Lithuania lies at the edge of the East European Plain. Its landscape was shaped by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. Lithuania’s terrain is an alternation of moderate lowlands and highlands. The highest elevation is 297 meters above sea level, found in the eastern part of the republic and separated from the uplands of the western region of Zemaiciai by the very fertile plains of the southwestern and central regions. The landscape is punctuated by 2,833 lakes larger than one hectare and an additional 1,600 ponds smaller than one hectare. The majority of the lakes are found in the eastern part of the country. Lithuania also has 758 rivers longer than ten kilometers. The largest river is the Nemunas (total length 917 kilometers), which originates in Belarus. The other larger waterways are the Neris (510 kilometers), Venta (346 kilometers), and Sesupe (298 kilometers) rivers. However, only 600 kilometers of Lithuania’s rivers are navigable.
The country’s climate, which ranges between maritime and continental, is relatively mild. Average temperatures on the coast are 1.6°C in January and 17.8°C in July. In Vilnius the average temperatures are 2.1°C in January and 18.1°C in July. Average annual precipitation is 717 millimeters on the coast and 490 millimeters in the eastern part of the country. The growing season lasts 202 days in the western part of the country and 169 days in the eastern part.
Once a heavily forested land, Lithuania’s territory today consists of only 28 percent woodlands–mainly pine, spruce, and birch forests. Ash and oak are very scarce. The forests are rich in mushrooms and berries.
Lithuania is relatively clean country protected from industrial pollution from the East and West. The Dzukija forests, the environs of Neringa and Palanga are considered to be the cleanest places in the country. The cleanest river is Zeimena, and the cleanest lake is Dusia. A nuclear power plant is situated at the biggest Lithuanian lake of Druksiai in southern Lithuania.The plant has two reactors which after the Chernobyl disaster have received much more attention from both local and foreign experts. The state radio makes daily announcements about the radioactive level in various Lithuanian regions. The level has never exceeded the limit. Water in the sea is usually clean.
The 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 Dannenberg. 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, 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.