Russian history 38. First Lithuanian knyazes

As we have seen (see chapters 35 and 37), in the XIII century Lithuanian tribes, pushed by the Germans, began to form unions and groups around Lithuanian and Russian knyazes. Knyaz Mindaugas (or Mindovg) became the leader of the unification process. Having captured Russian town Novgorodok (or Novogrodek) on the upper Neman river, he spread his power to a part of Lithuanian tribes and some Russian provinces: Polotsk, Vitebsk and partially Smolensk. He used Lithuanians to occupy Russian lands and he used Russians to spread his influence among lesser Lithuanian knyazes. During all his rule, he opposed Germans with the united Lithuanian-Russian forces. He was the first knyaz who attempted to reconcile earlier hostile Lithuanians and Russians. When he felt it was useful, he agreed to accept baptisement from the Germans and received the royal crown from the Pope. When the situation changed, he returned to the paganism and attacked Germans again. His Russian politics was also flexible. So, after many conquests, when Daniil Romanovich of Galich proved to be a strong enemy, Mindaugas ceded some lands to Daniil and his daughter became wife of Daniil's son, Shvarn. In spite of this flexibility, Mindaugas was killed by Lithuanian knyazes in 1263. His son, Voishelk revenged and killed many of the assassins. One of them, Dovmont, fled to Pskov, baptised, became the knyaz of Pskov and successfully defended the city from the attacks of Germans and Lithuanians.

After the death of Mindaugas the Lithuanian state declined. Only 50 years later the power of the knyzes becomes stronger again, when knyaz Gediminas forms a new strong state from Lithuanian and Russian lands. In the times of Gediminas Lithuanian got new cities, well planned and fortified. The army is well equipped and trained. These enhancements were the result of Russian influence. Russians serve in the army and command it, they become the ambassadors of Gediminas, they run cities and provinces. Gediminas and his children were married on Russian women, Russian language was widely spoken in his country. He thought of himself as of a both Lithuanian and Russian knyaz and titled himself "Rex Litwinorum Ruthenorumque". This policy led to the unification of south-western Russian lands from Polotsk to Kiev in Gediminas' Lithuania. First, he ruled his country from the inaccessible castle in Trakai, located on an island in the middle of a lake. Later, he built a new capital on river Vilia, a tributary of Neman, called Vilnius.

Russians eagerly became citizens of this semi-Russian country and the dynasty of Gediminas managed to form the centre, which attracted all south-western Rus, which had lost its unity earlier.

Two sons of Gediminas, Olgerdas and Kestutis, ruled Lithuania together. Retaining friendly relations, they shared the power: Olgerdas knew the Russian part of the population, lived in Vilnius and fought with the north-eastern Rus. Kestutis lived in Trakai and opposed Germans. So, Russians knew Olgerdas better than his brother. They praised his talents, saying that he ruled "by wisdom, not by force". Germans, on the other hand, knew Kestutis better and spoke of him as of a knight, brave, honest and merciful. On the one hand, the brothers withstood the German attacks and on the other hand, they continued to adjoin Russian lands. The Germans were stopped and Olgerdas took Chernigov, Bryansk, Kiev, Volyn. He even attempted to increase his influence in Novgorod and Pskov and supported Tver in their struggle against Moscow. Moscow, though, was already so strong in the north-eastern Rus that managed to stop Olgerdas.

Olgerdas and Kestutis liberated southern and western Rus from Mongols and united these lands under one rule. It was very important that this power belonged to the Russian culture. From the viewpoint of the Russians, the sons of Gediminas restored the Russian culture in the traditionally Russian areas, along Dnieper. However, the following events proved they were wrong.

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