Forging an Identity Through Repression: the Story of Lithuanian Nationalism in the Russian Empire, 1863-1914


Otis Platt

The end of the First World War changed the map of Eastern Europe forever. Yet, the carnage that set this train of national self-determination in motion began well before 1918.

In this piece I will focus on the Russian Empire’s policies of Russification introduced in the middle of the 19th century. I will show how these policies contributed to Lithuanian nationalism in the late 19th century and into the early 20th. This piece is important in understanding the modern geopolitics of Eastern Europe, particularly the post-Soviet states’ distrust of the Russian Federation’s foreign policy in their backyard. To understand the development of nationalism that contributed to the Russian Empire’s collapse after the First World War, we must travel back to 1795, during the Final Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth was formed by the Union of Lublin in 1569 by the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In this multi-ethnic empire it was religion, not language that mattered. Article I of the polity’s 1791 Constitution made Roman Catholicism the “reigning national religion”. It took three partitions for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to cease to exist. The first occurred in 1777, the second in 1793 and the last in 1795. During the First Partition three powers grabbed land from the Commonwealth: the Holy Roman Empire (through the direct rule of the Hapsburg monarchy), the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire. In the Second Partition, the first power was absent, with the last two grabbing land in the west and the east respectively. The Final Partition saw the return of the Hapsburgs in addition to the Prussians and the Russians. In the aftermath of these partitions Prussia acquired the western portion of Lithuanian-speaking territory, with Russia obtaining the east.

In Prussia, the Lithuanian language flourished due to German scholarly interest, with no state-restrictions placed on its use. The language was used in Lutheran sermons and the towns of Königsberg and Tilsit became places of publication for Lithuanian books. This state support for the Lithuanian language in the Kingdom of Prussia can be contrasted with the approach the Tsarist authorities took with Lithuanian language and culture in the Russian Empire. But first, a little background and context may be necessary.

After the Final Partition and the absorption of ethnic Lithuanian lands into the Russian Empire, official Russian histories of the Grand Duchy revolved around its essential Russian character, justifying the territorial grab by Russia. This was also done to counter the effect of a growing sense of nationalism across Europe in the 1830s. After the unsuccessful Polish uprising of 1831 the Russian central government embarked on a programme of “de-Polonization” to replace Poles with Russians as the dominant ethno-social group in its Lithuanian territory. After all, this was “eternally Russian Land” (iskonno-russkaia zemlia) whose Lithuanian inhabitants had “from time immemorial” had paid tribute to Russian princes. By 1840 the Lithuanian Statute, the legal code for the Grand Duchy, was replaced with Russian law. The official Imperial view was that the Catholic peasants in this Northwestern region were descendants of Orthodox ancestors.

It made sense for the Empire to target Polish, as this West Slavic language still held significant social power in the early 19th century thanks to its centuries-long role as the hegemonic language of the Commonwealth that culminated in its role as a language of instruction at the University of Vil’na in 1816. By contrast Russian had only recently become a language of educated people, with the first Russian-language dictionary not being published until 1794. After the 1831 Uprising Russian replaced Polish as the language of administration and education, with the University of Vil’na being dissolved and its assets transferred to Kiev. By 1854 the language had been banned in public and private secondary education.

A brief period of liberalisation in the Russian Empire’s partition zones and the Congress Kingdom followed Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), where Polish was reintroduced as a language subject. However, these concessions were swiftly revoked in the wake of the 1863-1864 Uprising, with Russian being introduced as the sole language of administration and education across the entirety of the Empire (particularly in its European zones). Russian also replaced Polish as the language of social advancement after this second uprising. The 1863 Uprising, otherwise known as the January Uprising, prompted a change in Russia’s “nationalities policy”. The definition of Russification varied from official to official. Some understood it as complete ethno-religious assimilation, others saw it as a policy of pure linguistic assimilation that would leave religion untouched.

Historians, old and new, agree that the main aim of the post-1863 Russification policies was to destroy the power of Polish landowners rather than targeting the Lithuanian peasantry. What historians disagree on is to what extent Russification affected Lithuanians.

Western historians think that the Lithuanian language was not repressed, but simply neglected. The justification of these Western historians is that Lithuanian-speakers were not seen as much of a threat as Poles or Jews, with Lithuanian often being used as a byword for “peasant” in official reports. Hence, it was the local Polish elites (the educated classes and Catholic clergy) who were directly targeted in this repression, with Lithuanians only being indirectly affected. According to these historians, Lithuanians had nothing to worry about from the authorities.

Lithuanian and other Eastern European scholars paint a different picture. They believe that Lithuanians were in fact disadvantaged by the Tsarist authorities. Older nationalist texts point to Russification as a deliberate policy of assimilation. Stukas, for example, cites closing of rural Lithuanian schools and the banning of Lithuanian in Latin script from 1864-1904 as examples of this. This idea finds support in more recent works, which chronicle how the “embryonic use” of Lithuanian, along with Little Russian (Ukrainian) and White Russian (Belarusian), were seen as aiding “Polish intrigue”, given the historical use of these languages in Grand Duchy. Others state that the Russians saw the Lithuanian peasants’ Catholic faith as marking them as “potential Poles”.

However, to suggest that Russification singled-out Lithuanians from the 1860s belies the “priorities and complexity of Russian nationality policies as well as the timing and development of Lithuanian nationhood.” The Imperial authorities only took notice of the nationalists in the late 1890s. Even then, the Lithuanian national movement was conflated with that of the Polish until the first decade of the 20th century. That being said, despite the authorities lack of concern for the Lithuanian speakers I still believe that the ban on Latin script was part of the broader policy of Russification, and it was an action that generated an angry response from Lithuanian speakers that led in part to the formation of a vocal nationalist movement.

During the period of the ban, an organised affair of book smuggling developed. The Bishop Valančius first spearheaded this – he began writing didactic books for peasants in 1866 that were published in Prussian Lithuania. Thanks to Valančius’ efforts, the illegal activities of smuggling soon grew into a profession. These “thousands of devoted patriots” made “their life’s work” from the book smuggling. It was estimated that around 38,000 literary items were smuggled across the border from Prussia between 1891 and 1893. From 1900-1902 this number swelled to 56,000. The role of the clergy in the book smuggling has been dismissed in recent years as belying the complexity of the situation. This is especially so if one considers the Polonised nature of the clergy in the 19th century.

By the period of the 1880s, the book-smuggling efforts had given way to a vibrant yet underground Lithuanian press. The nationalist journals Auszra (Dawn) and Varpas (The Bell) got their start in the 1880s. There is much debate over what exactly Lithuanian nationalism entailed.

Some historians such as Scott Spires posit that Lithuanian nationalism had its beginnings in the promotion of the Lithuanian language. The Lithuanian language had never occupied a place of official status, even during the days of the Grand Duchy. During its existence, the official languages of the Grand Duchy were Ruthenian (the ancestor of modern-day Ukrainian and Belarusian), German, Polish, Hebrew and Latin. During the days of the Commonwealth, “Lithuanianness” had amounted to a patriotic attachment to the Grand Duchy, a regional identity of sorts. This changed in the 19th century.

From the time of the Final Partition, Prussian linguists began drawing links between European languages and the broader Indo-European family. Lithuanian was becoming to be seen as “the most important and revealing of Indo-European languages, due to its considerable archaism.” German scholarly interest in Lithuanian as the oldest of Indo-European languages peaked in the 1870s, with the Lithuanians considered the closest living people to the historic Aryans or Indo-Europeans. This interest contributed to the revival of Lithuanian culture that began with the foundation of the journals in the 1880s, building from the nationalist revolutions had been sweeping Europe since the 1830s.

Other historians, such as Algis Valantiejus, stress other factors as important in the development of Lithuanian nationalism following 1863. He states that “the actual situation is much more complex.” Importantly, language had not been debated frequently or in much detail in the Varpas. Economic and political questions are important factors in understanding nationalism, and how an ethnic group sees material and nationally relevant conflicts of group interests.

Religion played a role. The Catholic Church often acted as agents of Polonization. For example, Polish was only replaced with Lithuanian in the seminary at Samogitia from 1890-1894. However, the clergy also played a role in shaping the identity of the people, particularly in the later half of the 19th century. The Catholic Church, along with the Protestant Church in Prussian Lithuania, sought to bring their influence to bear on Lithuanian speakers, thereby shaping this embryonic sense of linguistic-national identity. The Tsarist authorities’ attempts to centralize and unify rural life around the Russian Orthodox Church hastened the radicalisation of nationalism by fueling ethno-religious conflict. The Polonisation process on the peasants was powerful throughout the 19th century, to the point that peasants “experienced a feeling of shame and tried to not speak Lithuanian”. However, this had changed by the 1870s, with the Russian ban on printing prayer books in Latin script angering the peasantry to the point that the ethnic aspect of religion fuelled a growing sense of linguistic nationalism. The intelligentsia looked to legitimising religion as “a factor of solidarity” that coexisted with wider national loyalty. The term ‘culture’ had become to be used with increasing political self-consciousness.

Economic issues also affected social groups. Valantiejus makes the claim that “Lithuanian nationalism is one of the best examples of a movement that became successful before and without industrialisation.” Economic expansionism combined with the group interests of the petty bourgeoisie and the clergy in a manner directed against more privileged social groups, particularly Jews. Political economy would be linked with ideas of community, leading to a newly-developed sense of socio-economic awareness that made people aware of their previously limited conditions. Ultimately, romanticism would have to make way for positivism for the nationalist movement to gain any steam. The economic interests of the petty bourgeoisie realized their aspirations and strengthened their economic interests by calling for political autonomy and opposing the ban on the Lithuanian language. This advanced their goals into a “qualitative new stage”, as Valantiejus  puts it.

The role of the intelligentsia also played a role in the development of Lithuanian nationalism. Most intellectuals saw nationalism as the actualization of language, folklore and literature rather than the revival of the idea of statehood. Nationalism only emerged after the loss of political memory. It emerged in the ideological formations of the student societies in the capitals in the Russian Empire in the 1880s. With the publication of Varpas in 1889, romanticist notions gave way top positivism – it would be something of real and great use. This new periodical criticised the current forms of politics, culture and society. Liberty was going to become an ideologically respectable doctrine. There became a need to promote a more democratic and progressive trend of social development, infusing this idea of progress with elements of tradition. Progress became “an object of passionate devotion.” Morality would be wedded to progress by becoming an important value of national rebirth, on the same scale as freedom to Americans or equality to the French. The “historical idea of the nation took root together with the evolutionary ideals of the new social and moral order”, with material and spiritual progress being associated with the national project. The “evolutionary development” of Lithuanian nationalism required the restructuring of society while also appealing to a traditionalist ethnic core. This was to reach the peasants awakened by the religious and linguistic movement, enforce equality for the members of the national community and inspire confidence and dignity.

Several scholars argue that Lithuanian nationalism was a directed more against Poles than Russians. The belief in the superiority of Polish needed to be undermined. This would be best done, not by disparaging the Polish language in the eyes of the Lithuanians, but by elevating the Lithuanian language to its speakers and the world at large.

The coming of the 20th century saw many favourable changes for the Lithuanian nationalists. The lifting of the ban on printing Lithuanian in Latin script in 1904 strengthened the emerging nationalist movement. The defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) triggered the 1905 Revolution, which “necessitated liberal reforms and elements of democracy.” These first two events, along with the Stolypin reforms of 1906-1911 ensured that the Lithuanian nationalist movement was given “explosive impetus” for “cultural and political development”.

The lifting on the Latin script ban was done by decree of the Tsar on 7 May 1904. The intervening period of the ban allowed for a period of “intense Lithuanian maturity in national thought”, enabling Lithuania to realise “its unity and was able to foresee its future road and to mature politically.” The context of the lifting of the ban was a successful litigation by an ethnic Lithuanian engineer in 1902 on the grounds that the ban was without legal basis. This was coupled with the relaxation of the ban at the turn of the century. By the early 1900s the Imperial authorities became less concerned with the smuggling of books and papers printed in Latin characters themselves, and more focused their efforts on suppressing the revolutionary desires for independence contained in their subject matter.

The 1905 Revolution began as a reaction to the events of Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg in the context of Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the social and economic problems that had worsened in the years preceding 1905. Mass unrest started in the cities first – Moscow and St Petersburg and spreading to Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn and Vil’na – due to worker’s unrest. Its impact in the Lithuanian provinces started when workers went on strike in Vil’na on 11 January. This quickly spread to Kovno and other towns.

The Revolution had a dual effect on those pushing for Lithuanian statehood. It strengthened the nationalist cause while also giving the Lithuanian socialists a voice. A plethora of right wing and left wing associations popped up and nationalists and socialists were equally present at the 1905 All-Lithuanian Assembly. The Revolution was “another stepping-stone for the development of the Lithuanian intelligentsia that questioned its political leadership and reshaped its political and social identity.” Prior to the Revolution, the group with the largest following among intellectuals was the Lithuanian Social Democrats (LSDP), who boasted the largest membership, strong intellectual leadership and the largest network of activists in towns and the countryside. The events of 1905 allowed the party to portray itself as the vanguard of the revolution.The second-largest group among the intelligentsia was the Lithuanian Democratic Party (LDP). By 1905, this group risked separating into a conservative wing and a liberal wing full of younger activists. It would be largely due to the efforts of this latter group, which acted outside the framework of the party leadership in forming the Lithuanian Peasant’s Union, which ensured the LDP’s survival. The two other right-wing political groups, the national liberals and the Christian democrats, did not have the clear vision, programs or strategies going into the revolution would only achieve political party status until after the Assembly. This evidence tends to suggest that it was the Social Democrats who were the main beneficiaries of the 1905 Revolution. The revolution also had an impact on other ideals of Lithuanian statehood.

The nationalist intelligentsia of this period attempted to ‘re-Lithuanise’ Vil’na into Vilnius. They emerged at the turn of the century in the city as a “small but vibrant semi-urban community” in an attempt to develop their own “high (national) culture” by contrasting themselves from the Russians, Jews and Poles in the multilingual environment. The idea of Vilnius as the capital of a future Lithuanian state began with the politicization of the Lithuanian national movement at the beginning of the 20th century. The most important motive for nationalists to declare Vil’na as the capital was due to the need to substantiate the link between the historical capital of the Grand Duchy and a modern Lithuanian nation-state, which was relevant to the aspirations for political autonomy. Antanas Smetona, who would become the first president of the interwar Lithuanian state, stated that laying claim to Vilnius was the only way Lithuanians could claim to be a historic nation. The Lithuanian claim to Vil’na was also important for practical reasons. It was the largest city in the Northwest Region (Vil’na, Kovno, Grodno, Minsk, Vitebsk and Mogilev – basically historic Lithuania). Prominent nationalist Mykolas Römeris (Michał Römer) wrote in 1906 that whoever controls Vilnius controls the whole territory. The nationalists had to contend with the Russification of the city that occurred after the 1863-64 Uprising, along with the Polish politicians in the city. The threat of the Belarusian national movement was also seen as a threat after the 1905 Revolution. The Jews and the Russians in the city were also against the idea, so the Lithuanian nationalists were on their own. Political opposition from these groups and the Imperial government, when combined with the disunity between the Lithuanian left and right ensured that the intelligentsia found the task of ‘re-Lithuananising’ Vil’na impossible. In this context, it is no surprise that Wilno went to the Poland after the end of the First World War.

The Stoylpin land reforms represented the final aspect of the pre-First World War goals for Lithuanian statehood. The economic failure of agriculture following the 1861 emancipation and the 1905 Revolution convinced the imperial authorities to do away with the old communal system of land ownership and replace it with an individualist system. Hence, while the Duma was not in session, Russian Prime Minister Stolypin issued a decree on 22 November 1906 that enabled each peasant household to claim individual ownership of its land and withdraw from the commune. Plots of land were divided as per the scattered strips each household had been cultivating. This decree also abolished joint household ownership and made the head of a household the sole legal owner of property. The decree was confirmed by the Duma in 1910, which expanded it through legislation in 1910 and 1911.

During 1906 Stolypin also attempted to reform the rural institutions through a western zemstvo bill that would see the local elective bodies introduced in the Empire’s Western Provinces.Importantly, in the period between when this reform was introduced by decree (22 November 1906) and when it was presented to the Duma (20 January 1910), the Lithuanian provinces of Vil’na, Kovno and Grodno were deleted from the project. The margarine zemstvo of 1903 was never implemented here, meaning the pre-reform system of administration continued to be in place after 1911. The new law gave “gave Russians the right to elect their own representatives in Kovno and Vil’na provinces, while Vil’na town lost its right to elect one Duma member directly.” Despite this, in Suvalki province decided to tactically work with the Russian factions in order to influence public opinion in the metropole by addressing general issues that would benefit Lithuanians. Focusing on the political question of independence would alienate the nationalists from the Duma.

Older historians have stated that “by the time World War I began in 1914, great progress had been made in cultural political and organizational activities.” It is certainly true that a “revivalist” movement of ethnic Lithuanian culture had sprung up from the period following the 1905 Revolution to the beginning of the First World War. However, the some of the Lithuanian nationalists’ support for the Tsarist war effort at the onset of hostilities point to a level of political immaturity that would have to be given a greater level of maturity with the advent of Imperial German occupation in 1916. In Ober Ost, the name given to the territory the Germans occupied, Cyrillic and Russian were banned and for the first time in history Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarusian (in Latin script) and Yiddish were made into co-official languages alongside Polish and German. This, along with the earlier attempts by the Lithuanian intelligentsia after 1905 to assume leadership of the “national culture”, laid the groundwork for the “rebirth of an independent Lithuanian state” on 16 February 1918. This newly independent state emerged with a nationalism that had grown increasingly more radical during the war’s course.

The Russian Empire’s policy of Russification is relevant to a modern reading of the Russian Federation’s perceived territorial ambitions in its Eastern European backyard. The justification that the imperial authorities had at the beginning of the 19th century with regards to Lithuania being eternal Russian land is particularly pertinent. Russification and the Lithuanian nationalists’ response also highlight the modern Republic Lithuania’s distrust of its larger neighbour. Hence, feelings of anti-Russian sentiment are more deeply ingrained then the more recent era of Soviet control.











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