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The Grand Duchy of Lithuania


and its castles
by Algirdas Patackas

\'\' Many thousand years ago, following the glacial retreat, the great Central European Plain was covered with primeval forest – giria. It bordered a steppe on the South, whereas its Northern boundaries were thriving with noble broad-leaved trees, including oak trees, ash trees and lime trees (the Belovezh giria is the largest remaining primeval forest that has never felt an axe and can still be seen at the border of Belarus and Poland).

That forest was the original homeland of the Baltic tribes (contemporary Lithuanians and Latvians). This has been proved not only by archaeological, but also by anthropological and especially hydronimical studies. It is the names of bodies of water – rivers, lakes and wetland – that have preserved the most archaic forms and that have not changed for thousand years. The nations may have become extinct but the names of bodies of water give a genuine testimony of the natural poetic talent of those, who have once coined these names.

The oval oikumena populated by the Baltic tribes spread from the West to the East for almost 2000 kilometres - from the Elbe River in the West to the confluence of the Volga and the Oka Rivers in the East. In the middle, there was a huge lake (that has now turned into the Pripet Marshes), the name of which was mentioned in historical writings by Herodotus, and which gave the beginning to five rivers, including the Nemunas, the Neris, the Daugava, the Dnieper and the Volga. The fresh pristine forest area stood aside the theatre of European history for many centuries - various nations migrated to and fro, they fought against each other; the flywheel of history turned round and round. But this secret twilight zone of primeval forests and the sanctuary (Ramove), however, was wrapped in calm and peace.

But this peace could not last forever. Twists and turns of history changed the primordial heaven of forests. It was the Germanic tribes and later the Slavonic tribes that settled nearby. The Slavs moved aggressively up the Dnepr River thus divided the oval area inhabited by the Baltic tribes into two parts. The Eastern Baltic tribes became extinct. Only the Hypatius chronicle reports about the Eastern tribe goliadj( galindai –“ peripherials”) who lived near the Moskva River. The Western Baltic tribes, however, melted like a floe in the sea of the Slavs, preserving only one seventh of its former immensity by the Baltic Sea.

The secret thaw of the tribe, the deep reasons for which have not been revealed by our subconscious mind yet, was not a simple resignation. A thick layer of ashes on castle-mounds bearing the marks of battles, as well as ancient chronicles and legends give testimony of resistance fights. But one thing is for sure: may be the oldest and the most sedentary European nation that lived in the same place where it had been born (how many nations in Europe could proudly boast of this?) appeared to be standing on the verge of extinction.

And it was then that the state – the fortress of a nation – was established, which was one of three miracles in the history of the Lithuanian nation. From then on, the nation had a home with its castles and was not a mere homeless race hunted away from its native soil. Litua, that was first recorded (1009) in the Annals of Quedlinburg was a kind of a prototype of a state. According to the most recent insights, the mentioned Litua was neither a state nor a geographical concept but rather the name of the prototype of the state that had already been entrenched in the Christian space by King Mindaugas.

And the nation had to pay a high price for establishing the state, when in an uneven battle in the South it sacrificed the most militant Jotvingians (or, in other words, the Baltic samurai). The Prussians were defeated by the Teutonic Order in the West, and the Latvians were enslaved by the Livonian Order in the North. Owing to victims that spared no blood, the nucleus area – Lithuania – took advantage of the quantum of time, of the very vital moment and established THE STATE OF LITHUANIA.


Yet the state had to face many more challenges and ups and downs. It stood them all. LITHUANIA won the longest war in the history of Europe that lasted for more than two hundred years, including the battles of Durbe and Pabaiskas (near Vilkomir) against the formidable crusaders, the Teutonic Order. It is said that this war demanded millions of lives of Lithuanian men (a tremendous number of victims, having in mind the scarcity of the nation). The morose and seamy ruins of Ragnit Castle that overlook the right bank of the Nemunas River are the legacy of those times. They are like beast nibbled stonework that stands in the lost Prussian land like a silent monument of aggression against a sinless nation.

Why did the Order lose the war? Why did the state of harden warriors-monks that had a perfectly organised military structure and that was designed for war, para bellum – lose the war to a pagan and barbarian (as it was referred in those times) state, despite all the support they received from European knights? The answer rests in theology rather than the military approach. It is only paradoxical that, according to the methodology of Arnold J. Toynbee, it was the crusaders who were the barbarians in the time of troubles in the state of Lithuania. The redeemers of the Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Hospitaliers, the adepts of poverty and chastity, the fighters of the Crusade, , the warriors of the Order of Holy Mary, Ordinus Sancti Mari gradually grew to become a sword of Teutonic and ethnic aggression. They were constantly reproved and disciplined by Roman Popes for distorting the spirit of the New Testament, since the crusaders rarely referred to the name of Jesus, but favoured a hero from the Old Testament Judah Maccabee, a killer of enemies. Soon the wrath of God was revealed. First there was a catastrophe at Tannenberg followed by destructive conversion to Protestantism. The defenders of the Holy Mary disavowed her! Once powerful, the Order shrank to a tiny room in the Old town of Vienna. It is now called the Order of Malta and preserves the archives of the Order, as well as redeems its sins of the past by giving Christian charity.

Lithuania’s historical geopolitics is predetermined by its location between the East and the West. It must have been the pertinacious opposition of pagans, or maybe, the divine logics within the concept of plenitude temporis that obstructed the process of baptising the Lithuanian nation into Christianity. Lithuania remained virtually the only pagan state encircled by Christian countries. Rulers of the country had to fight against both the West and the East. How did the Lithuania, established by King Mindaugas, succeed in aligning forces?

A logic consequence of the geopolitical dualism was the diarchy of the two Grand Dukes, Kęstutis ir Algirdas (a rare phenomenon in Europe). Grand Duke Kęstutis (Kejstut) was fighting in the West, whereas Grand Duke Algirdas (Olgerd) was enjoying the sphere of influence in the East. It is noteworthy that this kind of dualism has left an imprint in the hypostasis of those rulers: according to the mythological sources, Grand Duke Kęstutis adopted not only the custom from the Knighthood Code to warn enemies before attacking them, but also an oath-making ritual (the reconstructed fragment of an ancient oath of a warrior rūgoki norus, nenokigus Panan roughly means condemn the wishes that do not satisfy your Ruler). The image of Grand Duke Algirdas possesses some oriental characteristics, including pro-orthodox stance and simultaneously intolerance (maybe, an alleged one), which manifested itself in the involvement of the people from his environment in the assassination of several Lithuanians, who had chosen Orthodoxy (and who were canonised later on); lavish funerals and other things might suggest of oriental despotism.

What were the sources of the life force of the nation that managed to protect its own existence? A Russian thinker Lev Gumilev introduced the term of passionarity into historiography, which may be explained as the level of vital energy and power characteristic of any ethnos; when the ethnos stands the destined challenges, it assumes the surplus of the vital energy that usually spills into expansion. This rather biologised term enables to explain, for example, the phenomenon of the Spanish Reconquista, when the Moors swept over the Iberian Peninsula, conquering nearly all of it (except for Galicia and the Asturias). The Christians under the legendary leadership of a noble knight El Cid succeeded in retaking the peninsular after eight centuries of ardent battles under the slogan “ Sant Jago (Saint Jacob)!” and holding a cross-shaped sword matamor.

The eastward expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania towards Pontus Euxinus, the Black Sea, was a sort of Lithuanian Reconquista. It was a return to native territories, like a natural animal instinct. According to Vladimir Toporov, „the time, when people spoke the Slavonic language in Moscow city and the Baltic language in its vicinity, is only a century apart from Litovschina, that is, the onslaught of Grand Duke Algirdas in the 13th century.” The vital energy was woken up by the destined challenges and its surplus spilt into half-instinctive march to the East.

This time of heroes meant a lot for Lithuania not only because the Grand Duchy of Lithuania became one of the largest European countries stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Regrettably, it was the largest one only in terms of size. Despite the exceptional geopolitical potential, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania almost did not exist on a real political plane in Europe until into view on the edges of Europe, where forests and civilisation end and the sea of dry grassy steppe begins, burst fur-capped cavalry armed with hooked swords and mounted on dwarf horses …Alarm, Tartares !!!

When European towns started building tall walls, before it was too late, before an arrow released by a tartar ended a melody of a hejnal, a bugle call of a trumpeter, like it happened in Krakow, only then did Europe discover Lithuania. This pagan country, whose domain a while ago was called terra incognito in the old maps, knew how to wage war, because war was vital for its survival and further existence. Being different in social-economic terms from other Christian countries, Lithuania was more superior on one particular account - it was more advanced and sophisticated in art of building castles and fortresses. Castles in the Western Europe might have been a bit more beautiful and stylish but their purpose was to provide protection during internal and domestic wars that were more or less of a civilised character, whereas Lithuanian castle garrisons had to fight real and merciless wars, and to stand the front line between the forest and the steppe, between Europe and Asia. They had to withstand barbarian invasions of hordes and long siege, as well as a war without rules. They had to survive or perish. Castles of the early period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were like magnificent, asymmetric and morose monsters, whose menacing ruins have been arousing unconscious awe until now.

Here is the history of the Kamianets-Podillya Castle that was the most southern castle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: four Karijotas (Koriat) sons (grandsons of the Grand Duke of Gediminas) came to Podillya, which served as an invasion road to Europe for the steppe nations. After a careful examination of the place, they chose steep cliffy slopes of the horseshoes form bend of the Smotrych River as an ideal site for a castle. Shortly, they built a grand castle and two more ones in the vicinity, thus creating a cordon against the invasion of the Tartars and subsequently the Turks. The main street in Kamianets has received the name of Koriatovici in honour of its founders. The impressive Kamianets-Podillya Castle preserved best, since it has never been destroyed. True, it was briefly occupied by the Turks, but they left the Castle peacefully without demolishing it. They say, that the Turks rode astride into the Cathedral of the Castle and circumcised a boy. That, apparently, was the ritual to turn the church into a mosque. They later built two minarets by the Cathedral. When the temple was returned to Christians, one of the minarets was demolished. On the second one, however, Christians erected a statute of Holy Mary, under whose feet the Islamic moon was preserved. Therefore, now we have a monument witnessing religious tolerance of the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and which could serve as an example for leaders of modern states. Moreover, a marble Muslim pulpit containing the Arabic inscription God is Great (Allah Akbar) was also preserved.

„In the conditions of constant wars with neighbours from the West and the East, the North and the South, Lithuania managed not only to preserve its statehood, but also to establish a powerful and reliable military organisation, which had to have a say in the future of the history of Lithuania. Additionally, it is more important that towards the end of the 14th century the state of Lithuania accumulated some reserve power that provided the country with an opportunity to make an appropriate choice at an appropriate time. Therefore, only a superficial observer can claim that the rise of the state of Lithuania and its becoming almost the greatest power in the East European region (with the Muscovite state as its only rival) was a sheer coincidence”, said Vladimir Toporov. The opportunity for the “appropriate choice at an appropriate time” finally came, since it had long been matured, having in mind the epopee of christening Lithuania - the last pagan country in Europe.

„The decisive moment was chosen successfully and consciously. Intentionally or not, already Grand Dukes Gediminas (Giedymin), Algirdas (Olgerd) and Jogaila (Jagiello) started preparing for this particular moment. The dynastic marriage of Jogaila with the young Queen Jadwiga of Poland, a successful and rather conscious christening of Jogaila (despite a habitual attachment to a pagan self-awareness) only topped the efforts of a long and difficult course. Christianity was accepted without any deformations and complexes that were extremely characteristic to Latvian and Prussian tribes. The national identity, the language and self-sufficiency of the state was not only preserved but also enhanced. In principle, the transition from paganism to Christianity proved to be organic and free from shocks. This particular aspect predetermined a further historic destiny of Christianity in Lithuania in the periods of unprecedented triumph (under the rule of Vytautas the Great in 1392-1430, a few years following the christening in 1387, the state of Lithuania stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and from the River Narew and the Western Bug to Moscow region, extending as far as the line of Rzhev – Mozhaysk - Kaluga). But more often, unfortunately, it determined the destiny of Christianity in the periods of despair, when the nation had to arduously, tragically and strenuously fight for its statehood, culture and language,” said the Russian scholar.

Nations write the history, but it is strong personalities that create it. Future generations have to learn from twists of fortune of such individuals and from a manifestation of genius in a historic personality, in order not to drown in the sea of empiricism. Who were the leaders of those times and the creators of the glory of castles and poleis? Leaders now and leaders then: is the only difference found between them a difference in time? What lessons could future presidents learn from leaders of the past?

„..National and political sobriety, practicality and flexibility (a superficial observer sometimes tends to overestimate the “cynicism” of this approach) have left a mark on all the peripeteias of the conversion of the pagan Lithuania to Christianity. One more feature that should be taken into account is a broad geopolitical outlook of the most outstanding Lithuanian rulers: the decisions (which sometimes seemed to be of a contradicting character but ultimately proved to have a common deeper goal) were not adopted through indifference or cynicism, but after having assessed the overall situation, taking into consideration Livonia, Prussia, Poland and Russia. Eventually, there is one more specific feature of Lithuanian dukes with regard to Christianity. Steps towards Christianity were made not when there was no other option and the state had to adhere to the dictated terms. Efforts had been launched before the situation passed the point of no return. It was then that the Lithuanian dukes, as a rule, had a certain freedom to choose providing them with the opportunity and the right to seek a compromise, to conclude a deal or an agreement enforcing mutual obligations on both the parties.“

Lithuanian castles, castles of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania… Should their size and the input into our self-awareness be a measure for the boring present and often sordid existence? Doesn’t this hoary and mossy stonework commit us to take a long and deeper view, like it committed our book-carries (knygnešiai) that resisted russification, or the fellows in grey overcoats of 1918, or the post-war querillas, or longhaired guys of 1972, or the green-banded activists of the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sąjūdis? Warriors of those ancient times –leiti - were a tough race. They would spend 300 days in a year in a saddle. They would water their horses in the estuary of the Black Sea. To relax the soul, they would sit by the fire and sing strange sad military glees ( sutartines) in their rough voices. Now the stones of the ruins are covered by gentle spring greenery, sow thistles are blooming in the sunshine. Brushwood is full of nightingales’ jugging, which the old Jogaila was so fond of. As long as there still stand the silent sentinels of the old times – the castles of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Major, let us enjoy these springs and let us not miss a historic opportunity laid out in front of us to feel the aura and the spirit of those times.

Algirdas Patackas

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