Zhytomyr (Polish: Żytomierz) was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until its second partition, when the city became part of the Russian Empire, and then of the Soviet Union. At present, the more than 270,000-strong city is the administrative centre of the Zhytomyr Oblast, a region with the highest percentage of Poles in Ukraine.
The beginnings of the city date back to the Middle Ages. In 1320, Gediminas incorporated Zhytomyr into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and after the Union of Krewo in 1385 the Zhytomyr area became part of the Polish-Lithuanian state. From the Union of Lublin signed in 1569 Zhytomyr was part of the Crown and was the administrative centre of a district in the Kiev Voivodship, and, in 1669, it became the voivodship’s capital. After the Second Partition of Poland the city got under the Russian rule; from 1806 it was the capital of the Volhynia Governorate. After 1920 Zhytomyr became part of the Soviet Union under the Treaty of Riga. For ages Zhytomyr was a centre of chiefly Polish, Russian and Jewish intellectual life, and after 1920 it was the venue of vivid development of Ukrainian culture. In the 1930s, Jews accounted for more than one third of the 70,000-strong population of the city. Some 10,000 Poles also lived in Zhytomyr. The Polish community was one of the groups most severely affected by the Soviet repression. Between 1936 and 1937, thousands of Poles from the town and its vicinity were arrested, executed by firing squads or deported to Kazakhstan. After the outbreak of World War II the local Jewish community was exterminated, and only few Jews from Zhytomyr managed to survive. During the occupation and struggles for the city Zhytomyr was severely damaged, and more than a thousand of its buildings were destroyed. In 1944, the First Polish Army was formed in Zhytomyr, and many young Poles from the region enrolled into it. Zhytomyr today is a district city vibrant with life. Already in the first 25 post-war years its population tripled. The several thousand-strong Polish community is well organized. It has the Polish Society, Union of War Veterans, and the Polish House which was built not long ago. Some services in the few Roman-Catholic churches are still celebrated in Polish. The Polish past of the city is also reflected in its monuments: St. John of Dukla Church attached to a seminary, 18th century St. Sophia cathedral, or the neo-baroque bishop’s palace. The years of Soviet repression brought about the fear of demonstrating Polish identity in public, hence the Poles, even of the oldest generation, seldom speak Polish in their everyday life.