• March 30, 2012
  • 325

Nikžentaitis: The Forgotten Lithuanian Republic of Two Nations

Alvydas Nikžentaitis © DELFI (Š.Mažeikos nuotr.)

The topic of Poles living in Lithuania’s ethnical situation and the 11th of March national march has stirred up much controversy recently.  I dare to notice that the discussions are about quite important issues, namely,  Lithuanian identity today and in the times of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Such a thought appeared after the politician Eligijus Masiulis’ discussion with the author of historical novels Inga Baranauskienė.

For the politician’s statement ‘We were a courageous country when the great Dukes of Lithuania created The Grand Duchy, when various nations, denominations and traditions were located in one place, in Lithuania,’ a famous writer answered in their commentary ‘Let us give such discussions about a uniform nation GDL (The Grand Duchy of Lithuania) a miss because there was no such nation. When in the 16 and 17th century such an identity (based on Christianity and the polish culture) started to form among the gentry, the country, as if by magic, dispersed and collapsed.’ The last statement perfectly illustrates a contemporary understanding of the nationality, against which is Eligjus Masjulis. Looking for the answer to the question who is right in this argument, it is vital to examine carefully the meaning of the expression a citizen of GDL in the 15-17th  centuries.

While reading the literary works and some historians’ works, the question arises what was the essence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The name itself indicates that this political alliance was an alliance of two nations, Poles and Lithuanians, but in Polish literature the ‘Polish Republic’ is mentioned more often, when the Lithuanians emphasize The Grand Duchy of Lithuania often omitting the connection with the Polish part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth  (in a political sense). The reasons for such an inadequate assessment of the former country can be found both in Lithuania and in Poland.

The simplest explanation why the assessment of this, supposedly, one country is still different and can look as such: nationalism influenced the assessment of this common, though comprising two heterogeneous parts, country. Nationalism which distorted the significance of Lithuanians in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

If we were to look at the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from the angle of the modern conception of nation, then it would appear that the contemporary criteria of nation, such as, the ethnical origin or the language, were imposed on the inhabitants of the country in the 16-18th centuries. Applying the notions of the contemporary nationalism and assessing the situations from today’s viewpoint, we can say that Poles had more luck. Polish was the dominant language of the Republic. Only this factor was a starting point for the Polish nationalists from the end of the 19th century in the digressions on the character of the former Republic. But such a simplified approach to the whole issue was hindered by the famous people, such as Adam Mickiewicz’s words, ‘Lithuania, my fatherland!’ But even here, when  a famous poet says that not all representatives of Polish culture have to be Poles, nobody pays much attention to that. Adam Mickiewicz wrote in Polish, so he was a Pole and his utterance that Lithuania is his fatherland is just a misunderstanding, about which we shouldn’t  be careful.

Polish literature, starting from Sienkiewicz, relaying in Mickiewicz’s declaration, created  a different theme of exotic Lithuania. Lithuanians were a kind of boors, less affluent and brave then their older brothers, but they really loved their fatherland Poland. That’s why they were worthy of the title of our people, just different Poles.

That idea, which appeared still in the literature of Romanticism, was so deep-rooted in Poles’ minds that they couldn’t understand why after gaining independence, Lithuania and Poland couldn’t be one country again. That also influenced the Polish-Lithuanian relationship in the interwar period. The remains of such a view can be noticed today in reference to today’s Poles in Lithuania.  It is said that Poles in the Vilnius region are the descendants of the Great Poland, (the Republic) which should be supported and protected against lithuanization.

In such discussions historical bases are often forgotten. It is claimed that the identity of Poles in Lithuania formed, first and foremost, by Polish country from the beginning of the 20th century. Such a view not only ignores the roots of Lithuanian Poles from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth times, but also it omits the experience of life in Soviet Lithuania and, finally, in an independent Lithuania. Still prevails the view that if they speak Polish, (even with Russian or Belarusian hint) they are a part of Polish nation.

We can say much about how the Poles’ attitude towards Lithuanians from the Republic period influences the understanding of history and the current Polish-Lithuanian relationship. But such accusations against Poles, without considering Lithuanian arguments, do not help in seeking the truth. They only strengthen anti-Polish propaganda.

Contemporary understanding of its own national identity became troublesome for the Lithuanian people at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The language factor, on the basis of which Lithuanians, as the representatives of the political nation, were easily regarded as Poles, didn’t allow to describe the citizens of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the fellow countrymen. A Lithuanian speaking Polish was considered such a big obstacle at the beginning of the 20th century for the young Lithuanian country that the period of The Grand Duchy was not exposed much. The fear of Polishness  created a situation that in the first 10 years after gaining independence, only the members of the liberation movements were considered as heroes.

Later, the ‘Lithuanian’ history was considered through the angle of Vilnius. The loss of Vilnius and aspirations for regaining it was the factor mobilizing Lithuanian society.

It’s known that a part of the liberation movements was in a way connected with Vilnius. But this fact was not enough to prove a historical affiliation of Vilnius to Lithuania. The theme of a ‘historical capital’ was more suitable here, as well as the events and people connected with the great history of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, already in the 18th and 19th centuries it was the language that became the most important factor that decided about being Lithuanian or not.

The first criterion was the following: The new heroes of the Lithuanian nation shouldn’t have anything to do with Polishness. It would be better if they had some feud with Poles. Such criteria didn’t allow for a broad scope of heroes. They still reminded of the period until The Royal Union (lit. ikikrėvinis laikotarpis,) and the most important hero in the Lithuanian history became the Grand Lithuanian Duke Vytautas.

The creators of this ideology were not discouraged by the fact that The Grand Duke was not an anti-Polish figure. Anti-Polish history was simply invented. The fact that in the year 1430 the earlier planned Vytautas’ coronation didn’t happen was considered a historical proof that Lithuanians had never liked Poles and wanted to separate from them. Whereas Poles’ efforts not to allow for the coronation showed their unwillingness to the existence of an independent Lithuanian country. Not only in the 20th century, but also much earlier. In order to lend credence to these hypotheses they said that Poles, as it were, stole the Vytautas’ crown and many Lithuanians believed in it. Only until Rimvydas Petrauskas solved this riddle and told about the real story of Vytautas’ crown.

Until the end of the third decade of the 20th century the borderline was sketched showing where the history of Lithuania begins and ends. This is the period of The Grand Duchy until 1430 (Vytautas’ death.) The rest of the time until the end of the 19th century in not Lithuanian history anymore but the Polish period  (lit. Lenkmetis.)

Although, the boarder was later corrected. Initially, they looked for the historical figures, which spoke Lithuanian to each other. In the Soviet period they established that no matter in which language the pieces were written, and if they came into existence in GDL, they should be treated as the Lithuanian legacy. In the tight intellectual circles arose the ideas that Vilnius baroque and the Constitution of May 3, are the property of the present Lithuanians and are the part of their culture. But these ideas didn’t gain popularity and remained in the intellectual circles and the term ‘the old Lithuanian’ (lit. senlietuvis, in the text this term is used to describe a citizen of the GDL, the representative of the political nation) is not needed anymore.

In the majority of cases, this is why many Polish-Lithuanian conflicts arise. The common Polish-Lithuanian opinion that Poles living in Lithuania are not a part of historically created Lithuanian society. This can be the denominator which reflects the essence of Lithuanian-Polish conflicts. Just for this reason, not only Lithuanians but also Poles should start the discussion about the conception of the former Lithuanian (senlietuvis) in the political and cultural context and the heritage of the former Polish-Lithuanian country.

Firstly, considering the conception of ‘the former Lithuanian’ we should answer a few basic questions:

1) Since which period can we talk about the existence of the Lithuanian political nation?

2) What are the characteristics of ‘the former Lithuanian.’ What were his relationships with the other ethnic groups in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and with the Poles and Ruthenians?

3) When has the notion of ‘the former Lithuanian disappeared?

The answer to these questions is not simple due to the lack of information and research. So far, for the question when the political nation of GDL evolved, the answer is that it could happen in the end of the 14th century or at the beginning of the 16th century. Such a diversity appeared, as there are various definition of ‘the former Lithuanian.’

All the post Marxist historiography representatives agree that the basic factor of political nation existence is a strong national identity. But the problem is that there are not many sources of such expression and the declarations are varied. However, admitting the primate of national identity, we should remember that for the formation of a political nation, the identity propagators are needed. So having no answer to the question of what were the social bases of the GDL political nation, we can’t answer the question of when the notion of ‘the former Lithuanian’ was coined as well.

It’s obvious that the political nation could connect the vertical bonds and the horizontal ones, namely, the nation was forming on the social background, not the ethnical one. The wider social class of the GDL formed when the Gediminids dynasty started to disappear alongside with the privileges. That’s why their representatives connected themselves with the wider social class, the Boyars. There is no point talking about that issue here but let’s mention The Lords Assembly, which from the author of the text’s subjective viewpoint, gave the rise to the existence of the GDL political nation

The representatives of the political nation should function in the political, legislative, religious and ideological space. The appearance of these dimensions and their mutual overlapping is  a signal confirming the existence of the new ethnical-cultural alliance. We can write a lot about the existence of the diverse public dimensions. But in this article we will talk about just a few factors conditioning the existence of the political nation. Apart from the forming the social classes in the middle of the 15th century, other factors are also important:

a) At the beginning of the 16th century appears the first Statute of Lithuania together with its legislative basics which can regulate the existence of such society.

b) In the end of the 15th century the case of, so called, informal church union begins.

c) In the 15th century the theory of the Roman nation becomes common, the Roman origin of the GDL, which legitimates the activities of the political nation.

The events that had the greatest impact on the political nation’s awareness took place in the second half of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th century. We can call this period ‘the forgotten rebirth.’ Such a conclusion confirms the Bykhovets Chronicle written at the beginning of the 16th century in Albert Gasztold’s neighborhood, which can be called the political manifest of the GDL.

If we are familiar with the answer to the first question, it’s worth looking at the features of the GDL political nation. It’s good to notice that the relationship between the ethnicity and citizenship in this new alliance.

We can clearly notice the lack of uniformity. From the ethnical point of view the nation consisted of Lithuanians, Samogitians and Ruthenians. There are a lot of documents confirming that the representatives of these ethnically varied groups claimed to be Lithuanians. In that context we can remind the Union of Mielnik document signed in the 16th century, in which preamble the ethnical Ruthenians named themselves ‘Nos Lithuani.’ But in the other sources we can find completely contradictory information. This is the source of the different interpretation in the Polish-Lithuanian historiography.

Polish scientists have the opposite claims than the author of the text, who says that the GDL was just an indirect station before the integration with the Polish society and Poland was considered a more powerful country. The statements that Ruthenians could be a part of ‘the former Lithuanians’ or the propagators of the Polish civilization or even the Moscow Duchy citizens suffering under the Polish-Lithuanian rule seem contradictory only at first glance. The political nation of the GDL was only an impermanent product under the influence of Vilnius, however, Cracow, (Warsaw) and Moscow fought for Ruthenians and the choosing criterion was the integration with the GDL political nation. The worst situation had the Ruthenians living on the Lithuanian-Moscow border, on the Ukrainian territory. Constantly changing territorial affiliation of this area and faith differences couldn’t, in spite of the integrative efforts, confirm a proper political identity in this area and because of this the feeling of belonging to one country. As a result, the Ruthenian identity was not stabe and was changing alongside with the political conditions.

Considering the Ruthenians issue, we can use the historically formed etonyms. In Lithuania, as oppose to Poland, the term Ruthenians didn’t consolidate. Even in today’s scientific literature it sounds artificial. The notion of Belarusian (lit. gudas) in Lithuania has its historical traditions and it refers to the whole territory in which Belarusians live today. Historically, the term of Belarusian has no an exact definition but we can assume that Belarusians were related to Ruthenians and that is why they could have strong affiliations with ‘the former Lithuanians.’ Such an assumption is also confirmed by the church union mentioned earlier, which was propagated by the Chodkiewicz family, though it took place in all Russian territories, but the center of this movement was in the Belarusian area (Supraśl.)

To describe the Ruthenians political elite integration with ‘the former Lithuanians’ society we can use the term ‘lithuanization.’ This term is used in the context of the political nation and means regaining or changing the identity orientation. It is worth discussing about the changes in the identity in Polish-Lithuanian country more often because this term is in the popular and scientific literature used in the primitive and degraded form. In reference to the ethnical relationship  in Polish-Lithuanian country the term polonization is used, though this term embraces the cultural changes, not connected with the identity.

The language, as we know, was not the most important identity indicator in the region until the end of the 19th century. That’s why the use of the term poloniaztion in the strict sense hinders the understanding of the realities at that time.

We can’t deny that polonization took place in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ruthenians and Lithuanians, which settled in the Polish area, could become a part of the Polish political nation. However, talking about polonization, we can’t forget about lithuanization. Maciej Stryjkowski from Masuria moved to the GDL and became one of the ideologists and creators of ‘The former Lithuanian’ identity. We can’t ask directly, although from the 18th century texts we can infer that the fact of lithuanization took place and that’s
a fact of changing the national identity. It’s just a working hypothesis but if we could prove it, then people would stop writing about one directional process in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poland would not be a dominant element  but just one of the interaction participants alongside with ‘the former Lithuanians.’

As far as the relationships between the ethnical groups in this multicultural country of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth are concerned, we should notice that the dominant role of the Polish language. The different ethnical groups took over the Polish language as a tool of political and cultural communication. So he processes, which happened in the Republic, can be named the processes of acculturation. And the acculturation is not the same what assimilation, which is confirmed by the identity transformation of ‘the former Lithuanians’ in the 16th century.

In the Bychowiec Chronicle written in the 16th century, the theme of Polish-Lithuanian diversity was based on Vytautas’ authority. The differences between the representatives of Polish and Lithuanian political nation are present in the description of The Battle of Grunwald as well, where the Lithuanians merits are elevated and Poles’ merits are underestimated. The hypothesis of Roman origin of Lithuanians is inside this chronicle as well. The author of the book explains why Lithuanians during the Union of Horodlo in 1413 took the Polish emblems. This happened of Vytautas’ order, though Lithuanians had its own emblems, more noble than Polish, as these emblems were of Roman origin.

In 1564 during the Seym sessions in Warsaw the argument arose between the Polish and Lithuanian delegation, in which they quarreled about the merits of each nation in the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, but the opinions turned out to be very different.

The most important difference in Lithuanian identity perception was about the fact that, in the first case the author of the Bychowiec Chronicle based on the spoken materials, while in the second case the source was the Polish Chronicles written in the 16th century.

We can state that in the second case, at least some part of Lithuanian nobles used the same source as Poles, and that proves that the cultural area of the ‘former Lithuanians’ and the ‘former Poles’ started to unify. These two episodes are worth noticing because they prove that acculturation doesn’t mean the loss of national identity. We can clearly see the difference between acculturation, lithuanization and polonization.

We should ask the question when this ‘forgotten second Lithuanian,’ as a social group stopped to exist. As in the first case, looking for the origin of this phenomenon, the recent sources give us many possibilities. Perhaps a Polish reader won’t feel offended if I give Adam Mickiewicz’s words ‘Lithuania, my fatherland !’ as an example of the existence of the ‘former Lithuanian.’ But we shouldn’t treat Adam Mickiewicz as the last representative of this society. According to the newest research, historians say that the remains of the GDL identity preserved until the 20th century. The example can be the natives’ movement in Vilnius region and the attempts to of changing the ‘former Lithuanians’ into the nation of Lithuanian Poles as a vital part of Lithuanian society. It’s said that the discussions about that finished just in 1933-1935.

There are no the ‘former Lithuanians’ anymore. The last person that declared publicly the GDL identity was Czeslaw Milosz, who was buried in Cracow.

The year 2011 was announced Czeslaw Milosz’s year in Lithuania and Poland. He was recalled as an eminent poet and noblest. But there was not a single word about his ‘old-Lithuanian’ identity, about this historical tie connecting present Lithuanians and Poles. Perhaps, that’s because Vilnius is simply for Lithuanians a city that they lithuanized after 1939 and for Warsaw Poles in Lithuania are simply the worth of intercession legacy of the second Republic.

To generalize Masiulis and Baranauskienė’s debate, I will emphasize that I identify myself more with the views of the former speaker. I do not include in this context Waldemar Tomaszewski’s word that Lithuanians should integrate in the Vilnius region. The people who have much wider historical knowledge would know that Vilnius, as well as the ‘former Lithuanians’ are an inseparable part of Lithuania, with which they a feel natural bond today.


Tłumaczenie Adam Gałązka w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by   Adam Gałązka within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

Related post

White-and-red march through Vilnius and a rally in schools’ defence. ‘Poles want normalcy’.

A two thousandth white-and-red march passed through the streets of Vilnius on Saturday, March 23. Participants…

Issues of Polish education have been raised in front of parents and teachers.

The discussion on current issues in Polish education in Lithuania was initiated by the Forum of…

He was a Jarosław for barely a year. The court took away the letter ‘Ł’ from…

Jarosław Wołkonowski sought the right to the original spelling of his name since 1992. The District…