The title was used in medieval Bohemia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Transylvania, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Moldavia, Wallachia. Later, voivode was the highest military rank in the principalities of Montenegro and Serbia, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and among the Serbian Chetniks.
In the Romanian medieval principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, voievode became part of the official titulature of the sovereign prince, showing his right to lead the entire army. Voivode or vajda was also the title of the Hungarian governors of Transylvania in the Middle Ages.
The term derives from the Slavic roots voi or voj (war, or battle) and vodi (to lead), and thus originally meant war leader. The word has developed to take various forms in the modern Slavic languages, such as wojewoda (Polish), воевода (voyevoda, Russian), войвода or воевода (voyvoda, voevoda), Bulgarian, воєвода (voyevoda, Ukrainian), vévoda (Czech) and војвода or vojvoda (Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian, Slovak). It has also been borrowed into some non-Slavic languages, taking such forms as voievod (Romanian) and vajda (Hungarian).
This etymology is perfectly parallel, though unrelated, to that of equivalent Germanic titles and terms like the Old English heretoga and the German Herzog, which in feudal times was equated with the Latin dux (originally a term for either a barbaric war leader or a Roman commanding officer and/or military governor, which later evolved into such feudal and modern titles of peerage rank as duke). For this reason, the Slavic terms are sometimes translated as duke. However, although in some countries and periods the rank of voivode was equivalent to a Western duke, it was not universally so.
By the end of 8th century, the Slavic tribes established the first organised states in Central and Eastern Europe. The new situation demanded a more flexible command over the state, especially during the conflicts with Turkic, Baltic and German peoples. At that time, the power of the voivode was in most cases extended to include civil command and, in some instances, to religious authority. The chiefs of the tribes, princes and hospodars, delegated part of their authority to lower-ranking voivodes, while retaining the title of highest voivode and the positions of high priest and supreme judge.
With the creation of permanent Slavic states in Kievan Rus and Poland, the highest authority was passed to dukes and princes, both terms of Germanic origin. In Kievan Rus, these came from the Varangian nobles (Rurik Dynasty), while in Poland they were of local origin (Piast Dynasty). The basis of the power of a prince was his band of warriors or druzhina. Initially a small group of professional soldiers, the druzhina grew in order to control the vast areas under authority of the prince. In time, the need to split the army into several units became clear and the commander of such a unit was called prince's voivode.
The highest ranking of such voivodes formed the princes' courts, while others commanded the troops in distant towns and served as advisors to the prince's delegates. In medieval Muscovy voyevoda was the governor of a border fortress or town. The rank was abolished by Peter the Great in the mid-18th century.
In modern Poland, a voivode (wojewoda) is the governor of a voivodeship, appointed by the central government in Warsaw. (Each voivodeship also has an elected assembly, called a sejmik, and an executive elected by that assembly, headed by an official called the marszałek. For a summary of the respective competences of these authorities, see Voivodeships of Poland.)
The office was created in the Kingdom of Poland under the Piasts, and from the Crown of the Polish Kingdom, spread to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania after 1569 as an overseer of a voivodeship and its administration. In time, the office lost some of its importance — from "second after the ruler" to just one of several dozen important officials. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a voivode was one of the officials entitled to sit in the Senate of Poland.
At the May Assembly in Sremski Karlovci (May 13-15, 1848), recalling the privilege from 1691, the Serbs proclaimed the creation of the Serbian Vojvodina and elected Stevan Šupljikac as voivode. These actions were later recognized by the Austrian emperor, and Šupljikac was recognized as a voivode. By a decision of the Austrian emperor, in November 1849, a new province was formed as the political successor of the Serbian voivodeship. It was known as the Serbian Voivodship and Tamiš Banat. The new voivodeship existed between 1849 and 1860 and the title of great voivode belonged to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria himself, though it was ruled by an appointed governor. After the voivodeship was abolished in 1860, Franz Joseph I kept the title of great voivode of the Voivodship of Serbia until his death in 1916. His successor, Karl I of Austria, also retained the title until the end of the monarchy in 1918.
The title was often used to designate important military commanders in the Serbian Uprising against the Turks 1804-1815.
In the Balkan Wars and World War I this title was used to designate the highest military rank in Serbian Army (above the General - as equalent of Field Marshal in other armies). Only five people ever officially held that military rank: Radomir Putnik (got it in 1913), Stepa Stepanović (1914), Živojin Mišić (1914), Petar Bojović (1918) and the French General Louis Franchet d'Espérey (1918). It was only an honorary rank since in 1916–1917 General Petar Bojović held the position of Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command (the highest military position in the Serbian Army) and was a superior to two army commanders who were vojvodas (Stepa Stepanović and Živojin Mišić. In the same period the Serbian paramilitary organisation Chetniks used the title internally to designate it's top commanders - Vojin Popović, Voja Tankosić and Kosta Pećanac being the prime examples. It was used in this manner again by the Chetniks in the Second World War.
Tchaikovsky's first opera, Voyevoda, was based on Alexandr Ostrovsky's play. (His later orchestral work, the symphonic ballad The Voyevoda, Op.78, based on Alexander Pushkin's translation of Adam Mickiewicz's poem, has the same name as the opera but is otherwise unrelated to it).
Anton Arensky later produced his own operatic adaptation of the play as A Dream on the Volga.
Rimsky-Korsakov's differently-sourced opera Pan Wojewoda, while composed to a Russian text, is set in Poland.
Among Americans, award-winning writer Larry Woiwode's name descends from "voivode."
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