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Famous Lithuanians: Introduction

Just like every nation Lithuanians have certain national heroes who have many streets and institutions named after them, who are depcited on banknotes and are immortalized in statues. This is a short introduction to the stories that are hidden behind the names you will undoubtedly see frequently while in Lithuania.

The earliest and some of the best known figures are the largely pagan Lithuanian leaders of 13th-16th centuries who made Lithuania the Europe's largest country. That mighty Grand Duchy eroded over the centuries and was completely destroyed by Russian invasion in 1795 however. Therefore the 19th century National Revival is another era where many famous Lithuanians hail from (almost all Litas banknotes have their faces on the obverse).

Other groups well represented in street names include artists, writers and other wise men of Lithuania Minor, writers and artists of early 20th century, heroes of interwar independent Lithuania and controversially some Soviet writers. Religious (Christian) and mythological figures are also represented.

Modern Lithuanian celebrities (post 1990) are not yet honoured by street names but they dominate newspapers, magazines and TV shows.

Take note that Lithuanian is a syntetic language therefore the final letters of a name are written differently when that name appears different contexts. For instance a street name after Grand Duke Gediminas would be called “Gedimino” (nominative case).

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Early Leaders of Lithuania

The leaders of 13th-15th century Lithuania are still venerated as the original founders of the state. They were either pagan or converted to Christianity in their adulthood therefore their names are original Lithuanian rather than localized Christian names.

First among them was Mindaugas, the only king of Lithuania recognised by the Pope whose 1253 conversion to Christianity failed to Christianize the whole country (26 urban streets). Subsequent pagan leaders, such as Vytenis (12 urban streets), also styled themselves as “Kings” but now are commonly named “Grand Dukes” as to be a king in the contemporary Europe you had to be a Christian. Famous among these leaders was Gediminas (1275-1341; 35 urban streets), the alleged founder of Vilnius. Then there was Algirdas (1296-1377; 22 urban streets) who swiftly expanded Lithuania eastwards and southwards, tripling it in size, and Kęstutis, legendarily marrying a vaidilutė (a virgin pagan priestess) Birutė (he has 40 urban streets named after him and she has 49).

Gediminas looks over Katedros (Cathedral) square in Vilnius, the city he had founded, as the legend goes, after dreaming an iron wolf. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Finally there were two cousins Jogaila (1348-1434; 4 urban streets) and Vytautas (1350-1430; 58 urban streets). Jogaila, a convert to Catholicism, was crowned a king of Poland (where he is called Jagiello), starting the Jagiellonian dynasty that vied for European domination against the Habsburgs. Vytautas ruled Lithuanian Grand Duchy, expanding it from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Later historians saw the era of Vytautas as the time of ultimate Lithuanian glory and styled him “The Great” (“Magnus” in Latin or “Didysis” in Lithuanian).

Jogaila and Vytautas together managed to finally extinguish the threat of Teutonic Knights that plagued Lithuania for centuries in a decisive victory at the battle of Žalgiris (Grunewald).

The names of subsequent Jagiellonian monarchs are less commonly visible in Lithuania. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the center of power shifted from Lithuania to Poland in what eventually (in 1569) became a federation. Secondly, the kings lost political importance to the nobility, and, finally, the federation itself was relegated to a minor power.

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The wise men of Lithuania Minor and 18th Century

While in large areas of Lithuania a process of polonization was taking place whereby the Lithuanian language was relegated to that of peasantry, a different situation prevailed in the Lutheran German-ruled Lithuania Minor.

It was in Lithuania Minor where Martynas Mažvydas (8 urban streets) published the first Lithuanian book (a cathechism) on 1547 and a priest Kristijonas Donelaitis (19 urban streets) wrote the first Lithuanian novel (actually a long poem imitating Homer in style) in late 18th century.

The last famous man of culture to hail from Lithuania Minor was Vydūnas (real name Vilhelmas Storosta, 1868-1953; 13 urban street names). He was the first philosopher to write in Lithuanian language. He was interested in the Hindu tradition and theosophism.

In 16th-19th centuries the literature of Lithuania-proper (excluding Lithuania Minor) was written largely in Polish. The Lithuanian and Polish nations were not yet fully separated. A kind of diglossia developed where people even referred to themselves in different names in different languages. The tradition of 19th century National Revival put a special imporatance on Lithuanian language, thus downplaying local historical personalities who published their work in the other languages. However, some luminaries of the era, such as Adomas Mickevičius (1798-1855, Adam Mickiewicz in Polish; 6 urban streets) receive a fair share of interest despite publishing major works in Polish.

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The heroes of Lithuanian national revival (19th century)

After a long period of decline and persecution the Lithuanian spirit rose again in late 19th century when the Spring of Nations influenced Lithuanian aspirations to restore independence. The Russian Empire that ruled Lithuania at the time regarded the territory as unquestionably Russian, leading to a cultural struggle which meant many deaths, deportations and imprisonments for the Lithuanian elite.

At the vanguard of the national revival stood a handful of men, each of them helping to safeguard and shape the Lithuanian identity in a particular sphere of life.

The Vienybės (Unity) square of Kaunas was laid in the 1920s to celebrate the Revival and Freedom. Each hero of the 1820-1920 century has a bust there, including Maironis, J. Basanavičius and V. Kudirka in this image. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Simonas Daukantas (1793-1864; 28 urban streets) was the first historian to publish history of Lithuania in the Lithuanian language, that way breaking with the tradtition which prefered the use of Latin and Polish languages for sciences and humanities.

Motiejus Valančius (1801-1875; 21 urban streets) was a Catholic bishop of Samogitia (by that time the Diocese of Samogitia covered the majority of modern-day Lithuania). He is best known for having established the Sobriety Movement that challanged the Russian policy to make peasants addicted to alcohol (and thus easier to control).

Vincas Kudirka (1858-1899; 37 urban streets) was the author of the Lithuanian national anthem “Tautiška giesmė” (written in 1898 and adopted in 1918). At the time when Lithuanian press was banned by the Russian government he used to publish illegal Lithuanian newspaper Varpas thus pioneering Lithuanian-language media.

Jonas Basanavičius (1851-1927; 36 urban streets) is frequently styled the Patriarch of the Lithuanian nation. He put a lot efforts to advance the idea of independent Lithuania and eventually he saw it to bear fruits when he was among the 20 sigantories of the independence declaration on 1918.

Maironis (real name Jonas Mačiulis, 1862-1932; 30 urban streets) was a priest famous for his volumes of patriotic poetry that have inspired generation after generation of Lithuanians, not only in the 19th century but also under the Soviet occupation.

Jonas Jablonskis (1890-1930; 8 urban streets) was the linguist who standartized the Lithuanian orthography and coined countless neologisms to replace the then-common Russian and Polish loanwords. Only a part of these neologisms took hold but still the efforts of Jablonskis altered the face of Lithuanian language. If you read a 19th century Lithuanian text it will be quite different from the language today. However there will be few differences between a 1920s text and 2010s text.

Most Lithuanian litas banknotes depict people from this historical era.

National Revival heroes on banknotes: M. Valančius (2 Litas), J. Jabonskis (5 litas), Maironis (20 Litas), J. Basanavičius (50 Litas), S. Daukantas (100 Litas) and V. Kudirka (500 Litas). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Lithuanian artists of 19th and the early 20th century

In the late 19th and early 20th century less political Lithuanian art flourished as well.

Th emost famous artist in the era was symbolist painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911; 18 urban streets). He created a unique form of art synthesis by writing music to be listened while watching his particular paintings. He has a following outside Lithuania as well; a mountain range in Russia and an asteroid are named after him. His followers claim that should he been born in the West he would have enjoyed a major worldwide fame. A gallery of his paintings is in Kaunas.

Karalių pasaka (Tale of Kings) by M. K. Čiurlionis (a fragment). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were more famous Lithuanian writers than painters in the era, including Žemaitė (1845-1921; 44 urban streets) who described spartan village life, Jonas Biliūnas (1879-1907; 24 urban streets), the creator of emotional short stories including the allegorical “Phleron of Joy”, Antanas Baranauskas (1835-1902; 11 urban streets) and Pranas Vaičaitis (1876-1901, 9 urban streets).

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Famous people of the interwar Lithuania

History ensured that many of the famous people of the interwar era are still not properly commemorated. In the 1930s they were still alive while when they passed away Lithuania was not independent and the Soviet regime regarded most of them as ideological enemies.

The one exception are Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas (39 urban streets), always mentioned together and so depicted on 10 litas banknote. They were the first Lithuanians to cross the Atlantic ocean piloting an aircraft, their journey from New York to Kaunas cut short by a tragic accident in Germany. They instantly became regarded as martyrs and symbols of Lithuanian heroism. Many streets were renamed for them and there is a statue for them as far away as in Chicago, erected by the local Lithuanian community.

Famous politicians of the era were presidents Kazys Grinius, Aleksandras Stulginskis and, of course, authoritarian Antanas Smetona, who ruled from the 1926 coup to 1940 occupation.

Lawyer Mykolas Romeris, beatified bishop of Vilnius Jurgis Matulaitis, military officer Povilas Plechavičius, known for succesfully disrupting German plans to establish a Lithuanian SS legion, are other famous people of the era.

Partisan general Jonas Žemaitis led the guerilla warfare against the Soviet occupation in late 1940s. At the time entire Lithuanian state existed underground in a way continuing the existence of interwar Lithuania.

A large share of the interwar elite are not even buried in Lithuania as they were forced to flee by the invading Soviets. Hence their graves are in places like Chicago or Cleveland. In the USA the interwar Lithuanian culture continued in 1950s-1980s. Many famous Lithuanian writers and artists, such as poet Bernardas Brazdžionis, novelist Antanas Škėma and others, lived and published there (their publications were banned in the Soviet Union). The tragedy of homeland loss was always among the dominant themes.

Famous interwar Lithuanians (left to right): president A. Smetona, polymath pilots S. Darius and S. Girėnas, blessed J. Matulaitis.

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Soviet artists and writers from Lithuania

When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940 and again in 1944 the Soviets obliterated old street names, statues and other reminders of the past. All that was changed by names and images of communists, both local and foreign, as well as Russian heroes.

After the Lithuanian independence was restored in 1990 a large share of old street names were restored and fallen statues rebuilt (while the communist statues were transferred to Grūtas park museum). Therefore you won’t find Lenin or Kapsukas names in public anymore. However, sometimes controversially, the names of communist pro-Soviet artists who were venerated in the Soviet Union were not removed. These people were:

Salomėja Nėris (1904-1945; 27 urban streets) a leftist poet who wrote pieces praising Joseph Stalin and supported the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Her early non-political works are short but emotional. Other pro-Soviet poets include Julius Janonis (1896-1917; 24 urban streets) and Liudas Gira (1884-1946; 18 urban streets).

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Modern Lithuanian celebrities

Sportsmen, particularly basketball players, are the Lithuanians that come closest to worldwide fame. They earn millions at the best NBA and Europleague clubs and are well known in nations where basketball is popular. 1990s-2010s basketball stars include Arvydas Sabonis (b. 1964), Šarūnas Marčiulionis (b. 1964; both among the first Europeans to join NBA), Žydrūnas Ilgauskas (b. 1975), Šarūnas Jasikevičius (b. 1976), Linas Kleiza (b. 1985) and Jonas Valančiūnas (b. 1992).

Achievements in other sports lack the regularity of basketball triumphs but Virgilijus Alekna dominated the male discus throwing for 8 years, winning two Olympic golds and a bronze. Žydrūnas Savickas is equally notable in strongman scene.

In a welcome-back ceremony Lithuanian fans attempt to touch national team basketball players after they have won silver in Eurobasket 2013. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In early 1990s not even the mighty basketball victories could have matched in importance the work of the "architect of Lithuanian independence" Vytautas Landsbergis (b. 1932), a major force behind the collapse of Soviet Union. His local arch-opponent was Algirdas Brazauskas (1932-2010), a former communist later embracing independence.

Rolandas Paksas enjoys a dubious fame of being the sole European head of state ever to be succesfully impeached (in 2004), while another president, Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamkus (b. 1926), is listed in the Guiness World Records as the person who lived the least in the country prior to being elected its head of state. Forced to flee Lithuania by the advancing Soviet armies as a young adult in 1945 he returned from Chicago only for his campaign in 1998. Mayor of Vilnius Artūras Zuokas (b. 1968) is locally notorious for corruption but his publicity stunts attracted worldwide attention which even earned him an Ignobel prize (for a staged Youtube video where he used a tank to crash an ilegally parked car).

Most other local celebrities are, in fact, celebrities only locally. Lithuanian musicians largely perform to the local market save for an occasional visit to emigrant communities. Lithuanian cinema also fails to pass national frontiers save for a few festivals. English translations of Lithuanian literature are rare and while the Lithuanian theater is regarded to be succesful few non-cinema actors or directors could expect to become worldwide household names.

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Religious and mythological figures

Lithuania being a Christian country many streets are named after Saints. Lithuanian abbreviation “Šv.” indicates a saint on the street names. Religious figures, primarilly Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary, are also well represented in folk art and roadside chapels. Rūpintojėlis traditional wooden sculpture of a sad/contemplating Jesus is a popular theme.

The only local Lithuanian saint is St. Casimir (Lithuanian: Kazimieras) but St. George is also considered a patron saint. Interwar bishop of Vilnius Jurgis Matulaitis has been beatified.

Gods and godesses of the pagan pantheon are not forgotten in the street names either, including Žemyna, Gabija, Medeina and, of course, Perkūnas.

Among the mythological figures the fisherman Kastytis and sea princess Jūratė (two doomed lovers) are the most popular.

A howling Iron wolf, the subject of a legendary grand duke Gediminas's dream interpreted by pagan priest Lizdeika as an instruction to establish Vilnius city, is an another well-known myth "character", used as a symbol of Vilnius and Lithuania on many occasions.

Iron Wolf statue on top of Vilnius train station. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Many other myths deal with supposed creation of various geographic features and are based on folk etymology (e.g. lake Plateliai created after a local old woman commented "Kāp platē lėij", which means "How much it rains" in the local Samogitian dialect and caused entire cloud to fall down and turn into a lake). Most of these are well known only in their subject locations where there may be street names and sculptures dedicated to them.

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