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INTRODUCTION

The little country lying on the south eastern coast of the Baltic Sea is Lithuania, inhabited by one of the Baltic nations, which started their history here several millennia ago. The Lithuanians have preserved one of the oldest languages in the world, a unique culture and unique customs. The earliest information about the Lithuanian ancestors come from the writings of Pliny the Elder, Marcus Claudius Tacitus and Claudius Ptolemy.

Although in the Quedlinburg Annals Lithuania is first mentioned in 1009, the beginning of the Lithuanian State is considered to be the year of 1236 when Grand Duke Mindaugas united a large portion of the Baltic lands. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania survived for about 500 years, its most prominent rulers being Grand Dukes Gediminas, Algirdas, Kestutis, Vytautas. The Gediminaiciai Dynasty played an especially important role in the history of Lithuania. Their descendants were later to ascend the thrones of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary or to become prominent political figures in Europe.

Lithuania has had a unique history. A small state at first, it was to become one of the largest in Europe in the Middle Ages. It stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including Byelorussia, a part of Russia and a considerable portion of the Ukraine. Some Baltic tribes, however, such as the Prussians, the Skalvians and some others, remained outside the borders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In contrast to a great many European countries, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a paragon of racial and religious concord.

It was also the Lithuanian sword that stemmed the drive of the Teutons to the East and that of Mongols to the West. In 1363, during the reign of Grand Duke Algirdas, the Lithuanian army defeated the Tatars and Mongols in the battle of the Blue Waters. In 1410 the joint Lithuanian-Polish army, commanded by Vytautas and Jogaila, inflicted a mortal blow on the Order of the Cross. And yet this country, which was in the vanguard of the political and democratic thought of that time, lost its independence for many years to come, for it found itself on the crossroads of never-ending wars among European states.

The sunset of Lithuanian political history began in the 16th century when the Polish landlords took advantage of the weakening position of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and made it sign the Lublin Union Treaty of 1569 which started the united Lithuanian-Polish state (Republic). Lithuania lost the right to elect its own ruler, the Lithuanian Grand Duke. The elected Polish King, whose permanent residence was now in Poland, automatically became the Grand Duke of Lithuania. State affairs as well as foreign policies were decided by the united sejm.

Still Lithuania preserved its own government under the Grand Duke, a separate budget, army, legal and judiciary institutions and its own laws (The Lithuanian Statute). The Lithuanian population did not lose their national and political awareness. However, since the Polish language was adopted as the official language of Lithuanian-Polish state, Lithuania was gradually polonized, that was the negative aspect of the Lublin Union, which however was offset by its restraining effect on Russia's expansionary aspirations.

Despite the external and internal difficulties Lithuania was eager to absorb the progressive aspects of West European culture. It was governed in a democratic way on the basis of one of the most perfect codes of law in the then Europe - the Lithuanian Statute Book (1529, 1566, 1588). Later the formulations of some of its laws found their way into the legislation of other countries as well. In Lithuania Eastern and Western cultures lived and developed peace fully side by side. Its capital Vilnius became the seat of the first University in Eastern Europe (1579).

After the Lublin Union the situation in Central and Eastern Europe was very unstable. In the period of 1558-1667 Lithuania was engaged in war with Russia and Sweden for 46 years. European rulers partitioned the Lithuanian-Polish state, weakened by war, three times. After the czarist occupation of Lithuania, which took place after the last partitioning in 1795, and which lasted for 120 years, the sons of Lithuanian nation were forced to spill their blood while fighting in the French, German or Russian armies. A great number of them found their death in uprisings, emigrated or were sent into exile, Russia made great efforts to assimilate the Lithuanians, and even tried to convert them to the Orthodox Church. Schooling in Lithuanian and the Lithuanian letters were prohibited (1861-1904). Since the language of instruction in official schools was Russian, children could receive education in their native language only in clandestine schools. Lithuanian books and newspapers were printed in Prussia (Lithuania Minor) and smuggled across the border into Lithuania. At the end of the 19th century and especially after the abolishment of the ban on the Lithuanian letters Lithuania experienced national rebirth. Although World War I stagnated that process, it destroyed the Russian Empire and helped Lithuania to attain its independence. The Council of Lithuania proclaimed the independence of Lithuania on February 16, 1918. Soviet Russia was among the first states which recognized Lithuania de jure. The 12 July 1920 Agreement made Lithuania's secession from Russia legal and recognized Lithuania as an independent state with its capital Vilnius. But the same year Poland seized Vilnius and Eastern Lithuania in defiance of the norms of international law. The occupied territory was restored to Lithuania in 1939. During those 22 years of independence Lithuania became a full member of the world community and pursued the peaceful policy of non-alliance. Great progress was achieved in all spheres: the national economy, which had been destroyed by World War 1, was rebuilt, a land reform carried out, agriculture and industry developed. Great significance was attached to universal education, including the education of ethnic communities. Lithuania created its own system of education, made primary education mandatory, and founded nine institutions of higher education. The first national Song festival was held in 1924, and, beginning with the same year, Lithuanian sportsmen became regular participants of the Olympic Games. In 1933 two Lithuanian pilots, Darius and Girenas, crossed the Atlantic from New York, but unfortunately were shot down over Germany.

In 1940 after the gulp of fresh air which it got during the twenty two years of its independence, Lithuania fell victim to the deal between Hitler and Stalin and was incorporated into the Stalinist Soviet Union. Lithuania lost about a third of its population during the Soviet and Hitler occupation. After the war Lithuania was bled white by the mass emigration of intellectuals to the West, by the mass deportations to Siberia and by the bloodbath in the post-war years. Yet, before the growth of cities and professional culture, despite the numerous dark periods of subjugation, the continuity of Lithuania's creative activity was never broken. Material and spiritual values continued to be created and handed down from generation to generation. Together with religion, they played a major role in the preservation of the ethnic Lithuanian way of life.

Lithuanian ethnic culture received its greatest blow between the 40's and the 70's, i.e. in the period of deportations, collectivization and reckless land reclamation which brought about the depopulation of villages, mass resettlement in the cities, and the destruction of millennia-long habits and traditions.

But the Lithuanian nation and its traditional culture has manage to survive, for this tiny plot of land on the Baltic and its traditions have always ways been defended staunchly by at least 150 Baltic and 70 Lithuanian generations. Today there are about 4 000 000 Lithuanians in the world, three million of them live in their traditional homeland, one million in emigration. It means that there is one Lithuanian for every 300 inhabitants of the world. One of the major factors which enabled the Lithuanians to find each other in exile and emigration and to survive nation was the traditional culture of their forefathers which they away lovingly in their hearts when they were forced to leave their homeland land.

Most of the world and the Lithuanian emigrants never recognized the forced incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union result of the secret Stalin - Hitler deal. In 1987, former Lithuanian political prisoners came together around the monument to Adam Mickiewicz in Vilnius to mark the anniversary of that deal and condemn it for the first time. A great number of Lithuanian people heard and learn a the pact for the first time. The curtain of lies was raised and soon a powerful liberation movement started all over Lithuania, uniting people of different age, political convictions and social standing under the banner of the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sajudis, which was founded in June 1988. It started in support of Gorbachev's perestroika, but beginning with 1990 the Sajudis movement became openly committed to the aspirations for Lithuania's independence. In the elections of 1 which were first free elections held in Lithuania after the 2nd World the candidates of the Sajudis movement won an overwhelming majority of seats in the. Supreme Council. The Council elected Vytautas Landsbergis its chairman, who exhibited a surprising integrity and determination nation at the most difficult and decisive moments for the Lithuanian nation.

On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR claimed the Act of the Restoration of the independent Republic of Lithuania. Its flag consists of three bands of equal width, yellow, green and red. Its national emblem is a white mounted Knight galloping against a red background.

The world looked upon that manifestation of Lithuania's aspiration for freedom with interest but it was in no hurry to render it any significant diplomatic support. It was Iceland alone who recognized Lithuania's independence as early as February 11, 1991. Later it was joined by the Russian Federation. The Soviet armed forces made several tempts to put down the Lithuanian liberation movement. They used fire-arms and tanks against the unarmed people who were keeping vigil around the most important objects in Vilnius - the government buildings, telecommunications and mass media centers. As a result of these attempts, 24 people were killed and many wounded. Andrej Sacharov's ideas and the Lithuanian resistence movement were among the major factors responsible for the awakening of the democratic forces in the other Soviet republics. By August 19 - 23, 1991, these forces had become strong enough to defeat the attempted coup d'etat in Moscow by using the tactics of the Vilniusites.

At last the world became convinced that the Baltic states were really determined to get back their freedom and independence. Iceland was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Lithuania on August 26, 1991. In a matter of two weeks two and a half score countries renewed their diplomatic relations with Lithuania, suspended by the Soviet occupation. The United States was the 37-th country to proclaim its recognition (on September 2). The Soviet Union was the 49-th country to recognize the independence of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It happened on September 6. The Baltic countries have regained at last their rights to their own land, and the half -a -.century -long struggle, conducted openly and secretly in Lithuania and in exile, has been crowned with victory.

On September 8, 1991, Lithuania celebrated the Thanksgiving day: in all the churches of the land holy masses were heed to thank the Lord for independence and freedom. During the rally outside the Cathedral in Vilnius Vytautas Landsbergis, Chairman of the supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, awarded the Order of the Knight to the heroes who distinguished themselves in the struggle for Lithuania's independence after January 13, 1991. September 8 is going to be a National holiday.

At last the world is ready to put right the last injustice incurred by the 2nd world War. On September 17, the Baltic States were accepted into the UNO.

Today all over the world people seek to know and understand each other better. This book has been written just with this particular aim in mind. It does not claim to be a profound study. It is rather a short guide on the Lithuanian character to those who are curious to find out a little more about it.

March, 1990 - September, 1991



next previous contents
Next: GENERAL INFORMATION Previous: Preface and Copyright Notice

J. Kudirka "THE LITHUANIANS"

Copyright ©, 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.