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Union of Brest (1596)

With the propagation of Renaissance and Reformation in the Belarusian lands in the 16th century, long-lasting religious tolerance existed in that state until the end of the 16th century. Then the counter-Reformation followed, directed against both Protestant and Orthodox believers. It resulted in the signing of the Brest Church Union, which recognized supremacy of the Pope of Rome and Catholic doctrines at the Orthodox Church of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its ceremonial rites remaining intact.

The Union of Brest (1596), which united the Roman Catholic Church with the part of the Orthodox Church that was within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was viewed favorably by both the Polish king, Sigismund III, and a number of Orthodox bishops, clergy, and faithful. The new Uniate Church acknowledged the supremacy of the Roman Catholic pope and accepted articles of Roman Catholic religious doctrine. In return, the Uniate Church retained its traditional Orthodox rites and customs as well as a measure of autonomy in nondoctrinal matters; it was also given the same rights and privileges as the Roman Catholic Church. However, fear of the new church's becoming Latinized and Polonized caused many of the Orthodox faithful to reject the union, and the Orthodox Church continued to exist alongside the Uniate Church in an often bitter struggle.

In the aftermath of the Union of Brest, both civil and religious authorities persecuted the Orthodox Church and supported the Uniates in their takeover of Orthodox property. The leaders of the Rzeczpospolita launched a resolute campaign against the moral values of the Belarusian people at the beginning of the 17th century. Its major attack on Belarusian culture began with the adoption of the law by the General Confederation of the Rzeczpospolita nobility in 1696 on banning the Belarusian language from its official use in all the matters related to the state, administrative and judicial bodies, substituting it by the Polish language. Belarusian ballet, music and arts developed in spite of the official policy of polonization (Polish cultural domination).

The lands around Smolensk and the city itself, which were lost to Russia in the early 16th century, were gained back in the early 17th century. In the 15-16th centuries feudalism reached the highest degree of its development on the territory of Belarus. Due to the growing demand on agricultural products in Europe, feudal barons started farming on vast plots of land, which were cultivated by serfs. Serfdom was officially recognized in the Statute of the Grand Duchy in 1588. At this time a rapid growth of cities could be observed, which in the late 14th century were granted an autonomous status according to the Magdeburg privilege. Handicraft flourished and a number of guilds and merchant corporations were established.

Social conditions deteriorated, there was a large-scale revolt against Polish landowners in 1648-54 (coinciding with the Khmel'nyts'kyi rebellion in Ukraine), and many Belorussians fled to the Ukrainian steppes to join the Cossacks. There was little economic development in Belorussian lands, and the vast majority of the Belorussian population lived on subsistence agriculture.

Despite the devastating wars, Belarusian people built dozens of architectural masterpieces combining foreign and local styles. The Baroque style was prevailing in Belarusian architecture. Such marvelous buildings as the Sapegas' palace in Ruzhany, the Khreptovhichys' palace in Shchorsy, the Radzivils' palace in Nesvizh, St. Nikolai church and Carmelite church in Mogilev, parish churches in Nesvizh and Grodno, St. Peter and Paul cathedral in Vitebsk were all built in the baroque style. The famous Italian architect Giovanni Bernardoni, invited by Radzivil Sirotka, designed the Jesuit church and collegium and built the Radzivil Palace in Nesvizh in the 16th century.

The Orthodox population stood up against the Brest Union introduction. This resistance, together with the difficult economic situation of peasants and city workers, provoked the beginning of an anti-feudal war, which was unleashed by the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Russia did not miss the chance to use this period of political unrest for its own benefit and started a new war on the territory of the Rzeczpospolita, as a result of which the bigger part of Belarus was lost to Russia. However, in some time the Russian army suffered a number of defeats and Russia had to sign the Andrusov Armistice, according to which Belarusian lands (except Smolensk) were returned to the Rzeczpospolita.The war brought about a severe crisis in economics and had a negative impact on the demographic situation. The population of Belarus decreased twofold, the development of cities was seriously hindered, the process of Polonization (the propagation of Polish culture) accelerated and affected such social classes as the shljahta (the nobility) and the social stratum of city-dwellers. The Belarusian language lost its status of the official language and was replaced by Polish. The shljahta's privileged status caused tension and instability in the country.

In 1700 the Rzeczpospolita, in alliance with Russia, engaged in the Nothern War with Sweden, which turned the Belarusian territories into a battlefield. The situation was aggravated by numerous inner conflicts between different groups of noblemen supporting different aspirants to the crown. The war led to another economic crisis, which was overcome only in the mid 18th century. At this point the economy of Belarus recovered from the depression, which gave rise to capitalistic tendencies.

The consequences of the lingering political crisis in comparison with those of the economic one were more grave and profound. As a result of this crisis the Rzeczpospolita was overwhelmed by anarchy and threatened by the growing dominance of the neighboring states. The last King of Poland and Grand Duke of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Stanislav August Ponjatovski attempted to restore the centralized authority but soon had to face the opposition seeking support abroad. Using these circumstances and the fact that the Orthodox and Protestant populations in Rzeczpospolita were discriminated against Catholics, Russia, Prussia and Austria dismembered the Rzeczpospolita in three parts. As a result of this partitioning, the eastern part of Belarus was absorbed by the Russian Empire.

In order to keep the country intact, the Four-year Sejm (1788-1792) adopted on 3 May 1791 a constitution, which proclaimed the Rzeczpospolita a unitary state and reinforced the centralized authority, granted new rights to the petty bourgeoisie and put serfs under the guardship of the state. In reply to this Russia, on the formal invitation of the conservative representatives of shljahta, deployed troops on the territory of the Rzeczpospolita and conducted the second partition of the state, as a result of which the central part of Belarus was also annexed by Russia.

In 1794 the awakening to nationhood culminated in the uprising under the leadership of Tadeush Kastjushko, which was quelled by the Russian army. In 1795 the third partition of the Rzeczpospolita took place, which resulted in the annexation of the western parts of Belarus. The Rzeczpospolita ceased to exist.

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