History of Minsk

The Origins and Early History 

There are many legends relating to the foundation of Minsk and the origin of its name. Situated on the watershed of the river-routes linking the Baltic to the Black sea, its trading history going back to prehistoric times some have thought that the city owes its name to the word miena or "barter". Others look at a hill-fort known as Haradysczy by Stroczyce, a "Skansen"-village, a few kilometers away on the west from the city on the banks of the river Menka, which flows to the river Pticz and on to join the Pripiat' and Dniapro. A heroic folk legend that a giant called Menesk or Mincz kept a mill on the banks of a river, and ground rock and stones to make flower for bread in order to feed the war-band he had assembled to protect his settlement, and safeguard its prosperity. This depended, no doubt, on the portage of goods between the headwaters of Pripiat, Dniapro, and Nioman. So Menesk -- later Mensk -- came into being. The reference to "stone-flour" can allude to kneading and baking of potters clay used in brick-making and ceramics industry, which from the earliest times flourished in the area. There was no lack of wood to fire the kilns.

Ancient Minsk

In prehistoric times the "domain of the bear" predominated over "the domain of the goose"(as Napoleon soldiers aptly dubbed the forest- and meadow-lands of the area) with vast and impenetrable primeval forests covering most of the country and serving as a Delphic "wooden wall" to its successive inhabitants against attacks from the East. Scattered Lithuanians and Jatvyhs hunted and gathered, until merged with the more advanced Slavonic tribes moving northwards from the Carpathians during the so-called Dark Ages. These settled the area forming the watershed of the rivers flowing to the Baltic and the Black Sea, where the early Belarusians founded prosperous townships of Polacak, Viciebsk, Smalensk, Minsk, and Harodnia. Of these Polacak, first mentioned in the chronicles for 862, was to become the most important.

During the era of Viking expansion along the East European waterways, many towns and principalities were ruled over by Scandinavian warlords; in the 9th century the lands of Polacak were raided by two Viking princes Askold and Dir, and by the 10th century a Prince Ravhalod(Norse: Ragnvald) reigned over the Belarusian principality of which early Minsk formed part. The Belarusian nobility to this day distinguishes between families of old Lithuanian and those of Scandinavian descent(Hedymoviczy and Rurikoviczy).

Minsk and the Principality of Polacak (989 - 1249)

Rahvalod's daughter Rahnieda(Norse: Ragnheid) was baptized; she became the wife of Prince Volodimir(Norse: Valdemar) of Kiev and bore him a son Iziaslau. Volodimir was baptized a Christian by missionaries from Constantinople in 988; the population of Polacak accepted Christianity in 989, and by 992 the city had its Bishop. On the death of Volodimir, Iziaslau' became Prince of Polacak, and his half-brother Jaraslav -- Volodimir's son by a previous marriage -- became Prince of Novgorod and later of Kiev.

 The dynastic rivalry between the houses of Kiev and Polacak explains the turbulent history of Minsk in its early years, situated as it was on the southern borders of the latter principality. The center of the town had shifted to a new cite giving access to the headwaters of the Vilija and Biarazima and the confluence of the Niamiha and Svisloch rivers. Here also the steep banks of the Niamiha, the high mound south of the stream and Trinity Golden hill offered a good defensive position. Public buildings, dwelling houses, and fortifications were raised of timber. The first recorded mention of Minsk in 1066 relates however to dynastic wars with Kiev. After Usiaslau of Polacak had raided Novgorod and brought to his capital the bells of the Cathedral of St. Sophia, to hang them in his own Cathedral of that name, the three sons of Jaraslav in retribution attacked the city of Minsk: "The people of Menesk(Minsk) barricaded themselves in the town, but the three brothers took Menesk and killed the men, carried off the women and children into captivity, and went towards the Niamiha".

Treacherously seized whilst attending a parley in Smalensk with Isiaslau and the princes of Kiev in 1067, Usiaslau and his two sons were kept captive in Kiev, until an uprising of the inhabitants set them free. Prince Usiaslau fled to Poland, and the Prince of Polacak was offered the throne of Kiev in his stead. The story goes that Usiaslau' longed to return home, and declined the honor for the love of his native land.  The first uncensored Belarusian historical opera performed in Minsk: Usiaslau the Enchanter, Prince of Polacak (1944) by the composer Kulikovicz dealt with this romantic theme. The bells of St. Sophia were to become for Belarusian exiles the symbol of the call of the homeland.

The Early Years of the Grand Duchy (1250 - 1499) 

Little is known of the history of the city under the early Grand Duke Vajszelak(d. 1269), Trojdzen(1271 - 1282), and Lutaver (1282 - 1295). In 1323, during the reign of Hedymin (1316 - 1341), the capital of the Grand Duchy was moved from the Navahrudak to Vilnia.


Renaissance Minsk (1499 - 1569) 

Minsk under the Commonwealth (1569 - 1648) 

The Muscovite Wars and the Polish Ascendancy (1648 - 1700) 

The Decline and Partitions (1700 - 1795) 

Minsk under Russian Rule (1795 - 1917) 

Towards  independence (1917 - 1991)


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