Belarus - Etymology


The name Belarus corresponds literally with the term White Rus'. There are several claims to the origin of the name White Rus'. An ethno-religious theory suggests that the name used to describe the part of old Ruthenian lands within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that had been populated mostly by early Christianized Slavs, as opposed to Black Ruthenia, which was predominantly inhabited by pagan Balts. An alternate explanation for the name comments on the white clothing worn by the local Slavic population. A third theory suggests that the old Rus' lands that were not conquered by the Tatars (i.e., Polatsk, Vitsiebsk and Mahilyow) had been referred to as "white". Other sources claim that before 1267, the land not conquered by the Mongols was considered "White Rus' ". A fourth theory suggests that before when Belarus was just starting out, there were a lot of White Cranes inhabiting the country. Some of the cranes even made nests on the roofs of houses. In 2008, historian Ales Bely defended his PhD thesis, Localization of the Choronym of White Rus' in the European Written and Map Sources of the 13th to mid-18th centuries, which demonstrated that White Rus' originally referred to the area of the Novgorod Republic conquered by the Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1478; in terms of present-day geography, this translates to Eastern Belarus and areas acquired via the westward expansion of Russia during the Livonian War in the 17th century.

The names Ruthenia and Rus' are often conflated with Russia, their modern derivative, and thus White Ruthenia is often referred to as White Russia. This misinterpretation has been supported by the Moscovite regents after the fall of Kievan Rus'. The Muscovite Grande Princes, starting with Ivan IV, considered themselves to be the rightful successors of the Rurikid Grand Princes, and their use of the name "Russia" as referring to all former Ruthenian (i.e., east Slavic) lands became a political weapon and a casus belli for claiming the west Ruthenian territories from Lithuania and Poland. The name first appeared in German and Latin medieval literature; the chronicles of Jan of Czarnków mentions the imprisonment of Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila and his mother at "Albae Russiae, Poloczk dicto" in 1381. The Latin term "Alba Russia" was used again by Pope Pius VI to establish a Jesuit society in 1783. His official Papal bull exclaimed "Approbo Societatem Jesu in Alba Russia degentem, approbo, approbo.". The first known use of White Russia to refer to Belarus was in the late-16th century by Englishman Sir Jerome Horsey, who was known for his close contacts with the Russian Royal Court. During the 17th century, Russian Tsars used "White Rus" to describe the lands captured from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The term Belorussia (Russian: Белоруссия; the latter part similar, but spelled and stressed differently from Россия, Russia) first rose in the days of the Russian Empire, and the Russian Tsar was usually styled "Tsar of All the Russias", as Russia or the Russian Empire was formed by all the Russias – the Great, Little, and White. This asserted that the territories are all Russian and all people are Russian; in the case of the Belarusians, they were just variants of the Russian people. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the term White Russia caused some confusion as it was also the name of the military force that opposed the red Bolsheviks. During the period of the Belorussian SSR, the term Byelorussia was embraced as part of a national consciousness. In western Belarus under Polish control, Byelorussia became commonly used in the regions of Białystok and Grodno during the interwar period.

The term Belorussia (its names in other languages such as English being based on the Russian form) was only used officially until 1991, when the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic decreed by law that the new independent republic should be called Belarus (Беларусь) in Russian in order to reflect the correct Belarusian language forms. The use of Byelorussian SSR and any abbreviations thereof were allowed from 1991 to 1993. Conservative forces in the newly independent Belarus did not support the name change and opposed its inclusion in the 1991 draft of the Constitution of Belarus.

Accordingly, the name Belorussia was replaced by Belarus in English and to some extent in Russian (although the traditional name still persists in that language as well); likewise, the adjective Belorussian or Byelorussian was replaced by Belarusian in English (though Russian has not developed a new adjective). Belarusian is closer to the original Russian term of bielaruski. Belarusian intelligentsia in the Stalin era attempted to change the name from Belorussia to a form of Krivia because of the supposed connection with Russia. Some nationalists also object to the name for the same reason. However, several popular newspapers published locally still retain the old name of the country in Russian in their names, for example Komsomolskaya Pravda v Byelorussii, which is the localized publication of a popular Russian newspaper. Also, those who wish for Belarus to be reunited with Russia continue to use Belorussia. Officially, the full name of the country is "Republic of Belarus" (Рэспубліка Беларусь, Республика Беларусь, Respublika Belarus" listen).

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