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 (37) Trackbacks (4)
  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.

  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.

  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?

  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.

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