Opinion: Why are our neighbours poaching our history?

Monument for Grand Duke Algirdas in Vitebsk, Belarus. Photo by tut.by

There is nothing wrong with a state perpetuating its heroes and dictators or taking care of its history and passing it on to future generations. But sometimes what happens is a theft or appropriation, to say the least. Lithuanians are no exception – they have appropriated the identity of Konstantinas Kalinauskas, one of the leaders in the uprising of 1863.

But that’s half the trouble. The current Lukashenko regime in Belarus has long set its sights on the ancient Lithuanian symbols from the one-time common history. Last November we stated that Minsk is busy revising the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) and embezzling its national symbols, e.g., Vytis with some eventual changes to the position of the horse’s tail. It would have been funny, if it were not pathetic. Again, as reported by a news agency, a monument has been unveiled in Vitebsk to Grand Duke of Lithuania Algirdas, or, as they put it, Olgierd, and Navahrudak will witness a monument of King Mindaugas. The contract has been awarded to the sculptor who is also a moulder by profession.

The development of Olgierd’s monument that lasted for four years could not do without controversy. In particular, it was the Cossack community and Russian public organisations that were raising objections and wrote letters of protest to Lukashenko. Representatives of the government were not present during the opening of the monument and did not make their speeches. On the square, Olgierd, personified by an actor, read the key facts from the duke’s biography to a circle of festive-minded citizens, but he did not even mention the fact that the duke was warring against the Grand Duchy of Moscow and twice laid siege to Moscow.

After marrying Maria of Vitebsk, in 1318-1345 Grand Duke of Lithuania Algirdas was also the Prince of Vitebsk. His brother Kestutis then became a sub-monarch of the GDL and took care of its relations with Poland and the Teutonic Knights. During Algirdas’ reign the ethnic Lithuania went through about 100 devastating raids of the crusaders and retaliated with 40 counter-raids against the Teutonic Order. However, Algirdas himself acted mostly in the east, expanding and strengthening the power of the GDL on the lands of present Belarus and Ukraine.

He continued his father Gediminas’ feats and connected Smolensk and Kiev to the GDL. In 1362 he defeated the Tatars in the Battle of Blue Waters and strengthened his influence on the Russian lands. There are three well-known Algirdas campaigns against Moscow that took place in 1368, 1370 and 1372. They were held to defend his brother-in-law Mikhail, Prince of Tver, from Moscow and its growing power. During the first and second campaign, which took place in late autumn and winter, he made it to Moscow, but the Kremlin withstood the attack. The third campaign, which happening in summer, was a failure. However, in the spring of 1372, after Easter, Grand Duke Kestutis and Duke Andrei of Polotsk raided the territories to the north of Moscow and finally, the truce called in 1372 helped retain the current state.

At that time, the ethnic Lithuanian lands constituted only 1/10 of the total territory of the GDL, and 9/10 of it were extended to the east. It was a huge value to Algirdas, although so far Belarusians failed to represent him as a conqueror. On the other hand, Lithuanian rulers pursued very tolerant policies in relation to the Russian lands (contrary to corvée of the Golden Horde, they were satisfied with small contributions and military service), and Russian feudal lords regarded Lithuania as their state and expressed their support. Thus, one might claim confidently that Algirdas saved many Russian lands from the Mongol-Tatar yoke.

Historian Tomas Baranauskas wrote: “If you should describe Grand Duke of Lithuania Algirdas, this could be done in two words – he was a conqueror and defender. Algirdas was the greatest conqueror in the entire history of Lithuania. His achievements were crucial in defending Lithuania from the Crusaders.” His colleague Alfredas Bumblauskas stated that Algirdas’ role in the eastern lands overshadows even that of Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas, the descendant of the Gediminid dynasty, who took advantage of the conquests of his brother (possibly half-blood). It was Algirdas who built the Lithuanian empire, said the renowned historian. It is believed that Algirdas is buried somewhere near Maišiagala, but this is only a speculation.

In other words, our neighbouring Belarusians have not got any reason to poach Lithuanian rulers. But, apparently, Lukashenko has a hard time now: it is difficult to refuse millions coming from Moscow, Russia’s actions in Ukraine are frightening, and the West is inevitably attractive. And so he casts around – to the West, and then to the East, signs a permit to build monuments of Lithuanian dukes, then opens airports for Putin’s military aircraft ever likely to fly to Kiev’s Maidan, but also clasps the Maidan leaders in his arms making bad blood with Moscow…

Bumblauskas goes a bit further: “On the other hand, there is some risk, of course, as some aspects remind us of Hitler’s policies over the Sudetenland. It is obvious that with their imperialistic attitudes, Belarusians are convinced that Vilnius belongs to them.” Last year, perhaps it was an exaggeration to maintain that by appropriating the GDL, someday Minsk will pocket Lithuania too. However, Lukashenko’s rhetorical invasion is pretty obvious.

Let me remind you of one of his passages. Last year in October, when meeting President of Russia Vladimir Putin and both flying in a helicopter over Kaliningrad, at a press conference held for Russian journalists in Minsk, he said: “Together with Putin we were flying over Kaliningrad in a helicopter. I have noticed that you do not work your land. In Soviet times, it was the best, most prosperous land… I told Vladimir Vladimirovich: Listen, give some of those lands to us. You don’t need to give away the ownership. We will work the lands, and do some agricultural business. We will make use of the Grodno region. This is a strong region from the point of view of agriculture. They will quickly till and sow the land, and even build dairy and shopping complexes in the Kaliningrad Oblast. They will produce milk and sell it to Lithuania,” Lukashenko discoursed, as if facetiously.

We also should not forget Lukashenko’s “advocate” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian Liberal Democrat, who earlier in September, made it clear on a TV show that the Vilnius Region should belong to Belarus, and the Baltic countries are to be occupied immediately, because they dared to support the U.S. military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. “If I were president, I would summon the ambassadors of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania and would tell them, “Dear Lithuanian Ambassador, wasn’t it we who gave you Klaipeda? It is, after all, the blood of our soldiers that was spilled to reclaim it from the Germans, it is Prussia. Get out of Klaipeda immediately! Surrender Vilnius Region to Lukashenko, it is Belarus”, Zhirinovsky shouted last year on TV screens.

As we can see, the actualisation of common history by means of gigantic monuments is not that distant from open, though blurred, claims over the neighbouring lands, just as the changing attitudes towards the GDL and great dukes are close to ostensible friendship with the constantly reviled West, and the oath of allegiance to Putin is not that far from praises in favour of Maidan…

An old adage of Virgil’s is quite appropriate here: timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Translated by Nordtext

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