Lithuanians - History and Cultural Relations

For much of their history, Lithuanians have been dominated or have tried to avoid domination by other peoples. By the early thirteenth century, the Lithuanians were united under the feudal control of five families. Though at first protected by the heavy forests, the Lithuanians were eventually threatened by the Teutonic Order. In response, they united under Mindaugas, who was crowned in 1253. Gediminas, who ruled from 1315, expanded Lithuanian control into Byelorussian regions and made Vilnius the capital by 1323. He divided the empire among his seven sons, although in relatively little time only two were still in power—Algirdas, who controlled the Lithuanian empire and defended it against the Tatars and the Russians, and Kestutis, who controlled ethnic Lithuania and defended it against the Teutonic Order. Algirdas died in 1377 and left the empire to his son Jogaila. In 1381 Kestutis took the empire from Jogaila, but Jogaila retook it and imprisoned Kestutis until the latter died. In 1385 Jogaila married Jadwiga, Poland's queen, and became king of Poland; he united Poland, Kievan Russia, and all parts of Lithuania by 1392. Jogaila was baptized in 1386. His forces roundly defeated the Teutonic Order in 1410. The Lithuanian-Polish union survived for more than three centuries, during which the Belarussian and Lithuanian nobility was almost assimilated into the Polish culture, whereas the peasants retained their native languages and customs.

Russia's power was growing: in 1772 and 1793 it annexed two major portions of the grand principality of Lithuania, and in 1795 it annexed ethnic Lithuania, with the exception of the province of Suwalki (Suvalkai), which was joined to the kingdom of Prussia. Suwalki later became part of the Duchy of Warsaw, which the Russians annexed in 1815. Poles and Lithuanians rebelled together in 1830-1831 and in 1863, but both times the Russians put down the rebellions; in 1863 the suppression was particularly brutal. Lithuanians pushed to regain some rights, including freedom of religion and of speech. In 1905 they were granted the right of free speech and of instruction in the Lithuanian language in schools.

Germans controlled much of Lithuania during World War I. Following the war, the Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians vied for control of various parts of ethnic Lithuania. Józef Pilsudski, the leader of Poland, disputed with the Lithuanians about the borders of the Lithuanian state, wanting some Polish control over Vilnius, which at that time had a mostly Polish population. In 1919 Pilsudski took Vilnius from the Russians, and Kaunas became the substitute capital of Lithunaia. The Lithuanians entered into a treaty with the Soviet state in 1920, in which the former received Vilnius and other areas. The Lithuanians controlled Vilnius for a few months until the Polish army retook it. In 1921 Lithuania became a member of the League of Nations; in 1923, the Council of the League of Nations decided that Vilnius was to remain part of Poland. The Lithuanians adopted a constitution in 1922, and held elections to the Seimas (parliament). The mix of parties represented in the Seimas led to political instability, however. A moderate to right-wing coalition held power until 1926, when Kazys Grinius was elected president, representing, in part, a coalition of Polish, Jewish, and German minorities. Antanas Smetona, who had been Lithuania's first president, reacted to the leftist government by taking dictatorial control of the country in a military coup in December 1926 and banning opposition parties. Smetona was fiscally conservative, kept a balanced budget, and encouraged agricultural development at the expense of industrial development.

In 1938 Lithunaia normalized diplomatic relations with Poland. During the 1930s, Nazis attempted to take control of the Klaipeda region of Lithuania, and in 1938 they won a majority of seats in the Klaipeda Landtag. In March 1939 Nazi Germany demanded and received Klaipeda, and this cost Smetona's government so much support that he was compelled to form a new and politically more moderate cabinet.

Although Lithuania had chosen a course of neutrality in World War II, a secret protocol to the German-Soviet treaty of nonaggression of 23 August 1939 placed Lithuania within the Soviet sphere of influence. In October 1939 Lithuania signed a mutual assistance treaty with the USSR, which gave the latter the right to place military bases on Lithuanian soil. On 15 June 1940 Lithuania was occupied by Soviet military forces and compelled to form a government that would rule in accordance with Soviet wishes. Large numbers of Lithuanians fled to the West, but tens of thousands were caught and sent to Siberia. In August of that year Lithuania became a Soviet republic. In June 1941, 30,455 Lithuanians of political importance were sent to Siberia and about 5,000 political prisoners lost their lives. But by the end of the month, Lithuania was in Nazi hands. In October 1944 it was retaken by the USSR. Some 80,000 Lithuanians attempted to escape to the West, but tens of thousands were captured in the eastern zone of Germany and returned. In order to Russify the Lithuanians, secure their submission, and force the acceptance of collective agriculture, Stalin deported about 145,000 people in 1945-1946, and in 1949 about 60,000 more were sent various places in Siberia.

Lithuanian partisans fought guerrilla wars against the Soviets until at least 1955. Although guerrilla warfare ended at that time, Lithuanian opposition to Soviet rule did not. Lithuanians often refused to speak or understand Russian. In 1956 people in the Kaunas region supported the uprising in Hungary by rioting. Educators were purged in 1959 for nationalism. In 1968 samizdat publications appeared and later became more numerous. At the same time, Catholic priests began to send letters to Soviet and church leaders protesting the restrictions on the numbers of priests who could be trained. In 1970 the first priests were arrested. As priests were tried, parishioners began to send letters and petitions to the Soviet government protesting the removal of their priests. Eliciting no response, over 17,000 Lithuanian Catholics sent a petition of protest to Secretary General Kurt Waldheim of the United Nations in January 1972, along with instructions to send it on to CPSU General Secretary Brezhnev; the signatures on the petition included full addresses and some were even accompanied by telephone numbers. In 1972 there were three self-immolations in protest, after which large riots took place. Two of the three attempted hijackings of Soviet planes in 1969-1970 were made by Lithuanians, one successfully.

The Lithuanian independence movement gathered momentum in 1988. On 12 February 1990 the Lithuanians elected Vytautas Landsbergis, previously the head of the large Sajudis popular movement, to parliament, and on 11 March 1990, to the presidency. It was also on 11 March that the Lithuanian parliament unanimously declared independence from Soviet rule. On 2 September 1991 the United States gave full diplomatic recognition to Lithuania and the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia. The USSR recognized Lithuanian independence on 6 September 1991, and Lithuania became a member of the United Nations on 17 September of that year. Since then, Landsbergis's attempts at economic reform have been stymied by leftist members of parliament and a legacy of forty-five years of Soviet rule.

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