True Lithuania

History of Kaunas, Lithuania

Medieval merchant city (before 1795)

Thanks to its location on the confluence of two major rivers Kaunas was important for trade since its establishment in the Medieval era. By this time most of the trade went by rivers as there were no roads in Lithuania and everything was surrounded by lush forests. Unfortunately, rivers were also used by enemy forces and the main enemy of Lithuania in those days were the Teutonic Order. Kaunas castle was built in the 14th century to deter them from this strategic location.

Kaunas of the 1300s had German merchants of Hanseatic league among its inhabitants. In this era, the first churches were built. After Lithuania's Christianisation, they were soon joined by more magnificent gothic religious buildings in the early 1400s as the city expanded still centered around the City Hall square.

Despite its mercantile importance, Kaunas was not a capital of any voivodship at the time. It was part of Trakai voivodship of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and had a peak population of 10 000.

Fortress city of the Russian Empire (1795-1918)

First time Kaunas came to political prominence was only after the demise of the Grand Duchy. In 1843 Russian Empire (which has captured Kaunas in 1795) chose it as the capital of newly formed Kaunas Governorate that included approximately half of today's Lithuania. Moreover, Kaunas was made the seat of a Catholic diocese. Political and religious importance was followed by military one as the Imperial government chosen the city as a site for a new class I fortress.

Napoleon's 500 000-strong Grande Armee crosses Nemunas from Aleksotas to Kaunas in 1812. With Nemunas then forming Russia's western boundary this was where the doomed invasion began. After Napoleon was defeated Russia annexed the southern bank of Nemunas in 1815 (modern boroughs of Aleksotas, Freda, and Birutė).

The city was transformed by massive construction. Nine forts sprung up around the city (in years 1882 - 1915), with redoubts, batteries to support them and the Central Fortification as the inner ring of defense. To the east of the Old Town, the New Town was built with all the administration and housing for officers as well as the impressive Sobor and what is now known as the Freedom Avenue. Soldiers lived in yet other new or heavily expanded districts: Freda, Panemunė, Šančiai. Many of them continue to lay there in cemeteries. By the year 1896 military personnel made up 28% of the entire Kaunas population of 68 000.

In the fortress years, the entire city of Kaunas was surrounded by such barbed wire fence.

The fortress was never completed with a new fort erected every few years. After the first outer circle of defense was completed (seven forts by 1891) the government ordered the construction of a new one further from the city center. However, the advent of modern warfare changed everything and when the war against Germany finally started (the fortress was built mainly having such conflict in mind) in 1914 the mighty Kaunas fortress fell after a siege that lasted only a couple of weeks (1915). No new fortresses of this size have been constructed in the world ever since.

Temporary capital of interwar Lithuania (1918-1939)

In 1918 Lithuania became independent, but with the Polish occupation of Vilnius city (1920) Kaunas was declared "Temporary capital" and therefore the seat of government, parliament, and president. This was the golden age of Kaunas. In 20 years the city was transformed from a provincial outpost into a modern city, "swallowing" suburbs of Vilijampolė and Aleksotas while the number of people increased by 66% (92 000 to 153 000) as urbanization drive reached the agricultural Lithuania. New stately buildings sprung up in Naujamiestis and the district of Žaliakalnis was laid for the elite of the day. Almost entire high society of Lithuania resided in Kaunas - the country's top politicians and army officers, artists and sportsmen, local and foreign diplomats. It was a place of Lithuania's only international airport with flights to Koenigsberg, Riga, Smolensk and beyond; the home to Lithuania's sole opera theater, publishing houses, political intrigues and so on.

Faculty of Physics and Chemistry of the Vytautas Magnus university constructed in 1939. Sadly, this building was destroyed in World War 2.

Cultural heart of occupied Baltics (1940-1990)

After the Soviet occupation of Kaunas (1940-1941 and again after 1944), the city's high society and the middle class faced heavy repressions. Tens of thousands were killed or exiled to Siberia, many to their deaths, others were murdered outright. The majority of Kaunas Jews, mostly residing in Vilijampolė district, were killed by the Nazi Germany (its occupation lasted from 1941 to 1944). By 1945 the city population went down to 80 000.

Despite heavy losses, Kaunas remained a center of Lithuanian culture it became between the World Wars. Unlike in Vilnius or Klaipėda where Russians made a third of the population by 1959, in Kaunas their share never exceeded 10%. This was very important because in the Soviet Union Lithuanians had to learn the Russian language while Russians were not taught Lithuanian at schools thus making Russian the lingua franca for interethnic communication. In Vilnius and Klaipėda, therefore, Lithuanian language became less commonly heard in streets while in Kaunas it remained prevalent. Even in sheer numbers, there were more Lithuanians in Kaunas than either Lithuanians in Vilnius, Latvians in Riga or Estonians in Tallinn, this making Kaunas a kind of the cultural heart of the occupied Baltics.

A Lithuanian writer Tomas Venclova claims in his book that in some 1950s Kaunas was regarded by Lithuanians to be more of a city than Vilnius as in Kaunas the lifestyle was urban whereas in Vilnius, not a true capital of independent state for centuries, a more rural lifestyle prevailed with its residents herding chickens or pigs.

Other Lithuanians regarded people of Kaunas to be good entrepreneurs, something that was illegal in the Soviet Union. In the 1970s it was in Kaunas where student Romas Kalanta self-immolated in protest against the Soviet rule triggering further student demonstrations. It was the Kauno Žalgiris basketball team which battled CSKA Moscow in what effectively became political battles on the basketball court.

A protest in Kaunas after the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta. Similar protests took place in the Lithuanian communities abroad.

Under the Soviet rule, the city had been expanding northwards and was connected to Vilnius and Klaipėda by four-lane highways. Continuing urbanization increased its population to 214 000 in 1959 and 376 000 in 1980.

Second city of modern Lithuania (1990-)

In 1990 Lithuania was re-established with capital in Vilnius. The importance of Kaunas somewhat declined since and its population numbers were hit hard, decreasing from 418 000 in 1989 to mere 321 000 in 2011. A large share of Kaunas elite moved to Vilnius and many emigrated abroad.

While the post-independence economic growth started in Vilnius by ~1995 and then went to the seaport of Klaipėda it reached Kaunas by around 2003 with new office buildings and two major shopping centers (Akropolis and Mega) constructed. After Lithuania joined the European Union Ryanair started flying to Kaunas and brought in more tourists. In 2011 the 17 000 seat Kaunas Arena was opened and it was the place of the final matches of the 2011 European Basketball Championship.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Hello,

    Kaunas was a temporary capital of Lithuania between World War 1 and World War 2.
    When Kaunas was a capital city, I think Lithuanian goverment built many public buildings such as Historical Presidential Palace, Kaunas (Vilnius gatve 33), Kaunas State Musical Theatre (Laiseves aleja 91), etc..

    I am looking for a Parliament Building in Kaunas between 1920 and 1940 but I’m not able to find it.

    Do you have any information about Parliament Building in Kaunas during the First Republic of Lithuania (1920-1940) time?

    I will appreciate if you post any photo or information about Parliament Building in Kaunas during the First Republic of Lithuania (1920-1940) time.

    Also, I think Faculty of Physics and Chemistry Building of the Vytautas Magnus University which was constracted in 1939 was a jewel of Kaunas.
    It’s very sad that such a beautiful building was destoroyed during the World War 2.
    I hope Lithuanian government will restore it.

    Your ‘TRUE LITHUANIA’ is a very informative and practical Home page.
    I like very much.
    Keep doing good work.

    Thank you for your time.

    • Thank you. The last interwar parliament (1936-1940) convened in the building where Kaunas Philharmonie is now located (constructed in 1925-1928, Neoclassical style with Art Deco elements). Address is L. Sapiegos g. 5. Images may be found by typing “Kauno filharmonija” in Google.

      Kaunas of 1920s-1930s underwent a boom and many new buildings have been built, however some famous buildings, such as the Musical Theater, are in fact pre-1920.

      Indeed the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry building was beautiful, unfortunately reconstruction is unlikely as today the buildings are built simpler; very few WW2-destroyed buildings have been rebuilt. Under the Soviet occupation the attitude was vice-versa in fact: many little-damaged buildings were condemned to demolition. Today conservation is more important but it mostly cares about what still remains.

  2. Hello Ms. Augustinas,

    Thank you for your information about Lithuania’s inter-war Parliament building in Kaunas.
    I finally find out that the former Lithuanian Parliament building (L. Sapiegos gatve 5, Kaunas) is a current Kaunas Philharmonic Hall.
    The Palace of Justice and Parliament was built between 1925-1929, Neoclassical style by architect Edmundas Alfonsas Frykas .

    I also find out that there is a former Bank of Lithuania building in Kaunas (Maironio gatve 25, Kaunas). This building is also Neoclassical style, built between 1924-1927 by architect Mykolas Songaila.

    There is one building I couldn’t find out the information. That is a University of Lithuania Commerce School building, built in 1928 by architect Mykolas Songaila. University of Lithuania is currently known as Vytautas Magnus University.

    I found this building’s picture from Skyscrapercity.com ~Architecture of Lithuania in 1918-1940~ Aug,12th, 2013, 05:39PM, posted by Prosp #8.

    If you know about this building’s information, I will be very happy.

    Thank you very much.

    • That building (Commerce School) has never been built, same as other buildings shown in the same Skyscrapercity.com forum post (alternative projects were chosen). M. Songaila by the way was also the author of the destroyed faculty of Physics and Chemistry; he pursued Neoclassical style at the time many others were moving towards Art Deco.

      • Thank you for your information about University of Lithuania Commerce School building.
        I didn’t know that Commerce School building has never been built, but just projected in 1928. That is why I couldn’t find any Commerce school building photo from the internet.

        Also, it is interesting that architect of Vytautas Magnus University Faculty of Physics and Chemistry building and University of Lithuania Commerce School building is Mykolas Songaila.
        I think he was a prominent Lithuanian architect between the World Wars.

        I have learned a lot of Lithuanian architectural history from you.
        Thank you very much. (^~^)

  3. My grandparents use to live in Kaunas before the war (1933) . Their address was LUKSIO ……….1471 g-vé 13,bt 2. Any idea if the buildings in that street are still standing? Are the buildings I see when I google the same as before the war? Have you got any idea? Thanks.

    • Street names (and house numbering) in Lithuanian cities have been shuffled by the Soviet occupation. The street names were generally returned afterwards, but not the numbers. Some street names also remained changed or returned to another name. The current Lukšio street in Kaunas is not the same street as Lukšio street in the interwar period.

      That street is now known as Šv. Gertrūdos street. Its location can be seen in our map of Kaunas Old Town (click here and scroll down). You can also check in Google Street View.

      As for whether the particular building still stands, I don‘t know, as I don‘t know which house was numbered 13 in 1933. In general some 30%-50% of the houses in Šv. Gertrūdos street survive from pre-WW2 era, while others mostly date to Soviet occupation (and may have replaced older houses).

  4. what time did Kaunas get established

    • Like with many historic cities in strategic locations, this is not clear. The location of the confluence of the two major rivers of Lithuania (Neris and Nemunas) was presumably guarded by a castle since prehistory and likely a town existed on the flanks of the castle. It is possible that it was already so in the 4th-5th centuries AD or earlier. There was no writing and no historiography in the area at the time, however, to confirm this.

      In written history, Kaunas has been first mentioned in 1361 and the city has received Magdeburg law in 1408. While these dates are sometimes written as the dates of the establishment of Kaunas, this is not true. These dates are more like the dates of the recognition of Kaunas by the Western Christian civilization.


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