Lithuania is situated on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea and borders Latvia on the north, Belarus on the east and south, and Poland and the Kaliningrad region of Russia on the southwest. It is a country of gently rolling hills, many forests, rivers and streams, and lakes. Its principal natural resource is agricultural land.
The Liths, or Lithuanians, united in the 12th century under the rule of Mindaugas, who became king in 1251. Through marriage, one of the later Lithuanian rulers became the king of Poland (Ladislaus II) in 1386, uniting the countries. In 1410, the Poles and Lithuanians defeated the powerful Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg. From the 14th to the 16th century, Poland and Lithuania made up one of medieval Europe’s largest empires, stretching from the Black Sea almost to Moscow. The two countries formed a confederation for almost 200 years, and in 1569 they formally united. Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland in 1772, 1792, and 1795. As a consequence, Lithuania came under Russian rule after the last partition. Russia attempted to immerse Lithuania in Russian culture and language, but anti-Russian sentiment continued to grow. Following World War I and the collapse of Russia, Lithuania declared independence (1918), under German protection.
The republic was then annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. From June 1941 to 1944, it was occupied by German troops, with whom Lithuania served in World War II. Some 240,000 Jews were massacred in Lithuania during the Nazi years. In 1944, the Soviets again annexed Lithuania.
The Lithuanian independence movement reemerged in 1988. In 1990, Vytautas Landsbergis, the non-Communist head of the largest Lithuanian popular movement (Sajudis), was elected president. On the same day, the Supreme Council rejected Soviet rule and declared the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, the first Baltic republic to take this action. Confrontation with the Soviet Union ensued along with economic sanctions, but they were lifted after both sides agreed to a face-saving compromise.
Lithuania’s independence was quickly recognized by major European and other nations, including the United States. The Soviet Union finally recognized the independence of the Baltic states on Sept. 6, 1991. UN admittance followed on Sept. 17, 1991. Successful implementation of structural and legislative reforms in Lithuania attracted greater direct foreign investments by the mid-1990s.
In late 2002, Lithuania was accepted for membership in the EU and NATO, and it joined both in 2004. In Jan. 2003 Rolandas Paksas defeated the incumbent, Valdas Adamkus, in the presidential election. It was a surprising upset, given that Adamkus had helped bring about his country’s entry into NATO and the European Union. In April 2004, President Paksas was removed from office after his conviction for dealings with Russian mobsters. It was Lithuania’s worst political crisis since independence from the Soviet Union. In July 2004, Valdas Adamkus was again elected president.
Lithuanians, whose motherland had experienced such a dramatic history, protect and honour historical legacy and cultural heritage of their country. The National Museum of Lithuania, the oldest in the country, holds the largest repository of cultural heritage in the country. The Old Arsenal located nearby presents the prehistory of the Balts and origins of Lithuanian nation. An open-air Folk Museum in Rumšiškės represents four major ethnographic regions of the country.The most valuable art collections are held in the Lithuanian Art Museum in the Chodkevičius (Chodkiewicz) and Radvila Palaces, K.Varnelis Home-museum, the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Vilnius, M.K.Čiurlionis National Art Museum, M.Žilinskas Picture Gallery in Kaunas, Klaipėda Picture Gallery.Horrible repressions of Soviet period and World War II are reflected in the Museum of Genocide Victims, opened in the premises of former KGB headquarters, or the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius. Grūtas Park, an „exile camp“ just outside Druskininkai, now features monuments of the Soviet leaders brought here from all over the country. Also visit the former missile-launching grounds of the Soviet Army found in the Žemaitija National Park.Lithuania is a new and active member of the European Union (since May 1, 2004) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (since March 29, 2004). Lithuania is the only Baltic country with nearly eight hundred years of statehood tradition, while its name was first mentioned almost one thousand years ago, in 1009. Wedged at the dividing line of Western and Eastern civilizations, Lithuania battled dramatically for its independence and survival. Once in the Middle Ages, Lithuania was the largest state in the entire Eastern Europe, where crafts and overseas trade prospered.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and one of the country’s oldest cities. It stretches along both banks of the fast flowing Neris River, and is set among hills pine forests. Vilnius is very old city indeed. The honor for founding Vilnius is justly given to Gediminas (a Lithuanian Duke) in the year 1323. Having declared Vilnius his „royal town“, Gediminas created the conditions for its subsequent growth as the political, economical and cultural center of Lithuania. The fortress on Castle Hill was used for defense purposes and was called the Upper Castle.
the craftsmen in other European towns at the end of the 15th century, Vilnius craftsmen began to join together by professions into guilds. Many Catholic churches and monasteries appeared in the town. Stone buildings sprang up inside the Lower Castle. The new Cathedral was among them. Crafts and trade continued to develop in the 16th century. Many beautiful new buildings in the late Gothic and Renaissance style appeared in the town. The most significant event in the cultural life of 16th century Lithuania was the founding of the Vilnius Academy in 1579, which was endowed with the rights and privileges of a university. In 1795 Vilnius became the center of a new gubernia consisting of the lands annexed to the Russian Empire. A number of new Classical style buildings were built, including the Cathedral, which had been reconstructed at the end of the 18th century, a new town hall, and the Governor-Generals’ Palace. In 1860, a railway, the first in Lithuania, crossed Vilnius and connected with St. Petersburg and Warsaw.
During World War I Vilnius was occupied by the Kaiser’s troops for three and a half years. On 16 February, 1918, Lithuanian Council in Vilnius proclaimed an independent Lithuanian Republic. In the autumn of 1920, Vilnius and the region to which it belonged were occupied by Poland. On October 10th, 1939, Lithuania and the Soviet Union signed a treaty on mutual aid, in accordance with which Vilnius and the Vilnius Region were returned to Lithuania. In 1940, Vilnius became the capital of Soviet Lithuania, which meant it was an administrative center of occupied Lithuania.
On March 11th, 1990, the Supreme Council restored Lithuania’s independence.
Nature of Lithuania. Despite the planned and tumultuous urbanisation and the industrialisation (although sometimes little advanced technologically) that have reached the remotest villages, much of the country’s wonderful natural environment has remained. In Lithuanian folk tales man often comes into collision with nature, different plants and beasts. Dark forests and mysterious lakes are fraught with surprises and menacing trials. He who does not consider himself lord of nature gains a victory. He who knows the language of animals and who unselfishly helps a beast, bird or fish wins. Consequently, even the tiniest creature repays a hundredfold to him, awards him with unusual abilities and performs the hardest tasks for him. Lithuanian nature is beautiful and diverse. It is diverse throughout the country, even in the smallest areas of woodland or riversides. The landscapes of our country are very colourful. The chiselled hills and chains of lakes in Eastern Aukstaitija are very different from the landscapes of the Dzukija region with the slowly flowing Nemunas and big, rustling forests through which rapid rivulets cut their way. The hilly woodlands of Zemaitija, with its own lake district, slope down into the vast plains. Even the plains in Suduva are quite different from those in North Lithuania. The narrow belt of the Curonian Spit stretching between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon with its high sand dunes and vulnerable flora are absolutely incomparable. There are five national parks in Lithuania. To a large degree they reflect the variety of landscape and culture of the country’s different geographical regions. The parks were founded in areas unique in their nature and their cultural monuments. In such areas, nature has been least influenced by man’s activities, farming or industry, and many monuments of our past have been preserved. The law on protection of nature allows farming and camping on the national parkland. However, there are reserves that can be visited accompanied only by staff members in the park. In the old villages of the parks the natural and architectural environment has changed during the last two centuries not much. The descendants of the farmsteads are still living in almost all the oldest villages and hamlets of the parks. Like their forefathers they understand nature and earn their living in traditional occupations. The visitor can both enjoy a rest, research the nature and take in the picturesque sights right in the national parks.