Ethnic relations in Lithuania during the union with Poland (1569-1795) | True Lithuania
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Ethnic relations in Lithuania during the union with Poland (1569-1795)

After Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed in 1569, the nobility of both nations slowly integrated into one, mostly through Lithuanian nobles adopting Polish customs. Polish and Lithuanian nobilities were increasingly seen as a single nation, which also included the Belarusians. In addition to them, there were numerous "exotic" minorities, such as Jews, which were seen as foreigners, but nevertheless usually enjoyed great tolerance and protection

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1569-1795). Lithuania was a lesser partner in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Polish nobility had the most important say on most issues. As such, throughout the era Polish culture and language were seen as more prestigious by the Lithuanian elite, causing it to adopt the Polish way of life over generations. Polish thus became the primary language of manors and Vilnius city. Many of these "Polonized Lithuanians" would see themselves as being both Poles and Lithuanians. Still, the overwhelming majority of Lithuanians remained non-Polonized but they were landless peasants, having little rights and say over issues.

The representatives of the nobility from every voivodship of Poland-Lithuania with their local clothes and emblems. Polish (left) and Lithuanian (right) flags crown the central tent. Anonymous painting of 18th century. Note the lack of differences between Lithuanian and Polish nobility, seeing itself as a single nation.

Lithuanian-German relations (1569-1795) in Lithuania Minor largely mimicked the Lithuanian-Polish relations in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as Lithuanians adopted the German language and culture over generations. However, while nearly all local Lithuanians converted to the German Lutheran Church, they did not abandon their language, with the world's first Lithuanian language books printed in areas under German sovereignty. In Lithuania-proper the German minority, now Lutheran as well, was rather isolated from the society-as-a-whole and kept low-key, participating in their own businesses and urban affairs but not the national politics that were reserved for nobility.

Catechism of Martynas Mažvydas was the first printed book in Lithuanian, printed in the German-ruled part of Lithuania (1547). Throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth period, more Lithuanian books were printed in German-ruled Lithuania minor than in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself, where the Polish language predominated as the literary language.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1569-1795). As the power of Muscovy was rising in the 16th-18th centuries, it gradually became the main menace of Lithuania. Officially viewing much of Lithuania as "historically Russian", it would often invade and sack Lithuanian villages and towns, detaching more and more Lithuanian lands. However, in the 17th century, a schism within the Russian Orthodox church made some Russians a target of persecutions in Russia itself. Lithuania offered refuge to them. Establishing many far-away villages they started Lithuania's Russian Old Believer community.

Old believer churches, the centerpoint of the Russian Old Believer refugee villages they have established in the 17th-18th centuries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Polish-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1569-1795). Like Lithuanian culture, the Belarusian/Ukrainian culture was now secondary to Polish. The government attempted to bring Belarusians and Ukrainians closer to Poles by imposing an Eastern Catholic church on them, which would still follow Russian Orthodox rites but recognize Papal authority.

Josaphat Kuntsevych, inspired by Polish policies, encourages his fellow Belarusians to join the Eastern Catholic church. Later he was killed for his ideas, but the Eastern Catholic church took hold.

Lithuanian-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1569-1795) grew increasingly less relevant. Firstly, Lithuania ceded entire Ukraine to Poland in 1569, essentially losing its Ukrainian population. The remainder of Grand Duchy was culturally divided between Lithuanian-speakers and Belarusian-speakers, however, increasingly both groups were reduced to peasants who had little contact outside their immediate area (as the nobility and elite of both groups became Polish-speaking and effectively became a separate "noble nation").

Russian-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1569-1795). Russians have officially regarded Belarusians and especially Ukrainians of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as natural allies and the proof that these lands are Russian. While some of them (especially Ukrainians) did indeed cooperate with Russians, this would typically not bring them the desired results of freedom.

Lithuanian/Polish-Jewish relations (1569-1795). Polish-Lithuanian nobility, seeing mostly craftsmen and merchant Jewry as useful to the economy, further extended the special rights of Jews that were above those of most Lithuanians, and accepted Jewish refugees from the lands where they were persecuted. Jews were regarded as a separate nation by Poles and Lithuanians and granted self-rule, a kind of state-within-a-state. Polish-Lithuanian Christian churches, however, sought to convert the Jews, mostly unsuccessfully.

Lithuanian/Polish-Gypsy relations (1569-1795). Unlike in various Western European countries, Gypsies were allowed to freely roam in Lithuania. Polish-Lithuanian nobility allowed them to spend time in their lands, sometimes performing various arts. Some Polish-Lithuanian nobles were appointed as "Gypsy kings" and had to ensure that the Gypsies pay taxes and abide by the laws.

Lithuanian/Polish-Westerner* relations (1569-1795). It became popular to hire artists from Western Europe (especially Italy) to design and decorate buildings and churches of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, while some Westerner merchants arrived for trade. While there were numerous such residents in Lithuania over the Rennaisance and Baroque centuries, they were usually either just temporary residents, whereas those few who remained longer assimilated into the Polish-Lithuanian culture. As such, while Westerners left a significant legacy in the form of key buildings and arts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there was never a true Italian, French, or English community in pre-modern Lithuania.

Italian-designed sculpture-filled interior of Ss. Peter and Paul church in Vilnius, still among the most famous sights of Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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