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 the 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.

Kaunas of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania historical era. At the time, just the area between Nemunas and Neris rivers was built up

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.

Provisional capital of the interwar Lithuania (1918-1939)

In 1918 Lithuania became independent, but with the Polish occupation of Vilnius city (1920) Kaunas was declared "Provisional 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 the 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 lived more Lithuanians in Kaunas (~375 000) than either Lithuanians in Vilnius (~340 000), Latvians in Riga (~330 000) or Estonians in Tallinn (~225 000) by 1989, this making Kaunas a kind of the cultural heart of the occupied Baltics.

A Soviet parade in the Unity Square shows the Soviet force to the people of Kaunas in the 1950s. By this time, all the Lithuanian monuments in the Unity square, including the Freedom Statue, were destroyed by the Soviets. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In some 1950s, Kaunas was often 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 some of its residents herding chickens and 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 the 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.

Never-completed and abandoned Soviet hotels, that were an eyesore of 1990s and 2010s Kaunas. The economic growth warranted their demolition and replacement by modern buildings only in the 2010s.

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.

~2015 Kaunas finally shed the remnants of the self-conscious image of the "second-and-far-behind" city as it has attracted foreign investment while its interwar heritage became increasingly recognized as unique in both Lithuania and abroad.

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