Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Belarus

Former Soviet republic that declared its independence on 25 August 1991. A landlocked state, Belarus (Belorussia) is bordered by Russia to the north and east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the southwest, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. It comprises 80,154 square miles and had a 1945 population of approximately 8.9 million people.

Throughout history, the position of Belarus as a borderland region has resulted in numerous incursions and shifting borders as well as the development of a rich cultural heritage. During the Soviet period, several variations of the country's name were used, the most common being Belorussia or the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The nation's name was officially changed to Belarus upon independence.

The country's geostrategic location on the western border of the Soviet Union helped define the role of Belarus during the Cold War. The most important aspects of Belarusian history relevant to the Cold War period include its position as a battleground of empires and ideas and its long and close association with the Germanic, Slavic, and Baltic worlds. During the 1917 Russian Revolutions and the ensuing civil war, the Belarusians attempted to establish an independent state but were ultimately defeated by the Bolsheviks. Belarusian lands were thus divided between the newly established Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Poland in the early 1920s. The political, economic, and social upheavals of the revolutionary era in Belarus were followed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's brutal forced collectivization of agriculture and extensive purges of the local Communist Party, which led to further population losses, especially among the educated elite of Belarusian society.

In September 1939, in the wake of the German invasion of Poland and in accordance with the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939, Stalin moved Soviet forces into eastern Poland, which was largely inhabited by Belarusians and Ukrainians. This situation only lasted until June 1941, when German forces invaded the USSR and occupied Belorussia. For much of the war, the country was turned into a battleground as Soviet partisans fought the Germans and their local allies. By the time Belorussia was reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944, the country had been almost completely devastated, and its population was significantly reduced, including the extermination of the large Jewish minority during the Holocaust. The reunification of the two parts of Belorussia under Soviet rule in 1939 was made permanent at the end of World War II, when the Western Allies acquiesced to Stalin's plan to move Poland's border with Germany significantly westward to compensate for the loss of western Ukraine and western Belorussia.

Once Soviet rule had been reestablished in Belorussia, Stalin instituted widespread purges and mass deportations against various strata of society, especially against those elements deemed "unreliable" by the Communist Party. To help compensate for the resultant population losses, the Soviets resettled large numbers of ethnic Russians and initiated a Russification program throughout Belorussia, especially in the capital, Minsk. This program met with resistance on the part of some intellectuals and students, many of whom were arrested and sentenced to prison terms in the gulags.

Belorussia played an important role in the early stages of the Cold War, as Stalin attempted to ensure a large Soviet presence at the newly created United Nations (UN) in the late 1940s. Despite Western refusal to allow each of the Soviet Socialist Republics to have individual representation in the UN, Soviet Belorussia, as well as Soviet Ukraine, received separate seats in the General Assembly. However, Soviet Belorussian diplomats were completely subordinated to the policies laid down by the central Soviet leadership in Moscow.

Throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s, Belorussia underwent extensive reconstruction as well as broad social, political, and economic changes. Shifting borders, enormous loss of life, and extensive wartime destruction of both the industrial and agricultural infrastructures created difficult living conditions in the countryside as well as in the major cities. Nevertheless, by the 1960s Belorussia had begun to recover economically, and living standards were on the rise.

By the 1970s, Belarusian political, social, and economic life mirrored trends elsewhere in the Soviet Union as people suffered from the limitations of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev's Era of Stagnation. This difficult but relatively stable situation continued well into the 1980s, until the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985.

A major catalyst for change in Belorussia was the April 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, near the border with Belorussia, with Belorussia bearing the brunt of the radioactive fallout. The immediate impact of Chernobyl was the irradiation of large parts of the surrounding area and its population, creating a human and environmental tragedy of unprecedented proportions in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's failure to respond immediately to Chernobyl drew heightened attention to the failings of the Soviet system and led to increased calls in Belorussia for reform, including a petition sent by intellectuals in December 1986 criticizing the policies of the government in the cultural sphere.

As Gorbachev's reform policies of glasnost and perestroika developed and as people in the Soviet Union, including Belarusians, became less inhibited in discussing the issues confronting Soviet society, a nascent democratic movement called the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) was formed in June 1988. The BPF led the drive for reform and helped galvanize the population around the issue of Stalinist crimes in Belorussia. In June 1988, mass graves were uncovered at Kuropaty, near Minsk, that contained the remains of hundreds of thousands of Stalin's victims. In June 1990, the Belarusian Supreme Soviet adopted a Declaration of State Sovereignty, following the earlier Russian example.

Despite this upsurge in democratic activism, the majority of the Belarusian population did not appear to be interested in politics. The Belarusian Communist Party won more than 85 percent of the seats in the March 1990 Supreme Soviet election, with several seats remaining vacant because of lack of voter interest. Caution regarding reform was confirmed a year later during the March 1991 all-Union referendum on the future of the USSR, when 83 percent of the Belarusian population voted to remain a part of the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter a series of strikes took place, with strikers calling for economic reform as well as the liberalization of political life in the republic.

The abortive August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev acted as a catalyst for political change in Belarus, just as in the other republics of the Soviet Union. On 25 August 1991, the Supreme Soviet declared independence and officially changed the name of the republic from the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Republic of Belarus. The head of the Supreme Soviet, Stanislaw Shushkyevich, along with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk Agreement in December 1991, formally establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and making the independence of Belarus complete.

Robert Owen Krikorian


Further Reading
Marples, David. Belarus: A Denationalized Nation? London: Harwood Academic, 1999.; Zaprudnik, Jan. Belarus: At a Crossroads in History. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.
 

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