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A Brief History Of Lithuania

Lithuania's past is rich and marked by complexity. In the multitude of events, and their uniqueness and effect on neighboring nations, Lithuania can be compared to any large state. Perhaps, this is the reason why Lithuanians hold their history in great esteem. A Lithuanian engaged in an explanation of the present will often digress into historical comparisons and analogies. The legends, wars, battles and political events are intertwined with songs, have found their way into literary works, and have provided the inspiration for movies, plays and art works. Of course, these popular and artistic representations are sometimes hardly different from mythology. But who is to deny that mythology is a part of life?

From Ancient Times To World War I

The Baltic tribes established themselves on what is presently known as Lithuanian territory during the 7th-2nd centuries BC. Many centuries passed, however, before the name of Lithuania appeared in records for the first time, in AD 1009, in the Annals of Quedlinburg.

During the period 1236-63, Duke Mindaugas (Mindowe) united the Lithuanian ethnic lands and established the state of Lithuania, which was able to offer resistance against the eastward expansion of the Teutonic Knights. In 1253, Mindaugas embraced Christianity for political reasons, and accepted the crown from the Pope of Rome. Thus, he became the first and only king in Lithuanian history.

Grand Duke Gediminas (Gedimin), who ruled the country from 1316 to 1341, started the long-term expansion of Lithuania into the lands of the eastern Slavs. He founded the modern capital city of Vilnius and started the Gediminaiciai dynasty, whose representatives became members of many European monarchies.

A Gediminaitis, Jogaila (Jagiello), in becoming the King of Poland in 1386, started the 400-year common history of Lithuania and Poland, which was marked by several agreements and unions. As a result of this union, Christianity finally came to Lithuania.

Grand Duke Vytautas (Witold), who ruled from 1392 to 1430, brought the greatest military and political prosperity to the country. During his reign, the push eastward by the German Order was broken. In 1410 Vytautas, along with his cousin Jogaila Jagiello, won the Battle of Gr?nwald (Tannenberg), against the might of the Order. He also annexed many Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian territories to Lithuania and extended the state border all the way to the shores of the Black Sea.

Internal discord began to weaken the state during the 16th century. More resilient ties with Poland became unavoidable, and in 1569, Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin with Poland, further strengthening ties between the two nations. The agreement created a Commonwealth Republic of two nations, which shared one king (also holding the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania) and a joint legislature, the Seimas. Nevertheless, Lithuania's state sovereignty was preserved: the treasury, the currency, the laws and the army remained independent. Regrettably, in historical sources, this impressive Republic is most frequently alluded to by the single name of Poland. The institution of an elected king in this Republic was the first in Europe. In 1573 Henry Valois of Bourbon became the first such king.

A cultural leap forward occurred in the 16th century, resulting from the supremacy of self rule by the boyars, land reform, consolidation of cities and the arrival on the scene of an enlightened society. During that century, in 1529, 1566 and 1588, three Statutes of Lithuania were written. These are documents of an unsual legal nature, containing elements of state law. (The last Statute still applied within the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania as late as the 19th century, long after the disappearance of the state from the political map.)

From 1654 to 1667, Lithuania became enmeshed in wars with Russia, whose might had been increasing. A misfortune occurred in 1655, as for the first time in history Vilnius was occupied by a foreign army, that of the Russian Czar. While searching for a solution to extricate itself from a difficult international situation and disagreements with Poland, Lithuania formed an agreement with Sweden, the short-lived Treaty of Kedainiai, also in 1655. In spite of this, the state continued to diminish in strength.

During the second half of the 18th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lost nearly all its sovereign rights. Following its successful wars with Sweden, Russia, together with Austria and Prussia engaged in the partition of the Republic of Lithuania-Poland, in three instances, in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Following the third partition, the major part of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania was handed over to Russia. The name of Lithuania had disappeared from the political map of Europe for 123 years.

A greater blow was dealt in the 19th century, though the beginning was deceptively calm. In 1803, the university was accorded the name of Imperial University and Vilnius itself continued to preserve the marks of its past majesty: it was the third largest city (after Moscow and St Petersburg) in the Russian Empire. However, a change of direction was imminent: it came in 1812, with Napoleon's campaign against Russia. The French were enthusiastically received in Lithuania as liberators, and were supported and even honoured in high social circles. The hasty withdrawal of the French which soon followed, was the prelude to disaster.

Following Napoleon's campaign, Czar Nicholas I initiated a new policy: the authorities of the occupation began to russify the country with increased speed, and to transform it into a provincial hinterland. Along with the Poles, the Lithuanians revolted against the occupiers on two occasions, in 1831 and 1863, but the revolts brought painful defeats. The consequences were sad indeed: Vilnius University and other institutions of higher education were closed, the influence of the Catholic Church was curbed, all Catholic monasteries were closed and the Russian Orthodox Religion was declared the state religion. Lithuanians were not permitted to purchase land, erect crosses and new churches. The centuries-old ties between Lithuania and Central and Western Europe were torn up by the roots. The first deportations of Lithuanian boyars and peasants to the depths of Siberia were begun.

From 1864, the Lithuanian language itself and its Latin alphabet were banned and the so-called graZdanka, Lithuanian with the Russian alphabet, was introduced. The cultural life of the country went into a state of paralysis.

Lithuania began to recover only towards the end of the 19th century, the period known as the "spring of nations." A struggle for national culture and reinstitution of writing spread over the greater part of the country. A unique movement, the "book-bearers" (knygnesiai) came about through self-education and a concern for survival. Lithuanian books in the Latin alphabet were printed in Lithuania Minor, Prussia, under German jurisdiction, and illegally transported across the border into Lithuania Major. The book-bearer movement fostered "home-school" movement and the emergence of self-taught teachers. In the course of several decades, the degree of literacy and national awareness was greatly increased throughout the entire country. In 1883, Dr. Jonas Basanavicius organised the publication of the first Lithuanian periodical, Ausra ("The Dawn"), which was also disseminated illegally. The authority of educated people grew rapidly. An increasing number of students who had graduated from universities in Russia, Poland or the West, joined the national rebirth movement.

In 1904, Lithuanian representatives managed to win by legal means the lifting of the ban on Lithuanian publications and educational institutions.

At the start of the 20th century, the national movement became so strong that in 1905 the Grand Assembly of Vilnius (Didysis Vilniaus Seimas), which had formulated the demands of Lithuania's autonomy, was able to assemble. Lithuanian representatives were also elected to the newly-formed Russian Parliament, the Duma, where they defended their rights with ever-increasing boldness.

At the start of World War I, Lithuania was soon occupied by Germany. With the end of the war in sight, Lithuanian representatives from all parts of the country, seizing a favourable political moment, assembled in Vilnius in September 1917, and held a conference. The elected 20-member Council of Lithuania proclaimed the restitution of the independent state of Lithuania on the 16th of February, 1918, even though the German Army and authorities were still in control of the entire country.

Between Two World Wars

On the 23rd of March, 1918, the German Kaiser announced his recognition of the independence of Lithuania. However, until Germany capitulated in November that same year, Lithuania's international status remained undefined. On the 12th of December, 1918, Sweden was the first state to accord Lithuania de facto recognition.

Russia and the major countries of the world recognised Lithuania's independence during 1920-22.

Lithuania was admitted to the League of Nations in 1921.

The wars of defence of independence against the Bolsheviks, Poles and the remnants of the German and the Czarist armies continued until 1923. In the course of these wars, Lithuania lost its capital, Vilnius, which was occupied by Poland in 1920. Kaunas became the provisional capital and continued in that capacity for 20 years.

Those years were not only a difficult time, but a period of hope as well. The Seimas, which had implemented the greatest reforms, functioned during 1920-22: it introduced the national currency (litas), passed laws that were favourable to the national economy and financial system, and organised radical land reform.

The lands of the major estates were reduced somewhat and peasant farms began to recover. The country prospered rapidly along with the rest of Europe.

In 1923, Lithuania recovered its historic Baltic seaport, Klaipeda, thus gaining a gateway to the world.

However, the first eight years of independence failed to consolidate the democratic system of administration by the Seimas and the division of government. In December 1926 the army leadership, Nationalist Party and Christian Democratic staged a revolt, resulting in a loss of democracy. Government by the Seimas and its elected president was replaced by unlimited presidential rule. The political dictatorship of the Nationalist Party and the authoritarian rule of President Antanas Smetona lasted until the end of independent statehood.

The threads of independence had already begun to break by March 1939, when fascist Germany annexed Klaipeda and the surrounding region.

The twenty-two years of inter-war Lithuanian independence constitute the first golden age in Lithuanian culture. During that period, national life regained the characteristics of national civilisation. The state of Lithuania and Lithuanian culture broke through into the international arena and took part in major international events, the most impressive among them being the International Exposition in Paris in 1937.

In addition to achievements in art and science, basketball has provided some cause for national pride: in 1937 and 1939, the Lithuanian Men's Team became the European Champions. In 1933, Stasys Darius and Steponas Girenas achieved world fame by setting out on a direct flight from New York to Kaunas. They perished in East Prussia, near the Lithuanian border.

World War Ii

As a result of World War II, Lithuania suffered immense deprivations, with gigantic losses and damage. The nation found itself on the brink of physical annihilation.

On 23rd August, 1939, just prior to its attack upon Poland, Germany signed a secret agreement with the Soviet Union, on the division of the spheres of influence, the document known as the secret Hitler-Stalin Pact (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact). Initially, Lithuania was relegated to the German sphere of influence; however, on Lithuania's refusal to attack Poland as a German ally, it was transferred to the Soviet sphere of influence, in a second secret pact signed in Moscow on the 27th of September that same year.

On the 10th of October 1939, Vilnius was returned to Lithuania and Soviet military bases were established within the country.

On the 15th of June 1940 (the day when the German Wehrmacht entered Paris), the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. Soon afterwards, Latvia and Estonia were also occupied.

On the 14th of June 1941, the Soviets carried out the first mass deportation of the Lithuanian people to Russia and Siberia, with approximately 35,000 deported within several days.

On 22nd June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and several days later, the Wehrmacht occupied the whole of Lithuania.

Until the Germans had fully consolidated their position, Lithuanian politicians and representatives of the intelligentsia organised an independent government for the country. However, the new occupation force's administration did not allow the existence of a Lithuanian government. A massive destruction of the Jews was launched, claiming 200,000 lives. Thousands were taken to Germany.

In the summer of 1944, the Red Army crossed the Lithuanian border once again, and occupied Vilnius, occupying Klaipeda in January 1945. Once again, the entire country fell under Soviet power. In accordance with the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements between the Soviet Union, the United States of America and Great Britain, Lithuania began to be treated as a part of the Soviet Union. Thousands of Lithuanians, who had fought as soldiers of the armies of the anti-Hitlerite coalition, could not return to a free homeland.

Decades Of Soviet Occupation

Prior to the return of the Soviets, tens of thousands of Lithuanian citizens fled to the West, including a very large segment of the intelligentsia, university lecturers and professors, writers and artists, business people and well-to-do farmers. It appeared as if the country were losing its best people.

Upon their return, the Soviets undertook even stricter repressive measures than those before the war. In the course of 10 years, approximately 130,000 of the population were deported to Siberia and other distant areas of the Soviet Union: the majority of them perished due to the unbearable transport and living conditions.

A partisan war ensued, lasting 9 years and claiming tens of thousands of lives.

It has been calculated that Lithuania lost approximately 30% of its population during the period 1940-53.

As early as the first post-war years, a mass immigration of Russians and other Soviet nationalities was begun, bringing unavoidable sovietisation and russification of public life. Once again, as in the 19th century, the Lithuanian language faced the danger of extinction.

The Soviet decades brought about a basic change within the country's economy and infrastructure: land was nationalised and turned over to the collective farms, rural life was threatened and a new movement of the population towards the cities, with unrestrained industrialisation of the country, ensued. All this took place without reference to Lithuania's internal needs and opportunities. The country's economy was developed solely through the methods of the occupying regime. Construction was implemented of giant complexes manufacturing fuel-injecting equipment, machine tools, chemicals, oil, mineral fertilisers and processing metal, none of which reflected Lithuania's needs. This entire infrastructure functioned on the basis of imported raw materials and energy resources. It employed tens of thousands of workers who immigrated into Lithuania.

During the 1980's, one of the largest nuclear power stations in Europe was constructed near Ignalina in northeastern Lithuania.


In the spring of 1985, perestroika, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, began in the Soviet Union. On the 3rd of June, 1988, taking advantage of the weakening of the totalitarian state, some representatives of the intelligentsia founded Sajudis, a democratic reform movement, in Vilnius. The summer of that year was spent under the Sajudis flag, as the entire country was joining Sajudis support groups and holding peaceful meetings. The symbols of the independent country of the inter-war period were introduced publicly. The Constituent Congress of the organisation, held on 22nd-23rd October, defined the guidelines on the basis of which it was decided to move towards the restoration of an independent state. In March 1989 the representatives of the Sajudis won election to the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet Union's highest legislative body, and were able to fight for Lithuanian interests at the Kremlin in Moscow.

At that time, Estonia was the furthest advanced along the path of legal emancipation: already in November 1988 it had adopted a declaration of sovereignty. Urged by the Sajudis, the Lithuanian communist legislature also issued a declaration, in May 1989, stating that the laws of Lithuania superseded those of the Soviet Union. An assembly of the People's Fronts of Latvia and Estonia and Sajudis of Lithuania took place during the same month, in Tallinn, which projected a common strategy and tactics for self-liberation from the Soviet occupation.

On 23rd August 1989, the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), approximately 2 million people from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia stood on the Vilnius-Tallinn road, holding hands. The unprecedented living chain measured nearly 600 km in length. This action for freedom became known as The Baltic Way.

During 1989, the political situation in Lithuania started increasingly to resemble the life of an independent country: one after the other, the public and even the communist organisations were declaring their separation from Moscow. Upon his arrival in Vilnius in January 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev could no longer restrain the Lithuanian communists, who had separated from Moscow and were demanding total state independence. In February 1990, Sajudis representatives won election to the legislature of Lithuania, the Supreme Council, and on the 11th of March the Act of the Restoration of Independence was proclaimed. Vytautas Landsbergis was elected Chairman of the Supreme Council. The difficult transition period leading up to independence de facto and de jure commenced.

In January 1991, the Soviet Army seized the Lithuanian Television, radio and other vital state institutions, which at that time were subordinate only to the laws of Lithuania. Unarmed, peaceful people offered resistance against the army, and 14 people perished in the effort. A referendum was held on the 9th of February, following the tragic January events, in which an absolute majority of the population of Lithuania came out for the restoration of an independent state.

On the 11th of February, Iceland's Althing recognised Lithuania's independence de jure. After the unsuccessful August putsch in Moscow, Russia recognised the independence de jure of Lithuania on 6th September. Many other states followed suit immediately afterwards.

On the 17th of September 1991, Lithuania became a full member of the United Nations.

On the 31st of August 1992, the last Russian soldier left the territory of Lithuania.