Was Grand Duchy of Lithuania Belarusian? | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania really Lithuanian?

Grand Duchy of Lithuania was established by the ethnic Lithuanian (Baltic) leaders hailing from the Lithuanian ethnic lands. Later, however, the country expanded into Slavic and even Muslim lands. At its peak, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania did control lands well beyond ethnic Lithuania and, at the time, just 30% of its people were ethnic Lithuanians.

However, ethnic Lithuanian dynasties were still the ruling elite. While ethnic Lithuanians were pagan, so were the leaders and the entire Grand Duchy was considered pagan. After the leaders converted to Catholicism, so did the ethnic Lithuanians and so the entire Grand Duchy became considered to be Catholic. The plurality or majority of the Grand Duchy inhabitants may have been Orthodox Slavs both for some time before and after the official conversion of Lithuanians (and the Lithuanian leaders) - yet, the Grand Duchy was never considered Orthodox.

Outside the period of its highest territorial extent, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania also had a Lithuanian cultural majority.

However, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not a nation-state in the modern sense. It did not seek to impose the Lithuanian language, religion, customs, or culture on its non-Lithuanian inhabitants. On the contrary, if the dukes would move from Lithuanian lands to rule the non-Lithuanian lands, they would commonly adopt the local language and religion. Even the written language of the Grand Duke's court was chosen by convenience: East Slavic and Latin languages were initially used, to be replaced by Polish later as the importance of Poland has increased.

Establishment an expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, superimposed on modern European state boundaries. Grand Duchy of Lithuania encompassed today's Lithuania and Belarus, as well as parts of Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

How did the myth that Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not related to Lithuania appear?

The myth of a non-Lithuanian Grand Duchy of Lithuania rests precisely on the fact that it was not a nation-state, making it easy for the historians of other countries to emphasize those traits of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that were more related to their ethnicities than to the Lithuanian ethnicity, thus claiming the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania effectively was "their country".

Such claims are common in Belarus and Poland, mainly in the ethnicity-centered view on history that seeks to promote their ethnic history as more glorious and important.

For example, some Belarusians claim, that because an East Slavic language was used for writing by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania court, most of the Grand Duchy's nobility or even people in its main areas must have also spoken it natively. Moreover, as modern-day Belarus formed the bulk of Grand Duchy's East Slavic lands, that East Slavic language must have been Old Belarusian. On top of these, such authors claim that ethnic Lithuanians must have inhabited a much smaller land at the time, likely just Samogitia, and were merely a minor group in the Belarusian-led-and-ruled Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Such claims are, however, unscientific. They can easily be rebutted by the studies of placenames, among other things. In fact, Lithuanians did inhabit a somewhat larger area at the time than they do today, as parts of modern-day Belarus have Lithuanian-originated village names.

In fact, all the written-language-based claims about the Grand Duchy's demography are based on "exporting" the modern-day nation-state idea to a much-different Medieval era. Unlike today, in the Medieval era, it was very rare for the main spoken language to also be the written language. Most of Western Europe, for example, wrote in Latin but nobody spoke it natively. After all, only a few people could write at all at the time, and the leaders of the Grand Duchy themselves were illiterate. The written language used to be learned by the scribes together with the writing itself.

In conclusion, as Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not a "nation-state", it cannot be fully attributed to any single ethnicity in the way some later empires could have been, making this point moot.

So, while the Lithuanian ethnic group is the one that Grand Duchy of Lithuania clearly was most closely associated with, it is also wrong to believe that Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a kind of Lithuanian ethnic empire, or that there used to be a Lithuanian culture and language thriving "right to the Black sea" (some ethnic Lithuanians who are less knowledgeable in history tend to hold such beliefs and they are just as wrong as the Berlarusian beliefs that what is modern-day Lithuania used to be a Belarusian-speaking territory).

Is the non-Lithuanian Grand Duchy myth insulting and why?

These claims tend to be more funny than insulting to the general Lithuanian society as they don't expect the claims to be taken seriously. Typically, Polish claims tend to be disliked more as they are more widespread in the world than the Belarusian claims (which are little known beyond Belarus).

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  1. The article is ridiculous! The first capital of the Duchy was in Navahradak in Belarus, very far from the borders of modern Lithuania! The official language that was spoken by all dukes was Belarusian. All Statutes of the Duchy during 500 years of its existence was written in Belarusian! Read it! “Litva” was the name of the territory of modern Belarus. A small part of mordern Lithuania in the borders of the Duchy was called Samogitia (Жамойць) and it was first pagan and uneducated. Belarus’s historic national State of Arms “Pahonia” and the flag are those of the Duchy. Learn history before writing articles!

    • All of these points are already answered / thoroughly explained in the article itself…

    • And the duchy was established and governed by the Lithuanian elite. Good job leaving out the most important part.

    • You uneducated fools from belarus knows better.

    • Well, nothing like proving the article subject point by such uneducated subjective fantasies. Navahradak became a later period castle domain, and owned by Lithuanian Duke. And the Pahonia is a very old Lithuanian symbol, one of the oldest in Europe. I am familiar with the propaganda in school books in Belarus, stating even that the Grand Dukes were not ethnic Lithuanians, sure and the earth is flat.

  2. Calling GDL a lithuanian state is the same as calling Great Britain a french state, because the ruling dynasty was from Normandy

    • Well, far more than the ruling dynasty.

      Grand Duchy of Lithuania has its heartland in the territory inhabitted by ethnic Lithuanians.

      Even in its largest territorial extent, 30% of its population were Lithuanians, while for most of it history, Lithuanians made some 50% or more of the population.


      In many cases, calling the Grand Duchy of Lithuania „Lithuanian“ is the same as calling British Emire „British“ or Dutch Empire „Dutch“ (despite both of them having non-British and non-Dutch majorities at one time due to many colonies).

      There is one big difference though in that Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not imbibed with ethno-nationalism (unlike the 19th century European empires) and thus accomodated the various cultures of its lands far more, with these cultures and religions having more role in the Grand Duchy life than e.g. Indian or African cultures ever did in the British Imperial life. Even cultures from outside the Grand Duchy were often used where it was convenient (e.g. Latin language).

      This is why so many other nations seem to see Grand Duchy of Lithuania as „their own“ (Poles, Belarusians, even Ukrainians and Jews to some extent). In a sense, Grand Duchy of Lithuania was also theirs, since promoting the Lithuanian culture over others by forcible assimilation was never on the agenda.

      • Could proof these numbers please?

        • „Lietuvos gyventojai per du tūkstantmečius“ by Stasys Vaitiekūnas is a good compillation of such data and researches. The entire book focuses on the population, ethnic/religious composition, migration trends, social composition, etc. of the area in each historical era. It is the only work, to my knowledge, that covers the entire extent of history and compares different types of sources (which are all mentioned in the book).

          • Hello, thank you for your article and comments. I find all this Lithuanian history interesting as a 2nd-3rd generation descendant of mainly first-wave emigrants in the Lithuanian diaspora. Unfortunately, growing up on the West Coast of the U.S.A. in Northern California, my parents chose not to teach their children to speak Lithuanian as there were no other Lithuanians anywhere near us. Are there English translations of books by Stasys Vaitiekūnas or other historians, which cover the two centuries in Lithuania before the Grand Duchy was established? This the period that I’m currently wishing to research but as I don’t read Lithuania or Latin, and I’m not a trained historian, I’m not sure where to even begin. Any suggestions by anyone would be appreciated.

          • Vaitiekūnas‘s book is, unfortuantely, not available in English.

            There are several English books on Lithuanian history, many of them general ones, however.

            You may also read the materials available at this website, including:

            History of Lithuania – http://www.truelithuania.com/topics/history-and-politics-of-lithuania/history-of-lithuania
            History of Lithuanian diaspora (including the first wave) – http://www.truelithuania.com/topics/culture-of-lithuania/diaspora

      • Also, it’s funny how you strawmanned my argument about one country with a transcontinental empire. Did the British Empire used Hindi (for example) for the chancellery? Doesn’t seems so, yet Ruthenian was used to write statutes and statues stated that «Не обчым яким языком, але своим власным права списаные маем”, meaning “Not by someone else’s language, but with our own we are having our rights written”.

        • It is written in this very artcile Ruthenian was used for chancery (Polish, Latin were also used in different times)…

          I also meant precisely this by saying in the comment that Grand Duchy of Lithuania had no ethno-nationalism as its basis, and mentioning it as a difference from later European empires. An ethno-nationalist empire will use its own ruling elite language no matter what, as extensively as possible. This was not the case for Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was logical to use other languages (due to the already developed writing systems, more people knowing them in the region, etc.), and the particular languages used as „literary laguages“ shifted over the time, including Ruthenian, Polish, etc. All these languages – Lithuanian, Samogitian, Ruthenian, Polish – were seen as Duchy’s own. E.g. Polish-speaking nobility of the later eras would not have seen itself as “speaking a foreign language”. But neither would Lithuanian-speakers, East-Slavic-speakers, or even probably Yiddish-speakers or Tatar-speakers.

          That said, this was a common practice all over Europe in that period. Most European countries used not the main spoken languages as their main written languages (most of the Western Europe used Latin as their written language despite few speaking it). It was the same in the rest of the world as well, with Arabic a prevailing written language in the Islamic world, Chinese all over the East Asia, etc. The emphasis on promotion of local „ethinc“ languages appeared only later. The reason for this was that, at the time (Medieval era), only a small minority of the people were literate. It was thus common that when learning writing they also learn a language used as a medium for writing. When ann illiterate prince would dictate a letter to his literate scribe, the scribe would also translate it into the local literary language (Latin, Chinese, Arabic, Ruthenian…) before putting it down. Only with mass literacy of the 19th-20th centuries this became unfeasible and unpopular.

  3. The Litvins were people who settled within Belarusian lands, it is wrong to say that they are Lithuanian as they do not settle in Lithuanian lands, and the Litvins who made the GDL in Navahradak assimilated with the Belarusians in Polotsk and in other areas therefore being assimilated.

    • You are mixing up several meanings of “Lithuanian” here.

      “Lithuanian” may mean “a citizen of Lithuania” or an “ethnic Lithuanian”. Ethnic Lithuanians live beyond the boundaries of modern-day Lithuania as well, they do not need to be born in modern-day Lithuania. Some Belarusian villages still have many ethnic Lithuanians in them while this area used to be a lot larger. Likewise, there are many ethnic Lithuanians who live elsewhere because they emigrated and those who were born abroad to emigrant Lithuanian parents. These ethnic Lithuanians are not Lithuanian citizens in most cases, however. Likewise, many citizens of Lithuania are not ethnic Lithuanians (rather they are Russians, Poles, etc.).

      What you mean by “Litvin” is probably “Citizen of Grand Duchy of Lithuania”, even though the modern concept of citizenship did not exist then. At the time of the largest extent of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, ethnic Lithuanians (Lithuanian-language-speakers) were only some 30% the people of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. That said, ethnic Lithuanians were a majority not only within modern-day Lithuania but also within parts of modern-day Poland, Belarus, Kaliningrad Oblast, and Latvia (in some places, e.g. Punsk, Poland, they still are the majority).

      • The term “Litvin” is essentially used to reffer to slavs who inhabited GDL (Ruthenians). It is important to know that Ukrainian and Belarussians used to be one folk for quite a long time. The term “Litvin” hs nothing to do with real (true) Lithuanians and only used to reffer to slavs once again. There is a similar term “Litvak” used to reffer to Lithuanian jews. All in all terms “Litvin”, “Lithianian” and “Litvak” are not the same by any means and should not be mistreated as synonyms.

  4. Augustinai, your articles are quite well written and I very much appreciate the educative details included in the many histories, dekui, thank you most kindly.
    Good work.

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