Suvalkija - History - Economic History

Economic History

Suvalkija has long been known as an affluent agricultural region. An increased demand for wood prompted resettlement and deforestation of the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. The demand led to illegal tree-harvesting incursions from the Duchy of Prussia. To discourage this, the Grand Dukes of Lithuania established several border villages between Jurbarkas and Virbalis. Queen Bona Sforza, who governed the land on behalf of her husband Sigismund I the Old between 1527 and 1556, was especially supportive of these new settlements. Resettlement also came from the north, particularly along the Neman River. There large territories were gifted by the Grand Duke to various nobles, including the Sapieha family. These settlements slowly spread further south and east.

By the mid-17th century, the pace of resettlement had slowed. The demand for wood experienced a sharp decrease and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lost almost half of its population due to the Northern Wars (1655–1661), famine, and plague. Settlers were attracted by its fertile farmland, which had largely been cleared of forests, and by the relative ease of serfdom in the area: because much of the land was owned by the Grand Duke himself, serfs did not have to perform corvée. The repopulation in private holdings of nobles in the north took place at a much slower rate. Another important factor in the area's regrowth was the proximity of East Prussia and its capital Königsberg. The city had become a major trade center and was the second-largest export destination (following Riga, Latvia) of the Grand Duchy. Kudirkos Naumiestis was the region's gateway to Prussia. When the Great Northern War (1700–1721) depopulated Lithuania further, repopulation of Suvalkija was almost complete.

Serfdom in Suvalkija was abolished in 1807 by Napoleon Bonaparte: peasants acquired personal freedoms, although they could not own land. That changed only in 1861 when serfdom was abolished in the entire Russian Empire. By the 1820s, farmers in Suvalkija had begun to divide their villages into individual farmsteads (Lithuanian: singluar – vienkemis, plural – vienkemiai). This development is a clear indicator of economic prosperity among the peasants. The old three-field system was becoming obsolete; under that system the land was managed by the community and individuals could not introduce any technological advances without their approval. By contrast, in other parts of Lithuania this process did not begin until serfdom was abolished throughout the Empire in 1861, intensifying after the Stolypin reform in 1906.

Early abolition of serfdom, fertile land, and close economic ties with East Prussia contributed to Suvalkija's relative wealth. This situation led to the ongoing perception that its inhabitants are very rational, clever, and extremely frugal, even greedy. Such stereotypes, also applied to other regions, gave rise to many anecdotes and practical jokes.

Suvalkija remains the least-forested area of Lithuania (in 2005 forests covered 21.6% of Marijampolė County while forests cover 32% of the country as a whole). The third-largest forest in Lithuania, Kazlų Rūda Forest (587 km²), is in Suvalkija, but is located on sandy soil unsuitable for farming. Suvalkija remains one of the most important agricultural regions of Lithuania, harvesting large crops of sugar beets.

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