History of Lithuania: A Brief Sketch
Lithuanians, the Balts proper, live on the southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The name Balts, derived from the Baltic Sea, has been a neologism from the middle of the nineteenth century. It has applied not only to Lithuanians and Latvians, but also to several nationalities now extinct, namely Prussains, Yotvingians, Semigallians, Curonians and Selonians. Along with the ancient Prussian language, which has not been spoken since the seventeenth century, Lithuanian and Latvian languages form a distinct Baltic branch of the Indo-European linguistic family. Yet, as J. Kudirka points out, "of all the living Indo-European languages the Lithuanian language has retained the ancient phonetic and morphological characteristics best of all. It has a complicated system of flexions and word derivation. Therefore, as part of general linguistics, it is taught at a number of foreign universities (in the USA, Italy, France, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Japan and other countries).
From all the Baltic tribes Lithuanians were the first ones to create a state entity in the mid-13th century. Lithuania's first king, Mindaugas, was crowned on July 6, 1253, yet some historians argue that the establishment of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy (GDL) reaches back even farther, perhaps around 1183. Though there is little documentation for this period, it is generally accepted that for one to two hundred years prior to Mindaugas' rule, Lithuanian tribes had already begun the process of unifying themselves. Castles, manors and systems of defense were established during this period. Under the rule of Mindaugas, Lithuania was able to repel the attacks of Teutonic knights on the Western front, and also to succeed expanding its territory into the lands of Russia in the East. According to historian Zigmantas Kiaupa, a very strong regional leader, Mindaugas attempted to unite three worlds under his rule: pagan Lithuania, Catholic Western Europe and Orthodox Russia.
Grand Duchy of Lithuania lasted until the 18th century. However, she reached her apogee during the rule of Duke Vytautas, called the Great (died in 1430). Under his rule the realm of Grand Duchy of Lithuania extended from the Baltic Sea south to the shores of the Black Sea and east almost to the city of Moscow. In the century following Vytautas' reign, the power of the GDL began to decline. By the mid-16th century, Lithuanians made up only around onethird of the total population of an estimated 3 million people while Slavs, Germans, Jews, Poles, Tatars and Karaites composed the remaining two-thirds. In 1569, in the Union of Lublin, the Kingdom of Poland and the GDL became a commonwealth or Rzeczpospolita and had common currency, governance and policy. Nobles from both states had the right to own land and to sell goods without paying taxes in either part of the commonwealth. The two states did retain their own borders, names, armies and administrative powers. During the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also declined as a political power. Three partitions of the Commonwealth reduced significantly its size. One bulk went to Russia, another was annexed by Kingdom of Prussia, which in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, became the Kingdom of Poland. Finally, Lithuania was placed under Russian rule, although as a separate political entity. Lithuanian uprisings of 1830-31 and 1863 were harshly suppressed and followed by waves of Russification. Liberalization occurred after the Russian Revolution of 1905. The press prohibition had been annulled in 1904, allowing the appearance of the first Lithuanian daily newspaper Vilnius News. However, Lithuania had to suffer one more occupation before she would be able to declare its independence, namely military rule of Germany during the World War I. It was on February 16, 1918 that the independent Lithuanian state was declared by the council of 20 members, who had been elected several months before at the congress in Vilnius. The independence was short lived and not without fights regarding the demarcation of borders. The constitution adopted in 1922 set up a parliamentary democracy. Yet, a coup d'état by a group of army officers in December 1926 introduced an authoritarian presidential system with restricted democracy that lasted until the Soviet occupation of 1940. The Second World War brought Lithuania from Soviet rule to that of German Nazism. Yet, by the end of 1944, most of Lithuania had been reoccupied by the Red Army, and incorporated back into the Soviet Union.
Lithuanians fought back for their independence: an organized guerrilla resistance, at times involving up to 40,000 fighters, lasted into the early 1950s. However, it was crushed down, and harsh repression as well as deportations - 220,000 Lithuanians were deported into Siberia - followed. Lithuanian people have never given up their hopes to be independent again. Resistant attitudes towards communistic regime were cherished almost in every family and ripened by the late 80s. It was by that time that Sajūdis - "The Movement" for independence - consolidated the whole nation, and on March 11, 1990 the Parliament issued the declaration of independence stating that Lithuania had been annexed by the Soviet Union against her will. In March, 2004 Lithuania is admitted to NATO, and one month later joins the European Union.