Oct 1, 2021
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The myth of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a “Belarusian-Lithuanian state”

How the creators of “national historical concepts” work

It is known that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) was called “Lithuanian and Russian” in official documents of its time (after 1420 it was also called “Zhemaite”). Therefore, in the Russian academic and educational literature of the XIX century. the name “Lithuanian-Russian state” was fixed.

This tradition was kept for quite a long time even with the emergence of Belarusian nationalism. For example, the leader of the BNR, Vaclav Lastovsky (1883–1938), in his “Brief History of Belarus” (1910) called the Grand Duchy of Lithuania “the Lithuanian-Russian state”. However, in Soviet Belarus, on the wave of Belarusianization of the 1920s, the name “Lithuanian-Belarusian State” began to be used. This was done, in particular, in the “Short Sketch of the History of Belarus” by Vsevolod Ignatovsky (1881-1931), the BSSR Education Commissioner.

When the Belarusianization policy was curtailed in the early 1930s, the class approach prevailed in the interpretation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It had the positive side that attention was drawn to the internal development of the Lithuanian lands proper. Soviet historical literature began to talk about the establishment of the power of the Lithuanian feudal lords in Lithuania and the neighboring Western Russian lands as the beginning of the “Lithuanian state”. The definition “Russian” dropped out of the name. Until the early 1990s, they preferred to write “The Grand Duchy of Lithuania”, mentioning at the same time that it was a polyethnic feudal monarchy, which was a collection of separate principalities and appanages (a federation).

In 1994, “Essays on the History of Belarus” were published, written by the staff of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, in which many nationalistic motives characteristic of that time were sounded. Here, along with the official name of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, words appeared about the “Belarusian-Lithuanian state” and about its “Belarusian” basis.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russian

There were considerable discussions between Lithuanian and Belarusian historians about who initiated the GDL, who conquered whom and who dominated this state. At the end of the 1990s, a “conciliatory” concept of a two-ethnic (Lithuanian-Belarusian) beginning of the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by the Grodno historian Alexander Kravtsevich appeared. According to his version, the Lithuanian state was created by the joint efforts of the “Belarusians” and Lithuanians who lived in the border zone of the upper Ponemanye. Something like “both ours and yours.”

This concept has been increasingly cited in scientific and educational literature since the early 2000s. The newest textbook on the history of Belarus for grade 10 (2020) already explicitly states: “Modern Belarusian historians consider the Grand Duchy of Lithuania a Belarusian-Lithuanian state”… A very categorical statement. It turns out that those who think otherwise are not either modern, or Belarusian, or historians. Meanwhile, there are those.

For example, here is a quote from a textbook for universities edited by Yevgeny Novik (though 2010 edition): “The results of scientific research already today allow us to assert that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not created only by the ancestors of modern Belarusians and Lithuanians, and therefore it was neither a Belarusian-Lithuanian, nor a Lithuanian-Belarusian state, as it is said in some modern publications. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania is a multi-ethnic state of four main peoples – Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian […] In our opinion, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania can be called a Lithuanian-Russian or Russian-Lithuanian state, as it was stated in pre-revolutionary Russian and Soviet historiography “… This is another “reconciling” interpretation, in which other “main” peoples are included in the number of the founding fathers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and pre-revolutionary historiography is also attached.

You can see that in the issue of the formation of the GDL some kind of fuss is being conducted, reminiscent of pulling a blanket, so that no one is offended and “the legs do not freeze.” Long-standing historical evidence is rearranged into different mosaics to create “new concepts” and create a kind of scientific movement forward. Either the ON is declared “Lithuanian”, now “Lithuanian-Belarusian”, now “Lithuanian-Belarusian-Ukrainian”, etc. At the same time, the fact is ignored that during the formation of the state in the Middle Ages, the ethnic component did not play a leading role. All European monarchies at that time were multi-ethnic. Already in the process of state existence, when territorial social and economic contacts were expanding, a common self-awareness was formed, which was determined by the political connection of residents on the territory of a particular state.

The inhabitants of the then Lithuania did not yet recognize themselves as “Lithuanians”, defining themselves by their clan-tribe or locality (for example, “Samogitians”). Western Russian lands in the XII-XIII centuries. were territorially divided into specific principalities. The regional names “Polotsk”, “Pinyan”, “Novgorodians” and others were used. However, neither the inhabitants of the Novogrudok principality, nor Polotsk, nor Pinsk, either together or separately, did not recognize themselves as “Belarusians”. The inhabitants of Volhynia and Kyiv region did not consider themselves “Ukrainians” either. They called themselves and their country “Rus”, preserving the memory of the ethnocultural unity of the Russian land. This unity was held together by a common confession – the Orthodox Faith and the Metropolitanate of “All Russia”.

Ruins of the Novogrudok castle

Ruins of the Novogrudok castle

Supporters of the concept of the “Lithuanian-Belarusian” state seem to understand this, arguing that the formation of the “Belarusian nationality” ended under the conditions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th century. If we follow this logic, then it should become “Lithuanian-Belarusian” not earlier than this time. You can’t put the cart in front of the horse! A manipulation is taking place: there is no “Belarusian” or “Lithuanian” “nationality” yet, but the “Lithuanian-Belarusian” state already exists. All that remains is to invent an ethnic nebula like “proto-Belarusians”, from which the “Belarusian nationality” can be derived. Sometimes in the historical literature they directly write about the “Rusyns” of the GDL, and in parentheses in the explanation they speak of the “Belarusians”.

Modern creators of “national historical concepts” both in Lithuania and Belarus face a difficult task: to emphasize the decisive role of Lithuanians or Belarusians in the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and at the same time to explain how the political borders of this state went far beyond the ethnic residence of Lithuanians and Belarusians. The idea of ​​”polyethnicity”, a kind of “brotherhood and union of peoples” seems so convenient and generally reconciling. It remains only to obscure the historical evidence of the struggle between Lithuania and Russia, which is being done.

The core, around which the GDL began to form, was the land of the Baltic tribe “Lithuania”, who lived in the territory of present-day southeastern Lithuania and northwestern Belarus (the upper reaches of the Neman and Viliya). The process of state development in this region began with the social stratification of the inhabitants, the allocation of the nobility and the formation of military squads around the noble leaders. Detachments of Lithuanians, numbering from several hundred to one or two thousand people, from the end of the XII century. begin to penetrate the southern and western lands of Russia, attack the Volyn, Novgorod and Smolensk lands, on the territory of the Polish princes. All this is recorded in modern chronicles and chronicles. In the immediate vicinity of the Lithuanian lands are the regions of the Principality of Polotsk and the cities of Novogorodok (Novogrudok), Grodno, Volkovysk, gravitating towards the Galicia-Volyn principality. In the XII century. they have greatly enriched themselves through intermediary trade. However, in the next century, their prosperity declines, urban settlements decrease, which means that the number of inhabitants is also decreasing. Accordingly, there is no reason to talk about the rise of the Novgorod principality, allegedly prior to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. On the contrary, in the middle of the XIII century. it is experiencing the same decline that many Russian principalities are experiencing, struck by the Mongol invasion. Against the background of this decline, the Lithuanian squads begin not only to plunder the neighboring Russian lands, but to seize them. In Lithuania itself, the process of concentration of power in the hands of one princely family is taking place, the victor in the internecine struggle is Prince Mindaugas (+ 1263). He subordinates not only the lands of neighboring Lithuanian tribes (Nalshany, Devoltva, Upita, Dainova), but also the lands of the appanage Novgorod principality. This is how the initial territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was created, which in the next century will expand to the west and east through the efforts of the new Lithuanian dynasty of the Gediminids. Thus, the formation of the GDL began with the military unification of Lithuania and the further seizure of Western Russian lands, which in this process had the role of obedient subjects.


Such a passive role does not suit contemporary Belarusian nationalist historians. Trying to substantiate a more active and almost equal participation in the formation of the Grand Duchy of Novgorod principality, the creators of the concept of the “Lithuanian-Belarusian” state say that the residents of Novgorod region, having such a dangerous neighbor, had to build “non-confrontational” relations with the pushing Lithuanians. The guess is correct, only here we can talk not about “allied” relations, but about submission. Then there was no place for any confrontation … The Lithuanian seizure had a certain positive side for the inhabitants of Western Russian lands: it is better to obey the strong Lithuanian prince and be under his protection as subjects than to be subjected to constant attacks from the Lithuanians, and even to endure from the Teutonic and Livonian knights, Mongols and from other Russian princes. The Grand Dukes of Lithuania well understood this inclination of the inhabitants of Rus and did not interfere in the inner life of the conquered Russian lands.

That the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was based on capture and subordination, and not allied relations, is shown by the fact that with the annexation of one or another Russian region to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the local ruling dynasty was soon replaced by the Lithuanian one. Lithuanian princes married Russian princesses and thus “formalized” a new acquisition. Representatives of the Lithuanian nobility, losing their ancestral estates in their land in the course of civil strife, had the opportunity to acquire new possessions in Russia. It is no coincidence that the Lithuanian prince Mindaugas, sending his nephews to the east, admonished: “Whoever seizes what, gains for himself”… This became the guiding principle in the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Cover photo: Lithuanian clothing

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