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LITHUANIA


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Lithuania is a country variously defined as being part of Eastern or Northern Europe. Situated along the south-eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, sharing borders with Latvia to the north, Belarus to the southeast, Poland, and the Russian exclave of the Kaliningrad Oblast to the southwest. Lithuania is a member of NATO and of the European Union. Its population is 3.4 million. The largest city and capital is Vilnius.

During the 1300s, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe, as present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia were territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. With the Lublin Union of 1569 Poland and Lithuania formed a new state: the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was finally destroyed by its neighboring countries in 1795. Most of Lithuania's territory was annexed by the Russian Empire, until the Act of Independence was signed on February 16, 1918, which declared re-establishment of a sovereign state. Between 1940 and 1945 Lithuania was occupied by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany at different times. When World War II was near its end in 1944 and the Nazis retreated, Lithuania would again be merged into the Soviet Union. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its renewed independence.

Present-day Lithuania has one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union. Lithuania became a full member of the Schengen Agreement on 21 December 2007. In 2009, Lithuania will celebrate the millennium of its name.

The first mention of Lithuania is found in a medieval German manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle, on 14 February 1009. The Lithuanian lands were united by Mindaugas in 1236, and neighbouring countries referred to it as "the state of Lithuania". The official coronation of Mindaugas as King of Lithuania was on July 6, 1253, and the official recognition of Lithuanian statehood as the Kingdom of Lithuania.

During the early period of the Gediminas (1316–1430), the state occupied the territories of present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. By the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe, and was also the only remaining pagan state. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched across a substantial part of Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Lithuanian nobility, city dwellers and peasants accepted Christianity in 1386, following Poland's offer of its crown to Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Grand Duke Jogaila was crowned King of Poland on February 2, 1386. Lithuania and Poland were joined into a personal union, as both countries were ruled by the same Gediminas branch, the Jagiellon dynasty.

In 1401, the formal union was dissolved as a result of disputes over legal terminology, and Vytautas, the cousin of Jogaila, became the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Thanks to close cooperation, the armies of Poland and Lithuania achieved a great victory over the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, the largest battle in medieval Europe.

A royal crown had been bestowed upon Vytautas in 1429 by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, but Polish magnates prevented his coronation by seizing the crown as it was being brought to him. A new crown was ordered from Germany and another date set for the coronation, but a month later Vytautas died as the result of an accident.

As a result of the growing centralised power of the Grand Principality of Moscow, in 1569, Lithuania and Poland formally united into a single state called the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a member of the Commonwealth, Lithuania retained its institutions, including a separate army, currency and statutory law which was digested in three Statutes of Lithuania. In 1795, the joint state was dissolved by the third Partition of the Commonwealth, which forfeited its lands to Russia, Prussia and Austria, under duress. Over ninety percent of Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian Empire and the remainder into Prussia.

Many Jews fled Lithuania following persecution and followed opportunities that lay overseas.

After a century of occupation, Lithuania re-established its independence on February 16, 1918. The official government from July through November 1918, was quickly replaced by a republican government. From the outset, the newly-independent Lithuania's foreign policy was dominated by territorial disputes with Poland (over the Vilnius region and the Suvalkai region) and with Germany (over the Klaipėda region or Memelland). Most obviously, the Lithuanian constitution designated Vilnius as the nation's capital, even though the city itself lay within Polish territory as a result of a Polish invasion. At the time, Poles and Jews made up a majority of the population of Vilnius, with a small Lithuanian minority of only 1%. In 1920 the capital was relocated to Kaunas, which was officially designated the provisional capital of Lithuania. (see History of Vilnius for more details).

In June 1940, around the beginning of World War II, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Lithuania in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. A year later it came under German occupation. After the retreat of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht), Lithuania was re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944.

From 1944–1952 approximately 100,000 Lithuanians participated in partisan fights against the Soviet system and the Red Army. More than twenty thousand partisans ("forest brothers") were killed in those battles and many more were arrested and deported to Siberian GULAGs. Lithuanian historians view this period as a war of independence against the Soviet Union.

During the Soviet and Nazi occupations between 1940 and 1944, Lithuania lost over 780,000 residents. Among them were around 190,000 (91% of pre-WWII community) of Lithuanian Jews, one of the highest total mortality rates of the Holocaust. An estimated 120,000 to 300,000 were killed by Soviets or exiled to Siberia, while others had been sent to German forced labour camps and/or chose to emigrate to western countries.

Forty-six years of Soviet occupation ended with the advent of perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s. Lithuania, led by Sąjūdis, an anti-communist and anti-Soviet independence movement, proclaimed its renewed independence on March 11, 1990. Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to do so, though Soviet forces unsuccessfully tried to suppress this secession. The Red Army attacked the Vilnius TV Tower on the night of January 13, 1991, an act that resulted in the death of 13 Lithuanian civilians. The last Red Army troops left Lithuania on August 31, 1993 — even earlier than they departed from East Germany.
On February 4, 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognize Lithuanian independence. Sweden was the first to open an embassy in the country. The United States of America never recognized the Soviet claim to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Russia currently refuses to recognize the occupation of Lithuania, claiming that Lithuanians decided to join the Soviet Union voluntarily, although Russia signed a treaty with Lithuania prior to the disintegration of the USSR which acknowledged Lithuania's forced loss of sovereignty at the hands of the Soviets, thereby recognizing the occupation.

Lithuania joined the United Nations on September 17, 1991, and on May 31, 2001, it became the 141st member of the World Trade Organization. Since 1988, Lithuania has sought closer ties with the West, and so on January 4, 1994, it became the first of the Baltic states to apply for NATO membership. On March 29, 2004, it became a NATO member, and on May 1, 2004, Lithuania joined the European Union.

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March 2007

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