The Legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: rhetorics of common past and its usage in contemporary East-Central Europe7 min read
The stories of a common glorified past are not a recent invention. Especially in times of historical change, they help to raise the international prestige of a state and strengthen existing bonds between states. Through the ages, such stories served as an important means for enhancing national consciousness within a population. In the 21st century, however, such narratives are also employed for geopolitical solidarity, as is the case today with an ongoing close cooperation that calls back to a shared past between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, known as Rzeczpospolita, appeared in 1569 as a result of the Lublin Union. At the time, it was the largest European republican polity, and remained on the map until 1795 when regional powers like Russia, Prussia and Austria squeezed it out of existence. At its height, the Commonwealth encompassed the lands of Poland, Lithuania, a large part of Ukraine and Belarus, Latvia, and parts of Estonia and Russia. Polish, Lithuanian, and more recently Belarusian and Ukrainian historians regard this period as an era of multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and linguistic coexistence in a vast realm spanning from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this discourse of common history became more crucial as the integration of Poland and Lithuania into the EU and NATO required closer cooperation between the two states. Now, with the region at a crossroads amid an increasingly tense tug-of-war between east and west, the shadow of the Commonwealth looms large once again.
Revived by a common adversary
While there is no single pattern in use and abuse of history by authorities, the practical utility of historical discourse drives its consistent emergence. After 1991, both Poland and Lithuania were interested in improving cooperation and supporting security in the region, but these goals were hardly achievable, with Ukraine and Belarus oscillating between the EU and Russia.
Coincidence or not, the revival of the common past began in Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in the 14th-16th centuries controlled the lands of Ukraine and until the late 18th century – Belarus. There, in late November 2013, former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. The ensuing Euromaidan Revolution, followed quickly by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Donbas compelled the newly-elected Ukrainian government to seek out allies in Europe, especially among its neighbours.
Poland and Lithuania were the first EU states to offer their help to Ukraine. The memory of a multicultural, centuries-long coexistence was of special need to demonstrate the shared interests and dangers faced by the three states. In the face of the crisis, they immediately realized the utility of a common history as a point of reference for a new relationship and continuously supported Ukraine in its European aspirations. The narrative of peaceful coexistence in a republican Commonwealth thus gained additional value as a prototype for pro-European Ukraine. The history of joint military resistance against Russia has been a key theme in this new unity, highlighted by the establishment in 2014 of the LitUkrPolBrig, a Lithuanian–Ukrainian–Polish Brigade based in Lublin, a city at the heart of the 1569 Union. Adding to the symbolism of the move, the military hero selected to adorn their insignia is Grand Hetman Kostiantyn (Konstanty) Ostrogski (1460–1530). Ostrogski was a leader of the united Lithuanian-Ruthenian-Polish army in the Battle of Orsha against Muscovy in 1514 that led to the defeat of the symbolic predecessor of the common adversary all three states face today.
Since the conflict began, the Ukrainian government has also realized the significant potential of Polish and Lithuanian support in the EU and NATO. Cooperation between Ukraine and Lithuania remarkably intensified after 2014 during Dala Gribauskaite’s presidency. During the seven years since the Revolution, the presidents of the two states held over 20 meetings, and Lithuania has steadfastly supported the latter’s European integration on the international arena. While Ukraine’s relations with Poland have developed in a similar manner since 2014, they have also been marked with continued disagreements on historical memory issues, linked to the history of the Second World War, and the laws on the matter in both states. Nevertheless, Polish officials never questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. Moreover, since 2014, both Polish and Lithuanian hospitals have hosted several hundred Ukrainian soldiers wounded in Donbas.
The year 2021 brought important shifts in regional cooperation. In March, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda was the first state leader to sign the Joint Declaration on the European Prospect of Ukraine together with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Likewise, Polish President Andrzej Duda shortly after declared shortly after that “Poland will support Ukraine in its realisation of the EU Association Agreement, and its attainment of full EU membership”. Lithuania’s ambassador in Ukraine Valdemaras Sarapinas even claimed a chance existed for Ukraine to apply for membership in the EU during Lithuanian’s presidency of the Council of the EU in 2027.
The role of Belarus
The history of Belarus is in many ways closer tied to the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than that of Ukraine. However, any narrative of shared history between Belarus and its neighbours is almost absent from official state discourse since the past union with Lithuania and Poland is largely ignored in Belarusian official history under Aleksandr Lukashenka’s regime. The Grand Duchy’s coat of arms – Pahonia (the Pursuit) – together with the white-red-white flag were replaced with modernized Soviet Belarusian symbols after a controversial referendum in 1995.
Recently, the tricolor flag became a part of the symbolic opposition to Lukashenka’s regime, evoking this common history during sports competitions, concerts, and, most notably, the 2020 protests in Belarus. To deny this symbol any support, the Belarusian prosecutor’s office moved to recognise it as “extremist”. For Lukashenko, the flag represents not only the opposition movement trying to topple him, but also a direct historical link to today’s rivals and their contempt for his rule.
The remaining members of this Polish-Lithuanian historical bond have not forgotten about Belarus. Cooperation between their scholars, especially historians, gets substantial support from Lithuanian and Polish institutions, including the formerly Minsk-based European Humanities University that was forced to close in 2004 and has since reopened its doors in Vilnius. More recently, Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian universities have offered numerous scholarships for Belarusian students and researchers persecuted by Lukashenko’s government.
A direct reference to common Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian history was again made in 2020 when the three states established the Lublin Triangle, a cooperation format, in a city that directly “invokes to the heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth”. A year later, while commemorating the 230th anniversary of the 3 May Constitution, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Lublin Triangle signed in Vilnius a Road Map for Cooperation and the Declaration on Joint European Heritage and Common Values, noting the role of the past Commonwealth in shaping the history of Europe and the European identity of Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians. They acknowledged that their “common European historical legacy still binds our nations together in the united Europe and causes us to feel a sense of mutual bond and solidarity”. The leaders also assured the Belarusian people that they have the “right to full participation in the process of European integration” and that the three states “will make every effort to ensure that a democratic Belarus is granted such an opportunity”.
Referring to the shared past is one of the tools which during the last seven years enhances cooperation between Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. History of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth offers an understandable frame of reference for all three countries in deepening their mutual support and ensuring security in the region. This Eastern European triangle still lacks its integral member – Belarus, but the doors are open only for democratic states. Thus, the question of when Belarus will eventually embark on this ship, is only a question of the future. Hopefully, not a very distant one.