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White Russia is the translation from the Russian language of the name Belaya Rus (originally, Belarusian: Белая Русь, White Ruthenia, or "White Rus"), which has historically been applied to a part of the wider region of Ruthenia or Rus', most often to what roughly corresponds to the eastern part of present-day Belarus including the cities of Polatsk, Vitsyebsk and Mahiliou.
In English, as well as in most other languages, White Russia loses important distinction between historical Rus' (Ruthenia), and modern Russia. It seems to suggest that this territory is describing the present-day Russian Federation, whereas it is a demonym deriving from the more ancient toponym Rus or Ruthenia (see also Etymology of Rus and derivatives, Etymology of the name Belarus). Because of that, usage of "White Russia" is a sensitive issue in Belarus, and could be seen as inappropriate. Unlike it, the term White Ruthenia does not suffer from such ambiguity.
Ruthenia is the latinized version of Rus’, a region in Eastern Europe inhabited by Slavs and the cradle of Kievan Rus’, a 9th to 12th-century state that existed in the territories of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Poland.
In English, the use of the term "White Russia" to refer to all of Belarus is obsolete. Many other languages, however, continue to use a literal translation of White Russia to refer to Belarus.
Belarus translates to White Russia in many modern languages (particularly, most Germanic languages). But only in the modern Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian languages is there a distinction between the modern country of Russia and the suffix "-rus" (it is a part of heritage of The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth):
- Polish: Białoruś (White Rus), but Rosja (Russia);
- Ukrainian: Білорусь Bilorus (White Rus), but Росія Rosia (Russia);
In the German language, the usual name for the state of Belarus still today is Weißrussland (White Russia). In official use (e.g. by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the name Belarus is often preferred. However, even the German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the term Weißrussland in her speech to the European Council Summit in March 2007. Likewise, it is still Wit-Rusland in Dutch, Hviderusland in Danish, Hviterussland or Kviterussland in Norwegian, Vitryssland in Swedish, Λευκορωσία in Greek, "Biélorussie" in French, "Bielorrusia" in Spanish, "Bielorrússia" in Portuguese, Valko-Venäjä in Finnish, Valgevene in Estonian, Baltkrievija in Latvian, Baltarusija in Lithuanian and Fehéroroszország in Hungarian.
Many other variants of this name appeared in ancient maps: for instance, Russia Alba, Russija Alba, Wit Rusland, Weiss Reussen, White Russia, Hvite Russland, Hvíta Rússland, Weiss Russland, Ruthenia Alba, Ruthenie Blanche and Weiss Ruthenien (Weißruthenien), assigned to various territories, often quite distant from that of present Belarus. For example, at one time the term was applied to Novgorod.
A 16th century chronicler Guagnini wrote in his famous book Sarmatiae Europeae descriptio, that Rus' was divided in three parts. The first part, under the rule of the Moscovite Grand Duke, was called White Russia. The second one, under the rule of Polish king, was called Black Russia. And the rest was Red Russia. He also said Moscow was the center of White Russia and Russian metropolitanate, and that Grand Duke of Moscow was called the White Czar, especially by his subjects.
Only by the late 16th century did it become a name for the area of the present Belarus. The origins of the name, which is attested from the 14th century, are unclear Vasmer's dictionary mentions the dichotomy of "white" land and "taxed" land in Domostroi and speculates that "white" Russia may have referred to the parts of Russia that were not subject to Tatar rule. Another speculation in Vasmer is that the color of the clothes of the White Russians (perhaps as well as the color of their hair) may have contributed to the name. Trubachev calls both theories "complete fantasies".
Alternatively, it may have its origins in the four coloured cardinal directions used in many Slavic and central Asian cultures, where white is an indicator for north.
It is noteworthy that some other Slavic people have been distinguished by colour. There have been, for example, White, Red and Black Croats. (White Croats and White Croatia lived in today's south-east Poland and western Ukraine, beyond the Carpathians; Red Croats and Red Croatia were situated in today's Croatia, present-day Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, southern Dalmatia and most of Albania, as well as "Old Serbia" (Raška and Metohija). Black Croats resided beyond the River Don; White Serbs in today's east Germany. There is also a region historically known as Black Ruthenia (Black Russia, Чорная Русь / Chornaya Rus’), it covers northwestern lands of modern-day Belarus: Hrodna, Slonim, Navahrudak, Vaukavysk and partly Minsk region.
The ethnographic explanation is that the term was derived from the old-Slavonic use of colors for the four cardinal points of the compass. The ancient totem-god Svetovid had four faces. The northern face of the totem was white (hence White Russia), the western face was red (hence Chervona (Red) Rus'), the southern face was black and the eastern green (hence Zelenyj klyn). This, however, makes the placement of Black Ruthenia problematic. Another possibility is the Belarusian people's high frequency of ash-blond or "white" hair, among the highest in Eastern Europe.
Yet another theory is that the name may have had its origins in the efforts made by Russia's tsars to distinguish themselves from their predecessors in Rome and Byzantium (on the basis that Russia was the "Third Rome"). The Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii by Sigismund von Herberstein explains that the Muscovite (disambiguation) rulers wore white robes to distinguish themselves from the purple of the Roman rulers and the red of the Byzantines. The Russian Tsar was thus called the "White Tsar": Sunt qui principem Moscovuiae Album Regem nuncupant. Ego quidem causam diligenter quaerebam, cur Regis Albi nomine appellaretur, or Weisse Reyssen oder weissen Khünig nennen etliche unnd wöllen damit ain underscheid der Reyssen machen (from Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii).
The Tsar himself was often called the "Great White Tsar", while he included among his official titles the style (literal translation): "The Sovereign of all Rus': the Great, the Little, and the White". This appellation, together with the solemn wording "White Tsardom", was in use till the very end of the Russian Empire. Ultimately, this colour was transferred onto the name of the counter-revolutionary White Army that fought against the Red Army.
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