[by Vadim Shneyder]

Proto-Baltic peoples, ancestors of present-day Lithuanians and Latvians, first began to migrate into the territory of present-day Lithuania in the 2nd millennium B.C. (Lieven, 421). These tribes probably spoke the Proto-Balto-Slavic language, ancestor of Latvian and Lithuanian and itself a descendant of Proto-Indo-European (Wikipedia). The modern Lithuanian language “is of great interest to philologists, being an ancient form of Indo-European, and allegedly [though this is disputed] the closest surviving language to Sanskrit” (Lieven, 40).

The first discernable Lithuanian kingdom appeared in 1316 under the Grand Duke Gediminas, who consolidated the tribes living in the area (Wikipedia). Gediminas established the city of Vilnius and invited Jews to settle, leading to the first significant Jewish migration into the area (Lieven, 10; 141). Unlike the less consolidated peoples of present-day Latvia and Estonia, the Lithuanians were able to resist invasion by the Teutonic Knights, and consequently, the country never acquired a significant German population or local German nobility (ibid. 44).

The success of Lithuanian territorial expansion in the 13th and 14th centuries led to the incorporation of large numbers of people who did not speak the Lithuanian language. Consequently, “the language of official documents in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not Lithuanian but ‘Chancellery Slavonic’, a dialect akin to those of present-day Byelorussia” (ibid. 47). The process of expansion culminated in the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Union of Lublin in 1569, where “all the Slavonic dialects ranging between Russian and Polish and covering present-day Byelorussian and Ukrainian, were collectively described as ‘Ruthene’) (ibid. 47, Wikipedia).

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth recognized Polish, Latin, Ruthene, German, Armenian, and Hebrew as official languages (Lieven, 48). This implied the presence of a significant Jewish population as well as Armenian merchants (Kappeler, 138-139). Subsequent demographic changes and the contraction of Lithuanian borders would significantly alter the ethnic makeup suggested by these languages.

Until 1941, Lithuania had by far the largest Jewish population of the three Baltic States. Even within the greatly reduced borders of 20th-Century Lithuania, Jews made up 7.6% of the new republic’s population (Lieven, 139). With the Jews came both the Yiddish and, thanks to the Russian ties of the Jewish intelligentsia, Russian languages. The Jewish population in the wake of the genocide comprises a negligible portion of the Lithuanian population, so that, at present, the principal minority populations residing in the country are the Poles and the Russians. The former make up about 6.7% of the population, compared to 15-18% before the Second World War (CIA World Factbook; Lieven, 159).

The Russian community, limited before Lithuania’s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, grew substantially under Soviet rule, but never became as large, either in relative or absolute terms, as those in Latvia and Estonia, both due to the larger Lithuanian population and as a result of the Lithuanians’ more aggressive resistance to Russian settlers (ibid. 88-89). Consequently, Russians composed about 9.4% of the Lithuanian population in 1989 – substantially less than the 34% in Latvia and 30% in Estonia, with Poles accounting for another 7%, and Lithuanians themselves comprising 79.6% (ibid. 432-434). In 2001, Lithuanians represented 83.4% of the population, with Russian emigration accounting for the most of the proportional change (CIA World Factbook).

Grand Duchy of Lithuania

[Lauren Greene]

By the thirteenth century, the Lithuanian tribes in Northern Europe were united under the Lithuanian duke and gifted military leader, Mindaugas (Kasekamp, 17). In order to stabilize his power and undermine his competition, Mindaugas entered into an alliance with the Christian Teutonic Order, accepted baptism from the Pope, and was crowned King of Lithuania in 1253. Christianity did not remain long in Lithuania, however. Less than ten years after Mindaugas’s baptism, he expelled the Christian clergy from Lithuania and was assassinated. The unified Lithuanian state Mindaugas created survived his assassination and remained the last pagan state in Europe.


















For the next century, the pagan rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania faced warfare with the Teutonic Order in the north and west, with the Rus’ in the east, and with the Poles in the south. Under Grand Duke Gediminas (ruled 1316-41), the “poly-ethnic, multi-confessional character” of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania came into being (Rowell, 289). Gediminas welcomed Jews and Hanseatic merchants and tradesmen to Lithuania, and expanded Lithuanian territory to include most of present-day Belarus (Kasekamp, 21). The Grand Duchy of Lithuania continued to grow under the Gediminas dynasty: Grand Duke Algirdas led military campaigns to Moscow’s Kremlin in 1368 and 1372 and added Kiev and most of present-day Ukraine to the territory of the Grand Duchy (Kasekamp, 23).

Algirdas’s son, Jogaila merged his domains with Poland, in the Act of Krewo in 1385, when he “traded Catholic conversion for the Polish crown,” becoming King Władysław II Jagiello (Synder, 17). Jagiello decided to accept Catholicism instead of Orthodoxy because Poland, as a Catholic state, would be able to help protect Lithuania from the Teutonic Order. As such, Jagiello married the Polish Princess Jadwiga and began the Jagiello dynasty, which ruled Poland and Lithuania until 1572. Jagiello’s son Casimir became Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1440 and King of Poland in 1447. Casimir granted significant privileges to the Lithuanian nobles and maintained Lithuania’s independence from Poland in order to secure the crown (Kasekamp, 28).

In the sixteenth century it became clear that Lithuania needed Polish military protection from their eastern enemies. This prompted the 1569 Union of Lublin in which Lithuania accepted Polish terms for an official union and transferred its Ukrainian territory to Poland. This act created the Republic of Two Nations, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth [Rzeczpopospolita], and one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe (Kasekamp, 44). One elected sovereign, titled the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and a joint parliament [Sejm], which met biannually, would rule the Commonwealth. Even though Poland and Lithuania retained their own separate governments, armies, treasuries, and legal codes, this union led to the “cultural polonisation” of the Lithuanian elite who viewed Polish language and customs as superior to Lithuanian language and customs (Kasekamp, 44).

Ukrainian Cossacks in the middle of the seventeenth century rebelled against their Polish lords and sought protection from Muscovy. Muscovy continued its western expansion and captured Vilnius for the first time in 1655, while Sweden took advantage of the Muscovite invasion in Lithuania and successfully invaded Poland. The combined effects of invasion, war, plague, and famine killed almost half of the Grand Duchy’s population (Kasekamp, 50). The Commonwealth was able to get rid of Muscovites in Lithuania but lost Kiev, eastern Ukraine, and Smolensk in the 1667 Peace of Andrusovo.

The Polish King’s limited powers as an appointed monarch combined with the nobility’s refusal to give up their privileges to create a stalemate in the government in which the authority of the monarchy continued to decrease and Russians could interfere. As a result, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became more of an “object than a subject” in international relations (Kasekamp, 63). In 1772, the first partition of Poland-Lithuania occurred between Russia, Prussia, and Austria; each country took some of the Commonwealth for itself resulting in a loss of one third of its territory. This first partition prompted an attempted reform of the government. A constitution was adopted on 3 May 1791, which eliminated Lithuania’s independent status and created a common army, treasury, and executive institutions in an attempt to strengthen the state against its enemies (Kasekamp, 64). These reforms, however, were resisted by many nobles and prompted the second partition in 1793 by Prussia and Russia. The third partition of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania was undertaken by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795 after a failed Lithuanian uprising in 1794. In the final partition, almost all of the remaining lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were annexed by Russia, effectively wiping the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania from the map of Europe.



Works Cited

  • CIA World Factbook. “Lithuania.”
  • Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2001).
  • Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569- 1999 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
  • S.C. Rowell, Lithuania Ascending: A pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Wikipedia. “Lithuanian Language.” Wikimedia Foundation.; “Union of Lublin.”].