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Medieval Lithuania


Legacy of Medieval Lithuania

       In the territory of the former Medieval Lithuania three independent states appeared – Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Long-lived Polish-Lithuanian union collapsed too. All these four nations, which have created their own states, are bound by the legacy of Medieval Lithuania. Without this legacy, they wouldn’t be those, which they are today.
       Lithuania, direct heiress of Medieval Lithuania, encompasses merely a little part of the Ancient Lithuania today. However this part is the ethnical lands of the Lithuanians, where the history of Lithuania began and where the nucleus of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was. The Lithuania Proper (Lithuania Propria) was always distinguished from the Ruthenian lands, which belonged to Lithuania. The Lithuanians differed from the Ruthenians in their language and faith (Paganism in the beginning and Catholicism since 1387).
       Belarus was a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during almost the whole period of its existence. She formed itself from those Ruthenian lands, which remained under Lithuanian rule after 1569, when the Ukrainian lands were lost. The name of Belarus (White Ruthenia, Russia Alba) was chosen to denote these lands in the 17th–18th centuries. It was the name, which was used by the Catholic Church to denote this part of Vilnius Bishopric, where the Uniate and Orthodox faith was dominant. Almost all of the Ruthenian lands, which remained under Lithuanian government after 1569, belonged to the Catholic Bishopric of Vilnius, except the Palatinate of Brest (Polessia), which belonged to the Bishopric of Lutsk. These Ruthenian lands formed a separate Suffraganity of Belarus since 1639. Legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania formed the Belarusians as a separate nation, and therefore the Belarusians are inclined to treat the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as their state. However their desire to adorn history of their nation often turns into attempts to appropriate the history of Medieval Lithuania, creation of pseudo-scholarly theories and myths. It is attempted to prove that the real Lithuanians were the Belarusians, that modern Lithuania has nothing in common with the historical Lithuania, the territorial claims to Vilnius, “the ancient capital of Belarus”, are raised, etc. Groundlessness of such theories is revealed in the articles, published here.

Administrative division of Lithuania after the Union of Lublin
After Union of Lublin (1569-1795) the Grand Duchy of Lithuania encompassed territory of ethnic Lithuania (Vilnius and Trakai Palatinates and Samogitia) and lands of modern Belarus
(Map from: Lietuvos istorijos atlasas, Vilnius: Vaga, 2001, p. 18)

       Ukraine belonged to the Lithuanian State for more than 200 years (1362–1569). The Lithuanian period is supposed to be one of the brighter periods of the Ukrainian history. The Lithuanian government was marked by tolerance and respect to the ancient traditions, unlike the ruling of the Golden Horde, from which the Lithuanians liberated the Ukrainians, and national oppression, suffered by the Ukrainians under the Polish government. However the legacy of Lithuania is of a lesser importance for the Ukrainians, than for the Belarusians, because their national identity is based on the legacy of Kievan Ruthenia and the Cossack State of the 17th century.
       Poland and Lithuania were bound by the Union, which lasted for more than 400 years (1386–1795). Reign of the Lithuanian dynasty of the Jagiellonians was a golden age of the Polish history, and union with Lithuania was an axis of the whole history of Poland. The Polish culture was dominant in the united Polish-Lithuanian State (The Commonwealth of the Both Nations). In the Modern Times the Lithuanian nobility was Polonised, though it didn’t stop consider themselves the Lithuanians and were guarding the self-dependence of the Lithuanian State. In the meantime the Poles were treating Lithuania as a province of Poland and were always attempting to break the Lithuanian separatism. These tendencies strengthened in the end of the existence of the Commonwealth of the Both Nations and after its collapse. The Lithuanian national revival and restitution of the independence of Lithuania in 1918 was an incomprehensible phenomenon for the Poles and a greater part of the Polonised Lithuanian gentry. They met it hostile and aggressive. This made the divorce of Poland and Lithuania tragic and painful – it ended in the Polish-Lithuanian war, Polish occupation of the Vilnius region (1919 and 1920–1939) and even the terror against the Lithuanians, executed by the Armija Krajowa during the World War II and post-war period. The ardour ceased and Lithuanian-Polish relations were normalised only after the Soviet occupation suffered by the both nations.
       Today the four nations, that once lived in the state, created by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, are looking for their past in the history of Medieval Lithuania. Sometimes disputes are arising concerning it, sometimes groundless claims are laid, but Medieval Lithuania didn’t leave any bad recollections in the historical memory of these nations. All four nations mention her with respect and are proud of their contribution to her history.

       Tomas Baranauskas

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