The culture of Belarus is the product of a millennium of development under the impact of a number of diverse factors. These include the physical environment; the ethnographic background of Belarusians. The paganism of the early settlers and their hosts; Eastern Orthodox Christianity as a link to the Byzantine literary and cultural traditions.
Official Belarusian culture is a relic of Soviet conservatism. Beneath the surface, however, a European movement in the arts is gathering momentum.
Little survives in Belarus of the earliest period of settlement by East Slavs. A distinctively Belarusian culture began to emerge clearly only in the 16th century. As Belarusian culture developed, however, long periods of foreign control—first by the grand duchy of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland, then by tsarist Russia, and later by the Soviet Union—introduced a series of outside influences, from the European Baroque and Classical architectural styles to the cultural constraints of Socialist Realism. Yet notwithstanding the considerable efforts made by Russian tsars and Soviet rulers to suppress the Belarusian language and culture, Belarusians succeeded in preserving their distinctiveness as a people.
Traditional days that reflect Belarusian nowadays culture
Independence Day, the national holiday of Belarus, is celebrated on July 3, the date of the Soviet liberation of Minsk from German occupation in 1944. Some Belarusians, particularly opposition groups, still recognize the holiday’s former date, July 27—the date on which state sovereignty was declared in 1990. The opposition also celebrates March 25, the date of the declaration of independence by the short-lived Belarusian National Republic in 1918. Most Soviet holidays are still commemorated, especially Victory Day (May 9), as are religious holidays, including both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Easters.
A presidential fund for culture and the arts provides a number of annual and biannual festivals. Among the most notable festivals in Belarus are the Slavic Bazaar in Vitsyebsk, an international festival of the arts; the Spring International Music Festival in Minsk; and the Arts for Children and Youth Festival.
After independence the country’s total fertility rate fell below two children per childbearing woman; most families are thus small in size. Many families spend summers at dachas, or country cottages, growing local produce. The practice of mushroom picking remains very popular.
The traditional two-piece Belarusian dress originated from the time of Kievan Rus’ and continues to be worn today at special functions. Due to the cool climate of Belarus, the clothes were made out of fabrics that provide closed covering and warmth. They were designed with either many threads of different colours woven together or adorned with symbolic ornaments. Belarusian nobles usually had their fabrics imported and chose the colours of red, blue or green. Males wore a shirt and trousers adorned with a belt, while females wore a longer shirt, a wrap-around skirt called a “paniova”, and a headscarf. The outfits were also influenced by the dress worn by Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and other European nations and have changed over time due to improvements in the techniques used to make clothing. Embroidery plays an important role in Belarusian traditions.
One of the oldest surviving monuments of architecture in the country is the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Polatsk, dating from the 11th century and built in the Eastern Orthodox style. The church of Boris and Gleb (Barys and Hlyeb) in Hrodna dates from the 12th century. Most of the other early buildings that remain, mostly as ruins, are the princely stone fortresses of the 12th to 16th century. One of the best-known of these is the 13th-century White Tower in Kamyanyets.
The 17th century marked the appearance of the Baroque style, which was largely linked to the eastward movement of Roman Catholicism; it is exemplified by the design of the Jesuit, Bernardine, and Bridgettine churches in Hrodna. Belarusian craftsmen played a role in extending Baroque influence farther eastward into Russia, where it was adapted as the “Moscow Baroque” style. By the 18th century, Classical styles predominated in Belarus, as seen in the Governor’s Palace in Hrodna. The ravages of World War II destroyed a large segment of the country’s architectural heritage, especially in Minsk. Because much of Minsk was reconstructed after the war, most of the architecture of the city centre reflects the grandiose Stalinist style with its Classical borrowings.
Literary activity in Belarus dates to the 11th century. In the 12th century St. Cyril of Turaw, venerated among Orthodox Slavs as “the second St. Chrysostom,” wrote sermons and hymns. In the 16th century Francisk Skorina of Polatsk translated the Bible into Belarusian and wrote extensive explanatory introductions to each book. His editions, produced in Prague (now in the Czech Republic) in 1517–19 and in Vilnius (Lithuania) in 1522–25, were the first printed books not only in Belarus but in the whole of eastern Europe. In the 17th century, the Belarusian poet Simeon Polotsky (Symeon of Polatsk) was the first to bring Baroque literary style to Moscow.
Modern Belarusian literature began in the first half of the 19th century with the work of Yan Chachot and Vincent Dunin-Martsinkyevich, who translated part of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Master Thaddeus into Belarusian. Literary Classics of the early 20th century include works by the poets Maksim Bahdanovich, Ales Harun, Vladimir Zylka, Kazimir Svayak, Yanka Kupala, and Yakub Kolas and the prose writers Zmitrok Byadulya and Maksim Haretski. Many of these writers had been contributors to the influential Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva (“Our Field”), published in Vilnius during the period 1906–16. Of crucial importance for an understanding of the Belarusian cultural predicament in the face of war and revolution are Kupala’s play The Locals (1922) and Haretski’s short novel Two Souls (1919). Most noteworthy of the writers to preserve and develop the Belarusian literary tradition in the 1940s and ’50s are the poets Pimen Panchanka and Arkadi Kulyashov and the prose writers Yanka Bryl, Ivan Shamyakin, and Ivan Melezh. The 1960s marked the tentative beginnings of yet another national revival with the novels of Vasil Bykau and Uladzimir Karatkievich.