About Belarus

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The history of Bobruisk

updated on 28/01/2019

Bobruisk is based on the Bobruika river which was once very full of beavers (bobr = beaver). First mentioned in the chronicles in 1387, Bobruisk had a dozen streets and a market square by the 1600s. Burnt in 1508 during an uprising, the city suffered immensely from similar hazards forty years later. The decline of the city started in the 1650s after the Cossack uprising. In 1655 during the Russian - Polish wars Bobruisk was captured by the Russian army and its population almost entirely destroyed. During the second partition of Rech Pospolita Bobruisk became a city in the Russian Empire.

In 1511 Sigizmund the Old granted the city of Bobruisk a right to pay taxes directly into the state budget, skipping the regional authorities. By that time the city’s geographical location turned Bobruisk into a major trade center. It had a river harbor and it was one of the major customs points in the Duchy collecting fees off merchants traveling between Moscow and Europe. Bobruisk didn’t have Magdeburg right or the right to elect magistrate.

Bobruisk with a castle in the center was encircled with a stone wall. The city planning didn’t exist at the time: streets spread sporadically and more wooden huts of the poorest residents could be found by the river. Wealthy city residents owned big land plots and were dealing in timber and furs. By the 1600s there were about 500 dwelling buildings in town. Bobruisk had Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Jesuit communities, all with their respective temples and prayer buildings.

Bobruisk had a development plan designed for it in 1800. The city itself went into another economic decline during the previous century and with 200 houses in the city accommodating over 2000 residents, it was to be erased for the sake of the fortress construction. The city buildings on the hill by the river were dismantled or demolished. The suburbs were developed according to the new plans: no stone buildings were allowed outside the fortress for defense reasons slowing down the revival of Bobruisk for another century.

The construction of the new Bobruisk fortress in the 1800s changed the city dramatically. Built in 1810 it actually replaced the old town whose residents were relocated to the suburbs. Having held a French army group for 4 months, the fortress underwent several upgrades until the 1840s. This way, for instance, a Jesuit church became an ammunition depot. The fortress of Bobruisk turned into a formidable prison where the Tzar’s government accommodated the opposition, often the members of the secret student communities. The fortress buildings are mostly disused now, however, one of the towers still functions as a prison. The fortress of Bobruisk counts as one of the major highlights.

Through the 1800s several schools including a gymnasium were built in Bobruisk. Economy was boosted in 1873 by the construction of the Libava-Romno railway. Although the census of 1897 revealed about 35000 city residents, the industrial sector of Bobruisk was almost non-existent. 22 factories employed over 300 workers and the whole city was majorly wooden.

Here are some of the prewar Bobruisk streets: Sotsialisticheskaya (former Muravyevskaya), Bakharova (former Shosseynaya), Sovetskaya (Peschanaya), Changarskaya (former Olekhnovskaya), Komsomolskaya (former Adamovskaya).

Being located further to the east of Minsk, Bobruisk was only occupied by the German army in 1918 and the latter was replaced by the Polish army in 1919. The economy, however, was ruined anyway. 1920 restoration of the Soviet power (which was short-lived in 1917 when October revolution took place). Today’s major enterprises of the city were actually established in the 1920s: a timber factory and a yeast factory (now known for the production of zephyrs). By 1941 Bobruisk was the most industrialized city in Belarus.

The city was occupied by the Nazi on 28 June 1941. By the end of the war only one third of the population (less than 30 000 people) remained in Bobruisk.

A number of enterprises were built after the war, including a tire producer - the city’s major economy driver. Today, the architectural heritage of Bobruisk is rather extensive, beside the fortress the city boasts of numerous wooden and brick buildings from the 1800s and early 1900s: former banks, synagogues, dwelling buildings of prominent owners.

The Jews settled in Bobruisk presumably in the early 1500s to take crafts and trade to a new level – the first record of the community dates back to 1583. Jews were also renting customs checkpoints and rights to collect certain taxes. In 1655 the Jewish population of Bobruisk was decimated by the rioting Cossacks but in a century it was restored.

In the 1800s the first industries in town like the brick and the candle factories belonged to the Jewish capitals. From this point on, the Jewish population steadily increases due to migration from Poland and Ukraine: in 1808 the community numbered 504 Jews, in 1861 – almost 9 000. By the WWI there were about 26 000 Jews in Bobruisk – almost 60 per cent of the total population (but around 40 per cent 10 years later).

By the late 1800s Bobruisk had about 20 thousand residents who kept about 200 shops, about 170 workshops and over 20 taverns giving over 400 jobs. Big operators dealt in timber that was supplied to southern Russia. A circle of richer Jews wasn’t too large while there were entire blocks of their extremely poor compatriots living in misery: barefoot children, streets covered in mud and ugly small wooden huts. Although the elite circles were involved in charity building housing and distributing free meals to the poor, the gap between the rich and the poor grew.

The unrest created by this among the Jewish youths forced them to look for an escape joining the spheres of crime, revolution and arts. Many music writers, artists, conductors and film directors who got famous in Europe or America actually originated from Bobruisk.

Chassids and mesnagdim were represented in Boburisk competing for their flock. One of the biggest Jewish schools had about 60 students, other kids went to private schools and cheders. A state religious school for Jews functioned in Bobruisk. None of the Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches or mosques have survived the 20th century, but synagogues that were massively turned into warehouses, libraries, workshops and shops are still there.

The early 1900s saw two big fires that inspired massive development of stone buildings. Muravyovskaya street started from the railway station as a two-kilometer long stretch of dwelling houses with shops and offices on the first floor. Diverse shop billboards boasted of different colors and fonts inviting one to shop, order tailored shoes or ask for a legal advice. The main street had narrow but high sidewalks covered with bricks or tiles. The central part of this street was known to be a place for a date or a business meeting: gas lamps allowed the crowds to mix until late evening.

Along with this street the blocks around the market became a magnet for people. Solid masonries emerged around the market and beside dwelling buildings here one could find warehouses, stables and sheds. Their back walls fenced the market around and three pairs of metal gates were closed for the night. All sorts of buildings in the market drew merchants, middlemen, profiteers, dealers, gossipers and thieves. South of the market a square emerged, named Market Square, to become the largest one in this part of Bobruisk.

In 1904 36 000 people lived in Bobruisk and out of about 3 thousand buildings about two hundred were built of brick. Several dozen factories (producing brick, leather, butter, flour and beer) were often small-scale employing up to 40 workers which was fewer than on average in the cities of such size in the rest of Russia. Apparently, more people were employed in the service industry than in manufacturing. Unemployment was quite massive and labor movement was ripe and active in the first Russian revolution of 1905.

In 1904 the city had a male gymnasium, a number of secondary schools of different levels and a few trade schools. A yeshivah (near today’s Sovetskaya Street) and two private schools were run by the Jewish community. Almost every synagogue had a cheder and the students who were looking for further education were choosing between Vilno and Zhytomir.

After the First World war there were about 30 000 people in Bobruisk – 40 per cent of the prewar number, the city lay in ruins. Quite soon major factories including a timber and textile ones were built to make Bobruisk one of the most industrialized cities in Belarus by 1941.

The Nazi took over Bobruisk on 28 June 1941. Two transit camps were established in the city for the Soviet POWs and about 44 000 people were murdered here during the war.

Directly after the occupation, the Nazi placed Bobruisk Jews and Jews from a nearby area into two ghettos. About 10 000 Jews were executed in November by the Nazi in Kamenka village and by the city cemetery.

After the war the Jewish population was restored and even registered a community. However, in 1948 the synagogue building was taken over by the archives. Today’s community is over 1000-strong and has a synagogue, a school and a few clubs running with the help of the Joint. The synagogue is located in Sotsialisticheskaya Street – the first cobbled street in town.

If you would like to take a tour of Bobruisk, don't hesitate to contact me!

Questions are welcome!

Andrei Burdenkov - your personal guide in Belarus
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