History of Šiauliai is that of perpetual change as the city suffered many rearrangements and destructions. Maybe this is appropriate for a city first written about in a chronicle describing a nearby Saulė battle (1236).
In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1253-1795) most of the lands were nobility-owned and non-taxed. The remaining state land (so-called Economies) had to cover the costs of the entire central government. Since 1616 Šiauliai was part of the Grand Duchy’s largest Economy. After becoming its heart, the city was rebuilt on Neoclassical grid layout (18th century); the first industries (including Gubernija brewery) were established.
Šiauliai importance was cut short by the Russian Imperial occupation (1795-1915). The Economy was transferred to Zubov family of Russian nobles, favored by czarina Yekaterina II. These reforms were met with dismay by the locals who then participated in 1831 and 1863 failed revolts. After the latter people began to secretly erect crosses on a hill 12 km north of Šiauliai as a symbol of defiance, starting the world-famous Hill of Crosses.
Belated Russian Imperial industrialization hit Šiauliai with a full swing in ~1870s-1910s. Šiauliai’s new status as a railway hub made it a convenient location for factories. Frenkelis’s leather factory, founded in the 1890s, became the largest in Russian Empire. It employed 1000 people out of the total population of ~15 000.
World War 1 devastated Šiauliai. 85% of buildings have been destroyed and in 1915-1920 the city suffered alternating German, Russian communist and Russian monarchist occupations. In 1920s-1930s independent Lithuania Šiauliai was rebuilt and known to foreign diplomats as “one of only two real Lithuanian cities” (the other was Kaunas; Klaipėda and Vilnius were Lithuanian-minority at the time). Frenkelis factory never achieved past production levels but the city continued as an industrial center, providing Lithuania 85% leather, 60% shoes, 75% textiles, 35% sweets. Water pipes, sewerage and telephone networks have been installed in 1920s-1930s.
World War 2 ravaged the city once again, 80% of its buildings destroyed, many people murdered, expelled or forced to flee. Rebuilt on a scaled-down Stalinist grandeur the downtown was swiftly repopulated by villagers and Russians. The industry (now nationalized) has been joined by the Soviet military and its massive Zokniai air base. In 1960s-1980s a new industrial district was constructed in the south and massive concrete slab boroughs (Lieporiai, Dainiai) in the southwest. Totalitarian atheist regime was defied by Lithuanian people who continued to expand the Hill of Crosses despite a constant KGB surveillance and repeated destruction.
After the independence restoration (1990) the city was developed as a provincial hub for northern Lithuania, getting its own university and the local bank gaining nationwide prominence. In 1997 Šiauliai diocese was erected, centering at the Ss. Peter and Paul church (built 1626), a pearl of Renaissance which symbolically unites all the periods of city history.
Nevertheless in Lithuanian minds, in investments and tourism opportunities, Šiauliai remained a distant 4th city, lacking the charm of either Vilnius, Kaunas or Klaipėda. Its population declined from 146 000 in 1989 to 108 000 in 2011 due to emigration and internal migration.