Archivists reveal facts and legends about ancestors

National Historical Archives of Belarus publishes fascinating Foreign Nationals in Belarus (Late 18th — Early 20th Century)
By Lyudmila Minaeva

Cakes with Eastern flavour
“The edition has taken over a decade to compile,” emphasises the Deputy Director of the National Historical Archives of Belarus, Denis Liseichikov. “Our archive contains hundreds of thousands of documents regarding foreign citizens who have resided in Belarus. We used to think that only the Germans had passed through, but hundreds of French and Belgians, Turks and Persians left their own legacy. Belarus’ location at a crossroads of trade and transport has brought connections with various states since the times of the Principality of Polotsk. In the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was common to see foreigners here. The most prominent time was that of the Russian Empire; from the late 18th century, foreign artisans and farmers arrived on Belarusian lands.”

According to Mr. Liseichikov, many people are currently researching their family trees with help from the archives. Some stories are quite romantic, as various Napoleonic soldiers fell in love with local beauties and decided to stay. He continues, “Many are quite keen to discover that they are descended from Napoleonic soldiers but most of their ancestors arrived in peace as traders, artisans or farmers. The most famous baker in Minsk at the beginning of the last century was a Turkish citizen called Ahmed Hussein Ofli. He was a very wealthy man, owning a network of bakeries and confectioneries. He lived in a luxurious three-story mansion.”

French hair pins and Austrian matches
How many modern Belarusian enterprises have links with foreign nationals? 

“Pinsk Match Factory was founded by Austrian Louis Herschman and was originally called Vulkan. Alivaria beer was launched by the Bavarian Lekkert brothers, who bought a Minsk brewery from Rohlia Frumkina — located at the corner of Aleksandrovskaya and Zagorodnaya streets. It still stands,” says Mr. Liseichikov. “I was surprised to learn that Belarusian Milavitsa (lingerie) also has foreign origins, having grown from a factory set up by French citizen Francois Tourne. It began by making ladies’ hair pins, men’s combs, buttons, and other small grooming accessories.”

Many foreigners were invited to Belarus, since their expertise was in demand, Mr. Liseichikov admits. “Often, entire colonies were invited, being given a separate plot of unused land by the local nobility, with the aim of rent being charged. German principalities were most commonly invited but other states were also approached. For example, in the Brest Region, there were two settlements of Dutch colonists, who came seeking an easier working environment than that of over-populated Europe. They farmed and bred animals. One of the largest colonies of foreigners existed on the Gomel estate of Duke Paskevich-Erivansky.”

Foreign doctors and pharmacists
With the arrival of the railways came machinists and engineers, whose knowledge and skills were much needed. “Private initiative played its part,” notes Mr. Vasilevich. “For example, a tender was announced to build tramways in Vitebsk and was won by Frenchman Fernand Guillaum. A Belgian company ran Vitebsk’s tramways, using its own money to build electric railway rolling stock and run a power plant. It even issued shares in the Vitebsk Tramway in Brussels; they fetched a good price on the European market. In fact, Vitebsk opened its tramlines a year earlier than Moscow, and nine years before St. Petersburg.”

In Belarus, many foreign nationals also worked in medicine. “If you look at the last name of any doctor, surgeon or pharmacist in the 19th century, they were certainly German: Prussian, Bavarian or Austrian,” asserts Mr. Liseichikov. “It’s rare to see a Slavic name. After five years here, foreign experts usually received Russian citizenship and remained forever, bringing their wives and children or marrying locally; accordingly, it’s hardly surprising that Belarus is home to so many family names of foreign origin.”

Mr. Liseichikov explains that research is ongoing, with an edition planned solely on the passports which were issued to immigrants. “There was a strict procedure for obtaining a residence permit. Provincial government offices registered new arrivals, with passport IDs given. Photos were expensive but height, eye and hair colour, occupation, family status and place of origin were listed. About 20,000 such passports existed in the Minsk Region, revealing much about our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers. This is our history, so we should show respectful interest, honouring their memories by learning about them.”
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