White Russia #8 (1920)

White Russia -
White Russia – “Scott #8” (1920)

White Russia is an interesting entity as it was once listed in the Scott postage stamp catalogue and spaces were included in various Scott-produced stamp albums but today, the few issued produced by it are considered as no more as labels with many forgeries existing as well. These were released by the military administration in the area largely comprising present-day Belarus during the chaos of the Russian Civil War from 1918-1921. The partially-recognized Belarusian People’s Republic (Белару́ская Наро́дная Рэспу́бліка, — Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika, BNR), historically referred to as the White Ruthenian Democratic Republic (Weißruthenische Volksrepublik in German) was a failed attempt to create a Belarusian state on the territory controlled by the German Imperial Army during World War I. The BNR existed for ten months in 1918. The only diplomatic mission was formed by its founders in Berlin.

The BNR was declared on March 25, 1918 in Minsk, but was replaced by a Communist government on January 5, 1919. It became known also as the Belarusian Democratic Republic. It ceased to exist when Minsk was captured by the forces of Bolshevik Russia and the Byelorussian SSR was founded in Minsk. Two years later, the founders of the BNR formed a government in exile abroad. Currently, the Rada (Council) of the Belarusian People’s Republic is the oldest still existing government-in-exile.

To the west it bordered Poland. After the formation of the Soviet Union and foundation of the Byelorussian SSR, it bordered the Lithuanian SSR and the Latvian SSR to the north, the Russian SFSR to the east and the Ukrainian SSR to the south.

The term Byelorussia (Белору́ссия) derives from the term Belaya Rus’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.

The latter part was similar but spelled and stressed differently from Росси́я, Russia. It first rose in the days of the Russian Empire, and the Russian Tsar was usually styled “the Tsar of All the Russias”, as Russia or the Russian Empire was formed by three parts of Russia — the Great, Little, and White. This asserted that the territories are all Russian and all the peoples are also Russian; in the case of the Belarusians, they were variants of the Russian people.

Following 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. In western Belarus under Polish control, Byelorussia became commonly used in the regions of Białystok and Grodno during the interwar period. Upon the establishment of the Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1920, the term Byelorussia (its names in other languages such as English being based on the Russian form) was only used officially. In 1936, with the proclamation of the 1936 Soviet Constitution, the republic was renamed to the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic transposing the second (“socialist”) and third (“soviet”) words.

On August 25, 1991 the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR renamed the Soviet republic to the Republic of Belarus, as well its abridged form should be “Belarus”. 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.

Map showing the White Russian territory (Ruthienie Blanche) in 1918.
Map showing the White Russian territory (Ruthienie Blanche) in 1918.

Prior to the First World War, Belarusian lands were part of the Russian Empire, which it gained from the Partitions of Poland more than a century earlier. During the War, the Russian Western Front’s Great retreat in August and September 1915 ended with the lands of Grodno and most of Vilno guberniyas occupied by Germany. The resulting front, passing at 100 kilometers to the west of Minsk remained static towards the end of the conflict, despite Russian attempts to break it at Lake Naroch in late spring 1916 and General Alexei Evert’s inconclusive thrust around the city of Baranovichi in summer of that year, during the Brusilov offensive further south, in Western Ukraine.

The abdication of the Tsar in light of the February Revolution in Russia in early 1917, activated a rather dormant political life in Belarus. As central authority waned, different political and ethnic groups strived for greater self-determination and even secession from the increasingly ineffective Russian Provisional Government. The momentum picked up after the incompetent actions of the 10th Army during the ill-fated Kerensky Offensive during the summer. Representatives of Belarusian regions and of different (mostly left-wing) newly established political powers, including the Belarusian Socialist Assembly, the Christian democratic movement and the General Jewish Labour Bund, formed a Belarusian Central Council.

Towards the autumn political stability continued to shake, and countering the rising nationalist tendencies were the Bolshevik Soviets, when the October Revolution hit Russia, that same day, on October 25 (November 7 NS), the Minsk Soviet of workers and soldiers deputies took over the administration of the city. The Bolshevik All-Russian council of Soviets declared the creation of the Western Oblast which unified the Vilno, Vitebsk, Mogilev and Minsk guberniyas that were not occupied by the German army, to administer the Belarusian lands in the frontal zone. On November 2 (December 6 NS), the executive committee of workers, peasants and soldiers deputies for the Western Oblast was merged with the Western front’s executive committee, creating a single Obliskomzap. During the autumn 1917 and winter of 1918, the Western Oblast was headed by Aleksandr Myasnikyan as head of the Western Oblast’s Military Revolutionary Committee, who passed this duty on to Karl Lander. Myasnikyan took over as chair of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s committee for Western Oblast and Moisey Kalmanovich as chair of the Obliskomzap.

Countering this the Belarusian Central Council reorganized itself as a Belarusian National Council (Rada) and started working on establishing governmental institutions, and discarded the Obliskomzap as a military formation, rather than governmental. As a result, on December  7 (December 20 NS), when the first All-Belarusian congress convened, the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded it.

Although German espionage played a key role in bringing the October Revolution to Russia, and one of the first decrees issued by the new government was the Decree on Peace de facto fulfilling the promise of ending Russia’s role in World War I, the Russo-German front in Belarus remained static since 1915 and formal negotiations began only on the November 19, 1917 (December 2 NS), when the Soviet delegation traveled to the German-occupied Belarusian city of Brest-Litovsk. A cease-fire was quickly agreed and proper peace negotiations began in December.

However, the German party soon went back on its word and took full advantage of the situation, and the Bolsheviks’ demand of a treaty “without annexations or indemnities” was unacceptable to the Central Powers, and on February 18 hostilities resumed. The German Operation Faustschlag was of immediate success and within 11 days, they were able to make a serious advance eastward, taking over Ukraine, Baltic states and occupying Eastern Belarus. This forced the Obliskomzap to evacuate to Smolensk. The Smolensk guberniya was passed to the Western Oblast.

Faced with the German demands, the Bolsheviks accepted their terms at the final Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed on March 3, 1918. For the German empire, Operation Faustschlag achieved one of their strategic plans for World War I, to create a German-centered hegemony of buffer states, called Mitteleuropa. Support of local nationalist groups alienated by Bolsheviks was key, thus, when four days after Minsk was occupied by the German Army, the disbanded Belarusian National Council declared itself as the sole authority in Belarus.

On March 9, following the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Germans and Bolsheviks, the Belarusian Council issued a Second Charter where it declared the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic. The Belarusian Council became the provisional government of Belarus and was renamed the Council of the Belarusian People’s Republic. On March 25, 1918, the Council issued a third charter declaring the independence of Belarus. Following that, local meetings were held within Belarusian cities that issued resolutions supporting the creation of an independent republic.

In its Third Constituent Charter, the following territories were claimed for BNR: Mogilev Governorate (province), as well as Belarusian parts of Minsk Governorate, Grodno Governorate (including Belastok), Vilna Governorate, Vitebsk Governorate, and Smolensk Governorate, and parts of bordering governorates populated by Belarusians, rejecting the then split of the Belarusian lands between Germany and Russia. The areas were claimed because of a Belarusian majority or large minority (as in Grodno and Vilna Governorate), although there were also numbers of Lithuanians, Poles and people speaking mixed varieties of Belarusian, Lithuanian and Polish, as well as many Jews, mostly in towns and cities (in some towns they made up a majority). Some of the Jews spoke Russian as their native tongue; others spoke Yiddish.

There were attempts to create regular armed forces of the newly established Belarusian republic. Belarusian military units started to form within the disorganized Russian army already in 1917. According to the historian Oleg Latyszonek, about 11 thousand people, mostly volunteers, served in the army of the Belarusian Republic.

General Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz supported the Government of BNR and openly positioned his army as a Belarusian national army, also acting as the first President of the Belarusian Provisional Government shortly after the downfall of the BNR before again handing power to the people For his resistance against Bolshevik forces and killing of local Belarusian peasantry, members of Belarusian minority in Poland regard him as their national hero.

The major military action of the Belarusian People’s Republic army was the Slutsk defence action in late 1920. The Council of the BNR, based at that time in Lithuania, sent officers to help organize armed anti-Bolshevik resistance in the town of Slutsk. The Belarusian army managed to resist a month against the greater strength of the Red Army.

During its short existence, the government of Belarus established close ties with the Ukrainian People’s Republic, organized food supplies to Belarus from Ukraine and thereby prevented hunger in the country. Diplomatic representations of Belarus had been created in Germany, Estonia, Ukraine and other countries to lobby for Belarusian interests or to support Belarusian soldiers and refugees who landed in different parts of the former Russian Empire.

Beginning in 1918, Anton Łuckievič, the Prime Minister of Belarus, met with Vladimir Lenin hoping to gain recognition for the independence of Belarus by Soviet Russia. The Belarusian delegation even proposed the creation of a federation with the RSFSR and the adoption of the Soviet Constitution in Belarus in exchange for Russia recognizing the independent status of Belarus, but Lenin did not agree to these proposals. The government also managed to create between 150 and 350 schools and preparations for the creation of a University in Minsk were initiated.

In 1919, a Delegation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic under Prime Minister Anton Łuckievič participated in the Paris Peace Conference, attempting to gain international recognition of the independence of Belarus. On the way to the conference, the delegation was received by Czechoslovak president Tomáš Masaryk in Prague. During the conference, Łuckievič had meetings with the exiled Foreign Minister of admiral Kolchak’s Russian government Sergey Sazonov and the Prime Minister of Poland Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Being surrounded by more powerful neighbors and having no allies, the BNR quickly lost its independence and did not become a real state with a constitution or defined territory. However, many modern Belarusian historians suggest that creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic was the reason for Bolsheviks creating the puppet Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and allowing some elements of national cultural life in the 1920s.

In December 1918, the German army retreated from the territory of Belarus and the Red Army moved in to establish the Socialist Soviet Republic of Belarus. The Rada (Council) of the BNR moved to Grodno, the center of a semi-autonomous Belarusian region within the Republic of Lithuania. During the subsequent 1919 Polish invasion, the Rada went into exile and facilitated an anti-Communist struggle within the country during the 1920s.

In 1925, the exiled government of the Belarusian Democratic Republic discussed relinquishing its authority in favor of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic controlling the eastern part of Belarus. Despite many members of the democratic government advocating this idea, the proposal was not approved.

During World War II, the Belarusian government-in-exile, based in Prague, refused to cooperate with Nazi Germany or with the “Belarusian Central Rada”, the pro-German puppet government, and issued statements in support of the Western allies.

The advance of the Red Army in 1945 forced the Rada of the BNR to relocate to the Western part of Germany, occupied by British and American troops. In February 1948, the Rada passed a special manifesto, by which it declared its return to activity. In April 1948 the Rada, together with representatives of the Belarusian post-war refugees, held a conference in Osterhofen, Bavaria.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, similar governments-in-exile of the neighboring countries (Lithuania, Poland and others) handed back their mandates to the corresponding independent governments.

Upon declaration of independence of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990, it was stated then that the Rada was ready to hand its status to a democratically elected parliament of Belarus. The parliament of Belarus of that time had been elected under Soviet rule. However, these plans were dropped after president Alexander Lukashenko, elected in 1994, established an authoritarian regime accompanied by a return to Soviet policies in regards to Belarusian language and culture.

The Rada BNR still exists as a government in exile and attempts to lobby for interests of the Belarusian diaspora in countries where it has its representatives.

Since the late 1980s, March 25, the Independence Day of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, is widely celebrated by the Belarusian national democratic opposition as Freedom Day (Дзень волі). It is usually accompanied by mass opposition rallies in Minsk and by celebration events of the Belarusian diaspora organizations supporting the Belarusian government in exile.

According to stamp blogger Jim of Big Blue 1840-1940 fame, his 1947 Scott catalogue includes the following notice for its listings of the 1920 White Russia stamps: “Nos 1 to 10 were never put to use. It is probable they were merely labels for propaganda or to raise funds. In 1920 there was no established government in White Russia, other then that of Soviet Russia.” These lithographed stamps comprise five denominations depicting a “soldier and wife” and were released both perforated to a gauge of 11½ and imperforate. I found my copy of the 15-kopeck value in a Scott Modern Album, copyright 1938.

According to a posting on a popular stamp collectors’ online forum, the stamps were prepared in 1920 in anticipation of a victory by General Bulak-Balakhovitch that never came and that “there were at least two printings of the stamps, as well as several forgeries; the second printing had a thinner script in the words at the top, most of the 15k value come from the second printing, the other values with the thinner script are quite hard to find (as is a genuine 15k with the thick script).”

According to a website focusing on the stamps of Belarus, “In the 5, 10 and 50 kopeck and the 1 ruble genuine stamps the girl has a long thin chin line or dimple that does not touch the jaw line. Forgeries have a dark spot on the chin line or if they have a short chin line, they have colored guidelines between the stamps. The 15 kopeck stamp is from a different original design and a different forgery. Forgeries are detected by looking at the last letter in the upper frame. In the forgeries the flag from the previous letter touches it. In genuine stamps, the flage does not touch the it.”

Big Blue does a very good job of illustrating and describing the genuine and forged versions of these stamps. I’m following Jim’s example of enclosing the catalogue number in quotations marks and I’m categorizing the post under “Local Posts”.

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