The knight on a white charger, Vytis (Vee’tes), appeared on Lithuanian coins, official seals, and the coat of arms of Lithuanian rulers in the 14th century. Vytis is now Lithuania’s emblem. A stylized version of Vytis is popular among Lithuanian-Americans and appears in LAC’s logo.
Founding of the kingdom of Lithuania. Grand Duke Mindaugas agrees to be baptized and to baptize his people. The Pope proclaims him king and Mindaugas is crowned in 1253. When King Mindaugas is assassinated, the country reverts to folk beliefs based on the sacredness of natural phenomena.
Lithuania expands rapidly eastward and southward to the Black Sea, because Russian principalities prefer the tolerant rule of Lithuanians to that of the Tartars. Grand Duke Jogaila (1351-1434) converts to Christianity, marries Poland’s queen, and rules Poland, 1386-1434. In Poland, Jogaila is known as King Wladislaw II Jagiello.
Under Grand Duke Vytautas (~1350-1430), cousin of Jogaila, Lithuania expands to become the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Feudal system appears in Lithuania.
Lithuania and Poland form the “Commonwealth of Two Nations” (1569) but retain separate legal systems and administrative structures. Protestant Reformation reaches Lithuania. First Lithuanian book, Mazvydas’ Cathecism, published in 1547. The Counter Reformation brings Jesuits to Lithuania; they establish Vilnius University in 1579, one of the oldest universities in Central Europe and the oldest university in Eastern Europe.
Growing strength of nobles and landed gentry; ruinous wars with Russians, Cossacks, Swedes, and Turks. Peasants conscripted into armies, gentry exact tribute and labor. Feudal system/serfdom becomes entrenched. Commonwealth suffers a decline.
The weakened “Commonwealth of Two Nations” undergoes three partitions: in 1772, by Russia, Prussia, and Austria and in 1793, by Russia and Prussia. In 1794, Lithuanians and Poles mount a resistance. Lithuanians are led by Jokubas Jasinskis; Poles–by Thaddeus Kosciuszko. In 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria carve up the “Commonwealth” a final time, with Russia getting most of Lithuania.
Lithuanians rise up against Russia in 1831 and in 1863. Reprisals. Hangings. Whole villages burned to the ground. Insurgents exiled to Siberia. Men conscripted into the Russian army for 25 years; some escape conscription by fleeing to the U.S.
As part of an effort to russify Lithuanians, Russia forbids any printing of Lithuanian texts in the Latin alphabet (1864-1904); publishers of Lithuanian books, distributors are punished, incarcerated, even exiled to Siberia. Lithuanians print books outside Lithuania (Lithuanian Americans help with financing) and book-runners get books into the country; women participate in local distribution; children are taught to read clandestinely from prayer books. The Lithuanian spirit surges.
Bishop Motiejus Valancius involves half the population in a temperance movement, establishes a network of parish schools. A major promoter of Lithuanian identity is a newspaper, Ausra (Dawn, 1883-86), yes, printed in the Latin alphabet.
Germany fights Russia on Lithuanian soil. Germany advances,
occupies Lithuania. Extreme requisitions of farm animals and grain from farmers. Forests cut down for wood. The capital, Vilnius, on the verge of starvation.
1918, February 16
Lithuania’s Council declares Lithuania an independent country. Lithuania’s Jews support independence for Lithuania (they will come out for Lithuanian independence again in 1990). Note: February 16 is a major holiday in Lithuania and the main commemorative event among Lithuanian Americans.
Soviet Russia invades Lithuania, meets resistance from Lithuanian volunteers who are also fighting Poles who wish to make Lithuania a part of Poland and German mercenaries (“Bermondtists” led by Colonel Bermondt, a Russian adventurer) who are intent on reclaiming Lithuania for the czar. Lithuanians succeed in repelling the invaders, but the Vilnius region and Vilnius, Lithuania’s historical capital, remain under Polish occupation for 19 years, until 1939.
In 1920, Soviet Russia signs a peace treaty and recognizes Lithuania’s independence.
Lithuania is a parliamentary republic (1920-1926) then
comes under authoritarian rule of President Antanas Smetona (1926-1940). Land reform breaks up estates, distributes land creating many new landowners; agricultural production almost doubles. Rapid westernization and industrialization. Burst of cultural activity. Education achieves close to universal literacy.
Lithuania accepted into the League of Nations, 1921.
Stalin and Hitler divide spheres of influence (1939, secret
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and Soviet Union occupies and annexes Lithuania in 1940. Note: The U.S. and most European countries do not recognize legitimacy of Soviet annexation of Lithuania.
June 14, deportations to Siberia of people in leadership positions: government and municipal employees, teachers, farmers, priests, blue- and white-collar workers, professors, also anyone with an interest in international affairs (even stamp collectors!), also their families, including the newborn and the old, are squashed into railroad box cars and deported; many will travel for months, some beyond the Arctic Circle. In less than a week, 18,000 people are gone. Advancing German army interrupts deportations.
Nazi Germany occupies Lithuania and commando units, with help from locals, murder about 92% (220,000) of Lithuania’s Jews. In 1943, Germany calls for a Lithuanian “Waffen SS” unit. Lithuanian Resistance calls for non-compliance, induction centers remain empty, no Lithuanian “Waffen SS” unit is formed. In retaliation, Germans shut down all universities and send prominent Lithuanian political, cultural, and religious leaders to Nazi concentration camps. A few survive to write about it (among them Rev. Stasys Yla, later chaplain at a Lithuanian convent in Connecticut and beloved and indefatigable activist among Lithuanian Americans, especially youth, until his death in 1983).
Soviet Union reoccupies Lithuania. About 62,000 flee to the West
(among them many who had been slated for deportation in 1941). About 30,000 of the refugees eventually arrive in the U.S.
Soviet occupation of Lithuania. 250,000 Lithuanians deported to Siberia in first nine years. Collectivization destroys agricultural traditions. Lithuanians resist, including by joining the “Brothers of the Forest.” Ruthless eradication of Resistance (one of the longest-surviving field commanders is Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas who was born in New Britain, CT. He is executed in 1957 after suffering hideous torture).
The Soviet mold is imposed on all aspects of life. Ties to the West are forbidden, mail and phone calls are censored. For years people live without knowing the fate of family members, relatives, and friends.
Because of Lithuania’s strategic location, Moscow builds excellent highways to facilitate troop movement and to double as runways for planes. Important Soviet scientific R&D is done in Lithuania, building up Lithuania’s scientific expertise and infrastructure. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (the Baltic countries) become known in the Soviet Union as “the West.”
“Sajudis” starts as a movement (“sajudis” means movement in Lithuanian) to support Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika but quickly becomes a movement for independence.
Lithuania’s Communist Party severs ties with the Soviet Union’s Communist Party.
1990Lithuanians elect a Supreme Council which votes on March 11 to restore Lithuania’s independence.
Moscow declares an economic blockade. Soviet tanks rumble through major cities. Moscow cuts off delivery of oil; kindergartners through university students wear mittens in class, people go to sleep in their coats in clammy beds, clothes grow moldy in wardrobes, and wallpaper peels from unheated walls. But Lithuanians stand firm.
January, Soviet Chairman Gorbachev demands that Lithuanians submit to Soviet authority. Lithuanian Supreme Council rejects ultimatum. Moscow deploys special forces, OMON, to occupy television and radio transmitters in Vilnius. Thousands rush to defend their television and radio tower with their bare hands. Soviet tanks crush to death 13 defenders. Foreign reporters get story and pictures out to international media. Moscow recalls OMON but continues to occupy television and radio tower.
February 9, Lithuania holds a plebiscite. Participation is 84.5%; 90.5% vote for independence.
Boris Yeltsin accepts Lithuania’s right to independence. Iceland is first country to recognize Lithuania as a sovereign state; U.S. is 37th.
Lithuania admitted to the United Nations.
Russia withdraws Soviet troops from Lithuania. Lithuania faces a total rethinking, retooling, and refinancing of its governmental, social, economic, educational, trade, defense, and other processes after half a century of Soviet diktat. Various Russian threats. Lithuania asks to join NATO.
March 29, Lithuania becomes a member of NATO.
May 1, Lithuania joins the European Union.