Alternative names: White Russians
Location: Byelorussia (western USSR), other parts of USSR, Poland, North America, Western Europe
Population: 9.5 million (USSR census 1979), 10.1 million (est. 1989)
%of population: 3.6% (1979), 3.5% (est. 1989)
Religion: Christianity (Orthodox and Catholic)
Language: Byelorussian, Russian

The Byelorussians are the least numerous of the three East Slavic nations of the USSR. Together with the Russians and Ukrainians they constitute 72.2% of the Soviet population (1979). For the most part sharing with the Ukrainians a proximity in ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural relations to the Russians, the Byelorussians have attracted even less attention as a national minority than their southern neighbours. This despite having a population comparable to that of Hungary and occupying a land the size of England and Scotland. Paradoxically, although sharing with the Ukrainians the right to full membership of the United Nations, of all the major nations in the USSR the Byelorussians are in the greatest danger of losing their distinctive identity.

History and background

The Byelorussians trace their ancestry to the unified Russian state of Kiev Rus (ninth to eleventh centuries) and inherited in common with the Russians and Ukrainians Orthodox Christianity, Old Church Slavonic and the Cyrillic alphabet. With the decline of Kievan Rus and the Mongol-Tatar invasion of the thirteenth century, Byelorussia was dominated by Lithuania and Poland until the partitions of the latter in the eighteenth century brought incorporation into the Russian Empire. Following the collapse of Empire and the revolutions of 1917 an independent state was established briefly in 1918 until the establishment of Soviet power on January 1, 1919. Under the Treaty of Riga (1921) Western Byelorussia was ceded to Poland (reclaimed in 1939) and in 1922 the remainder joined the USSR as a constituent Republic. Having suffered under Stalin in the 1930s, the greatest trial for the Byelorussians was the German occupation during World War II, in which the Republic lost 2.2 million people despite heroic partisan resistance. Since the war assimilation to Soviet Russian culture continued and it is only recently that manifestations of Byelorussian national consciousness have become frequent.

Constitution and law

In theory the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (population 10.2 million in 1989) is a sovereign state that has freely joined the USSR federation. It is a full member of the United Nations. In reality, Byelorussia has hitherto been a constituent part of the USSR, which controls its foreign affairs, economic, military and commercial relations in a highly-centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 provides for Byelorussia to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court) control is exercised effectively by the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) through its Republican branch. As part of the USSR federation Byelorussia elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and 10 to the Council of the Union in the 542-member Supreme Soviet of the USSR (elections every five years). The Constitution also allows each Union Republic to secede from the USSR but the primacy of All-Union legislation effectively prescribes this right. Similarly, the constitutional assertion that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights has been severely compromised by the domination of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, cultural and economic norms.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Because the Byelorussians are considered the most junior partner of the East Slavic ethnic bloc that has dominated the USSR since its formation, they tend to identify — and be identified — with the Russians. As is the case with the Ukrainians, those Byelorussians that accept the pre-eminence of Soviet Russian culture can rise to the very top of Soviet society (Andrei Gromyko, the late President of the USSR, was from Byelorussia), while those who stress Byelorussian autonomy tend to be accused of “bourgeois nationalism”. In the crucial Slavic-Turkic ethnic divide that is emerging in the USSR the Byelorussians are perceived as belonging to the former. Indeed, 98% of the Republic’s population are Slavs (the highest proportion among Soviet republics). A low birthrate and a high degree of assimilation has allowed the Byelorussians to be overtaken as the third most numerous Soviet nation by the Uzbeks (who thus have grounds for claiming Byelorussia’s seat in the UN).

Despite this, the Byelorussians have been experiencing something of a nationalist revival of late. This is due partly to developments in neighbouring Poland and the Baltic republics, the widespread dissatisfaction with ecological issues following the Chernobyl nuclear accident of April 1986 across the border in the Ukraine (106,000 Byelorussians had to be evacuated from their homes), and the failure of local Communist Party officials to implement the policies of glasnost and perestroika. Such was the resistance of local Party leaders that the founding congress of the Byelorussian Popular Front in June 1989 had to be held in neighbouring Lithuania. The forceful repression of mass demonstrations, such as that organized by the Byelorussian branch of the anti-Stalinist Memorial association in Minsk (February 1989), rebounded on the authorities when several leading Party figures failed to be elected in the March 1989 elections to the USSR Congress of Peoples’ Deputies.

However, it is the language issue that is central to Byelorussian national awareness. In 1979, only 74.2% of Byelorussians considered Byelorussian their native language (the lowest percentage for any Union Republic). Russian was rapidly replacing the native language in schools, particularly in tertiary education, and Byelorussians enjoyed only 0.8 books in their native language per capita per year (1982) compared to an average for the USSR of 6.8. Byelorussian, it was claimed, was to be heard only in the countryside and the Republican Writers’ Union. It is anticipated that the status of Byelorussian will become a major issue in the run-up to the forthcoming elections to the Byelorussian Supreme Soviet.

Migration and diaspora

In 1979, 80% of all Soviet Byelorussians lived in their native Republic. They are to be found, however, in all parts of the USSR with large concentrations in the RSFSR (1.05 million or 11%) and the Ukrainian SSR (406,000 or 4.3%). Thus, over 95% of Byelorussians live in the three Slavic republics. Outside their native republic Byelorussians tend to use facilities (schools and periodicals) provided for the Russian population, often rationalizing that Russian is the lingua franca of all Soviet peoples, not just the Russians. With 668,000 (3.8% 1982) members of the CPSU, the Byelorussians are slightly over represented and this is reflected in the senior positions they hold in political, economic and military hierarchies (the more numerous Uzbeks had only 411,000 members or 2.3%).

Minorities in Byelorussia

The three major national minorities in Byelorussia according to the 1979 census were all Slavic: the Russians (1.1 million or 12%); Poles (403,000 or 4.2%) and Ukrainians (231,000 or 2.4%). Apart from the Catholic Poles (mainly in Western Byelorussia) who have complained of religious discrimination, these groups appeared to live harmoniously. The only other significant national minority are the Jews (135,000 or 1.4%), although numbers have been greatly reduced (through assimilation, war losses and emigration) since the times when Byelorussia was part of the Pale of Settlement (1815-1917) and supported large Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities. It is anticipated that there will be strong opposition from the non-native population should moves be made to make Byelorussian the official language of the Republic.