The Berezinsky Water System

The Berezinsky Water System

The River Berezina played a central role in the regional economy.  Until the 1870s, when Russia's railways were built, waterways offered the only practical means of transporting heavy loads over long distances. The region was famous for its tall timber, and there was a market for other local forest products, such as turpentine, tar, and "bast" (bark fiber used to make shoes known as "Lapti"). Jewish merchants were active in all the towns along the Berezina River between Borisov and Bobruisk, but Byerazino's trade will have been small-scale and local until the end of the 18th century. Shortly after Imperial Russia acquired the region, Tsar Paul I (r. 1796 -1801) decreed the construction of a water communication system linking the River Daugava (also called the Western Dvina) to the River Berezina. The route once travelled by the Varangians would now be known as The Berezinsky Water System. 

Work began in 1797 and was finished in 1805. This was a massive project, involving the construction of fourteen locks, six dams as well as the elaborate Serguchsky canal, in a landscape dominated by peat bogs and swamps. The new waterway was 97 miles long, and it remained in operation for 150 years. 

I speculate that the opening of the Berezinsky Water System had a major impact on the development of Byerazino and other small towns along the river.  After 1805, the shtetlekh had access to a newly effective transport system that connected the Baltic ports to the Black Sea.  Now, local merchants could access distant markets directly from the docks at Byerazino. 

Population statistics seem to support my speculation: The Jewish community numbered 208 in 1766, 1,289 in 1847, and by the time of the Imperial census of 1897, the count peaked at 3,377 persons. Could the dramatic population jump between 1766 and 1847 reflect the arrival of Jewish 'frontiersmen', attracted to this out-of-the-way place by opportunities connected to the new waterway? Yannay Spitzer, a geographer with genealogical leanings, describes such pioneers in his fascinating blog, A Jewish-Russian Frontier Man.” Zalman Felde, the progenitor of the Feldbin / Rabinowitz family, who left the comforts of Brody (Galicia) to settle in Pahost in the early 1800s may have been this sort of trail-blazer.

Sources and Additional Reading

 Babitsky, Sergey. "Case Study: Ecotourism in Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve" Paper presented at the International Workshop for CEE Countries "Tourism in Mountain Areas and the Convention on Biological Diversity," Sucha Bedskidska, Poland, 1 - 5 October, 2002. 

"Encyclopedia Judaica: Berezino, Belarus." Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed 29 February 2016.

Murray-Seegert, Carola. 2016. The Feldbin-Rabinowitz Family from Pogost. (Family Story on this KehilaLink)

Spitzer, Yannay. 2015. "A Jewish-Russian Frontier Man," Yannay Spitzer : Bits and Pieces of My Work and Interests (blog), accessed 13 March 2016.

"Berezinskaya Water System." State Nature Protection Institution: Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve. Accessed 13 March 2016.


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Compiled by Carola Murray-Seegert, Ph.D.           Updated February 2020                    Copyright © Carola Murray-Seegert, Ph.D.                     JewishGen Homepage                                  KehilaLinks Directory