May 1, 2022
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Who owned the Western Russian lands in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania?

When they want to show that “this is not Russia for you”…

Article One

Continuing to consider the historical views of one of the representatives of the Belarusian ruling elite, let’s move on to the issue of the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL).

Valery Voronetsky argues that Lithuania was a Slavic tribe, that there can be no question of any conquest of the lands of Russia by the Lithuanians, that the “Old Belarusian language” was the official language of the GDL. At the head of this state was the elite of the dual “Lithuanian-Russian people”. To prove these provisions, the author resorts to an illustrative method. He quotes from individual chronicles, Western travelers, act documents, and even Russian scientists V.N. Tatishcheva, I.D. Belyaeva, S.M. Solovyov. All these patchwork quotes are accompanied by Voronetsky’s own interpretations, which serve as white threads for creating a motley fabric of author’s fabrications. The selection of links itself is not original, they are taken from popular books of modern Belarusian nationalists, whose products are littered with store shelves. Here you have “myths”, “mysteries”, and “unknown” pages of Belarusian history. One can sympathize with the consumers of this waste paper, but one cannot ignore the fact: the reader’s choice of popular literature is limited – either go to the library or search the Internet for a special historical book, or be content with popular publications of hacks who make their business on history. There is no alternative. Is it possible to read textbooks for school, but they satisfy few people.

2022 has been declared the Year of Historical Memory in Belarus, and I would like to talk not only about preserving memory, but also about preserving historical knowledge.

Let’s analyze the positions of the deputy who took up history.

1. “Lithuania was a Slavic tribe that differed from Russia only in its pagan faith.”

The determination of the ethnicity of the ancient tribes is done by the totality of a number of features. First of all, these are linguistic features, then features of the material (household) and spiritual (traditions, beliefs). It is generally accepted that modern Lithuanians are the descendants of the ancient Balts, whose tribes inhabited the entire territory of modern Belarus before the arrival of the Slavs here in the middle of the 1st millennium AD. The Balts here belonged to the archeological cultures of hatched ceramics and the Dnieper-Dvina. In the vast expanse of these areas, there are names of rivers and lakes, which are characteristic of the Baltic languages. The gradual resettlement of the Slavs along the tributaries of the middle and upper Dnieper led to the partial displacement of the Balts from their homes, but there were enough empty lands for neighbors to live. The newcomers-Slavs, who settled rather closely and were at a higher stage of development, entered into peaceful relations with the remaining small Baltic population, gradually mixed with it and assimilated it.

Culture of hatched pottery

Culture of hatched pottery

There is no reason to consider “Lithuania” as some kind of Slavic pagan tribe that lived to the west of the baptized (“Russian”) Slavs. The ancient Russian chronicle knows “Lithuania” well, distinguishes it by ethnicity and therefore places it among other peoples: “Merya, Muroma, whole, Mordva, Zavolochskaya Chud, Perm, Pechera, Yam, Ugra, LithuaniaZimigola, Kors, Letgola, Livs. Elsewhere, the Tale of Bygone Years is expressed even more clearly: “That’s just who speaks Slavic in Russia: the Polans, the Drevlyans, the Novgorodians, the Polotskians, the Dregovichi, the northerners, the Buzhans, so called because they sat along the Bug, and then became known as the Volhynians . And here are other peoples who pay tribute to Russia: Chud, Merya, all, Muroma, Cheremis, Mordvins, Perm, Pechera, Yam, LithuaniaZimigola, Kors, Narova, Livs – these say in their own languages“.

However, I would not like to repeat known things. Those who, like Voronetsky, are keen on reading tendentious literature are unlikely to come to the study of the multi-volume works of V.N. Tatishchev or S.M. Solovyov. Otherwise, how can I explain to myself their quotes from a Belarusian deputy by complete ignorance of these works. An example of superficial reading is clearly visible in the way he quotes the words of I.D. Belyaeva “as if one people” and explains them in the sense of “one people”. It is enough to open the book of this Moscow historian “Essay on the History of the North-Western Territory of Russia” (published in 1867) to make sure that the author nowhere confuses Lithuanians and Polotsk ethnically, but asserts the civilizational influence of the latter. For example: “Colonizing the Lithuanian land, the Polotsk people, […] Russian civilization was brought into the wild life of Lithuanians, weaned them from the life of savages and gradually turned them into Russian people, equated them with themselves in everything – in return for which the Litvinians looked at them as if they were their own ”(p. 13). This idea was characteristic of many representatives of Russian historiography of the 19th century, who exaggerated the Russian cultural influence on the Balts and did not notice the cultural duality of the GDL.

2. “Lithuania did not conquer the ancient Belarusian lands.”

The opposite statement, apparently, especially hurts the “patriotic” feelings of Belarusian nationalists. They talk either about the Slavic origin of “Lithuania”, or about some kind of “Slavic-Lithuanian” union, from which the ON grew. Say, the formation of the Lithuanian-Russian state went peacefully.

This “Lithuanian-Belarusian” (essentially ethnic) interpretation is a step backwards compared to the Soviet historical school, which explained the origin of the state as a class struggle. The fact is that not some generalized ethnic groups participate in the formation of the state system, in this case, “Litvins” and “Rusyns” (“Krivichi”), but specific leaders (princes, military leaders) and the squad supporting them. The interests of local chiefs belonging to different ethnic groups may coincide or may conflict with each other. In the Soviet interpretation, the state was built from above. The positive side of this approach was the study of the specific socio-economic conditions under which the formation of the state system took place. With regard to the formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, we are talking about the union under the rule of one Grand Duke of Lithuania, the Baltic and Western Russian lands. All local rulers-princes obeyed him as their overlord. This subordination could be formalized in various ways: conquest, voluntary agreement, dynastic marriage. But the essence is still the same – it is submission.

Our deputy believes that conquest occurs only by battles. However, not always everything is decided in the field. Unable to defend, it is wise to yield to force without a fight. And the West Russian princes did not have enough of their own strength to resist the Lithuanian raids. If in the XI century. Russia moved into the Lithuanian borders, built border cities to protect its colonists, establish trade and collect tribute, then in the second half of the 12th century. It was time to think about your own defense. Now the Lithuanian squads were within Russian limits for robbery, capturing prisoners and property, after which they tried to quickly return back. In addition, the Polotsk princes began to invite Lithuanians during internecine wars. The author of the ancient Russian poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” bitterly exclaimed:

Already the Dvina is flowing like a swamp
To these formidable Polochans under the clique of the infidels.
One Izyaslav, son of Vasilkov,
His sharp swords jingled on Lithuanian helmets,
He lost the glory of his grandfather Vseslav,
Under the scarlet shields on the bloody grass
Laid by Lithuanian swords.

Weakened in their strife and crushed in land holdings, the princes of the Polotsk house could no longer defend the interests of the Polotsk land, which suffered from Lithuanian raids. In 1191, at the initiative of the Polotsk people, an agreement was concluded with Novgorod the Great on their readiness to fight together against Lithuania. Smolensk princes also often stood up for Polochan. The Polish chronicler Jan Dlugosh writes about one such campaign of Prince Mstislav Davidovich with the Smolensk people to Polotsk after 1216. The Lithuanians then ravaged Polotsk and its environs, but the help that quickly arrived caught the robbers by surprise, and they were destroyed.



In the second half of the XIII century. the situation began to change. Lithuanian princes (“rikas”) are moving from robberies to the capture of Western Russian cities, which leads them to new conflicts with the Russian princes. The Lithuanian prince Mindovg subjugated Novogrudok, Volkovysk, Slonim (“Black Russia”). This led to a number of campaigns of the Galician prince Daniil Romanovich, who tried to regain control over Black Russia. Dependent Turov-Pinsk princes participated in military enterprises on the side of Daniel. So we are talking not just about some separate battles with the Lithuanians, unknown only to Valery Voronetsky, but about creating entire coalitions against them. These coalitions could not stop the expansion of the possessions of the Lithuanian princes to the east due to the weakening of the Russian principalities due to the Mongol invasion. But the Lithuanian rulers, subordinating the Western Russian regions one by one, were not interested in destroying the state order and cultural life that had developed in them. There was a certain balance of external coercion and internal readiness to accept Lithuanian power in Western Russian lands.

3. “Since the Old Belarusian language was official in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, there can be no question of the subordinate status of the ancient Belarusian lands.”

Territorial Growth ON

Territorial Growth ON

Our deputy decided to bring the most “irrefutable” argument in favor of the “Belarusian” character of the ON. We will not go into disputes about the success of the term “Old Belarusian language”. The inhabitants themselves called this language “Russian”. Let us pay attention to the fact that the Lithuanians remembered and spoke their own language, observed their traditions and customs. It is no coincidence that the same Jan Dlugosh considered the Lithuanian language a kind of Latin. The Grand Dukes of Lithuania turned to the Slavic language in office work for a very simple reason: 3/4 of the inhabitants of their state spoke and were used to writing in Cyrillic letters. The “Russian” language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had a practical need. It was simply impossible to teach the Lithuanian language, which did not have its own alphabet and school use. However, Latin was also used in the office of the Grand Duke, for which special scribes and translators were kept. The Latin language was also used in international treaties of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with Western countries, and in acts issued for the Catholic Church.

However, not the official use of the “Russian language” determined the status of Russia in the GDL. The subordinate status of the Western Russian lands in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is clearly visible in the distribution of government posts and land holdings among the Lithuanians. The great Lithuanian princes replaced the Western Russian princes with their sons. Princes Olgerd and Keistut divided among themselves all the acquired Russian lands. After the destruction of large destinies under Vitovt (1392-1430), mainly persons from the Lithuanian nobility (Radziwills, Gashtolds, etc.) were appointed as governors. Of the local princely families, the Olelkovichi Slutskys remained for some time, but they also represent a branch of the Lithuanian Olgerdovichi. After the adoption of Catholicism in 1387, the Lithuanian boyars received new privileges from the grand dukes and secured a place for themselves in the grand ducal council (Rada), not allowing Orthodox Russians there (Gorodelsky privileges of 1413).

Russian nobility and princes could not come to terms with this. More than once they rebelled against subjugation to Lithuania, ready to even go into allegiance to the Livonian Order. Internecine war 1432-1439 shocked everything ON. To preserve the unity of the country, the Lithuanian rulers were forced to make concessions. On the basis of common privileges, it is planned to create a single estate “I will become a knightly gentry of both the Lithuanian and Russian people.” This “one people” is mentioned in the Statute of 1566 and the Grodno Privilege of 1568, to which Valery Voronetsky decided to refer. So we are talking here about the formation of the estate of the “people-gentry”, and not about the ethnic unity of Lithuania and Russia.

With the help of twitchy quotes from books that he himself has not read, the Belarusian deputy decided to create a “real story”. It turned out the opposite, the history of the GDL is mythologized and distorted for the sake of one goal: show whatRussia is not here for you.” However, whatever one may say, the land remained Russian under Lithuanian rule, which was enshrined even in the name of the state itself – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russia.

(Ending to follow)

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