The Uneasy Everyday Life in the Occupied Vilnius

The city of Vilnius was occupied by the Russian troops from 8 August 1655 to 11 July 1660, but a part of the Russian army was beset inside the Vilnius castles until 3 December 1661. It did not take long for the residents of Vilnius to get used to the occupants because they did not undertake brutal repressions trying to pull the locals to their side instead. Although the city was devastated, the everyday life slowly returned to its normal track. People from neighbouring towns and villages began arriving in Vilnius as soon as in the first autumn of the occupation bringing beverages and food for sale. Some Vilnius residents were actively involved in collaboration with the Russian authorities. They would intimidate and blackmail their neighbours in order to deprive them of their property threatening with repressions by the occupants. The Russian troops, in turn, were involved in settling the disputes between city dwellers taking their chances to profit from that. The occupational army and officials would often collect various legal and illegal fees and bribes from the residents of the city.

Buried treasures were shortly unearthed

In the summer of 1655, as the Russian army was approaching the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vilnius dwellers were preparing for the occupation by hiding their valuables. Maciej Vorbek-Lettow, a physician, left a vivid description of a panic rush on the 8th of August 1655 as a number of Vilnius residents tried to flee the city. With the Russian army swarming through the city gates, the author of the memoirs was terrified and could not find anything – neither a key, nor an axe nor any other item that he could use to open a cabinet where he kept his golden ducats. In fact, he had hidden part of his property well in advance: “In a cellar (provided the enemy does not find them) cauldrons, large vessels, a great number of copper (vessels)” and a lot of zinc-plated vessels, candlesticks and other brass items lie immured. 

Some residents of Vilnius would hide their valuables in churches and monasteries, in lofts and underground, immured in walls and sewed into garments. Vilnius residents started filing their appeals to the occupational officials to allow them dig out their valuables as early as in 1656.

As the fighting calmed down throughout the country, in the autumn of 1656 many residents who had fled the city started coming back.

The structures of self-government were effectively dysfunctional until 1657 when the magistrate court was restored and began hearing cases of Vilnius residents again. The official city books of the time feature numerous inscriptions about personal debts, claims related to movable property and real estate; they also include individual property inventories, lists of goods, testaments, trade claims, requests related to wardship for orphans and widows, wardship-related disputes, insults, robberies and looting. In the spring of 1658, fifty eight representatives of the magistrate, the merchants and the guilds put together an appeal to the tsar concerning some of the problems that the city faced. Three of them went to Moscow to speak about the problems in person. In the summer of the same year, the tsar satisfied several requests and reaffirmed the freedoms granted to the city by the rulers of Lithuania.

Neither war, nor the plague halted the city life

The City Hall Square was surrounded by small shops offering salt, herring, butter, wax and meat. Outside, behind stalls and on the pavement, people traded frozen and dried fish, berries, millets, fat, oil and other foods. Twelve stalls offered various fabrics. Some shops in Vilnius offered both exotic goods, such as spices, and common stuff, such as household gear, tools, fabrics, tobacco and pipes. A shop owner in Vilnius compiled a list of goods in his shop after his helper had stolen several small things. The inventory included plenty of different paper, spices, mirrors, playing cards, spectacles, combs, one small clock, four books, three inkpots, as much as 15 pairs of strings from Rome and a lot of other stuff. 

Vilnius residents would travel to other cities and towns, in the neighbourhood and further away. Apparently, they had to leave someone as a hostage and were forced to undergo interrogation after coming back, just like strangers arriving in Vilnius.

Merchants would usually travel to Samogitia and Prussia, but their goods sometimes reached as far as Kiev.

Back in Vilnius, at least several artisan guilds and different religious brotherhoods were active. The municipal weighing machine operated beside the City Hall.

After restoring its functions, the city authority tried its best to persuade the occupants not to harm city dwellers. Various municipal services and structures in charge of public order were back in operation. Municipal officials, including the headsman and prison wardens, were paid modest salaries. Street cleaners, however, worked only on main streets and in the square adjacent to the City Hall. Water supply system did not function in full capacity but people could use new or renovated old public wells. The city would finance the collection and burial of bodies of the dead poor.

When the epidemic of plague broke out in the autumn of 1657, the occupational authority appointed the plague advocatus and five of his deputies alongside 30 armed guards who would protect the city from looters around the clock. They would collect valuables and other property of the deceased and did their best to ensure the abandoned buildings would not turn into hideaways for criminals. All the city gates were closed except the Rūdininkai Gate which allowed limited movement of people and transport. During the epidemic, the property of the deceased was collected in special buildings and registered just in case any legitimate inheritor turned up. The “plague officials” often behaved as if no laws were above them although the opportunities were modest. The plague, which raged for almost one year, left about half of Vilnius and a considerable part of the Russian garrison dead.

Tragicomic tales of the occupied Vilnius

The occupied city mostly continued its usual life with family tragedies and funny things happening here and there.

In 1658 a man from Vilnius wrote to the courts after being forced to marry a woman when he was drunk. The woman subsequently led a wanton life and ignored his pleas to stop behaving in this way. The man finally whipped his wife whose father became furious to the extent that he brought his son-in-law to the office of the Russian troops where wardens beat him up and locked him in chains. He eventually had to pay the wardens to set him free. His wife meanwhile had her own plans for the future and robbed him. Her husband once found her acting indecently with three Russian soldiers and took her to a village near Simnas. The restless woman found a company of a soldier from the Lithuanian army there. Later the beautiful woman who clearly neglected family values had an affair with her husband’s servant. The two eventually robbed him and fled to a village near Punia where Tatars lived.

The Russian soldiers would often desert or get caught for stealing food because famine was a common occurrence in the Russian army. The occupation was a tough time for artisans many of whom were forced to sell their homes and land plots to feed their families.

Literature: E. Meilus, Apie rastą lobį, paslėptą žemėje ar kitoje vietoje, arba 1655–1661 m. Vilniuje paslėptų lobių ieškotojo pradžiamokslis, Istorijos akiračiai: Skiriama profesoriaus habilituoto daktaro Antano Tylos 75-mečiui, Vilnius, 2004, p. 241–254; E. Meilus, Życie codzienne w Wilnie w czasie okupacji moskiewskiej 1655–1661, Litwa w epoce Wazów: Prace ofiarowane Henrykowi Wisnerowi siedemdziesiątą urodzin, Warszawa, 2006, p. 129–143.

Elmantas Meilus