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Information Text: Vilnius 1655, Russian Invasion - Multiethnic Structure

By the 14th century Vilnius was a dual city, divided in two parts: Ruthenian and Catholic. One could identify another’s nationality even without saying what it was. A fair amount of Ruthenians lived in Vilnius, another part of the city was made up of Germans, most of whom were merchants and craftsmen, and Lithuanians, about whom it’s very difficult to say something concrete.

Meanwhile at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century after the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was Christianized, Vilnius began to have more and more Polish dwellers. This process was influenced by the Polish culture, which was closely bound with the Catholic Church. Thus over the 15th and 16th centuries several ethnic communities lived in Vilnius, but its composition changed very little. In the second half of the 16th century it is possible to observe a more marked fluctuation of the ethnic situation in Vilnius. At the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, ethnic communities spread not only in Vilnius but also in all of Lithuania. The main reason was the substantial beneficial privileges from the Grand Duke.

The Jewish community of Vilnius grew steadily, and peaked during the privilege of 1646, which gave the Jewish community in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania many rights. Lithuania and Vilnius were advantageous places for Jews to live: On the one hand, western European countries attempted to banish Jews from their territory and on the other hand, Jews performed an important economic role in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The catastrophe of 1655-56 in Vilnius and in the commonwealth had a huge impact on the multiethnic structure. The Germans who had lived in Vilnius since the 14th century went to Prussia.

It was only after the Russian flood abated, that things returned to normal little by little. The biggest percentage of residents was still composed of by Ruthenians. Step by step, the Polish population multiplied in Vilnius, and in the suburbs Tartars and especially the Jewish community continued to expand.


Ruthenians: This name was given to the dwellers of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which lived in the contemporary territory of Belarus and the Ukraine; they also migrated to the territory of contemporary Lithuania, especially Vilnius. Characteristic examples of this ethnic group can be seen in Vilnius architecture: orthodox churches, etc.          

Tartars: Tartars and the states established by them were the southern neighbors of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the end of the 14th century some of them were brought to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the private guards of sovereigns due to their fighting skills. They thus settled in Lithuania and gradually lost their original functions as guards.