Viciebsk (also Vitebsk), one of six main administrative cities of Belarus, with a population of 359,000 (1995), and capital of the Viciebsk Province (vobłaść). The city was founded in 974 by Duchess Olga of Kiev. It played an important role as a main point on the "Route from the Varangians to the Greeks," i.e., from Scandinavia to Byzantium, that passed through Belarus by a combination of rivers and portages. After being part of the Połacak Duchy, the city became the center of an appanage. From the 14th century until 1772 Viciebsk was in the Grand Duchy of Lithuanina, Ruś, and Samogitia (GDL). It grew into an important trade and manufacturing hub, one of the 15 biggest cities of the GDL, in the 15th to 16th centuries. In 1597, Viciebsk was granted the right to self-rule (see Magdeburg Statutes). The city was the site of the 1623 Uprising against the Uniates during which Greek Catholic Bishop Jazafat Kuncevič and several of his associates were killed. The act was punished by the government with the execution of 19 accomplices and the sentencing to death in absentia of 78 others. In the course of the next two centuries, Viciebsk was repeatedly burned and destroyed in wars between the Commonwealth and Russia. During the 17th century, a number of Orthodox and Catholic schools and monasteries were established there. In 1772, the eastern swath of Belarus, including Viciebsk, was incorporated into the Russian Empire.
The city was greatly affected by the military operations of World War I. With a population of only about 70,000, it had to accommodate 40,000 Russian troops. After the establishment of the Belarusian SSR, Viciebsk remained in the Russian Federation until 1924, when it was transferred to the BSSR. The city is known for its distinct style of painting, especially for its art school led by Michaił Kierzin, and in connection with the early works of Marc Chagall, who was born in its vicinity; the art of Kazimir Malevič; and the canvases of Judal Pen. The city, set in picturesque surroundings, has a number of historic buildings, rich art galleries, and museums that attract tourists.