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Brest-Litovsk (today Brest; Lithuanian Brzese) is a city and administrative centre in Belarus. Its population in 1875 was 22,000 (half being Jewish)[1], and in 1983 was 208,000.[2] It was for centuries bordered on the west and south and partly on the east by marshes and small lakes, and lies 86 miles from Bialystock.[3] It is famous for the March 1918 Peace Treaty by which Bolshevik Russia withdrew from The Great War.


Mediaeval times

The town of Berestof on the right bank of the river Bug, at its junction with the Mikhovets, is mentioned in 1020, when it was taken by Boleslav 'The Brave', King of Poland. In 1189 Poland's King Casimir 'The Just' built a castle here. After that it frequently changed hands: the princes of Galicia, Volhynia, Lithuania, and the Kings of Poland all holding it in turn. It was devastated by the Tartars in 1241, and rebuilt in 1275 by Vladimir, Prince of Volhynia, whose stone castle stood until 1831 when it was demolished to make way for the Russian fortress. in 1319 Guedomin, Grand Duke of Lithuania, took the town, and later it came into the possession of Boleslav, Duke of Mazovia, at whose death in 1340 it was claimed by King Casimir of Poland, and by him given to the son of Guédémin. From that time it became part of Lithuania under the name of Brzese.[4]

In 1379 the Teutonic Knights destroyed its suburbs, and in 1436 a peace was concluded here between Poland and the Teutonic Order. The Khan of the Crimea, Mengli Ghirei, ravaged and burned the town in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Diets were frequently held here in the reign of Polish King Sigismund II. In 1599, following the earlier union of Lithuania with Poland, Brest became the residence of the Princes Radziwill, who were made governors or 'elders' of the town. The Uniat faith (an agreement that united with the Roman Catholic Church several million Ukranian and Russian Orthodox Christians living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was adopted at Brest in 1596 at a council of bishops from Western Russia[5], and the same year an Orthodox council, held in the town, condemned those who had seceded from that faith. In the 16th century the Jewish synagogue here was considered the first in Europe.[6]

Fortress built

In 1706 the Swedes pillaged the town; and in 1793 Brest-Litovsk was incorporated into the Russian Empire at the second partition of Poland. It was of special strategical importance to Russia as a point d'appui on the river Bug, the middle course of which was thus converted into a line of defence connected by rail, on the one hand with the internal provinces of Russia, and on the other with its south-west frontier. Being, moreover, situated at the very frontier of the Kingdom of Poland, it secured the possession of the latter by Russia. It became an important military depot, available both for defensive and offensive purposes, and in 1831 the Russians commenced the building of the famous fortress here, about a mile from the town, which was until The Great War considered the strongest in Russia. It consisted of a citadel situated on an island formed by the junction of the Bug and Mukhovets rivers, and of three further extensive fortifications, with a téte-de-pont, 'Graf Berg', commanding the bridge of the Warsaw to Terespol railway which passed under the guns of the north face of the fortress. The works had a circumference of four miles. It was claimed that the fortress had "all the newest improvements in the art of fortification".[7]

19th century

In the 19th century Brest Litovsk became an important railway junction and considerable trade was being carried on in corn, linseed, hides, timber, etc., much of which was then floated down to Danzig. By means of the 'Royal Canal', the Bug and Mukhovets rivers afforded fluviatile communications with both Prussia and Austria.[8]

The Great War

Destruction of the town of Brest-Litovsk by retreating Russian Army, July 1916.

The Great War began (and ended) badly for the Russians when their invasion of East Prussia failed disastrously with over 200,000 casualties (including prisoners). In May 1915 the forces of the Central Powers moved forward in a huge offensive and on August 26 Brest-Litovsk fell to them.[9] It was briefly retaken by the Russians but the city was then burnt by them at the time of its evacuation in July 1916. The Central Powers established a headquarters in the citadel, the only part of the city to survive the fire.[10] By the beginning of 1917 the Russian armies, despite their numbers, were exhausted in every way. The Tsar was forced by a traitorous new government to abdicate in March, and following the Bolshevik Revolution in October of that year their party's new government, being anti-war, sued for peace. Trotsky made formal proposals for an armistice on November 26 and wireless messages were sent to all fronts proclaiming the cessation of hostilities.

Ukraine delegation at Brest-Litovsk.

Meanwhile the Ukraine had declared its independence from Russia and on February 9, 1918, a Treaty of Peace between Ukraine and the Central Powers was signed at Brest-Litovsk.[11] Representative delegates from the Central Powers now gathered at Brest-Litovsk to await the first Bolshevik delegation led by the Jew, Adolf Joffe.[12] It is not necessary here to go into the detail of the several meetings, arguments, new Bolshevik negotiators etc., suffice to record that Brest-Litovsk had its moment of fame with the final signing there on March 3, 1918, of The Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey) ending Russia's participation in The Great War.[13] This treaty was formally ratified by the Bolshevik Government and Lenin's speech on this was published in Pravda on March 16 and 17. The Treaty was subsequently declared null and void by the 1919 Paris Peace Conference after which Brest-Litovsk found itself well inside the new independent state of Poland, in amongst the territories gained from Russia by Poland during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919.

20th century

In May 1937 there was a serious anti-Jewish pogrom in Brest-Litovsk.[14]

In September 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland up to the river Bug and subsequently annexed all those lands. Once again Brest-Litovsk found itself in White Russia (USSR) until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991-2 when it became a city in the newly created state of Belorussia or Belarus.


  1. Murray, John, Russia, Poland and Finland, 3rd edition, revised, London, 1875, p.323.
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1990, Micropaedia, p.502-3.
  3. Murray 1875, p.323-4.
  4. Murray 1875, p.323-4.
  5. Britannica, 1990, p.503.
  6. Murray 1875, p.324.
  7. Murray 1875, p.324.
  8. Murray 1875, p.324.
  9. Shermer, David, World War 1, London, 1973, p.111-2. ISBN 0-7064-0245-6
  10. Wheeler-Bennett, John W., Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918, MacMillan, London, 1966 edition, p.77.
  11. Wheeler-Bennett 1966, pps: 392-402.
  12. Wheeler-Bennett 1966, p.84.
  13. Wheeler-Bennett 1966, pps: 439-449.
  14. Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year 1938, London, p.505.