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Cartographic Resources for Genealogical Research: Eastern Europe and Russia

Western Russia

Johnston, Alexander Keith, 1804-1871, cartographer. South-west Russia: showing the extent of the Kingdom of Poland, previous to its partition in 1772. [1861?]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Reference staff frequently consult another set of maps when attempting to locate communities in western Russia—in this case, an area encompassing what is now the Baltics, western Belarus, northwestern Ukraine, and eastern Poland (former Vistula Land). These regions had been forcibly integrated into Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Largely because of their troubled experiences, they were a source of great emigration, especially to the United States.

Known as the Karte des westlichen Russlands, the entire set consists of approximately 470 sheets. Compiled and printed from about 1897 to 1921 by the Cartographic Department of the Royal Prussian Land Survey, it was based on Russian and Austrian military maps from the same period. Place names vary between German and Polish spellings, and most sheets have either a Polish, Lithuanian, or Lettish pronunciation guide. They often appear in both monochrome and color editions. The set is filed in the Geography and Map Division under LC call number G7010 s100. P7.


We can employ several gazetteers to identify place names in this region, among them Vasmer's Russisches Geographisches Namenbuch, which emphasizes the Russian spelling of place names; and the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego, which spells place names in Polish.

Possibly the easiest and most convenient gazetteer to employ in search of place names in western Russia is the JewishGen Gazetteer External, which covers modern Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Patrons searching for a place name in western Russia can conduct a blanket search under "Eastern Europe," or they can search by the name of the country in which the community is now located. Slightly 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. A successful search of this database requires an accurate spelling of a place name and knowledge of the the country in which the community is currently located.

Practice Example

Step 1: Find Coordinates for the Selected Site

One prominent place name in this region is the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, which will serve as our example. Kaunas, or Kowno in Polish, Kowna in Belarusian, and Kaunas in German, was probably first settled by Baltic peoples around the second millennium B.C. Sitting at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers, it became an important commercial and trading center for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, joining the Hanseatic League in the mid fifteenth century. In 1795, in the final partition of Poland, the city was forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire and became the temporary capital of Lithuania between the two world wars. Today it is celebrated for its Art Deco architecture and numerous churches, museums, theaters, universities, and cafes.

Per our gazetteers, Kaunas lies at 54° 53′ N, 23° 53′ E.

Step 2: Convert the Coordinates

The series of maps we are consulting, however, was prepared by the cartographic department of the Royal Prussian Survey, which employed the island of Ferro as its prime meridian. Ferro, as we recall, lies 17° 40′ west of the Greenwich meridian. Thus, we need to add 17° 40′ to 23° 53′ to obtain the longitude of 41° 33′ east of Ferro. Or, we can consult the table for converting geographic coordinates from Greenwich Prime Meridian to other meridians (PDF, 8.1 MB). With this information we are ready to examine the graphic index to the set of 1:100,000 scale maps known as Karte des Westlichen Russlands.

Step 3: Consult the Graphic Index

Prussia (Germany). Landesaufnahme. Kartogr. Abteilung, cartographer. Übersichtsblatt der Karte des westlichen Russlands 1:100000. [1926]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Moving east along the top of the index to the approximate location of longitude 41° 33′ east of Ferro we arrive at column "O." Then, moving down column "O" to the approximate location of latitude 54° 53′ N we arrive at row "22." And, we see that in this set of maps Kowno is indeed located on sheet "0 22," as indicated in the enlargement below.

Prussia (Germany). Landesaufnahme. Kartogr. Abteilung, cartographer. Übersichtsblatt der Karte des westlichen Russlands 1:100000. [1926]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Step 4: Examine the Map

Since we are seeking a map of Kowno (Kaunas) from around the First World War, we request the 1915 edition of sheet "O 22," which is illustrated below. It depicts Kowno (Kaunas) when it possessed a significant Jewish population and was yet to expand and modernize. As expected, the city lies at the confluence of Lithuania's Nemunas and Neris rivers.

Prussia (Germany). Landesaufnahme, cartographer. Karte des westlichen Russlands. Sheet O 22. 1915. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

In the enlargement below we can detect the densely populated old city, the confluence of the two rivers, various forts protecting the city during the First World War, adjacent villages, a railway line, roads, houses, fields, and relief. The map provides us with a succinct portrait of a city prior to its interwar expansion and industrialization, and before it earned its nickname Little Paris.

Prussia (Germany). Landesaufnahme, cartographer. Karte des westlichen Russlands, sheet O 22. 1915. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.