The present borders of Belarus were established during the turmoil of the Second World War.
The former Soviet republic was occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944, when it lost 2.2 million people, including almost all of its large Jewish population.
Belarus has been ruled with an iron fist since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko. Opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests. In 2005, Belarus was listed by the US as Europe's only remaining "outpost of tyranny".
In the Soviet post-war years, Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises, and the country is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.
Republic of Belarus
Population 9.5 million
Area 207,595 sq km (80,153 sq miles)
Major languages Russian, Belarussian (both official)
Major religion Christianity
Life expectancy 69 years (men), 79 years (women)
Currency Belarussian rouble
President: Alexander Lukashenko
Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, won a fifth term as president in October 2015, with no significant opposition candidate allowed to stand.But his next attempt at prolonging his rule was met with mass street protests in August 2020, demanding that he step down after an election that the opposition said was rigged.
A former state farm director, Mr Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994, following his energetic performance as chairman of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee.
He has managed a balancing act between Russia, his closest economic and political partner, and overtures to the West, while maintaining authoritarian rule at home.
Belarus has been heavily criticised by rights bodies for suppressing free speech, muzzling the press and denying the opposition access to state media.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Belarus 155th out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
TV is the main news source. The nine national channels are state-controlled. Their main competitors are Russian networks.
Newspapers owned by the state vastly outnumber those in private hands.
The internet is used by the opposition to make its voice heard. The government has sought to increase its online controls.
Russia's VKontakte is the most popular social network.
Some key dates in the history of Belarus:
1918 - Towards the end of the First World War, Belarus proclaims its independence as the Belarusian National Republic.
1919 - The Russian Red Army establishes communist rule in Belarus.
1921 - The Treaty of Riga divides Belarus between Poland and Soviet Russia.
1941-45 - Nazi Germany invades during the course of the Second World War. More than one million people are killed during the occupation, including almost all of the country's large Jewish population.
1986 - Belarus is heavily affected by the fall-out from the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in neighbouring Ukraine.
1991 - Belarus declares independence as the Soviet Union breaks up.
1994 - Alexander Lukashenko elected president on a platform of fighting corruption and re-establishing close ties with Russia.
2020 - President Lukashenko faces mass protests after the opposition says the presidential election was rigged in his favour.