By Lyubov Tsarevskaya
The unification of Russian lands in the North East under Moscow rule ran in parallel with the unification of Southern and Western Russia with Lithuania. The latter appeared rather late on the historical scene, in the 14th century. In the face of aggression from the German Teutonic Order of Crusaders, the Lithuanian tribes and the Western-Russian principalities formed a Lithuanian-Russian Principality under the powerful warlord Gediminas. The Principality quickly expanded its domain, which stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
Lithuania grew stronger thanks to the unification with the Russians who welcomed the process as an opportunity to get rid of the Tatar yoke. In the unified country Russians were subjected to no discrimination, either ethnic or religious. What’s more, the preponderance of Russian principalities in Lithuania had largely affected its culture and lifestyle. The Lithuanian princes preserved Russian customs and adopted the Orthodox religion, they married Russians, gave their children Russian names and often spoke Russian at home. Lithuanian princes spoke of themselves as the heads of a Lithuanian and Russian Principality.
Lithuania attained its greatest power in the 14th century under Prince Algirdas (Olgerd).
The chroniclers describe him as a clever, far-sighted politician who spoke several languages, had no use for pastimes and spent all his time on state matters. What’s more, he was a teetotaler, a rare quality in the nobility of that time. He enlarged his territory by perfidy and was closely linked with Russia, having twice married Russian noblewomen.
In his battles with Poland Olgerd won from it formerly Russian territories. That done, he drove the Tatars out of Kiev and pushed them beyond the Dnieper River. All of southwest Russia was now under Lithuanian rule. But this was not enough for him. He now turned his gaze to lands nearer Moscow. His motto now was that all of Russia should belong to Lithuania.
Olgerd prepared his campaign against Moscow in strict secrecy. His ability to move his forces silently, like wild beast, to the arena of decisive battles, was well-known. He was unequalled in this respect. Now, too, he used this art with good results. Prince Dmirty only learned of the Lithuanian invasion when Olgerd already stood on Moscow ground. Too late to gather his forces. Dmitry ordered his men to set fire to the settlements and the forest around the Kremlin and himself took refuge in the fortress.
Olgerd was amazed at the scene before him: the hillock opposite him was covered with the charred stumps of houses; the acrid smell of charred wood filled the air while over all that stood the town itself. It was a bold and challenging scene.
So, that is how Moscow is like now, he thought, gazing at the crenellated walls and formidable towers. Olgerd realized that victory was not to be expected. Never before in all his battles had he witnessed anything like that – that the besieged enemy should himself burn his own settlements before retiring to a fortress. He realized that Dmitry had set fire to the settlements and the forest in order to keep the Lithuanians from using them. Dmitry also had another idea – to show that Moscow would fight to the bitter end, and would fight again and only then rebuild itself.
Olgerd did not like that kind of war. After three days of idling outside the walls of the Kremlin, he lifted the siege on the fourth. On the way back he ordered his huge forces to devastate the Moscow lands, rob, kill and take prisoners, seize all the grain and cattle and burn the houses. Olgerd outdid even the Tatars in cruelty.
Twice again Lithuania tried to conquer Moscow, but all to no avail.
While expanding eastwards, Lithuania was also engaged in battles with the Crusaders, the German knights of the Teutonic Order who had conquered the Baltic lands with fire and sword. At the end of the 14th century the great Lithuanian principality was the only remaining pagan state in Europe. The Pope gave his blessing to the Crusaders in their effort to force Christianity on pagan Lithuania and also to seize its territories. In addition to bringing military glory which was highly prized the crusade against pagan Lithuania was considered to be God’s will.
A cry of amazement and hatred broke from all those gathered on the church square. “Germans!” they cried. The men seized their swords. Those who had none tore off shafts from the carts.
A horrible scene followed: men on foot without armour or chain mail, practically naked, fought against the mounted Germans who wore suits of armour and wrought-iron helmets. The Germans hacked at everyone without distinction, sparing neither men, nor women, children or the aged. Anyone who came within reach of their swords fell headless…
The Grand Master of the Order, Friedrich von Wallenrod, stood on the market square surrounded by his knights. He looked on at the bloody scene and the slaughter of the Lithuanians as something quite in order of things; wasn’t the punitive sword of the Teutonic knights doing God’s will?
“Set fire to the town and quit it,” he ordered. The crusaders left, leaving behind them fires, heaps of corpses, tears and loud curses.
“When Olgerd died in 1377, he left numerous descendants by his two Russian wives, namely twelve sons and five daughters. According to his will, he was succeeded by his eldest son from the second marriage Jagailo, which triggered off intestine strife between the brothers. Jagailo could rely on support from his uncle Kestutas, who was known as a valiant warrior for Lithuania’s independence in fighting against German Knights. The people of Lithuania loved Kestutas, who effectively ran the state, which was officially led by his politically weak nephew.
Jagailo’s parents loved him so much, they spoilt him, so he was known to be hot-tempered and undisciplined. He disliked doing any work, but was mad about hunting. Actually, he could hunt in Lithuania’s dense forests for months on end. But when the situation grew serious, Jagailo did throw off his laziness and grew quite active as a politician. He was exceptionally intelligent, but also insidious and cruel.
He hated the minor role he played under his uncle Kestutas, so he ordered that he should be killed. Jagailo arranged a state funeral and told the people that his uncle had died a natural death.
When Jagailo ruled the country, he agreed to something that determined the future of Lithuania and a number of European countries for many centuries to come, namely to adopting Catholicism by the Lithuanians. And this occurred as follows.
The strong Lithuanian-Russian Principality had repeatedly invaded the neighbouring Poland and devastated its lands. So, when Poles had to decide whom their future queen, the 12-year-old Jadwiga should marry, they thought the Lithuanian prince Jagailo could be a good choice. They clearly sought to unify the Polish and Lithuanian lands and find an ally in fighting the Teutonic Order. But Jadwiga could marry Jagailo only if the latter and the people of Lithuania adopted Catholicism. Jagailo liked the idea of marrying the beautiful Jadwiga and becoming a Polish King. So he agreed on all of the Poles’ terms.
Jadwiga had doubts about her future spouse. She had heard it said that he was physically a freak with barbarous manners. When he was on his way to Poland, she entrusted a confidante with finding out about his personal appearance and habits. Her doubts were dispelled when she learned that the Lithuanian prince was handsome, well-mannered, of medium height with a long face and the bearing of a ruler.
Jagailo and Jadwiga were married in 1386. Jagailo, baptized Wladislaw, now became Kind of Poland. On his return to Lithuania in the spring of 1387 he helped the priests to baptize the nobility. The common people were divided into groups, each of which was given one name and gifts of white robes.
The union with Poland and the adoption of Christianity produced several important results. Chief among these was the unity of the two countries against their common enemy, the Crusaders.
The situation of the Teutonic Order had deteriorated. Though it had not lost a single foot of land it felt that it was facing a formidable force. It had lost its aim in life. After the baptism of Lithuania the only thing left for the Crusaders was to return to Palestine and protect the pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But that would mean relinquishing their wealth, their power and their preeminence! The knights of the Order were torn between fear and fury. Most of them wanted to go on fighting to the very last while they still had strength and the fame of the Order had not dimmed.
The great war against the Crusaders opened in the spring of 1409. It culminated in July 1410, where the combined forces of Poland and the Lithuanian-Russian state fought side by side, under the command of King Wladislaw. The fighting continued throughout the 15th of July.
Sparks flew as iron clashed with iron. The ground was covered with broken lances and ostrich and peacock feathers. Horses stumbled among blood-covered armour and dead horses. Mercilessly the king’s forces pursued the Crusaders without let-up, hitting out at them with sword, pole-axe, lance and bludgeon. Most of the black cloaks, embroidered with white crosses which the Crusaders wore over their armour, were trampled in the ground.
Though it was becoming increasingly clear to him that the battle was lost, the Grand Master of the Order Ulrich von Jungingen refused to believe it. Over the centuries the Teutonic Order had always been the winner. God had willed it so. But the reverse was true here on Gruenwald hills. His picked knights fought all around him, slashing and thrusting desperately as never before, but they could not break through the enemy forces. As they fell and died the glory of the Order died with them.
“That one day at Gruenwald put an end to the fame and the power of the Order,” wrote the chronicler. It was a huge battle involving all of medieval Europe. It had enormous significance for the Slav people in their struggle against the German feudal lords.
The Union of Lithuania and Poland was important for defeating the Crusaders and enriching Lithuania with Poland’s cultural and political experience. But the Union had yet another aspect to it, namely the Great Lithuanian Prince who had done a lot to make the Lithuanian-Russian Principality a powerful country, was weighed down by his dependence on Poland, which saw Lithuania and Western Russia as countries that should serve it. Besides, Poland’s religious intolerance to the Orthodox Russians who made up a majority of the Principality population, was a reason for discord and, in the long run, a break-up of the Lithuanian-Russian Principality. And that is what eventually happened. Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians, who were ethnically close to each other and had a common religion, had, following a long struggle, reunified into one country with Moscow as their capital.
N.Gorelova, B.Pivovarov “Russian History”, 1995
L.Borzova “Illustrated Russian History”, 2004
Source:The Voice of Russia