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Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania also known as Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus' and Samogitia is the name of the principality that at times covered the territory of present day Lithuania, Poland and Belarus.

Later in it's existence it was, for nearly two centuries, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with separate laws, an army and treasury. This changed only with the three Partitions of Poland, (1772, 1793 and 1795), which saw the Grand Duchy divided between Russia and Prussia.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Military
3 Religion
4 Legacy
5 Sources


The Grand Duchy of Lithuania began its rise to great power status under the reign of Mindaugas beginning in 1238. The duchy expanded both south and west, annexing 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 seas. The ease with which Lithuania built up an empire can be accredited to the Mongols and their weakening of all the Rus lands. Lithuania was in an ideal position to take advantage of the weakness the East 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 only possible because of the very weak control the Mongols had over the areas they had conquered, Russia was never incorporated directly into the Golden Horde 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 Russian 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 Moscow. 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 Vitovt who reigned from 1392 to 1408. Moscow’s speedy expansion soon put it into a position to rival Lithuania, however, and after the annexation of Novgorod in 1478 Moscow was unquestionably the preeminent state in North East Europe. Between 1492 and 1508 Ivan III seized most of the former Rus lands from Lithuania. The loss of land to Russia and the continued pressure from the expanding Russian state succeeded in destroying the state of Lithuania, as it was forced to pursue ever closer alliances with Poland until it was engulfed by its western neighbour in the Union of Lublin of 1569.


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 1345 Lithuania was a pagan nation it embraced animism and rejected all the major world religions. It was also a nation very dedicated to its faith. The pagan beliefs needed to be firmly entrneched to survive strong pressure from missionaries and foreign powers. Belarus and Ukraine and usually ruling princes 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 it did eventually succumb and in its union with Poland converted to Catholicism, while the Belorusian part stayed Orthodox. Teutonic Knights were crushed by the Poles and Lithuanians at the battle of Tannenberg in 1410.


One of the most crucial effects of Lithuania's power was upon Russia. Of great import was the division of the East Slavs. The East Slavs had, until the Mongol conquest, been unified in one state, that of Kievan Rus. The Mongols attempted to keep the East Slavs unified and succeeded in conquering virtually all of the former Rus lands, but half of them were soon seized by Lithuania. This separation of the East Slavs among two outside powers created substantial differences that persist to this day. While during Kievan Rus there were certainly substantial regional differences, it was the Lithuanian annexation of much of southern and western Rus that lead to the permanent division between Ukrainians, Belorusians, and Russians. Without the presence of a strong empire it is likely that Kiev, Minsk, and other now non Russian cities would have been as thoroughly annexed to Russia as Novgorod, a city which also had strong regional differences to Vladimir-Suzdalia, but ones that were erased by total Muscovite regional domination. Lithuania brought the Ukraine and Belorus into much closer relations with the rest than other areas of Rus and this lead to distinct cultural and linguistic differences between them and Russia.

See also:


Rowell, S.C. Lithuania Ascending a pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.