Grodno was one of the most important borderland cities in the former Polish Republic. It is situated on the Neman River 20 kilometres away from the present Polish-Belarusian border. Today, it has the population of more than 300,000, including 60,000 Poles.
The first mentions of the town, which was located on a trade route from Ruthenia, date back to the 11th century. In 1391, Grodno was chartered according to the Magdeburg Law and quickly turned into a major city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. From 1569 it belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Stefan Batory, when at war with Moscow, made Grodno its main seat where he received groups of envoys and convened the Senate Council. At the time of John III Sobieski every third general Sejm (parliament) meeting of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was held in Grodno — the city gained an unofficial status of a third capital then. In the last years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Grodno assumed the proportions of a major centre of political life in the country. Family residences in Grodno were built by the Radziwiłłs, Sapiehas, Potockis, Tyszkiewiczes, Branickis, Ogińskis and Mniszechs. More palaces of the gentry could be only found in Warsaw. In 1793, the infamous Sejm meeting which approved the partition of the Commonwealth and abolished all the reforms of the Great Sejm, including the Constitution of 3 May 1971, was held at the castle in Grodno. Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski signed his abdication also there two years later. After the defeat of the Kościuszko Uprising in 1795 the city came under the Russian rule. During World War I it was occupied by the Germans. The reborn Polish Republic took over power in Grodno in 1919. A year later the city became the scene of military activities on the Polish-Bolshevik front twice. In the same year, Grodno was officially incorporated into the Second Polish Republic under the Treaty of Riga. On 1 September 1939 Grodno experienced the first raid of German bombers. Grodno was among the few borderland cities which took up struggle against the invader from the East. On 22 September, after a three-day defence, columns of Red Army tanks drove into the city. After the capture of Grodno the Red Army executed 300 of its defenders. Between 1941 and 1944 the city was under the German occupation, which brought the extermination of Jewish population. Forty thousand Jews were first imprisoned in two ghettoes, and then transported to the extermination camp in Treblinka. In 1945, the city was again incorporated into the USSR where it remained until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, it is within the borders of the Republic of Belarus. Between 1945 and 1947, more than 270,000 people, a majority of them Poles, left Belarus. It was only a half of those registered for repatriation because of numerous impediments imposed by the Belarusian authorities. In the Grodno District, where 143,000 people registered, only 30,000 left Belarus. Poles account for 20 percent of the residents of Grodno still today. After World War II, entire quarters of the historic city centre were torn down on the order of the Soviet authorities. In 1961, the oldest church in Grodno — a Gothic parish church funded by Prince Witold in the 14th century – was blown up. The monuments which have survived in Grodno include the 12th century fortified Orthodox Church of Sts Boris and Gleb, the oldest one in Belarus, Baroque churches of St. Francis Xavier, the Observant Fathers, the Franciscan Fathers and Bridgettine Sisters, as well as the Old and New Castle, and the 16th century synagogue, converted in the 19th century and closed down after World War II like a majority of churches in the city. Today, the remains of the old architecture coexist with the omnipresent socialist realism and extensive, depressing high-rise housing estates. In the Soviet Square (the former market square) a memorial tank stands on a plinth of several metres, and a huge monument of the revolutionary leader stands in the Lenin Square.