Myths About Lithuania, #2: "Lithuania First Became a Separate Country After WWI"
Statue of King Mindaugas, Vilnius. image: LithuanianTribune.com
A myth not just promoted by the grandson of Spiridon Putin (personal cook to Lenin and Stalin), who imagines that Lithuania has Russian roots, but a "fact" you'll see in online summaries in response to the query "When did Lithuania become a republic, or a separate country?" The typical answer is February 16, 1918. Yet, at the same time, there is general acceptance in referring to the Polish state that became independent after World War I as the "Second Republic," which existed from 1918 to 1939. So when was the First Republic of Poland?
1569 - 1795, as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the Commonwealth of Two Nations, was the First Polish Republic (Polish: Pierwsza Rzeczpospolita or Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów; Lithuanian: Abiejų tautų respublika). Interesting, isn't it, that Polish historians have always considered the Commonwealth of Two Nations their first republic, while I have never read of a Lithuanian historian, or even a Lithuanian website today, claiming that the first republic of Lithuania was founded 1569, and that the country founded in 1918 was the Second Republic of Lithuania.
The government of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth never adhered to the dictionary definition of a "republic" -- a state where supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch. The leader of the Commonwealth held the dual titles "King of Poland" and "Grand Duke of Lithuania." Its government was actually a semi-confederated, semi-federated aristocratic republic. The Commonwealth was governed by the Parliament (Sejm) consisting of the King, the King-appointed Senate (Voivodes, Castellans, Ministers, Bishops) and the rest of hereditary nobility either in person or through the Lower Sejm (deputies representing their lands). The nobility's constitutional domination resulted in a very weak King/Grand Duke, while peasants were barely represented in the Commonwealth's political system. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not a province of Poland within the Commonwealth, but, as an equal partner, had its own separate army, treasury and most other official institutions. And, overall, only the szlachta: the hereditary nobles of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, typically the landowners -- about 10% percent of the population -- had political rights. This system was ahead of its time, but it was not a republic like the systems in Poland and Lithuania founded in 1918.
Dispelling the myth: Lithuania was recognized as a country, a monarchy called Lietuvos Karalystė, when, 771 years ago (667 years before 1918), on July 17, 1251, the Bishop of Chełmno was ordered to crown Mindaugas -- who had consented to be baptized -- by Pope Innocent IV. Two years later, Mindaugas and his wife Morta were crowned King and Queen of Lithuania. This was 134 years before the Union of Krevo (Lithuanian: Krėvos sutartis), a set of prenuptial promises made at Kreva Castle on August 14, 1385 by Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania, in regard to his prospective marriage to the underage Queen Jadwiga of Poland. After the 1385 negotiations, Jogaila converted to Christianity, took the name Władysław II Jagiełło, married Jadwiga, and was crowned King of Poland in 1386.
Queen Jadwiga and King of Poland/Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila sculpture in Kraków, Poland.
Was she tall for a 13-year-old, or was Jogaila short for a 34-year-old? Jogaila is buried in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków.