Sign up ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the Middle Ages, "Lithuania" ruled over not only the modern Lithuania, but also modern Belarus and large parts of the Ukraine. The Ukrainiains seemed to accept Lithuanian rule for over two centuries without problems.

But in the 17th century, Poland (Lithuania's partner in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) started taking over Ukrainian affairs. This led to the revolt of the Cossacks and other Ukrainians Bogdan Kmelnytsky mid-century.

My understanding is that that Poles were far less benevolent to the Ukrainians than the Lithuanians. The questions are, in what ways, and why? That is, why did Polish nobles "stir the pot" when Lithuanian rulers had "pacified" the region for over two centuries? (For instance, the Kmelnytsky article refers to a "Vilius (Lithuanina) panagyric" praising him.)

share|improve this question
Do you have any sources on the claim that Poland started taking over Ukrainian affairs. I'm not really sure what that means. :-) – Lennart Regebro Nov 9 '13 at 6:16
@LennartRegebro: Here is such as source: Second paragraph, under "Foreign Domination": "By 1569, the Union of Lublin formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and a significant part of Ukrainian territory was transferred from Duchy of Lithuania to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, thus becoming Polish territory de jure." – Tom Au Nov 10 '13 at 14:23

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

First of all the sentence:

"Ukrainiains seemed to accept Lithuanian rule for over two centuries"

is an anachronism. There was no "Ukrainians" in the period you are talking about. Neither any "Belorussians" existed. What later became "Ukrainians" and "Belorussians" were descendants of that part of the population which was Orthodox by religion.

After the conquest of Rus principatities by the Mongols, this orthodox part of the population found itself partially in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and partially in the Kingdom of Poland.

I recall that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, until it united with Poland in 1385 was not a christian state. This was the last pagan state in Europe. In the sense that the Grand Duke himself and a large portion of the population were pagans. They lived in the same state with Orthodox population, which probably made a majority, but this is not exactly known.

The kingdom of Poland was officially Catholic, but also had a large part of the Orthodox population. The union between Poland and the Grand Duchy begins in 1385 as a dynastic union. The Grand Duke baptized, married the Polish queen, their realms were loosely united, and strong efforts were made to convert the whole population to Catholicism. As one can expect, they succeeded with the pagan part of the population more than with the Orthodox part. With years the union became closer and closer, until at some point it was almost complete and the new state was called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569).

The state had a high degree of religious toleration (more than anywhere in Europe at that time, I suppose). Most of the ruling elite was Catholic, but there was a large Orthodox population, as well as Muslim, Jewish etc. Of course there were all sorts of frictions between confessions and people did not enjoy "equal rights" in the modern sense, but interests of minorities were protected by law. We can find several Orthodox among the highest state officials, military commanders, nobility and magnates ("oligarchs"). However it is true that the majority of nobility (zchlachta) was Catholic, and it was profitable for a career to convert to Catholicism.

The frictions apparently increased at the time of reformation. Gradually the relations between Catholics and Orthodox deteriorated, and this led to a disastrous civil war. Religion was not the only reason of this civil war. Provocation from Moscow also played a role. Moscow Princes suddenly declared themselves "Sovereign of all Russias", At the time when most of the "Russias" was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poles never recognized this title.

There was also an uprising of the Orthodox peasantry against landowners (magnates), Cossacs fighting for their privileges, etc., that is a kind of "class struggle".

Now returning to your original question. Did Orthodox people feel better in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than in Poland? I don't know any hard evidence for this. But this is possible.

In general, pagans are more tolerant to other religions than Christians. (Example: Roman empire. While it was pagan it was generally tolerant (of course there were frictions, like everywhere else. But in principle it was tolerant. There was no religious wars at least). After it became Christian, religious wars started, and eventually all other religions were eliminated.

One can conjecture that the same eventually happened in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But this is only a conjecture, I do not know any hard evidence. And the very fact that "Ukrainians accepted Lithuanian rule" as opposite to "Polish rule" has to be proved.

By the way, in XVI century, the most used official language in the Lithuanian part of the state was a kind of old Russian (using Cyrillic). After the unification, it was gradually loosing competition to Polish and German. The reason must be clear.

One more remark. The Civil war led eventually to what Russian historians call "Re-unification of Russia and Ukraine". This period (immediately after "re-unification" is called in Ukrainian history Ruin (collapse, destruction). The result was division of Ukraine into two approximately equal parts, one returned to Poland, another stayed with Russia. Only after the violent partition of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwelath in the end of XVIII century, both parts were united within the Russian empire. Thus I suspect that not all Ukrainians were so unhappy under the Polish rule.

Sources. Most of the sources I used are in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish, so I do not cite them. A good book in English is God's Playground by Norman Davies. The "civil war" that I mentioned is officially called "Khmelnicki uprising". When reading the books and other sources, please take into account that these questions are still hotly debated by nationalist historians and the views of many authors are strongly biased. Especially this applies to Russian and Ukrainian authors.

share|improve this answer
This answer would be improved by sources. Especially about the civil war between Catholic and Orthodox. I suspect the time line here is somewhat mixed up. – Lennart Regebro Jan 4 '14 at 5:19
I have "God's playground", and don't fancy reading through two massive volumes to verify what you say. Could you give pages or chapters for your various claims at least? – Lennart Regebro Jan 4 '14 at 6:13
I added references on Wikipedia articles to most of my statements. They contain further references. Concerning God's playground, I do not have it with me. Sometimes I will go to the library, check it out and add the chapter numbers. But I suppose you know how to use the index and the table of contents of a book to quickly find all needed information. – Alex Jan 4 '14 at 6:29
@LennartRegebro it's often difficult to give exact pages (or even chapters) for the English version of the book if you own it in another language edition. – Darek Wędrychowski Jul 25 '14 at 14:33

In XIV century Lithuania viewed it's expansion in different ways than Poland. Lithuania simply didn't have manpower and numbers to conquer new territory and pacify it. The only think Lithuanians did, was changing local ruler to it's own, leaving religion, language and past system intact. Lithuanian dukes often married local Ruthenian princesses. Since they were pagans, they would become orthodox themselves.

Grand Dukes used old Ruthenian language as it's official written language. At the time Lithuanian was only spoken language. At the high of they expansion, when border was 80 km from Warsaw and 120 km from Moscow, Grand Duchy of Lithuania had approximately 1.9m inhabitants (about 450 thousand Lithuanians and about 1.45m Ruthenians. So Lithuanian's were always a minority in it's own empire. But it worked both ways. Lithuanians were protecting Ruthenians from Mongol raids and Polish expansion and Ruthenians were supplying Lithuanian army with men and paying taxes to support that army. Army, that was also needed to hold German expansion east.

Belarussian and Ukrainian languages started to get apart only in XVI century, after Polish Kingdom took away Ukraine from Grand Duchy of Lithuania. You also have to remember, that in XIV century Lithuanians lived in huge parts of present day Belorussia and in the region of Podolia. Slavic people (Krevici, Dragovici) started to expand north into the Baltic peoples lands only in IX century. Only in XII century Moscow's duke conquered last Baltic tribe "Galindai", who lived close to present day Moscow.

So, present day Belorussians are mix of Baltic and Slavic peoples. I would bet that big percentage of their blood is of Baltic origin. In XIV century Lithuanians fought long war with Poland over the Ukraine (Dukes Liubartas and Kariotas) after which Poland took over Galicia. Ukrainians felt that Lithuanians are helping them in that war. Lithuanian dukes started settling Podolia, build many cities and castles in Volinia-Podolia regions. I think they saw Lithuanians as protectors rather than conquerors.

share|improve this answer
I think paragraphs would be an improvement. – Semaphore Aug 21 at 19:41

Well, let me point you in the following direction: one of the possible reasons was the fact, that Lithuanians were of the same faith with Ukrainians (who were not called this way at those times for sure), they were both orthodox people (as "Lithuanians" were the ancestors of the today's Belarus' nation).

The languages were also very close to each other (way more close than to polish or e.g. russian). When Polish Kingdom took the leading role in Commonwealth, they have started a politics aiming to convert population and elites of Lithuania and Ukraine into Catholicism, and also the significant expansion of polish language was taking place.

PS: please excuse my poor English

share|improve this answer
The Lithuanian leadership were pagans up until the end of the 14th century when they became Roman Catholic. That they ruled over the area that today is Belarus doesn't really make Lithuanians the ancestor of todays nation. The people living in Belarus at the time were Ruthenians, the "ancestors" of Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians. – Lennart Regebro Nov 8 '13 at 22:17
That's funny. The state language of Duchy was never baltic, and had nothing to do with the language of the so-called "Lithuanians" of nowadays, samogitians and aukstaitians. Look at the names of Lithuanian armies members, look at the names of Grand Hetman's and so on and so forth. Read the state documents of those times - nothing baltic. Only slavic names, slavic language. – Alex Parakhnevich Nov 9 '13 at 7:43
@AlexParakhnevich Wouldn't the language used in state documents of the time say more about who wrote them than who was written about? – SevenSidedDie Nov 9 '13 at 7:56
The concept of "state language" is a modern concept that did not exist at this time. I don't see how this is relevant. You are claiming that there is a difference in religion between the Lithuanians and the Polish. This is incorrect. They were both generally Roman-Catholic, while the Ruthenians were generally Orthodox. Hence your claim that the Polish was less popular because of religion is incorrect. – Lennart Regebro Nov 9 '13 at 8:08
Only a part of the Duchy's schlachta was catholic those times, and most of the common people was orthodox or uniatic. I have to go now, but tomorrow I will provide an appropriate arguements and links for this discussion to be a bit more reasonable than it's now. Okay? See you later. – Alex Parakhnevich Nov 9 '13 at 9:06

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.