This 900 year old city on the Neman River, the Napoleonic Russian frontier, is perhaps the most multicultural city of Belarus. With at least 80 identifiable ethnic communities packed into a population of a little more than 325,000, Grodno (transliterated in Byelorussian as Hrodna) is one of the more colorful of the country’s urban centers. It was fortunate to be spared from being flattened by the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War, unlike the capital Minsk, and it retains its original strong Central European feel.
The city has been of considerable strategic value since its inception. The Rus first built a fortress here in 1116 to protect the river trade route from the Baltic pagan Yotvingian tribe, a route that no doubt carried a lot of amber from the Baltic Sea. The Kalozha Church of Saints Boris and Gleb, built in this period (completed in 1183), is the only surviving example of Black Ruthenian architecture anywhere, and is the oldest building in Grodno.
After Kiev Rus fell to the Mongols, Mindaugas, the first Grand Prince of Lithuania, naturally set his sites early upon taking this important riverside hill settlement. So too did the crusading Livonian Order and Teutonic Knights, both of whom initially sought to Christianize the Lithuanians (at the time, the last pagan country of Europe). By the Battle of Grunwald, though, the self-converted Lithuanians clearly prevailed.
Grodno’s fortunes rose with the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, particularly following the signing of an important post-Grunwald union treaty here in 1413. With an large Jewish community being settled here in 1389 (by the end of the Russian Empire, the Jewish population would include about half the city), commerce flowed into the city, which became first the residence of Lithuanian princes (among the most prominent was Vytautas the Great, who reigned as Prince of Grodno years before he became Grand Prince of Lithuania), and then later the home of Polish kings (including Stefan Bathory, the Transylvanian-born replacement of Henri de Valois, who reigned during the waning days of the Jagiellon rulers). This period left behind as a legacy the Old Castle, a Renaissance architectural work started by Vytautas, but later rebuilt by Stefan that remains the pride of the city.
The city has long served as a center of culture. The first printing press to produce books in the Byelorussian language began operating here in 1591. Augustus III, the last indisputably great King of Poland, built a new Rococo-style Royal Palace above the Neman River in the mid-18th century. At the time, this was the height of architectural fashion.
However, the city didn’t remain the seat of power for very long after that. The successor to Augustus III, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, was brought to power through a coup d’etat backed by Catherine II the Great of Russia. Through his reign, Poland was partitioned out of existence by its three neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. In fact, it was at this palace, the so-called “New Grodno Castle,” that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth held its last Sejm in 1793, effectively marking the end of the Commonwealth.
Although for a brief period, during and after Napoleon’s occupation, Poland rose again as the so-called Duchy of Warsaw, and then as Tsar Alexander’s Congress Kingdom, Poland and Lithuania were effectively removed from the map, and Grodno became just another Russian city. Although it was relegated to a minor political role by the Russians, it continued to be a cultural center. Its first public library was built in 1854, and Orthodox churches and monasteries were added to the many Catholic religious buildings already dominating the city.
During the Great War and the period that followed it, Grodno underwent profound changes, almost as profound as the countryside surrounding it. Although many of the buildings managed to somehow survive, the Polish-Jewish city that existed before the war was wiped out, in part in the killing machines of nearby death camps. After the war, all that was left was a mostly Byelorussian city, rebuilt into an oblast capital, and of course the memories of what once was.
Today, though, the memories are respected in the multicultural character of today’s Grodno. Once every two years, the city celebrates its Festival of National Cultures, a chance to taste the flavors, hear the sounds, and see the products of different ethnic communities represented in the city today. Unfortunately, the next festival is scheduled for 2014, but the city hosts plenty of other lesser events that are worth seeing.
Further, being at the center of Belarus’ great northwest, there is plenty worth seeing not far outside of Grodno. The Augustine Canal has recently begun to operate boats in both Belarus and Poland. Castles adorn the landscape at Nowogrudok (Navahrudak in Byelorussian) and Lida, and cultural villages beckon travelers at Sviatsk (a former szlachta estate) and Korobchitsy (a restored Polish and Byelorussian village). And with snows just around the corner, the Sopotskin ski resort is counting the days until winter.
Belarus holds many pleasant surprises, all of which await exploration. Grodno in particular has much to offer those who are looking for pleasant experiences.
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