Lithuania and Lithuanians

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Located on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania has been an independent republic since 1991. Encompassing 66,200 square kilometers, it has a population (2001) of 3,491,000 inhabitants, of whom 67.2 percent live in cities and 32.8 percent in rural areas. Over 80 percent of the population is Lithuanian, about 9 percent Russian, and 7 percent Polish.

Lithuanians first established a government in the thirteenth century to resist the Teutonic Knights attacking from the West. In 1251 the Lithuanian ruler Mindaugas accepted Latin Christianity, and in 1253 received the title of king, but his successors were known as Grand Dukes. When Tatars overran the Russian principalities to the East, the Grand Duchy expanded into the territory that today makes up Belarus and Ukraine. At its height, at the end of the fourteenth century, although the Lithuanians are a Baltic and not a Slavic people, Lithuania had a majority of East Slavs in its population, and for a time it challenged the Grand Duchy of Moscow as the "collector of the Russian lands."

Faced by Moscow's growing strength, Lithuanian leaders turned to Poland for help, and through a series of agreements made between 1385 and 1387, the two states formed a union, solidified by the marriage of the two rulers, Jagiello and Jadwiga, and by the reintroduction of Latin Christianity through the Polish structure of the Roman Catholic church. (Lithuania had reverted to paganism after Mindaugas's abdication in 1261.) Reinforced by the Union of Lublin in 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth continued until the Partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 the Third Partition of Poland brought Russian rule to most of what today constitutes Lithuania.

Russian authorities attempted to wean the Lithuanians from the Polish influences that had dominated during the period of the Commonwealth. The Russians banned the use of the name "Lithuania" (Litva) and administered the territory as part of the "Northwest Region." After the Polish uprisings of 1831 and 1863, the authorities helped Lithuanians in some ways but also tried to force them to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet. At the same time, the authorities limited the economic development of the region, which lay on the Russian-German border. Under these conditions, a Lithuanian national consciousness emerged, and with it the goal of cultural independence from the Poles and eventual political independence from Russia.

The Lithuanians received their opportunity in the course of World War I. On February 16, 1918, after almost three years of German occupation, the Lithuanian Council (Taryba) declared the country's independence, but a provisional government began to function only after the German defeat in November 1918. Russian efforts in 1919 to reclaim the region in the form of a Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic failed, and in May 1920 a Constituent Assembly met and formalized the state structure.

The First Republic's foreign policy focused on Lithuania's claim to the city of Vilnius as its historic capitol. The Poles had seized the city in 1920, and as a result, Lithuania tended to align itself with

lithuania, 1992 © maryland cartographics. reprinted with permission

Germany and the Soviet Union as part of an anti-Versailles camp. In 1939, by the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact, Germany and the Soviet Union were to divide Eastern Europe, and Lithuania fell into the Soviet orbit. In 1940 Soviet forces overthrew the authoritarian regime that had ruled Lithuania since 1926, and Moscow directed the country's incorporation into the Soviet Union as a constituent republic.

The 1940s brought destruction and havoc to Lithuania. In 1940 and 1941, Soviet authorities deported thousands of Lithuanian citizens of all nationalities into the interior of the USSR. When the Germans invaded in 1941, some local people joined with the Nazi forces in the massacre of the vast majority of the Jewish population of Lithuania. (In 1940 and 1941 Jews had constituted almost 10 percent of Lithuania's population.) When the Soviet army returned in 1944 and 1945, Lithuanian resistance erupted and continued into the early 1950s. Thousands died in the fighting, and Soviet authorities deported at least 150,000 persons to Siberia. (The exact number of killings and deportations is subject to considerable dispute.)

Under Soviet rule the Lithuanian social structure changed significantly. Before World War II, the majority of Lithuanians were peasants, and even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many urban dwellers still maintained some sort of psychological link with the land. The Soviet government, however, collectivized agriculture and pushed industrialization, moving large numbers of people into the cities and developing new industrial centers. By the 1960s, after the violent resistance had failed, more Lithuanians began to enter the Soviet system, becoming intellectuals, economic leaders, and party members. Emigré Lithuanian scholars often estimated that only 5 to 10 percent of Lithuanian party members were "believers," while the majority had joined out of necessity.

In 1988, after Mikhail Gorbachev had loosened Moscow's controls throughout the Soviet Union, the Lithuanians became a focus of the process of ethno-regional decentralization of the Soviet state. Gorbachev's program of reform encouraged local initiative that, in the Lithuanian case, quickly took on national coloration. The Lithuanian Movement for Perestroika, now remembered as Sajudis, mobilized the nation first around cultural and ecological issues, and later, in a political campaign, around the goal of reestablishment of independence.

Gorbachev quickly lost control of Lithuania, and he successively resorted to persuasion, economic pressure, and finally violence to restrain the Lithuanians. After the Lithuanian Communist Party declared its independence of the Soviet party in December 1989, worldwide media watched Gorbachev travel to Lithuania in January to persuade the Lithuanians to relent. He failed, and after Sajudis led the Lithuanian parliament on March 11, 1990, to declare the reconstitution of the Lithuanian state, Gorbachev imposed an economic blockade on the republic. This, too, failed, and in January 1991, world media again watched as Soviet troops attacked key buildings in Vilnius and the Lithuanians passively resisted Moscow's efforts to reestablish its authority. The result was a stalemate. Finally, after surviving the so-called "August Putsch" in Moscow, Gorbachev, under Western pressure, recognized the reestablishment of independent Lithuania.

See also: brazauskas, algirdas; landsbergis, vytautas; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; poland; vilnius


Eidintas, Alfonsas, and Zalys, Vytautas. (1997). Lithuania in European Politics: The Years of the First Republic, 19181940. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Misiunas, Romuald, and Taagepera, Rein. (1992). The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 19401990, expanded and updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Senn, Alfred Erich. (1959). The Emergence of Modern Lithuania. New York: Columbia University Press.

Senn, Alfred Erich. (1990). Lithuania Awakening. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Senn, Alfred Erich. (1995). Gorbachev's Failure in Lithuania. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Vardys, V. Stanley. (1978). The Catholic Church, Dissent, and Nationality in Soviet Lithuania. Boulder, CO: East European Quarterly.

Alfred Erich Senn