Politics and history: Lithuania and the Slavs

  • 2011-04-06
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

EUROPE’S GREATEST: Lithuania around 1500, when it had already for centuries firmly expanded over the lands of the Christian Orthodox Eastern Slavs (now Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians) up to the shores of the Black Sea.

VILNIUS - Alexander Dugin, Russia’s philosopher, who is rumored, at least in the recent past, of having great influence on Vladimir Putin, stated in an interview to delfi.lt (published on Nov. 15, 2010) that Russia will occupy the Baltics again if something wrong will happen to the USA, but at the moment there is no danger for the Balts’ independence due to their NATO membership. He also talked about history and Lithuanian-Russian relations in his interview.

By the way, Dugin was one of those who urged for the occupation of all of Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war and Putin tended to agree with such a point of view, but Western diplomacy saved the Georgians then. The interview is interesting in understanding the world’s perception of political technologists close (although now, in the Dmitry Medvedev-era, maybe not so close already or yet) to the Kremlin. “Lithuania is a real state. Although it is a very little state, it is a real state. I feel much less sympathy to Latvians and Estonians, who were German-occupied ethnic groups. Maybe due to the past, Lithuanians properly behaved, regarding the Russians. They were a great nation when Russians were much weaker. They are an enemy and a rival worthy of respect. I have the same opinion about the Poles,” Dugin said, adding that “non-hidden neo-Nazi Russo-phobia exists in Latvia and Estonia, while it is non-existent in Lithuania.” Regardless, according to Dugin, Russia regards all three Baltic states as enemies. Dugin’s interview demonstrates how strongly history influences the opinion of policy makers and ideologists.

Dugin is maybe right speaking about the Russian issue in Lithuania. The percentage of ethnic Russian local residents, statistically, is several times lower in Lithuania than in Latvia and Estonia and, therefore, the Russian issue does not play a big role in Lithuanian politics. Ethnic Russians make up 4.9 percent of Lithuania’s total population – all of them have Lithuanian citizenship. There is one 15 minute-long program of Lithuania’s Russian community per week, on Wednesdays at 12:00, on Lithuanian public TV. On March 23, that program showed the young people of Russian origin who were participants in discussions in the small Russian Culture Center on Boksto Street in Vilnius. “I’m a Russian-speaking Lithuanian. If there will be a need to defend Lithuania, I’ll go to war,” said Viaceslav Aleksejev of the rock band Spichki (existing since 1992), which is made up of Lithuania’s Russians. He said that he takes it easy during the Lithuanian radical nationalists’ demonstrations in Vilnius each March 11, stating that they are as unimportant for him as demonstrations of gays. Aleksejev also said that he understands some prejudice of some Lithuanians towards Russians because, from his point of view, there are more drunks and cursing-language users among Russian speakers than among ethnic Lithuanians. He described as nonsense the existence of ethnicity-based political parties (there are two of them and both are pretty marginal: closely cooperating among themselves - the Polish Electoral Action and the Russian Alliance).

Dmitrij Timofejev, who together with his twin brother established the pop band Timohi, echoed this, stating that it would be naive to speak about Lithuania’s Russians as some extension of Russia’s Russians because, according to him, Lithuania’s Russians are as different from Russia’s Russians as France’s Russians are different from both Russia’s Russians and Lithuania’s Russians. “Our Russian language is just a literal translation from Lithuanian. People in Russia do not speak like that,” Aleksejev said. Indeed, one who wants to listen to real Russian language should go to Estonian or to Latvian cities (for example, the Slavs make up 80 percent of Daugavpils’ population) where ethnic Russians have their media and their Russian language preserved with the authenticity of their literal language.

The lack of reasons for a Lithuanian-Russian conflict makes cultural ties between both nations quite warm. The roots for such mutual tolerance can be found in the medieval Lithuanian empire, where Russians and other Orthodox Slavs, although not being allowed to occupy the state’s top posts, were tolerated and respected. Boris Grebenshchikov, leader of Russia’s legendary alternative rock band Aquarium, told the Lithuanian cultural newspaper Siaures Atenai that he likes to visit capitals of former empires, such as Vilnius and Rome, due to their imperial spirit, which is hidden but still felt. Anyway, Russia can sleep well – nobody in Lithuania dreams about re-creation of the empire.

More problematic are Lithuania’s relations with the Poles (6.1 percent of Lithuania’s population). The Vilnius region’s occupation by Polish troops is still a shadow over Vilnius-Warsaw relations. Then, in 1922-1939, Poland for the first and for the last time in history made Vilnius a part of its territory. The annexation was led by propaganda that only 1-2 percent of ethnic Lithuanians live in Vilnius city, though annexation cannot be justified by ethnicity statistics. “How strangely the occupation looks if the city’s majority is made up of occupants,” ironically wrote the Web site of Lithuania’s Polish Union on Nov. 3, 2010.

Official Warsaw also did not apologize for the annexation of Vilnius. Indeed, until the end of the 19th century, not many Lithuanian speakers remained in the historically vast Vilnius region due to the 18th century plague; Slavic immigration from the south, the pro-Polish position of the local Catholic Church, and the anti-Lithuanian policy of the Russian state (a half-century ban of the written Lithuanian language was imposed starting from the middle of the 19th century – the ban was given as punishment for two Lithuanian anti-Russian insurrections in the 19th century).

However, according to czarist Russia’s census of 1897, the numbers in the Vilnius region, which then also included some towns of modern-day Belarus, were as follows: 891,903 Belarusians, 279,720 Lithuanians, 202,374 Jews and 130,054 Poles, i.e. fewer Poles than in the Kaunas region, and less than in current Poland’s Suwalki (Suvalkai in Lithuanian) region – Lithuanians made up the majority in Kaunas and Suwalki regions in 1897. Many “Belarusians” were of ethnic Lithuanian-origin who abandoned their language due to the above-mentioned circumstances. A large part of “Belarusians” (now ethnic Belarusians make up 1.1 percent of the total Lithuanian population) later started to call themselves “Poles.” Now only the religion border, between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, shows the Lithuanians’ ethnic border of 1387 in the south (pagan Lithuanians adopted Catholicism in 1387) – that border is a little bit more to the south from the current border between Lithuania and Belarus.

To justify the Polish annexation of the Vilnius region, as historian Tomas Baranauskas wrote in the magazine Veidas, the Poles then created a pseudo-historical version stating that the Lithuanian Grand Duchy was a state ruled by Slavic people, who are the real historical Lithuanians, while the modern Lithuanians have nothing to do with it. The justification for such a theory was the fact that early documents from the Lithuanian Grand Duchy were written in the ancient eastern Slavic language and, later, the Duchy’s nobility spoke Polish. However, it is the same as if modern Italians would start to call medieval Germanic kings Italians because they used the Latin language. The theory was too crazy for Poland, as Baranauskas states – Polish historians soon forgot about this theory.

However, it was revived in modern-day Belarus, which has no national history of its own. Belarus steals the Lithuanian Grand Duchy’s history and presents it as Belarusian history. Belarus presents the Lithuanian Grand Duchy as a country which was run by Belarusians - both Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and the opposition - entertaining history in this way. The majority of Lithuanians have no clue about such entertainment by the Belarusians, and those few who know about it prefer just to laugh or to be silent due to political correctness. Some Orthodox Christian families of the land, which is modern-day Belarus, abandoning their religion and turning to Catholicism, made good careers in the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, but that was rather an exception than the rule. The ancestors of modern-day Belarusians (then they had no clue that they are Belarusians because such a nation did not exist) indeed were making a big portion among the soldiers of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, but they were just cannon fodder - it’s the same story as with Napoleon’s army, which was the French army, although the majority of its soldiers were not ethnic French.

Those who are really interested in the history of the origin of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy should read the book Lithuanian Ascending. A pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345, by S.C. Rowell (Cambridge University Press).
However, Belarus is the only state which tries to steal history from the Lithuanians. The Ukrainians (Kyiv used to be in the geographical center of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, although the central administration was in Vilnius) do not question the role of the Lithuanians in their history. They like the Lithuanians because the latter allowed them to be themselves. Ukrainians do not like the Poles, who started to introduce their harsh regulations in Ukraine after the controversial (then and now in Lithuania) confederation agreement of Lithuania and Poland of 1569, when Lithuania was forced to hand over Ukraine to Poland. The traditional toast given by Ukrainians to visiting Lithuanians in Ukraine is as follows: “To our best conquerors!”