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Professor M.V.Dovnar-Zapolsky

Historical Background

The culture of Belarus (culture is here defined as the whole complex of knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs and other skills and habits acquired by individuals as members of society) is noted for the diversity of its forms and the depth of its content. Belarus has a rich history and has always been considered an "open" society, since it has always enjoyed a close interaction with the neighbouring Slav nations and with other European traditions and cultures. A rich heritage of folk art and creativity lies at the heart of Belarusian culture.

It was between the Fifth & Tenth centuries, within the territory of present-day Belarus, that the folk & farming traditions, the main types of utensils & implements, as well as the first framing practices in the construction of wooden house, were all formed. High aesthetic standards were achieved in handicrafts and applied art. The peaceful and gradual conversion to Christianity affected the national and cultural character of the Belarusians. As time went by, the powerful combination of the Christian spirituality and pagan mythology became a significant factor for the flourishing Belarusian folklore.

Belarusian culture of the Eleventh & Twelfth centuries is characterised by a number of distinctive features. It was the heyday of the Polotsk, Turov and Pinsk principalities, marked by the enlightenment activities of Euphrosine of Polotsk and Kiril of Turov, when architecture, literature, applied and fine arts flourished. In the 11th & 12th centuries the first schools of architecture were established in Polotsk (St. Sophia's Church) and in Grodno (Kolozha Church), & various masterpieces were created, including the cross of Euphrosine of Polotsk created by the master Lazar Bogsha.

The period between the Thirteenth & Fifteenth centuries is described by the formation of the Belarusian nationality and statehood & the old Belarusian language. The peculiar features of the Belarusian fortified architecture formed at that time are exemplified in the castles at Novogrudok, Lida and Krev. Church painting and music flourished, many Belarusian literary masterpieces were created, as well as those translated from other languages. Local traditions were synthesised with the achievements of Western European culture, and local variations appeared influenced by Romanesque and Gothic styles.

It was during the transition from the Middle Ages to the New Time (the 16th - first half of the 17th centuries) that the specifically Belarusian example of Renaissance culture appeared. The modern Belarusian language, literature, the theatrical, musical and other arts were intensively developed. In architecture, the Renaissance style became widespread, alongside the Gothic.Printing played an important role in the development of the Renaissance in Belarus, a part of the upheaval in Belarusian culture. The founder of the Belarusian (and the whole Eastern Slavonic) book printing was the enlightener and humanist, Fransisk Skorina.

From the end of the Sixteenth Century, as a result of the Union of Liublin of 1569, the enforced dissemination of Polish culture had a very strong affect on Belarus. Belarusian nobility, the town administration officials, schools and the press - all became subject to the Polish influence. However, Belarusian remained the official language in the management of state records until the end of the Seventeenth Century. But in the second half of the Seventeenth Century, Belarusian was replaced by Polish and partially by Latin. The dominant style of Belarusian architecture and arts of the 17th and 18th centuries was Baroque. This took two forms: the Eastern Slavonic - based on the synthesis of the local culture and Western European influences, and the Western Slavonic - exemplified in Belarus by Catholic and Uniate (Greek Catholic) orders. Both styles were particularly visible in architecture. In the Seventeenth Century, secular philosophy, school education, printing, theatre, illustrations, portraiture, wood folk sculpture, poetry & music, both religious & secular, developed intensively.

As a result of the unification of Belarus with the Russian Empire after the three Partitions of Rzecz Pospolita (the end of the Eighteenth Century), the Polish influence on the ruling estates and the official "elite" culture became even stronger. But after the suppression of the national liberation uprisings in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania in 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, Polish influence was replaced by Russian dominance. Under these conditions, the cultural and creative skills of the Belarusians were mainly manifested in the ethnographic culture (folklore, popular theatres, architecture, applied arts, and custom culture) which produced a significant impact upon the Belarusian national art of the 19th & 20th centuries. In the Nineteenth Century, folk culture and the old Belarusian writing traditions became the main sources for the national rebirth and self-identification. The formation of the Belarusian national culture and its separation from the hitherto dominant Russian and Polish cultures, were manifested in the development of the revolutionary-democratic & peasant thought, the social & critical motifs of folk arts, the national themes & styles of fine art and also in the scholarly research of the Belarusian life & culture.

In the Twentieth Century during the revolutionary years from 1905 to 1907 and after the revolution, Belarusian classical literature was formed, the most prominent representatives of which are Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas. The basic standards & regulations of the modern Belarusian literary language were then developed. This period was also marked by the creation of the national press, printing and theatre.

The declaration of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918 and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919 gave rise to the political & state self-identification of Belarusians. In the 1920s a process of "belarusianization" was conducted in Soviet Belarus. This brought about the establishment of the Institute of Belarusian Culture, the Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Belarusian State University and other higher educational institutions, as well as the system of public education in the Belarusian language. The Belarusian  language of poetry & belles-lettres was then being actively formed. The national theatre, literature, music, fine arts, cinematography and architecture were also highly developed. From the late 1920s, the ideological influence of the Communist Party became stronger in all spheres of the political, public and cultural life. By contrast, the process of "belarusianization" began to weaken. This weakness turned into the repressions of the 1930s, as a result of which the Academy of Sciences, educational institutions, literary organisations and printing offices suffered big losses. Many scholars, literary men and art workers were subject to repression.
In the 1920s - 1930s, Belarusian culture was developed in Western Belarus as well, despite the resistance of the Polish authorities, who pursued a policy of Polish dominance and liquidation of the Belarusian national movement in the region. Various national organisations operated there. Independent Western Belarusian periodicals and theatrical art was being developed.

In the Second World War, the representatives of Belarusian culture were actively engaged in the struggle against the Nazi enemy. Many of them continued their activities at the front, in partisan groups and during evacuation. Patriotic and heroic themes and a journalistic genre were prevalent in their creative activities of that period. Despite the German Occupation (1941-1944), Soviet Belarusian periodicals continued to be issued in Belarus. 

After the XXth Congress of the Comunist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, the process of rehabilitation began for the repressed scholars, cultural workers and literary men. Historic truth & the unjustly forgotten names and literary works began to return to the public conscience.
The second half of the 1950s and the 1960s was marked by the development of Belarusian fine arts, theatre, music and other arts. Many monographs, encyclopaedias and reference books on the history of Belarusian literature and art were compiled and published from the second half of the 1960s to the first half of the 1980s. A number of research works on the history of philosophy and aesthetics & the Belarusian Soviet Encyclopaedia in 12 volumes were published. Museum studies also received further development.

A new stage in the development of Belarusian culture began in the late 1980s. The adoption of the Law on Languages in 1990 in Belarus and the creation of the Skorina Society of Belarusian Language were significant  events. In 1990, the Belarusian and international community marked the 500th anniversary of Fransisk Skorina, the first printer and enlightener. In the late 1980s & the 1990s, several encyclopaedias dedicated to the national sources of Belarusian culture were published. The national and international associations of specialists in Belarusian culture, based at the Skorina National Research and Education Centre, supervise cultural research in Belarus and abroad.

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