What are Litvins and where did they live?

Litvins (lytvyns) and modern Poleshuks or Polesians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians.

What are Litvins and where did they live?

The term "Litvins" historically referred to the Lithuanian-Baltic people among both western and eastern Slavs, imbuing the term with ethnic meaning. However, since 1345, after the inclusion and long stay of Polissya within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), which later became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, this term also spread to the Polissyan Slavs who lived in these lands, acquiring the meaning of "citizenship" or subjection to the Lithuanian and later the Polish-Lithuanian state.

To put it simply, a Slav from Ovruch under the GDL:

  1. When at home, he usually referred to himself as a "Rusyn," feeling his belonging to the Russian people.
  2. When he traveled to Bratslav in Podillia, which was also part of the GDL, he was called a "Polishchuk" or "Polishchuk," meaning a Rusyn from Polissya.
  3. When he traveled to Tver, which was not part of the GDL, he called himself a "Litvin," meaning that he was a Rusyn from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
  4. When he arrived in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, he could be called "Rusinas," meaning a Rusyn.

Litvins in Ukraine 

Thus, during the Middle Ages, the names "Polishchuk" (informally among neighbors) and "Litvin" (among other Slavs who did not live in the GDL or far from Lithuania) or "Litvak" (Jew from the GDL) were affixed to the Slavs who lived in Polissya, which was part of the GDL at that time. This is why there are so many Ukrainian surnames such as Litvin, Litvynenko, Litvinchuk, Litovchenko, etc. - they began to be used not only for Baltic Lithuanians but also for Slavic inhabitants or immigrants from the GDL.

At the same time, the initial identification with the Lithuanian settlers in Polissya was also preserved for quite some time, especially in Chernihiv and Sivershchyna (more details can be found in the research of Professor K. Tyshchenko). Some Litvins from Polissya, who were descendants of ancient Baltic immigrants and lived in isolated areas, retained knowledge of the Lithuanian language until the 19th-20th centuries.

However, after the dissolution of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the term "Litvin" gradually disappears, transforming first into "Lithuanian Ruthenian" and later into "Belarusian".

In particular, in a publication from 1863, when Polissya was part of the Russian Empire, in the "Vestnik Yugo-Zapadnoy i Zapadnoy Rossii" edition, the problem of confusion of terms is characterized as follows: "Belarus is usually only referred to the Mogilev and Vitebsk provinces, and the rest is called Lithuania, ... in the Minsk province, Vilnius, and Grodno - the common people - Belarusians. Therefore, the word Lithuania should be given not to the entire Western region [of the Russian Empire], but only to the area where there is actually a solid mass of Lithuanian population" [page 76].

"Litvins" and "Lithuanians"

Since the 1870s, the terms "Litvin" and "Lithuanian" with respect to Slavs (Belarusians and Ukrainians) have disappeared from official documents, statistics, and the like (see Professor P. Tereshkovich's study "Ethnic History of Belarus in the 19th and early 20th centuries").

As for Ukrainian lands, according to the "Parish Registers," in the mid-19th century, 40,233 Belarusians and 49,269 Lithuanians lived in the Volyn and Kyiv gubernias (all of Western and Central Polissya plus part of the Dnipro region), which respectively constituted 1.27% and 1.56% of the region's population (Lebedkin MO "On the tribal composition of the population of the Western region of the Russian Empire," St. Petersburg, 1861, pages 154-158).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian language dictionary by Dal only records the term "Litvin" as outdated with respect to Lithuanians (with a quote from Pushkin's "Three sons of Budrys, like him, three Litvins"), while the Ukrainian language dictionary by Hrinchenko from 1909 gives two meanings of the word "Litvin" - 1) Lithuanian. 2) Belarusian.

Therefore, in a way, this ethnonym can be considered as an intermediate between self-names "Rusyn," "Rus," and "Belarusian"/"Ukrainian." This is particularly true for the Polissian Belarusians who played a more significant role in the life of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and used this name much longer than the Ukrainians. In contrast, the definition of "Litvak" as a Jew from Lithuania was practically preserved until the end of the 20th century.

Today, the term "Litvin" in Ukrainian and Russian literary language is a historical ethnonym to refer to a Baltic-Lithuanian and/or a Ruthenian-Slavic subject of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but in border dialects, it is still sometimes used to refer to all Lithuanians and Belarusians.

In addition, some Ukrainian researchers (e.g. V. Gorlenko) identify the "Litvins" as a separate ethnographic group of Sivershchyna. In modern-day Belarus, alongside numerous pseudo-historical concepts such as the revival of the Yatviags, "Polish language," etc., the concept of "Litvinism" or "Adradzhenne" is spreading, which proclaims a separate "Litvinian nation," asserting that "Litvins" or "Litsviny" are not only an ancient name for the inhabitants of the western lands of the former Rus - modern-day Belarusians, but also that the princes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) - Algirdas (Olgerd), Kęstutis (Keystut), Vytautas (Vitovt), and others - were supposedly not Lithuanians but Slavs, Belarusian Litvins. This apparent contradiction regarding the non-Slavic sound of their names is explained either by the fact that the "real" Lithuania is not located on the territory of the Republic of Lithuania but is a modified form of the name of the Lutych tribe, "Lutva," or that the ancient Litvins are Slavicized Balts, and so on.

Therefore, in some Belarusian-language sources, especially in its alternative version known as "Tarashkevitsa," as well as in some Russian-language sources, one can find the terms "Litvin" and "Litvinskii" used to refer to the Belarusians of the western regions or to Belarusians in general and something Belarusian as a whole - from ancient times to the present. In this case, the Crimean Tatar word "Litvaniya" is often used to refer to Belarus itself.

In Polish literary language, the ancient name "litwiny" has been preserved to this day to denote both the ethnic Lithuanians themselves and the Litvins - the subjects of the former GDL, in the historical sense.

The Lithuanians themselves call themselves "lietuviai," and the eastern Slavs of the former GDL - "rusinai" (Rusyns), "rusai" (Rusyns, Russians), or "gudai" (only Belarusians), "litvakai" (only Jews), and rarely "litvinai" (Litvins).

© Igor Svirin, specially for IC Polissya



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