The roads to (an independent) Belarus

106th anniversary of the independence of Belarus (25 March 1918)

Without the Belarusian People’s Republic and several military formations established at the end of the First World War and several months after its end, there would be neither the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic nor the present-day Republic of Belarus on the territory between the Bug and Berezina rivers.

by Wojciech Stanisławski


For many reasons, the national emancipation of the Belarusians took place later than that of most Western European peoples. On the other hand, when it comes to the transitional period between the development of modern national elites, the strengthening and perfecting of their native language and culture, and  a demand for national independence, the Belarusians were Europe’s first innovators. It was the first generation of Belarusian intellectuals who claimed their own nation-state.

Another paradox worth mentioning is the Belarusian language itself which appeared in a mature, crystallized form much earlier than the idea of ​​the “Belarusian nation”, not to mention thoughts of statehood! Since the 13th century, Belarusian was the state language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the most important documents of the Duchy during its union with the Kingdom of Poland were codified in this language. These were the so-called Lithuanian Statutes. The three editions appeared in 1529, 1566 and 1588. In addition, the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Old Belarusian, made by Frantiszek Skaryna and published in 1517-1519, was the world’s second (after German) translation of the Bible into a non-canonical language! Old Belarusian had its own grammar book (Meletius  Smotrickyj, 1569), and many “bilingual” authors, i.e. writing in “Ruthenian” and in Polish or in “Ruthenian” and in Latin. Due to the Polonization of the nobility living in the lands of today’s Belarus, which lasted for several centuries, there was a significant decline in their number. The people, of course, spoke “the old way” – but who in the pre-romantic era was curious about the language of the people?

The Union of Lublin (painting by Jan Matejko, public domain)


Belarusian “revivalists”

Gigantic political changes (the most important of them were the partitions of Poland in 1772-1795, as a result of which the lands of today’s Belarus came entirely under Russian rule), wars, uprisings, and even social changes initially had a smaller impact on the “upgrade” of the Belarusian language as a literary language than the mid-19th century group of authors. They were raised in the culture of Romanticism and curious, as befits the Romantics, about the people’s language, their songs and customs. The first collections of folk songs, short, moralizing performances and original poems were written by a handful of amateur writers who came from the minor nobility and identified themselves with the historical and political traditions of the Republic of Poland. This was the case with Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz, Franciszek Bohuszewicz and Władysław Syrokomla. However, the current narrative did not change much: from the point of view of Poles (mostly Catholic nobility) who dreamed of independence, Belarus was one of the “provinces” of the Republic of Poland. The administrators and rulers of the Russian Empire, in turn, adhered to the doctrine of “Western Russianism”, formulated by the Slavophile and historian Mikhail Koyalovich, who proclaimed the civilizational unity of “Great Russians (Russians), Lesser Russians (Ukrainians) and Western-Russians (Belarusians)”.

Since the first publications in Belarusian, it took one generation to publish the first appeals “to the Belarusian people” (1884) by the young Belarusian enthusiasts of the Russian revolutionary movement “Narodnaya Volya”. The term “the Belarusian people” was understood, however, in a very rhetorical way. It was only in 1898 that the first self-education club was established in a Minsk gymnasium undertaking the study of the  Belarusian language and its customs. Could the brothers Anton and Ivan Luckievich, who co-created it, have assumed that 20 years later they would become the heads of Belarusian state structures?

January Uprising’s coat of arms, of a proposed Polish–Lithuanian–Ruthenian Commonwealth: White Eagle (Poland), Vytis (Lithuania) and Archangel Michael (Ruthenia) (author: Ziegenpl; public domain)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Belarusian political thought was born: successive formations of Russian revolutionaries had been trying to include the “Belarusian people” without, however, trying to create a separate project or program for them. Polish groups, operating illegally in the Russian partition and led by the Polish Socialist Party, supported Belarusian national emancipation, having regarded it as one of the many tools to weaken the empire. The first publications in Belarusian, including, for example, Franciszek Bohuszewicz’s “Belarusian Dudka”, were printed by the Polish Socialist Party in Austria-Hungary (where they were not banned) and smuggled into Belarus.


“Belarusian” included in the name

The first underground political groups with the adjective “Belarusian” in its name – the Belarusian Revolutionary Party (1902) and the Belarusian Revolutionary Hromada (1903) were ephemeral, elitist and – contrary to the “revolutionary” appearing in their names – completely focused on gaining new teachers and officials “of the people”. Only after the revolution in Russia in 1905, did partial liberalization and the possibility of legal action come about. Several legal journals were issued (“Nasha Dolya”, “Nasha Niva”, “Chatka”) and educational societies were committed to publishing textbooks and translations which was a huge step forward. However, it is still difficult to talk about a serious Belarusian political movement in those years. Most of the peasants voted for the conservative “Great-Russian” parties, the minor nobility dreamt of the rebirth of the Polish state, and physical workers in Belarus were hard to find.

The outbreak of the First World War was a huge shock for the inhabitants of the North-Western regions. In the autumn of 1915, the front stretched through the lands of Belarus, from Braslaw to Pinsk. In addition to fighting, war damage and the burdens of life, the Belarusian community experienced the so-called Беженство (“bezhenstvo”, exile) – a mass escape of over a million families with children from the Germans into Russia. The escape was initiated by the tsarist authorities who were not able to coordinate or support it. Already under tsarist rule, the Belarusian Society for Aid to War Victims was established, which became a nursery for various social and educational initiatives. The German occupation enabled the establishment of educational structures teaching in Belarusian in the West Belarusian territories. Soon after the entry of the Germans, on 18 December 1915, the first political document in which the political independence of the Belarusian territories was postulated was issued in Vilnius. The “Declaration of the Confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania”, although published in as many as four languages ​​(Belarusian, Polish, Hebrew and Lithuanian), remained a dream testimony of a multinational community of the Grand Duchy, rather than a real political proposal.

2nd session of the Central Council of Belarusian organizations, 15 (28) October 1917, Minsk (public domain)

However, before we move on to the presentation of more modern (though also unfulfilled) proposals, it is necessary to outline, at least in one paragraph, the course of the most important military and political events in the region over the next five years. At that time, Belarusian lands first experienced the February Revolution that overthrew tsarism, which was followed by –  after a few months of “liberal chaos” and the radicalization of the peasant and military masses – the October Revolution, and the subsequent creation of Bolshevik military and political structures. This experience was shared by the vast majority of the lands of the Empire. In the case of Belarus, however, following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, most of the country was occupied by German troops. Then, after November 1918, the Bolshevik forces entered these areas. Afterwards, in the spring of 1919, the Bolsheviks were pushed out by Polish troops.

A year later, from spring to autumn 1920, the offensive of the Red Army, moving “over the corpse of white Poland to the West,” swept through these areas, followed by the Polish counteroffensive. It was in these circumstances that Belarusian activists attempted to seek political autonomy or sovereignty. None of the forces operating on the territory of Belarus at that time (let us mention here, first of all, the Bolsheviks and the Polish state; the third, weaker but important “political actor” at that time was the Lithuanian state) were ready to recognize Belarus as a fully sovereign state entity, reducing its territorial ambitions. None of them (and this was a bloody success of the first generation of the Belarusian intelligentsia) were able to treat Belarusians solely as “cannon fodder”. There were concessions and promises about national independence. Belarusian activists tried to take advantage of this gap – of course, with all their views and political prejudices.


Belarus – between the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

As can be seen from the above paragraph, the first state-building activities took place under Russian rule. In the first month of the revolutionary “carnival”, the 1st Congress of Belarusian Parties and Organizations (dominated by the radical Belarusian Socialist Hromada) was established by the Belarusian National Committee. What an array of people and their fates! Beginning with the landowner Konstanty Skirmunt, through the priest Wincenty Godlewski, ending with Bronisław Taraszkiewicz, who became a communist activist and soon died, like so many others, during the period of the Stalinist Great Terror.

The first government of the People’s Republic (public domain)

In just a few months, the political divisions became decisive. For now, although the Belarusian People’s Union and the Belarusian National Union were established, the Belarusian National Committee was trying to represent a common Belarusian cause and talk about autonomy with the democratic Provisional Government in Russia. This was all to no avail, and instead resulted in increasing radicalization. In the autumn of 1917, Hromada activists, dominant in the Belarusian movement and increasingly leaning towards the Bolsheviks, first dissolved the Belarusian National Committee, and then appointed (on 24 October, literally just before Lenin’s coup) the Great Belarusian Council. A dozen or so days later, the Central Belarusian Military Council was established. More departments were established, politically gravitating towards Petrograd, and the Great Council – possessing Bolshevik sympathies but not actually Bolshevik – convened the All-Belarusian Congress for 5 December 1917. It was to become a kind of “proto-constituent assembly”, a representation of all Belarusian groups and movements.

However, the congress, which began with the consent and support of the Bolsheviks, turned out to not be to their liking. Admittedly, the All-Belarusian Council of Peasants, Soldiers and Workers Delegates was established following the Bolshevik modus operandi. However, the fact that this initiative was taken independently and the declared intention to establish an authority separate from Petrograd, though closely related to it, turned out to be unacceptable to the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities of Joseph Stalin and the Bolsheviks commanding the Western Front. On 17 December, military troops surrounded the venue of the meeting, arresting the presidium and dispersing the delegates. Since the Congress had previously managed to establish an Executive Committee, which was a kind of executive power, Minsk had (not for the last time during this turbulent era) a dual power. Alongside the Bolshevik authorities, there was an “underground” Executive Committee, whose weakness lay in their lack of resources and armed forces. The Bolsheviks took over the Central Military Council, arrested most of its leadership, and sent the already formed troops to numerous fronts of the civil war.


Belarus – between the Bolsheviks and Germany

A change was brought about by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the occupation of the vast majority of the ethnographic lands of Belarus by the Germans. Within a dozen or so hours on 21 February 1918, when Minsk was a “no man’s land” between the Bolsheviks leaving it and the Kaiser’s army entering, the members of the Executive Committee who remained at large issued a declaration, the so-called “hramota” “To the peoples of Belarus”. Thus they declared themselves the highest civil authority and the will of national self-determination. The declaration already mentioned the convening of the Legislative Seym, and it was published in two languages: Russian and Belarusian.

German and Soviet troops gathering together, February 1918 (public domain)

At first, the Germans ignored the existence of the Committee, the “hramota” and the National Secretariat (a substitute for the government) established in the meantime, even confiscating their property. However, they quickly recognized that the representation of the Belarusian population could be a desirable partner for talks, and at the end of February they recognized the Secretariat (led by Jazep Waronka) as a nationwide structure responsible for the creation of administration and education.

On 9 March 1918, the Executive Committee of the First All-Belarusian Congress announced the second “hramota”, in which it proclaimed the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic. This was the apogee of the creation of Belarusian statehood; although Germany treated the Belarusian People’s Republic authorities as ancillary, the structures were expanding rapidly. People of various milieu that were dreaming (such as the Luckievich brothers) of creating a Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian confederation state under the Great Duchy, were applying to be included in the Belarusian People’s Republic Committee. On 25 March 1918, the Council of the Belarusian People’s Republic declared the independence of Belarus, which henceforth was to include the “regions of Mogilev, Minsk, Vitebsk, Grodno, Vilnius, Smolensk and Chernihiv.” A month later, the council authorities sent a telegram to the German Emperor Wilhelm II expressing gratitude for the liberation of Belarus.

The telegram, however, remained unanswered – and for numerous milieus previously associated with the Bolsheviks or oriented towards Russia, the choice of a pro-German orientation was unacceptable. The Germans, for their part, feared the concession, and lost the world war at the same time. The council found itself in a vacuum: the new prime minister, Anton Luckievich, sent missions to the Entente states, to Warsaw and Kyiv, and he was also conducting talks with Lenin in Moscow, however, no one wanted to unequivocally support the new state.


Independent Belarus or “Northwestern Governorates”?

The situation changed with the collapse of Germany. In November 1918, the government of Luckievich left Minsk together with the evacuating troops, emigrating to Vilnius. The Belarusian territories were occupied by the Bolsheviks, already aware that some development of the “north-western governorates” was necessary. The period between December 1918 and the summer of 1919 was a time of hectic initiatives, the formation of new Soviet republics and their liquidation: first, the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, which would include the lands of Belarus, then (30 December 1918) the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, and finally, on 16 February 1919, Socialist Soviet Republic of Lithuania and Belarus. At the same time, there were changes in the borders between the republics, as well as collectivization, red terror and struggles with the Polish troops occupying these lands took place.

Officers of the Polish army in liberated Minsk during Polish-Soviet war (public domain)

The Polish offensive began in February 1919. On 22 April, in the conquered Vilnius, the proclamation of the Commander-in-Chief Józef Piłsudski “To the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania” was announced, in which he declared openness to federal solutions. Until September, the Polish army found itself in a similar situation to the German one a year earlier, occupying most of the Belarusian lands, up to the Borysów-Połock line. Poland did not explicitly declare its will to restore the Belarusian People’s Republic. On 1 July 1919, its prime minister in exile, Anton Luckievich, agreed with the Polish prime minister, Ignacy Paderewski, on a future federation agreement, the Belarusian Military Commission began recruiting in Vilnius, the Provisional Belarusian National Committee was opened in Minsk, and the Council of Seniors of the Belarusian People’s Republic Council began recreating the local administration…

The Polish side did not intend, however, to fully give up control over these lands and their future. It also did not have, especially in the conditions of the war with Russia, a vision for regulating the situation in this area, solving the issue of land reform and self-determination. Tensions began to grow between Belarusian activists and local landowners, military, exploiting the front facilities and the new administrative structure established by Warsaw, i.e. the Civil Administration of the Eastern Territories. People gathered around Luckievich still counted on the support of Poland. Luckievich himself agreed, after negotiations with Piłsudski, to transform the Belarussian National Republic Council into the National Belarusian Council, which meant its lower rank. However, most Belarusian activists began to turn back towards the pro-Russian option. Ultimately, they elected Vaclau Lastouski as their new prime minister, appointing the People’s Council of the Belarusian People’s Republic. Luckievich’s acolytes retained the title of the prime minister and renamed their structures the Supreme Council of the Belarusian People’s Republic.


The Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic and Belarusian People’s Republic

The state of dual power did not last long. In January, the Poles dissolved the People’s Council and briefly arrested its leaders, who then restored the government in Kaunas, on the territory of the Republic of Lithuania. Luckievich’s office, in turn, moved to Vilnius, resigning from activities in Minsk.

General Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz, officer of Polish Army (public domain)

The penultimate turn in the Belarusian issue came with the Moscow offensive in the spring of 1920. In the territories they had occupied, the Bolsheviks established another, the fourth Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic, with a territory much more modest than the previous ones, limited mainly to the Minsk region. Poland tried to regain the trust of Belarusians: the government of Luckievich and the Belarusian Military Commission were evacuated to the west of the country, and troops led by Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz operated in alliance with the Polish army on the north-western flank of the front. After the Polish side went into a counter-offensive in the autumn of 1920, one more desperate attempt was made to create a non-Bolshevik Belarusian state. It was driven by Bułak-Bałachowicz, prone to far-reaching independence. After taking control over Mazyr (after the Polish-Soviet ceasefire), on 10 November 1920, he proclaimed the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic, ignoring the existence of two centers of power (Luckievich’s government in Warsaw and Vaclau Lastouski’s cabinet in Kaunas) and proclaiming Vyachaslaw Adamovich prime minister, and himself, the Commander-in-Chief.

The new Belarusian People’s Republic, the armed arm of which was to be Bułak-Bałachowicz’s troops, lasted less than a week. It was not possible to carry out land reform, convene constituents or conclude an alliance with Poland. At the end of November, Bałachowicz’s troops, like the officers fighting in the so-called The Słuck Brigade, declaring their loyalty to the Belarusian People’s Republic, were forced to cross the border with Poland and lay down their arms. For the next 20 years, there was no alternative for the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic – forced to become less and less Belarusian, more and more Soviet.


Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin