Belarus: Happy Postcrossing! (2014)

Belarus: Happy Postcrossing! (2014)

Belarus: Happy Postcrossing! (2014)
Belarus: Happy Postcrossing! (2014)

Belarus (Белару́сь), officially the Republic of Belarus, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. The term Belorussia (Белору́ссия) first arose in the days of the Russian Empire, and the Russian Tsar was usually styled “the Tsar of All the Russias”, as the Russian Empire was formed by three parts of Russia — the Great, Little, and White. 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 Byelorussian SSR, the term Byelorussia was embraced as part of a national consciousness. The name Byelorussia was replaced by Belarus in English at the time of the 1991 drafting of the constitution.

The capital of Belarus is Minsk; other major cities include Brest, Hrodna (Grodno), Homiel (Gomel), Mahilioŭ (Mogilev) and Vitsebsk (Vitebsk). Over 40% of its 80,200 square miles (207,600 square kilometers) is forested. Many streams and 11,000 lakes are found in the country along with three major rivers: the Neman, the Pripyat, and the Dnieper. The highest point is Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (Dzyarzhynsk Hill) at 1,132 feet (345 meters), and the lowest point is on the Neman River at 295 feet (90 meters). The climate features mild to cold winters, with average January minimum temperatures from 24.8° F (−4° C) in the southwest (Brest) to 17.6° F (−8° C) in the northeast (Vitebsk), and cool and moist summers with an average temperature of 64° F (18° C). The country is in the transitional zone between continental climates and maritime climates.

Natural resources include peat deposits, small quantities of oil and natural gas, granite, dolomite (limestone), marl, chalk, sand, gravel, and clay. About 70% of the radiation from neighboring Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster entered Belarusian territory, and about a fifth of Belarusian land (principally farmland and forests in the southeastern regions) was affected by radiation fallout. The United Nations and other agencies have aimed to reduce the level of radiation in affected areas, especially through the use of caesium binders and rapeseed cultivation, which are meant to decrease soil levels of caesium-137.

From 5000 to 2000 BC, Bandkeramik cultures predominated in the region. In addition, remains from the Dnieper-Donets culture were found in Belarus and parts of Ukraine. Cimmerians and other pastoralists roamed through the area by 1,000 BC, and by 500 AD, Slavs had taken up residence, which was circumscribed by the Scythians who roamed its outskirts. Invaders from Asia, among whom were the Huns and Avars, swept through c. 400–600 AD, but were unable to dislodge the Slavic presence. The region that is now Belarus was first settled by Baltic tribes in the third century. Around the fifth century, the area was taken over by Slavic tribes. The takeover was partially due to the lack of military coordination of the Balts but the gradual assimilation of the Balts into Slavic culture was peaceful in nature.

In the ninth century the territory of modern Belarus became part of Kievan Rus’, a vast East Slavic state ruled by the Rurikid dynasty. Upon the death of Kievan Rus’ ruler Yaroslav I the Wise, the state split into independent principalities. Many early Russian principalities were virtually razed or severely affected by a major Mongol invasion in the 13th century, but the lands of Belarus avoided the brunt of the invasion and were eventually absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania  which first incorporated Belarusian lands into its territory in 1250 when it conquered the territories of Polotsk and Navahrudak.

Incorporation into The Grand Duchy of Lithuania resulted in an economic, political and ethno-cultural unification of Belarusian lands. Of the principalities held by the Duchy, nine of them were settled by a population that would eventually become Belarusian people. During this time, the Duchy was involved in several military campaigns, including fighting on the side of Poland against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410; the joint victory allowed the Duchy to control the northwestern borderlands of Eastern Europe.

On February 2, 1386, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland were joined in a personal union through a marriage of their rulers. This union set in motion the developments that eventually resulted in the formation of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, created in 1569. In 1696, Polish replaced Belarusian as the official language and Belarusian was outlawed. The Muscovites, led by Ivan III of Moscow, began military campaigns in 1486 in an attempt to incorporate the lands of Kievan Rus’, specifically the territories of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

The union between Poland and Lithuania ended in 1795 with the partitioning of Poland by Imperial Russia, Prussia, and Austria. During this time, the territories of Belarus were acquired by the Russian Empire under the reign of Catherine II and held until their occupation by the German Empire during World War I. Although under Nicholas I and Alexander III the national cultures were repressed due to the policies of de-Polonization and Russification, which included the return to Orthodoxy, the nineteenth century was signified by the rise of the modern Belarusian nation and self-confidence.

In a Russification drive in the 1840s, Nicholas I prohibited the use of Belarusian language in public schools, campaigned against Belarusian publications and tried to pressure those who had converted to Catholicism under the Poles to reconvert to the Orthodox faith. In 1863, economic and cultural pressure exploded into a revolt, led by Kalinowski. After the failed revolt, the Russian government reintroduced the use of Cyrillic to Belarusian in 1864 and no documents in Belarusian were permitted by Russian government until 1905.

During the negotiations of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Belarus first declared independence under German occupation on March 25, 1918, forming the Belarusian People’s Republic. Immediately afterwards, the Polish–Soviet War ignited, and the territory of Belarus was divided between Poland and the Soviet Russia. A semi-official postage stamp appeared at this time, picturing a map of Belarus in blue and denominated 10 hrašoŭ, but this is not listed in the Scott catalogue. These were inscribed БHP for Byelorussian National Republic.

A part of Belarus under Russian rule emerged as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Byelorussian SSR) in 1919. Soon thereafter it merged to form the Lithuanian-Byelorussian SSR. A new set of semi-official stamps were produced by the army of General Bulak-Balakhovitch in 1920, also inscribed БHP and portraying a peasant couple. The Scott catalogue mentions that five denominations were prepared in both perforated and imperforated versions but not put into use and that forgeries abound. Scott doesn’t assign catalogue numbers to these stamps. According to the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, the stamps were denominated 5 kopecks, 12 kopecks, 15 kopecks, 50 kopecks, and 1 ruble.

Additionally, and also unlisted in the Scott catalogue, a set of three stamps was ordered by the Belarusian Red Cross Soceity and printed in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1921 perforated and imperforate. A 2 ruble value in brown pictures Dr. Skaryna, the 3 ruble red and blue bicolor shows the “Pahonia” (a mounted rider which is the symbol of Lithuania and Belarus) and the final a yellow and blue bicolor denominated 5 rubles portrays a man ploughing. These were inscribed БЕЛАРУСЬ ПОЧТА for “Belarus Post”, It is unclear whether these were intended for postal use or as fund-raisers.

The contested lands were divided between Poland and the Soviet Union after the war ended in 1921, and the Byelorussian SSR became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. The western part of modern Belarus remained part of Poland. In the 1920’s, agricultural reforms that culminated in the Belarusian phase of Soviet collectivization were set in motion. In the 1930s, the implementation of the Soviet five-year plans for the national economy led to rapid industrialization.

In 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. Much of northeastern Poland, which had been part of the country since the Peace of Riga two decades earlier, was annexed to the Byelorussian SSR, and now constitutes West Belarus. The Soviet-controlled Byelorussian People’s Council officially took control of the territories, whose populations consisted of a mixture of Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews, on October 28, 1939, in Białystok. Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Brest Fortress, which had been annexed in 1939, at this time was subjected to one of the most destructive onslaughts that happened during the war. Statistically, the Byelorussian SSR was the hardest-hit Soviet republic in World War II; it remained in Nazi hands until 1944. During that time, Germany destroyed 209 out of 290 cities in the republic, 85% of the republic’s industry, and more than one million buildings. Casualties were estimated to be between 2 and 3 million (about a quarter to one-third of the total population), while the Jewish population of Belarus was devastated during the Holocaust and never recovered. The population of Belarus did not regain its pre-war level until 1971. It was also after this conflict that the final borders of Belarus were set by Stalin when parts of Belarusian territory were given to the recently annexed Lithuania.

After the war, Belarus was among the 51 founding countries of the United Nations Charter and as such it was allowed an additional vote at the UN, on top of the Soviet Union’s vote. Vigorous postwar reconstruction promptly followed the end of the war and the Byelorussian SSR became a major center of manufacturing in the western USSR, creating jobs and attracting ethnic Russians. The borders of the Byelorussian SSR and Poland were redrawn and became known as the Curzon Line.

Joseph Stalin implemented a policy of Sovietization to isolate the Byelorussian SSR from Western influences. This policy involved sending Russians from various parts of the Soviet Union and placing them in key positions in the Byelorussian SSR government. The official use of the Belarusian language and other cultural aspects were limited by Moscow. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev continued his predecessor’s cultural hegemony program, stating, “The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism.”

In 1986, the Byelorussian SSR was exposed to significant nuclear fallout from the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant in the neighboring Ukrainian SSR. In June 1988, the archaeologist and leader of the Christian Conservative Party of the BPF Zyanon Paznyak discovered mass graves of victims executed in 1937–41 at Kurapaty, near Minsk. Some nationalists contend that this discovery is proof that the Soviet government was trying to erase the Belarusian people, causing Belarusian nationalists to seek independence.

In March 1990, elections for seats in the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR took place. Though the pro-independence Belarusian Popular Front took only 10% of the seats, the populace was content with the selection of the delegates. Belarus declared itself sovereign on July 27, 1990, by issuing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the support of the Communist Party, the country’s name was changed to the Republic of Belarus on August 25, 1991. Stanislav Shushkevich, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, met with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine on December 8, 1991 in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Republic of Belarus started its own postal administration in 1992, having used stamps of the Soviet Union from 1917 until 1991.  The first Belarus stamp was issued on March 20, 1992, denominated 1 ruble and portraying the cross of Ephrosinia of Polotsk.

The development of postal services in Belarus began in ancient times. The first mention in the Chronicle of the messenger service of the Belarusian land dates from 885 with the words, “Sent a message to Oleg radzimichy asking…” In Kievan Rus’ there was a special “position” – the prince’s messenger. The couriers delivered the order of the prince in various areas of the country. Sometimes the messenger went, and without certificates, special messages memorized.

In 1583, the first post road in the region (Warszawa – Białystok – Grodno – Vilnius) introduced a system of tariffs, which operates today in all countries of the world, that of shipping determined by the type and origin of its weight. The postal system developed further once Belarus became a part of the Russian Empire in 1793. Postal districts were formed, including Minsk, Vitebsk and Mogilev.

The first telegraph stations in Belarus were equipped in 1859 at the Minsk post office, running the first telegraph line to Bobruisk. The regular transport of mail by rail began in 1871 along the routes Minsk to Moscow, Minsk to Rivne, Minsk to Brest, and Minsk to Lyubava. Post cars had special racks for storage and sorting mail as well as hanging mailboxes to receive messages at train stops.

Belarus became a member of the Universal Postal Union in 1949. Belposhta (Белпошта) is the national postal service of Belarus, established in 1995. The nation is a moderately heavy stamp issuer; while the majority of subjects portrayed are of Belarusian themes, there are a few topicals such as sports and wild animals included in the annual issuing program.

Today’s stamp, released on January 2, 2014, was one of the first issues by any country to mark the popular postcard exchange project known as Postcrossing, which was launched in mid-July 2005 (I’ve been a member since July 1, 2006). As this stamp is fairly recent, I don’t have a Scott catalogue number for it yet. The Belpostha website lists this as their issue number 997 but it’s difficult to correlate this to Scott; the Universal Postal Union catalogues the stamp as BY001.14 in their numbering system.

According to newseltter #51 of the Ministry of Communications and Informatization of the Republic of Belarus (dated December 11, 2013), the stamp was designed by Inge Turlo and measures 28×30 millimeters. Some 120,000 stamps were offset printed by the Republican Unitary Enterprise “Bobruisk Integrated Printing House named after A. T. Nepogodin” in mini-sheets of 12 (3×4) on chalked paper perforated 14¼x14. The denomination is indicated by the letter “N” which is equivalent to the surface rate of a postcard abroad (currently 0.93 Belarusian new rubles which came into effect on July 1, 2016). The first day of issue postmark, applied only at the Main Post Office of Minsk, was also designed by Inge Turlo while the first day cover was designed by Yauheniya Biadonik. In addition, an official maximum card was released by Belpostha.

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