History of Lithuania
Travel to Vilnius, Lithuania to discover this beautiful country. The ancestors of modern Lithuanians were a people called the Balts who arrived in the area about 2,000 BC. In c.1240 AD a man named Mindaugas united the Lithuanian tribes. In 1251 he converted to Christianity. However Mindaugas was assassinated in 1263 and his people reverted to paganism. In 1316 Lithuania was united again by a man named Gediminas. He chose the title grand duke rather than king and under his rule Lithuania grew strong. He made Vilnius the capital and he encouraged settlers from other parts of Europe.
Lithuania expanded eastwards into what is now Belarus and Ukraine. However they faced a growing threat from the Teutonic Knights. They were an order of German knights who crusaded against the pagans in the Baltic.
In 1377 Jogaila became Grand Duke of Lithuania. In 1381 he was forced to flee Vilnius by his uncle, Kestutis, who declared himself Grand Duke. However in 1382 Jogaila seized power in Vilnius while Kestutis was away. He captured both Kestutis and his son Vytautus.
Then in 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila married Jadwiga of Poland. The Polish Sejm (parliament) elected him King of Poland. Jogaila accepted Christianity and most of his people converted. Afterwards Jogaila was based in Poland. He was too far away from Lithuania to rule so in 1392 he made peace with Vytautus, his former enemy. Vytautus (1350-1430) was made Grand Duke of Lithuania, on condition that he lent his support to Jogaila. In 1410 the Poles and Lithuanians routed the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Tannenberg and ended the threat from the Teutonic Knights forever.
Under Vytautus, known as the Great, Lithuania was at its peak. During his reign Lithuania extended its territory to the east. In 1447 Casimir Jagiellon, Grand Duke of Lithuania, became King of Poland. So the two states then had one ruler. The two states kept their own armies but they agreed not to make treaties with foreign countries without the others consent. Both also kept their own laws but a common currency was introduced. A joint parliament called the Sejm began meeting in Warsaw and from 1573 Poland and Lithuania had a joint ruler elected by all the nobles.
Gradually Poland came to dominate Lithuania. Polish became the language of upper class Lithuanians. Meanwhile, during the 16th century the Reformation reached Lithuania. Protestantism made some headway in Lithuania but in the later 16th century it was sent into retreat by the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Also in the 16th century Russia became an increasing threat to Lithuania. In 1512 the Russians took the Lithuanian city of Smolensk. In the early 17th century the Polish-Lithuanian union fought another war with the Russians and in 1611-1612 a Polish-Lithuanian force occupied Moscow. However in 1654 the Russians captured the eastern part of the Polish-Lithuanian union including Vilnius.
In the 18th century Poland and Lithuania declined and effectively became a Russian satellite. In 1773 Prussia, Austria and Russia agreed to help themselves to some Polish-Lithuanian territory. Russia took a slice of Lithuania. A second partition took place in 1793 and Russia took still more territory. In 1795 a third partition took place. Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist as independent nations and Lithuania came under Russian rule. In 1832 a rebellion spread to Lithuania. In 1863 the Poles and Lithuanians rose again but again they were crushed.
In the later 19th century the Russians introduced repressive measures such as restrictions on Catholicism. Furthermore only the Russian language could be used for teaching in secondary schools and books had to be published using the Cyrillic alphabet. Many Lithuanians escaped Russian repression by immigrating to North America. Despite the Russian measures there was a growing interest in Lithuanian culture and history.
In 1915 the Germans occupied Lithuania. In 1917 they allowed the Lithuanians to form an assembly called the Taryba. On 16 February 1918 the Taryba declared Lithuania independent. In 1920 the Russians recognized Lithuania as an independent country. However on 10 October 1920 the Poles occupied Vilnius. The Poles hung on to the city, which caused a great deal of tension with Lithuania. In 1926 an army coup took place in Lithuania. Afterwards Antanas Smetona ruled as virtual dictator.
In 1940 the Russian army occupied Lithuania. In August 1940 Lithuania was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Afterwards thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported. Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 and shortly afterwards they captured Lithuania. The Nazis ruled Lithuania for three years and during that time they virtually exterminated Lithuanian Jews.
However in July 1944 the Russians recaptured Vilnius. By the end of 1944 they had recaptured all of Lithuania. Once again they imposed a Communist regime on Lithuania.
Between 1945 and 1952 farms in Lithuania were collectivized. At the same time thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported. The Russians also developed industry in Lithuania but at the cost of great environmental damage.
Finally in the late 1980s the Communist tyranny in Lithuania began to crumble. In 1988 a popular front called Sajudis (the Movement) was formed. In 1989 Lithuania was granted some economic autonomy and in December 1989 the Lithuanian Communist Party became independent of the Communist Party of the USSR.
In March 1990 Sajudis won elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. That body then declared that Lithuania was an independent nation. However the Russians had other ideas and they imposed an economic blockade. In January 1991 Russian soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed demonstrators outside a TV tower in Vilnius.
On 19 August 1991 hard line Communists in Moscow attempted a coup. The coup was defeated and on 6 September 1991 the Russians recognized Lithuania as an independent country. In September 1991 Lithuania was admitted to the UN.
The 1990s were a painful period of adjustment as Communism was dismantled and Lithuania returned to a market economy. However Lithuania is now a prosperous country. The last Russian soldiers left Lithuania in 1993.
In 2004 Lithuania joined NATO and the EU. Lithuania suffered badly in the recession of 2009. However Lithuania recovered.
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