Grand Dukes and Russian Czars

Special Record Collections and Jurisdictions

Local history, as history centered around a particular community is titled, is dependent on records created by a variety of jurisdictions, events happening on many scales. Originally this page was constructed to present the special issues of National Jurisdictions and the article on that subject remains on the page. But this page also functions as a key page for various Special Record Jurisdictions, including those of Church, Newspaper, and Archived Collections.

National Jurisdictions
by Deborah Glassman, copyright 2008

Even the most focused historian needs to have an appreciation of the influences on his locality at a national level. The coverage is insufficiently detailed and biased in favor of what may be important to a genealogical researcher concentrating on Jewish history. The list of the six Russian Czars that ruled over Lyakhovichi ignores most accomplishments to list just a few influences of the moment on the Jewish community or the larger community if it affected the creation of genealogical records.

The Grand Dukes of Lithuania (14th Century to 1569)

The date of the first Jewish settlement in Lithuania is not clear. Non-Christian Lithuania was said to have been a refuge to Jews from Crusader-assailed communities in Germany, through the thirteenth century and possibly as early as the eleventh century. But there is little clear documentary evidence tracing community movements, the records that have survived are those of individuals named in extraordinary records – a man licensed to collect taxes, another murdered, a rabbi described as having been born in Germany and coming to a community in Lithuania, far from the types of incidents that would have been reported in the everyday lives of the majority of Jews.

The Jewish communities in Grodno, Kaunas, and some others are said to date to the thirteenth century, while Troki, home to the ruler Gedimin, dated Jewish arrival from 1320 after his conquest of Kiev. The first legislation related to Jews by a Polish king, was the right for a town to exclude them. The first legislation, the very next year (1387 and 1388 respectively) related to Jews by a Lithuanian Duke, secured to the Jews the full rights of a community. In the 1380s, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vytaut the Great, granted rights to established Jewish communities which already owned communal property including synagogues and cemeteries, and which also had subordinate Jewish communities. Almost 100 Jewish settlements are thought to have existed in the Grand Duchy at this time. Most historians agree that regardless of the misty beginnings of settlement, the major movement to Lithuanian lands was well underway in the early fourteenth century.

The list that follows gives what is known about events in those rulers’ reigns that could affect Jews or could impact record keeping about the population in general:

Gediminius/ Gedimin
Reigned 1316-1341

He is an almost legendary figure, credited with being one of the major rulers in Lithuanian history. He maintained peaceful relations and diplomatic ties with the Golden Horde, one of the Mongol successor-nations north of the Black Sea. Keeping them amenable, he nevertheless conquered unaligned Tatar peoples who were not subject to the Golden Horde and expanded his territory far into the Ukraine. He conquered Kiev in 1320. Historians dispute the territories that he claimed, but it is generally seen as, from the Black Sea to the Grodno area. Jewish communities date their first settlement by this event. Troki, which became home to many more settlers from Gedimin-conquered territories, was said at this time to have welcomed its first Jewish and Moslem settlers from that region, though in another forty years, the Troki Jewish community was almost evenly divided between traditional Jews and Karaite Jews from Gedimin-conquered Ukraine and Crimea. Gedimin’s Troki-owning heirs are said to have increased those settlements through the remainder of the fourteenth century, but Gedimin’s religious tolerance is credited with the first immigrants. It is also credited with the spread of Jewish settlements into northern Ukraine, especially Volhynnian towns, which were under his jurisdiction. ... At the time Gedimin came to power the administrative capital was in Kernave but he moved it to his personal territory of Troki, around 1337 in the new city constructed there less than two decades previously. While Troki remained a powerful symbol for one line of Gedimin’s descent, it lost out almost immediately to the more easily accessible, Vilna, as a choice for capital. In location, there was not much difference between the two, but Troki’s fortress-on-an-island construction is said to have thwarted attempts to reach out to allies and even to other szlachta families. Gedimin needed to concentrate on his military incursions into what is today’s Ukraine and its areas once called Podolia and Volhynnia. By 1340, he had moved many of his administrative functions back to Vilna, an older capital that had lost population and recognition in the previous century. The two capitals, Troki and Vilna, would become the competing capitals of the successors to his son Algird. Gedimin’s (son /grandson?) Kestutis inherited Troki as his personal estate as well as the administrative capital of the dukedom and built numerous castles and fortifications there. Gedimin’s grandson Ladislas Jagiello used Vilna, as a staging ground for the nation he built by marrying the heiress to Poland. Vilna became the local capital with Krakow the national capital in Jagiello’s personal union of Poland-Lithuania. ... The number of sons of Gedimin who lived to adulthood, led to wars over the succession and though his son Janautis/Janut followed him, many lists skip right to another son Algird.

Yevnut/Janautis/Jaunut son of Gedimin
Reigned 1341-1345

Very short tenure. Forced to abdicate by the combined military forces of his brothers led by Algird. Kestutis father of Vytaut is credited with a major role and called one of the brothers also. Yevnut actually survived the turmoil and is said to have died in 1366.

Algird/Algirdas/Olgierd son of Gedimin
Reigned 1345-1377

Again, this is an almost a super-hero figure in Lithuanian and Belarus history. He was the last of the Gedimin dynasty to rule as a non-Christian making him and his country attractive to missionaries and crusaders from both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic powers. Between 1342 and 1362, he is said to have repelled over one hundred attacks on Lithuania from the Teutonic Order of Knights. His armies did not just move defensively, in 1362 he captured Kiev and Podolia. His warfare with forces in the Volhynian Ukraine meant that his holdings in the Pripet marshes area (where Lyakhovichi is located) needed regular replenishment from his fortress in Novogrodek. The Pripet marshes and the Polessie area were a front-line in the Ukrainian wars of Algird. Algird’s capital was Vilna, Troki remained the capital of a dukedom but in Algird’s time it belonged to Kerijutas son of Gedimin and later to Kestutias the father of Vytaut. The wars of succession that were fought among his brothers were duplicated at the end of his reign among his sons and nephews.

Kestutias, the father of Vytaut the Great, is sometimes placed here as Grand Duke for a brief time in some chronologies, with a death in 1382 and claiming that he had been a “co-Duke” to Algird. Algird is referred to in those claims as Kestutias’ brother. In other claims, Kestutias is called the brother of Jogaila son of Algird and it is in that role that Jogaila betrayed him to the Teutonic Order who had him assassinated. Kestutias is possibly confused with Kerjutias son of Gedimin who was Duke of Novogrodek and who may have been his father, a generation seems to have fallen out of the Lithuanian royal genealogies. Otherwise we have a ninety-year old Kestutias waging war up and down the countryside and sometimes called son of Gedimin and sometimes grandson. He is associated (not as Grand Duke) with the building of the castles and public buildings of Troki, which was his personal property. His lasting heritage was the castles and administrative buildings built in Troki and his son Vytaut’s claim on that city. His son Vytaut repeated his father’s reputation as religiously tolerant; both welcomed the settlement and residence on their lands of Jews, Moslems, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Pagan populations.

Jogaila/Jagiello, son of Algirdas aka Ladislas Jagiello, and Ladislas II, King of Poland
Reigned as Grand Duke of Lithuania 1377-1401; Reigned as King of Poland 1386-1434

When his father died, multiple brothers contested for the throne. Kestutias father of Vytaut is again credited with a major role and this time called the brother of Jogaila, who he initially supported. Jogaila aligned with the Teutonic Order of Knights who had been fighting his father for the last twenty years, to get them to help get rid of one of his brothers who was not supporting him. The Teutonic Knights make a condition of their assistance, that he would allow them to take Kestutias’s lands without coming to his assistance, and Jogaila is thought to have agreed. Kestutias was kidnapped while defending the dukedom and was killed by Jogaila’s men, Kestutias’s son Vytaut fled and took his army with him, eventually aligning with the Teutonic Knights. Vytaut took back his personal territories in Troki and Novogrodek. Jogaila then made an alliance with Poland. He agreed to marry the heiress to the Polish throne, Jadwiga, and to convert to Roman Catholic Christianity (in 1380s.) He united the Polish Kingdom and Lithuanian Grand Duchy in a personal union that continued until the formal Union of Lublin by his descendant Sigismund Augustus in 1569. There were two capitals of Lithuania in Jogaila’s reign -Vilna and Troki. As Ladislas Jagiello, he governed in Lithuania from Vilna and in Poland from Krakow. Troki was the seat of government of the contesting claimant for Grand Duke – Vytaut. In the 1380s Jagiello gave both of his capitals the right to keep out Jews, Vytaut admitted them to rights of settlement in Troki and throughout his personal holdings.

Vytaut the Great son of Kestutias (son of Kerjutias?) son of Gedimin aka Vitaut; Vytautas; Witold; all co-named “the Great”, also called Alexander Vytaut
Reigned 1391 - 1430 (confirmed as Grand Duke by Ladislas Jagiello of Poland in 1401)

He is considered the greatest leader of Belarus history and of Lithuanian history. He was heir to the Duke of Novogrodek and Duke/Palatine of Troki He was a descendant of Gedimin (in some sources, son, grandson, great-grandson). When Ladislas Jagiello turned on Vytaut’s father Kestutias and had this former ally assassinated, Vytaut found allies and returned in force. Eventually he won from Ladislas Jagiello the recognized position of the ruler in Lithuania (Grand Duke) but history remembers him better for being one of the heroes and the key leader at the pivotal Battle of Grunwald. In 1386, though baptized initially as Orthodox, he was baptized as Catholic with the name Alexander and in some records appears thereafter as Alexander Vytaut or Alexander Witold. Vytaut gave privileges related to the long-established Jewish settlements in Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, and Troki. Jewish settlement in his reign is estimated to be present in at least a dozen towns of Lithuania. He settled Tatar Moslems and Jews from the same region (the Karaites) in his personal towns of Troki. He made agreements with Tatar Moslems that let them settle his lands in exchange for military service and allowed them to build mosques and settlements on his properties in Novogrodek and Troki and other places. The Lyakhovichi Mosque is thought to date from this period. Vytaut picked Jan Gostautas as his primary minister and later Gostautas was chief administrator during the succession disputes. He had governed from his capital in Troki for the early part of his administration but by the later years many functions had moved to Vilna. ...The biggest state archives of the Middle Ages was begun by Vytaut and kept in his capital city of Troki for centuries. It was the registry of documents of the Grand Duchy’s State Chancellory, called generally by the name “the Lithuanian Metrika.” This is a 556 volume set of books dating from 1386 to 1794. In 1594, all of the volumes prior to that date were recopied to preserve them and to translate them into Polish. The period from 1386-1551 was copied into 29 volumes all of which still existed when taken from the Warsaw Archives by the Soviets. Both the Lithuanian Historical Institute and the Belarusian Academy of Sciences have begun publishing these early volumes.

Swidrigailo aka Zygismunt, son of Kestutias, brother of Vytaut
Reigned 1432-1440

Vytaut had children but the histories of this period are vague about what happened to them. His brother, Swidrigailo, whose term was short because he was fighting to keep the Grand Duchy out of the Polish Union, succeeded Vytaut. When Vytaut died without grown children Swidrigailo took over but Ladislas Jagiello wanted it back in his line. Eventually Jagiello had him assassinated but died himself that year and the Grand Dukedom went to Jagiello’s son Kazimir. During Swidrigailo’s reign concentrated on keeping the areas of Podolia and Volhynnia that had been conquered by Gedimin and Vytaut from passing to the Polish crown. He used Jewish tax farmers to raise revenues, but gave away Magdeburg rights to towns he knew would invoke them to keep out Jews, as Vytaut had also done. Jan Gostautas who ran the State’s business from the city of Vilna managed Swidrigailo’s administration.

Kazimir Jagellon aka Casimir Jagellon son of Ladislas Jagiello
Reigned as Grand Duke of Lithuania 1440-1492; Reigned as King of Poland 1447-1492

Kazimir was appointed to the role of Grand Duke of Lithuania by his father Ladislas Jagiello. He continued many of the policies that had previously been in place in the Duchy including allowing Jews many freedoms that they did not enjoy in the linked kingdom of Poland. He gave rights to Karaite Jews in Troki, settled there since at least Vytaut’s times. He appointed Jews to the powerful positions of tax farmer and custom’s collector. He granted lands to Jews for favors done and he allowed settlement rights to include all trades and handicrafts. He is thought to have not so much favored the Jews or to have been a particularly good ruler but to have seen the value they could offer him in providing ready cash flow. When he died the unpaid debts that he left were the reason his son expelled the Jews. He is the first ruler specifically named in the records we have so far found for Lyakhovichi. But one source credits him with giving Gostautas the right to hold fairs at his property in Lyakhovichi and another says that, yes it happened in 1492, but it was his son Alexander Jagellon, who granted the privilege. During Kazimir Jagellon’s term documents mention that there was a wooden fort on the left side of the Ved’ma river at Lyakhovichi.

Alexander, son of Kazimir Jagellon
Reigned as Grand Duke of Lithuania 1492-1506; Reigned as King of Poland 1501-1506

This is the ruler of Lithuania who expelled the Jews from his Lithuanian territories in 1495, not allowing them to return until 1503. The majority of the exiled Jews of Lithuania went to Poland, some are specifically noted as going to Crimea but that might have been the Karaite population that had maintained ties to the area they emigrated from. Other Jews are known to have been allowed to stay in private towns of Lithuanian nobles; some nobles used it as a chance to acquire Jewish property that was forcibly vacated. It is said that the expulsion was in response to his deceased father having built a debt to specific Jews that Alexander did not care to repay. It is also one of the arbitrary actions of his government that led to the nobles instituting a new rule giving them the right to veto a monarch’s edict. Though in this period the nobles did not participate in the legislative or administrative functions of the state, it was a consequence with great effect during the later years of the Commonwealth. During the period of the expulsion, many pieces of Jewish property were escheated to the Grand Duke, and then distributed by him to beneficiaries like town magistrates, noblemen, and churches. When he rescinded his decree in 1503, public property – synagogues, cemeteries, etc was returned to the Jews. He also allowed individual Jews to recover their property but compensation was difficult to arrange and court cases dragged on for years and many lost their assets permanently.

Sigismund the Old, aka Sigismund I, son of Kazimir Jagellon, brother to Alexander
Reigned as Grand Duke of Lithuania 1506-1548; Reigned as King of Poland 1506-1548

In contrast to his predecessor, Sigismund is remembered as a just ruler who gave equitable treatment to the Jews in his land. He confirmed the 1388 Privilege given to the Jews of Brest by Vytaut and extended its protections to Jews across Lithuania. He appointed a prefect of the Jews in Lithuania and in Poland; both were Jews who were in charge of taxes to be paid to the Grand Duke. Neither was in charge of internal Jewish affairs or rabbinical issues. He bought services from Jews, sold them property, gave tax relief as appropriate and paid for. He renewed the privileges of the Jews in documents stating that they were renewals of Vytaut’s decrees. He expanded the towns that those Jewish privileges covered. He did at one point step back from the increasing number of Jewish petitions addressed to him and declared that he would no longer hear Jewish cases that did not involve his personal holdings, that the complaining party should work it out with whatever jurisdiction held sway. In the 1530s a slander of the Jewish community spread and then Sigismund did get involved. The Jews were said to be converting Christians to Judaism and smuggling them out of the country to the Ottoman Empire. It may have had origins in the movement of Marrano populations in this time period or it might have been just an incendiary remark, but many Jews were arrested and abused as investigations proceeded. In 1540, Sigismund reviewed the findings of a special commission and declared the charges without merit. Jews who were being held in prison were to be released immediately.

Sigismund Augustus, son of Sigismund the Old
Reigned as Grand Duke of Lithuania 1548-1572; Reigned as King of Poland 1548-1572

In 1544, he became Grand Duke of Lithuania while his father was still living. This was the time period in which he came to own the town of Lyakhovichi which had been the property of his wife Barbara Radziwill. He is renowned for creating the Union of Lublin, which unified the rulership of Poland-Lithuania in law as well as in fact. He renewed Jewish privileges, outlawed the Blood Libel, and encouraged freedom on his territories for practitioners of the Calvinist, Lutheran, Orthodox and Jewish faiths in addition to that of the State Church, Roman Catholicism. After his reign, there was no Grand Duke of Lithuania who was from Lithuania. It became a title that went to whoever held kingship of Poland. The Grand Duchy itself continued to have a legal existence and its legal jurisdiction and ability to raise armies, collect taxes, and govern both high and low law in its territories, was not diminished.

The Remaining Kings of Poland

  • Henry II of Poland (abandoned Poland for throne of France after 1 year) 1572-1573; 1576-1586
  • Sigismund III Vasa 1587-1632
  • Ladislas IV Vasa 1632-1648
  • Jan Kazimir Vasa 1648-1668
  • Michael Korybut Wisniowiecki 1669-1673
  • John III Sobieski 1674-1696
  • Augustus II, the Strong (Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony, of Wettin family) 1697-1706, 1709-1733
  • War of Polish Succession 1733-1738
  • Augustus III Wettin 1733-1763 Stanislas August Poniatowski (elected king, from a Polish noble family) 1764-1795

The Six Russian Czars from the time of Jewish residency in Russia

Catherine II aka Catherine the Great
Reigned 1762-1796

Catherine the Great

  • Partitioned Poland three times and so acquired the largest population of Jews in the world.

  • 1795 Census - this first census of households since Jews became Russian subjects, noted where each had previously resided and unlike the censuses of the US and Western Europe, had the goal of listing everybody in the household over the age of 1 year (In reality, members of many households were deliberately concealed, women were poorly and intermittently documented, and the lack of consistent hereditary surnames made it easy for householders to be reported dead or missing and then return to the same community in a later census under a different surname)

Paul I
Reigned 1796-1801

The most notable Lyakhovichi connected events of his administration included the arrest and release (on two occasions) of the Lechowitzer Rebbe along with the first Lubavicher Rebbe -Shneur Zalman, and Rabbi Asher of Stolin.

Paul I

Alexander I aka Alexander Pavlovich
Reigned 1801-1825

Alexander I

  • 1804 first Naming Law for Jews

  • 1804 required smallpox inoculation of parishioners by every parish, (put into place at least in Northwestern areas of Latvia and Lithuania and requiring a notice of inoculation to be registered in parish registers)

  • Napoleonic Wars - At least some of the battle lines went through Lyakhovichi

Nicholas I, brother to Alexander I aka Bloody Nicholas
Reigned 1825-1855

Nicholas I

  • Instituted secret police (Third Section) in 1826

  • Instituted the Conscription Act called the Cantonisten Laws, in 1827, which included:

    • 25 year conscription for Jews
    • Compulsory military service to begin at age 18
    • Compulsory military training to begin at age 13
    • Children as young as 8 were kidnapped to meet the quotas
    • Recruits to be provided by the local Jewish community organization by quota
    • Though it was legal for one to pay a replacement, Jews were only allowed to replace a Jew with a Jew.
    • Refusal to meet quota to result in the forcible taking of the Jewish communal agents
    • Insufficient recruits to result in the cancellation of exemptions previously obtained
    • The recruits to be subject to physical and mental coercion to make them convert
  • 1830 Polish uprising crushed

  • 1839 destroyed the 250 year old Uniate faith in Belarus/Lithuania as too deviant from Orthodoxy, the Uniate Church in the Ukraine was allowed to continue

  • 1848 led Europe’s reactionary governments in actions against popular uprisings

Jews saw his death during Purim 1855 as appropriate to one who used a monarch’s power to attempt the destruction of the Jews.

Alexander II (Alexander Nikolaevich, Czar Emancipator)
Reigned 1855-1881

Alexander II

  • Ended the Cantonisten Laws for Jews and long terms of service for all soldiers
  • Allowed the soldiers recruited under the Cantonisten Laws to be discharged
  • Permitted those soldiers, now called “Nikolai soldiers,” to live anywhere in the empire, to engage in all legal professions and activities, and to own real estate in areas previously restricted to Christians.
  • Instituted six year terms of enlistment followed by fifteen year reserve status
  • Crimean War 1854-1856
  • Freed the serfs in 1861
  • Instituted new Penal Code 1864
  • Martial Law introduced in 1863 in former Poland and Lithuania following the January Uprising
  • Assassinated May 1881 and the Russian May Laws and Pogroms are in response

Alexander III (Alexander Alexandrovich)
Reigned 1881-1894

Alexander III

  • Instituted actions against all groups who did not support Orthodoxy, Russification, and unlimited powers for the sovereign.

  • Began systematic persecution of Jews designed to get them to emigrate

  • The May Laws take away many of the civil rights that the Jews thought they had earned. They are forbidden to live in Imperial cities; they are forbidden to live in villages under a certain size; Nikolai soldiers, veterans who had received rights thirty years before were no longer able to use them to buy real estate or live outside the Pale.

  • The first Government-supported pogroms occur, none in Lithuania or Belarus

Nicholas II (Nicholas Alexandrovich) aka Bloody Nicholas
Reigned 1894-1917, forced to abdicate

Nicholas II

  • Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905

  • Pogroms including Police and Military actions against Jews

  • First Elected Parliamentary Body – the Duma and elections in every community; Jews participate in elections

  • WWI 1914-1917