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Why is the Russia White?
Ales Biely. The chronicle of the White Russia: an essay on the history of one geographical name. Minsk, Encyclopedix, 2000. 238 pp., soft. ISBN 985-6599-12-1.
Belarus (or "Byelorussia", in word for word translation, the White Russia) may be absolutely new entity on the map of Europe, but its name is at least 750 years old. However, it was not always applied to the present-day Belarus, as the recently published book by Ales Biely, The chronicle of the White Russia, shows.
The itinerant name White Russia was coined in the medieval literature in German (Weissrussland) and Latin (Russia Alba) and since 13th century was applied by the Western scholars now to the north-west Russia adjacent to Finland and Karelia, then to the northern littoral of the Black Sea. In fact, Russia Alba derives from Albania – the mysterious country somewhere between Caspian Sea and the Northern Ocean, inhabited, as the medieval scholars believed, by atrocious people with extremely white skin and golden eyes who had better sight at nights and whose enormous dogs were able to kill elephants and lions.
The first real entity that was to fit this fictitious description, was the medieval Republic of the Great Novgorod, and from 13th to the late 15th century the Western Europeans never called White Russia any other territory but the Great Novgorod. Even in 17th century such concept of the White Russia was still common. Giles Fletcher, the English Ambassador to Moscow in 1588 noted that "The country of Russia was sometimes called Sarmatia... When it bare the name of Sarmatia, it was divided into two chief parts, the white and the black. The white Sarmatia was all that part that lieth towards the north and on the side of Livonia – as the provinces now called Dvina, Vaga, Ustiug, Vologda, Kargopol, Novgorod, etc. – whereof Novgorod Velikii was the metropolis or chief city.
However, this name remained unknown for the Russians (and indeed, any Eastern Slavs) at all. When the Muscovites conquered Great Novgorod in 1471-1478, its Western name was spread to the whole newly born empire of the Ivan III – yet again, this Western scholarly name was hardly known to anybody in the East. "Muscovy, which has the name also of Russia the white, is a very large and spacious country," thus wrote Richard Chancellor in the accounts of the first English expedition to Russia (1553).
Only in the late 16th century did White Russia become associated with the north-east of today's Belarus and its Slavonic population – the future Belarusians. (The rest of Belarusians of that time usually called themselves Litvins, i.e. Lithuanians.) Jerome Horsey of the Muscovy Company, in the late 16th century, was perhaps one of the first Europeans who used the name White Russia virtually in its contemporary sense and spelling when he wrote that Ivan IV the Terrible "got from the king of Poland the famous cities of Polotsk, Smolensk, Dorogobuzh, Viaz'ma and many other towns; Bella Russia and Lithuania, goodly towns of traffic, and countries yielding great commodities..."
In 17th century, the Russian Tsars actively promoted the use of the name White Russia for propaganda purposes – to substantiate their claim to the alleged "old Russian heritage" which they tried to conquer back from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. When, after three partitions of the Commonwealth, the Tsars consolidated their position in today's Belarus, they tried to erase any token of distinction from popular awareness, officially renaming this territory the "north-west province." Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century the name Belaja Rus' (White Ruthenia) had become widely accepted though many prominent figures of the national revival accepted it only reluctantly – fearing that it would encourage Russian claims. (Similarly, Ukrainians feel insulted when Ukraine is called by what was its official name in Tsarist times – Little Russia). Other names were suggested for the "north-west province," including Vialikalitva (Great Lithuania) and Kryvija, after the most powerful tribal union of the past, but failed to win much support.
Copyright © Ales Biely, 2001.
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