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This brief history of Vilnius is just that. A brief history so that you can learn a little before you go.
Early history of Vilnius
Vilnius was first mentioned in writing in 1323. At that time, it was the capital of Grand Duchy. Grand Duchy was the area of modern day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Russia and Poland. Although mentioned in 1323, it’s likely that the region was inhabited well before that. Some evidence suggests presence in the region since the mesolithic period, which is many thousands of years BCE.
Vilnius and Lithuania were founded by a man named Gediminas. As is the case with a lot of cities, there is a legend that goes along with the founding of the region. The legend has it that while on a hunting trip, Gediminas had a dream where he saw a wolf at the top of a mountain. He consulted a priest about the dream. The priest told him that it meant he should found a city on the mountain… and Vilnius was born. There’s probably not much truth to the legend, but Gediminas is still credited as the founder of Vilnius and Lithuania. He was the Grand Duke of Lithuania until his death in 1341.
The middle ages
As records of the city only go back as far as the middle ages, we only really have a clear history of Vilnius from that period onwards.
Vilnius flourished as a city throughout the middle ages. The 16th century in particular was a period of great development for the city. The city walls were built, and Vilnius University was established. The university drew many migrants to the region. Many of these new migrants were Jewish, and by the end of the 18th century it became known as ‘The Jerusalem of the North’ due to its large Jewish population.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Vilnius was part of a kingdom that was known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. That meant that Poland and Lithuania had a common monarch, who was both the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania.
In 1795 Vilnius was annexed by Russia. It was briefly occupied by the French during Napoleon’s invasion of Northern Europe, but aside from this brief period Russian rule then remained constant up until the beginning of World War One.
Early 20th century
Throughout World War One, Vilnius was occupied by German forces. When they retreated in 1918, Lithuanians proclaimed their independence. For the next two years, the Poles and the Soviets continued to occupy the region. Lithuanians finally gained their independence from the Soviets in July 1920 with the signing of the Soviet-Lithuanian peace treaty. The Poles, however, were not so quick to give up the territory. In October 1920 they invaded Vilnius and declared it a Polish city. This set in motion almost 20 years of dispute between the Poles and the Lithuanians as to who was the true ruler of the region. Vilnius was recognised by the international community as a Polish city, but the Lithuanians refused to accept this ruling. The two nations remained at war until 1938, just prior to the breakout of World War Two.
World War Two and Soviet Occupation
During World War Two, Lithuania was occupied yet agin. First by the Soviets, then by the Germans, and then by the Soviets once again. During the Nazi occupation of the city Jewish Ghettos were created. The Nazis were responsible for mass executions of Lithuanian Jews. A camp was set up at Paneriai, just outside of Vilnius, where an estimated 100,000 Jews were executed. Around 95% of the Jewish population is estimated to have been executed during the Nazi occupation.
Soviet occupation of the city began in 1944. At the end of World War Two, Lithuania was established as a Soviet communist state. Initially, a lot of Polish and Lithuanian intelligencia were deported from the country for resisting the Soviet occupation. They were generally deported to camps in Siberia and never heard from again. Lithuania remained a communist state under Soviet control until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s.
Lithuanian independence and modern day Lithuania
Soviet rule in Lithuania lasted until the early 1990s. In the late 1980’s independence movements began across many of the eastern bloc states, including the Baltics. The movement grew, and in 1989, Vilnius was involved in a peace protest known as the Baltic Way. Around 2 million people linked hands and formed a human chain of solidarity that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn. It was a huge show of unity by the Baltic people. By 1991, Lithuania had gained its independence from the Soviet Union.
Since its independence Lithuania has gone from strength to strength. It’s a member of the EU and was named the European capital of culture in 2009. It boasts some of the fastest wifi and internet speeds anywhere in the world. It’s basketball team has also been very successful, winning a number of olympic bronze medals (1992, 1996, 2000) and a also European Championship (2003).
More Reading on Journey Seals Blog
More reading on the history of Vilnius
- Legend of the founding of Vilnius: Iron Wolf
- History of Vilnius: Wikipedia
- Lithuania 20th Century timeline: BBC News
- History of Lithuania: Britannica