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    Od Rusinów Białych do Białorusinów

Sally Boss

 By Oleg Łatyszonek. Białystok: Białystok University Press (, 2006. 388 pages. Maps, index of names and geographical localities. ISBN 978-7431-120-5. Paper. In Polish.

The author probes the beginnings of Belarusian national consciousness. He postulates that the period between 1571-1648 (from the Lublin Union to the Khmelnytzky rebellion) witnessed the existence of a Ruthenian nation that consisted of future Ukrainians and future Belarusians. After the Khmelnytzky rebellion and the war with Muscovy (1654-67) that ended with Polish defeat (parts of Ukraine on the right bank of the Dnieper were ceded to Moscow), the population of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which included today’s Belarus and most of Ukraine, shrank from 2.9 million to 1.4 million. The Muscovites took hundreds of thousands of Ruthenians prisoner, and young Ruthenians were sold at Muscovite markets for one ruble each (236). Virtually all skilled artisans were taken prisoner as well; Belarus never regained the level of excellence in artisanship in which it had previously excelled. Muscovites and Cossacks also plundered the printing houses that used the Cyrillic script (239). Within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the depopulated and largely destroyed Ruthenia became a territory where professing Orthodoxy put one under suspicion: Orthodoxy ceased to be regarded as a “Greek” religion and began to be regarded as a “Muscovite” one. At the local sejmiks and during Sejm debates in Warsaw, laws were passed against the Orthodox. In 1673 a law was passed forbidding the nobilitation of non-Catholics; in 1699 the Orthodox were denied opportunities to serve as officials in towns belonging to the Crown. In 1696 the Sejm decided that all state documents should be written in Polish. This last law seems reasonable: then and now, countries tend to use the language of the majority in official documents. Also, the Orthodox could have joined the Brześç Union that reunited Eastern and Western Churches in the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; some of them chose not to do so. Overall, however, Łatyszonek’s presentation of the aftermath of the war with Muscovy is highly revealing and original, and it clearly shows a lack of foresight among Polish politicians.

[In 1705 tsar Peter the Great] personally engaged in the murder of the Basilian Fathers in St. Sophia’s church in Polotsk. The Muscovites made the monastery into a stable and gunpowder depot that happened to blow itself up in 1710, one day before Peter’s army left Polotsk. Thus perished the oldest church in Belarus that was the symbol of sovereignty of the Polotsk district (244).

The period after the war with Muscovy marked a general decline of Ruthenian territories. Not only did they suffer depopulation, but they also declined culturally. The number of printed books decreased drastically. While in the first half of the seventeenth century about 120 books were published in Ruthenian and about 40 in Lithuanian, in the second half the total for both languages was 20. At the same time, about 800 books were published in Polish, distributed approximately evenly between the first and second half of the century (239).

The eighteenth century was likewise disastrous for Belarus. During the Russian war with Sweden Belarus because a camping ground for Muscovite, Swedish, and Saxon armies, as well as the field of many battles including Lesna in 1708. In 1705 tsar Peter the Great “personally engaged in the murder of the Basilian Fathers in St. Sophia’s church in Polotsk. The Muscovites made the monastery into a stable and gunpowder depot that happened to blow itself up in 1710, one day before Peter’s army left Polotsk. Thus perished the oldest church in Belarus that was the symbol of sovereignty of the Polotsk district” (244). It is worth noting that contemporary Belarusians consider the Polotsk principality to be the first Belarusian state (265). It is also worth noting that whenever Peter heard of a town that appeared to side with Poland, he would order the town to be set on fire along with its inhabitants (244). This occurred in Vitebsk and Mohylev. Again, the population of Belarus went down dramatically. In 1700 it was 2.2 million, whereas after the Muscovite wars it was down to 1.5 million.

The term “Belarus” began to be used by chroniclers and representatives of the various Churches (Catholic, Uniate, Orthodox) in the eighteenth century. It was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that included Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian components. In contrast, the area near Lwów/Lviv was called “Czarna Ruś” (Black Ruthenia). Some church chroniclers considered the area near Minsk and Nowogródek to be Black Ruthenia as well (257). However, Łatyszonek points out that this term was used by those who did not identify with the area themselves. The author concludes that in eighteenth-century Belarus, all nobility and a good part of the city dwellers began to identify themselves with Poland rather than with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This strengthened the Polish nation.

The book is excellently written and annotated, and is in fact a model of historical writing. Professor Łatyszonek concludes that under Lithuanian rule (i.e., since the thirteenth century), the Polotsk tradition of Belarusian nationhood was systematically destroyed by the conquerors. Lithuanian chroniclers virtually eliminated the memory of Polotsk as an independent principality and fountainhead of Belarusian nationhood. This continued under the successive rule of Poland and Russia. Chronicles, histories, and church documents were written in such a way as to confuse and make unstable the borders of Belarusian identity. As a result, Belarus has no history. Only in the nineteenth century did a handful of Belarusian enthusiasts begin to reconstruct the history of the nation. This effort continues to this day, and Professor Łatyszonek is part of it.

This reviewer disagrees with Professor Łatyszonek on one issue. He states that betrayal is the foundation of any new nation (308). Ukrainians had to betray Poles in the Khmelnyzky rebellion to start their nation. It is implied that Belarusians have to do the same, and/or have been doing so insofar as they are religiously divided into Orthodox and Catholic. It is also implied that it would be better if Catholics disappeared. Betrayals usually involve bloodbaths, and Professor Łatyszonek seems to consent to that. Yet the beginning of the American nation, so magnificently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, is not marked by a betrayal. On the contrary, it is a bold and open challenge to an oppressive imperial power. The Declaration was signed in the open, and a copy was delivered to London. There was no betrayal, but rather an assertion of the rights of citizens. It appears to me that the Russian proclivity toward plots and conspiracies, as manifested in the tradition of state secrecy since Ivan the Terrible, has influenced Professor Łatyszonek in this regard. If Belarus is to develop as a nation it should not bemoan its Byzantine Catholic component that ties it to Europe but, on the contrary, build on it. If it leans toward Muscovite Orthodoxy it will remain an identity-free appendix to Moscow. In the opinion of this reviewer, Belarus has a better chance of developing as a nation if it significantly returns to the Uniate (Byzantine Catholic) confession. Most of all, Belarus needs theologians that understand the history of the Eastern and Western Churches, as well as those who can explain to the Belarusian nation the political reasons behind the bad blood between Catholics and Orthodox under Russian rule.

Would that American Russicists read this book. Δ

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