The territory of Belarus started to be populated from the middle of the Old Stone Age (100-40 thousand B.C.), the first settlements appeared 27-24 thousand years ago. In the 7th-9th centuries the Belarusian territory was inhabited by Slavonic associations of Dregovichi, Crivichi and Radimichi tribes. The first administrative entities on the Belarusian territory were the Duchies of Polotsk, Turov and Smolensk. The city of Polotsk has been known since 862 A.D. The first Polotsk Duke mentioned in the chronicles and ruling late in the 10th century was Rogvolod. The Duchy of Polotsk reached its peak power in the 11th century under Duke Vseslav Charodey. During certain periods the Duchies of Polotsk and Turov, and other Belarusian lands, were subordinated to Kyiv authorities, however, with the start of feudal disintegration they split into smaller shares. In 10th-12th centuries feudalism was developed on the Belarusian land which, initially, was combined with elements of a communal system.
By the end of the 10th century Byzantean style Christianity began to spread across Belarusian territory, thus facilitating the development of culture, the appearance of monumental stone architecture, painting art and literature.
The Sofia Cathedral, the first monumental structure built on the Belarusian land, was erected in the 1050's. In 1161 Lazar Boksha, a jeweller, made a unique crucifix, a masterpiece of East Slavonic applied art, for Yefrosinya of Polotsk, the well-known educator.
Among the Christian writers and ecclesiasts, the best-known is Kiryll of Turov, the author of words-homilies. There remains a copy of Turov Gospel dated from 11th century. The Belarusian language started to be shaped in the first half of the 13th century.
Early in the 13th century the Belarusian lands and duchies took part in the creation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was necessitated by the threat from Crusaders and Mongols and Tartars (the latter captured eastern and southern provinces of Russia in 1230-1240's). The Duchy was headed by Mindovg who in 1253 assumed the title of a king. Novogorodok (Novogrudok) became the first capital of the new state, while from 1323 the capital was shifted to Vilno (modern Vilnius). As a result of captures, agreements, dynastic marriages, etc., the Grand Duchy of Lithuania incorporated in the 13th-14th centuries all Belarusian lands. Later, some Ukrainian and Russian lands were added to the State. The administrative structure, socio-economic and cultural development of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was influenced by the Slavonic population. The Old Belarusian language was the official state language from mid-14th to late 17th century.
In 1385 Grand Duke Yagailo (1377-1392) concluded an Unia with the Polish Kingdom, under which he became King of Poland but was obliged to join his territories with Poland and convert heathen Lithuanians into Catholicism by granting privileges to Catholics. This started tension between Orthodox and Catholic population and also caused dissatisfaction among the adherents of complete political independence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, headed by Vitovt, Yagailo's cousin. Joining Crusaders and supported by his local adherents, he started a war with the Polish king as a result of which he restored the independence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1392 and became Grand Duke of Lithuania. Under Vitovt, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached its peak power. Vitovt strove to strengthen his power by introducing centralization reforms, he pursued an active foreign policy on many aspects, the main aspects being fighting Crusaders, adjunction of new lands in the East, and diplomatic efforts aimed at getting a king's crown. As a result, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded its boundaries to the maximum and acquired international recognition. The battle of Tannenberg in 1410 in the course of which the united forces of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Teuton order played an important role for strengthening the State.
By the 16th century the state structure of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was completed. Its basis was fixed by the Statutes of 1529, 1566 and 1588. The State which was divided into voyevodstvos (provinces) and poviets (districts) was headed by the Grand Duke and the Rada of noblemen. The Seim functioned as a body of representative power of feudalists (shliahta) and its deputies were elected by poviet assemblies.
The struggle for influence in the Eastern Baltic region resulted in the Livonian war of 1558-1583 between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Moscow state. Failures of the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including the loss of Polotsk, led to a closer union with Poland. As a result of the Liublin Unia of 1569, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland united into a federal state called Rzecz Pospolita with a common monarch and seim. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania preserved its government, finances, army and state emblem. The Unia allowed the new state to complete the war by returning the previously lost territories and standing firm in Livonia. During the new war with Russia in early 17th century Smolensk and the lands lost at the beginning of the 16th century were returned.
From the beginning of the 16th century an active agrarian reform was introduced (the so-called volochnaya pomera). In connection with an increased demand for agricultural products, feudalists structured their economy on the basis of folwarks (estates) with large areas of land belonging to the principal and cultivated by serfs. Serfdom was officially introduced by the Statute of 1588. The towns which from late 14th century were granted a self-government status under the Magdeburg law intensively developed crafts and shop production. Trade was developing, too.
In the 16th century, under the influence of Reformation, Luthe-ranism, Calvinism and other Protestant movements started to spread across Belarusian territories. Religious tolerance existed for a long time, but in late 16th century counter-reformation movement developed. The compromise between Orthodox and Catholic church adherents resulted in the 1596 Brest Church Unia under which the Orthodox Church of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania recognised the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic dogmas, while preserving its own rituals and organisation. The implementation of the Church Unia faced resistance in the Orthodox environment, which, together with a hard economic state of peasantry and town grass-roots resulted in an anti-feudal war.
Russia took the advantage of the external problems in Rzecz Pospolita and started a new war on its territory (1654-1667) having soon occupied most of Belarus. The war resulted in a hard economic and demographic crisis. The Belarusian population decreased by half, the development of towns stopped, Polonisation spread among wide circles of shliahta (noblemen) and townsmen. The great powers granted to shliahta fostered a political instability.
The Northern war (1700-1721) waged by Swedes against Russia and Rzecz Pospolita also inflicted great losses on Belarus. The war actions were conducted on the Belarusian territory and brought about more destruction. The war caused another economic crisis which was overcome only in mid-18th century. At the time, economic life on the Belarusian lands started to recover and capitalist tendencies in the economy to grow. Next page