Vilnius Before and After the Deluge

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Upon evaluating the list of 717 possessions within the borders of the Vilnius walls in 1636, the city’s number of inhabitants (including the outskirts) should be assessed as being between 14,000 and 20,000 before the Deluge. A similar amount of people (or perhaps somewhat more) lived in Krakow and Warsaw at the time.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to compare pre-Deluge Vilnius (before 1655) and post-Deluge Vilnius (after 1662), because there are not many sources, and as research is lacking, we base our knowledge on a number of assumptions. It is difficult to describe Vilnius up until August 8th, 1655 when the army of Russian Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich occupied the GDL capital, as the city archive of Vilnius was burned down at that time. Only fragments of sources, copies and secondary sources that remain bear witness to the pre-Deluge period. After 1662 the sources area also fragmentary, as the country was unable to overcome the turmoil that the Deluge brought right away. It appears that a more comprehensive inventory was not carried out of the losses incurred from 1655 to 1661.

Fragments of lost Vilnius

Upon evaluating the list of 717 possessions within the borders of the Vilnius walls in 1636, the city’s number of inhabitants (including the outskirts) should be assessed as being between 14,000 and 20,000 before the Deluge. A similar amount of people (or perhaps somewhat more) lived in Krakow and Warsaw at the time. Around 90 % of the inhabitants of Vilnius were comprised of Christians (Catholics, Uniates, Orthodox believers, and Protestants), while the remaining numbers followed Judaism or Islam. It is also difficult to describe the ethnic make-up of Vilnius residents at the time. At the time, Polish was dominant in public life, but that didn’t mean that a majority of Vilnius’ inhabitants were Poles, because there is data that Lithuanian was known and used in the city. A number of inhabitants also spoke Ruthenian. A majority of Vilnius’ inhabitants were of Lithuanian origin, just a large part of them for various reasons had already become Slavicized, but could speak some Lithuanian.

The size of Vilnius within the city’s defensive walls was about 0.8 km2 (Krakow’s was about 0.6 km2, while Warsaw’s was about 0,26 km2). Already in 1636-1639, approximately 60 % of all the former buildings were brick, while the main streets (Pilies, Didžioji, Vokiečių, Dominikonų and Šv. Jono streets) had almost exclusively brick structures along them, thus there is no doubt that even more appeared in the middle of the 17th century. Most of the structures in the outskirts were wooden. We can work out the city’s look in the 17th century from a single, more comprehensive engraving of a panorama of Vilnius done by Tomasz Makowski around 1600, where one can see a wonderful Gothic city. This image of the city was changed dramatically by the great fire of 1610, which destroyed a large part of the city, which is why it must have looked different in the middle of the 17th century, as new Baroque churches and palaces had been built. After this fire, the Lower Castle, which had suffered greatly, was rebuilt. King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuanian Władysław IV Vasa stayed in it for the last time for a few months during the first half of 1648. Unfortunately, the city wall that was built around Vilnius in the 16th century did not suit the needs of the times, as it was built to defend the city from mounted soldiers and foot soldiers, but not from artillery.

The city was not prepared for defence, as no one really believed that any threat could arise.

A city drowning in a deluge of disaster

However, on August 8th, 1655 the army of the Russian tsar occupied and ravaged the city, which it ruled over until the middle of 1660, and in the castle until the end of 1661. The scope of the killing that is mentioned by contemporaries of the time (around 25,000 killed) during the occupation of Vilnius is exaggerated, as a few thousand Vilnius residents escaped as the enemy neared and occupied the city, while another one or two thousand may have been killed. A number of refugees returned the next year after military activity calmed, but perhaps up to half of them (which was written by Vilnius residents to the Tsar in 1658) died during the great plague epidemic that ravaged the city in 1657. It is not realistic that the city burned for 17 days. Though there were fires, there were no great street battles.

The scope of the city’s devastation becomes clear when you compare the surviving data of revenues and expenditures of Vilnius from 1647 with data from the years of occupation. In 1647, we can count over 1,300 places of various kinds for small trade (stalls, kiosks, standing places, etc.), along with the various shops. Approximately 10,000 shocks of groats of the city’s revenue was received from them (with the expenditures of the city being about the same amount). In 1658, only around 40 similar points of small trade in the city were mentioned from those mentioned in 1647, with the revenue being just a bit bigger than 142 shocks of groats, while expenditures were almost 145 shocks of groats.

The city suffered in 1660-1661 after the attempt by the Lithuanian army at the beginning of May 1660 to take back the city, which led the last Muscovite voivode of Vilnius Danilo Myshecki ordered the killing of about 150 city inhabitants, stuck many people in the castle prison (their fate is unclear), and burned down the outskirts so it would be easier to fend off the Lithuanians. Vilnius residents and the city suffered when the Muscovites were surrounded in the castles and shooting and attacks broke out, with the castle being stormed 5 to 6 times.

Vilnius had to have looked lamentable after its liberation in 1662 – many brick structures, especially around the castle, were destroyed, along with the palaces, public buildings and churches as well as a part of the Orthodox churches. Many of these buildings that suffered were not able to be rebuilt after 1655. The outskirts had been burned down.

Around 6,000-8,000 inhabitants remained in the city after its liberation.

But the revenue and expenditures of the city at the end of 1662 were almost 2,576 shocks of groats, though one should keep in mind the massive inflation and devaluation of the money during those 15 years of destruction.

The look of the city must have changed after those 6 years. Vilnius vegetated until the 19th century. Though a number of wonderful Baroque churches were built, the rebuilt or newly built palaces and houses of the city inhabitants became more modest than they were before 1655. The castle and palace of the grand dukes were torn down.

Literature: M. Paknys, Vilniaus miestas ir miestiečiai 1636 m.: namai, gyventojai, svečiai, Vilnius, 2006; M. Łowmiańska, Wilno przed najazdem moskiewskim 1655 roku, Wilno, 1929.

Elmantas Meilus