Lithuania is a small country in comparison to Russia. So why does the Kremlin pay Lithuania a disproportionate amount of its attention? One reason is that it needs weak enemies that it can divert its people’s attention to. There was a time when Russian polls indicated that they saw Lithuania as their number one enemy. Later it was Georgia and Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin
© AFP/Scanpix

Yet there is still another reason as to why Kremlin ideologists simply cannot sidestep Lithuania, and that reason is history. Without Lithuania, they would not be able to narrate the main Russian ideologies that Vladimir Putin has revived.

“Novorussia” and the union of the Slavic lands

The Crimean annexation, the war in Ukraine and the term “Novorussia,” which has spread like lightening, rests on old Russian ideology – the policy of “gathering the Slavic Lands”. Moscow had hardly rid itself of the Tartar yoke when it started conquering Slavic and Orthodox Christian lands. If the lands weren’t actually Slavic, it was up to historians to actually prove that the lands were “Russian Land”. That’s what justified the 1795 occupation of Lithuania– the fact that it was actually Russian land that had later been catholicized and polonised. Russia, by occupying the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had simply “reinstated” its historical right. There was no occupation.
Vladimir Putin is doing the exact same thing. He is not at war with Ukraine – all he is doing is establishing “Novorussia”. He is uniting the Slavic lands and founding the “Russian World”, just as the Tsars did.

And yet he cannot ignore the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania merely by relying on the myth of “gathering lands”. Indeed, it was Russian historians who came up with the theory that Lithuania was the uniter of the Slavic lands. Lithuania arose as an alternative to the Duchy of Moscow. It was a battle between slavery and freedom. It was not for nothing that Andrei Kurbsky fled to Lithuania in the 15th century and wrote a letter to the tsar accusing him of autocracy and disregard for his subjects. “What anger and bullying have I have endured from you! And what troubles and hardships you have heaped on me! And what sins and treachery you have accused me of!” It was not for nothing that Kurbsky chose Lithuania. He knew that it was there that even the leader could not act arbitrarily, being bound by the rules.

Who knows? If it wasn’t for Casimir’s slack attitude towards the increasing threat from Russia, and if he had helped Great Novgorod in time, maybe today Russia would be a different place, with a real democracy instead of a sham. And maybe the Kremlin wouldn’t be so belligerent.
Relations with Great Novgorod were completely different. Decisions were made not by the Grand Duke alone but by a council of nobles. It was also an oasis of freedom compared to the Duchy of Moscow. It is improbable that Lithuania could have sustained the Ruthenian lands it conquered. But there was an alternative – Novgorod, and not Moscow, could have become the centre of the Eastern Slavs. The difference would not just have been geographical, it would have been philosophical as well. In 1471, the Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III made it known loud and clear to Great Novgorod: it must accept his rule unconditionally or face destruction. Novgorod sent an emissary to Casimir requesting help, but the cry was not heard. Great Novgorod fell and its nobles were brutally murdered. That was Casimir’s big mistake. Who knows, perhaps our world have been a lot safer and we would have been far happier for not having experienced the dismal misfortunes of the 20th century if Casimir had paid attention to Great Novgorod in the 15th century.

It is nevertheless obvious that the “gathering of Russian lands” is ideologically opposed to the idea of freedom, just as it was in the 15th century. Do people want to depend on one person’s kindness alone? Do they want to establish their lives if they fear that, at any time, the government could take something away from them? It’s this region's oldest argument, and you won’t understand it without the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Virginijus Savukynas
Virginijus Savukynas
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Ideological manifestations of “Moscow” as the Third Rome

It‘s something difficult for Westerners to understand. In 2005, President Putin visited the holy site of Mt. Athos. There was nothing unusual in this – heads of state visit holy places. But ten years later, in a propaganda film called „The President,“ there was a scene where a monk says that as the motorcade was moving and Mr Putin himself was driving, there was a mule standing at the side of the road waiting for no one other than Mr. Putin. When the other cars had passed the mule started running along with Mr. Putin‘s car. Exactly the same thing happened on the return journey. And when the mule got tired, Mr. Putin pulled up next to it and the two of them looked at each other. Noone knows what the look in their eyes was like. I do not recount this to make fun of Mr. Putin. This was shown was in the propaganda film, and the monk's conclusion about everything that he related was that this was truly a sign from the Mother of God herself to Mr. Putin. What the Virgin Mary wanted to say was that Mr. Putin knows best.

For a person who grew up in a Western democracy it would seem that the makers of the film are laughing at Vladimir Putin. An ass showing the president the way as a sign from above? What could be funnier? Yet we cannot accuse the makers of the film of hidden irony or wanting to harm Mr. Putin‘s image. And it‘s not just that this scene had been watched many times and checked – the film itself had been thoroughly analysed; no detail could escape. This scene must be understood in a Russian cultural context. Does Russia specifically need to give its leaders divine manifestations? That just reinforces the old idea that the Tsar‘s power is from God. And that‘s what the leader is, what God wants, what God has chosen and what the people have chosen. In other words, the message of this scene is clear. Be it appropriate or not, Putin‘s power is from God and not something people voted for in an election.

At the end of the 15th century, there was the theory that Moscow is the Third Rome and inherited this honour from the fall of Constantinople. That meant that the Tsar was also deified and that Moscow was given an exclusive status. Mr. Putin has taken full advantage of that today. He shows unity with the Orthodox patriarchs everywhere he goes and emphasizes that Russia remains the only place in the world where values and spirituality are protected. What about Europe? That's where gays promulgate and Russia alone fights for family values. What about the West? That‘s where political correctness flourishes, which has long censured free thought. However, here in Russia, we call a spade a spade. Europe, according to this ideology, has long surrended to Islam, so the only bastion of Christianity left is Russia. Christians of the world praise Moscow!

I understood the power of this ideology in Georgia in a beautiful monastery stuck away in the mountains. We went to see a church in which there was one person praying. He spoke to us and found out that we were from Lithuania. We started talking. He started criticising Russia because of the war with Georgia, its chauvinism and the wrongs it had done. Then one of us asked if maybe they should be friends with the US. Here our new acquaintance’s tune changed. „No“ he said, „Gays promulgate over there so no, we‘re Orthodox and we‘re closer to the Russians“. This example very clearly shows how, when it comes to religion, Russian policy masters manipulate values to their advantage and attract even those who condemn Russian policy.

1612, or who united Russia?

The historic relations between Lithuania and Moscow reverberate to this day. The Kremlin has contrived a public holiday, People's Unity Day which celebrates the 4th of November. What‘s that, then? At the beginning of the 17th century, the Lithuanians and Poles occupied the Kremlin. The day they were driven out is now celebrated today in Russia. After seventy years of Bolshevik rule, the Russians always celebrate at the beginning of November. The revolution, which split the Russian nation and brought only suffering and death, is no longer marked. It‘s therefore necessary to celebrate unity day. So what happened then on that day? It seems that they drove the Lithuanians and Poles out of the Kremlin.

In truth, I do not really want to admit that the Lithuanians and Poles occupied the Kremlin. It‘s unpleasant and sounds a lot like propaganda. It‘s therefore enough to say that unnamed occupiers or „foreign interventionists“ were driven out. Yet facts are facts. The Lithuanians (and the Poles) are the culprits in today‘s Russian day of unity.

There are those in Lithuania that have long been saying that history has no value because what’s passed has passed. But it’s not Lithuania that’s reviving the ideology of the past, it’s modern Russia, and it’s an ideology that’s dragging the two toward conflict and war. The alternative to this ideology is in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Today, Lithuania is not as big, but it is still important to show that this region has another alternative to being a part of the “Russian world”. We have huge symbolic capital that could be used by our diplomats.

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