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7 October, 2011  ▪  Oleh Odnorozhenko

No Unity, No Statehood

The failure of Ukrainian elites to agree among themselves for the sake of independence in the 14th and 15th centuries led to the breakup of the Rus’ principality and incorporation of its parts into Poland, Lithuania and Hungary

When one speaks about turning points in Ukrainian history, the first dates that come to mind are 988 when Volodymyr the Great baptized Kyivan Rus; 1569 when the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin merging into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; 1648 when Bohdan Khmelnytsky fought in the Battle of Korsun, the second significant battle of the Khmelnytsky Uprising; 1917, the year of October Revolution, and 1991 when Ukraine gained independence. The year 1340 is also often added to the list. Ukrainian historians usually take 1340 as the starting point of a period in which “Ukraine did not have its own state and foreigners ruled over its territory.” The cause is perceived to be “the dying away of the Romanovych dynasty and the Lithuanian and Polish fight over Galicia-Volhynia.” This period is one of the so-called dark ages in Ukrainian history – we have virtually no surviving written sources from this time. At the same time, the data we do have is sufficient to challenge these conclusions. Did the Romanovych dynasty indeed cease to exist in 1340, and were Ukraine’s lands really divided between its neighbors?


Formally, Yurii II Boleslav, son of Trojden II of Mazovia and Maria, daughter of Yurii Lvovych, who ruled the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia in 1323-40, was not a direct descendant of Roman Mstyslavych via parental lineage. The last representatives of this dynasty on the Ruthenian throne were the sons of Yurii Lvovych – Prince of Galicia and Volhynia Andrii Yuriiovych and Prince of Lutsk Lev Yuriiyovych – who likely died while fighting the Mongols in 1323. Their relative, King of Poland Władysław I Łokietek, wrote to Pope John XXII referring to the Ruthenian princes as his nephews: “We are grieved to say that the last two Ruthenian princes of Orthodox origin who were an invincible shield against the Tatars departed this life; this is the reason we and our lands now face a clear danger from the Tatars.”

Yurii II Boleslav was merely one of many who aspired to the Ruthenian crown. Having dynastic ties to the Romanovychs, he was not, however, their direct descendant. By 1323, there was an abundance of contenders for the throne. For example, the Pope recognized that Heinrich II and Jan, princes of Głogow (Silesia) and brothers-in-law to Lev Yuriiyovych, had a rightful claim to the Ruthenian throne. The latter’s son-in-law, Liubartas (baptized as Dymytrii), son of Grand Duke Gediminas, obtained the land of Lutsk after his father’s death and maintained control over its eastern part throughout the rule of Yurii II Boleslav.

As a contender for the throne, Yurii II was a sort of compromise to bring balance to political forces in Central and Eastern Europe, primarily between the restored Polish Kingdom and the emerging Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These two entities did not dare attack the Ruthenian principality, because it protected them against the Golden Horde. This parity lasted for a while after the death of Yurii II in 1340 when he was replaced on the throne by Liubartas.


As far as Prince Liubartas and the character of his rule is concerned, there is one incorrect view which completely blocks an adequate understanding of the political processes that were taking place in Ukrainian (Ruthenian) lands during this period of transition. Liubartas is most often described in historical works as a representative of an arrogant Lithuanian state in Ruthenian lands, while the territory he controlled is referred to as a province of the “Lithuanian” state of the Gediminas dynasty.

At the same time, it is easy to see that he was an independent ruler – he did not depend on his older brothers in any way, consistently employed the title of a sovereign ruler and used Ruthenian, rather than Lithuanian, heraldic figures (a lion and a cross) which are also featured on his signet and coins. Finally, his Orthodox baptism connected him closely to the Ruthenian state and its elite.

In foreign policy, Liubartas naturally counted on his relatives, above all his brothers Algirdas and Kęstutis. Liubartas gave Kęstutis the land of Brest as a reward for military aid, though this is erroneously interpreted by some as its annexation to the Lithuanian state. In turn, Yury, the son of Narimantas and Liubartas' nephew, received from the latter first Kremenets and later Belz. Liubartas also possibly helped his other relatives, the sons of Karijotas, to take control of Podilia to which his ruling power evidently also extended.

When Casimir III of Poland contested Liubartas’s rule and set his eyes on Ruthenian lands, the help of brothers and relatives proved crucial. Casimir III was related to the last of the Romanovychs and thus considered his aspirations for the crown quite legitimate. He made his first raid into Ruthenian lands in 1340, immediately after the death of Yurii II, but succeeded only in capturing Lviv for a short while and sacking the king’s treasury. More coordinated action came from Poland in the second half of the 1340s.


Casimir III seems to have sought a certain compromise with the elite in the Galician portion of the Ruthenian principality. And as later events showed, he had some success. The Sanok land was likely the first to recognize the supremacy of this Krakow king. In 1349, Casimir III seized Lviv, the seat of the Romanovychs. Remarkably, this came amidst a plague epidemic among the Golden Horde. The demographic catastrophe caused by the plague in the northern part of the Black Sea region pulled the Mongols out of the big geopolitical game of the era and greatly disrupted the balance of forces in Eastern Europe.

Consequently, Casimir III was able to disregard the Mongolian factor and instead focus on his struggle against Liubartas and his Lithuanian relatives and allies. Prior to this, he signed an agreement with the Hungarian king entitling the House of Anjou to the Polish and Ruthenian thrones if Casimir III happened to have no male heirs.

The pivotal events in early warfare took place near Belz, a key fortified city in the defense system of Western Volhynia. A prolonged siege during which King Louis of Anjou was wounded ended in a peace treaty signed in 1352. The sides agreed that Liubartas would “keep the Volodymyr, Lutsk, Belz, Chelm and Brest lands in their entirety,” while “the kings would keep the entire Lviv land.” This treaty was clearly a tactical move, because one year later warfare resumed and continued with varying success until 1366. The second stage of the confrontation over Ruthenian lands ended, again, near Belz, but this time Liubartas was clearly on the losing side. He retained Lutsk but was forced to give up Western Volhynia in which his relatives and former vassals ruled.

It was only after 1370, the year Casimir III died, that Liubartas succeeded in regaining control over Western Volhynia, but the ensuing war against Louis, Casimir’s heir and king of Hungary, Croatia, Poland and Ruthenia, did not give either side a clear edge. The ancient Ruthenian principality was split into two entities, both called “the lands of Ruthenia” but politically associated with different external forces – the Hungarian-Polish and Lithuanian-Ruthenian coalitions.

The House of Anjou viewed the Ruthenian principality as a separate polity in a union with the Kingdom of Hungary. This explains why, in 1372, Louis gave the part of Ruthenia he controlled to his relative, Władysław II of Opole who used the title of a sovereign ruler. The close political connection with Hungary was severed in 1387 when the Ruthenian lands were invaded by Polish troops loyal to Queen Jadwiga and King Consort Władysław II Jagiełło who established the rule of the Polish royal house. However, the Ruthenian principality had a measure of political distinctness until 1434 when its lands were incorporated in the Polish kingdom.


The grand Ruthenian principality retained its independence throughout Liubartas’s rule until 1384. But the protracted and exhausting struggle for keeping it united and reliance on Lithuanian military aid inevitably put this polity out into the political orbit of the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state. Liubartas’s son Fedor lost Lutsk in 1386 and Volodymyr in 1393 after which only smaller principalities in the region survived. The dramatic transformations that took place here in 1349-87 are usually taken to be a result of neighbors’ expansion, but the true cause behind the disintegration of the Ruthenian principality was internal discord rather than external invasion. This entity had already faced external threats much more dangerous than those that emerged in the mid-14th century.

The main cause behind the political catastrophe which befell the medieval Ruthenian state was the deep internal conflict among the Ruthenian elites, namely between the political leaders of Galicia and Volhynia. This conflict started in the 13th century when the Volhynian nobility was the bulwark of the Romanovych dynasty in its bid to unite Rus’, while various Galician groups took steps to limit this dynasty’s power in Galicia or remove it completely from the Galician throne. It was only the planned and coordinated action by King Danylo and his descendants that significantly curbed separatist trends among the Galician boyars. But with the death of the last Romanovychs, the old problems resurfaced. Unlike his predecessors, Yurii II Boleslav did not have the reliable support of the local elite. Rumors of his poisoning may be false, but they are a good indicator of the atmosphere of distrust and confrontation that reigned in the Ruthenian court.

Liubartas found himself in an even more complicated situation: his rule was strongest in Volhynia, which is why he chose Lutsk as his seat. In Galicia, however, he had limited power and ruled through his authorized representative Dmytro Detko (Diadko) who expressed the political interests of the Galician elite. The latter evidently liked the idea of breaking away from the rest of the principality into a distinct polity which seemed to offer the best possible access to power for the local aristocracy.


Just as in the 13th century, the way to accomplish these political plans was to throw support behind foreigners aspiring to the Galician throne – this time Casimir III, Hungarian King Louis of Anjou and their successors. In the political inner circle of the above rulers there were numerous representatives of Ruthenian nobility.

These people actively supported the Hungarian and Polish kings in their fight for the Ruthenian crown. Now, in the territory of a formerly united kingdom, Ruthenian knights from various lands shed their blood as they fought for warring parties. There were even divisions within families.

The situation that arose in the Ruthenian principality was not unique. The withering of dynasties and the resulting crises were a hallmark of medieval political relations. Virtually no European country was spared such pivotal periods of uncertainty and tribulations. It was at times like this that the elites’ political maturity, responsibility and their ability to keep internal unity and maintain stability in the country were tested.

After completing a stage of fighting fraught with contradictions among the elites and military and diplomatic confrontations with their neighbors, European states either reached political unity and restored their standing in foreign policy or formed dynastic unions, thus becoming parts of supranational empire-like entities. In the worst case, they fell apart, later usually losing political independence and turning into satellite states of their more powerful neighbors. In each of these scenarios, military-political elites played the key roles – the very existence of any polity revolved around their political will.

The Ruthenian nobility suffered from internal rifts and was unable to maintain political unity; this was the main cause behind the disintegration of the Ruthenian state and its piecemeal incorporation into other polities. Ruthenian (Ukrainian) statehood evidently did not cease to exist in the mid-14th century, but it was at this juncture that political unity was lost and the great state dissolved. The one great Ruthenian state which played a key part in Eastern and Central Europe from the 9th through the 14th century no longer existed. In the second half of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century, Ukrainian lands turned into a complex conglomerate of bigger (large principalities and estates) and smaller (appanage principalities) polities which could only occasionally claim a significant role in Eastern and Central European politics. Even though Rus’ preserved the fabric of its government structures in most of its territory (Volhynia, the Kyiv region, Polisia and Sivershchyna), from then on these local polities had to coordinate their political development with the rulers of large multiethnic empire-like states like the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Rus’ and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which included the greater part of Ukrainian lands in subsequent centuries.

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