The Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Retrospective of Comparative Historical Sociology of Empire

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Retrospective of Comparative Historical Sociology of Empire

By Zenonas Norkus

World Political Science Review, Vol.3 No.4 (2007)

Abstract: The article discusses the problem that was recently raised in Lithuanian historical literature and public discourse by G. Beresneviˇcius, A. Bumblauskas, S.C. Rowell: was the medieval Lithuanian state (Grand Duchy of Lithuania; GDL) an empire? Traditional historiography did not use concepts of “empire” and “imperialism” in the work on GDL. For Non-Marxist Russian historians, GDL was simply another Russian state, so there could not be Russian imperialism against Russians. For Marxist historians, imperialism was a phase in the “capitalist formation,” immediately preceding the socialist revolution and bound to the specific period of world history, so the research on precapitalist empires and imperialism was suspect of anachronism. For the opposite reason, deriving from the hermeneutic methodology, the talk about how the medieval Lithuanian empire and imperialism was an anachronism for Non-Marxist Polish and German historians too, because they considered as Empires only polities that claimed to be successors to Roman Empire. However, the Lithuanian political elite never raised such claims, although theory of the Lithuanian descent from Romans (Legend of Palemon) could be used for this goal. Using the recent work in comparative historical sociology of empires by S.N. Eisenstadt, I. Wallerstein, A. Motyl, B. Buzan, R. Little, A. Watson, M. Beissinger, Ch. Tilly, Th.J. Barfield and M. Doyle, the author argues that GDL was an empire because it was (1) the greatest state in Europe in the late 14-early 15th century, (2) militarily expansive in all directions if not held in check by superior military power, (3) displayed the territorial structure characteristic for empires, consisting of metropole and periphery, (4) had an informal empire and sphere of hegemony, (5) established imperial “Pax Lituanica” on broad territories securing long-distance trade roads. Typologically, it was a patrimonial empire, typologically distinct from the “barbarian kingdoms” created by ancient Germans and Vikings. After the internal crisis in 1432-1440 that is interpreted as “Augustan threshold” (in M. Doyle’s sense), the Lithuanian empire evolved into a federal state by the early 16th century. Drawing on the distinction between “primary empires” and “shadow empires” proposed by Th.J. Barfield, GDL is classified as subtype of “shadow empires,” called “vulture empires.” GDL started as a “vulture empire,” using for its expansion a geopolitical situation created by the decline of the Mongol empire and aspiring to unite under its power all lands of the former Kiev Russia. The most important outcome of the failure of the Lithuanian imperial project is the emergence of the three different Eastern Slave peoples (Belorussian, Ukrainian, Great Russian), while the probable outcome of its success would be the continuation of the undivided old Russian ethnicity.

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