True Lithuania

History of Lithuania: Introduction

First known habitation of Lithuania dates back to the final ice age, 10 000 BC. The hunter-gatherers were slowly replaced by farmers. The origin of Baltic tribes in the area is disputed but it probably dates to 2500 BC. These forefathers of Lithuanians were outside the main migration routes and thus are among the oldest European ethnicities to have settled in approximately the current area.

These Baltic peoples traded amber with Romans and then fought Vikings. In the era, only one small tribe from the area around Vilnius was known as Lithuanians but it was this tribe that consolidated the majority of other Baltic tribes. This process accelerated under king Mindaugas who became a Christian and received a crown from the Pope in 1253. After his death, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania fell back to pagan ways leading to a centuries-long conflict with Teutonic Knights.

The eventual adoption of Christianity by Grand Duke Jogaila (1387) did not stop the knights. Lithuanians forged a long-lasting alliance with Poland that eventually extinguished the Teutonic threat. Ruled by Grand Duke Vytautas Lithuania became the largest state in Europe, stretching from Baltic to the Black sea in the 15th century.

Battle of Žalgiris (Grunewald) by Jan Matejko. This vanquishing of the Teutonic knights is seen as the main medieval triumph of Poles and Lithuanians by romanticist historians. Streets and sports franchises are named after Žalgiris.

A new threat came from the east with Moscow rapidly gaining power and conquering lands. In response, Lithuania and Poland formed a Commonwealth in 1569. Initially, it was successful in deterring enemies. However, the political union led to gradual Polonization of the Lithuanian nobility as Lithuanians of the time regarded Polish culture to be superior.

By the 17th century, Poland-Lithuania was weakened due to a unique yet hard-to-manage political system of "Noble democracy" where a consensus was a prerequisite for any important decision. The Commonwealth lost a series of wars that wiped out its great power position. In the late 18th century (1772-1795) the country was completely partitioned and annexed by Prussia, Austria, and Russia with the main Lithuanian lands falling under the Russian rule.

The Russians banned Lithuanian language and suppressed Catholic religion. There were two unsuccessful revolts to restore Poland-Lithuania (1831 and 1863) but eventually the National Revival established a goal for Lithuania independent of both Russia and Poland. The restoration of statehood finally became possible after both the crumbling Russian Empire and the Germans surrendered in World War 1.

Limited industrial revolution and urbanization took place in late 19th century but the newly independent Lithuania was still an agricultural society. The short period of prosperous freedom was cut short again by the World War 2 (1940). Lithuania was occupied once by the Nazi Germany and twice by the Soviet Union, both powers perpetrating genocides. The brutal Soviet occupation lasted for 45 years and only ended in 1990. In this era hundreds of thousands of people, including the entire intellectual elite, were murdered, tortured or expelled to Siberia in cattle carriages. This has left deep economical, psychological and spiritual scars within the Lithuanian nation.

Guerilla campaigns of 1940s-1950s were crushed and any resistance persecuted but the massive Sąjūdis movement (established 1988) made it clear that not even the Soviet machine was able to suppress Lithuanian will for freedom. On 1990 March 11th Lithuania became the first Soviet-controlled country to restore independence and despite Soviet aggression in 1991 that left some 20 people dead, the independence was not reversed. In fact, it (amongst other reasons) led to the total collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

In the 1990s Lithuania swiftly readopted capitalist economy and saw a massive economic growth, with modern skyscrapers, malls, detached homes, cars and renovated downtowns reaching Vilnius, Klaipėda, Kaunas and other cities, in that order. But the Soviet years left the economy decades behind that of the West. Disillusioned by unfulfilled hopes of getting rich quick many Lithuanians emigrated. This emigration reached epic proportions after Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004: the country lost up to 20% of its people to the newly accessible labor markets of the West.

See also: History of Vilnius, History of Kaunas, History of Klaipėda, History of Šiauliai, Ethnic relations history of Lithuania

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Hi, My husbands great-grandparents supposedly came to Pennsylvania in the mid-to-late 1800’s. On some documents they are said to be from Lithuania, Russia and/or Poland. Is this a common mistake by census takers, etc

    • At the time, most of Lithuania and Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire. As such, anybody from Lithuania (excluding Lithuania Minor) or central/eastern Poland at the time technically came from the Russian Empire.

      Also, the Lithuanian and Polish nations were still not finally separated after the long Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era. That is, some people considered themselves to be both Poles and Lithuanians, others considered themselves to be Polish-speaking Lithuanians, Poles (despite of being solely of Lithuanian ancestry) or just “the locals”. Likewise, what were the exact borders between Lithuania and Poland was also unclear as some ethnically and linguistically Lithuanian lands were ruled by the Russian Empire as a part of its Polish territory (e.g. Sudovia, ).

      Therefore, confusion among names “Russian”, “Lithuanian”, “Polish” is indeed common in the US census and similar data as it depended on whether the data considered the then-contemporary 19th century colonial empire (Russia), the original nation (Lithuania) or the pre-imperial 18th century status (Poland-Lithuania, sometimes called just Poland due to Polish cultural dominance).

      See the following articles for more information:

  2. Dear Augustinas Žemaitis,
    Thank you for the above information. It was very helpful.
    My grandmother ( born 1884 in Vizainiu, Koyno, Lithuania or Poland) and my grandfather ( born 1875 in Krivauta, Suwalki, Lithuania or Poland). What country were they born in on those dates? I remember my aunt saying my grandmother was born in one country and the next year it was another country. Also, I can not find those small towns on any map. Did the names change? Thank you for any help you can give me as I plan to visit but do not know what country will have my information. Beverley
    Please do not publish my email address. Thank you 🙂

    • At the time, both Lithuania and much of what is now Poland were ruled by the Russian Empire. However, while Kaunas Governorate (your grandmother’s birthplace) was ruled directly by Russia, the Suwalki Governorate was ruled as part of the nominally autonomous Poland. While in fact the autonomy was limited, there were some notable differences, including different calendar. In Kaunas Governorate, the Russian Orthodox Julian calendar applied whereas in Suvalkai Governorate it was the Catholic calendar. This meant that when crossing the boundary of the Governorates, you had to “alter your time” by two weeks as the Julian calendar lagged behind. So, maybe this was the real story – that your grandmother and grandfather were in a sense born in different countries – and the story just changed over the time? The territories in question remained a part of the Russian Empire until 1915 and the Suwalki Governorate was acquired by Russia from Prussia during the Napoleonic wars, long before they were born.

      As for exact locations, I am not sure. “Vizainiu” should be Vižainis (currently in Poland as Wiżajny) – however, Vyžainys was in Suwalki Governorate, not in Kaunas (Koyno), as you mention, so it is possible that governorate is a mistake.

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