Norman Davies
Chapter from Vanished Kingdoms (Allen Lane, 2012)


Kingdoms are like dinosaurs.  They never vanish in their entirety. They leave their remains in and on the ground, and they evolve. Dinosaurs became birds, kingdoms become pesky provinces within great powers, or great powers themselves. Their fate has been the same even for those who take issue with evolution processes. Kingdoms and dinosaurs can be Divine creations, though probably only the former are adorned with insignias of glory, power, sainthood, and martyrdom.

The Grand Duchy of  Lithuania (GDL) disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795 never to return. There was never any realistic chance that this conglomeration of over 20 languages and religions could return in any comparable form. Its legacy is contested mostly by Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians in terms of linguistic identity, as well as mainstream believers and minor sects of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, paganism and atheism, and all possible combinations thereof. It also once looked like the Himalayas.

Between 1.6 billion and 2.5 billion years ago, a period known as the Paleo-Proterozoic, the area later to be occupied by the GDL was subject to huge geological forces that created a collision between the ancient land masses of Archaen Fennoscandia, Volga-Uralia and Sarmatia. Mountain ranges were formed along the areas of greatest collision in the same way as the collision of the Indian and Eurasian land masses, some 40 to 50 million years ago, created the Himalayas. The GDL’s ancient mountains stretched over a region today called the Belarusian Suture Zone. After billions of years of erosion, this high area is still identifiable along the E30 road through Belarus. It passes from just south of Brest on the Polish border to just south of Minsk, along to Orsa and towards Smolensk in Russia.

In his chapter on the GDL, called Litva, Norman Davies incorrectly calls the ancient high zone the ‘continental divide’ and shows it in a confused shape on a map. Fair enough, he’s a historian not a geologist. He dubs the region the ‘Land of the Headwaters’ and the heart of the GDL under its earlier name, Magnus Ducatus Lithuaniae (MDL). Rivers drain into the Baltic Sea north of the old mountain zone and towards the Black Sea south of this line. This version of Litva originally was the homeland of a Slavic tribe, he contends, and is not an ancient version of Lietuva,  modern Lithuania.

Fifteen kingdoms are exhumed in this book. There is a chapter for each kingdom, itself divided in to three parts: an initial travelogue, an account of its rise and demise, and an overview of its political legacy. It starts with Alt Clud, the ‘Kingdom of the Rock’, that was centred on an outcrop just outside of Glasgow and was more a Welsh creation than Scottish, and ends with the Soviet Union. In between there are accounts of Aragon, Savoy, Burgundy, Byzantium, Ireland, Montenegro, Galicia and Borussia (Prussia), among others.

This is a work of enormous scholarship but the detail varies. At over 800 pages, the book is in need of a ruthless editor.  The travelogue sections of the book already feel stale, less than one year after its publication. The account of a manic taxi drive through Galicia is mere page padding. Musings about the failures of Internet sources are pointless. The chapter on Byzantium becomes bizarre when Davies criticizes Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, for being ‘Turkocentric’ and ‘blinkered’ in his writing, because he ignores his homeland’s rich history – Ancient Greece and Rome – but instead reaches no further back in history than the period of his parents or grandparents. Perhaps as someone whose ancestry may stretch back to the Hittites, Pamuk thinks that the Romans and Ancient Greeks are mere nouveau riches. Or perhaps like many Turks and Greeks, he’s just fed up with northern Europeans using their versions of ancient history to impose identities on eastern Mediterranean peoples.

Norman Davies is best known as an historian of Poland. Although there is no chapter on any kingdom called Poland in this book, the sections on Litva and a large part of Galicia are Polish history written through a different prism. The use of predominantly Polish language sources is inevitable; this was the educated and administrative language of the region. The interpretation is disappointing.

The Litva travelogue is an account of the miseries of modern Belarus, suitably illustrated by a photo of collective farm manager manqué and current president, Alexander Lukashenko, in broad-rimmed, Soviet style military headgear. It makes a point about what Davies thinks of the historical roots of Litva – a geographical expression that does not include Samogitia, or ethnographic Lithuania - but avoids any real analysis of the modern states that are the GDL’s successors. The destruction of Minsk during the Second World War has made the modern city ‘peculiarly uninteresting’, he writes. So why doesn’t he describe Vilnius, the former GDL capital, and capital of modern Lithuania, which breathes its history from every street corner? 

As you read through the chapter, the answer, it seems, is that this historian wants to avoid all the elephant pits of contested GDL history and focus on a Ruritanian narrative. This is a region obsessed with identity; classifying it and reclassifying it, redefining the concept of ‘Lithuania’ and compartmentalising the (often very unwilling) population into those who belong, even if they may not realise it, and those who are outsiders. History here comes in infinite versions of the truth, all wrapped up in the enduring belief that the GDL was a place of ‘tolerance’.

Davies steers the historical section from the first Viking (Varangian) explorers cutting their way through primeval forests and conquering Slav settlements in Kiev and Novogorod. There are accounts of Mindaugas, a Baltic pagan warrior who became the GDL’s sole king, establishing a fort at Navahrudak (Nowogródek) and Gediminas choosing Vilnius as his capital.

Mindaugas adopted and discarded Catholicism and Christian Orthodoxy at various times. Gediminas is said to have been grooming his court for conversion to Christianity. But the GDL essentially consisted of Lithuanian pagan overlords ruling a predominantly Orthodox Christian population. A combination of foreign assaults by various division of the Golden Horde from the east and south, together with the Teutonic Knights from west and the rise of Muscovy as a rival, pushed the GDL and the Kingdom of Poland into a defensive alliance. The 1385 Union of Kreva saw the marriage of Grand Duke Jogaila (Władysław Jagiełło) to the Hungarian princess and heiress to the Polish throne, Jadwiga, and the conversion of the Grand Duchy to Catholicism.

Davies draws a sympathetic portrait of Jogaila, in contrast with Vytautas whom he describes as the cause of ‘constant trouble in the Grand Duchy for decades’.   But he doesn’t say how and why. Vytautas opposed the union with Poland. This is why he has been elevated to the status of a secular saint in modern Lithuania’s founding myth, itself built on the foundations of eradicating all signs of a Polish presence in the country.  Davies is rightly sceptical about the famed religious tolerance of the Grand Duchy noting that, ‘under the surface….there were ugly tensions’. He describes the killing of three Christian Ruthenian brothers in 1347, but there is nothing more of real substance on this subject.

Davies continues through the Jagellonian period with accounts of the rise of the magnates, their polonization, and the Union of Lublin that created the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, and Lithuanian opposition to it.  The are five pages devoted to the last Jagellonian, Sigismund August (Zygmunt August).He refers to a ‘noble-Jewish alliance’ that enabled Jewish culture to flourish in the GDL. This was because the region was less urbanized and consequently, Jews faced less discrimination than in Poland. This interesting point should have been developed further.

The GDL was an economic backwater. It adopted Catholicism nearly three centuries after western European countries began to centralize their states by launching crusades, burning heretics at the stake, inventing blood libel, and expelling Jews. They were also urbanizing and monetizing their economies. Jurgita SiaučiÅ«naitÄ—-VebickienÄ—, a historian at Vilnius University, draws attention to the probable coincidence that the GDL adopted Christianity at approximately the same time when it first encountered non-Christians communities.[i]  The multiple overlaps of religion and language created a situation where different cultures lived side by side without really knowing much about each other. Such a cultural mix was not unique to the GDL. States around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East were similarly mixed.  But the GDL was a collection of fiefdoms, rather than a centralized despotism. So it developed a precarious balance between co-existence and tolerance on the one side, and resentment and bigotry on the other.

Vytautas granted a Jewish community the privilege of Brest in 1388, although he only became Grand Duke in 1392. This was based on the 1264 privilege granted by Polish King Bolesław the Pious (Bolesław Pobożny) to the Jews of Kalisz.  The GDL privilege was not confirmed until Sisigmund the Elder (Zygmunt Stary) became Grand Duke on the death of his predecessor and brother, Alexander Jagiellon (Aleksander Jagiełłończyk), Jogaila’s grandson. Alexander expelled Jews from the Grand Duchy in 1495, permitting them to return in 1503 when he acceded to the Polish throne.

Tatar Muslims were granted freedom of religion and given land grants in return for military service. Their officer class styled themselves as noble but had no political power comparable with Christian nobles. Equality in nobility for Muslims only came in the early nineteenth century under Russian tsarist rule.

Karaites were granted special Magdeburg rights of their own in Trakai (Troki) in 1441, separating them from their Christian neighbours who had their own Magdeburg rights. Karaites reject the Oral Torah and regard themselves as distinct from Rabbinical Jews, but had the same status and double taxation, and suffered the same expulsions, as Rabbinical Jews throughout the lifetime of the GDL. The separation between the two groups and the Karaite reinvention as a Turkic people began after the Third Partition. This has generated continuing disputes among historians of the GDL but is little understood outside the region, in particular by the intelligent, though general, readership to which this book is addressed. So Davies’ quip about Karaites being upset if their top clerics are called rabbis – rather than hahams (he incorrectly calls them hazzans) – is both incomprehensible and unnecessary.

An interesting aspect of the GDL during the Jagellonian period is that arguably, Judaism was the only religion that was firmly rooted within its own community of believers. Christianity only began to consolidate within the population at large after the Counter Reformation. Tatar Muslims who settled in the Grand Duchy as political refugees following the civil war within the Golden Horde, or later prisoners of war or mercenaries, were recent converts to Islam and adapted to local traditions. This included lighting candles in mosques, holding mosque services on a Sunday not a Friday, and honouring their ancestors in early November, as well as during Ramadan.

Davies assigns little other credit to Tatars besides being savage eastern invaders. This generates a kind of Monty Python reaction in the reader similar to the moment in the film, The Life of Brian, when a Judean peasant asks, ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ What did the Tatars do for the GDL? Tatar settlers created the GDL’s entire military tradition, its light cavalry, and the Gediminas Columns probably originate from Tatar heraldry.

The GDL became a haven for religious dissidents. Various groups of anti-Trinitarians arrived in the wake of the Reformation, though their numbers were never as great as in Podlasie, Lubelskie and Kraków. They mingled with Jews, Karaites and Muslims, read texts in Hebrew and Arabic, and mediated in disputes.[ii] Russian Old Believers followed in the mid-seventeenth century, a point not mentioned in the chapter.

When we get to the Commonwealth’s disastrous seventeenth century, the treatment of historical events is superficial. Any reader unfamiliar with this the history of this region will not understand why Ukrainian hetman (who was half Polish), Bogdan Chmielnicki, sent his Cossack armies to attack the Kingdom of Poland. Why did Janusz Radziwiłł commit treason by surrendering to Sweden? Why was the GDL’s aristocracy so incompetent at any form of tactical alliance?

By the eighteenth century, and especially in the aftermath of the First Partition of the Commonwealth in 1772, society degenerated into a mass of conflicting groups, all of whom despised authority. Davies makes no mention of this. Stanisław Kościałkowski describes [iii] how the Grand Duchy treasurer, Antoni Tyzenhaus, created mayhem extracting ever greater amounts of money from Jewish kahals, evicting Tatar families from their property, and introducing an economic reform that worsened the existing serfdom. Tyzenhaus operated under the despotic motto of sic volo, sic jubeo (I want this, I order this). Unsurprisingly, he used Tatar troops to put down a peasant revolt.

When he describes the partitions of the Commonwealth, the Kościuszko uprising, and later nineteenth century uprisings against Russia, Davies adopts a time-warped over-romanticism. That Tadeusz Kościuszko was both brave and enlightened in his views on freedom is unquestionable. He was a brilliant military engineer under the command of George Washington during the American War of Independence and deserves his place in the United States pantheon. But he was not a ‘brilliant commander’ of the uprising he led at home. He was a disaster. But at least he realised that support for the uprising was very much skewed towards the nobility and complained that he didn’t want to fight just for the szlachta. He also opposed troops from the Commonwealth joining in Napoleon’s campaigns in the Peninsular War and against Russia. There never was any chance of Napoleon helping to re-create the GDL, in any form, even comparable to the Duchy of Warsaw, but this is also not mentioned in the chapter.

The 1830-31 and 1863-64 uprisings were doomed before even a shot was fired because they lacked strategy, leadership and support. Much of the GDL’s military talent was absorbed into the Russian tsarist army. More tellingly, the uprisings’ leaders were not too smart, as Dezydery Chłapowski witheringly describes.[iv]  Subjects of the former GDL made careers and fortunes in Russia, especially in the aftermath of the Crimean War. Much of today’s oil, gas and mineral resources in Siberia and Russian Asia were first indicated by migrants, political exiles and deportees from the GDL.

 Less educated and poorer members of the population of the former GDL (and Poland) didn’t trust any nobility-led uprising which, they believed, would return a worse serfdom than before. Davies’ evident antipathy to Russia over the chapter obstructs any objective account of this period. One lasting legacy of the uprisings was the creation of an ‘underground state’ by Romuald Traugutt, the ‘dictator’ of the 1863-64 uprising. In the twentieth century, this became the basis for resistance to the German occupation of Poland. But even earlier, Irish nationalist Michael Collins studied these tactics as a method of fighting the British state.

There’s a brief description of the post-1800 former GDL Jewish community, the Haskalah, Zionism and the Bund. But how in the name of any version of history can anyone writing about the GDL ignore the Gaon of Vilna? The omission of any mention of Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman during his lifetime in the Commonwealth years, his scholarship and contribution to Vilna Litvak culture, his influence on Jewish settlements in Palestine and concepts of Zionism, his opposition to Hasidism and his enduring legacy simply beggars belief. The German writer Alfred Doeblin felt the Gaon’s continuing influence strongly during his 1924 visit to Vilnius /Vilna / Wilno [v] (then under Polish administration), especially in the manner of Jewish dress.

The Belarusian peasantry fare little better in this chapter, languishing under the overused epithet of tutejsi. This word just means ‘local’ and nothing else. No current or former resident of the GDL has ever described himself or herself this way. Ask someone in this region what they think of the term – this writer has many times – and the answer is unprintable. Helena Romer-Olechnowska used this as the title of her 1931 book on the peasant population of the then Wileńszczyzna, and her second cousin, the constitutional lawyer Michal Romer, also toyed with the term.

Michal Romer doesn’t rate a mention in this chapter, even though his influence on the GDL successor states was profound. A former infantryman in Józef Piłsudski’s Legions in the First World War, he objected to the Polish takeover of Vilnius and surrounding district in 1922 and moved to the Lithuanian capital, Kaunas. He spent many years studying the linguistic evolution of the GDL’s population whether Baltic Lithuanian or polonized Lithuanian, how did they assimilate or not, who are the Belarusians, how do all of these fit into a new state? He was ambiguous on the situation of Jews, contemplating the deep-rooted nature of antisemitism versus the economic conflicts between Jewish traders and peasants.

As an early krajowiec, at first he wanted people to live equally in a revived GDL. The krajowcy – a name for the autochthonous population first coined by the poet Adam Mickiewicz - hoped for a return of an idealized version of the multicultural GDL. But as the nationalist forces on all sides consolidated and there was little place for Romer - despite his illustrious career as rector of Kaunas University - and the other krajowcy in interbellum Lithuania, Poland as well as Soviet-annexed Belarus and Ukraine. Römer changed his mind, believing that Jews had little place in a new Lithuania. [vi]  A similar view was held in those days by Warsaw-resident Jerzy Giedroyc, the Minsk-born writer, exiled political activist, editor of Maisons Laffitte-based Kultura, and a man descended from the top ranking multinational GDL gentry just like Romer.[vii] Giedroyc later admitted this was wrong and changed his views significantly after 1945. Römer’s 40 volumes of diaries are of equivalent value (of their period)  to the Metryka Litewska, the GDL state archive, Giedroyc believed. Much of the original Metryka was plundered and destroyed during partitions and wars. Towards the end of the chapter Davies describes efforts to put its remains together.

Tsarist Russia annexed the GDL in its entirely after the Third Partition. Draconian administrative changes such as The Pale of Jewish Settlement were introduced, lasting until 1917. But Russia was also able to play the former GDL’s conflicting Polish – Lithuanian – Jewish –  (nascent) Belarusian factions with the skill of a violinist. The Catholic Polish nobility was left in a legal limbo, as Davies states, about its new nobility status. But this status was extended to Tatar Muslims, on production of proof of military service even in the Commonwealth. In exile or elsewhere in former Commonwealth lands, the gentry who lost their estates after the uprisings set about writing a martyred and romantic history of their one time homeland, and their role in attempting to liberate it. In the 1930s, and certainly after the Second World War, their descendants were far more hard headed, and decidedly unromantic, than this chapter would suggest.

Recognition that the GDL was as much the author of its own misfortunes as any real or perceived internal and external enemies does not detract from the beauty of Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz. Just don’t call it history or assume that it is universally loved. This is an anthem to a lost Arcadia that tells the story of a young Lithuanian gentleman during the Napoleonic wars. Polish poetic perfection it may be, as Czesław Miłosz wrote, but in an English translation, he observed, it reads like the work of Walter Scott.[viii]

O Litva! My homeland! Is the first line of Pan Tadeusz. ‘Irony of ironies, Poland’s national bard did not come from Poland. It is as if William Shakespeare was born in Dublin’, Davies writes. Apart from the fact that Mickiewicz believed that his Polish and Lithuanian identities were parts of the same whole, so what? William Butler Yeats wrote beautiful English even though he was Irish and despised the British state. Mickiewicz may be compared with Goethe, Pushkin and Byron but he was no Shakespeare. Shakespeare transcends all national boundaries, he understood people, politics and propaganda and belongs to the world, not just England. Mickiewicz had a deep understanding of Jewish and Islamic cultures but he doesn’t travel well.

This year, theatre companies from all over the world are presenting their versions of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theatre on London’s Thames Bankside. Actors and audiences would need to know a huge amount about Poland, Lithuania and the Commonwealth before understanding Mickiewicz’s work, let alone acting in it. Can anyone really imagine Mickiewicz creating a character like Sir John Falstaff who, after the Battle of Shrewsbury (Henry IV Pt I), laments;

 ‘What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Is it insensible then? Yea. To the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere escutcheon; and so ends my catechism’.

Falstaff is a character that a writer from a rising superpower may create, not the kind of character a writer from a vanished kingdom would invent. Such views on honour may be regarded as apostasy even today in the GDL and former Commonwealth region, let alone during Mickiewicz’s time. Mickiewicz also would have elevated the escutcheon into a sacral object, rather than acknowledging that it could be a convenient alibi.

The Second World War unleashed a savagery in the former GDL lands unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. Social, ethnic and ideological divisions within all sectors of the population coincided with two invaders. Numerous resistance groups were formed to fight one or both invaders, sometimes collaborating with one against the other, sometimes playing both against the middle. The result was that the resistance groups spent more time fighting each other than either one of the two invaders, and killing for revenge, bigotry, money, or just for killing’s sake. And into this hell came the Holocaust. Today, although the sites of the greatest massacres such as Ponary and Kuropaty are well known, outside of specialist historians, there is little knowledge - let alone public acknowledgement - about other events. History is obfuscated into producing an equivalence between the Nazi German and Soviet atrocities, but leaving the details of local participation to fade away.

The myths and heroes of the old GDL are alive and thriving today as the politicians in the successor states manipulate them to demonstrate ‘tolerance’. If you are very lucky, you can still find places in this region where people happily chat away in three or four languages at the same time, and worship in each others’ temples. For a moment, you think that GDL spirit was real.


Maria Kielmas

[i] Jurgita Siauciunaite-Vebickiene, ‘The Social and Legal Status of Jews in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its Influence on the Status of Tatars and Karaites’, Central Europe, Vol. 8 No.2, November 2010, 68-85

[ii] Irina Synkova, ‘Reflections of the Antitrinitar Polemics in the Literature of the Tatars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’, paper delivered at The Orient in the Social Tradition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Tatars and Karaims, Vilnius University conference Sep 13 – 15, 2007

[iii] Stanislaw Kościalkowski, Antoni Tyzenhaus, podskarbi nadworny litewski (Stefan Batory University; London Community) 1970-71

[iv]Dezydery Chłapowski, Pamiętniki, Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1986

[v]Alfred Doeblin, Reise in Polen, DTV 2006

[vi]Jan Sawicki,  Romer a problemy narodościowe na ziemiach byłego Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego, Towarzystwo Naukowe w Toruniu, 1998

[vii]Jerzy Giedroyc, Autobiografia na cztery ręce, Czytelnik 1999

[viii]Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, University of California Press 1983