Lithuania, republic in northeastern Europe, bounded on the north by Latvia; on the east and south by Belarus: on the southeast by Poland and Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast; and on the west by the Baltic Sea. With Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania is one of the Baltic States. Its name in Lithuanian is Lietuvos Respublika (Republic of Lithuania). Vilnius, the capital and largest city of Lithuania, is located in the southeastern portion of the country.
Lithuania is situated on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Ethnic Lithuanians constitute a majority of the country’s population. Lithuania was an independent republic from 1918 until 1940, when it was annexed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In1991 Lithuania regained its independence, and in 1992 it adopted a new constitution and held its first post-Soviet democratic elections. Since the early 1990s Lithuanians have been working to establish a free-market economy in place of the centralized economy of Soviet period.
The ancestors of Lithuania came to the Baltic area most likely around 2500 BC. The first reference to them by name was in AD 1009 in a medieval German manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle. With the rise of the medieval lords in Germany and Russia, Lithuania was constantly subject to invasion and attempted conquest. In the 13th century, when the Teutonic Knights, a German militaristic religious order, were establishing their power, the Lithuanians resisted. The various Lithuanians tribes united to form a loose federation under pagan chieftain Mindaugas. Mindaugas was baptized as a Christian in 1251 and subsequently crowned king of Lithuania under the authority of Pope Innocent IV. In about 1260 the Lithuanians defeated the Knights’ attempt to capture Lithuania territory. In 1263 Mindaugas was assassinated, probably by pagan Lithuanian princes, and Lithuania officially reverted to paganism.
In the 1300s Mindaugas’s successors began to expand their realm by incorporating, through conquest, Slavic lands to the east and south. Under Lithuanian ruler Gediminas, the empire was expanded in the south to include most of present-day Belarus, and Vilnius was established as the capital. Lithuanian grand duke Algirdas then expanded the Lithuanian realm east toward Moscow and south to the Black Sea. In 1386 Grand duke Jogaila joined Lithuania in a dynastic union with Poland when he married Polish queen Jadwiga. Jogaila accepted Christianity, becoming a Roman Catholic, and was crowned Wladislav II Jagiello, king of Poland.
King Jogiello and his cousin Vytautas, who became grand duke of Lithuania in 1392, led joint armed forces to decisively defeat the Teutonic Knights in 1410. Vytautas died without an heir in 1430. Beginning in 1447 the king of Poland also ruled Lithuania. In 1558 Russian tsar Ivan IV invaded the northern Baltic region, thereby instigating the Livonian War. With Russian expansionism posing an increasing threat, Lithuania sought stronger ties with Poland. In 1569, by the terms of the Union of Lublin, the two states formed a political union with a common legislature and a jointly elected sovereign. The new confederated state was officially known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although Lithuanian autonomy was guaranteed within the union, Poland assumed a dominant role. The Lithuanian gentry adopted Polish customs and language, while the Lithuanian peasantry was forced into serfdom and converted to Christianity.
The Commonwealth began to deteriorate as a political power, and in the late 1700s the Austrian, Russian, and Prussian empires conspired to partition its territory. Poland was divided among the three empires. Lithuania was annexed by Russia, except for a small section in the southwest that was awarded to Prussia. Under Russian rule, Lithuanians became a completely subject people.
During World War I (1914-1918), the German army occupied Lithuania. In February 1918 Lithuanian nationalists declared Lithuanian’s independence. When the war ended in November and German forces withdrew, the Lithuanian Taryba established a provisional government. The new government barely had a foothold; however, the Bolshevik forces invaded Vilnius and installed a pro-Bolshevik regime in the city. The provisional government fled to Kaunas and organized the Lithuanian National Army. The Army eventually drove Bolshevik forces out of Lithuania, but in 1920 Polish forces occupied Vilnius and established a puppet government there. The Polish parliament subsequently annexed the Vilnius area.
In 1922 the Lithuanian Seimas implemented a program of land reform. Land from large estates was expropriated and redistributed among Lithuanian’s peasantry. Although the land reform was initially successful, in the 1930s many peasants abandoned their farms to seek employment in the cities. On December 17, 1926, Lithunian nationalists led by conservative statesman Antanas Smetona, working with the support of the Lithuanian army, engineered a coup defeat. In 1928 a new constitution was passed that formalized the new government structure in which Smetona ruled by decree.
After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Nazi Party propaganda agitated Germans to rise up against Lithuania over the territory of Memel (now Klaipėda). Largely Lithuanian-inhabited Memel was part of Germany before World War I, but the Allied Powers put it
under Lithuanian administration, and in 1923 Lithuania annexed it to gain a seaport. In March 1939 Hitler reannexed the territory.
In June 1940 the Soviet Red Army invaded Lithuania. Smetona fled the country, and a new pro-Soviet government was installed. The following month Lithuania formally became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), a constituent republic of the USSR.