views updated Jun 08 2018


VILNIUS (Polish, Wilno; Yiddish, Vilna). Vilnius was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, thus the second capital of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. Established at a crossroads between East and West, it imported Muscovite furs and reexported them, along with local forest products, by river to the Baltic (Königsberg, Riga, and Gdańsk were among its trading partners), whence it imported fabrics, salt, spices, fruit, and metals. Vilnius received the Magdeburg Law for municipal self-government in 1387 following the Grand Duchy's acceptance of Christianity and entry into federation with Poland. The city had long had a mixed population (pagan Lithuanians, Orthodox Ruthenians [Ancestors of Ukrainians and Belarusians], Catholic Germans). In 1536 a royal decree established "Greek" and "Roman" parity for elections to the magistracy. Lutherans (largely burgher and German in origin) date their continuing presence from 1555, Calvinists (led by increasingly Polonized nobles) from the 1560s, and Greek Catholics from the Union of Brest (1596). Islamic Tatars had settled in the Lukiškės (Łukiszki) suburb around 1400. Jews came relatively late, receiving their first privilege for settlement within the walls in 1593.

All five recognized Christian confessions competed for office in the magistracy under Greek (Orthodox and Uniate) and Roman (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist) rubrics until 1666, when a royal decree limited membership in the ruling elite to Catholics and Uniates. "Dissidents" (Orthodox, Lutherans, Calvinists) remained a significant presence in the merchants' and artisans' guilds, where parity arrangements mirroring those of the magistracy continued to function without the new restrictions. The competing Uniate and Orthodox confraternities made the city an early center of a Ruthenian spiritual and cultural revival. Jews governed themselves autonomously through their kahal and the vaad or Council of the Chief Lithuanian Communities. Tatars went to their mullah for decisions on internal affairs. Both Jews and Tatars turned to the nobles' Castle Court (rather than the burghers' magistracy) for law in cases involving the Christian world.

Although Vilnians spoke Polish, Ruthenian, Lithuanian, German, and Yiddish, Polish was the city's lingua franca by the early seventeenth century, and all Christians (and some of the Tatars who tended toward assimilation) felt the draw of Polish cultural norms.

Lutherans and Calvinists established schools in the middle of the sixteenth century, but the Jesuits (introduced here in 1569) soon offered effective competition. Stephen Báthory made their collegium (established in 1570) into an academy in 1578. It would become Poland-Lithuania's second university (after Cracow), eventually bearing the name of its royal founder. The academy welcomed the sons of the grand duchy's "dissidents" and played an important role in the Catholicization of society in the seventeenth century.

Vilnius was home to early Cyrillic printing houses (the earliest that of Francysk Skaryna, in 1524), and a Calvinist shop (Daniel of Łęczyca) functioned in the years 15811607. Here, too, the Jesuits' Academy Press (15921804) soon took over the local market, also printing for Vilnius Uniates. Vilnius became a center of Jewish culture in the eighteenth century, during the life of the Gaon Rabbi Elijah (17201797).

The general decline of Vilnius began with the Muscovite occupation of the city (16551661) and was deepened with the depredations of the Northern War (17001721). Vilnius's status as capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania ceased with the third partition of Poland (1795), when it became a provincial city of the Russian Empire.

See also Belarus ; Jews and Judaism ; Lithuania, Grand Duchy of, to 1569 ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Poland to 1569 ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox .


Cohen, Israel. Vilna. Philadelphia, 1943. Frick, David. "The Bells of Vilnius: Keeping Time in a City of Many Calendars." In Making Contact: Maps, Identity, and Travel, edited by Glenn Burger, Lesley B. Cormack, Jonathan Hart, and Natalia Pylypiuk, pp. 2359. Edmonton, 2003.

Ragauskas, Aivas. Vilniaus miesto valdantysis elitas XVII a. antrojoje pusėje (16621702 m.). Vilnius, 2002.

Schramm, Gerhard. "Protestantismus und städtische Gesellschaft in Wilna (16.17. Jahrhundert)." Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 17 (1969): 187214.

David Frick


views updated Jun 11 2018


The capital of the Lithuanian Republic and historically the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vilnius occupies a special place in a number of national cultures. Lithuanians constitute a majority of the city's 543,000 inhabitants. Russians make up about 20 percent, Poles 19 percent, Belarusians 5 percent, and Jews 2 percent. Jews, who according to the Russian census of 1897 had constituted a plurality of the population, have called "Vilna" (or in Yiddish "Vilne") the "Jerusalem of the North," a center of rabbinic learning. Poles considered "Wilno" Polish in culture. Some Belarusians, pointing to the Grand Duchy's multinational character, insist that Vilna should be part of their state. Under Russian rule in the nineteenth century, Vilna was the administrative center of the empire's Northwest Region.

When the great Eastern European empires collapsed at the end of the World War I, Vilnius became a bone of contention between the newly emerging states. Between 1918 and 1923, the flag symbolizing sovereignty over the city and region changed at least eight times. The two major contenders were Lithuania and Poland, although the city also briefly served as the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and then the Lithuanian-Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. In July 1920, as part of its recognition of Lithuanian independence, Soviet Russia agreed with Lithuania's claims to Vilnius, but in October 1920 Polish forces seized the city, establishing the rogue state of Central Lithuania. In 1923, Poland formally incorporated the territory, but Lithuania refused to recognize Polish sovereignty. Still claiming Vilnius as their capital, the Lithuanians called Kaunas their provisional capital and insisted that Poland and Lithuania were in a state of war.

After Soviet forces had occupied Eastern Poland in September 1939, the Soviet government turned Vilnius over to the Lithuanians. The Polish government in exile protested the Lithuanians' move into Vilnius, but after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the western powers chose not to challenge the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland. In 1940, and again from 1944 to 1945, Soviet troops occupied Lithuania, and Vilnius was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1991.

Under Soviet rule, Lithuanians dominated the city's cultural life. Before World War I, when Lithuania lay on the border between Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany, the Russians had limited the economic growth of the region and the development of the city. Therefore few Lithuanians had come to the city from the countryside. After 1945 the Soviet government permitted and even encouraged Poles to emigrate from the USSR to the Polish People's Republic, and Lithuanians flowed to the city. The decade of the 1960s, when the Lithuanian population reached 45 to 47 percent, was decisive in the development of the city's Lithuanian character.

In January 1991 Soviet troops in Vilnius seized a number of public buildings in an unsuccessful effort to crush Lithuanian independence, and the city became a symbol of the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika.

See also: jews; lithuania and lithuanians; poland


Cohen, Israel. (1992). Vilna. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Senn, Alfred Erich. (1966). The Great Powers, Lithuania, and the Vilna Question. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Alfred Erich Senn


views updated May 17 2018

Vilnius Capital of Lithuania, on the River Nerisr. Founded in 1323 as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the city declined after the union of Lithuania-Poland. Vilnius was captured by Russia in 1795. After World War I, it was made capital of an independent Lithuania. In 1939, Soviet troops occupied the city and, in 1940, Lithuania became a Soviet republic. During World War 2, the city was occupied by German troops, and its Jewish population was all but exterminated. In 1944, it reverted to its Soviet status. In 1990, Lithuania unilaterally declared independence, leading to clashes with Soviet troops and pitched battles on the streets of Vilnius. In 1991, the Soviet Union recognized Lithuanian independence. Despite bombing in World War 2, the old city retains many historic synagogues, churches, and civic buildings, as well as remnants of its 14th-century castle and fortifications. Industries: engineering, chemicals, textiles, food processing. Pop. (2001) 553,000.