The tolerant capital of the largest medieval state (Until 1655)
According to a legend, Vilnius was established by duke Gediminas in early 14th century after his dream of an iron wolf was so interpreted by a pagan oracle Lizdeika. Modern historians however usually claim that the city is at least as old as the Lithuanian state itself and that the country‘s first Christian church built by King Mindaugas in the 13th century stood at the same place where the Vilnius Cathedral stands today.
Whatever its beginnings were, Vilnius became an important city by the 14th century (it received Magdeburg law in 1387). With the conquests of Grand Duke Vytautas Vilnius became the capital of what was at the time the Europe‘s largest country, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was a very tolerant city where Muslim Tatars from Crimea, Lutheran German merchants, Jewish craftsmen, the Catholic Lithuanian and Polish elite, pagan-leaning Lithuanian commoners and Orthodox Ruthenians lived side-by-side peacefully, each group building their own temples in their own streets and districts.
In this era the irregular Old Town layout developed, walled in 1503. As the richness of the city grew more and more palaces, churches and monasteries adorned its narrow streets. Not even the 1569 Union of Lublin which created a Polish-Lithuanian confederacy with capital in Cracow rather than Vilnius was able to defuse the importance of Vilnius as the Kings still used their palace here. Vilnius University established in 1579 by the Jesuits became a primary center of science and education in the Eastern Europe.
Where to see the era today? The Gothic churches of Saint Anne, Saint Francis, Saint Nicholas, and some others in Maironio, Šv. Mikalojaus, Trakų streets (all in the Old Town) date to this era (even if their interiors have been modified). The old campus of Vilnius University also survived the historical ravages almost intact. There are some very old buildings in Pilies street.
The era of lavish churches and impending doom (1655-1795)
The prosperous centuries came to a horrible halt on 1655 when the strengthening Russia (Muscovy) invaded and sacked the city in a long campaign of looting, mass-murdering and raping. The days of Poland-Lithuania as a great power ended, and so were the days Vilnius as a seat of power. Vilnius palace became neglected and the Kings ceased visiting it. Furthermore, the Russian (Orthodox) and Swedish (Lutheran) invasions eroded the remarkable religious tolerance.
Although no longer one of the Europe‘s main cities Vilnius continued to exist. The uncertain future at mercy of surrounding great powers encouraged the local noble families to secure their afterlife by building lavish Baroque churches that still crown the city skyline. By that time Polish-speaking Catholic culture had become the elite one as many local Lithuanians abandoned their language in favor of the more prestigious Polish.
The knot around Poland-Lithuania was tightening and the country started to lose lands rapidly in the late 18th century. In 1795 Vilnius was captured by the Russians who were to stay for 120 years.
The industrial era under Imperial Russian rule (1795-1918)
After Vilnius was annexed to Russia in 1795 it continued to be a backwater with a population of 50 000. However, Vilnius University remained a major intellectual center with various secret societies swiftly established, such as filaretai or filomatai, each of them aimed at critically studying history and potentially restoring the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
Knowing this the Russians closed the Vilnius Univesity in 1832 (after a failed revolt) forcing the Lithuanian elite to seek education in Saint Petersburg. Vilnius remained an administrative seat (the capital of Northwestern Krai, roughly comprising of today‘s Lithuania and Belarus). As such, the government wanted to make the city look more Russian. Some of the Catholic church buildings were converted to Russian Orthodox or secular use, some others demolished, monuments for czars and governors were constructed.
A true possibility to change the face of the city came in 1860 when the industrial revolution finally reached Lithuania. That year the first train on the new Saint Petersburg-Warsaw railroad arrived at Vilnius. Other amenities of the era came to the city as well, even if lagging several decades behind the West: gas lighting in 1864, horse-drawn tram in 1893, electricity in 1903 and public buses in 1905.
Technological changes implicated social changes and a process of rapid urbanization started. A grand new civic center was constructed to the west of the Old Town (known as New Town), to be joined by largely wooden suburbs of Žvėrynas, Šnipiškės, Naujininkai, Rasos, Žvejai and Naujieji Pastatai in the 1890s and 1900s. The main additions were planned to follow grid layout that was anchored on large new Russian Orthodox churches. Their wide streets were named after locations and heroes of the large Russian Empire. With Lithuanian language banned in 1863, the official public inscriptions were also in Russian.
The final decades before the World War 1 witnessed the most massive construction. Businessmen conceived 4 to 6 story buildings in the New Town, full of rental apartments, hotels, trade rooms for their businesses and smaller yet elaborate so-called urban villas for their own residences. Many stately administrative buildings were erected, such as the enormous Railways HQ. On the eve of the War Vilnius had a population of over 210 000.
No ethnic, religious or linguistic majority existed in Vilnius after tens of thousands Russians and Jews moved in (Vilnius had been among the few cities where Czar would permit Jews to freely settle). But even this policy of cultural dilution failed to promote assimilation.
The Lithuanian National Revival turned Vilnius into a capital once again, even if a shadow one. With the scrapping of some anti-Lithuanian policies in 1904 „Vilniaus žinios“ newspaper was published here by the Vileišis family. In 1905 the Great Seimas of Vilnius convened in the city, declaring an aim for an autonomous Lithuanian country that soon turned into a drive for independence.
Where to see the era today? New Town (Naujamiestis) borough still boasts pre-war stately buildings and Orthodox churches, once visited by the career government workers from Saint Petersburg. In Žvėrynas and Šnipiškės you may catch a glimpse of how poorer suburban people lived at the time (in the case of Šnipiškės some live that way even today, lacking basic amenities). In Bernardinai and Rasos cemeteries (Old Town and Southern Vilnius boroughs respectively) the elite and the commoners of the era are interred, while Markučiai manor (Southern Vilnius) is now a museum partly dedicated to the Russian nobility of the era.
The era of Polish rule and conflict over Vilnius (1918-1939)
With the revolution of Russia and German surrender in World War 1 the rulers of Vilnius changed some 10 times in years 1918-1922. The city was culturally important to four different ethnicities: Lithuanians, Poles, Jews and Belarusians. Furthermore, both Russian monarchists and communists wanted to restore the former boundaries of Russia, with Vilnius inside them. Of these six entities only the Jews lacked a military force.
Having beaten back the Russians who in turn subdued Belarusians, Poles and Lithuanians were the last two left to quarrel over Vilnius. In 1920 Polish irregular forces captured the city in breach of the previous treaty of Suwalki. This was the start of a painful final divorce of Lithuanian and Polish nations.
Lithuania never recognized the loss of Vilnius and remained at a state of war with Poland. International mediation failed. The plight for Vilnius was a major topic at any interwar celebration in Lithuania where the choirs would sing „Mes be Vilniaus nenurimsim“ („We won‘t calm down without Vilnius“) hymn. Many streets and squares in Lithuanian towns were renamed after the city, „Vilnius oaks“ were planted, „Union for the Liberation of Vilnius“ established.
It is unclear how many people in Vilnius itself identified themselves as Lithuanians as the 1931 census asked only for a single mother tongue (Polish-speakers reclaimed majority and less than 1% were said to reply "Lithuanian"). Ethnic minorities faced restrictions, e.g. having their students in Vilnius (Polish name: Wilno) university limited by law. Most of them decreased in numbers after WW1: most Russians (Imperial officers and officials) left for Russia, many Jews departed to Palestine and some Lithuanians also migrated away. However, the minorities still cherished their cultural institutions, such as YIVO (an international institute of Yiddish that has since relocated to New York).
A joke of the era was that Vilnius would not be subjected to a conflict only if it would be depopulated and turned into a museum. If people would have known that the first part of this joke will soon almost become true they probably wouldn't have laughed at it.
The city was an economic outback of Poland and only a limited construction took place, in contrast to Kaunas or Warsaw of the era. The total population of the city was 195 071 during the 1931 census, the declining communities replaced by new Polish migrants.
Where to see the interwar era today? Limited large-scale construction leaves limited opportunities. The best visible building of the era is the hilltop Three Crosses monument even if it was demolished by the Soviets and then rebuilt. There are 1930s buildings in the Gedimino Avenue (New Town). Typically a flat roof coupled with old school architectural details indicate that a building was built in this era. A district of terrace homes in Antakalnis borough ant the opposing side of the roundabout from the Saint Peter and Paul church is another remnant of the era. There are many interwar homes in Žvėrynas and Šnipiškės (including the Žvėrynas Catholic church). In the case of wooden residentials, it might be hard to differentiate between pre-1918 and post-1918 ones unless a date is inscribed somewhere on the facade.
The 20 years that changed Vilnius forever (1939 – 1959)
In 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and this sparked the World War 2. Vilnius was captured by the Soviets on September 1939. They sacked the city and then presented an ultimatum to Lithuania. Under this ultimatum, Lithuania would be given 1/5th of the Vilnius region (including the city) but would have to accept Soviet military bases in its territory. Refusal would have meant imminent Soviet invasion, therefore Lithuania accepted.
„Vilnius belongs to us and we belong to the Russians“ was a popular irony at the time. It wasn‘t far from the truth as by the mid-1940 Russian forces deposed the Lithuanian government and completely occupied and annexed Lithuania in three months time. Vilnius felt the full swing of nationalization campaign and the genocide of Lithuanian nation. „There will be Lithuania – but without the Lithuanians“ – said Mikhail Suslov, the chairman of USSR Central Comity Bureau for Lithuanian Affairs. In June 1941 alone some 2% of the entire Lithuania's population (50 000) were forced into railroad cattle carriages and deported to Siberia where most died. Campaigns like this became even larger under the Second Soviet Occupation. Vilnius's eastern location and railway hub status meant that most deportees were moved through the city.
Nazi German invasion (1941) relieved the pressure on some ethnicities (among them Lithuanians) but increased it on some others. The entire Jewish population of Vilnius, never before segregated from the others in what for centuries had been a tolerant multicultural city, was suddenly locked in a ghetto. A large share of them (up to 30 000) eventually were killed at Paneriai suburb in 1941-1943, many others were sent to labor camps or fled; Jewish population declined from 54 600 in 1931 to 16 400 in 1959.
With the help of other allies in the west Soviets beaten back the Germans in the east in 1944. Vilnius was in turmoil as here not two, but at least four different factions fought for dominance, every single of them hostile to every other one. In addition to the Germans and Russians, there was Lithuanian resistance that sought to re-establish independent Lithuania and also Armia Krajowa – a Polish force that fought for Wilno as a part of Poland. The later two were poorly armed and never played a significant role. They were eventually crushed by the Soviets, although their ability to sometimes hoist their own flags on the Gediminas Hill Castle Tower and inflict damages on the enemies boosted their morale.
After the 1944 occupation of Lithuania Vilnius saw one of the biggest campaigns of destruction it witnessed in its history. Soviets closed and desecrated churches, destroyed chapels, upturned cemeteries, burned non-communist books, removed archives, stole sacred paintings and sold them on the black market, arrested, deported and murdered people. Everything that reminded of either Germany, Lithuania, Poland or non-Orthodox faith was attacked and destroyed. But this was only the beginning. When the Russian architects have drawn their plans of Vilnius of the future it became clear that the Soviets want to completely obliterate entire boroughs of the old city and rebuild it on the Soviet model.
The project was started but never completed. Buildings that you may now only see in old pictures include large chunks of Jewish district and the Vilnius Great Synagogue, multiple cemeteries, residential districts in Vokiečių, Rūdninikų, Vilniaus and other streets, the municipal building, „Europa“ hotel (the largest in Vilnius), the Piarists college, the Kardinalija palace. Luckily a change of policies saved Saint Catherine church, the Gate of Dawn and many other famous centuries-old structures that were also initially condemned to destruction by Anikin, the architect from Leningrad behind the plans of Vilnius „redevelopment“.
The districts destroyed by the Soviets were replaced by large Stalinist buildings or transformed into squares and wide avenues. Old statues were replaced by new ones, dedicated to various communists and Russian soldiers. Road maps had to be redrawn with the majority of centuries-old street names changed to ones such as „Lenin Avenue“, „Red Army Avenue“ or „Gorkiy Street“. Citizens themselves were replaced: Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians were being relocated to the Vilnius homes of Poles, Jews and Lithuanians who were recently murdered or expelled.
In this time most of the Catholic churches were closed and turned into sports halls, warehouses, and factories, their cultural wonders stolen and lost. Lutherans, Reformed Christians, Muslims and Jews shared a similar uprooting of their religious culture. The only mosque of Vilnius was destroyed, while the majority of Vilnius Jews switched from Yiddish to the Russian language, and only 25% of them did not abandon their religion.
The only religious community that was persecuted less was the Russian Orthodox one. Not only their churches were not attacked but even their Holy Spirit monastery was allowed to operate at a time when monastic life was banned in Soviet Lithuania and every Catholic monastery had been disbanded.
Where to see the era today? The Soviet demolition campaign may be best seen in the Old Town Vokiečių street, Geto Aukų square and parts of Vilniaus street, where dense medieval neighborhoods had been replaced by squares and 1950s-1980s buildings. Massive Stalinist buildings are best visible in Goštauto street and nearby Žaliasis bridge, additionally there is Pergalė cinema in Pamėnkalnio street (all in Naujamiestis). To learn about the genocides you may visit the Genocide museum in former HQ of both KGB and Gestapo (New Town), Tuskulėnai memorial (Žirmūnai borough) as well as the Paneriai memorial (southwestern suburbs).
The era of concrete slab boroughs followed by fifteen minutes of worldwide fame (1959 – 1991)
With the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet persecutions were gradually weakened although the policy remained totalitarian. What was already changed remained changed (including the closed churches and street names), save for an occasional removal of references to Stalin, whose personality cult was uprooted by the new leader Nikita Khrushchev. However, the tide that threatened to destroy the Lithuanian culture altogether ceased to rise. For instance, the settling of the country slowed down: while the number of Russians and Russophones in Vilnius increased from 10 000 (~5% of total) in 1939 to 100 000 (~40%) in 1959, it only further increased to 170 000 by 1989 (~30%).
The monumental style of Stalinist buildings was changed to a functionalist one devoid of any architectural details. It was these mass-produced apartment blocks that were to become the new face of Vilnius. Instead of replacing Old Town they were largely built in place of former wooden suburbs throughout the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s completely new boroughs were constructed to the north and west, connected to the center and to each other by wide avenues, traversed by unbelievably crammed public buses and trolleybuses (private cars were always a kind of luxury in the USSR).
New construction in downtown was now limited to flagship buildings, such as the apartments of Communist Party officials, meeting hall of the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania (currently the parliament) or the Opera and Ballet theater.
The population of Vilnius increased from 236 000 in 1959 to 576 000 in 1989 in what was effectively the prime era of urbanization in Lithuania‘s history. Some of this increase was due to immigration from the rest of USSR, but more and more rural Lithuanians found their home in Vilnius as well. The relocation was no easy deal, as the population was tightly controlled by the government and many of those who wanted to settle in Vilnius were refused permits and forced to live in the countryside instead.
Vilnius became the intellectual center of Lithuania. However with only 50% of its population ethnically Lithuanian it left the title of the cultural center to Kaunas. Russian language was the lingua franca in the Soviet Union, thus it was also much-used in the interethnic Vilnius (something heavily promoted by the Soviets). Nevertheless, an underground opposition always existed, its secret networks uniting street musicians of Gedimino Avenue to the Roman Catholic Church, to the banned and persecuted Freedom League of Lithuania, to the hiking clubs that were always treated with suspicion due to their habit to choose historically important places as the goal of their weekend expeditions.
With the rise of Gorbachev and his perestroika campaign the Sąjūdis movement was born in 1988 out of this underground opposition. It was also joined by freedom-sympathisers who previously would not have risked their lives to openly endorse Lithuanian independence. In mere months what the Soviets once considered to be just another of their provincial capitals was catapulted to worldwide news networks such as CNN and BBC as the global population impatiently waited how would the Lithuanian aspirations unfold. By the March 11th of 1990 in the same old hall of the Supreme Soviet the first democratically-elected parliament to convene in Vilnius declared independence. The Russian blockade followed, leaving Vilnius without fuel for heating or cars, and eventually a military aggression on January 11th-13th of 1991 that killed 14 people and injured 700. Due to an unbelievable cohesion of the people of Vilnius who stood armless against the Soviet tanks all these actions failed. The Soviet Union collapsed. This collapse (and the end of Cold War) started here – in Vilnius.
Where to see the era today? Entire Soviet districts survive almost intact with only a few modern shops and apartment buildings here and there. You may easily pick up one of them and stroll, be it Fabijoniškės, Pašilaičiai, Pilaitė or Lazdynai. There are some functionalist buildings of the era in the city center as well. The focal points of defense by January 1991 were the TV Tower (Karoliniškės) and the Parliament (New Town) - memorials exist at both.
Capital of a modern European state (1991 and beyond)
The restoration of independence (marked in Vilnius by removal of Soviet statues, restoration of the old street names and vacation of Soviet military bases) flattered Lithuanians‘ hearts, but the 50 years of exploitation took their toll. The city was lagging far behind the Western standards in almost every statistic. Its factories were uncompetitive, its people crammed into little yet uneconomic flats, real estate prices ridiculously small but nevertheless out of reach for many locals. Many reforms were to be done, and in the following decade, Vilnius led these reforms in Lithuania, always followed by Klaipėda and Kaunas, in that order.
The free market killed some of the old factories yet new businesses started to thrive in places such as Gariūnai marketplace in western Vilnius. Private shops sprung up and the lack of goods that plagued Soviet era was a thing of the past, all western trademarks becoming readily available. By some 1995s the shopkeepers even started to smile (something unheard of in the Soviet Union where the client was always wrong and frequently yelled at).
Most of the churches were reopened and new ones were conceived in the churchless Soviet boroughs. Used car import business was among the most lucrative, the number of private cars quadrupled in 1990-2010 and traffic jams formed for the first time in the late 1990s. McDonald‘s opened 4 outlets.
In 1997 the first office high-rise was built (Hanner building). By 2003 there was entire skyscraper district in southern Šnipiškės. Modern style with glass facades prevailed. Among those was the new Vilnius municipality building, the first example of public-private partnership in Lithuania.
In 2000 Akropolis, the first hypermarket in Vilnius and Lithuania, opened, to be followed by many more. This changed the Lithuanian shopping habits, luring them from bazaar-like markets.
After 2000 the residential construction boomed with bank credits supplanting the cash payments (in US dollars or German marks) that were common in the quite lawless era of the early 1990s. North Town Soviet military base in Žirmūnai was the first area to be redeveloped, to be followed by many modern apartment blocks elsewhere.
Most of the new rich did not wait for the construction boom. Prestigious residences in the 1990s were large detached home in one of the rapidly developing suburbs (Kairėnai, Pavilnis, Zujūnai). Such buildings sprung up, their owners caring primarily about size rather than architectural appeal. By 2000s the Western ideas reached suburbia and new uniformly-developed gated communities outcompeted the „private castles“ of 1990s.
Being the capital Vilnius received a fair share of new public buildings. Among those are the Sodra palace, two extensions of Vilnius airport (1993 and 2007), a minimalist General prosecutors office (a black cube with windows that glow blue at night) and the extension of the parliament building. The most controversial addition was undoubtedly the Palace of Grand Dukes, a hundreds-of-millions-worth reconstruction of a long-lost palace right next to the Vilnius Cathedral. Despite the complaints on wasted money and doubtful authenticity many needed the Palace to signify that Vilnius is once again the Lithuanian capital - just as in the medieval era.
The medieval tolerance and social cohesion returned as well. The percentage of Lithuanians peaked at ~60% - as the city and government majority ethnicities were now the same (while the minorities were allowed full democratic participation), the communities stopped to see each other as a threat.
In 1997 a campaign to repair the crumbling Old Town of Vilnius was launched. The main squares and streets became picture-perfect. Abandoned buildings were bought up by residential and hotel developers. Hotels received more and more guests from the West, discovering this once hidden gem.
The main transformation ended in some 2001 when Vilnius was effectively a modern Western city. Its population still earned smaller wages, however, causing tens of thousands Vilnius residents emigrate westwards after Lithuania's European Union membership (2004) abolished migration controls.
Vilnius was saved from a major population slump only by Lithuanians moving in from other localities. These trends made the demographic decline in the rest of Lithuania even acuter, increasing the gap between Vilnius and other cities.
By 2011 Vilnius was already 69% more populous than the second-largest city Kaunas (the difference stood at 37% back in 1989). As the capital, it also attracted most talents and key business HQs. Such transformation of Lithuania into a "single-city nation" is popularly seen as unwelcome. To combat it the government has been transferring the majority of income tax paid by Vilnius residents to other areas.
Where to see the era today? If you want to see 1990s suburbs like Kairėnai are your best bet as well as the church boom religious buildings like the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis church in Karoliniškės. If you prefer the 2000s, you have inherently more options: the main shopping malls (Akropolis, Ozas, Panorama), the extensive new residential districts (North Town in Žirmūnai, Perkūnkiemis beyond Pašilaičiai) and of course the New City Center high-rises in southern Šnipiškės. Grand Dukes Palace is near the Cathedral.