Polish Lithuanian Emigration

Research History Polish Lithuanian Emigration

Immigration & Ships

Soviet Archival Sources for the Study of Emigration From the Lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to America

by Thomas A. Michalski


N. L. Tudorianu. Ocherki Rossiiskoi Trudovoi Emigratsii-Perioda Imperializma [Aspects of the Russian Labor Emigration During the Period of Imperialism]. Kishiniev: Shtinitsa, 1986. 309 pp. Tables and notes.


Alfonsas Eidintas. Litovskaia Emigratsiia v Strani Severnoi i Iuzhnoi Ameriki v 1868-1940 g. g. [The Lithuanian Emigration to the Countries of North and South America from 1868-1940]. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1989. 217 pp. Tables, notes and English summary.


Historically, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is often referred to as the "Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów," or Republic of Two Nations. The Commonwealth consisted of two major political subdivisions, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The latter presented a varied and colorful ethnic and religious mosaic. The core was inhabited by Lithuanians and their close kinsmen the Samogitians, known in Polish as the "Litwini" and "Zmudzini " Within the confines of the Grand Duchy there were also White Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Letts or Latvians, German and other Western immigrants, Tatars, Karaim and the largest settlement of Jews in the world at that time, and of course a great number of immigrant ethnic Poles and polonized members of other ethnic groups. In ethnic Poland and ethnic Lithuania, the Roman Catholic religion predominated. In most of the Grand Duchy, however, Eastern Orthodoxy or Uniate (Byzantine-Slavic) Catholicism was the faith of the majority. This huge multi-national, multireligious entity was held together by the "szlachta," a super national ruling class joined together by a common social ethos. Although originally of various ethnic origins they eventually fused into a fairly composite group in a process akin to that of the American "melting pot." Almost all adopted a form of the Polish language as their lingua franca just as immigrants to the United States and their children adopted English without losing their ethnic identity to one degree or another. Politically for the most part all of the szlachta including the Lithuanian bajorai and Ruthenian boyars became Poles but retained something of their original ethnic identities. The ordinary folk in the Grand Duchy particularly however continued in the ways, customs, languages and religions of their forefathers and did not for the most part melt into the Polish nation ethnically, culturally or linguistically. By the late nineteenth century the multi-national szlachta of the eastern borderlands became so polonized as to no longer be distinguishable from their counterparts on the Wisla.


What is often forgotten both in the popular mind as well as by some historians is the simple fact that nationalism and the idea of an ethnically defined state are nineteenth century concepts particularly in East Central Europe. The complexities of the relationships and inter-relationships of that marvelous ethnic patchwork quilt which the respected Oskar Halecki referred to as "The Borderlands of Western Civilization" tend to be overlooked in general histories of the area. Even though the meaning of "Polak," "Litwin" and "Rusin" as well as "Polska," "Litwa" and "Rus" have wandered over the centuries, many ethnocentric authors of all nationalities continue to apply such terms as best suit their present ethno-political purposes. It is the responsibility of the historian always to begin studies dealing with the borderlands described by Halecki with a "definitio nominis" or definition of terms.


In his study Ocherki Rossiiskoi Emigratsii-Perioda Imperializma, N.L. Tudorianu, a Soviet Moldavian scholar, uses the term "Rossiiskoi" or "Russian" as a political generic, rather than the ethnic "Russian" when referring to all citizens of the Tsarist Russian Empire regardless of ethnic origin. In this instance "Rossiiskoi" is analogous to "Sovietski" or Soviet.


His study describes the economic, social, cultural and political circumstances leading to the emigration primarily of ethnic-Poles and ethnic Lithuanians as well as Finns, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians (Ruthenians) and others who simply referred to themselves either by their own ethnic names or as living "pod Moskalem" or "Under the Muscovite." The study is divided into two parts. The first deals with seasonal agricultural and later industrial emigration of laborers from Poland and its neighboring Lithuanian provinces to Germany and Scandinavia. These areas have been substantially and meticulously researched by American, Polish, German and Scandinavian scholars. Of particular interest to Western researchers are Tudorianu's sources. He relies heavily on primary materials which have been hitherto unknown in the West or simply unavailable to the Western scholar. They consist mostly of reports made to and for as well as by tsarist and later Soviet officialdom. In essence they reveal the great interest shown by the tsarist and Soviet governments in the problems of emigration and the development of overseas colonies of emigrants essentially hostile to the regime at home.


Litovskaia Emigratsia v Strani Severnoi i Iuzhnoi Ameriki v 1868-1940 g g. by Alfonsas Eidintas is by far the most significant study of Lithuanian emigration to appear in the homeland in recent times. With this work, Eidintas firmly establishes himself as the foremost contemporary Lithuanian expert on emigration. The book itself is less extensive in coverage than the title implies. It is essentially a collection of not necessarily connected essays on emigration and follows the general directions established by Truska and Vaitekunas. Specifically the study deals with three major themes and several subtopics to include: the causes and development of emigration from Lithuania between 1869-1915; the social and national processes which led to emigration; the assistance tended their native land by immigrants; the attitudes of tsarist officialdom and later the Lithuanian Republic and particularly the attitudes of nationalist intellectuals toward the problem of emigration and immigration and reemigration to South America.


Many of the topics dealt with by the author have already been thoroughly researched in the ethnic Polish context, which in no way detracts from the significance of Eidintas's study. All emigration-immigration studies complement each other and transcend the lines on maps we call national borders. Interestingly enough, Lithuanian mass emigration begins in the Suwałki-Suwałkija district and moved northward and eastward into the more homogeneous Lithuanian provinces of Kaunas-Kowno, and the mixed Lithuanian-Polish-White Ruthenian districts of Wilno-Vilnius.2 Polish emigration-immigration studies can not be complete without the inclusion of Poles and polonized elements of society from these ethnically mixed areas or the Polish enclaves in the more homogeneous non-Polish areas of the region. This study with its English language summary, written in Russian is therefore a valuable contribution to the overall effort of emigration-immigration studies. It is of particular interest to those interested in the European background of those Poles who emigrated from the tsarist provinces of Vilna, Kovno and Grodno.


The author's inclusion of Lithuanian-Polish relationships in the early days of immigration in the United States is incisive. Eidintas mentions that in the beginning, most ethnic Lithuanian immigrants gravitated to early Polonia. Most shared a strong common Catholic faith with the Poles, as well as elements of a common historical past. The plurality of most Lithuanian immigrants of the time had at least a working knowledge, if not more, of Polish. In some instances, some educated Lithuanians even spoke better Polish than their brethren somewhat removed in Poznan and on the Wisla. Many of the early Lithuanian immigrants considered themselves to be "Polish" in a vague political sense. Many were "unionists" and favored the continuance and reestablishment of a union with Poland, White Ruthenian and the Ukraine with the hoped for collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire. As a result, at the outset they joined Polish parishes and Polish organizations and supported the Polish language press in a fraternal and accepting manner especially since their numbers were small. Yet separation was inevitable. Most Polish immigrants, especially from ethnic Poland proper and the Poznan region were totally unaware of Lithuania except as read in Adam Mickiewicz. The Lithuanians were accepted only insofar as they were willing to become completely polonized, something which never happened in the Old Country. Polonia was itself provoked to a pitch of nationalism as a result of the German Kulturkampf. It was unwilling to accept an operative ethnic sub-culture within its own ethnically narrowing confines. As a result Lithuanian and Polish ethno-centricity resulted in a separation and later schism and divorce between both nationalities on an unprecedented scale. There were literally wars over the ownership of churches and church property, the use of each other's languages in churches with mixed congregations, the appointment of priests and pastors and even vicious and brutal altercations in the churches and exhumation of bodies from mixed cemeteries in the name of "Bóg i Ojczyzna" or "Dievas it Tevyne," that is to say "God and Fatherland." The resulting bitterness can only be compared to that between the adherents of the Polish Catholic and Polish National churches in some areas, particularly Pennsylvania. Today the wounds may have healed but some historical scars remain. The immigrant relationship was also most negatively affected by homeland disputes, particularly the dispute over the status of Wilno-Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and long standing disputes over the national and ethnic identities of mutual heroes and villains. In his work, Eidintas, a scholar in Soviet Lithuania, deals with this touchy topic in a most objective way. It is a subject which has received little attention from American scholars with the notable exception of Victor Greene and Rev. William Wolkovich-Valkavicius. Part of the problem is that in this generation there are fewer and fewer researchers fluent in the Polish and Lithuanian languages and it is almost impossible to find scholars fluent in both in the United States and Europe. Eidintas is an exception. His sources include those written in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German and English.


The contributions of Tudorianu and Eidintas to emigration studies, particularly the European backgrounds of immigrants to the United States are exceptionally significant. Of particular interest to the research in immigration studies are the following sources listed in Eidintas, some of which are duplicated from the work of Tudorianu. It would seem that the joint proper exploitation of materials listed below would add a new and enriching dimension to the study of early Polonia. How this could be accomplished is indeed a challenge. Independence movements in both Poland and contemporary Lithuania are at a high pitch. Homeland scholars are caught up in the momentum. It can only be hoped that those two nations when totally released from the Soviet Russian Empire which Marx himself once called "The Prison of Nations" will not revert to the same vicious tribal wars which characterized an earlier day.


Sources for the Study of Polish Emigration to the Americas Housed in the Soviet Union

General Sources and Specific Locations

Central State Archives of Lithuania, Vilnius (Wilno)
Central State Archives of the USSR, Leningrad 
Central State Historical Archives of Lithuania, Vilnius (Wilno) 
Unpublished Manuscript Section, State Archives of Lithuania, Vilnius (Wilno)
Studies of Higher Institutions of Lithuania, Vilnius (Wilno) 
Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Lithuania, Vilnius (Wilno) 
Collection of Lithuanian Statistical Yearbooks, Vilnius (Wilno)


Sources Located in the Central Historical State Archives of the USSR, Leningrad, (TsIGA)


File-     98 Shipping Society (Dobrovolni Flot)
File- 1263 Committee Ministers
File- 1281 Reports of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) 
File- 1284 Department of General Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD)


Sources Located in the Central State Archives of the Lithuanian SSR, Vilnius (Wilno)


File- 377 Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD)
File- 378 Ministry of State Security (MVD)
File- 378 Archives of the Chancellery of the Governor-General of Vilnius (Wilno)
File- 383 Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID)
File- 387 Ministry of Finance of Lithuania
File- 394 Department of Citizen Security (MVD)
File- 419 Reports of the Vilnius (Wilno) Police
File- 420 Police Reports of the City of Vilnius (Wilno)
File- 432 Reports of the Trakai (Troki), Police District of Vilnius (Wilno) Province
File- 923 File of the Cabinet of Ministers
File- 927 Department of Finances
File- 928 Main Inspectorate of Labor and Social Welfare (MVD)
File- 929 Staff of the Army, Ministry of Defense
File- 930 Police Reports of the District of Suvalkija (Suwałki) 
File- 1006 Police Reports of the Districts of Suvalkija (Suwałki), Augustava (Augustowo) and Seinai (Sejny)
File- 1010 Records of the Chancellery of Suvalkija (Suwałki) Province 
File- 1367 Administrative Department (MVD)


From the above listing of primary sources it is easily deduced that the emigration of Poles and Lithuanians from both mixed Polish-Lithuanian and ethnic Lithuanian provinces of the Tsarist Russian Empire was of acute interest to the authorities. Included in the files or folia above are reports from tsarist agents both at home and abroad on the activities of the emigration. Of particular interest to emigration historians are the files of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate mentioned by Tudorianu, which deal with the efforts of the Tsarist government to exert influence over Ukrainian and Ruthenian Byzantine Rite Catholics then disaffected with the Irish dominated Roman Catholic hierarchy by inviting them to switch their allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church. It would be a most interesting line of research to uncover the activities of Tsarist and Soviet Secret Agents among Poles, Lithuanian and Ruthenian immigrants in America and to know their successes and their failures.




1 The term "Soviet" is used in the title in a generic sense, and reflects the state of control over the archives as cited in Tudorianu and Eidintas at the time their works were researched and published. The use of the term "Soviet" should in no way be read to imply non-recognition of Lithuanian independence as re-declared by the Lithuanian Seimas (Sejm) on March 11, 1990.

2 The Lithuanian capital is one city with many names. It is known as Vilnius in Lithuanian; Wilno in Polish; Vilna in Latin, Church Slavonic, Old Russian, Byelorussian, Hungarian, Yiddish, and many English sources; and Vil'nyus in Soviet Russian. There are similar variations for almost every other place name cited in this article.


This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. XLVII. No. 1, Spring 1990, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.