Home: Ethnographic materials: Ethnography of Eastern Europe and the Baltics: From the Ethnic History of Belarusians
Brief information about the people
The Belarusians are one of the most numerous Slavic peoples living in the territory of the Eastern Europe. Today they live in all continents and according to the data provided by S. I. Bruk in the late 1970s there were 968000000 Belarusians, 7568000000 of them lived in Belarus and 2112000000 abroad.
The Belarusian language together with genetically related Russian and Ukrainian languages belongs to the Eastern Slavic group of the Indo-European family. Its formation took place during thirteenth seventeenth centuries. Linguists believe that some specific traits of local dialects existed in the period of feudal disunity of the Ancient Rus State.
Different opinions about origins of Belarusians
In research literature the questions related to the ethnic history of Belarusians in particular its early stages have different interpretations. Some of them appeared in nineteenth century denied existence of Belarusian language and specific Belarusian culture. In ethnic respect the population of Belarusian territories was considered to be a part of the Polish ethnos — the "Polish concept" or as a part of Great Russians — the "Great Russian concept." However, the most of existing concepts are based on the notion about Belarusians as an independent ethnos with specific culture and language but they lack unity in interpretation of Belarusians’ ethnic history. Ethnic history resembles mythology: every people have their own myths about their origins and scholars follow this tradition. For example, the adherents of the Krivich theory believe that the origins of all the specific features of Belarusians date back to their ancestors the Eastern Slavic tribe of Krivichs. At the same time such outstanding scholars as E. F. Karsky and V. I. Picheta thought that the ethnic base of Belarusians were not only Belarusians but also Dregovichs and Radimichs, Others, predominantly the state oriented Russian scholars supported and developed the idea about origins of Belarusians and Ukrainians from the Ancient Rus people. On the base of this idea the concept of origins of three Eastern Slavic peoples was created. This concept was shared and is still shared by the most of Soviet and Russian scholars. Nevertheless, there are other opinions about the origins of Belarusians in the modern historical science. In past three centuries the “Baltic theory” has been considered and discussed. The milestone of this concept is that the appearance of Belarusians and formation of specific features of their culture are related to migration of Slavs and respective assimilation of Baltic population by them. In opinion of V. V. Sedov the Baltic substratum was the most important factor in formation of Belarusian cultural complex and language. Basing on linguistic, toponymic, historical and archeological data E. F. Karsky in his works draw conclusion that Belarusians are “autochthons in their country, they generally live in the Proto-Russian and Proto-Slavic territory".
The etymology of the term “Belarusians”
Scholars explained the etymology of the name “Belaya Rus” differently. It appeared in the period of incorporation of Belarusian lands into the Great Duchy of Lithuania and was associated with the Vitebsk and the north-eastern Mogilev regions.
In historical sources the territory of the Grodno region except its southern part - the Brest region, the western portions of Minsk and Vitebsk regions were called the “Black Rus’’ and the southern forest and marshy plain was named Polesie. The etymology of the latter name hasn’t different interpretations. According to numerous documents of thirteenth-seventeenth cc. the toponym “Polesie” was localized in the Basin of the Propyat River and in some neighboring lands – the Beresteiskaya and the portions of Volynskya, Kievskya and Podlyashie areas.
As for the place names the “White Rus” and the “Black Rus” various sources interpret them in different ways. The most common version of the name the “White Rus” can be recognized its interpretation as “free, unbounded, and independent”.
Some authors suppose that the same names had the parts of Rus in XIII-XV cc., which were relatively independent from the Golden Horde, for example the regions Rostov-Suzdal, Kiev, Moscow, Smolensk and some others. In respect of Belarus this name is most frequently mentioned in XII-XVII cc. The name "Belaya Rus" was included in the title of the Russian tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and after division of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late XVIII century the north-eastern lands annexed by Russia were named “Belarusians”.
The name Chernaya Rus− “The Black Russia” appeared in the earlier period of XIV century and is applied to the lands which already in the middle of XIII century became dependant of the princes of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, therefore, it’s correct to believe that the free and independent from the Lithuanian princes north-eastern part of Belarus was named the “Belaya Rus” in contrast with the “Black Rus”. The name “Belaya Rus” was gradually spread to the entire ethnic territory of the Belarusians and its population got the name “Belarusians”.