Lithuania was a superpower much longer than USA has been

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a European state from the 12th /13th century until 1569 and then as a constituent part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1791. It was founded by the Lithuanians, one of the polytheistic Baltic tribes from Aukštaitija. The duchy later expanded to include large portions of the former Kievan Rus’ and other Slavic lands, covering the territory of present-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and parts of Estonia, Moldova, Poland and Russia. At its greatest extent in the 15th century, it was the largest state in Europe. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state with great diversity in languages, religion, and cultural heritage.

 

Lithuania was a superpower much longer than USA has been

This is how I often tease my American friends arriving in Vilnius. But the teasing is in fact not so far away from reality, as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) over 300 years, was one of the biggest nations of the world, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

historical-lithuania4-e1297252180820It all started with King Mindaugas (1203-1263), Lithuania‘s first and only king, who in 1236 defeated the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and united the different Lithuanian tribes under his reign.

But the real expansion began when Grand Duke Gediminas came to power in 1316, and started a new dynasty of leaders. Gediminas employed several forms of statesmanship to expand and strengthen the GDL.

He invited members of religious orders to come to the Grand Duchy, announced his loyalty to the Pope and to his neighbouring Catholic countries and made political allies with dukes in Russia as well as with the Poles through marriage to women in his family.

Gediminas’ political skills are evident in a series of letters written to Rome and nearby cities. He mentions the Franciscan and Dominican monks who had come to the GDL by invitation and were given the right to preach, baptise and perform other religious services. He also included an open invitation to artisans and farmers to come and live in the GDL, promising support and reduced taxes.

Vilnius in 1576, capital of Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Vilnius in 1576, capital of Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Along with his other political accomplishments, Gediminas established Vilnius as the capital of the GDL. During his rule, he managed to establish a stable state comprised of peoples of varied ethnicity and religious persuasions. When his rule ended in 1341, he left the GDL viable and strong.

Under Vytautas the Great, Lithuania‘s military and economy grew stronger, and he expanded the Grand Duchy‘s frontiers to the Black Sea.

The Grand Duchy was at its peak in the 15th Century. It was in the centre of Europe and comprised of the entire territories of contemporary Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, part of Poland and stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Successfully ruled by a dynastic line of dukes, the GDL developed a highly advanced system of state administration to stave off invading Crusaders longer than any other central European power. Its statesmen conducted effective foreign policy and military campaigns and created a multi-ethnic state.

Though officially ending in 1795, the history of the GDL continues to influence modern-day nationalist thinking in the region.

Lithuania, but also Belarus and Ukraine point back to the days when they were part of the thriving GDL as proof of their cultural and political strength, clearly distinguishing them from Russia.

 

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The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Political Union

Introduction by Romas Kinka to Professor Robert Frost’s lecture “‘It takes two to tango’. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and political union”. Lithuanian Embassy in London, 12 December 2012

Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Armour & ancient war song

Lithuania’s National Broadcaster made a TV for the forthcoming Independence day (11th of March) featuring Medieval warrior of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania biding farewell to his family as he rides of to war. Here’s a version of it with an ancient Lithuanian polyphonic folk song. The song resembles a ritual chant rather than an ordinary song, it contains just three words – two of them being unintelligible (or maybe no longer intelligible ) formulas ritato + tatato & the third one being “Kalnuti” (meaning “ye dear hill!”), it is from Aukštaitija’s (North-East Lithuanian highlands) tradition.

 

 

Aage Myhre
Aage Myhre, 60, is the Norwegian architect, journalist, publisher whose community building skills have made him a small expat phenomenon in Vilnius.