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I've read the German and English Wikipedia on this topic as well as the translated Belarussian version and some sites I googled. They all seem to argue that the 'Rus' part stems from the Region called Ruthenia. The German version advocates that the 'Bela' part might derive from a word meaning 'western' (as the western part of the Rus) whereas in the English Wikipedia it is translated as 'white'. Also according to the English version the name originated in the 13th century.

I have a colleague at work from Belarus and he says something completely different. According to him the country was named after a beautiful(~bela?) girl called 'Rus' around the year 800.

Does somebody know where his believe comes from and what the more likely/true explanation is.

My colleague's explanation sounds like a conspiracy theory to me. Only the historians who loved their country explain how it really was. And all the information I find on the web was either misinformation spread from the current government or propaganda left from the time when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union.

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The correct term for your colleague’s account is etiology: creating a myth to explain the origin of something. –  phg Oct 12 '12 at 12:35

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The “bela” stems from the common Slavic root for “white”, as has been discussed in the other answers. There were also historical regions called the “Red” and the “Black” Rus’ (Ruthenia) on the territory of todays Belarus and Ukraine-- the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of the middle ages.

The origin of the “Rus” part of Belarus is somewhat uncertain. It is first documented in the 9th century. One possible interpretation is that this was either a toponym or an ethnonym of the Byzantinian nomenclature of the time for the territory of Eastern Europe or the people that lived there respectively. From the Greeks it could have migrated to these people, where it later became the self-denomination of the eastern Slavic state, the Kievan Rus’. But this is by no means the only hypothesis for the etymology of the name “Русь”. Some alternatives are the origin from a Finno-ugric root, or that it was derived from an earlier toponym (places called Русь or Русса (Russa) are not entirely unheard of). If you know Russian, this link I got from ru.wikipedia leads to a comprehensive article that investigates the common theories.

The naming tradition was continued after the 13th century by the decay products of the Kievan Rus’, including those that were eventually incorporated in Lithuania and later the Polish Commonwealth. Today, Belarus’ is the one that survives as the name of an actual state. (The term “Russia” is a bit more complex but not unrelated.)

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-1 this does not answer the question about Belarus, only about Bela- and -rus. There is a book (in Belorussian) over the Internet that cites not less than a dozen different scientific theories of the origin of the name, compares the arguments behind each, concluding that neither can be singled out as more probable. –  kubanczyk Oct 16 '12 at 9:59
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I’d appreciate if you’d post an answer containing the bibliographic data to the book you cite, it might be of interest to OP as well. –  phg Oct 16 '12 at 11:24

Belarus was earlier called White Russia.

Belo is the "Russian" word for White. It is probably not a reference to the Latin "bella" or beautiful. Nor do I believe that "Rus" is a reference to a woman.

"Rus" was a reference to a group of Vikings who settled the western parts of what later became the Soviet Union, including modern Belarus and the Ukraine. But it was the lands EAST of the "Rus"sian settlements that finally took the name "Russia."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rus%27_%28people%29

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Thanks for the answer, I speak a little Russian and know that the first part at least sounds similar to the Russian word for white. The German Wikipedia argues that it also might have originated from "bely" which can be translated as "western" or "northern" (I assume a word used by the slavs, there are no further references to that claim). It just seems that in the 19th century a consensus was reached to translate the bela part as white. Do you have an idea where my colleagues believe might come from? –  LeoR May 13 '12 at 11:27
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This is not true. "Rus" was the name of the people, not the name of a person. Last week's 30 Rock was wrong. –  Steely Dan May 16 '12 at 21:07
    
Also, they pretty much took over the Russian river system (notably the Dnieper), so its not like they had a single settlement. –  T.E.D. Jun 22 '12 at 14:16
    
@SteelyDan: Indeed. It's the name given to the Varangians who settled in Russia, and later the people they ruled/descendents. I think Tom Au is thinking of Rurik. –  Noldorin Oct 12 '12 at 21:55
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LOL I never heard of any Viking leader named Rus. Possibly you are confusing it with Rurik. –  Anixx Oct 12 '12 at 22:41

Belorussia means "White Russia" in Russian. Rus' (the final consonant should be soft) is the ancient name of the East Slavic state centered around Kiev. Belarus thus can be interpreted as "White Rus'"

I never heard any legend about any woman named "Rus". I also doubt that "bela" ever could mean "beautiful"

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Note also that Ukraine for a certain period was called "Malorossia" which means "Small Russia". –  Anixx May 13 '12 at 11:23
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"West" in Russian is "zapad" - no connection to "bel". –  Anixx May 13 '12 at 12:10
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There is a tradition of giving naming compass directions after colours in Turkic cultures. The best example is from the perspective of Anatolia, you have the Black Sea to the north, the Red Sea to the south, the White (Mediterranean) Sea to the west (the east is blue, by the way). Russia experienced waves of Turkic (Tatar) invasions and migrations, so it's possible that the association of 'white' with the west that they didn't conquer was a borrowing into Russian. Of course, my conjecture is probably just as fanciful as the one about the beautiful girl! –  SigueSigueBen May 13 '12 at 18:28
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@Anixx And yet Wikipedia states: "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." and "Alternatively, it [White Russia] 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." –  SigueSigueBen May 14 '12 at 5:20
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@Anixx - I think the "bela"="beautiful" thing comes Romance (Latin-dervied) languages, where it does tend to mean that. Of course the languages spoken in that area are not Romance, so this is almost certianly not true. –  T.E.D. Jun 22 '12 at 14:24

Before 1863 the land of todays Belarus was called "Litva" and people, accordingly, "litvins" (do not confuse with modern Republic of Lithuania which in those times was called "Zhmudz"). In 1863 there was a big uprise against Russian Empire. After it was suppressed and thousands of participants were executed, russians banned the very name of "Litva". Instead the name "Severo-zapadnyi kraj" (North-west region) was introduced. Belarusian cultural elites were not satisfied with the name inflicted by occuppant goverment. So, the name "Belarus" was proposed by great poet Francishak Bahushevich.

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