History Of 19Th Century Belarus

The experiences of Belorus and the Belarussians in the 19th century led to the development of their national consciousness.

Belorussians have been ruled by many nations. For the five hundred years before the 19th century Belarus had been controlled by the Polish state. Through the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, Russia took control of the area. A new culture, a new language, and a new government were imposed upon the Belorussians.

Was the coming of the Russians to the lands today known as Belarus an invasion of Polish lands, a retaking of Russian lands, or simply the transfer of rule over the Belorussians? Today Belarus is a separate state, but the question still remains, who are the Belorussians, and who should have a claim to their land? If the Belorussians are simply Polonized Russians as some claim, then possibly they should reunite with Russia. If they are Russified Poles, then they could reunite with Poland. However, if they are distinct as Belorussians they should maintain their sovereignty.

During the 18th century the lands of Poland were partitioned three times, culminating in the disappearance of the Polish empire. The Russians occupied the eastern portion, including the area today known as Belarus. Catherine II, the tsarina of Russia, felt that she was returning lands that Poland had taken from the Russian empire centuries earlier. However, she found that more than a military occupation was needed to make Belarus a part of the Russian empire. She found that the Belorussians not only practiced a different religion and spoke a different language, but also had a different historical memory. Over the course of the 19th century Russia tried to alter these differences and make the Belorussians into Russians.

During the 19th century the Russians attempted to assimilate the lands they had gained from the partitions. The initial steps toward Russification were taken in the 1820's with continual increases for the next hundred years. It's ineffectiveness frustrated the tsars and strengthened the Belorussian's resolve. In a way the efforts to assimilate the Belorussians actually contributed to their own national development. The more pressure the Russians applied, the more the Belorussians strove to keep their culture alive.

Unrest was almost constant in Belarus during the 19th century. Two of the major periods of unrest were known as "the 1830-31 insurrection" and "the 1863 uprising." The 1830-31 insurrection began among the Poles and spread to the Belorussians. It was crushed easily be the Russian army. After the insurrection the tsar lost trust in the Belorussians and took harsh steps to Russify the area, and guarantee the loyalty of the people.

The 1863 uprising also started among the Poles and spread to Belorussian lands. Kastus Kalinovski, a writer known for his revolutionary views, became the leader in Belarus. Many fierce battles were fought, but in the end the Russians prevailed again, leading to harsh punishments of the rebels. The uprising however, did start a wave of national awakening throughout Belarus that the Russians could not stop.

Besides the feelings the 1863 uprising had brought, the nationalistic ideas of the French revolution were finally taking root among Belorussians. Outside of Belarus the national awakening was hardly noticeable, but to Belorussian intellectuals it was of momentous proportions. There were a number of writers who either began to translate or compose stories, poems, and plays into the Belorussian language. Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievic was one of the prominent writers who helped show the capacity of the Belorussian language as a literary medium.

The national awakening led to demands for independence from Russia. For a short time during the Russian civil war in 1918 the Belorussians were able to create their own state. However the Bolsheviks took over the country and renamed it the Belorussian Socialist Soviet Republic. Thus Russian imperialism was replaced by Soviet imperialism.

The questions regarding the past and future of Belarus are not easy to answer. Are they Polonized Russians, Russified Poles, or distinct Belorussians? The era before the partitions showed that the Poles were determined to convince the Belorussians of their Polish heritage. The 19th century was characterized by Russian attempts to convince the people of Belarus that they were and always had been Russians. It seems, however, that both of these periods only advanced the Belorussian idea that they were neither Russians, nor Poles.

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