The Archives of Vanished Kingdoms

As an archivist I'm particularly taken by the chapter on 'Litva' (including the Grand Duchy of Poland-Lithuania and taking in the Baltic states and the Ukraine), because Davies discusses the problems of piecing together the records of a 'vanished' state. The following is taken directly from the text with a small amount of editing or adding information for context. It's quite lengthy but it shows how the survival of records is not guaranteed, and how the work of individuals can help fill gaps in the national or corporate memory.

"Archives are, in a sense, the dust and ashes of a dead polity. They contain the records of monarchs who reigned, of institutions that functioned and of lives that were lived. Like boxes of family papers in the attic, they are an indispensable aid to accurate memory and to trustworthy history."

"The condition of archives, therefore, gives a good indication of the strength of memory and the reliability of the history books. If archives are well ordered, one may conclude that the legacy of past times is respected. If not, it is likely that memory and history have been neglected. One of the first decisions of ill-willed regimes is to order the destruction or sequestration of their predecessors' archives. In the case of the grand duchy, large parts of the archives have totally disappeared."

Metryka Litevska or 'Lithuanian Register' is the commonest collective name for the original indexes/archival inventories of the grand duchy's central chancery. Since it no longer exists in one place, it is difficult to estimate its size. But, at a minimum, it was made up of a thousand huge, leather-bound ledgers, and it contained six main divisions: Books of Inscriptions (i.e. summaries of laws and decrees), Books of 'Public Affairs' (records of the Chancellor's Office), Sigillata (copies of documents issued under the grand-ducal seal), Court Books, Land Survey Books, and Legation Books relating to foreign affairs. The time span stretches from the very early thirteenth century to the very late eighteenth century. The principal languages employed are rusk (Old Belarusian), Latin and Polish."

"Locating and reconstructing the 
Metryka Litevska has demanded a fascinating saga of academic sleuthing that could only be undertaken with modern technology. It was long delayed, partly because the most interested parties had no access, and partly because Russian and Soviet archivists were following their own agenda. Nowadays, one can state with some confidence that the dispersal of the grand duchy's records took place in nine or ten stages:
  • • In 1572, following Union with Poland, the main body of documents (though not the registers) was taken by the last chancellor of the pre-Union grand duchy, Mikolaj 'the Red' Radziwill, and was housed in the Radziwill's palace at Nieswiez. According to the Radziwills, the priceless papers had been consigned to them for safekeeping; according to others they were stolen.
  • • From 1572 to 1740 the archives of the post-Union period, together with the older registers, were kept in the Chancery in Vilnius. Most papers relating to foreign policy were filed in the Metryka Koronna [Crown Register]. The Metryka Litevskareceived numerous files relating to Muscovy and the Tartars.
  • • During the Swedish invasion of 1655-6, large quantities of documents and inventories were plundered and taken to Stockholm. Part of the loot was returned by the Treaty of Oliwa (1660), but an important group of registers remained in Sweden.
  • • In 1740 the grand-ducal Chancery and its records were moved to Warsaw; sometime later a joint Polish-Lithuanian archival administration was established. After 1777, since the majority of clerks could no longer read Cyrillic, Polish summaries were added to the contents of each ledger. A start was made on a huge project aiming to produce a full copy of the entire archive and to transcribe all the rusk texts into the Latin alphabet.
  • • In 1795 the contents of Warsaw's archives and libraries, together with the surviving registers were seized by the Russian army, and transported to St Petersburg, where they were duly joined by the archives from Nieswiez.
  • • In the course of the nineteenth century Russian imperial archivists broke up the Polish-Lithuanian records to suit their own administrative purposes. Anything relating to Ukraine, for example, was sent to Kiev.
  • • In 1887 an incomplete and inaccurate catalogue of the Metryka Litevska was compiled and published in St Petersburg.
  • • In 1921 the Treaty of Riga between Poland and the Soviet republics made provision for the restoration of all archives carried off from Warsaw in 1795. The provision was largely observed in the breach.
  • • In 1939, the Polish Archive Service removed as many records as possible from central Warsaw, but large parts of the pre-war collections were destroyed during the war by fires, bombing and German looting."
"One obvious conclusion is that Vilnius and Minsk are probably not necessarily the best places to locate the basic sources for study of the grand duchy."

"The task of piecing together the archival jigsaw was first undertaken by Polish scholars in the 1920s and 1930s, but the work was far from complete when overtaken by redoubled wartime disasters. Post-war conditions, which gave absolute priority to the sensitivities of the Soviet Union, were not conducive to impartial research."

"So with much delay the star role eventually fell to a heroic American scholar from Harvard University, whose findings began to appear in the 1980s [Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, 
The Lithuanian Metryka in Moscow and Warsaw: Reconstructing the Archives of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1984)]. Her original concern was to summarize the holdings of the Soviet state archives in general, since their guardians treated catalogues as state secrets."

But she came to realize that many records originating from the grand duchy, though broken up and widely scattered, had survived under misleading headings and identification numbers. She also realized that the registers in Stockholm, to which she had unrestricted access, were invaluable. They helped her to trace papers which were housed in various parts of Poland or the Soviet Union and whose existence would otherwise have been impossible to pinpoint. The net result was an unrivalled degree of understanding of the grand duchy's archival legacy.

"Since then, primary research has been greatly facilitated, and scholars of many nationalities toil to make up the backlog of two centuries. Enormous gaps and problems remain, yet it is a great consolation to know that all was not lost. Even for the amateur historian with no special expertise, it is extraordinary exciting to open one of the inventories, and to gaze on the raw material of the grand duchy's history with one's own eyes.'

"In the fields of art, architecture and social history, another single-handed labour of love was undertaken by an archivist and librarian who passed the second half of his life in Silesia. In the 1930s the late Roman Aftanazy had been a keen cyclist and photographer, touring the eastern borders of Poland's Second Republic with camera and notebook, and starting a collection of annotated pictures of castles and country houses. After the war, when many of the the historic buildings had been destroyed, he realized that his collection, though incomplete, was unique."

And he spent the next forty years compiling a detailed photographic and descriptive record of every single landed estate in Lithuania, Byelorussia and Ukraine. He contacted all the surviving former owners or their neighbours, persuading them to submit every available photograph, plan, inventory or family history. His daring operation in Communist times was completely illegal, but its results were sensational. In 1986 he published the first volumes (out of a total of 22) of a work which lists and describes in detail more than 1,500 residences. Part I, which consists of four volumes, deals with the former grand duchy, and is organized by the palatinates that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

There are 148 substantial entries, from Abele to Zyrmuny, for the Palatinate of Vilnia alone. This is no mere catalogue. It is a comprehensive compendium, giving full accounts of almost every landed family and their estates, together with their homes, their galleries, their gardens, their furniture, their genealogies, their legends and their fortunes. It is an intellectual rescue operation of a lost world on a grand scale.

"Even diligently reconstructed records and material remains, however, do not tell the whole story. Some people, by religious analogy, might believe that the grand duchy had a soul or spirit as well as a mortal body. For the grand duchy continues to generate all manner of intangibles - myths, legends, stories and literary echoes - that many observers notice, and some try to analyze."