After an initial period of independent feudal consolidation, Belarusian lands were incorporated into the Kingdom of Lithuania, Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and later in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire and eventually the Soviet Union. Belarus became an independent country in 1991 after declaring itself free from the Soviet Union.
The history of Belarus, or more precisely of the Belarusian ethnicity, begins with the migration and expansion of the Slavic peoples throughout Eastern Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries. East Slavs settled on the territory of present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, assimilating local Baltic — (Yotvingians, Dniepr Balts), Ugro-Finnic (in Russia) and steppe nomads (in Ukraine) already living there, their early ethnic integrations contributed to the gradual differentiation of the three East Slavic nations. These East Slavs, a pagan, animistic, agrarian people, had an economy which included trade in agricultural produce, game, furs, honey, beeswax and amber.
The modern Belarusian ethnos was probably formed on the basis of the three Slavic tribes — Kryvians, Drehovians, Radzimians as well as several Baltic tribes.
During the 9th and 10th centuries, Scandinavian Vikings established trade posts on the way from Scandinavia to the Byzantine Empire. The network of lakes and rivers crossing East Slav territory provided a lucrative trade route between the two civilizations. In the course of trade, they gradually took sovereignty over the tribes of East Slavs, at least to the point required by improvements in trade.
The Rus’ rulers invaded the Byzantine Empire on few occasions, but eventually they allied against the Bulgars. The condition underlying this alliance was to open the country for Christianization and acculturation from the Byzantine Empire.
The common cultural bond of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and written Church Slavonic (a literary and liturgical Slavic language developed by 8th century missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius) fostered the emergence of a new geopolitical entity, Kievan Rus’ — a loose-knit network of principalities, established along preexisting trade routes, with major centers in Novgorod (currently Russia), Polatsk (in Belarus) and Kiev (currently in Ukraine) — which claimed a sometimes precarious preeminence among them.
Between the 9th and 12th centuries, the Principality of Polotsk (northern Belarus) emerged as the dominant center of power on Belarusian territory, with a lesser role played by the Principality of Turaŭ in the south.
It repeatedly asserted its sovereignty in relation to other centers of Rus’, becoming a political capital, the episcopal see of a bishopric and the controller of vassal territories among Balts in the west. The city’s Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (1044–66), though completely rebuilt over the years, remains a symbol of this independent-mindedness, rivaling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kiev, referring to the original Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (and hence to claims of imperial prestige, authority and sovereignty). Cultural achievements of the Polatsk period include the work of the nun Euphrosyne of Polatsk (1120–73), who built monasteries, transcribed books, promoted literacy and sponsored art (including local artisan Lazarus Bohsha’s famous “Cross of Euphrosyne”, a national symbol and treasure stolen during World War II), and the prolific, original Church Slavonic sermons and writings of Bishop Cyril of Turau (1130–82).
The Lublin Union of 1569 constituted the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as an influential player in European politics and the largest multinational state in Europe. While Ukraine and Podlaskie became subject to the Polish Crown, present-day Belarus territory was still regarded as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The new polity was dominated by much more densely populated Poland, which had 134 representatives in the Sejm as compared to 46 representatives of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However the Grand Duchy of Lithuania retained much autonomy, and was governed by a separate code of laws called the Lithuanian Statutes, which codified both civil and property rights. Mogilyov was the largest urban centre of the territory of present-day Belarus, followed by Vitebsk, Polotsk, Pinsk, Slutsk, and Brest, whose population exceeded 10,000. In addition, Vilna (Vilnius), the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, also had a significant Ruthenian population.
With time, the ethnic pattern did not evolve much. Throughout their existence as a separate culture, Ruthenians formed in most cases rural population, with the power held by local szlachta and boyars, often of Lithuanian, Polish or Russian descent. As in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, the trade and commerce was mostly monopolized by Jews, who formed a significant part of the urban population. Since the Union of Horodlo of 1413, local nobility was assimilated into the traditional clan system by means of the formal procedure of adoption by the szlachta (Polish gentry). Eventually it formed a significant part of the szlachta. Initially mostly Ruthenian and Orthodox, with time most of them became polonized. This was especially true for major magnate families (Sapieha and Radziwiłł clans being the most notable), whose personal fortunes and properties often surpassed those of the royal families and were huge enough to be called a state within a state. Many of them founded their own cities and settled them with settlers from other parts of Europe. Indeed, there were Scots, Germans and Dutch people inhabiting major towns of the area, as well as several Italian artists who had been “imported” to the lands of modern Belarus by the magnates. Contrary to Poland, in the lands of the Grand Duchy, the peasants had little personal freedom in the Middle Ages. However, with time, the magnates and the gentry gradually limited the few liberties of the serfs, at the same time increasing their taxation, often in labour for the local gentry. This made many Ruthenians flee to the scarcely populated lands, Dzikie Pola (Wild Fields), the Polish name of the Zaporizhian Sich, where they formed a large part of the Cossacks. Others sought refuge in the lands of other magnates or in Russia
Under Russian administration, the territory of Belarus was divided into the guberniyas of Minsk, Vitebsk, Mogilyov, and Hrodno. Belarusians were active in the guerrilla movement against Napoleon’s occupation.. With Napoleon’s defeat, Belarus again became a part of Imperial Russia and its guberniyas constituted part of the Northwestern Krai. The anti-Russian uprisings of the gentryin 1830 and 1863 were subdued by government forces.
Although under Nicholas I and Alexander III the national cultures were repressed due to the policies of de-Polonization and Russification, which included the return to Orthodoxy, the 19th century was signified by the rise of the modern Belarusian nation and self-confidence. A number of authors started publishing in the Belarusian language, including Jan Czeczot, Władysław Syrokomla and Konstanty Kalinowski.
In a Russification drive in the 1840s, Nicholas I forbade the use of the term Belarusia and renamed the region the “North-Western Territory”. He also prohibited the use of Belarusian language in public schools, campaigned against Belarusian publications and tried to pressure those who had converted to Catholicism under the Poles to reconvert to the Orthodox faith. In 1863, economic and cultural pressure exploded into a revolt, led by Kalinowski. After the failed revolt, the Russian government reintroduced the use of Cyrillic to Belarusian in 1864 and banned the use of the Latin alphabet.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Belarusian economy, like that of the entire Europe, was experiencing significant growth due to the spread of the Industrial Revolution to Eastern Europe, particularly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Peasants sought a better lot in foreign industrial centres, with some 1.5 million people leaving Belarus in the half-century preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917.
On 27 July 1990, Belarus declared its national sovereignty, a key step toward independence from the Soviet Union. The BSSR was formally renamed the Republic of Belarus on 25 August 1991. Around that time, Stanislav Shushkevich became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, the top leadership position in Belarus. On 8 December 1991, Shushkevich met with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
In 1994, the first presidential elections were held and Alexander Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus. The 1996 referendum resulted in the amendment of the constitution that took key powers off the parliament. In 2001, he was re-elected as president in elections described as undemocratic by Western observers. At the same time the west began criticising him of authoritarianism. In 2006, Lukashenko was once again re-elected in presidential elections which were again criticised as flawed by most European Union countries. In 2010, Lukashenko was re-elected once again in presidential elections, which were described as flawed by most EU countries and institutions. A peaceful protest against the electoral fraud was attacked by riot police and by armed men dressed in black. After that, up to 700 opposition activists, including 7 presidential candidates, were arrested by KGB.