Grodno or Hrodna is a city in Belarus. It is located on the Neman River, close to the borders of Poland and Lithuania (about 20 km and 30 km away respectively). It has 327,540 inhabitants (2009 census). It is the capital of Grodno Region (voblast) and Grodno raion (district).
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The modern city of Grodno originated as a small fortress and a fortified trading outpost maintained by the Rurikid princes on the border with the lands of the Baltic tribal union Yotvingians. Its name derives from the Old East Slavic verb gorodit’, i.e., to enclose, to fence (see «grad» for details).
Mentioned in the Primary Chronicle under 1127 as Goroden’ and located at a crossing of numerous trading routes, this Slavic settlement, possibly originating as far as the late 10th century, became the capital of a poorly attested but separate principality, ruled by Yaroslav the Wise’s grandson and his descendants.
Along with Navahrudak, Hrodna was regarded as the main city on the far west of so-called Black Ruthenia, a border region that neighboured the original Lithuania. It was often attacked by various invaders, especially the Teutonic Knights. In the 1240-1250s the Grodno area, as well as the most of Black Ruthenia, was controlled by princes of Lithuanian origin (Mindaugas and others) to form the Baltic-Slavic state — Grand Duchy of Lithuania on these territories. After the Prussian uprisings a large population of Old Prussians moved to the region. The famous Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas was the prince of Grodno from 1376 to 1392, and he stayed there during his preparations for the Battle of Grunwald (1410). Since 1413, Grodno had been the administrative center of a powiat in Trakai Voivodeship.
The New Castle in Grodno used to be a summer residence of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth monarchs.
To aid the reconstruction of trade and commerce, the grand dukes allowed the creation of a Jewish commune in 1389. It was one of the first Jewish communities in the grand duchy. In 1441 the city received its charter, based on the Magdeburg Law. After the First Partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Grodno became the capital of the short-lived Grodno Voivodeship in 1793.
As an important centre of trade, commerce, and culture, Grodno remained one of the places where the Sejms were held. Also, the Old and New Castles were often visited by the Commonwealth monarchs including famous Stephen Báthory of Poland who made a royal residence here. In 1793 the last Sejm in the history of the Commonwealth occurred at Grodno. Two years afterwards, in 1795, Russia obtained the city in the Third Partition of Poland. It was in the New Castle on November 25 of that year that the last Polish king and Lithuanian grand duke Stanisław August Poniatowski abdicated. In the Russian Empire, the city continued to serve its role as a seat of Grodno Governorate since 1801. The industrial activities, started in the late 18th century by Antoni Tyzenhaus, continued to develop.
Up to the Second World War and the Holocaust, like many other cities in Europe, Hrodna had a significant Jewish population: according to Russian census of 1897, out of the total population of 46,900, Jews constituted 22,700 (so around 48% percent).
World War I
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After the outbreak of World War I, Grodno was occupied by Germany (1915) and ceded by Bolshevist Russia under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. After the war the German government permitted a short-lived state to be set up there, the first one with a Belarusian name — the Belarusian National Republic. This declared its independence from Russia in March 1918 in Minsk (known at that time as Mensk), but then the BNR’s Rada (Council) had to leave Minsk and fled to Grodno. All this time the military authority in the city remained in German hands.
After the outbreak of the Polish-Bolshevik War, the German commanders of the Ober Ost feared that the city might fall to Soviet Russia, so on April 27, 1919 they passed authority to Poland. The city was taken over by the Polish Army the following day and Polish administration was established in the city. The city was lost to the Red Army on July 20, 1920 in what became known as the First Battle of Grodno. The city was also claimed by Lithuanian government, after it was agreed by the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty of 1920 signed on July 12, 1920 in Moscow that the city would be transferred to Lithuania. However, Soviet defeat in the Battle of Warsaw made these plans obsolete, and Lithuanian authority was never established in the city. Instead, the Red Army organised its last stand in the city and the Battle of Neman took place there. On September 23 the Polish Army recaptured the city. After the Peace Treaty of Riga, Grodno remained in Poland.
Initially, prosperity was reduced due to the fact that the city remained only the capital of a powiat, while the capital of the voivodship was moved to Białystok. However, in the late 1920s the city became one of the biggest Polish Army garrisons. This brought the local economy back on track. Also, the city was a notable centre of Jewish culture, with roughly 37% of the city’s population being Jewish.
World War II
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For more details on this topic, see Grodno Ghetto.
During the Polish Defensive War of 1939 the garrison of Hrodna was mostly used for the creation of numerous military units fighting against the invading Wehrmacht. In the course of the Soviet invasion of Poland initiated on September 17, there was heavy fighting in the city between Soviet and improvised Polish forces, composed mostly of march battalions and volunteers. In the course of the Battle of Grodno (September 20–September 22), the Red Army lost some hundred men (by the Polish sources; by the Soviet sources — 57 killed and 159 wounded) and also 19 tanks and 4 APCs destroyed or damaged. The Polish side suffered at least 100 killed in action, military and civil, but losses still remain uncertain in detail (Soviet sources claim 644 killed and 1543 captives with many guns and machine guns etc. captured). Many more were shot in mass executions after being imprisoned. After the engaged Polish units were surrounded, the remaining units withdrew to Lithuania.
In accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the city was transferred to the Belarusian SSR of the Soviet Union, and several thousand of the city’s Polish inhabitants were deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union. On June 23, 1941 the city came under German occupation that lasted until 16 July 1944. In the course of World War II, the majority of Hrodna’s remaining Jews were exterminated in German concentration camps. Being the part of extended East Prussia Hrodna was renamed by Germans to Garten (meaning «garden») in 1942.
Since 1945 the city has been a centre of one of provinces of the Belarusian SSR, now of the independent Republic of Belarus. The majority of Poles were expelled or run away to Poland 1944-1946 and 1955-1959.