Lithuania, Grand Duchy of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Lithuania, Grand Duchy of


a feudal state which existed from the 13th century through the 16th on the territory of part of contemporary Lithuania and Byelorussia. The chief occupations of the population were agriculture and cattle raising. Hunting and crafts played a subsidiary role in the economy. The rise of crafts based on iron production and the development of domestic and foreign trade (with Rus’, Poland, and other countries) contributed to the growth of such cities as Vilnius, Trakai, and Kaunas.

Feudal relationships, including the classes of feudal lords and serfs, developed on the territory of Lithuania in the ninth through 12th centuries. Various Lithuanian political units—such as the lands of Aukštaitÿa, Žemaitÿa, and Deltuva—had different levels of social and economic development. The dissolution of tribal-communal relationships and the appearance of the feudal order led to the creation of a Lithuanian state. According to an entry in the Galician-Volynian Chronicle, the Russian-Lithuanian agreement of 1219 mentions a union of Lithuanian princes headed by the most senior princes, who held lands in Aukštaitÿa. This testifies to the existence of a state in Lithuania. The growth of grand ducal authority led to the unification of the main Lithuanian lands into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, headed by Mindaugas (from the mid-1230’s until 1263), who also seized some Byelorussian lands (Chernaia Rus’). The formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was hastened by the need to unite for the struggle against the aggression of the Teutonic Knights. This aggression had increased in the beginning of the 13th century. The Lithuanian army scored major victories over the Teutonic Knights in battles outside šiauliai (1236) and Durbe (1260).

In the 14th century, during the reigns of Gediminas (1316-41), Algirdas (1345-77), and Kestutis (1345-82), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania considerably expanded its domains by annexing all the Byelorussian lands and part of the Ukrainian and Russian lands (including the Volynian, Vitebsk, Turovo-Pinsk, Kievan, Pereiaslav, Podolian, and Chernigov-Severskii lands, among others). Their annexation was facilitated by the fact that Rus’ had been weakened by the Mongol-Tatar yoke and by the struggle with the aggression of German, Swedish, and Danish invaders. The inclusion of Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian lands with their more highly developed social relations structure and culture into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania contributed to the further development of socioeconomic relationships within Lithuania. In the annexed lands, the Lithuanian grand dukes allowed considerable autonomy and rights of immunity to the local magnates. This policy, along with differences in the level of socioeconomic development and the ethnic heterogeneity of different parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, resulted in a lack of centralization in the government of the state. At the head of state was the grand duke, assisted by a council of representatives of the aristocracy and higher clergy. In order to join forces for the struggle against the attacking German knightly orders and to strengthen his own power, the grand duke Jogaila (or Jagello; ruled 1377-92) concluded the Kriavas (Krewo) Agreement of 1385 with Poland. However, the Polish-Lithuanian Union concealed the danger of subsequent transformation of Lithuania into a province of Poland. Catholicism began to be propagated by force in Lithuania, where paganism had existed up until the end of the 14th century. Some of the Lithuanian and Russian princes, headed by Vytautas, opposed the policy of Jogaila. In 1392, after an internecine struggle, Vytautas became the de facto grand duke of Lithuania. The combined Lithuanian-Russian and Polish forces, with the participation of some Czech divisions, decisively defeated the knights of the Teutonic Order in the battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) of 1410 and put a halt to their aggression.

The growth of large-scale feudal ownership of land and the consolidation of the ruling class in the 14th and 15th centuries was accompanied by mass enserfment of the peasantry, resulting in peasant revolts (for example, in 1418). Rent in kind was the chief form of exploitation of the peasants. National oppression grew in Byelorussian and Ukrainian lands together with the growth of economic dependency. Crafts and commerce continued to develop in the towns. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the rights and privileges of the Lithuanian nobles were enlarged. In the Horodło Agreement of 1413, the rights of the Polish szlachta (nobility) were extended to Lithuanian Catholic nobles. At the end of the 15th century, the Council of Lords was formed (the Pany-rada) which in fact put all the authority of the grand duke under its control by the Charter of 1447 and by Grand Duke Aleksandr’s Charter of 1492. The formation of an all-noble sejm (parliament) at the end of the 15th century and the promulgation of the Lithuanian Statutes of 1529 and 1566 reinforced and increased the rights of the Lithuanian nobility.

The transition to money rent in the late 15th and the 16th centuries was accompanied by an increase in the exploitation of the peasants and a sharpening of class struggle: peasant escapes and disturbances became more frequent. (Particularly large rebellions occurred in 1536-37 on the grand ducal estates.) In the middle of the 16th century, a reform was promulgated on the estates of the grand duke which resulted in an increase in the exploitation of the peasants by means of an expansion of corvée. By the end of the 16th century, this system was introduced on the estates of large landowning magnates. The mass enserfment of the peasants, the development of a corvée economy, and the granting of the right of tax-free export of grain abroad and duty-free import of goods to the Lithuanian landowners in the second half of the 16th century held back the development of towns.

From the moment that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was formed, the Lithuanian princes strove to seize Russian lands. However, the growing strength of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 14th century and the unification of Russian lands around it resulted in wars with Rus’ beginning in the second half of the 15th century (in 1500-03, 1507-08, 1512-22, and 1534-37) and in the loss by Lithuania of Smolensk (which had been seized by Vytautas in 1404), Chernigov, Briansk, Novgorod-Severskii, and other Russian lands. The growth of antifeudal agitation in the lands of the grand duchy, a sharpening of intraclass contradictions, and expansionist drive to the east, and failures in the Livonian War of 1558-83 against Russia were all factors leading to the unification of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with Poland under the Lublin Agreement of 1569 to form a single state—the Rzecz Pospolita (the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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