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Grand Duchy of Lithuania
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė, Belarusian: Вялі́кае Кня́ства Літо́ўскае (ВКЛ), Ukrainian: Велике Князівство Литовське (ВКЛ), Polish: Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie) was an Eastern European state in 13th - 16th centuries. Founded by at that time pagan, Baltic Lithuanians in the first half of the 13th century, soon it overpassed the confines of the traditional area of Lithuanian settlement, affiliating wide territories of former Kievan Rus. This way it covered the territory of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Transnistria and partially Poland and Russia in the period of its greatest extent in the 15th century. In the Union of Krewo in 1386, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was connected to the Kingdom of Poland through a common monarch. Since the Lublin Union in 1569, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was an integral part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (having separate laws, an army and treasury) until the May Constitution of 1791, which abolished all the subdivisions of the states and merged them into Kingdom of Poland. However, the new state was annexed soon afterwards by Imperial Russia, Prussia and Austria in the effect of the Partitions of Poland of 1795.
Being expanded presumably by peaceful means, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a multinational state, where all its parts (Catholic Lithuanians and Poles, Orthodox and Uniate East Slavs, Jews, Armenians, Germans etc.) contributed to cultural and political life. This multinational character of the state and cosmopolitan tendencies in thinking of the leading elite after the end of 14th century caused the question of legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 19th - 20th centuries. This question was disputed by Polish, Russian, Lithuanian and Belarusian historians and national leaders. These disputes reached their peak during independence wars in 1917 – 1920, sometimes becoming local wars (see Curzon line, Central Lithuania).
The word "conquest", although it's used often by international (especially Anglo-American), is not the most proper word to describe the process by which the Grand Duchy of Lithuania united the lands of White Ruthenia. It is worth noting that both peoples, the forefathers of modern Lithuanians and modern Belarusians, called themselves "Lithuanians" in their own tongue (respectively lietuviai in Lithuanian and litvins in Belarusian).
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania began its rise to great power status under the reign of Mindaugas (Mindouh) beginning in 1238. The duchy expanded both south and west, incorporating large quantities of former Rus lands in both directions. Expansion reached its height under Gediminas who created a strong central government and succeed in creating and empire that spread from the Black to the Baltic sea. The ease with which Lithuania built up an empire can be accredited to the diplomatic and tactical skill of Lithuanian grand dukes as well as to the Mongols and their weakening of all the Rus lands. Lithuania was in an ideal position to take advantage of the weakness of the other Eastern Slavs. While almost every other state around it had been pillaged or defeated by the Mongols, the hordes never reached as far north as Lithuania and its territory was left untouched. Lithuania's expansion was also accelerated because of the weak control the Mongols had over the areas they had conquered. (Ruthenia was never incorporated directly into the Golden Horde. Instead, it was always a vassal state with a fair degree of independence.) The rise of Lithuania occurred at the ideal time when they could expand while meeting very little Ruthenian resistance and only limited opposition from the Mongols.
The Lithuanian Empire was not one built upon military aggression. The Grand Duchy's existence always depended upon diplomacy just as much as upon arms. Most cities it annexed were never defeated in battle but agreed to be vassals of Lithuania. Since most of them were already vassals of the Golden Horde or of Muscovy this decision was not one of giving up independence but rather of exchanging one master for another. This can be seen in the case of Novgorod, it was often brought into the Lithuanian sphere of influence and became an occasional dependency of Lithuania, but Lithuanian armies never attacked the city. Rather Lithuanian control was the result of internal factions within the city looking to escape domination by Muscovy. This method of empire building was, however, quite unstable. Changing internal politics within a city would often see it pull out of Lithuania's control, as happened on a number of occasions with Novgorod and other Rus cities.
Lithuania reached its height under Vytautas the Great (Vitaut, Vitovt, Witold) who reigned from 1392 to 1430. The territory spread from the Baltic to the Black sea. Muskovys speedy expansion soon put it into a position to rival Lithuania, however, and after the annexation of Novgorod in 1478 Muskovy was unquestionably the preeminent state in North East Europe . Between 1492 and 1508 Ivan III seized a part of the former Rus lands from Lithuania. The loss of land to Muscovy and the continued pressure from the expanding Russian state made a real threat of destroying the state of Lithuania, as it was forced to pursue ever closer alliances with Poland until it was united with its western neighbour in the Commonwealth of Two Nations (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) in the Union of Lublin of 1569.
The chancery languages of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was old Belarusian (sometimes referred to as Old Ruthenian) and Latin. First was used for correspondance to eastern countries, while the latter - to western countries. While Ruthenian was used for writing, the individual national languages were widely spoken by ething groups in their respective areas. Lithuanian was used in Lithuanian populated areas of the country, which included today's Lithuania and parts of today's Belarus. Ethnically at the start of the country Lithuanians made 70% of population. With the aquirement of new slavic populated territories, this part decreased to 50% and with the aquirement of even more lands to 30%. Other major nations were Eastern Slavs (who eventually made Ukrainians and Belarusians) and Tatars (in the south).
Despite Lithuania's somewhat peaceful conquest of much of its Rus holdings it could call upon potent military strength if needed and were the only power in Eastern Europe that could contend with the Golden Horde as equals. While very few armies in the world could oppose the Mongols at their height, the Golden Horde was an easier rival, and one Lithuania could match. When the Golden Horde did try to prevent Lithuanian expansion they were often rebuffed. In both 1333 and 1339 the Lithuanians defeated large Mongol forces attempting to regain Smolensk from the Lithuanian sphere of influence. Even when victorious the Mongols rarely had the power to stop Lithuania for long. A large victory in 1399, for instance, only briefly delayed Lithuanian control spreading all the way to the Black Sea. Due to of Lithuanian power the Mongols could not exert military dominance over northwestern Russia, and partially for this reason Smolensk, Pskov, Novgorod, and Polotsk were some of the few major cities never to be ravaged by the Mongols.
Until 1387 Lithuanians professed their own religion, which was different from all other world religions and non-Christian (pagan). Lithuanians were also a nation very dedicated to its faith. The pagan beliefs needed to be firmly entrenched to survive strong pressure from missionaries and foreign powers. Belarus and Ukraine and local dukes (princes) in these regions were firmly Orthodox. Crusades were also launched against the Lithuanians, most notably by the Teutonic Knights. While pagan beliefs in Lithuania were strong enough to survive centuries of pressure from crusaders and missionaries, they did eventually succumb. After its union with Poland, Lithuania converted to Catholicism, while most of the Belarusian lands stayed Orthodox (rather, Greek Catholic). The Teutonic Knights were crushed by the Poles and Lithuanians at the battle of Tannenberg in 1410.
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One of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe, Vilnius University, was founded by Stefan Batory, Grand duke of Lithuania and king of Poland, in 1579. Due to the work of the Jesuits during the Counter-reformation the university soon developed into one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
According to some historians (especially Russian) one of the most crucial effects of Lithuania's power was upon ethnic divisions amongst inhabitants of former Kievan Rus'. From this point of view creation of Grand Duchy of Lithuania played a major role in division of the Eastern Slavs. After monglolian conquest of Rus' the Mongols attempted to keep the East Slavs unified and succeeded in conquering majority of the former Rus lands, but soon some of them were vassalized by Lithuania. This separation of the East Slavs among two powers created substantial differences that persist to this day. According to this claim while during Kievan Rus there were certainly substantial regional differences, it was the Lithuanian "annexation" of much of southern and western Rus that led to the permanent division between Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians. Kiev, Minsk, and other southern cities of Rus had not enough resources to avoid annexation to Russia like Novgorod, a city which also had strong regional differences to Vladimir-Suzdal', but ones that were erased by total Muscovite regional domination. However, presence of a strong empire prevented quick reunification of land of Rus before the separate national identities formed. This claim seems to be highly controversial as on the same basis it can be claimed that the reason of creation of separate Russian state was the fact that Muscovy reminded under Mongol political and cultural influence. From this point of view the reason of divisions amongst inhabitants of Rus' was Mongolian influence on Muscovy rather than Lithuanian on other parts of Rus'. Besides, ethnic and linguistic divisions amongst inhabitants of Rus were not initiated by division of this area between Mongols and Lithuania, and are much older than creation of Grand Duchy of Lithuania. And finally ethnic and linguistic frontier between Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians, until 20th century did not cover with any political borders.
- Rowell, S.C. Lithuania Ascending a pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
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