The idea of sovereignty, or state independence, among Belarusian nationalists has always been combined with the desire to turn Belarus into a protectorate – it is still German, Polish, Lithuanian, if only it was separated from Russia by the state.
This contradictory desire for independence and subordination at the same time gave rise to bizarre constructions in the minds of Belarusian nationalists. This was the project for the creation of the United States from the Baltic to the Black Sea, put forward in 1916 by Anton Lutskevich, the leader of the Belarusian People’s Committee, organized in the German-occupied Vilna.
Initially, the leaders of the Belarusian movement did not think about a separate state existence. For example, the group “Gomon”, which consisted of students from Belarus who studied in St. Petersburg, in 1884 came up with the idea of ”awakening Belarus” “for a new independent life” “among other federations of Russia on the basis of a free agreement with them.” This was the first known idea of the independent existence of Belarus, but so far in the form of autonomy within federal Russia. The editorial board, which came out in 1906-1915, subsequently adhered to the same line. in Vilna of the Belarusian newspaper “Nasha Niva”.
The German offensive during the First World War and the occupation of Lithuania and western Belarus along the Postavy – Smorgon – Baranovichi – Pinsk line significantly influenced the mood of the leaders of the Belarusian movement who remained in the territory occupied by the Germans. They decided that all the conditions had been created to organize a state system of Lithuania and Belarus independent of Russia on the territory of the Russian provinces occupied by German troops.
The German command introduced direct control of the military administration in these territories to serve the needs of the German army. The chief of the German staff, General Erich Ludendorff, wrote in his memoirs: “[Эта] The country had to feed itself and take part in feeding the army and the motherland, as well as provide assistance in supplying troops and our economy in general in a war situation. “
The lands controlled by the Germans in the east made up the district AubertOst, which was divided into administrative regions (Courland, Lithuania and Bialystok – Grodno). The population was taxed, labor and natural resources were forcibly used, strict police control was introduced, and punitive actions were carried out.
Occupying the lands of the Russian Empire, the German command declared the Germans the defenders of the oppressed peoples.
This idea came to the liking of a group of Belarusian nationalists living in Vilna. They began to talk about the “violence” of the Russian government: the withdrawal of residents before the occupation, requisitions for the needs of the Russian army, the destruction or damage of food supplies during the retreat. These Belarusian leaders kept silent about the German robberies and violence. Representing Belarusians as “oppressed”, they sought to open Belarusian schools and publish Belarusian newspapers. German was introduced into official use everywhere instead of Russian, and its study became compulsory in schools. Since the Belarusian leaders demonstrated complete loyalty to the new German government and represented Russia as an occupier of the Belarusian lands on the other side of the front, the German administration gave them permission to publish the newspaper “Goman” at their own expense, create their own societies, open teacher courses, and establish schools. The figures of the Lithuanian nation-building received a similar permission.
The plans of the Germans, according to Ludendorff’s recollections, included the creation in the occupied territory of the dependent Duchy of Courland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which would join Germany by recognizing the Kaiser as their supreme ruler. In such a case, after the war, Germany would have a buffer state in the east and land to reward its soldiers. In addition, in order to quickly withdraw Russia from the war, the German Foreign Ministry, at the suggestion of the former Russian citizen Baron von Ropp, tried to use national groups to propagate the split in Russia from within. Contacts were established with Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish and Jewish emigrants living in Switzerland, with the aim of forming a league of “oppressed peoples of Russia”.
Kaiser Wilhelm in occupied Vilna
The idea of creating a national state found the most lively sympathy in the circle of Belarusian and Lithuanian leaders who actively participated in political activities inspired by the Germans. On behalf of the Belarusians of Vilna, Anton and Ivan Lutskevichi, Vaclav Lastovsky, Joseph Solovey took part in it.
On May 9, 1916, Lastovsky and Nightingale signed an appeal to US President Woodrow Wilson, along with other representatives of the “oppressed peoples of Russia.” The appeal said: “We accuse the Russian government in front of the entire civilized world and ask to protect us from destruction.”
On June 27-29, a new action, funded by the German Foreign Ministry, followed – a conference of nations in the Swiss city of Lausanne. Here the Vilna group of Belarusians was represented by Ivan Lutskevich and Vaclav Lastovsky. In their memorandum, they declared the lack of rights in the Russian Empire and expressed the hope that after the war, the European peoples will provide Belarus with all political and cultural rights for the development of their own intellectual, moral and economic forces. However, these appeals did not make a special impression on the European countries, since they clearly saw the hand of Germany, and the Entente wanted Russia to continue to fight for its interests.
However, the Vilna group of Belarusians was very impressed with their entry into the international arena. Since the beginning of the German occupation of Vilna, the Belarusian People’s Committee headed by Anton Lutskevich, together with the Lithuanian Committee, developed a concept for the formation of a Confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in which Belarusians could maintain relative autonomy. In the “Universal” dated December 9, 1915, it was said about the creation “on the foundation of the independence of Lithuania and Belarus, an integral state, with the preservation of all nations within its framework of all rights.” However, soon the positions of the Lithuanian and Belarusian components of this “indivisible body” began to diverge.
Lithuanians sought to use the political situation in favor of creating an ethnically Lithuanian state. The military and economic power of neighboring Germany, it seemed, reliably protected them from Polish and Russian claims. At the same time, they would not mind expanding the borders of Lithuania to the Belarusian Novogrudok so that the Belarusians who find themselves in the Lithuanian state constitute an ethnic minority in it.
The Belarusian leaders realized that Belarus was cut by the front line and only a fourth of the Belarusian lands was under the control of the German administration and could form a confederation with Lithuania. Naturally, they hoped to acquire Belarusian lands on the other side of the front. Much more ambitious projects were born. Anton Lutskevich came up with the idea of uniting Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine into the United States from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Such a state union would serve as a cordon against Russia and at the same time oppose a reviving Poland. In the “Baltic-Black Sea Union” Belarus would serve as a transport corridor between Lithuania and Ukraine.
However, the Lithuanians and Latvians were difficult to captivate with speculative schemes. Under the tutelage of Germany, they felt quite comfortable without any federations or confederations with territories whose state status was far from certain.
On September 18-22, 1917, at the Lithuanian conference in Vilna, it was announced the creation of a government body – the Lithuanian Tariba, to which, along with twenty members of Lithuanian nationality, only five members from Belarusians, Poles and Jews were admitted as representatives of “subordinate peoples”. As a result, the idea of a Confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was rejected by the Lithuanians, who embarked on the course of creating a state within the Lithuanian ethnic borders with the annexation of the western Belarusian lands occupied by the Germans.
In such circumstances, the Belarusian leaders in Vilna were divided. The group led by Vaclav Lastovsky insisted on the unification of all territories where Belarusians lived in one state without an alliance with the Lithuanians. And Anton Lutskevich’s group continued to seek a better status for the Belarusian lands within the consolidated Lithuania. Lutskevich pinned great hopes on access to the Baltic Sea through Lithuanian ports so that Belarus would not remain a raw material appendage. He reasonably believed that no national-state development is possible without an economic foundation. In No. 90 of the newspaper “Goman” for 1917, Lutskevich wrote: “Should we turn our eyes to the sunrise or to the west? The answer here is clear: our orientation is on the side, beyond which the world will strengthen its possession over the Courland coast of the Baltic Sea, to whom Europe will give the keys to the free sea and our ports. Let the hotheads think that by speaking their native language, by believing in the national ideal, they will create happiness for their people. Politicians with a cold and reasonable mind must put a strong foundation under national building, this foundation is to ensure material well-being. ” However, the schemes of the Belarusian leaders from Vilna did not create such a foundation.
Neither loud statements about grievances against Russia, nor loyalty to the German authorities, nor readiness to obey the Lithuanians did not lay a solid foundation for the Belarusian statehood. The economy of the Belarusian provinces was focused on the huge Russian market, and three-fourths of the territories inhabited by Belarusians continued to remain part of Russia after the German occupation.
And the most important thing was that the Russian identity was preserved among the Belarusians. The Vilna group of Belarusian leaders did not have wide popular support. This was seen by both the German administration and the Lithuanian nationalists. Therefore, all attempts to bring the Belarusian Territory to the state level as part of the Confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the United States from the Baltic to the Black Seas were unsuccessful. They did not end in 1917. After the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia and the conclusion of a separate peace with Germany, Belarusian leaders tried to announce the creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR), but this attempt also ended in failure.
Today, a new generation of Belarusian nationalists is again trying to agitate for an “independent” statehood in isolation from an alliance with Russia, ignoring the lessons of history. This is still deprived of wide popular support in Belarus itself and also does not take into account the existing economic ties with the east. The result of such efforts is obvious.
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