Russia, especially what is now western Russia and the independent nations once part of the Russian Empire, has been a major source of emigrants to America. Among the various groups to leave Russia, Jews have probably been the most numerous, fleeing the destitution and religious persecution so commonplace within the former Pale of Settlement. The Pale, itself less than a quarter of the territory of European Russia, comprised all of Belarus, Lithuania, and Moldova, chunks of Ukraine and Poland, and small parts of Latvia and western Russia, and remained a cohesive geo-political unit until the end of the First World War.
To locate communities in European Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we will consult a set of topographic maps prepared by the General Staff of the Imperial Russian Army at 1:126,000 scale sometime between ca. 1865 to ca. 1917. Some later editions of the maps were produced after the war by German and Polish mapping agencies. The division has titled the set Topograficheskie karty evropeĭskoĭ chasti Rossiĭskoĭ Imperii masstaba 1:126 000 or Topographic maps of the European part of the Russian Empire at scale 1:126,000. Sheets issued by the Imperial Russian government before the First World War use the old Cyrillic orthography in place names and other data. The set is filed in the Geography and Map Division under LC call number G7010 s126 .R8.
Possibly the most comprehensive gazetteer one can use when searching for place names in Imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union is Max Vasmer and Herbert Bräuer's Russisches Geographisches Namenbuch, published in eleven volumes, with an accompanying atlas, during the period 1964-89. Names are in Russian (Cyrillic), but sub-entries and descriptive information primarily are in German (Roman). Its drawback is the absence of geographic coordinates. Nevertheless, its comprehensiveness is remarkable -- the entry for the name Alexandrovka alone identifies 839 villages, colonies, and settlements, as well as their administrative districts and adjacent rivers, that at one time or another existed in Russia.
On the other hand, a relatively easy and convenient gazetteer to employ in search of place names in Imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union is the JewishGen Gazetteer External, which covers modern Russia and its former multiple imperial possessions, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Somewhat more difficult to use is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's GEOnet Names Server External, which is the official repository of standard spellings of all foreign geographic names. Patrons searching for a Russian place name in GEOnet Names Server, however, must search by the country in which the community is now located.
In looking for a place name in Imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union let us use as our example the Belarusian city of Vitsyebsk, commonly identified on old maps by its Russian cognate, Vitebsk, and its Polish name, Witebsk. Situated at the confluence of the Vicba and Western Dvina (Daugava) rivers, Vitsyebsk was originally settled by tribes of Balts. Some sources have it founded in the tenth century by Princess Olga of Kiev, the grandmother of Prince Vladimir, who converted the Russ to Christianity. Possessing an ideal riverine location about halfway between Narva and Kiev, Vitsyebsk became a major center on the trade route between the Scandinavian Varangians and the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, it was a Varangian chieftain of the Rus', known as Rurik, who settled near Novgorod in the ninth century and established the dynasty that eventually became the Tsardom of Muscovy. Over the centuries Vitsyebsk passed under the possession of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Germany, the Soviet Union, and finally the Republic of Belarus. Until the Second World War it held a sizeable Jewish population, who fed its diaspora in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famously, it was the birthplace of artist Marc Chagall, whose paintings reveal the inspiration he drew from the city throughout his life.
According to our gazetteers, Vitsyebsk lies at latitude 55° 11′ N and longitude 30° 12′ E. To locate a map of Vitsyebsk and its environs as they appeared just before the First World War, we will consult a set of topographic maps of the European part of the Russian Empire prepared at 1:126,000 scale by the General Staff of the Imperial Russian Army sometime between ca. 1865 to ca. 1917.
We know that Vitsyebsk lies at latitude 55° 11′ N and longitude 30° 12′ E of Greenwich. Russian surveyors and cartographers, like their German and Polish counterparts, did not employ Greenwich as their prime meridian in preparing their maps. Rather, they used two different prime meridians, namely Paris and Pulkovo, both sites of the national observatories of France and Russia, respectively. Thus, for the sake of this exercise, we will convert longitude 30° 12′ E of Greenwich to the longitudes of Paris and Pulkovo meridians, both of which appear on this set of maps.
The prime meridian at the Pulkovo observatory lies, of course, at 0° 0′ for Russians, while the city of Vitsyebsk lies 08' west of Pulkovo. Greenwich, on the other hand, lies 30° 20′ west of Pulkovo. Thus, we subtract 30° 12′ from 30° 20′ to arrive at longitude 08' west of Pulkovo.
To determine Vitsyebsk's position with regard to the Paris meridian, we need to keep in mind that it lies at longitude 30° 12′ E of Greenwich, which in turn lies 2° 08′ west of Paris. The prime meridian of Pulkovo, on the other hand, lies at 28° 00′ east of Paris. We subtract 08' (Vitsyebsk's position west of Pulkovo) from 28° 00′ (Pulkovo's position east of Paris), which gives us 27° 52′ east of the Paris meridian.
Because of the confusion involved, patrons are urged to consult the table for converting Greenwich Prime Meridian to various other meridians (PDF, 8.1 MB).
Per our gazetteers, Vitsyebsk lies at latitude 55° 11′ N and longitude 30° 12′ E of Greenwich. The graphic index to the appropriate set is illustrated below. Each rectangle on the graphic index covers a sheet within the series.
Upon examining the index, however, it is evident that our job has become much easier because it uses Greenwich as its prime meridian, in which case we will move along the top of the index east to longitude 30° 12′ E to column 8. Then, we will move south down column 8 to latitude 55° 11′ N at row XII. Consequently, we see that Vitsyebsk and its environs are located on sheet "XII 8".
Our interest is in a map of Vitsyebsk from the First World War. Therefore, we request the 1915 edition of sheet XII-8. In the image below Vitsyebsk lies in the southeast quadrant of the map. Visible are the contours of the old city, the Daugava River, other rivers and lakes, the railway lines leading to the city, major and minor roads, smaller villages in its vicinity, vegetation, and hachured relief. A closer inspection of the longitudinal bar along the bottom of the map indicates that Vitsyebsk indeed lies 08' west of the Pulkovo meridian and 27° 52′ east of Paris.
The enlargement below brings some focus to the city and its immediate environs, but the modest scale of coverage, although good for the period, defeats our attempts at identifying individual streets or homes. Nevertheless, the map impresses on us how small the city was in 1915, the year the map was printed, and how intimate public life must have been for its inhabitants.
Recaptured by the Soviets from the Nazis in 1944, Vitsyebsk was rebuilt along the usual socialist industrial standards. Several of its original religious structures survived or have been restored, however, and the city has become a minor center for the arts in Belarus.