Ethnic history of the Vilnius region

Ethnic and national background

Since the first contact in the 9th century the Slavic (Ruthenian, later Belarusan and Ukraine) speaking areas have always bordered the vicinity of eastern Lithuania.

After the partitions of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Area of the Lithuanian language in the 16th century (by a lithuanian linguist Z. Zinkevičius)
The dominance of the Belarusians (the area is located in the center) in the Vilnius region in 1875 — on the map "Ethnographic map of European Russia" (1875), composed by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Rittikh. (fragment)
Etnographic Poland in 1914 according to Czesław Jankowski, a journalist from Vilnius
Polish propaganda map of the Polish population in Lithuania, tendentiously interpreting the results of the elections to the parliament of Lithuania in 1923, questioned census of Vilnius region in 1921 and elections to the Polish parliament in 1922

Following the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in late 18th century, the state had been divided among its neighbours in what is known as the partitions of Poland.

Most of the lands that formerly constituted the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were annexed by the Russian Empire. While initially the lands around the city of Vilna (Vilnius or Wilno) had a certain local autonomy, with local nobility holding the same offices as prior to the partitions, after several secessionist revolts against the Russian Empire, the Imperial government started to pursue a policy of both political and cultural assimilation of the newly acquired lands (Russification). Following the failed November Uprising all traces of former Polish-Lithuanian statehood (like the Third Statute of Lithuania and Congress Poland) started to be replaced with their Russian counterparts, from the currency and units of measurement, to offices of local administration. The failed January Uprising of 1864 further aggravated the situation, as the Russian authorities decided to pursue the policies of forcibly imposed Russification. The discrimination of local inhabitants included restrictions and outright bans on usage of Polish, Lithuanian (see Lithuanian press ban), Belorussian and Ukrainian (see Valuyev circular) languages.[1][2] This however did not stop the Polonization effort undertaken by the Polish patriotic leadership of the Vilna educational district even within the Russian Empire.[3][4]

Despite that, the pre-19th century cultural and ethnic pattern of the area was largely preserved. In the process of the pre-19th century voluntary[5] Polonization, much of the local nobility, boyars and gentry of Ruthenian and Lithuanian nobility origins adopted Polish language and culture. This was also true to the representatives of the then-nascent class of bourgeoisie and the Catholic and Uniate clergy. At the same time, the lower strata of the society (notably the peasants) formed a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural mixture of Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Tatars and Ruthenians, as well as a small yet notable population of immigrants from all parts of Europe, from Italy to Scotland and from the Low Countries to Germany.

The data from different times shows the changes in languages. The Lithuanian speaking area was constantly on the decline, while Belarusian speaking area pro rata was on the increase. In the parishes to the southeast from Vilnius Belarusian positions as a language of junior generation started to strengthen at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century.[6] The 20th century marks a sudden increase of Polish speaking people and pro rata decrease of Belarusian speakers. Lithuanian speaking islands remained in Dzyatlava, Lasduny, Gervyaty etc.[7][8]

During the rule of the Russian tsars, the Lingua franca remained Polish as it had been in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By the middle of 17th century most of the Lithuanian nobility had started to also speak Polish. With passing time and changing circumstances Lithuanian, Ruthenian and Polish nobility merged politically and started to consider themselves to be citizens of one common state. For example Józef Piłsudski‘s father and mother by paternal line belonged to respectively Samogitian descent Giniotai (sg. Giniotas; Polish Ginet) and Bilevičiai (sg. Bilevičius; Polish Billewicz< *Bilius) families.[9] The surname Piłsudski is of toponymic origin.

Polonization, furthered by the clergy and spreading from the estates and schools, was later also implemented by the Polish government. Many Lithuanian schools were closed. In 1938, the Polish administration left only two Lithuanian primary schools and one gymnasium (the Gymnasium of Vytautas the Great) in the entire area.[10]


Following is a list of censuses that have been taken in the city of Vilnius and its region since 1897. The list is incomplete. Data are at times fragmentary.

Russian census of 1897


In 1897 the first Russian Empire Census was held. The territory covered by the tables included large parts of today's Belarus, that is the voblasts of Hrodna, Vitebsk and Minsk. Its results are currently criticised with respect to the issue of ethnic composition, because the ethnicity was defined by language spoken. In many cases the reported language of choice was defined by general background (education, occupation), rather than ethnicity. Some results are also thought as skewed due to the facts that pidgin speakers were assigned to nationalities arbitrarily and the Russian military garrisons were counted in as permanent inhabitants of the area. Some historians point out the fact that the Russification policies and persecution of ethnic minorities in Russia were added to the notion to subscribe Belarusians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Poles to the category of Russians.[12][13][14]

1916 German census

Ober Ost, 1916
Vilna Governorate (light green), 1843-1915

As a result of World War I, almost all of the territory encompassing the present borders of modern Lithuania and Poland was occupied by the German Army. On 9 March 1916, the German military authorities organized a census to determine the ethnic composition of their newly conquered territories.[15] Many Belarusian historians note that the Belarusian minority is not noted among the inhabitants of the city.

A similar census was organized for all of the territory of German-occupied Lithuania and the northern border of the territory was more or less correspondent to that of present-day Lithuania, however its southern border was expanded greatly and ended near Brest-Litovsk, and included the city of Białystok.

1921 Polish census

After the Polish-Bolshevik War and the Treaty of Riga, the eastern Polish border was largely established. In 1921 the first Polish census was held on territories under Polish control. However, Central Lithuania, seized by the forces of General Lucjan Żeligowski after a staged mutiny in 1920 was outside of the Polish borders and it was not until 22 March 1922, when the short-lived puppet state of Poland, was annexed by Poland.

As a result, the Polish census of 20 September 1921 covered only parts of the future Wilno Voivodship area, that is the communes of Brasław, Duniłowicze, Dzisna and Wilejka.[17] The remaining part of the territory of Central Lithuania (that is the communes of Wilno, Oszmiana, Święciany and Troki) was covered by the additional census organised there in 1923. The tables on the right give the combined numbers for the area of Wilno Voivodship (Administrative Area of Wilno), taken during both the 1921 and 1923 censuses.

Polish census of 1931

Wilno Voivodship

The 1931 Polish census was the first Polish census to measure the population of whole Wilno and Wilno Voivodship at once. It was organised on 9 December 1931 by the Main Statistical Office of Poland. However, in 1931 the question of nationality was replaced by two separate questions of religion worshipped and the language spoken at home.[19] Because of that, it is sometimes argued that the "language question" was introduced to diminish the number of Jews, some of whom spoke Polish rather than Yiddish or Hebrew.[19] The director of the census later admitted the results had been "tampered with".[19] At the same time, Lithuanian authorities often argued that the large majority of Polish-speaking people were in fact Polonized Lithuanians. The census is also seen as inaccurate due to bias against the Belorusians and Lithuanians.[20][21] The table on the right shows the census findings on language. Wilno Voivodship did not include Druskininkai (Druskinieki) area and included just a small part of Varena (Orani) area where the majority of inhabitants were Lithuanians. The Voivodship, however, included Brasław, Dzisna, Mołodeczno, Oszmiana, Postawy and Wilejka counties which now belong to Belarus.

Lithuanian census of 1939

In December 1939, shortly after their take-over of the area, the Lithuanian authorities organized a new census in the area. However, the census is often criticized as skewed, intending to prove the historical and moral rights of Lithuania to the disputed area, rather than to determine the factual composition.[22] Lithuanian figures from that period are criticized as significantly inflating the number of Lithuanians.[20]

German-Lithuanian census of 1942


After the outbreak of the German-Soviet War in 1941, the area of former Central Lithuania was quickly seized by the Wehrmacht. On 27 May 1942 a new census was organised by the German authorities and the local Lithuanian collaborators.[23] The details of the methodology used are unknown and the results of the census are commonly believed to be an outcome of the racial theories and beliefs of those who organised the census rather than the actual ethnic and national composition of the area.[23] Among the most notable features is a complete lack of data on the Jewish inhabitants of the area (see Paneriai for explanation) and a much lowered number of Poles, as compared to all the earlier censuses.[24][25] However, Wilna-Gebiet did not include Brasław, Dzisna, Mołodeczno, Postawy and Wilejka counties but included Svyren district (current Kaišiadorys and Elektrėnai municipalities. That explains the decline of number of Poles.

Soviet census of 1959

During 1944-1946 period about 50% of the registered Poles in Lithuania were transferred to Poland. Dovile Budryte estimates that about 150,000 people left the country.[26] During 1955-1959 period, another 46,600 Poles left Lithuania. However, Lithuanian historians estimate that about 10 percent of people who left for Poland were ethnic Lithuanians. These are the results of the migration to Poland and the growth of the city due to industrial development and the Soviet Union policy.

Soviet census of January 1989

258,000 Poles in Lithuania, including 63.5% in the Vilnius rayon (currently Vilnius district municipality, excluding the city of Vilnius itself) and 79.5% in the rayon of Šalčininkai (currently known as Šalčininkai district municipality).

Lithuanian census of 2001

Jews of Vilnius

The Jews living in Vilnius had their own complex identity, and labels of Polish Jews, Lithuanian Jews or Russian Jews are all applicable only in part.[29] The majority of the Yiddish speaking population used the Litvish dialect.

The situation today

Most speakers in the area today speak a language known as po prostu, and they consider this language to be Polish.[30] Colloquial Polish in Lithuania includes dialectic qualities and is influenced by other languages.[31] Educated Poles speak a language close to standard Polish. The Northern-kresowy dialect of Polish is also spoken.[32]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Aviel Roshwald, Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires: Central Europe, Russia and the Middle East, 1914–1923, Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-415-17893-2, Google Print, p.24
  2. ^ Anna Geifman, Russia Under the Last Tsar: Opposition and Subversion, 1894–1917, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, ISBN 1-55786-995-2, Google Print, p.116
  3. ^ Tomas Venclova, Four Centuries of Enlightenment. A Historic View of the University of Vilnius, 1579–1979, Lituanus, Volume 27, No.1 — Summer 1981
  4. ^ Rev. Stasys Yla, The Clash of Nationalities at the University of Vilnius, Lituanus, Volume 27, No.1 — Summer 1981
  5. ^ Ronald Grigor Suny, Michael D. Kennedy, "Intellectuals and the Articulation of the Nation", University of Michigan Press, 2001, pg. 265 [1]
  6. ^ Petras Gaučas: Lietuvių-gudų kalbų paribio etnolingvistinė situacija 1795–1914 m. [Ethnolinguistical situation of Lithuanian-Belarusian languages' boundary in 1795–1914 m.] in: Lietuvos rytai; straipsnių rinkinys [the east of Lithuania; the collection of articles], p. 49. Vilnius 1993. ISBN 9986-09-002-4
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ The genealogical tree of Józef Klemens (Ziuk) Piłsudski
  10. ^ Zigmas Zinkevičius. Pietryčių Lietuva nuo seniausių laikų iki mūsų dienų [Southeastern Lithuania since ancient times to nowadays]. Lietuvos rytai, straipsnių rinkinys [the East of Lithuania, the collection of articles], p. 22. ISBN 9986-09-002-4
  11. ^ (Russian) Demoscope.
  12. ^ a b (Polish) Piotr Łossowski, Konflikt polsko-litewski 1918–1920 (The Polish-Lithuanian Conflict, 1918–1920), Warsaw, Książka i Wiedza, 1995, ISBN 83-05-12769-9, pp. 11.
  13. ^ Egidijus Aleksandravičius; Antanas Kulakauskas (1996). Carų valdžioje: Lietuva XIX amžiuje (Lithuania under the reign of Czars in the 19th century) (in Lietuvių). Vilnius: Baltos lankos. pp. 253–255. 
  14. ^ various authors (2002). Wiesław Łagodziński, ed. 213 lat spisów ludności w Polsce 1789–2002 (in Polski). Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warsaw. 
  15. ^ a b c Michał Eustachy Brensztejn (1919). Spisy ludności m. Wilna za okupacji niemieckiej od. 1 listopada 1915 r. (in Polski). Biblioteka Delegacji Rad Polskich Litwy i Białej Rusi, Warsaw. 
  16. ^ Ludwik Krzywicki (1922). "Rozbiór krytyczny wyników spisu z dnia 30 IX 1921 r". Miesięcznik Statystyczny (in Polski) V (6). 
  17. ^ Ludwik Krzywicki (1922). "Organizacja pierwszego spisu ludności w Polsce". Miesięcznik Statystyczny (in Polski) V (6). 
  18. ^ a b "Drugi Powszechny Spis Ludności z dnia 9 XII 1931 r". Statystyka Polski (in Polski) D (34). 1939. 
  19. ^ a b c Joseph Marcus (1983). Social and political history of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939. Walter de Gruyter. p. 17. ISBN . Retrieved 5 March 2011. 
  20. ^ a b Ghetto In Flames. KTAV Publishing House, Inc. pp. 27–. GGKEY:48AK3UF5NR9. Retrieved 4 March 2011. 
  21. ^ Piotr Eberhardt (2003). Ethnic groups and population changes in twentieth-century Central-Eastern Europe: history, data, and analysis. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 199–. ISBN . Retrieved 3 March 2011. 
  22. ^ Zakład Wydawnictw Statystycznych (corporate author) (1990). Concise Statistical Year-Book of Poland: September 1939 – June 1941. Zakład Wydawnictw Statystycznych. ISBN . 
  23. ^ a b c d A. Srebrakowski (1997). Liczba Polaków na Litwie według spisu ludności z 27 maja 1942 roku (in Polski). Wrocław University, Wrocławskie Studia Wschodnie. 
  24. ^ Główny Urząd Statystyczny (corporate author) (1939). Mały rocznik statystyczny 1939 (in Polski). Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warsaw. 
  25. ^ Stanisław Ciesielski; Aleksander Srebrakowski (2000). "Przesiedlenie ludności z Litwy do Polski w latach 1944–1947". Wrocławskie Studia Wschodnie (in Polski) (4): 227–53. ISSN 1429-4168. 
  26. ^ Dovile Budryte, Taming nationalism?: political community building in the post-Soviet Baltic States, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005, ISBN 0-7546-4281-X, Google Print, p.147
  27. ^ a b (Polish) Professor Piotr Eberhardt. Liczebność i rozmieszczenie ludności polskiej na Litwie (Numbers and distribution of Polish population in Lithuania). Last accessed on 19 January 2006.
  28. ^ Population by some ethnicities by county and municipality . Data from Statistikos Departamentas, 2001 Population and Housing Census.
  29. ^ Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics, Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-19-508319-9, Google Print, p.8 and Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2003, ISBN 0-618-23649-X, Google Print, p.205
  30. ^ Lietuvos rytai; straipsnių rinkinys The east of Lithuania; the collection of articles; V. Čekmonas, L. Grumadaitė "Kalbų paplitimas Rytų Lietuvoje" "The distribution of languages in eastern Lithuania"
  31. ^ K. Geben, Język internautów wileńskich (The language of Vilnius Internauts),in Poradnik Jezykowy, 2008
  32. ^ Dialekt północnokresowy
  • Tadeusz Rutowski (red.) (1888). Rocznik Statystyki Przemysłu i Handlu Krajowego. Krajowe Biuro Statystyczne, Lwów. 
  • Józef Kleczyński (1892). Spisy ludności w Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. Akademia Umiejętności, Kraków. 
  • Józef Kleczyński (1898). Poszukiwania spisów ludności Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej w zbiorach Moskwy, Petersburga i Wilna. Akademia Umiejętności, Kraków. 
  • Główny Urząd Statystyczny (1930). Pierwsze dziesięciolecie Głównego Urzędu Statystycznego. T. 3, Organizacja i technika opracowania pierwszego polskiego spisu powszechnego z 30 września 1921 roku. Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warsaw. 
  • Lietuvos Statistikos Departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos Vyriausybés (1995). Lietuvos Statistikos Metraštis. Lietuvos Statistikos Departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos Vyriausybés. ISSN 1392-026X. 
  • (red.) Zbigniew Strzelecki, Tadeusz Toczyński, Kazimierz Latuch (2002). Spisy ludności Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej 1921–2002; wybór pism demografów. Polskie Towarzystwo Demograficzne, Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warsaw. ISBN . 
  • Zbigniew Strzelecki (editor) (since 1991). Polish Population Review. Polish Demographic Society, Central Statistical Office. ISSN 0867-7905. 
  • red. naukowa Jan Skarbek (1996). Mniejszości w świetle spisów statystycznych XIX-XX w. Instytut Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej, Lublin. ISBN . 

External links

  • Theodore R. Weeks, From “Russian” to “Polish”: Vilna-Wilno 1900–1925
  • Lithuanian-Belarusian language boundary in the 4th decade of the 19th century
  • Lithuanian-Belarusian language boundary at the beginning of the 20th century
  • List of the 19th century Suwałki region family names
  • 1921 and 1931 censuses (DOC), HTML
  • Repatriation and Resettlement of Ethnic Poles
  • 2001 census (PDF) In English
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