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

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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Comments (9) Trackbacks (2)
  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 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.

  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 tour.baltic@gmail.com ).

  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”.


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