four centuries of the European Union's precursor
by Peter K. Gessner
Over a period of four centuries, the Kingdom of Poland existed in association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, their joint entity constituting one of the largest states in the Europe of its time. It was an entity that was, in many ways, the precursor of to-day's European Union. Having came into being as a dynastic union upon the Grand Duke of Lithuania being crowned King of Poland in 1386, it was transformed into a single state by the Act of Union promulgated in Lublin in1569. That state continued to exist till the partitions of the late 18th century when Russia, Prussia and Austria dismembered the country in three successive stages, that is in 1773, 1793 and 1795.
Though today, the Republics of Poland and Lithuania are neighbors with a common border and friendly relations, it would be misleading to equate them with the earlier Polish-Lithuanian "Commonwealth of Both Nations'(Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodow). In large part this is because the Lithuania of the Grand Duchy was both linguistically and geographically a significantly different country from to-day's Republic. Its borders encompassed not only present day Lithuania, but also present day Belarus and parts present day Ukraine. Its official language, moreover was not Lithuanian but rather Ruthenian (Old Belearusian), the ancestor of modern Belarusian, Rusyn, and Ukrainian languages. A Slavic language, it presented the distinct advantage of being close to Polish and thereby intelligible to Polish speakers and vice versa. In time, the Grand Duchy became increasingly Polonized which led to Polish becoming its official language after 1696. When a century later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned, the area of the Grand Duchy became part of the Russian Empire, and a program of enforced Russification followed with Polish schools being closed, etc.
In the northeastern region of the Grand Duchy, areas corresponding more closely to present day Lithuania, the native people spoke dialects derived from Old Baltic, specifically the Samogitian dialect in the western area know as Zmudz, and Aukstaiciu (Highlander) further to the east. Not only were these languages as a disadvantage not being intelligible with Slavic languages but they also lacked a written form. Yes, in the period of the Reformation and Counter Reformation a written form of Samogitian has been devised but its use had been very limited. It was thus not until the last decades of the 19th century that with the spread of nationalism as a concept, Lithuanian consciousness arose and a literary Lithuanian language, based on the eastern dialect, came into wider use. It was this language that became Lithuania's official one when the Republic came into being in 1918. It continues to be the country official language to-day.
The other major region of what used to be the Grand Duchy, became the Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic in 1919, and as such part of the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of the latter in 1990, Belarus became independent but has, since 1995, followed very philo-russian policies which accord the Russian language primacy over Byelorussian. Self-identification of Belorussians with the Grand Duchy in their country's past is evident in the use of the term Great Lithuania, that some use in referring to it. Trice as large as present day Lithuania in both area and population, Belarus is widely considered to be Europe's last dictatorship: it is governed by a regime that appears not to favor references to the country's Grand Duchy heritage.