World War and Revolution
Figure 5. Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), 1923
Source: Based on information from Paul Robert Magocsi, Ukraine: A Historical Atlas, Toronto, 1985, 9, 24.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 turned Belorussia into a zone of strict martial law, military operations, and great destruction. Large German and Russian armies fought fiercely and caused the expulsion or departure of more than 1 million civilians from the country. The Russian government's inept war efforts and ineffective economic policies prompted high food prices, shortages of goods, and many needless deaths in the war. Discontent in the cities and the countryside spread, leading to strikes, riots, and the eventual downfall of the tsarist government.
The two revolutions of 1917--the February Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution--gave nationally conscious Belorussians an opportunity to advance their political cause. Bolshevism did not have many followers among the natives of Belorussia; instead, local political life was dominated by the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the Mensheviks (see Glossary), the Bund (see Glossary), and various Christian movements in which the clergy of both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish Catholic Church played significant roles. The Belorussian political cause was represented by the Belorussian Socialist Party, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the Leninist Social Democratic Party, and various nationalist groups advocating moderate forms of socialism.
In December 1917, more than 1,900 delegates to the AllBelorussian Congress (Rada) met in Minsk to establish a democratic republican government in Belorussia, but Bolshevik soldiers disbanded the assembly before it had finished its deliberations. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 put most of Belorussia under German control, but on March 25, 1918, the Central Executive Committee of the Rada nullified the treaty and proclaimed the independence of the Belorussian National Republic. Later that year, the German government, which had guaranteed the new state's independence, collapsed, and the new republic was unable to resist Belorussian Bolsheviks supported by the Bolshevik government in Moscow. The Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Belorussian SSR) was established on January 1, 1919, by force of arms.
For the next two years, Belorussia was a prize in the PolishSoviet War, a conflict settled by the Treaty of Riga in March 1921. Under the terms of the treaty, Belorussia was divided into three parts: the western portion, which was absorbed into Poland; central Belorussia, which formed the Belorussian SSR; and the eastern portion, which became part of Russia. The Belorussian SSR was incorporated into the Soviet Union (see Glossary) when the Soviet Union was founded in December 1922 (see fig. 5).
The territory of the Belorussian SSR was enlarged in both 1924 and 1926 by the addition of Belorussian ethnographic regions that had become part of Russia under the Treaty of Riga. The area of the republic was expanded from its original post-treaty size of 51,800 square kilometers to 124,320 square kilometers, and the population increased from 1.5 million to almost 5 million persons.
The New Economic Policy (NEP--see Glossary), established by Vladimir I. Lenin in 1921 as a temporary compromise with capitalism, stimulated economic recovery in the Soviet Union, and by the mid-1920s agricultural and industrial output in Belorussia had reached 1913 levels. Historically, Belorussia had been a country of landlords with large holdings, but after the Bolshevik Revolution, these landlords were replaced by middle-class landholders; farm collectives were practically nonexistent. When forced collectivization (see Glossary) and confiscations began in 1928, there was strong resistance, for which the peasantry paid a high social price: peasants were allowed to starve in some areas, and so-called troublemakers were deported to Siberia. Because peasants slaughtered their livestock rather than turn it over to collective farms (see Glossary), agriculture suffered serious setbacks. However, the rapid industrialization that accompanied forced collectivization enabled the Moscow government to develop new heavy industry in Belarus quickly.
During the period of the NEP, the Soviet government relaxed its cultural restrictions, and Belorussian language and culture flourished. But in the 1930s, when Stalin was fully in power, Moscow's attitude changed, and it became important to Moscow to bind both Belorussia and its economy as closely to the Soviet Union as possible. Once again, this meant Russification of the people and the culture. The Belorussian language was reformed to bring it closer to the Russian language, and history books were rewritten to show that the Belorussian people had strived to be united with Russia throughout their history. Political persecutions in the 1930s reached genocidal proportions, causing population losses as great as would occur during World War II-- more than 2 million persons.