 1944-1991).

The Old Belarussian (also given as Belarusian) language emerged in the thirteenth century from the East Slavic language. The foundations of literary Old Belarussian were laid by Italian-educated scholar and poet Francis Skaryna (1485-1540),who printed the first book in Old Belarussian in 1517. Old Belarussian, written in Cyrillic script, was an official language of medieval Lithuania, but when, in 1569, Lithuania became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish, a Slavic language written in the Latin script, replaced Old Belarussian as the official language. In the late eighteenth century, the Belarussian lands were annexed by Russia, and Russian, a Slavic language written in the Cyrillic script, succeeded Polish as the official language. Because the nobility adopted either Polish or Russian, Old Belarussian was then spoken only among the peasants and the poorer people.


Formal literature based on modern Belarussian developed during the national revival of the nineteenth century, thanks to the literary efforts of Polish-educated landed gentry such as Jan Czeczot (1796-1847) and Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz (1807-1884). Their writings and poetry followed the Romantic tradition and were addressed to the upper classes. The Realist tradition—which reached out to the peasants, that is, the majority of the Belarussian people—was established by nationalists Kastus Kalinowski (1838-1864) and Frantsyszek Boguszewicz (1840-1900). This tradition was continued by classical authors: poet Maksim Bogdanowicz (1891-1917), who is famous for the collection of sonnets Vianok (1913); Janka Kupala (1882-1942), a major figure in the national revival and author of what is usually considered the single most important piece of Belarussian literature, the tragicomedy Tuteyshya (1922; The locals); and poet Jakub Kolas (1882-1956), who wrote the epics Novaya Ziamlia (1923; New land) and Symon Muzyka (1925; Symon the musician). These writers worked at a time when the transition from writing Belarussian in the Latin script to using the Russian Cyrillic script was completed.

After the Russian Revolution (1917), a wave of Belarussian literature was produced under Communist censorship. Talented authors of the period included Ivan Melezh (1921-1976), who truthfully depicted controversies of the collectivization of the land; historical novelist Uladzimir Karatkevich (1930-1984); and Ales Adamovich (1927-1993) and Vasil Bykau (1924-2003), who both wrote about World War II (1939-1945) and its effects. At the same time, Belarussian emigrants established their own literature; notable representatives include poets Larysa Heniyush (1910-1983), who was forcefully returned to Belarus from Czechoslovakia and was sent to a Soviet Siberian prison camp, and Ryhor Krushina (1907-1979), who lived in New York. After President Alexander Lukashenko (born 1954; in office since 1994) came to power, the Belarussian Writers Association was forcibly dissolved because its members opposed his authoritarian regime.


There are few surviving examples of early architecture in Belarus because, prior to the seventeenth century, the main building material was timber, and Belarus was at the crossroads of major military conflicts. The oldest architectural monuments are the eleventh-century Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polatsk and the Church of Saints Barys and Hleb in Hrodna, which were both originally built in the Byzantine style. Other important medieval landmarks include the thirteenth-century White Tower in Kamyanets, which features distinctive Baltic brickwork, and the ruins of the thirteenthcentury Navahrudak Castle and the fourteenth-century Kreva Castle. While the castle of Mir (c. 1510) preserved its original Gothic style, the sixteenth-century castle of Niasvizh lost most of its original Renaissance style in renovations.

Permission: Shutterstock, Tim Arbaev

The sixteenth-century Mir Castle Complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Polish rule and, with it, the promotion of Roman Catholicism brought the baroque style as exemplified by numerous seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Jesuit, Bernardine, Bridgettine, and Dominican churches and monasteries. Russian rule resulted in the rebuilding of old Gothic and baroque churches in the Byzantine style and in the construction of new churches in the Russian Revival style, which combined Russian and Byzantine traditions.

As most large cities suffered extensive damage in World War II, they were built anew in the monumental Soviet style of Socialist Realism. The Soviet era also survives in the 1950s and 1960s multistory apartment buildings, which were quickly and cheaply built from prefabricated concrete panels and contained hundreds of small accommodations. Post-Soviet architecture is represented by the high-rise diamond-shaped building of the National Library in Minsk, the national capital, as well as hockey arenas built all over the country by order of President Lukashenko.

Permission: Shutterstock, yuri4u80

The National Library of Belarus in Minsk (opened in 2006) is the city's best-known modern building.

The most popular traditional folk arts are straw weaving and embroidery of ceremonial linen towels known as rushnik. In the seventeenth century, a distinct school of Belarussian icon painting emerged, which fused the Eastern Byzantine iconographic tradition with the technical and stylistic methods of European Renaissance painting. Fine arts developed in Belarus only in the nineteenth century and are represented by the works of portraitists Jozef Oleszkiewicz (1777-1830) and Walenty Walkowicz (1800-1842), landscape painter Napoleon Orda (1807-1883), and still-life artist Ivan Khrutsky (1810-1885). A significant school of fine arts was established in the late nineteenth century in Vitsyebsk by Saint Petersburg-trained artist Yehuda Pen (1854-1937), who led the way for what art critics call the Jewish Renaissance in Belarussian fine arts. His students included famous Belarussian-born artists who became French, such as Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Pinchus Kremegne (1890-1981), and Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967). In his post as commissar of arts for the Vitsyebsk Region, Chagall founded the Vitsyebsk Arts School in 1918. Another significant school of painting was established in Minsk by Paris-trained portraitist Jankel Kruger (1869-1940). Major Belarus-based artists include landscapist Vitaut Bialynitski-Birulia (1872-1957), landscape painter Jazep Drazdowicz (1888-1954), and sculptor Zair Azhur (1908-1995).


Choral singing is at the heart of Belarussian musical tradition. The most popular folk instruments are various pipes, the tambourine, the hurdy-gurdy, the fiddle, and, above all, the dulcimer. The earliest evidence of distinctive ecclesiastical music is documented in the liturgical manuscripts of Bohdan Anisimowicz (flourished 1598-1601). Western-style music arrived in the region in the eighteenth century with French and Italian artists who directed orchestras and opera companies of serfs in the courts of wealthy nobles, notably Radziwill princes in Niasvizh and the Oginski princes in Slonim.

The first significant classical composers in what is now Belarus were the painter Napoleon Orda and Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1972). The latter is famous for the opera Sialianka (1852) and for establishing the Polish national opera. The Belarussian National Music Academy, the Philharmonic Society, and the national opera and ballet companies were founded in the 1930s and were significantly influenced by the Russian musical tradition. The most notable Soviet-era composers were Yauhen Tsikotsky (1893-1970), composer of the operas Mikhas Padhorny (1939) and Alesya (1944), and Yauhen Hlebau (1929-2000), famous for the opera Tvaya Viasna (1963; Your spring) and the ballet Alpiyskaya Balada (1967; Alpine ballad). The leading Belarussian composer is Dmitry Smolsky (born 1937), whose most successful works include his first piano concerto (1960), the symphonic poem Belarus (1960), and his second dulcimer concerto (1974).

U.S. composer Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline; 1888-1989) was born in Belarus, but little of his music reached Belarussians in his lifetime. During the Soviet era, the authorities did not allow much Western music and instead promoted local music. In the 1970 and 1980s, Belarussian bands such as Siabry, Pesniary, and Verasy became popular across the Soviet Union. They combined folk music with as much rock music as they dared. From the 1980s, Western music was no longer restricted, and a new generation of Belarussian rock bands emerged. In modern times, President Lukashenko promotes local music and decreed that both state and independent media devote at least 75 percent of their music broadcast to local artists. However, the state promotes only musicians who conform to state ideology. Rock bands may only perform at non-state-owned venues and sell their records through private retailers.


The nation stages a number of modern popular annual music festivals such as the international festival of classical music, Minsk Spring (established 1980), and the state-sponsored festival of pop music, Slavic Bazaar, held in Vitsyebsk since 1992.

Some traditional festivals date from pre-Christian times. They include Kupalle, the summer solstice celebration involving dancing in circles around a bonfire, wearing flower garlands, and searching for the paparats flower, which was believed to have magical properties. Dazhynki, which celebrates the harvest in September with decorated wheat sheaves, singing, and dancing, has in modern times acquired elements of state propaganda, including a Soviet-style parade of agricultural machinery and honors for the winners of a national harvesting competition. Forefathers' Eve (October 31-November 1) precedes All Saints' and All Souls' celebrations by commemorating the deceased, taking care of graveyards, and leaving food and drink for the dead.

Public holidays begin with secular New Year's Day (January 1) and are followed by Russian Orthodox Christmas (January 7). Women's Day (March 8) has been celebrated since the Soviet era. Russian Orthodox Easter usually falls in April and is celebrated by the Orthodox community; Catholic Easter, which may precede it, is also a public holiday. Constitution Day (March 15) marks the adoption of the constitution in 1994. Labor Day (May 1) is another surviving Soviet tradition that was originally established to celebrate the unity of workers. Victory Day (May 9) commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.

National Day is Independence Day (July 3), which is actually the anniversary of the liberation of Minsk in 1944. The date of modern independence was August 25, 1991, which is not celebrated. Before President Lukashenko came to power, Independence Day was celebrated on March 25, the anniversary of the declaration of the anti-Communist republic in 1918. Today, this is marked by rallies of the political opposition as Freedom Day, and opposition activists are routinely arrested at these events. Other public holidays include April 2 (Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia Day), Forefathers' Eve, November 7 (the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik coup in Russia), Roman Catholic Christmas Day (December 25), and Orthodox Christmas Day (January 7).

Permission: Shutterstock, Alexey Zarubin

The Island of Tears monument in Minsk was constructed in the memory of the soldiers who died in the Russian conflict with Afghanistan (1979-1988).


Belarussian cuisine is typically hearty and simple. The staple foods are potato, cereals, and meats. There are said to be more than 300 Belarussian potato dishes, including draniki (potato pancakes), kalduny (stuffed potato dumplings), and babka (potato and pork pie). Both rye and wheat are used to make bread, and kasha is a porridge made of oats, barley, or buckwheat. Traditional meat dishes include kumpiak (cured ham), kalbasa (pork sausage), saltsison (pork intestines boiled in the animal's stomach), sala (nonrendered pork fat cured with salt and herbs), and Lithuanian bigos (beef cooked with sauerkraut). Celebratory meals may include game such as wild boar, deer, elk (moose), duck, partridge, and fish such as perch, pike, carp, and eel. Stuffed carp in aspic is a popular Christmas dish adopted from Jewish cuisine. Traditional dairy dishes include sweet or sour milk, smiatana (sour cream), and a variety of soft cheeses. Vegetables enjoyed as starters include gherkins. Pickles (of tomatoes, peppers, and garlic) are commonly served, and side dishes include salads, sauerkraut, and Russian salianka (a mix of sauerkraut, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and wild mushrooms).

Traditional soft drinks are made of cranberries, blackberries, and other wild berries by diluting juice with water or by boiling them with a pinch of starch to create a thick drink called kisel. Another traditional drink is kvass, a slightly alcoholic drink made from rye bread. Beer and vodka are the favorite alcoholic drinks. In rural areas, people still distill their own alcohol from fermented potatoes or beets, known as harelka, even though it is illegal. The popularity of wine is growing but it is limited because it is imported and expensive.


Society in Belarus has been profoundly influenced by two centuries of Russian rule from the late eighteenth century and seven decades of Communism until 1991. Foreign rule and authoritarianism shaped how people live in a society that, even in modern times, is still under authoritarian rule.

Modern Belarus is relatively homogenous, although there is also a strong Russian presence. Europeans account for virtually 100 percent of the population, and Belarus is a nation that has experienced little modern immigration, except for a minority of Armenians, Georgians, and Azeris who have come to Belarus to seek better employment prospects than in their Caucasian homelands. In modern times, some 81 percent of the population of Belarus are Belarussians (also given as Belarusians), while Russians account for 11 percent, Poles 4 percent, Ukrainians 2 percent, and others (mainly from within the former Soviet Union) 2 percent. Since independence in 1991, the size of the ethnic minorities has declined.


Religion was persecuted until the 1980s under the former Soviet Union and, as a result, religious practice became uncommon. Now, some 40-45 percent of the population are described as Russian Orthodox, although only about 8 percent or fewer are practicing. An unknown percentage are members of the persecuted Belarussian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Roman Catholics account for 10 percent of the population, although only 5 percent or fewer are practicing. Other Christians include the Belarussian Greek Catholic Church, representing 1 percent of the population, and Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Evangelical Christians, Old Believers, Lutherans, and other Christians, who together account for 2 percent. Jews, Sunni Muslims, and others account for another 1 percent, while more than 35 percent of Belarussians are nonreligious.

Permission: Shutterstock, Elena Yakusheva

The cathedral of Saint Francis Xavier, in Hrodna, was originally built as a Jesuit church in 1678.

For the last six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church have competed for the allegiance of Belarussian Christians. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys the support of the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko (born 1954; in office from 1994) and other religions are actively discriminated against or even suppressed.

In the late tenth century, Greek missionaries brought Christianity to the Belarussian lands. However, in the late fourteenth century, the ruler of Lithuania (of which Belarus was part) converted to Roman Catholicism in order to gain the Polish throne. This conversion prompted the spread of Catholicism in the region and the establishment of the Greek Catholic Church (in 1595), which entered full communion with Rome while keeping the (former Orthodox) Byzantine rite. After the Belarussian lands were annexed by the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century (when Poland was partitioned by its neighbors), the authorities suppressed the Greek Catholic Church in favor of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the Soviet era (from 1919), the Russian Orthodox Church cooperated with the Communists in order to survive, and, since independence, it has enjoyed state support.

Catholicism flourished after the fall of Communism, but since President Lukashenko came to power in 1994, the Catholic Church has been discriminated against by the state. It is perceived by the authorities as a threat to the state-sponsored Orthodox Church. In 1989-1990, the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus was given a separate identity when the Belarussian Orthodox Church, an exarchate (semiautonomous branch) of the Russian Church was created. However, the church remains under effective Russian control; its head is Russian, and Russian is the principal language of its worship. The Belarussian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, an officially unrecognized branch of Orthodoxy that refused to compromise with the Soviet authorities, experiences persecution. This church has a presence in the emigré Belarussian population. The Greek Catholic Church is also restricted.

In 2002, Belarus introduced legislation that proclaimed Russian Orthodoxy as the leading religion and recognized Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and Evangelical Lutheranism as the only other legitimate religions. Despite the protests of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2005, other religions are deemed illegal, and their activities are restricted. To date, the state has demolished a place of worship of the Belarussian Autocephalous Orthodox Church; it has persecuted Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, and Adventist Protestants; and it has denied visas to and deported Polish Catholic priests.

In 1897, the Jewish population formed 14 percent of the population of the Belarussian lands. However, many Belarussian Jews migrated before or soon after the Russian Revolution (1917) because of poor economic conditions. Hundreds of thousands were murdered during the Holocaust in World War II (1939-1945), and tens of thousands emigrated during or after Soviet rule. Today, there are 50,000 Jews in Belarus. They have managed to recover only 9 out of 92 historic synagogues and to reestablish a number of religious schools.

Islam was brought to the area that is now Belarus in the fourteenth century, when Tatars from Crimea and farther east were invited to settle in Lithuania to guard its borders against Muscovy. Today, the Muslim population of Belarus includes a 10,000-strong Tatar community as well as thousands of Muslim immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There are four mosques in the country.


Family structure and the nature of society in Belarus are undergoing profound changes and are subject to a clash of values of three generations. While grandparents were brought up in a patriarchal family typical of agrarian society, the generation of parents experienced an urbanized industrial society. Their children, in turn, are influenced by the advent of postindustrial society. Social values are also influenced by the authoritarian government, which intervenes in daily life to a greater degree than the governments of Western countries.

On average, Belarussian men and women marry in their early twenties, but 70 percent of marriages end in divorce. Early marriages are driven by cultural tradition, a desire to escape the parental home, and state-sponsored loans for newlyweds to buy or build housing. Despite state polices to encourage a high birthrate, the total fertility rate has declined to 1.2 children per woman (2007), and even though Belarus has a slightly positive net migration, the population of the country has steadily decreased since the fall of Communism. During the Soviet era, equal employment opportunities were achieved for women, and unjustifiable absence from work was an offense. This heritage, along with the heavy intervention of the state in the economy, accounts for the fact that almost as many women are in full-time employment as men.


A comprehensive health care service was established in Belarus in the Soviet era. A reduced version of this system still exists and is funded by taxation. State health care was successful in alleviating high morbidity and mortality associated with infectious diseases, and, by the end of the 1960s, life expectancy at birth in Belarus was comparable to that in the United States. However, from the 1970s, the Belarussian health care system has failed to effectively tackle cardiovascular diseases and cancers, which today are the most common causes of death. This failure is mainly due to the reluctance of the population to give up a calorie-and fat-rich diet, smoking, and drinking, coupled with a lack of hard currency needed to purchase modern Western medical technology and drugs. Moreover, since 1986, Belarus has experienced the devastating impact of the Chernobyl disaster: 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the accident at the nuclear facility at Chernobyl, in neighboring Ukraine, fell in Belarus. As a result, Belarussians have experienced a high level of cancers.

Permission: Shutterstock, semenovp

State health care exists in Belarus, but at a lower level of provision than in the Soviet era.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, public health funding has slowly increased, but, in terms of the utilization of modern drugs and medical technology, Belarussian health care lags behind affluent western European countries. Today, hospitals and clinics are often crowded, and patients customarily give illicit payments to doctors in order to move up waiting lists. In 2007, the average life expectancy in Belarus was 64.6 years for men and 76.4 years for women, which is slightly lower than the life expectancy in 1990.

Permission: Shutterstock, Anna Dzondzua

An elderly woman walks down a road in a Belarussian village; life expectancy in Belarus is lower than the average in western Europe.

The comprehensive social security system built during the Soviet era has survived, but, in many respects, it is substandard. The official retirement age is 55 years for women and 60 for men, but people of pensionable age commonly continue to work because the state pension is low. In 2006, the average monthly pension was about $130, compared to the monthly subsistence level of $60 and the average monthly salary of $270. Even though these figures seem low to international observers, in 2006, Belarus was ranked higher than other post-Soviet states (except the Baltic states, Russia, and Kazakhstan) in terms of monthly salary. Also, although some 27.1 percent of the population live below the poverty level, there is a relatively low level of income inequality because few are wealthy. In 1999, when poverty was at its worst, about 40 percent of households lived below the official poverty line. The reduction in poverty is attributed to economic growth rather than social security, as benefits are low and it is difficult to qualify for payments. For example, most unemployed people prefer to find some form of work rather than undergo the lengthy, intrusive process of registering with a state unemployment office. As a result, Belarus's low official unemployment rate (1.6 percent in 2005) is almost certainly an underestimate.


Belarus inherited a unified Soviet-style education system, which has been improved since the collapse of Communism by private financing. Almost all children in urban areas—and up to 60 percent nationwide—attend preschool. Schooling starts at age six and is compulsory for nine years until age 15. Pupils can then choose between completing another two years of general secondary education; enrolling at a trade college to complete secondary education and advanced vocational training; entering a vocational school to become a qualified industrial or service-industry worker; or joining the unqualified labor force. Those who have completed general secondary education can take competitive entrance exams to gain entry either to a fast stream at a trade college or, more commonly, for entry to a university or other institution of higher education. It usually takes four years to complete a first degree, but part-time higher education has always been popular, as some people opt to study and earn at the same time. There are 19 institutions of university status, the majority in Minsk, the national capital.

The country has a near 100 percent literacy rate. With few exceptions, primary, secondary, and vocational education remain in the public sector; however, there has been growth in private higher education in terms of both new institutions and tuition-based programs in old state universities. Between 1989 and 1999, enrollment in higher education doubled, due to a number of factors: the conversion of a number of former trade colleges into higher education institutions; the necessity of acquiring modern knowledge and skills; and the fact that students in higher education are eligible for exemption from compulsory conscription in the army for the duration of study and the first two years of employment. However, students who receive state-funded higher education and grants toward living expenses are obliged to work for at least two years wherever the state sends them.


In 2005, Minsk, the national capital of Belarus, had a population of 1,766,000 in the metropolitan area. The second-largest city, Homyel', was only one-quarter the size in population.

Minsk is a largely modern city, having been severely damaged in World Wars I (1914-1918) and II (1939-1945) and subsequently reconstructed. The city lies along the Svislach (also given as Svisloch) River in a region of low, slightly hilly terrain. The western part of the city is relatively flat; much of the eastern part lies on south-facing hills.

Permission: Shutterstock, Evgeny Victorovich Dontsov

A statue of Lenin still stands outside the House of Government in Independence Square in Minsk as a reflection of Belarussian politics.


The year 1067 is traditionally given for the foundation of Minsk, but there is no firm historical evidence to support this date. When the principality of Polatsk (of which Minsk was part) collapsed, a number of smaller polities emerged, including one centered in Minsk, but, in 1127, it was annexed by Kievan Rus to the south. In the thirteenth century, Tatars invaded from the east, and Minsk sought protection from Lithuania. Despite being wrecked by a Tatar invasion in 1505, the city remained under Lithuanian rule until 1569, when Lithuania and Poland merged. Russian forces occupied and sacked Minsk from 1654 to 1667, when Polish rule was restored. During the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Minsk was devastated by a Swedish invasion in 1708-1709. In the second partition of Poland (1793), the Minsk region was annexed by Russia. At the time, the city was home to some 8,000 Poles and Polish Jews, and Belarussians were in a small minority.

Russian rule had not long been imposed before the city was again severely damaged by invasion; in 1812, a French army on the way to Moscow occupied Minsk. The city developed under Russian rule, from a population of 24,000 in 1850, to 42,000 in 1880, and 92,000 in 1900. The railroad arrived in 1871, and Minsk became a railroad junction and a manufacturing center. Toward the end of the century, Minsk became the center of a Belarussian national and cultural revival.

In 1915, Minsk was one the principal bases along the Russian front during World War I. The city was greatly damaged, many people left, and its factories closed. German forces took Minsk in early 1918; a republic was declared later in the year, but, in December, the Soviet Red Army entered Minsk. Poles and Russians subsequently fought over Minsk, with Polish forces twice occupying the city. However, in 1922, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), with Minsk as its capital, became a founding member of the Soviet Union. The city developed industrially, but much of its industry and population were evacuated before the German invasion of 1941. The Germans made Minsk the capital of the Ostland region, and it was later the scene of strong German resistance to the Soviet advance in 1944. Much the city was destroyed; most of Minsk's substantial Jewish population died in concentration camps; and the city's population fell from 239,000 in 1939 to under 50,000. After the war, Belarussians, displaced elsewhere by upheavals in the region, settled in Minsk, giving the city a Belarussian majority.


The Soviet authorities rebuilt Minsk, the downtown area transformed with a series of monumental structures in the Socialist Realism style. Parks were laid out and broad avenues constructed, and many multistory apartment buildings were erected in the suburbs. However, there was little or no attempt to reconstruct the city's historic buildings: the seventeenth-century baroque Orthodox cathedral is a notable exception.

Permission: Shutterstock, Nethunter

Stalinist architecture in downtown Minsk. Most of Minsk was rebuilt in this style after the city's destruction in World War II.

Minsk is an industrial city, which experienced large-scale development from the 1950s through 1980s, when the population trebled. In modern times, industries include trucks and tractors, agricultural machinery, bearings, machine building and engineering, metalwork, food processing, textiles, and consumer goods including refrigerators, watches, and radios and televisions. Minsk has a modern transportation system, including an international airport, a beltway, and a subway, but, compared with other large cities in post-Soviet eastern Europe, traffic levels are low. The city is a center for higher education and research, and many people work in administration and for state-run industry. At independence in 1991, Minsk became the national capital of a sovereign state for the first time.


In the Soviet era (before 1991), Belarus became the "assembly line of the Soviet Union," an industrial economy with modernized farming. Since then, Belarus has struggled to compete.

In the early twentieth century, the region, which was then part of Russia, had neither large-scale industrial production nor modern agriculture. The first wave of industrialization started in the 1920s under the Soviet Union, but in World War II (1939-1945), most industry in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the forerunner of independent Belarus, was built anew. From 1945, investment promoted a large industrial sector, which relied upon other parts of the Soviet Union for energy and raw materials and, under the state-run centrally planned economy, the Belorussian SSR had to produce specified goods, for which there was a guaranteed market within the Soviet Union.

Permission: Marshall Cavendish


At the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), the Belarussian economy was one of the most developed and fastest-growing in the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the disruption of the supply chain and the loss of export markets. The Belarussian government was reluctant to radically restructure the economy but introduced gradual market reforms. In 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko (born 1954; in office from 1994) halted market reforms in an attempt to retain the Soviet-era economy. As a result, in 2006, 51.2 percent of the 4.5 million-strong Belarussian labor force were employed by the state, with 47.4 percent employed by private enterprises, and 1.4 percent by companies in foreign ownership. Lukashenko established a trade agreement with Russia in order to sell Belarussian and imported goods in Russia without import duty and to secure the supply of discounted Russian energy and raw materials. However, these policies had mixed success. The economic decline in Belarus was not as dramatic as in other parts of the former Soviet Union, but Belarus failed to attract foreign investment to compensate for the loss of Soviet investment. The Belarussian GDP (gross domestic product, the total value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a fixed term, usually one year) per capita as a share of the world's total has declined since 1991. Belarus's GDP per capita was on par with the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) during the Soviet era but is now significantly behind them.

The main challenges for the Belarussian economy are to attract foreign investments; to modernize industry, agriculture, and the service sector; to find new markets; to allow more operating flexibility to state-owned enterprises; to reduce state regulation; and to promote economic freedom. These goals are difficult to achieve in a largely state-run economy in which foreign investors are not eager to engage. Much of the country's industrial infrastructure is out of date and, without foreign funding, restructuring is difficult. Also, the country heavily depends upon Russia for trade, energy, and raw materials. However, since 2000 (when it became evident that Lukashenko's goal to reunite Belarus with Russia would not happen), the Belarussian authorities have attempted to find other buyers and suppliers to achieve greater economic flexibility.


Raw materials in Belarus are limited to potash (used for fertilizer), peat (used for fuel), rock salt, phosphorites, clay, sand, timber, and building materials. The potash deposits are the largest in Europe. There are limited oil and gas reserves in the southeast, but reserves are diminished, and production is much reduced since a peak in the 1960s. As a result, Belarus relies extensively on Russian energy.


In the Soviet era, agriculture was based on large collective and state farms. Part of the Belarussian marshes, which are the largest in Europe, was drained and converted into arable fields. Although the soil in Belarus is not particularly fertile, the Belorussian SSR was a net exporter to other Soviet republics of meat, milk, eggs, buckwheat, potatoes, flax, sugar beets, and vegetables. Belarussian farming faced major problems in 1986, when radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear facility in neighboring Ukraine fell on Belarus, and some 4 percent of agricultural land had to be taken out of use. Then, the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the loss of investment, resulting in demechanization, the decay of infrastructure, and a decrease in the use of fertilizers. Consequently, employment and productivity in farming have sharply reduced. Whereas in 1990 agriculture employed 21.6 percent of the labor force and accounted for 23.5 percent of GDP, in 2003 agriculture employed 14 percent of the labor force and, in 2007, accounted for 8.7 percent of the GDP.

Permission: Shutterstock, nyasha

Belarus's climate is well suited to cereal cultivation.

Government policy since 1994 has been to freeze reforms aimed at promoting private farming and, instead, to preserve state and collective farms through state subsidies. This policy has failed to increase productivity in agriculture, and former agricultural workers have increasingly migrated to cities. The private farms that do exist are largely small-scale. In addition to state subsidies, Lukashenko ordered that all banks, industrial enterprises, and government agencies "adopt" a farm with a view to assisting it with "volunteer" labor and donations. Another government policy initiative has been to build what are known as agricultural towns around state farms, to discourage people from leaving agriculture by providing them with benefits and modern conveniences.

The nation has extensive coniferous and mixed forests, which cover nearly one-third of Belarus. The forests, which are state-owned, are exploited for timber, and the country has a substantial paper industry.


During the Soviet era, Belarus built a versatile, modern industrial sector with a well-educated labor force and Soviet central investment. Belarus had a significant share of the Soviet machine-building industry, including metal-cutting machine tools, tractors, large trucks, earthmovers, and motorcycles. Belarus was also noted for radio-electronics such as military systems, microchips, computers, televisions, and radios. The country had significant oil-refining facilities (using imported oil), ferrous metallurgy, and fertilizer, chemicals, and light industries. A characteristic feature of Belarus's industry was dependence on imported energy and raw materials and guaranteed export markets in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

After 1991, suppliers increased prices for energy and raw materials, and Belarussian industry lost export markets to more advanced global competitors. For example, the whole Belarussian computing industry ceased to exist when its United System computers could not compete with Western corporations. At the same time, some industries not only survived but successfully adjusted to new conditions: the off-road truck manufacturer Belaz sells equipment in more than 50 countries and, in 2006, it launched production of the world's second-largest dump truck, which has sold to Russia and China. Overall, however, productivity of Belarussian industry has declined, and the government has been reluctant to restructure state enterprises in order to maintain high employment rates.


In contrast to manufacturing industries and farming, service industries have expanded since 1991. The main growth areas, in employment and output, have been trade and finance, education and health care, and state administration. Furthermore, a sizable part of the population is engaged in unlicensed businesses, mostly commerce and construction. While the government estimated that in 2007 the (untaxed) gray or shadow economy equaled 15 percent of GDP, earlier independent estimates suggest that Belarus's gray economy represented more than 50 percent of GDP. A complicated system of high taxation discourages enterprise and encourages the gray sector. State intervention is a problem, and private convenience stores and street kiosks have been closed to reduce competition for state retail companies. The banking sector is still in state hands, but Belarus does now have a stock market.


In 2007, Belarus exported goods and services worth $24.4 billion and imported goods and services valued at $28.3 billion. The Belarussian economy is dependent on trade with Russia. Exports generate more than two-thirds of GDP, with the main exports being petroleum products, potash fertilizers, ferrous metals, trucks, milk and dairy products, tractors, and refrigerators. Major export partners are Russia (which in 2007 received 36 percent of Belarussian exports), the Netherlands (18 percent), Great Britain (6 percent), Ukraine (6 percent), Poland, Latvia, and Germany. The country's main imports are crude oil, ferrous metals, cars, fish, medicines, internal combustion engines, and steel pipes. Major import partners are Russia (which in 2007 supplied 60 percent of imports), Germany (8 percent), Ukraine, Poland, Italy, and China. Trade with Russia is decreasing as Russia has brought prices for oil and gas sold to Belarus in line with world rates.


Belarus has a network of roads totaling 58,904 miles (94,797 km), of which 52,213 miles (84,028 km) are paved. However, while main roads are well-maintained, local roads are in poorer condition. In 2001, Belarus had 147 passenger cars per 1,000 people, which was one-third more than in Ukraine, but half the number in Poland, Latvia, or Lithuania. Belarus has a railroad system covering 3,426 miles (5,512 km). Built on a broad gauge as part of the Russian network, trains cannot pass into Poland without being fitted with narrower bogies. The country has one international airport at Minsk, the national capital.

In 2007, Belarus had nearly 3.7 million main telephone lines, but fixed-line telecommunication is still a state monopoly that lags behind its neighbors in terms of switching to digital technology. Nearly 6 million Belarussians have mobile cellular phones. In 2007, some 7 million people in Belarus had Internet access, among the highest usage in the region. The Internet is not censored on a daily basis, but during elections and other political events Web sites of the opposition are often taken off-line through state intervention.


Citation: "Belarus." World and Its Peoples: Europe. Marshall Cavendish Digital, 2011. Web. 15 November 2011. <>.

Copyright © 2010 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

Related Articles

Full text Article Minsk
Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

\minsk\ 1 Administrative subdivision of Belarus; 40,800 sq. mi. (105,672 sq. km.); pop. (1999e) 3,239,000; Minsk; swamps widespread,...

Full text Article Russian
The Chambers Dictionary

of or relating to Russia, its people or their language; (loosely) of the former Soviet Union or its people. n a native or citizen of Russia, or

Full text Article Communicating Across Cultures With People From Russia
The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence

To understand Russian communication styles and preferences, one needs to consider the history of the country and its core cultural values. This entr

See more from Credo