A Beginner's Guide to Eastern European Genealogy – Part 2

When researching Eastern European genealogy, researchers will find a study of history helpful in understanding the changes in the borders and administrative structure of the country over time, the changes in the languages in which genealogically relevant records are written, and the formats of the records themselves.

Some of the most significant events in the history of Eastern Europe, with an emphasis on the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Belarus, and Ukraine, include the following events:

  • In 966, Mieszko I, duke of the Slavic tribe of Polans, converted from paganism to Christianity. This event would have great implications for future record keeping in Eastern Europe, resulting in church records used by genealogists to trace their ancestry.
  • In 1385, the Union of Krewo was signed between Jadwiga, daughter of the King of Poland, and Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania. The Union of Krewo brought the two rival nations of Poland and Lithuania together in a close partnership.
  • In 1545, the Council of Trent was convened as a response to the Protestant Reformation. At the Council of Trent, Roman Catholic priests were ordered to maintain records of baptisms and marriages in order to know who had received the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church.
  • In 1569, the Union of Lublin established the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, resulting in the formation of the largest country in Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth encompassed much of what are now Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus. Also included in the Commonwealth were the western half of Ukraine and part of Russia.
  • In 1648 the Khmelnytskyi Uprising was a revolt of the Cossacks in Ukraine against the Polish nobility. The uprising significantly weakened the power of the Polish nobility and, as a result, the Commonwealth itself.
  • In 1655, Sweden and Russia invaded and occupied the Commonwealth. This period of war and occupation was known as the Deluge, and the Commonwealth was further weakened.
  • In 1772, Russia, Prussia, and Austria conspired to take advantage of Poland’s feuding nobles and the weakened position of the Commonwealth itself. The three empires together claimed about a third of the Commonwealth and split the new acquisitions among themselves. This event is known as the First Partition of Poland.
  • In 1793, in the Second Partition of Poland, Russia and Prussia again invaded and claimed another third of Poland. At this time, Austria was embroiled with problems within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and declined to participate in the partition.
  • In 1795, the Third Partition of Poland was conducted. This time, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided all remaining lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth among themselves. Austria established a system of civil registration in the territories it controlled, whereby vital records were maintained in Latin by the Catholic priests. Neither Russia nor Prussia established civil registration at this time, but records of births, marriages, and deaths were generally kept by local parish priests anyway.
  • In 1807, after Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Prussia, The Duchy of Warsaw was created from territories previously annexed to Prussia from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Napoleon established a system of maintaining civil registrations maintained by Roman Catholic parish priests who were designated as Civil Registrars.
  • In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress Kingdom of Poland was established by the Congress of Vienna. The borders of the Congress Kingdom of Poland were essentially the same as those of the Duchy of Warsaw. Through this action, Poland regained some autonomy. The territory, however, was administered by Russia.
  • In 1832, Polish and Lithuanian soldiers and citizens rebelled against the control of the Russian authorities in a revolt known as the November Uprising. The Uprising was crushed by Russia and, as a result, the Congress Kingdom of Poland was officially incorporated into Russia with the Organic Statute of the Kingdom of Poland.
  • In 1863, Polish citizens again rebelled against the Russian authorities in the January Uprising and, like the November Uprising, the revolt was crushed by Russia. After the failed January Uprising, Congress Kingdom of Poland ceased to exist, and became the Vistula Land of the Russian Empire.  Russian became the official language for civil registrations and other official purposes.
  • In 1918, as a result of World War I and the retreat of Russia from Poland, the Central Powers reestablished Polish independence and the Second Polish Republic was created. The territory of the Second Polish Republic included lands recovered from Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
  • In 1939, after secretly agreeing to split Poland between them, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. Slovakia also invaded Poland from the South.
  • In 1945, Poland’s borders were redrawn at the Yalta Conference. Poland gained previously German land to the North and the West, but lost considerable land to the East. In the end, Poland had won the war, but lost 20% of its territory and became a satellite state of the Soviet Union.

This article is Part 2 of a three part series that includes:

A Beginner’s Guide to Eastern European Genealogy is also available as a downloadable PDF document.

Written for the 93rd Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy

Copyright © 2010 by Stephen J. Danko

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One Response to A Beginner's Guide to Eastern European Genealogy – Part 2

  1. Phillip Racine says:

    Steve,
    Found your Beginner’s Guide most interesting. It’s not long on detail, but tells me much about Poland. I recently found where my grandfather’s family lived in Poland. I am in the process of putting a small booklet together for the Janiszewski and Poniedzialek families. Can I have permission to include the three parts of the Beginner’s Guide? It will be given only to those surviving family members which include mostly my cousins still living.
    Phil Racine
    Grandson of Stephen Janiszewski and Josephine Poniedzialek

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