1902 Encyclopedia > Lithuanians


LITHUANIANS, a people (about 3,000,000 in number) of Indo-European origin, which inhabits several western-provinces of Russia and the north-eastern parts of Poland and Prussia, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, and in the basins of the Niemen and of the Duna. Very little is known about their origin, and nothing about the time of their appearance in the country they now inhabit. Ptolemy mentions (lib. iii. chap. 5) two clans, the Galindae and Sudeni, most probably Lithuanians of the western branch of this nationality, the Borussians. In the 10th century they were already known under the name of Litva, and, together with two other branches of the same stem,—the Borussians and the Letts,—they occupied the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea from the Vistula to the Duna, extending north-east towards the Lakes Wierzi-yarvi and Peipus, south-east to the watershed between the affluents of the Baltic and those of the Black Sea, and south to the middle course of the Vistula (Brest Litovsky),—a tract bounded by Finnish tribes in the north, and by Slavonians elsewhere.

The country which since that time they have continued to inhabit is flat, undulating, and covered by numberless small lakes, ponds, and wide marshes, which, though to a great extent drained during the last ten centuries, never-theless still cover immense tracts of land. The costly work of artificial draining has been actively carried on dur-ing late years, but in the south the marshes are disappear-ing slowly. The soil, being sandy in the north, and a hard boulder-clay elsewhere, is unproductive. Thick forests cover it, and—though considerable tracts have been destroyed by fires and by the hatchets of the budniki who-during many centuries have cleared the most remote thickets, founding there their villages, while, later, wide forest regions, given by Catherine II. as gifts to her officials, have quite disappeared-—there still remain im-mense tracts of land covered with nearly virgin forests ; thus, the Byelovyesh Pushcha covers no less than 550,000 acres of land on the level plateau 650 feet high, where-tributaries of the Nareff and Bug have a common origin in marshes. These forests have played an important part in the history of the Lithuanians, giving many original features to their history, as well as to their mythology, poetry, and music. They protected them from foreign invasions, and have contributed to the maintenance of their national character, notwithstanding the vicissitudes of their history, and of their primitive religion until the 14th century. Their chief priest, the Krive-Kriveyto (the judge of the judges), under whom were no less than seventeen different classes of priests and elders, worshipped in the forests ; the Waidelots brought their offerings to the divinities at the foot of mighty oaks, and even during the 14th century an unextinguishable fire, the "zincz," was maintained in the midst of the "pushta,"or"pushcha"; even now, the worship of great oaks is a widely spread custom in the villages of the Lithuanians, and even of the Letts. In the absence of great forests they worship isolated trees.

Even at that time the Lithuanian stem was divided into three main branches:—the Borussians or Prussians; the Letts (who call themselves Latvis, whilst the name under which they are known in Russian chronicles, Letygola, is an abbreviation of Latvin-galas, " the confines of Lithuania ") ; and the Lithuanians, or rather Lituanians, Litva, or Letuvininkdi,—these last being subdivided into Lithuanians proper, and Jmud' {Zmudz, Samoghitians, or Zemailey), the " Lowlanders." To these three main branches, which have maintained their national distinctions uninterrupted until the present time, must be added also the Yatvyags, or Yadzvings, a warlike, black-haired people who inhabited the thick forests at the upper tributaries of the Niemen and Bug, and the survivors of whom are easily distinguishable now as a mixture with White-Russians and Mazurs in some parts of the governments Grodno and Plotsk, and in several north-eastern parts of those of Lomza and Warsaw. Nestor's chronicle distinguishes also the Jemgala, who later became known under the name of Semigallia, and inhabited in the 10th century the left bank of the Duna. Several authors consider also as Lithuanians the Kori of Russian chronicles, or Courons of Western authors, who inhabited the peninsula of Courland, and the Golad', a clan settled on the banks of the Porotva, tributary of the Moskva river, which seems to have been thrown far from the main stem during its migration to the north. The Krivitchi, who inhabited what is now the government of Smolensk, whose name recalls the Krive-Kriveyto, and whose ethnological features recall the Lithuanians, seem to belong to the same stem; but now these are rather a mixture of Lithuanians and Slavonians.

All these peoples are only ethnographical subdivisions, and each of them was subdivided in its turn into numerous independent clans and villages, separated from one another by forests and marshes; they had no towns or fortified places, a feature which has struck many earlier Occidental writers. The Lithuanian territory thus lay open to foreign invasions, and the warlike Russian Kniaz'es, as well as the German crusaders, availed themselves of the opportunity. The Borussians soon fell under the dominion of Germans, and ceased to constitute a separate nationality, leaving only their name to the state which later became Prussia. The Letts were driven farther to the north, mixing there with Livs and Ehsts, and fell under the dominion of the Livonian order. Only the Lithuanians proper, together with Samoghitians, succeeded in forming an independent state. The early history of this state is but imperfectly known, all the more that the old Lithuanian chronicles have suffered from subsequent alterations (Antonovitch, loc. cit). During the continuous petty war carried on against Slavonic invasions, the military chief of one of the clans, Ryngold, acquired, in the first half of the 13th century, a certain preponderance over other clans of Lithuania and Black Russia (Yatvyags), as well as over the republics of Bed Russia. At this time, the invasions of the Livonian order becoming more frequent, and always extending southward, there was a general feeling of the necessity of some organization to resist them, and Ryngold's son, Mendowg, availed himself of this opportunity to pursue the policy •of his father. He made different concessions to the order, ceded to it several parts of Lithuania, and even agreed to be baptized, in 1250, at Novograd Litovsky, receiving in exchange a crown from Innocent IV., with which he was crowned king of Lithuanians. He ceded also the whole of Lithuania to the order in case he should die without leaving offspring. But he had accepted Christi-anity only to increase his influence among other clans ; and, as soon as he had consolidated a union between Lithu-anians, Samoghitians, and Cours, he relapsed, proclaiming, in 1260, a general uprising of the Lithuanian people against the Livonian order. The yoke was shaken off, but internal wars followed, and three years later Mendowg was killed. About the end of the 13th century a new dynasty of rulers of Lithuania was founded by Lutouver, whose second son, Gedymin (1316-1341), with the aid of fresh forces he organized from his relations with Red Russia, established something like regular government; he extended at the same time his dominions over Russian countries—over Black Russia (Novogrodok, Zditoff, Grodno, Slonim, and Volkovysk) and the principalities of Polotsk, Tourovsk, Pinsk, Vitebsk, and Yolhyma. He named him-self Rex Leihowinorum et multorum Ruthenorum. In 1325 he concluded a treaty with Poland against the Livonian order, which treaty was the first step towards the union of both countries realized two centuries later. The seven sons of Gedymin considered themselves as quite independent; but two of them, Olgerd and Keistut, soon became the more powerful. They represented two different tendencies which existed at that time in Lithuania. Olgerd, whose family relations attracted hirn towards the south, was the advocate of union with Russia; rather politician than warrior, he in-creased his influence by diplomacy and by organization. His wife and sons being Christians, he also soon agreed to be baptized in the Greek Church. Keistut represented the revival of the Lithuanian nationality. Continually engaged in wars with Livonia, and remaining true to the national religion, he became the national legendary hero. In 1345 both brothers agreed to re-establish the great principality of Lithuania, and, after having taken Vilna, the old sanctuary of the country, all the brothers recognized the supremacy of Olgerd. His son Yagello, who married the queen of Poland, Yadviga, after having been baptized in the Latin Church, was crowned, on February 14, 1386, king of Poland. At the beginning of the 15 th century Lithuania was a mighty state, extending her dominions as far east as Vyazma on the banks of the Moskva river, the present government of Kaluga, and Poutivl, and south-east as far as Poltava, the shores of the Sea of Azoff, and Hadji-bey (Odessa), thus including Kieff and Loutsk. The union with Poland remained, however, but nominal until 1569, when Sigismund Augustus was king of Poland. In the 16th century Lithuania did not extend its power so far east and south-east as two centuries before, but it con-stituted a compact state, including Polotsk, Moghileff, Minsk, Grodno, Kovno, Vilna, Brest, and reaching as far south-east as Tchernigoff. From the union with Poland, the history of Lithuania becomes a part of Poland's history, Lithuanians and White-Russians partaking of the fate of the Polish kingdom. After its three partitions, they fell under the dominion of the Russian empire. In 1792 Russia took the provinces of Moghileff and Polotsk, and in 1793 those of Vilna, Troki, Novgorod-Syeversk, Brest, and Vitebsk. In 1797 all these provinces were united together, constituting the "Lithuanian government" (Litovskaya Gubernia). But the name of Lithuanian provinces was usually given only to the governments of Vilna and Kovno, and, though Nicholas I. prohibited the use of this name, it is still used, even in official documents. In Bussia, all the White-Russian population of the former Polish Lithuania are mostly considered as Lithuanians, the name of Jmud being restricted to Lithuanians proper.

The ethnographical limits of the Lithuanians are quite undefined, and their number is estimated very differently by different authors. The Letts occupy a part of the Courland peninsula (according to M. Rittich, they numbered there 305,300 in 1870, to which several authors add 185,800 Cours), of Livonia (416,400 at same date), and of Vitebsk (185,600), a few other settlements being spread also in the governments of Kovno (18,500), St Petersburg (2700), and Moghileff (1000). The Lithuanians proper inhabit the governments of Kovno (435,810), Vilna (350,700), Suvalki (54,300), and Grodno (2500); whilst the Samoghitians, or Jmud, inhabit the governments of Kovno (498,900) and Suvalki (165,200). To these must be added about 200,000 Borussians, the whole number of Lithuanians being 2,687,000 in 1870 (2,873,000 with the Cours), or, taking into account the rate of increase of population for different governments, about 3,014,700 in 1882 (3,231,000 with Cours). Other authors estimate the number of Lithuanians in the Polish provinces at 277,050 in 1869, probably including Yatvyags, mixed to some extent with Mazurs. In this case the number of Lithuanians would be in 1882 about 3,082,000 (3,298,000 with Cours). They are now slowly extending towards the south, especially the Letts, who leave their country in consequence of want of land and of the difficulty they experienced in getting means of subsistence ; numerous emigrants have already penetrated into Slavonic lands as far as the govern-ment of Voronesh.

The Lithuanians are well built; the face is mostly elongated, the features fine ; the very fair hair, blue eyes, and delicate skin dis-tinguish them from Poles and Russians. Their dress is usually plain in comparison with that of Poles, and the predominance in it of greyish colours has been frequently noticed. Their language has great similarities to the Sanskrit. It is affirmed that whole Sanskrit phrases are well understood by the peasants of the banks of the Niemen. But it contains also a considerable amount of Slavonic words. The vocabulary is very copious, especially in words referring to natural phenomena, and which express certain pathological states of the mind. Diminutives are exceedingly numerous, and various diminutive forms are applied even to adjectives and verbs. But, as a whole, the Lithuanian language is at a very low stage of development, and the written literature is very poor ; only religious books, a few translations, and a single newspaper are published in it. On the other hand, the unwritten popular literature is very rich, and contains true treasures of poetry. It was long doubted if Lithuanians have any epic poetry ; it now appeal's, however, that there are, scattered in songs, fragments of a great Lithuanian epic poem. But the popular poetry is especially rich in idyllic and lyric songs, imbued with tenderest love and melancholy, and a most poetical feeling of nature, and remarkable by their absolute chastity ; the irony which sometimes appears in them is usually refined and gentle. The elegies (raudas) are very melancholy, and of a rare beauty. The national character is fully expressed in these songs,—not warlike at all, melancholy, very lovely, and not very sociable.

The language of the Letts is, according to Schleicher, as similar to the Lithuanian as the Italian to the Latin, but contains a greater mixture of German and Slavonic words. The literary language is more developed. A scientific Lettish grammar was published by Stender at the end of the last century, and the Letts possess translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, and other great poets. Five political papers were published in Lettish in 1876. A revival of national feeling having begun in this century, rich collections of Lettish songs were published by Germans, Russians, and Letts, M. Briwsemniaks's collection, published by the Moscow Anthropologi-cal Society, being the most recent. The Lettish songs have the same characters as those of the Lithuanians, to which a special feature, the hatred of the people to the German landholders, must be added.

The Letts of Courland, with the exception of about 50,000 who belong to the Greek Church, are Lutherans. Nearly all can read. Those of the government of Vitebsk, who were under Polish dominion, are Catholics, as well as the Lithuanians proper, a part of whom, however, have returned to the Greek Church, in which they were before the union with Poland. The Samoghitians are Catholics ; they more than other Lithuanians have conserved their national features. But all Lithuanians have maintained much of their heathen practices and creed ; the names of pagan divinities, very numerous in the former mythology, are continually mentioned in songs, and also in common speech.

The chief occupation of Lithuanians is agriculture. The trades in towns are generally carried on by men of other races—mostly by Germans, Jews, or Poles. The only exception is afforded to some extent by the Letts. The Samoghitians are good hunters, and all Lithuanians are given to apiculture and cattle breeding. But the Lithuanians, as well in the Baltic provinces as in the central ones, were not until the most recent time proprietors of the soil they tilled. They have given a few families to the Russian nobility, but the great mass of the people became serfs of foreign landowners, German and Polish, who reduced them to the greatest misery. Since the Polish insurrection of 1863, the Russian Government has given to the Lithuanians the land of the Polish proprietors on much easier terms than in central Russia ; but the allotments of soil and the redemption taxes are very unequally distributed ; and a not insig- nificant number of peasants (the tchinsheviki) were even deprived of the land they had for centuries considered their own. The Letts remain in the same state as before, and are restrained from emigrating en masse only by coercive measures. (P. A. K.)

The above article was written by P. A. Kropotkine.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries