Genocides in Vilnius | True Lithuania
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History of Vilnius

The tolerant capital of the largest medieval state (Until 1655)

According to a legend, Vilnius was established by duke Gediminas in the 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 exact same spot where the Vilnius Cathedral stands today.

Whatever its beginnings were, Vilnius became an important city by the 14th century. It had received Magdeburg city law in 1387. After the conquests of Grand Duke Vytautas, Vilnius came to be 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-layout Old Town 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 Warsaw rather than Vilnius) was able to defuse the importance of the city as the Kings still used their palace here. Vilnius University was established in 1579 by the Jesuits, becoming a primary center of science and education in the Eastern Europe.

Subačiaus gate of the Vilnius city wall (painted by P. Smuglevičius in 1785). This gate together with the wall was demolished by the Russians in early 19th century. Only some fragments and the Gate of Dawn remain today.

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 of Vilnius as a seat of power. Vilnius palace became neglected and the Polish-Lithuanian 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 the surrounding great powers encouraged the local noble families to secure their afterlife by building lavish Baroque churches that still crown the city skyline today. By that time, Polish-speaking Catholic culture had become the elite one as many local Lithuanians had 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.

This painting by J. Peška immortalizes the heart of Vilnius in 1808 when it still looked much as it did in late Poland-Lithuania era. The remains of the castle were still quite extensive, while large churches, such as the Cathedral (pictured), dominated over small residential buildings even more than they do today. In the foreground, you can see the place where Gedimino Avenue is today. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era, this was a poor neighborhood of tanners.

Where to see the era today? The Baroque churches in Vilnius Old Town and former suburbs (Antakalnis, Verkiai) are your best option, as well as many manors and other stately buildings in the Old Town.

Industrial era under the 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 Polish-Lithuanian revolt) forcing the Lithuanian elite to seek education in Saint Petersburg. However, Vilnius remained an administrative seat (the capital of Russia's 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.

The reconstruction of Saint Nicholas Orthodox church changed western-style architectural details into eastern style Neo-byzantine ones, 1863-1864, lithographies by I. Trutnev.

A true possibility to change the face of Vilnius came in 1860 when the industrial revolution finally reached Lithuania. That year the first train of 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 Western Europe: gas lighting became available 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 began. A grand new civic center was constructed to the west of the Old Town (it is 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 extensions were planned to follow a grid layout that was anchored on large new Russian Orthodox churches. The new wide streets were named after locations and heroes of the large Russian Empire. With the 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 World War I, Vilnius had a population of over 210 000.

No ethnic, religious or linguistic majority existed in the Vilnius of 1890s after tens of thousands Russians and Jews moved in (Vilnius had been among the few cities where the Russian Czar would permit Jews to freely settle). But even this policy of cultural dilution failed to promote assimilation.

Two of the many faces of pre-war Vilnius. A street in the Jewish district, Old Town (left, 1898, S. Fleuri) and the new Saint George hotel with a horse-drawn tram in front of it in the New Town (right, 1910, A. Fialko). The pictured area of Jewish district was demolished by the Soviets in mid-20th century while the Saint Geoge hotel still exists in Gedimino Avenue, now refurbished into prestigious apartments.

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, the first Lithuanian-language daily newspaper "Vilniaus žinios" became published here by the Vileišis family. In the year 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 communist revolution engulfing Russia and Germans surrendering in World War 1, the rulers of Vilnius changed some 10 times in the 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.

German army captures Vilnius during the World War 1 (1915), walking past a Russian Orthodox church the Russians have constructed in 1913, merely 2 years ago. This was the first change of ownership of Vilnius in more than 100 years. In the next 10 years, however, Vilnius would change ownership approximately as many times as in all its previous history put together.

Having beaten back the Russians who in turn subdued the 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.

Funeral ceremony of the heart of Polish president J. Pilsudski passes the Rotušės square in Wilno in 1935. Like many Polish-speaking people of Lithuanian descent of the era, J. Pilsudski called himself a Lithuanian but did not believe in independent Lithuania. He sought to establish a large country that would encompass Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus and would use Polish as lingua franca. His dreams were behind the annexation of Vilnius region to Poland in 1922.

It is unclear how many people in Vilnius itself identified themselves as Lithuanians as the 1931 census did not ask for ethnicity but only for a mother tongue, with only a single possible answer (Polish-speakers have 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: the majority of 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.

Catholics praying at the Gate of Dawn (Ostra Brama), a popular pilgrimage tradition. The interwar era within a deeply religious Poland meant that Catholicism enjoyed an official status in Vilnius once again (for the first time since 1795, and for the last time so far). Given that both Polish and Lithuanian nations are Catholic, the church was yet another key battleground of the Vilnius dispute. As many Vilnius Catholics were bilingual, the conflict was over how many holy masses should be celebrated in Polish and how many should be celebrated in Lithuanian. The pro-Polish view prevailed after the 1920s Polish conquest, with the Lithuanian-language masses reduced to a single Vilnius parish and the ethnically Lithuanian bishop of Vilnius Jurgis Matulaitis abdicating.

The city was an economic outback of Poland and only a limited construction took place, in contrast to Warsaw or Kaunas, at the time designated as Lithuania's "provisional capital while Vilnius is occupied". The total population of Vilnius was 195 071 during the 1931 census, the declining communities largely replaced by new Polish migrants.

Where to see the interwar era today? Limited large-scale construction left 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 the nationalization campaign and the genocide of the Lithuanian nation. „There will be Lithuania – but without the Lithuanians“ – said Mikhail Suslov, the chairman of the 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 was killed at the Paneriai suburb in 1941-1943, many others were sent to labor camps or fled; the Jewish population declined from 54 600 in 1931 to 16 400 in 1959.

With the help of other allies in the West, Soviets have beaten back the Germans in the East by 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 at times.

Basanavičiaus-Pylimo street corner after the Soviet occupation of Vilnius in 1944. All public signs, such as these directions to Grodno and Kaunas, were swiftly translated into Russian by the Soviets.

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 wanted 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 the Jewish district and the Vilnius Great Synagogue, multiple cemeteries, residential districts in Vokiečių, Rūdninikų, Vilniaus and other streets, the old municipality building, „Europa“ hotel (the largest in Vilnius), the Piarists college, the Kardinalija palace. Luckily a change of policies saved the Saint Catherine church, the Gate of Dawn and many other famous centuries-old structures that had also been initially condemned to destruction by Anikin, the architect from Leningrad behind the plans of Vilnius „redevelopment“.

Eastern side of Vokiečių street and parts of Jewish district after demolition in 1949. Many centuries-old stately buildings used to stand here.

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 had been recently murdered or expelled.

During 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 largely spared 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.

In 1944-1990 the people of Vilnius had to march in Soviet celebrations. Here a 1950 children parade carries mandatory slogans such as 'We thank comrade Stalin for our happy childhood' in Gedimino Avenue (left image). Buildings are covered in communist portraits and slogans (example in right image).

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, additionally there is Pergalė cinema in Pamėnkalnio street (all in Naujamiestis). To learn about the genocides you may visit the Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights 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 communist street names), save for 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 the Old Town, throughout the 1960s they were largely built in place of the former wooden suburbs. In the 1970s and 1980s, completely new boroughs were constructed to the north and west of the city, 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).

Lazdynai Soviet borough in 1970 when it was still several years old. The planners of the borough were awarded Lenin prize. The main street visible at the bottom of the picture is Cosmonaut Avenue (now Independence Avenue), its four lanes almost empty.

New construction in the downtown was now limited to flagship buildings, such as the apartments of Communist Party officials, the 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.

A Soviet-era official postcard with a shop named after Minsk in Vilnius. There were so few shops and restaurants in Vilnius in the Soviet era that most older people still remember them all by names and locations. The Soviet government sought to promote the "Soviet achievements" over the "dark past", leading to an emphasis on modern buildings in the Vilnius postcards and picture books of the time.

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. The 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 by the Soviets due to their habit to choose historically important places as the goal of their weekend expeditions.

With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika campaign in the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian Sąjūdis movement was born in 1988 out of this underground opposition. It was also joined by freedom-sympathizers 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 March 11th of 1990, in the same old hall of the Supreme Soviet, the first democratically-elected parliament to convene in Vilnius has declared independence. The Russian blockade followed, leaving Vilnius without fuel for heating or cars. Later came the Russian 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 unarmed against the Soviet tanks, all these actions failed. The Soviet Union collapsed. This collapse (and the end of the Cold War) started here – in Vilnius.

January 13, 1991, events, also known as Vilnius massacre. Countless thousands of unarmed civilians gathered to protect key places of Vilnius with their own bodies (in the picture top right a mass of people safeguard the parliament). 14 were killed, 702 were injured. The left picture shows a Russian tank running over people. The subsequent funeral of the January 13 martyrs is pictured on the lower right. The events were well covered by worldwide media.

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 a 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 the Gariūnai marketplace in western Vilnius. Private shops sprung up and the lack of goods that plagued the Soviet era was a thing of the past, all the Western trademarks becoming readily available. By ~1995 the shopkeepers even started to smile (something unheard of in the Soviet Union where the client was "always wrong" and often yelled at).

Most of the churches were reopened and new ones were conceived in the churchless Soviet boroughs. The 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 its first 4 outlets in the late 1990s.

In 1997, the first office high-rise was built (Hanner building). By 2003, there was an entire skyscraper district in southern Šnipiškės. A modern style with glass facades prevailed. Among those new buildings was the new Vilnius municipality building, the first example of a public-private partnership in Lithuania.

In the year 2000, Akropolis, the first hypermarket in Vilnius and Lithuania, opened, to be followed by many others. This changed the Lithuanian shopping habits, luring them from bazaar-like markets.

2000s developments changed the face of the right bank of Neris (background), especially the skyscraper district in Southern Šnipiškės with Europa Tower, still the tallest in the Baltics. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After the year 2000, residential construction boomed with bank credits supplanting the cash payments (in US dollars or German marks) that used to be 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 newly-rich did not wait for the construction boom. Starting in the early 1990s, they constructed large detached homes in the rapidly developing suburbs (Kairėnai, Pavilnis, Zujūnai). The owners of such "private castles" cared primarily about size rather than architectural appeal. By the 2000s, the Western ideas reached suburbia and new uniformly-developed gated communities outcompeted the „private castles“ of the 1990s.

Being the capital, Vilnius received a fair share of new public buildings. Among those are the Sodra palace, several extensions of Vilnius airport (1993, 2007, 2024), a minimalist General prosecutor's 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-majority and the government-majority ethnicities were now the same (while the minorities were allowed full democratic participation), the communities stopped seeing 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.

This art nouveau building in Totorių street used to be derelict in 1996 (left picture). Just like dozens of Old Town buildings under the Soviet rule, it was left to crumble suffering squatting and fires. The picture on the right shows the same building in 2012, renovated into a four star Hotel Artis. Both pictures ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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 the 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 the year 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.

2010s-2020s was a prime era of cultural Westernization for Vilnius. The decade witnessed the start of LGBT pride events, ecological-minded encouragement of bicycles and scooters at the expense of cars, and the import of many Western-European-styled traditions and measures. Emigration was now joined by immigration, especially from Belarus and Ukraine, as Vilnius was rich enough to attract those from further east. Also, some expert expats arrived from the West, Asia and beyond, while students and illegal immigrants came from Africa and Asia. Once again, the percentage of non-Lithuanian-speakers increased among Vilnius inhabitants and service workers. Furthermore, the initial post-independence dreams of safeguarding and even rebuilding the "authentic" old Vilnius were replaced by "architectural anarchy" as empty lot after an empty lot in Vilnius downtown was filled by cheaply-designed yet expensively-sold apartments and offices.

The fast Westernization of Vilnius was controversial. To some, it was the final brick needed to build that "Western city of Vilnius", the finishing of which had been already delayed too long. The others, however, increasingly felt that Vilnius is no longer feeling Lithuanian, somewhat backtracking on the post-independence achievements.

This "Vilnius culture war" was epitomized in the discussions on what memorial to build at the Lukiškės square to commemorate Lithuanian partisans. The "traditionalists" aimed for a memorial based on the Lithuanian coat of arms (Vytis), while the Westernizers sought a symbolic modern-art hill. Ultimately, no memorial was built at all, while the Vytis memorial that Vilnius municipality did not want was built in a more "traditionalist" city of Kaunas instead.

The "evolutionary" trend was greatly disrupted by the Russian invasion to Ukraine in 2022. On the one hand, it unified "westernist" and "localist" Lithuanians once again, as Vilnius likely led the world in the numbers of pro-Ukrainian activities and Ukrainian flags, encouraged by the collective memory of the brutal Soviet occupation. Even the municipal skyscraper of Vilnius was permanently adorned with a banner "Putin, the Hague is waiting for you". To the dismay of ethnic Lithuanians and tens of thousands newly-arrived Ukrainian refugees, however, the sizeable-and-growing-though-immigration city's Russian and Belarusian community largely supported Russia in that war, leading to a widespread belief that they would collaborate with the Russian regime should it invade Vilnius. This reignited some long-unheard ethnic frictions, with calls to disband the city's numerous Russian-medium-of-instruction schools (seen as "hotbeds of anti-Lithuanian sentiment") and limit the immigration from the East. So far, however, the main tangible change was the demolition of Vilnius's final Soviet monuments that had survived the 1990s removal campaign, something seen by proponents as the final act in the symbolic de-Sovietization of Vilnius.

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.

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  1. Hi Augustinas: A friend posted a picture of this stone in Vilnius, near the St. Micheal’s Church. It has two wheels, a long handle, and a hook. Do you know what was used for? Thanks… Rich.

    • Hi. As my cousin who is a tour guide in Vilnius answered: this is simply a piece of modern art given to a nearby amber art gallery by an artist, it has no particular significance. Tourists frequenlty inquire about the meaning of this sculpture however.

  2. Hello, I’m looking for some information about trolleybusses in Wilna in 1930-1940. Was their a dutch company which carried on the public transport?
    Thank you for an answer

    • There were no trolleybuses in interwar Vilnius. The first line opened in 1956 (under Soviet occupation).

      In 1930s the only form of road public transport was buses, operated by Swiss concessionaries (since 1926 “Arbon” company, since 1931 “Sauer” company). There were also steamships in Neris river and a local narrow-gauge railway.

      • Is there a place called Galitanis or Galitania in Lithuania? When my husband’s great great grandfather immigrated to America, he signed his name Peter Mockialis from Galitania in Vilnius, under Russia empire. This was before 1900

        • There are some with related names but not a name exactly like that. E.g. Galintėnai, Galintanka. “Vilnius” might have meant Vilnius Governorate, which was a very large area that covered parts of today’s Lithuania and also parts of today’s Belarus.

  3. Hi,
    Just wondered if you have any info on the areas of Wilno in Poland around the 1930s. I am trying to find out the modern name (in lithuania) of the location of gajowka, wilno and gerwiaty wilno.
    My Grandad was born in Gajowka in 1922 but with basic google searches, we couldn’t find anything.
    My grandad was born Michal Bublewicz in Wilno 1922 and all we know he had a brother called Józef Bublewicz who resided in Gerwiaty early 1940s but my grandad changed his name when he came to uk at the end of ww2.
    Just wondered if we no the modern town names it would help in our searches. Thanks

  4. Hi I am trying to trace my fathers family they lived in Wilno, my fathers name is Jan Urbanowicz his fathers name is also Jan Urbanowicz his mothers name was Stanislawa nee werkowska they lived in Wilno ul Mustowa no 15 I think the fathers was a medical practitioner. Are there any records for my family please

  5. Hi. We are trying to get as much information about my grandfather. Born about 1892 in Vilnus, he came to America in 1911 and changed his name to Kuney. We believe his name in Vilnus was Sol Kornetski. He married Anna Rudaschefsky also from Vilnus. How ca we get information about them?

    • Hi. It is the best to search for such information in the Lithuanian archives where the registries of births, marriages, etc. are located. True Lithuania does offer archive search services if needed.

  6. Hi, My grandfather and family was shipped to Siberia. My grandfather was a Barron, Walter Matoszko. his USA born wife Mary, children Joseph, Peter and Casimir
    all survived Siberia and finally end up in the United States.
    Would like to know about the property that was stolen from them and his house.
    any help (information) here would be appreciated.

    • Hi. Do you know where this property was (e.g. address)? Even if not, that may still be possible to be discovered in archives. We offer such services.

  7. Hi, my Polush-Ukranian grandparents were moved to Vilnius after WW2 and lived in one of those Stalin’s style apartment houses on Red Army Ave. Their four children (two boys and two girls) were born in Vilnius in late 1940s and early 1950s. Two sons didn’t survive childhood. From what my grandparents told me one son (only a todler) was among many dead children poisoned in their preschool. My grandfather always thought it was an ethnic Lithuanian plot to punish the occupiers, non Lithuanians. Is there any truth to this story? Is there a way to find out the truth? I am working on a project about the life under Soviet Regime and need facts, no matter how ugly they may be.

    • To me, it sounds like a conspiracy theory. If something like that would have systematically taken place, it would be most certainly be known. The Soviet government used to persecute and execute people even for opinions, religious beliefs, fliers or owning a Lithuanian flag at the time, or having a relative who had “wrong opinions”.

      If any Lithuanians would have been killing innocent children based on ethnicity while under the Soviet occupation, this surely would have been a well-publicized case and used in Soviet propaganda that would have depicted the entire Lithuanian non-communist population as consisting of such killers.

      Of course, there is always a possibility that some lone murderer, with whatever beliefs, worked in the kindergarten and somehow remained undiscovered but it is highly unlikely, I think.

      What is true, however, is that in those times child death rates were much higher than they are today. The healthcare system, hygiene, food quality, pollution, and much else were much worse than it today’s Lithuania, leading many people who lived at the time not to reach adulthood. The human life itself was not that valued either by any institutions or officials. I think the deaths much more likely happened due to this.

      Also, Soviet propaganda was active in depicting Lithuanians as evil, because the guerrilla war was still raging in the forests and the Soviet government sought a popular support (more likely from the ethnic minorities) in defeating the Lithuanians there. Such propaganda may have influenced beliefs you mention that Lithuanians must have been responsible for child deaths.

      Generally, whatever criminal or political cases happened in the Soviet Lithuania, they are located in the Lithuanian archives now. So, if somebody would have been indicted for anything like this, it would be there. However, due to what is written above, I think it is unlikely such a case would be there, as such case would be already well-known publically if it existed; at the same time, I think it would have been impossible to evade the Soviet system for somebody killing the children of Vilnius’s Soviet settlers systematically.

      On the other hand, if there would have been poisonings for reasons such as bad food quality, it is possible such information is not in the archives, as the Soviet Union generally worked hard to hide/destroy information on anything related to disasters in the Union, promoting the idea that they did not happen in the Soviet society.

      An well-known example from the later era is Chernobyl disaster, which both happened due to the prevailing blatant disregard for safety rules, and was hidden from the Soviet population at the beginning, until it became impossible to hide.

    • Nope this story is reprehensible and no children where poisoned they where accounted for in the missing children of Wilno and both where reported to have made it to Cyprus, i am not sure if they made it tio Haifa port in Palastine in 1947. It is possible that there name was changed to a suitable Russian family name.

  8. In our grandfather’s USA Naturalization papers, he lists our grandmother’s 1893 place of birth as Trevercina, Poland. Our search efforts to locate such a place, which we believe is near Vilnius—perhaps to the north, fail. Perhaps the place name has changed? We know that they lived in a tunnel built by the Germans for one year, their farm was destroyed during WW I, and two members of her family starved to death. Any help much appreciated. Thank you.

  9. My great-great grandfather, Ignac Kurianowicz, has listed two places of birth. On his naturalization papers, he said he was born in Bakuski, Poland. On his draft registration, he said Bekunki, Wilna, Russia. Any tips as to where this might be? Thanks!

    • There may be quite many possibilities. E.g. Bėgūnai but this is just a guess as the names are Russified/Polonized and remind of many names. It is likely he was born in the former Vilnius Governorate of the Russian Empire which may have been regarded as Poland culturally by some. However, that Governorate was huge, included not only parts of Lithuania but also Belarus.

  10. Why and when did the Lithuanian government require Polish sir names to be translated into Lithuanian?

    • Since times immemorial there was a tradition in the region whereby people would translate their names depending on the language they used. So, e.g., the same person would sign as “Michał Römer” when writing in Polish and “Mykolas Römeris” when writing in Lithuanian. When Russians ruled Lithuania in 1795-1915, the official documents were Russian and so the names were translated into Russian when in those documents; yet the same names may have been Polish in literature and Lithuanian in Lithuanian texts. See the article “Poles of Lithuania“.

      In 1918-1920, naturally, the surnames would be written n Lithuanian in Vilnius; after Poland annexed Vilnius, they were Polish again (it did not matter if the person was a Pole or Lithuanian, as surnames and Christian names were translated just like any other word).

      After Lithuania took back Vilnius in 1939, the official language and name variants once again were Lithuanian.

      However, the translation was now more limited than previously, it is more like transliteration. E.g. 100 years ago, the same person could have been known as “Pawel Janowicz” in Polish and “Povilas Janavičius” in Lithuanian. Now, the Lithuanian version of “Pawel Janowicz” would be “Pavelas Janovičius”: the names would be transliterated and Lithuanian endings added, but the Christian names no longer translated and the spelling would not change (except for endings).

    • During the Polish Monarch, the King demanded all his new subjects that have been orphans to refugees to adopt a specific family name, ie; Krol, which distinguished the properties of curly hair which was superior in the Monarch of that specific era, so after the WW2 when Vilnius was still a Polish prominent area.
      Before WW1 Vilnius was Lithuanian and in history it was always Lithuanian never Polish, so to bee exact after the fall of the USSR Vilnius was returned back to its correct populate genome resulting in correction of the official name, ie: Wilno(Pol)=Vilnius(Lita). So did the names of the correct spelling, as Lithuanian is Latin and Polish is Slovak.

    • there names where changed for the very reason that most immigrants into Poland at the time had to change their names to a Polish Monarchist name of superiority ie Kroc or Krol meaning curly hair.

  11. me was Szupel

  12. does any one have any information about a victor rafalowicz who had a business making pitprops in the 1920/30s and what his life before 1939 was .he had two daughters ,larissa and hanka.was he from the jewish community ,I am his grandson Robert michalik and would like to know more about his life ,I am willing to fly to Vilnius to speak to anybody with any info.

    • Unfortunately, it is not very likely that a person who has information would happen to read the same website. Although it did happen in the past on this website, this is rare, and often another person comes only after 2 or 3 years, by which time you may not be checking this anymore.

      If you are interested, however, we may offer heritage research services in order to find the information available in the Lithuanian archives about this person.

      • yes pls, I think my family has a mistaken identity.
        Can you please check for 2 Jewish males that survived the WW2.

        1) Shmuel or Mulik or Samuel the first name we not sure.
        Born 1931/07/16 in Padbrade which fall under Vilnius, (Wilno).
        Mothers name was Sarah and fathers name was Pinchas.
        2) Shmuel or Mulik or Samuel the first name we not sure.
        Born 1933/06/17 in Padbrade which fall under Vilnius (Wilno).
        Mothers name was Sarah and fathers name was Pinnie.
        Number 1 I have found he survived Lodz Concentration Camp.
        2) IS my father and by mistake I think we have a situation of a mistaken identity.

  13. please reply if you have any info.

  14. I am piecing my family history from a few old documents in my possession. In particular based on an old school certificate, my grandfather has graduated in 1890 from the Pedagogical Institute of Wilno, which I believe had the status of the Russian National School. The director of the school name has been Durow, if I am deciphering correctly the hand signature. Later, I believe that my grandfather had worked in Jundrzaliszki (Jendrzeliszki?) near Wilno (5 staya whatever that means) to earn release from the Russian Army, which he finally did in 1897.

    Although I find notions of the Pedagogical Institute, here and there, I cannot locate the address of the school at the time, nor the location of Jundrzaliszki on the map. I am guessing that at the time of the grandfather studies, there may have lived in Wilno the family of his aunt Julia Jankowska de domo Fitkiewicz Fietkiewicz, wife of Piotr Jankowski, once a hero of the Polish uprising 1863. Can you help me with recovering any of that information, please ? Obliged

  15. My aunt wrote a letter in 1958 saying she was born in Pietruli, Wilno, Poland. What or where is Pietruli? I cannot find a trace of this place. Can you help?

    • Difficult to say. It is likely by “Wilno” she meant not Vilnius city but the area of the interwar Wilno Voivodship of Poland, much of which is now in Belarus rather than Lithuania.

  16. Hey so my grandmother was born in Vilnius and her father was a general in the army later went underground. Her maternal family owned land in the city that pre cars owned majority of the horses for purchase or lease. Łukowicz or something similar was her maiden name, she was born in 1932. My polish is limited however I hope that with archives slowly being made English that there would be a way to track who owned significant farmland/ horses within the city??

    • Yes, this data may be available in the archives of Lithuania (depending on the era and who ruled the city at the time, the documents may be either in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, or German). We may search the archives for this data for you.

  17. Has there ever been a town or city by the name of Galitanis or Galitania in Vilnius, in the late 1800’s

    • There are some with related names but not a name exactly like that. E.g. Galintėnai, Galintanka. “Vilnius” might have meant Vilnius Governorate, which was a very large area that covered parts of today’s Lithuania and also parts of today’s Belarus.

  18. Hello,
    My father, Bronisław Piątkowski (de or z) Małyszko was born December 15, 1913, in Vilnius, the child of Piotr Piatkowski (de or z) Malyszko et Antonina Salkiewicz (I have no dates for them).
    When alive, he had no memory of his parents, probably killed when he was very young.
    He was possibly taken to the woods and was found by the Polish army and adopted by them.
    The Red Cross sent me a “family address” that mention Hanna Landowna, Wilno,
    Inflancka 5.
    I am longing to find more information on my father side, and to help my daughter do her, our family tree.
    Can you help me?

  19. Hi, I just came across your website and was looking for any information on the Gajbutowicz family from Starowwieczany Wilno but not sure if Smorgonie is nr the area.
    The information we have is the fathers name was Jan, wife Ksenia(Xenya) they had 3 children Zenon , Wanda(Vanda) and Janina(Yanina) they were all deported from Smorgonie in Poland in 1940 and directly to “Kolkhol Kzyl- Saya” The Kokchetavsky Rayon on in Kazakhstan, I believe both the mother and father died in a soviet prison. The sisters were still in the camp when Zenon managed to escape from Kazakhtan leaving his 2 sisters behind.

    In Smorgonie, Zenon’s parents were running a restaurant and a clothes shop. We think Zenon attending the Jesuit Grammar school in Wilno for a short time.Is there any information you can find on what happened to the sisters if they survived ?or advise on where to look ?

    Thank you

    • The town you mention is likely Smurgainys (Lithuanian name), which is currently in Belarus and known in Belarusian as Smarhon. It was part of the historic Vilnius region that was disputed between Lithuania and Poland in 1920-1939 (de facto ruled by Poland then but claimed by Lithuania). While archives related to Vilnius are in Lithuania, archives related to Smurgainys (including birth records and such there) would be in Belarus. We may help with researching Lithuanian archives, if needed.

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