Polotsk (Polatsk, По́лацк, Полоцк, Polockas, Połock) is a historical city in Belarus, situated on the Dvina river. It is the center of Polotsk district in Vitsebsk Voblast. Its population is approximately 79,000. It is served by Polotsk Airport and during the Cold War was home to Borovitsy air base.
Polotsk is one of the most ancient cities of the Eastern Slavs. It was mentioned for the first time by the Primary Chronicle in 862 (as Полотескъ, /poloteskŭ/), together with Murom and Beloozero. The Norse sagas describe the city as the most heavily fortified in all of Rus.
Between the 10th and 12th centuries, the Principality of Polotsk emerged as the dominant center of power in what is now Belarusian territory, with a lesser role played by the principality of Turaŭ to the south. It repeatedly asserted its sovereignty in relation to other centers of Kievan Rus, becoming a political capital, the episcopal see and the controller of vassal territories among Balts in the west. Its most powerful ruler was prince Vseslav Bryachislavich (reigned from 1044 to 1101). A 12th-century inscription commissioned by Vseslav's son Boris may still be seen on a huge boulder installed near the St. Sophia Cathedral. For a full list of Polotsk rulers, please see List of Belarusian rulers.
Polotsk became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1307, and it is said to have been the main center of trade in the state. The Magdeburg law was adopted in 1498. Polotsk was a capital of Połock Voivodship of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772. Captured by the Russian army of Ivan the Terrible in 1563, it was returned to Lithuania just 15 years later.
That period of warfare started the gradual decline of the city. After the first partition of Poland Polotsk degraded to the status of a small provincial town of the Russian Empire. During the French invasion of Russia in 1812, it was the setting of two battles: see First battle of Polotsk and Second battle of Polotsk for details.
The city's Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Polotsk (1044-1066) was a symbol of the independent-mindedness of Polotsk, rivaling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kiev and referring to the original Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (and thus to claims of imperial prestige, authority and sovereignty). The building of the Cathedral had been ruined by the troops of Peter I of Russia. That's why the present baroque building by Johann Christoph Glaubitz dates from the mid-18th century. Some genuine 12th-century architecture survives in the Convent of Saint Euphrosyne, which also features a neo-Byzantine cathedral, designed and built in 1893—1899 by Vladimir Korshikov.
Cultural achievements of the medieval period include the work of the nun Euphrosyne of Polotsk (1120-1173), who built monasteries, transcribed books, promoted literacy and sponsored art (including local artisan Lazarus Bohsha's famous "Cross of Euphrosyne," a national symbol and treasure lost during World War II), and the prolific, original Church Slavonic sermons and writings of Bishop Cyril of Turaw (1130-1182).
Belarusian first printer Francysk Skaryna was born in Polotsk around 1490. He is famous for the first printing of the Bible in an East Slavic language (in Old Belarusian) in 1517, several decades after the first ever printed book by Johann Gutenberg and just several years after the first Czech Bible (1506).
In September 2003, as "Days of Belarusian Literacy" were celebrated for the 10th time in Polotsk, city authorities opened a monument to honor the unique Cyrillic Belarusian letter Ў, which is not used in any other Slavic language. The original idea for the monument came from the Belarusian calligraphy professor Paval Siemchanka, who has been studying Cyrillic scripts for many years.