1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Minsk (government)

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MINSK, a government of Western Russia, bounded by the governments of Vilna, Vitebsk, Mogilev and Chernigov on the N. and E. and by Kiev, Volhynia and Grodno on the S. and W. It has an area of 35,283 sq. m. The surface is undulating and hilly in the north-west, where a narrow plateau and a range of hills (800–1000 ft.) of tertiary formation separate the basin of the Niemen, which flows into the Baltic, from that of the Dnieper, which sends its waters into the Black Sea. The remainder of the government is flat, 450 to 650 ft. above sea-level, and covered with sands and clays of the glacial and post-glacial periods. Two broad shallow depressions, drained by the Berezina and the Pripet, cross the government from north to south and from west to east; and these, as well as the triangular space between them, are occupied by immense marshes (often as much as 200 to 600 sq. m. each), ponds and small lakes, peat-bogs and moving sands, intermingled with dense forests. This country, and especially its south-western part, is usually known under the name of Polyesie (“The Woods”). Altogether, marshes and moors take up 22% and marshy forests no less than 401/4% of the entire area of the province. It is only in the north-west that the forests consist of full-grown trees; those which grow on the marshy ground are small, stunted pine, birch and aspen. The climate of the Polyesie is extremely unhealthy; malarias and an endemic disease of the hair (plica Polonica) are the plagues of these tracts. Communication is very difficult. The railway from Poland to Moscow has taken advantage of the plateau above mentioned; but still it has to cross the broad marshy depression of the Berezina. A successful attempt was made to drain the marshes of the Polyesie by a system of canals, and more than 4,500,000 acres have thus been rendered suitable for pasture and agriculture. Two tributaries of the Dnieper—the Berezina and the Pripet—both navigable, with numberless subtributaries, many also navigable, are the natural outlets for the marshes. The Dnieper flows along its south-eastern border for 160 m. and the Niemen on the north-western for 130 m. The affluents of the Baltic, the Dvina and the Vistula, are connected by canals with tributaries of the Dnieper. The estimated population in 1906 was 2,581,400. The peasants constitute 65% of the population, who are mostly White Russians (71%), there are also Poles (12%), Jews (16%), Little Russians and Great Russians. About 70,000 are considered to be Lithuanians; there are also 4500 Tatars and 2000 Germans.

The principal occupation of the inhabitants is agriculture, which is very unproductive in the lowlands; in the Polyesie the peasants rarely have pure bread to eat. Only 23·5% of the area is under crops. Cattle-breeding is very imperfectly developed. Hunting and bee-keeping are sources of income in the Polyesie, and fishing gives occupation to about 20,000 persons. Gardening is carried on in some parts. The chief source of income for the inhabitants of the lowlands is the timber trade. Timber is floated down the rivers, and tar, pitch, various products of bark, potash, charcoal and timber-ware (wooden dishes, &c.) are manufactured in the villages to a great extent; and ship-building is carried on along the Dnieper, Pripet and Niemen. Shipping is also an important source of income. The industrial arts are almost entirely undeveloped, but there are several distilleries, flour-mills, saw-mills and tanneries, and woollen-stuffs, candles, tobacco, matches and sugar are manufactured. The great highway from Warsaw to Moscow crosses the government in the south, and its passage through the Berezina is protected by the first-class fortress of Bobruisk. The government is divided into nine districts, of which the chief towns and populations in 1897 are: Minsk, capital of the government (q.v.), Bobruisk (35,177), Igumeñ (4579), Mozyr (10,762), Novogrudok (7700), Pinsk (27,938), Ryechitsa (10,681) and Slutsk (14,180).

This region was originally inhabited by Slavs. That portion of it which was occupied by the Krivichi became part of the Polotsk principality, and so of White Russia; the other portion, occupied by the Dregovichi and Drevlyans, became part of Black Russia; whilst the south-western portion was occupied by Yatvyags or Lithuanians. During the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries it was divided among several principalities, which were successively incorporated with Lithuania, and later annexed to Poland. Russia took possession of this country in 1793. In 1812 it was invaded by the army of Napoleon I. Archaeological finds of great value, dating from the Neolithic and subsequent ages, have lately been made.  (P. A. K.; J. T. Be.)