So now the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge has the last Latvian province of the Russian Empire… Vitebsk!

Like Livland, Vitebsk is also divided between different countries in the modern day. Only the northwest portion of Vitebsk is a part of Latvia, now the province of Latgale. The rest of Vitebsk is divided between Belarus and Russia.

Unlike Kurland and Livland, however, Vitebsk was not a Baltic province, and therefore the organizational structure, privileges and rights of the inhabitants were much different. For example, serfdom in Vitebsk only ended when it did in the Russian Empire as a whole – 1861. This is almost 50 years after serfdom was abolished in Kurland and Livland. This also meant that surnames were adopted later than in Kurland or Livland, however, I have read conflicting stories on this. In some places, it appears that surnames were in use earlier than the 1860s, in some cases even earlier than in Kurland or Livland, but this varies from place to place. I wish that my Vitebsk ancestors would have been from a place with earlier surnames!

Another big difference between Vitebsk and the Baltic provinces was organization. Manorial estates did exist in Vitebsk, but instead of individual farmsteads on the estate, something called a “sādža” was more common. I’m not entirely sure how to translate “sādža” – it would be a small cluster of farms, typically with fewer than ten families, according to the sources I’ve read. In this sense, it seems smaller than the Russian “mir”, but probably in some ways analogous. When peasants acquired surnames, it was not uncommon for all members of a “sādža” to get the same surname – often the name of said “sādža”.

During agrarian reforms in the early days of the Latvian Republic, many “sādžas” were divided into individual farmsteads (“viensÄ“tas”). However, the “sādža” did seem to endure, and if you look at a modern map of Latgale province, you will see the difference in the rural landscape, with one name being associated with several marked farms. A good place to observe this difference on the map is the area around the town of JÄ“kabpils – in the time of the Russian Empire, right in this place the Daugava river was the border between Kurland and Vitebsk. The town of JÄ“kabpils (Jakobstadt at the time) was on the south side of the Daugava, and in Kurland province, while the town of Krustpils (Kreuzberg) was on the north side of the Daugava, and in Vitebsk province. If you go to BalticMaps and zoom in on JÄ“kabpils, and look to the east of the town on both sides of the river, you will see the difference. There are some individual farms on the north side of the river, and some “sādža”-like communities on the south side of the river, but for the most part it is individual farms on the south side and “sādžas” on the north side (see the small farms marked “S.O.”? I suspect those are farms associated with the “Strodu Oglenieki” sādža, so I think the letters or initials signify that a farm belongs to a sādža).

Vitebsk was also much more multi-ethnic than the other Latvian provinces, and Latgale remains so to this day. According to the 1897 Census, the three Latvian regions of Vitebsk (RÄ“zekne, Ludza and Daugavpils), had Latvian populations of 57.9%, 64.2% and 39% respectively. The next biggest ethnic groups were Russians in RÄ“zekne region (23.9%), Belarusians in Ludza region (20.5%) and Jews in Daugavpils region (20%). The rest of the population included smaller numbers of these groups as well as Poles and Germans. Today, Latgale’s population is 46% Latvian, 3.9% Russian, 6.8% Polish, 4.9% Belarusian, and then smaller groups of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other ethnicities.

Genealogically speaking, Vitebsk is important for two reasons. One, for the people whose families have always lived there, and two, for people trying to trace families that may have moved there from other provinces. After serfdom was abolished, thousands of people, including many from Kurland and Livland, started to move into the Vitebsk province. A number of Latvian colonies were established in the parts of Vitebsk that were not already populated by Latvians. Some of the biggest colonies were Una, Vidreja, Glodnika, Matuševa, Pudiķi and Potašņa.

Vitebsk also hosted many of the First World War refugees that were fleeing hostilities in Kurland, though parts of Vitebsk were also under threat (read my story about my Krustpils ancestors and their First World War experiences here). After the war was over, the authorities in Latgale had their hands full as the first line of action when it came to repatriating all of the refugees who were returning to Latvian territory.

Do you have Vitebsk ancestors? Tips to share on doing research in Vitebsk records? Do share!

V is for Vitebsk
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One thought on “V is for Vitebsk

  • November 9, 2012 at 1:35 am

    Sorry I don’t have any Vitebsk ancestors, but you have given me a little geography lesson again ;-).

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