History of Russia/Chapter 11

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The Lithuanians: conquest of western Russia (1240–1430)[edit]

The Lithuanians—Conquests of Mindvog (1240–1263), of Gedimin (1315–1340), and of Olgerd (1345–1377)[edit]

The Lithuanian tribes had already been greatly broken up by the German conquest. Russians, Korsi, Semigalli, and Letts had been brought into subjection either by the Teutonic or Livonian knights. Two among the tribes, the Jmouds and the Lithuanians properly so called, had preserved in the deep forests and marshes of the Niemen their proud independence, their ferocity, and their ancient gods. A Russian tradition affirms that they formerly had paid the Russians the only tribute their poverty could afford—bark and brooms. Jmouds and Lithuanians were divided, like the ancient Slavs, into rival and jealous tribes. Although more than once they marched from their forests, blowing long trumpets, careering on rough ponies—though they had made many incursions into the Russian territory—they were not really dangerous. This old Aryan people, whom European influences had never modified, had preserved from the time they dwelt in Asia a powerful sacerdotal caste,—the vaïdelotes above whom were the krivites, whose chief, the krive-kriveito, was high-priest of the nation. Their principal divinity was Perkun, the god of thunder, analogous to the Perun of the Russians. The sacred fire, the znitch, burned constantly before this idol. They had also priestesses, the wild Velledas, like that Birouta who, captured by Kestout, became the mother of the great Vitovt. The time had come when the Lithuanians must perish like the Prussians or Letts, if they did not succeed in uniting against Germany. The emigrants from the countries already conquered would doubtless lend them new strength and energy. A wily barbarian, Mindvog, created Lithuanian unity at the beginning of the 13th century in much the same way as Clovis—by exterminating the princes. “He began,” says a chronicle, “by slaying his brothers and his sons, chased the survivors from the country, and reigned alone over the land of Lithuania.” Thence he led his savage warriors against the Russian principalities, now enfeebled by the Mongol invasions, and conquered Grodno and Novogrodek. Happily Western Russia had two great men at its head, Alexander Nevski and Daniel of Volhynia. Threatened on one side by these princes, on the other by the knights of Livonia, the Lithuanians bethought themselves of hastening to the Pope and embracing the Catholic faith. A legate of Innocent IV. and the landmeister of the Teutonic Order came to Grodno, escorted by a brilliant suite of cavaliers. In presence of an immense concourse of people, Mindvog received baptism with his wife, and was consecrated King of Lithuania (1252). The danger passed, and Rome was forgotten. He and his new co-religionists did not agree, and he was forced to cede the Jmoud country to the Livonian knights. Sharing the irritation of his subjects, he washed off his baptism as the unfortunate Livonians had done, re-established paganism, invaded Mazovia, ravaged the lands of the Order, and defeated the landmeister in person. He had taken the wife of one of his princes named Dovmont, and had married her. Dovmont awaited him on the road, and assassinated him (1263), and then fled from the vengeance of Mindvog's son to the Pskovians. He became their prince, was baptized, and defended them bravely against his pagan compatriots till he died, and was buried at the church of the Trinity. Voichel, son of Mindvog, in the first fervor of an ephemeral Christianity, had become a monk. When he heard of the murder of his father, he threw his cowl to the winds, and began a war of extermination with the confederates. Lithuania fell back into anarchy during the contest of the descendants of Mindvog with the rest of the princes who refused to accept their supremacy.

She recovered herself under the enterprising and energetic Gedimin (1315–1340), the real founder of her power. He turned the exhaustion and divisions of South Russia to his own profit; and to the conquests of his predecessors—Grodno, Pinsk, Brest, and Polotsk—soon added Tchernigof, and all Volhynia with Vladimir, under whose walls he defeated the Russians, aided though they were by an auxiliary army of Tatars (1321). As to Kief, it is not known in what year she fell under his power; in the universal disorder, this memorable event passed almost unnoticed. The old capital of Russia was, however, destined to remain for 400 years—up to the time of Alexis Romanof—in the hands of strangers. The Russian populations willingly received this new master, who would free them from the heavy yoke of the Mongols and the unceasing civil wars. As he respected their internal constitution and the rights of the orthodox clergy, it appears that many towns readily opened their gates to him. Gedimin sought to legalize his conquests by contracting alliances with the house of St. Vladimir, allowed his sons to embrace the orthodox faith, and authorized the construction of Greek churches in his residences at Wilna and Novogrodek. In the North he had a perpetual struggle to sustain against the deadly enemies of his race, the military monks of Prussia and Livonia. Like Mindvog, he addressed himself to the Pope, John XXII., and informed him that he wished to preserve his independence, that he only asked protection for his religion, that he was surrounded by Franciscans and Dominicans to whom he gave full liberty to teach their doctrine, and that he was ready to recognize the Pope as supreme head of the Church, if he would arrest the depredations of the Germans. The French Pope sent him Bartholomew, Bishop of Alais, and Bernard, Abbot of Puy. In the interval he had been exasperated by renewed attacks of the Teutonic knights, and forced the two legates to fly. He had transferred his capital to Wilna on the Wilia, and the ruins of his castle may still be perceived on the height which overlooks the citadel. He drew thither by immunities German artists and artisans, and granted them the rights of Riga and the Hanseatic towns. A Russian quarter was also formed in his capital. He died and was buried according to the pagan rite: his body was burned in a caldron with his war-horse and his favorite groom.

After his death his sons Olgerd (1345–1377) and Kestout deprived two of their brothers of their appanages, and together governed Lithuania, now re-united into a single State. Olgerd humiliated Novgorod the Great, which had received another of his fugitive brothers, ravaged her territory, and forced her to put to death the possadnik who had been the cause of the war. He extended his possessions to the east and south, and conquered Vitepsk, Mohilef, Briansk, Novgorod-Severski, Kamenetz and Podolia; thus rendering himself master of nearly all the basin of the Dnieper, and obtaining a footing on the coast of the Black Sea, between the mouths of the Dnieper and the Dniester. With the republic of Pskof he maintained relations sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile; gave her help against the Germans, and sent his son Andrew to govern her, and occasionally arrested her merchants and laid waste her territory. The Poles disputed Volhynia with him, oppressed the orthodox faith, and changed the Greek into Latin churches. Olgerd then made advances to Simeon the Proud, Grand Prince of Moscow, and, though a pagan, married Juliana, princess of Tver. Under Simeon's successors the Lithuanian army three times took the road to Moscow, and, without the check imposed on him by the Poles and the two German orders, Olgerd might have made the conquest of Eastern Russia. In 1368 he had annihilated the Mongol hordes which infested the Lower Dnieper, and, more destructive than even these barbarians, completed the ruin of Cherson in the Crimea.

Jagellon—Union of Lithuania and Poland (1386)[edit]

Although Olgerd had reconstituted the Lithuanian unity, he fell back into the old error, and divided his States between his sons and his brother, the brave Kestout, who had been his faithful associate. One of his sons, Iagaïlo or Jagellon (1377–1434), cruelly repaired the fault of his father. He made his uncle Kestout prisoner by treachery, and caused him to be put to death. His brothers and cousins escaped a similar fate by flying to neighboring states. In spite of this the bloody pagan was the Apostle of Lithuania. For a long while Christianity had sought to penetrate by two different channels,—under the Latin form from Poland, and under the Greek form from Russia. The fierce war sustained by the Lithuanians against the military monks of the North had rendered Catholicism particularly hateful to them. Under Olgerd the people of Wilna had risen, and fourteen Franciscans were slain. On the other side the larger part of the Lithuanian conquests was composed of Russian territory, and Lithuania underwent the influence of the Russian religion as well as of the Russian language. Russian became the official tongue; it even seemed as if orthodoxy was to become the ruling faith, and the victors were to be absorbed by the vanquished, and Russified by their conquest. An unexpected event turned the natural course of history. The Angevin and French dynasty in Poland had lately been extinguished in the person of Louis of Hungary, whose only heir was his daughter Hedwiga. The Polish nobles felt that the best way of putting a stop to the eternal warfare with the Lithuanians was by marrying their queen to the powerful Prince of Wilna. The heart of Hedwiga is said to have been elsewhere engaged; but the Catholic clergy set forth her consent to this union as a duty, the fulfilment of which was to insure in Lithuania proper the triumph of the Latin faith, and thus to separate it from the Lithuanian Russian provinces which still remained orthodox.

In 1386 Jagellon went to Cracow and received baptism and the crown of Poland.

The conversion of the Lithuanians was then conducted after a fashion as summary as that of the Russians in the time of Vladimir. They were divided into groups, and the priest then sprinkled them with holy water, pronouncing, as he did so, a name of the Latin Calendar. To one group he gave the name of Peter, to another that of Paul or John. Jagellon overthrew the idol Perkun, extinguished the sacred fire that burned in the castle of Wilna, killed the holy serpents, and cut down the magic woods. The people, however, worshipped their gods for some time longer; like the Northmen who were converted by the Carolingians, many Lithuanians presented themselves more than once to be baptized, in order to receive again and again the white tunic of the neophyte. By transferring his capital to Cracow, in deference to his new subjects, Jagellon necessarily irritated his old subjects. To the determined pagans the orthodox allied themselves, provoked by the king's propaganda in favor of Catholicism. Lithuania believed that by her union with Poland she had forfeited her independence.

The Grand Prince Vitovt (1392–1430)—Battles of the Vorskla (1399), and of Tannenberg (1410)[edit]

Vitovt, son of the hero Kestout and the priestess Birouta, put himself at the head of the malcontents. He allied himself with the Teutonic knights, and twice besieged the Polish garrison in the Castle of Wilna. Weary of war, Jagellon ended by ceding him Lithuania with the title of Grand Prince (1392).

Vitovt (1392–1430), brother-in-law of the Grand Prince of Moscow (Vassili Dmitriévitch), took up the plans of Olgerd for the subjugation of the north-east of Russia. Sviatoslaf, the last prince but one of Smolensk, had made himself hated, even in that iron century, by his cruelties. Fighting in the Russian territory, he took pleasure in impaling and burning alive women and children. He was killed in 1387 in a battle against the Lithuanians, and his son Ioury was only the shadow of a Grand Prince of Smolensk, under the guardianship of Vitovt. The latter, who combined perfidy with the courage and energy of his father, made himself master of the town by a stratagem worthy of Cæsar Borgia. He contrived to induce the prince and his brothers to visit him in his tent, embraced and pressed them in his arms, and then declared them prisoners of war, while his army surprised and pillaged Smolensk. This queenly city on the Upper Dneiper was lost to Russia. The Lithuanian Empire now bordered on the ancient Souzdal and the principality of Riazan. These two countries, with Novgorod and Pskof, were the only ones which had preserved their independence. It seemed as if one campaign would suffice to annihilate the Russian name. But Vitovt cherished great projects, in which the conquest of Moscow was only an incident. He had already fought against the Mongols, and with the prisoners taken in the environs of Azof, had peopled many villages round Wilna, where their posterity still exist. He took under his protection the Khan Tokhtamych, whom Timour Koutlouï had expelled from Saraï, and resolved to subjugate the Golden Horde, to install a vassal there, and finally add to the conquest of the Tatar Empire that of Moscow and Riazan. The army that he assembled under the walls of Kief was perhaps the most important that had marched against the infidels since the first crusade. To his Lithuanian troops he had united the Polish contingent sent by Jagellon under the famous voïevodes Spitko of Cracow, John of Mazovia, Sandivog of Ostorog, Dobrogost of Samotoul, and the droujinas of the Russian princes, Gleb of Smolensk, Michael and Dmitri of Volhynia, the Mongols of Tokhtamych, and five hundred knights, “iron men,” richly armed, sent by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. He came up with the enemy on the banks of the Vorskla, an affluent of the Dnieper, that runs near Pultowa. It was almost the battle-field where fought in 1709 the heroes of the North. To Timour's proposals of peace, Vitovt answered that God had designed him to be master of the world, and that the Khan must recognize him as his father, pay him tribute, and place his armorial bearings on the Mongol coins. The Khan only negotiated to gain time till the bulk of the Tatar army, commanded by Ediger, came up. Ediger, in his turn, ironically summoned Vitovt to acknowledge him as father, and to place his arms on the Lithuanian coins. Vitovt, who hoped to make up for his deficiency in numbers by his artillery, gave the signal for battle. A manœuvre of the Tatars on the rear of the enemy assured them the victory. Two-thirds of the Lithuanian army, with the princes of Smolensk and Volhynia, remained on the field of battle. The remnant was pursued by Timour to the Dnieper. He levied war contributions on Kief and the Monastery of the Catacombs (1399). So fell the prestige of Vitovt. Even the princes of Riazan thought that they might safely insult his frontiers. But he was still formidable, and the Grand Prince of Moscow, after having tried to attack him, judged it more prudent to make peace.

When Vitovt began to recover from his disaster, he directed a still more famous expedition against the Teutonic knights. The Grand Prince of Lithuania had more than once found himself at issue with the two German orders. About this time the Teutonic knights had lost their early energy, thanks to the development of the system of fiefs, and to the progress of the commercial towns. In 1409 the Jmouds and Oriental Prussia, after having protested against the severity of the yoke imposed on them, revolted, counting on Vitovt to support them. A new Grand Master, the warlike Ulrich of Jungingen, refused the mediation of Vitovt's suzerain, the King of Poland. Upon this the united forces of Poland and Lithuania, with 40,000 Tatars and 21,000 Bohemian, Hungarian, Moravian and Silesian mercenaries, making a total of 97,000 infantry, 66,000 cavalry, and 60 cannons, entered Prussia. The Grand Master had only 57,000 infantry and 26,000 cavalry, with which to oppose them. The battle of Tannenberg (1410), gained chiefly by Vitovt, who broke the German centre and left wing, was a blow from which the power of the Teutonic Order never recovered. The Grand Master and nearly all the high dignitaries, 200 Knights of the Order, and 400 foreign knights, besides 4000 soldiers, were killed. Nearly all the princes of Western Russia took part in the combat, and the contingent of Smolensk especially distinguished itself. The Jmoud country was freed from the Teutonic rule and united to Lithuania.

Three years afterwards (1413) the Congress of Horodlo on the Bug, between Jagellon, accompanied by the Polish pans, and Vitovt, accompanied by his Lithuanian chiefs, took place. It was settled that the Lithuanian Catholics should receive the rights and privileges of the Polish schliachta; and that the representatives of the two countries should unite in a common diet to elect the Kings of Poland and the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and decide important affairs. Vitovt soon had differences with his own subjects: the Jmouds, so refractory under the Teutonic rule, were pagans and Lithuanians at heart. They hated Catholicism and the Polish domination. They rose and expelled the monks. Vitovt could only govern them by force.

The Russian provinces of Lithuania were orthodox, and depended upon the Metropolitan of Moscow. Vitovt wished to shake off his religious supremacy, and demanded of the Patriarch of Constantinople a special metropolitan for Western Russia. In spite of the Patriarch's refusal, he convoked a council of orthodox prelates: a learned Bulgarian monk, Gregory Tsamblak, was elected Metropolitan of Kief. Thus Russia had two religious chiefs, as she had two Grand Princes—the Metropolitan of Eastern Russia, and the Metropolitan of Western Russia; one at Moscow, the other at Kief. Vitovt also wished to free himself on the western side, and deprive Poland of her supremacy over Lithuania. In 1429 he had an interview with the Emperor Sigismond, who promised to create him King of Lithuania. Vitovt, then eighty years of age, was at the height of his power. We see him at the fêtes of Troki and Wilna, attended by his grandson Vassili Vassiliévitch, Grand Prince of Moscow, who was accompanied by the Muscovite Metropolitan Photius, the Princes of Tver and Riazan, Jagellon, king of Poland, the Khan of the Crimea, the exiled Hospodar of Wallachia, the Grand Master of Prussia, the Landmeister of Livonia, and the ambassadors of the Emperor of the East. Daily were 700 oxen, 1400 sheep, and game in proportion, consumed. In the midst of these fêtes the ambitious old man had to swallow a bitter draught. The Poles had intrigued with the Pope, and he was forbidden to dream of royalty. The ambassadors of Sigismond were checked as they were bringing him the sceptre and the crown. Vitovt fell ill, and died of disappointment (1430).

After this Lithuania ceased to be formidable. We find it in turns governed by a Grand Duke of its own, united to Poland under Vladislas, separated again, then definitely placed under the Polish sceptre from 1501. Though henceforward it always had the same sovereign as Poland, it remained a State apart—the Grand Principality or Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Her Lithuanian and Russian provinces became steadily Polish, and the princely descendants of Rurik and St. Vladimir, or of Mindvog and Gedimin, assumed the manners and language of the Polish aristocracy.

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