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Lithuania, History

Valdas Adamkus, Smetona, Russian Cyrillic alphabet, Rzeczpospolita, Livonian War

The ancestors of Lithuanians came to the Baltic area most likely around 2500 bc. The first reference to them by name was in ad 1009 in a medieval German manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle. With the rise of the medieval lords in Germany and Russia, Lithuania was constantly subject to invasion and attempted conquest. In the 13th century, when the Teutonic Knights, a German militaristic religious order, were establishing their power, the Lithuanians resisted. The various Lithuanian tribes united to form a loose federation under pagan chieftain Mindaugas. Mindaugas was baptized as a Christian in 1251 and subsequently crowned king of Lithuania under the authority of Pope Innocent IV. In about 1260 the Lithuanians defeated the Knights’ attempt to capture Lithuanian territory. In 1263 Mindaugas was assassinated, probably by pagan Lithuanian princes, and Lithuania officially reverted to paganism.

In the 1300s Mindaugas’s successors began to expand their realm by incorporating, through conquest, Slavic lands to the east and south. Under Lithuanian ruler Gediminas, the empire was expanded in the south to include most of present-day Belarus, and Vilnius was established as the capital. Lithuanian grand duke Algirdas then expanded the Lithuanian realm east toward Moscow and south to the Black Sea. In 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila joined Lithuania in a dynastic union with Poland when he married Polish queen Jadwiga. Jogaila accepted Christianity, becoming a Roman Catholic, and was crowned Wladyslaw II Jagiello, king of Poland.

King Jagiello and his cousin Vytautas, who became grand duke of Lithuania in 1392, led joint armed forces to decisively defeat the Teutonic Knights in 1410. Vytautas died without an heir in 1430. Beginning in 1447 the king of Poland also ruled Lithuania. In 1558 Russian tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) invaded the northern Baltic region, thereby instigating the Livonian War. With Russian expansionism posing an increasing threat, Lithuania sought stronger ties with Poland. In 1569, by the terms of the Union of Lublin, the two states formed a political union with a common legislature and a jointly elected sovereign. The new confederated state was officially known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). Although Lithuanian autonomy was guaranteed within the union, Poland assumed a dominant role. The Lithuanian gentry adopted Polish customs and language, while the Lithuanian peasantry was forced into serfdom and converted to Christianity.

In the last years of the Livonian War, which ended with Russia’s defeat in 1583, the commonwealth gained Livonia and other territory. In 1629, however, the commonwealth was forced to cede most of Livonia to Sweden. Conflict with Russia resumed in the early 1600s, culminating in Russia’s devastating invasion of the commonwealth in 1654. The commonwealth began to deteriorate as a political power, and in the late 1700s the Austrian, Russian, and Prussian empires conspired to partition its territory. Poland was divided among the three empires. Lithuania was annexed by Russia, except for a small section in the southwest that was awarded to Prussia; that too went to Russia in 1815.

Under Russian rule, Lithuanians became a completely subject people. Lithuanians joined with Poles in large-scale rebellions against Russian rule in 1812, from 1830 to 1831, and in 1863, but all were harshly suppressed and resulted in increased repression of Lithuanian culture. After the 1831 revolt, the University of Vilnius was closed and the imperial government mandated that Russian be the only language taught in Lithuanian schools. From 1865 to 1904 Lithuanian could only legally be printed in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, although books printed in Latin-script Lithuanian were smuggled in from Germany.

During the Russian Revolution of 1905 (a widespread revolt for political reform), a congress of elected Lithuanian representatives demanded that the Russian government allow for Lithuanian self-government, but the demand was rejected. The revolution brought about some minor concessions, however, and restrictions on the Lithuanian language were lifted. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed and militant socialists called Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian government.

During World War I (1914-1918), the German army occupied Lithuania. In February 1918 Lithuanian nationalists declared Lithuania’s independence. When the war ended in November and German forces withdrew, the Lithuanian Taryba (Council) established a provisional government. The new government barely had a foothold, however, when Bolshevik forces invaded Vilnius and installed a pro-Bolshevik regime in the city. The provisional government fled to Kaunas and organized the Lithuanian National Army. The army eventually drove Bolshevik forces out of Lithuania, but in 1920 Polish forces occupied Vilnius and established a puppet government there. The Polish parliament subsequently annexed the Vilnius area.

In Kaunas, meanwhile, a Lithuanian constituent assembly was elected in April 1920, and in August 1922 it approved a new constitution that officially established Lithuania as an independent republic. The new constitution, which replaced the temporary constitution of 1920, provided for a democratic system of government, including a president as head of state and a unicameral (single-chamber) parliament, or Seimas. Later in 1922, the Bolsheviks founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Two countries that today border Lithuania, Russia and Belorussia (now Belarus), were among the USSR’s constituent republics.

In 1922 the Lithuanian Seimas implemented a program of land reform. Land from large estates was expropriated and redistributed among Lithuania’s peasantry. Although the land reform was initially successful, in the 1930s many peasants abandoned their farms to seek employment in the cities. In the Seimas, meanwhile, conservative and liberal factions could not reconcile their differences. On December 17, 1926, Lithuanian nationalists led by conservative statesman Antanas Smetona, working with the support of the Lithuanian army, engineered a coup d’etat. All liberals and leftists were expelled from the Seimas, which then elected Smetona as president. In 1928 a new constitution was passed that formalized the new government structure in which Smetona ruled by decree.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Nazi Party propaganda agitated Germans to rise up against Lithuania over the territory of Memel (now Klaipeda), located on the Baltic coast. Largely Lithuanian-inhabited Memel was part of Germany before World War I, but the Allied Powers put it under Lithuanian administration, and in 1923 Lithuania annexed it to gain a seaport. In March 1939 Hitler reannexed the territory. On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland (an act that marked the outbreak of World War II) after signing a nonaggression pact with the USSR. The pact contained a secret protocol that assigned Lithuania to the German sphere of influence; however, later that month the pact was amended to add most of Lithuania to the territories assigned to the USSR. This in effect sanctioned the USSR to annex Lithuania. In October the Soviet government forced Lithuania to agree to a mutual-assistance treaty by which Lithuania was compelled to admit 20,000 Soviet troops on its territory. The USSR in turn granted Lithuania its historic capital of Vilnius, which Soviet troops had released from Polish occupation.

In June 1940 the Soviet Red Army invaded Lithuania. Smetona fled the country, and a new pro-Soviet government was installed. Only the Communist Working People’s Bloc, a party organized and led by Soviet Communists, was allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections held in July. The following month Lithuania formally became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), a constituent republic of the USSR. However, the United States and other democratic powers refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet annexation.

Despite the earlier nonaggression pact, Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941. Large-scale anti-Soviet uprisings then took place in Lithuania. Unable to contend with both the revolt and the German onslaught, Soviet forces withdrew from Lithuania. During the Nazi occupation, Lithuanian resources were systematically pillaged and more than 200,000 Lithuanians, including an estimated 165,000 Jews, were killed. The Nazis nearly exterminated the entire Jewish population, which had constituted Lithuania’s largest minority group before the war.

In the summer of 1944 the Soviets reoccupied most of Lithuania and reestablished it as a Soviet republic; however, the Germans held out in western Lithuania until early 1945. Under the Soviets, all non-Communist social and political organizations were prohibited. Only the Communist Party of Lithuania (CPL), a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the party that replaced the Communist Working People’s Bloc after Lithuania’s 1940 elections, was allowed to function. In the late 1940s the Soviet regime abolished private ownership of land, and all of Lithuania’s farmland was incorporated into large state-controlled farms. The regime also closed most of Lithuania’s churches, deported many priests, and prosecuted people who were openly religious. Strong resistance against the Soviet occupation lasted until 1952 and involved more than 100,000 people. Soviet officials sent as many as 350,000 Lithuanians to labor camps in Siberia as punishment for holding anti-Communist beliefs or resisting Soviet rule. Lithuania settled into relative calm in the mid-1950s, and most nations tacitly accepted its status as a Soviet republic.

Rapid industrialization, a high priority of Soviet economic policy, began in Lithuania in the late 1950s. The influx of workers into Lithuania’s cities transformed the traditionally agrarian society into a predominantly urbanized one. New industrial workers also included Russians and other Soviet immigrants, although Lithuania was less affected by immigration than its Baltic neighbors. Russian immigrants were at first disproportionately represented in the CPL, but in the 1950s and 1960s more Lithuanians joined the ranks of the Lithuanian party apparatus. Antanas Snieckus, a native-born Lithuanian, continuously held the highest post of CPL first secretary from the 1940s until 1974.

In the 1960s and 1970s an extensive movement developed in Lithuania in opposition to Soviet rule. In May 1972 many Lithuanian students and workers held demonstrations in Kaunas calling for religious and political freedom. The opposition movement also began producing a number of underground anti-Communist publications, including a prominent publication called The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church.

In the mid- and late 1980s rapid political changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR created a new political climate that strengthened Lithuanian nationalism. In the USSR, these changes were brought about by the political and economic reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s calls for glasnost (Russian for “openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) led to the formation of thousands of nationalist groups throughout the USSR. In Lithuania, a special commission was formed in May 1988 to propose amendments to the republic’s constitution in order to accommodate Gorbachev’s reforms; members of the commission founded the coalition S?judis (the Lithuanian Movement for Reconstruction) in October. The CPL lost its monopoly of power in 1989, as other political parties were allowed to function, and in February 1990 candidates aligned with S?judis won an overall majority in Lithuania’s first open parliamentary elections. The new governing coalition led the struggle for Lithuanian independence. During this period, the CPL broke with the CPSU, a move that aided the CPL’s later resurgence.

In March 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare restoration of its independence. However, the USSR used economic, political, and military pressure to keep Lithuania within the union. Then in August 1991 the CPSU lost all credibility after a failed coup attempt by Communist hard-liners in Moscow, and in September the Soviet government conceded the independence of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. All three Baltic republics were admitted to the United Nations (UN) later that month. The USSR officially ceased to exist in December.

S?judis could not maintain political leadership in the period following independence. Its popularity dropped as a result of political infighting; a severe economic crisis caused by the disruption of trade ties with the former Soviet republics; and a worsening of international relations with neighboring countries, including a dispute with Latvia over sea borders. Meanwhile, former Communist officials began to stage a political comeback in Lithuania. In February 1992 elections the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which had replaced the CLP, won a majority of seats in the Seimas. In November DLP leader Algirdas Brazauskas was elected president with 60 percent of the vote. Popular support for the new DLP government soon declined, however, in part because of a decline in standard of living resulting from the country’s transition to a market economy.

In 1993 Lithuania became the first of the Baltic states to be free of a Russian military presence. In February 1994 the country joined the Partnership for Peace program, which was set up by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to allow for limited military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO countries.

In December 1995 Lithuania was rocked by a major banking scandal when two of its largest commercial banks, Innovation Bank and Litimpeks Bank, were shut down by the government after widespread embezzling was discovered. The parliament ousted the prime minister, Adolfas Slezevicius, in February 1996 when it was revealed that he had withdrawn his personal savings from Innovation Bank two days before it was closed. President Brazauskas appointed Mindaugas Stankevicius as acting prime minister until elections could be held. After a runoff general election in November 1996, the center-left DLP was replaced by a conservative coalition comprising the Homeland Union and the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party. Gediminas Vagnorius, the chairperson of the Homeland Union, was named prime minister. President Brazauskas decided not to seek reelection in January 1998, and Valdas Adamkus, a Lithuanian-American ecologist, won the presidency by a narrow margin. Although nominally affiliated with the Lithuanian Center Union Party, Adamkus campaigned as an independent intent on leading Lithuania to economic success along Western lines.



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