True Lithuania

The Rule of Russian Empire in Lithuania (1795-1918)

What initially started as a mere change of the ruler from a Polish-Lithuanian king to a Russian czar eventually led to a major russification drive.

Administratively Lithuania was divided into the area directly acquired by Russia in 1795 and the area acquired from Prussia after the Napoleonic wars (in 1815). The latter was part of the nominally autonomous Kingdom of Poland and lived under the Napoleonic Code whereas the earlier was directly ruled by the Russian Empire.

Napoleon's Grande Armee crosses Nemunas to start the doomed invasion of Russia (Kaunas, 1812). The 500000-strong army both advanced and retreated through Lithuania, leaving 80000 dead troops and hopes for Grand Duchy restoration unfulfilled.

In 1831 and 1863 the local nobility led revolts against the Russian rule attempting to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Both were crushed despite some initial successes and their leaders were dispossessed. Some of the Lithuanian countryside and cities were then settled by Russians.

In the year 1832, the Vilnius University was closed. By the year 1865, printed Lithuanian language was banned. A policy of “Restoration of the Russian beginnings” was initiated as the Russian propaganda claimed that before Polonization the Lithuanian lands were, in fact, Russian.

The Roman Catholic Church was persecuted, with some church buildings torn down and some others handed over to the Russian Orthodox church. New Russian Orthodox churches sprung in the New Towns of the largest cities. The Uniates, regarded as schismatic Orthodoxes, were disbanded altogether. Mikhail Muravyov, nicknamed “The hangman”, was made the governor-general of ethnically Lithuanian governorates.

Russification era construction and destruction in Vilnius. Left image: Baroque St. Joseph church undergoing demolition (1877). Right image: a pompous unveiling of M. Muravyov statue in 1898.

The persecutions failed to defeat Lithuanians. Knygnešiai (literally “bookcarriers”) smuggled the banned Lithuanian books from the Lithuania Minor (a historical fact declared to be completely unique by UNESCO). Illegal Lithuanian-language schools were set up in villages. Catholic priest Motiejus Valančius led the Abstinence Movement aimed at resisting the Russian policy of weakening the masses through making them addicted to alcohol.

It was during the late 19th century when the popular idea of liberation among ethnic Lithuanians switched from restoration of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to an establishment of a smaller independent state on the Lithuanian ethnic lands, leaving the rest of the former Grand Duchy to the Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Polish ethnic states. These events (altogether known as the Lithuanian National Revival) tamed the long-term assimilation-induced decline of the Lithuanian-inhabited area and their share therein.

Economically Russia was backward compared to the Western Europe and while there was some infrastructure development, such as the Saint Petersburg-Warsaw railroad of 1861 that went through Vilnius, this was far from the Western standards. Moreover, the official class division of the society was rigorously supported by the state and only in the year 1861 the farmers ceased to be regarded as a property of the local nobles.

Rietavas Palace of Oginskiai family, built in mid-19th century. Lithuania's first telephone line (1882) and power station (1892) were established in this Samogitian manor. Those were the final decades before cultural/technological hubs moved from manors to the cities. Painting by Napoleon Orda.

Unlike Latvia (where Riga was among the 5 largest cities of the Russian Empire) Lithuania was expected by the Russians to remain an agricultural hinterland. The industrialization and urbanization that defined 19th century elsewhere in Europe, therefore, remained limited but the towns and cities were still growing much faster than ever before.

Lithuanians seeking industrial jobs migrated elsewhere: some to the major cities of the Russian Empire such as Riga or Saint Petersburg, others to the USA. In 1900 there were more Lithuanian speakers in Riga and Chicago than in any city in Lithuania (where the few cities that existed were dominated by Polish speakers and Jews).

In Lithuania Minor, the cities were largely German while some Lithuanian towns and villages gradually Germanized over the century. In spite of this Lithuania Minor, technologically advanced and devoid of discriminatory Russian policies, remained a fortress of Lithuanian National Revival.

'Nauja Lietuviška Ceitunga' and 'Nauja Aušra' Lithuanian newspapers, both published in 1890s Tilžė, Lithuania Minor. 'Nauja Aušra' was to be illegally distributed inside Russian-occupied Lithuania by knygnešiai (so it used Polonized orthography) while 'Nauja Lietuviška Ceitunga' was aimed at Lithuania Minor market (therefore it preferred fraktur typeset and more German loanwords).

The Russian Empire started to crumble in 1904 when it lost the war to Japan and had to give in to some demands of its minorities. Lithuanian language was permitted once again and the Lithuanian countryside sprung up with new Roman Catholic church spires.

In 1915 the Germans captured Lithuania-proper during the First World War. In 1917 Russia surrendered to Germany (after the war hardships led to a revolution in Russia) and renounced any claims to the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, while the subsequent German losses in the Western Front led to a possibility to declare independence of Lithuania on February 16th, 1918.

Simplified map of the ethnic-linguistic situation of Lithuania ~1900. It could not depict the mixed areas, numerous ethnolinguistic enclaves, diglossia and dual identities that prevailed alongside ethnolinguistic boundaries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

See also: Top 10 Russian Imperial era sites in Lithuania

Click to learn more about Lithuania: History 53 Comments
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  1. thank you I am grateful to learn of the life of my grandparents

  2. Russia did not surrender to Germany in 1917. Russia’s revolutionaries were not in favour of Russia’s involvement in WW1. On 3rd March 1918 Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, to end Russia’s involvement in the war. This treaty is known as The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. There was no Russian surrender as claimed in the above.

    • What you probably meant by saying “Russia did not surrender” was that “Russia did not surrender unconditionally” (like Germany or Japan did after World War 2).

      However, unconditional surrender is just one type of surrender and a pretty rare one. There were no unconditional surrenders in World War 1.

      “Exit from war” through a treaty ceding many lands and gaining nothing comparable in return (as happened with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk) is also a surrender, though not an unconditional one.

      Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was not any different in substance than the treaties Germany, Ottoman Empire, Austria or Hungary signed at the end of World War 1, each of them also alienating vast areas (mostly inhabitted by non-titular ethnicities).

      In fact, the total European lands Germany lost under Treaty of Versailles were even smaller than what Russia lost with Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

  3. My great great grandfather came to New York from Lithuania in 1899.

    • My great grandparents also came to the U.S. from Lithuania in 1899. They reported in the 1910 US Census that they came from Polish Russia and spoke Polish. In the 1920 US Census, they reported that they were born in Russian Poland and spoke Polish. But in the 1930 US Census, they reported that they were born in Lithuania and spoke Lithuanian. I’m trying to figure out from where they emigrated.

      • See the article Poles in Lithuania. The thing is, due to the history of joint Poland-Lithuania state (before 1795) many Lithuanians considered themselves to also be Poles and the two nations finally separated (in the mindsets of the people) only during the interwar period when the Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius made it impossible for somebody to have a “double allegiance”. Both Poland and Lithuania were ruled by Russia in 1795-1915, thus they were also Russian citizens.

        So, I think your great grandparents were Lithuanians from Lithuania. They probably also spoke Polish as a second language (seen as prestige-language at the time by many), as well as Russian which was the language of the then-ruling regime. They were Russian Empire citizens. Until 1920 they still saw Polish as a more prestigious and well-known language and culture and thus reported it rather than the more obscure Lithuanian culture. In 1930, as the Polish-Lithuanian conflict was raging, they likely no longer saw Polish as a prestige language and may have hated Poland for its occupation of Vilnius region. So, they reported Lithuanian and Lithuania as answers.

        • Good information-thank you-I had the same questions when researching my Lithuanian heritage.

        • So if someone was born in either Grodno or Prussia around 1900, would they be considered Russian?

          • Prussia (including Lithuania Minor) was a part of Germany.
            Grodno was a part of the Russian Empire.

            So, by citizenship, people would be German citizens (in Germany) or Russian citizens (in Grodno).

            Take note that in this era (and to a large extent even today) citizenship mattered little in the Eastern Europe. Ethnicity and religion mattered more. So, an ethnic Lithuanian from the areas would consider himself a Lithuanian – rather than German or Russian, despite the citizenship. Citizenship was often seen as something forced upon by a foreign empire, akin to the situation in extra-European colonies.

            At the time, Grodno had Belarusian, Polish, and Lithuanian ethnic communities.
            East Prussia had German, Lithuanian, Jewish and Polish ethnic communities.

            If you asked any person of the area “are you Russian?” at this time, he would have answered “No” – except if he was a Russian immigrant to the area. This is despite the fact that most people of Grodno were citizens of the Russian Empire but they would have still said “I am a Pole”, “I am a Belarusian”, “I am a Lithuanian”, “I am a Jew” rather than a Russian.

  4. Hi , thank you for the information on Lithuania , my grandfather was born in Kaunas , Lithuania and my grandmother was born Vera kulbok in Vilnius , Lithuania . My grandfather list on the us census that he was born in Russia and my grandmother in the republic of Lithuania . I don’t understand and they left Lithuania in 1910 for the USA .

  5. My grandfather was born in Laizeva Lithuania June 1875. I would like to find family records for him — his parents, siblings, school records, marriage records and any genealogical information. How can I accomplish this?

    • We (the True Lithuania website) provide heritage search services in Lithuanian achives. We can contact you by e-mail you have provided when writing this comment with more details (you may also contact us at ).

  6. I enjoyed your article. Are you related to Algis Zemaitis? He is a relative of mine and I was wondering if perhaps we are also related.

    • I don’t know Algis Žemaitis as related to me, however if you’d say where he is originated from and it will be the same villages / part of Lithuania then there may be relation. However, Žemaitis is a somewhat popular surname, meaning “Samogitian”.

  7. I happend across this website trying to determine information about my great-grandfather who left Lithuania between 1903-06. I recently received his military records from a relative which suggests he was discharged to the Reserves (to 1917) in Butrimonys in Troki. I don’t know if it is typical to be discharged to the region from which you grew up?

    I would love to get an accurate translation of the contents and a cyrillic rendering of his name (which is hand-written in the document). Any suggestions as to where? It is interesting how Franc Mixajlov Vasilevskij (what somebody deciphered back in the 30’s) became Frank Waselefsky

    I am finding the information on this site quite fascinating, as it provides context for my great-grandparents’ immigration.

    • Hi

      I came across your name in 23 and me. We have common ancestor and I am wondering if it is Frank Waselefsky


      • Hi Lucy,
        Just seeing this today. Not sure which kit you matched (could be up to four, but not me). Please contact me at 23andMe and mention this sight.

        • Hi; sorry, I did not see your previous message on time. If you are still interested in a translation, we do offer translation services.

  8. I’m trying to find any information about the families on my grandparents names for Zebellis and Yanueshes. How do I get started ? I need help I know very little about my grandparents in Lithuania. I have my grandmothers letters received from her family before ww11. The letters are in Lithuania.

    • It is the best to start at your own location collecting as much information as possible (names, approximate dates, locations in Lithuania, etc.). The more you collect, the easier it will be on the “Lithuanian side”. Not every name or date is truly needed for a successful search and some missing details may be filled. In the letters, there may be locations in Lithuania written and such, so they are useful to read.

      After you collect all the possible information, in Lithuania, an archive search is needed whereby the details you collected would be used to learn more about the family and even more generations.

      We may offer translation services of the letters. We may also offer archive search services.

  9. it’s right Russia has very interested country

  10. My grandfather arrived in the USA in 1907 and he said he was from Wilna. His name was Adolph Chadiko. My grandmother arrived in 1909 and stated she was Russian and was from Zwirbic. Her maiden name was Marya Pakelins. I have not been able to fin a city named Zwirbic. She always said she was from Vilnius and I don’t know if there might be a section of Vilnius named Zwirbic?
    The above information is registered at Ellis Island, New York, USA.

    • The closest name of Vilnius area to Zwirbic would be Žvėrynas. More info: .

      It should be noted, however, that, under the Russian Imperial rule, Vilnius was not just a city, but also the capital of the Vilnius governorate. Sometimes “from Vilnius” would have meant “From Vilnius governorate”, and this governorate covered the whole modern-day Eastern Lithuania as well as Western Belarus. Some emigrants who were of rural origins wanted to create urban roots for themselves this way, others simply used a name of the city somebody at least heard in America (capital of their governorate) rather than a name of some unknown village.

      There are numerous villages known as Žvirbliai and the like. Back in those days, there was no standard spelling, and people of different ethnicities would use different spellings for the same cities and locations (e.g. Vilnius / Wilno / Vilna / Wilna / Vilne).

    • I wonder if your grandfather and my grandfather were on the same ship that landed at Ellis Island. My grandfather arrived in Nov. or Dec. of 1907.

    • Not far from Vilnius there are several villages with a similar names, in Lithuanian it is Žvirbli, but now it is the territory of Belarus, the name of the village in Russian is Жвирбли. Pakelins – it cannot be the female surname in Lithuanian and Russian, Lithuanian female surnames have an ending- aitė or -enė. And like a Russian female last name Pakelins sounds very strange too. Maybe Latvian?
      And there is not section of Vilnius named Zwirbic

  11. I am seeking information on Petras and Eva Daugird from Lithuania. They had two sons William and Alex who were came to the U.S. around 1903 with their uncle Joseph Daugird (Dougert). William and Alex were hidden by monks before they left. It is said that there were hidden because of fear of the young boys being forced into the Russian Army. The parents of William and Alex were murdered and their land taken.

  12. Add to the fact that De La O means of the vino. And in the German languages it is: ‘Von A’ Also to add most names were taken away and hidden. Its why my grandma used her first name and that single first name Jetrudis. Hrethudies’ Since I remember her clearly she was definitely Russian or . Von A must clearly be Hethra-Este house, Hretha is the anglo-saxon form to say Hungary-Austria or Haustria and the Este house is Modera but they lost it and later Karl Ludwig must have added the Modena family too. Funny thing too though he really was an Anglophile Archduke of Lithuania since he used the “De LA O’” also and not just her first name. Angliophile means liking the Anglo-saxonian language and studying it. De could easily be Deutschland. LA for Lithuanian Archduke and O for The Bloodline or Össtria. So many meanings for the letter O. My Grolier Encyclopendia just referred to him as an Angliophile Archduke without the actual name and it is why i call him that. It does name his palace though. Before 1924 of course.

  13. Thank you very much for this site. I know from 23 in me and family history that I am mostly Lithuaniuan and very proud. I just started researching family history (Kamarauskas and Rochkes) I found that my great grandfather, George Rochkes, immigrated to the US in 1898. I almost had a heat attack when it said from Russia (my family was never fond of Russians). Thank goodness your history research cleared that up for me! As best I can find the Kamarauskas family came from Kaunas and the Rochkes family came from Vilnus. Again, Thank you!

    • I am glad the website helps you!

    • My maternal grandmother’s name is Kamarauskas and was from Birštonas. My mom has been researching our family tree. By dumb luck, I was happy to have happened upon this site and very surprised to see reference to the Kamarauskas name. I will mention this site to her — perhaps we are related!

  14. I have ancestors named Blum who emigrated from Marijampole in the 1890s. According to family lore, they once owned a horse farm where they raised white horses for army generals. I am aware of the state stud farm that was in Trakehnen (now Yasnaya Polyana in Kaliningrad, not far from Marijampole). Are you aware of any other horse farms in that area in that timeframe that could match the family description? Thanks for your help.

    • I am not aware of any. However, it does not mean there weren’t any. Horses farms, like any businesses today (i.e. hotels, restaurants, shops, etc.) may have been both famous and not, big and small, and most of such undertakings fade into oblivion and only some remains well-known as with Trakehnen horse farm.

      For those not famous, the best place to start a research may be the Lithuanian archives. We may offer archive search services if needed.

  15. Hello, I found your site while researching. My G-Grandfather brought his family over to America in April of 1903. Family story is he was a General (but for who?) and lived in Taurage/Tauraggon Prussia. So I believe he may have been a Prussian General!?. His children were all born in the 1880’s. Many other related families came to America in the 1890’s, but it is said he stayed behind to fight for the mother country (?). Apparently the Kossacks(?) were raiding/killing/raping, and my G-grandmother said “enough..we leave now”. They left behind a business (tavern/restaurant/rooms) took one trunk and 5 children and crossed the ocean. According the the manifest, he had a large sum of money (compared to the other travelers) Also I was told the Russians were trying to make him become part of their army? and also his sons. How could I find more info regarding him/our family?

    • We at True Lithuania provide heritage search services and search for the information in the Lithuanian archives (especially if you know more information, e.g. approximate locations and dates of birth).

    • The city of Taurage belonged to Prussia until 1793, after that it was Russian Empire. If your ancestors were engaged in trade, then they had no chance of becoming a Prussian officer or general – this was a special caste. There were no Cossacks in Taurage))). Cossacks – is was irregular cavalry; they lived (and live now) in southern Russia, not far from the Black Sea.

      • Not completely true – actually, Tauragė belonged to Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) until 1795, at which point it was taken by the Russian Empire until 1915, when it was conquered by Germany in World War 1. Tauragė never actually belonged to Prussia, although it was near the Lithuanian-Prussian border of the time, and later Russian-Prussian border.

  16. Hello thank you for being here for us.I’m look for any info on my family I know my grandfather was born in Dauginava kaimas Lithuania around may 21 1894 then came to Boston.I would like to know of any family. His name is Simon Jakubauska. Thank you

  17. Russia did not surrender in Great War.

  18. Hello,
    I am trying to research my husband’s family (grand parents): John Charles Misheikis born 1/24/1886 in we think Laizvua, Lithuania. The town was spelled Lazowo on his 1942 United States World War II Draft Registration Cards. We also have his 1918 US WWII draft card and he is listed as Russian. He migrated from Lithuania to the U.S. in the early 1900’s. We have been told that he was in the Russian army, he was also taken by cattle car to Siberia. His wife was Anna Victoria Stulpinas Misheikis, born in Lithuania in 1894. We are tying to find John’s birth record which would reveal who is parents were. We have no information on his wife.
    Thank you so much for any direction you can provide.

    Sue Forbes

  19. My grandfather’s family, Bukraba, lived for many generations in the regions of Grodno; they were Poles, Roman Catholic, and several with this surname and crest are registered as having voted in the Sejm for two or more Kings of Poland, farther back, the research was done by my grandfather and taken from books in libraries in London, Warszawa and Chicago. I only have definite verbal record of my grandfather’s family going back one generation before his father, and it may not be completely accurate. It would be nice to have more information on the more archaic history of the peoples who populated that region and why they formed into the tribes they did which evolved into Lithuanian, Polish,etc. The ties between Poles and Lithuanians were strong for a very long time.
    We have no clear record, only anecdotal, of my grandmother’s family, Zaremba, who lived in that same region, but a bit farther south, I believe. She described her father Mieczyslaw as a forester. She and my grandfather met in Mozyr in 1919/20, and married in Warszawa in 1920. So the ties to Grodno and that region were cut when the family property was sold and the immediate family moved to Pinsk, during WWI, where my grandfather’s brother Kazimierz was a bishop; their father died in Nowogrod in 1923, but was later buried, along with their mother, who passed a few years later, in Pinsk. These things were written by my grandfather and later corroborated by photos from the cemetery and articles about Bishop Bukraba, but it would be great to go farther back if records exist. Would you be able to do some research for us?

  20. My great grandparents emigrated to the US in 1914, documented as from Russia to NYC, settled in Massachusetts. The towns they have listed as birthplaces are “Butka” and “Lubano” in Lithuania, although I’m having a hard time finding those names. I’m wondering if perhaps spelling of those towns was lost in translation between Lithuanian and English. Any ideas as to where/what those towns might be? Thanks for any direction/help!

  21. My grandparents came from Slonim, now in Belarus, in 1913. Was that part of Lithuania then?

    Thank you for any help you can provide.

    • At the time (during teh Russian Imperial rule) Lithuania did not exist as any official single administrative unit. There were governorates (gubernyas), some more Lithuanian than others but they were not created on an ethnic, religious or historical basis.

      Slonim was part of Gardinas (Grodno, Hrodna) governorate of the Russian Empire in 1913, which was considered Lithuanian by some (as it had Lithuanian parts) but Slonim never had a Lithuanian majority since prehistory at least. The last time it was part of Lithuanian state was Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1795.

  22. Hello this is a great sight as I am trying to figure out where my great grandparents came from. I would so appreciate any insight from you when you have time. I have found my great grandfather in a Hamburg passenger list 4 Apr 1909 and arrived NY 16 Apr 1909. The Hamburg document said nationality was Russian and his residence was Opino the arrival in New York said nationality Lithuanian and and the residence was Gruev I cant find these on a map. Also one has his name spelled Telesfor Ploszansky and one has his name spelled Telespor Plossanski and my mother thinks it was spelled Placzankis I have not been able to find any of these spellings would you have any Idea?

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