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.
Despite the earlier nonaggression pact, Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941. Large-scale anti-Soviet uprisings then took place in Lithuania. Unable to contend with both the revolt and the German onslaught, Soviet forces withdrew from Lithuania. During the Nazi occupation, Lithuanian resources were systematically pillaged and more than 200.000 Lithuanians were killed.
In the summer of 1944 the Soviets reoccupied most of Lithuania and reestablished it as a Soviet republic; however, the Germans held out in western Lithuania until early 1945. In the late 1940s the Soviet regime abolished private ownership of land, and all of Lithuania’s farmland was incorporated into large state-controlled farms. The regime also closed most of Lithuania’s churches, deported many priests, and prosecuted people who were openly religious. Strong resistance against the Soviet occupation lasted until 1952 and involved more than 100.000 people. Soviet officials sent as many as 350.000 Lithuanians to labor camps in Siberia as punishment for holding anti-Communist beliefs or resisting Soviet rule. Lithuania settled into relative calm in the mid-1950s, and most nations tacitly accepted its status as a Soviet republic.
Rapid industrialization, a high priority of Soviet economy police, began in Lithuania in the late 1950s. The influx of workers into Lithuania’s cities transformed the traditionally agrarian society into a predominantly urbanized one.
In the 1960s and 1970s an extensive movement developed in Lithuania in opposition to Soviet rule. In the mid- and late 1980s rapid political changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR created a new political climate that strengthened Lithuanian nationalism. In March 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare restoration of its independence. However, the USSR used economic, political, and military pressure to keep Lithuania within the union. Then in August 1991 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost all credibility after a failed coup attempt by Communist hard-liners in Moscow, and in September the Soviet government conceded the independence of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. All three Baltic republics were admitted to the United Nations (UN) later that month. The USSR officially ceased to exist in December.
In 1993 Lithuania became the first of the Baltic States to be free of a Russian military presence. In February 1994 the country joined the Partnership for Peace program, which was set up by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to allow for limited military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO countries.
Facts and Figures
Official name Republic of Lithuania
Area 65,300 square kilometers; 25,200 square miles
Political units (population)
Alytus 202,600 (1996 estimate)
Kaunas 756,300 (1996 estimate)
Klaipėda 415,800 (1996 estimate)
Marijampolė 198,500 (1996 estimate)
Panevėzys 323,600 (1996 estimate)
Siauliai 401,700 (1996 estimate)
Tauragė 130,100 (1996 estimate)
Telsiai 182,800 (1996 estimate)
Utena 202,600 (1996 estimate)
Vilnius 897,900 (1996 estimate)
Urban areas (population)
Vilnius 580,099 (1997 estimate)
Kaunas 118,707 (1997 estimate)
Klaipeda 203,269 (1997 estimate)
Siauliai 146,996 (1997 estimate)
Panevezys 133,347 (1997 estimate)
Population 3,600,158 (1998 estimate)
Population growth rate -0.45 percent (1998)
55 persons per square kilometer
143 persons per square mile
Total 68.8 year (1998)
Female 75.2 year (1998)
Male 62.8 year (1998)
Lithuanian 80 percent
Russian 8 percent
Polish 8 percent
Belarusian 2 percent
Ukrainian 1 percent
Other 1 percent
Lithuanian (official), Russian, English
Mostly Roman Catholic; Lutheran, other Protestant,
6 September 1991 (from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic [USSR])
Constitution Adopted 25 October 1992
Voting rights Universal at age 18
BIS, CBSS, CCC, CE, EBRD, FAO, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICFTU, ICRM, IFRCS, ILO, IMF, INTELSAT ( nonsignatory user), INTERPOL, IOC, IOM (observer), ISO ( correspondent member), ITU, NACC, OSCE, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UPU, WEU (associate partner), WHO, WIPO
Gross domestic product (GDP) (U.S.$)
9.585 million (1995)
GPD per capita (U.S.$) 2.590 (1997)
GPD per economic sector
GPD, agriculture share 12.8 percent (1997)
GPD, industry share 31.8 percent (1997)
GPD, services share 55.4 percent (1997)
National budget (U.S.$)
Total revenue 1.778 million (1996)
Total expenditure 1.974 million (1996)
Monetary unit 1 litas, consisting of 100 centai
Electronics, petroleum products, foodstuff, meat, milk, eggs, chemicals, live animals, textiles, minerals, light machinery
Oil, machinery, chemicals, grain, transport vehicles
Major trade partners for exports
Russia, Germany, Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, The Netherlands, Poland
Major trade partners for import
Russia, Germany, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Finland
Metal-cutting machine tools, electric motors, television sets, refrigerators and freezers, petroleum refining, small shipbuilding, furniture making, textiles, food processing, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, optical equipment, electronic components, computers, amber
Sugar, grains, potatoes, sugar beets, vegetables, meat, milk, dairy products, eggs, fish
Peat, petroleum, sand, gravel
Demographics Slightly more than four- fifths of people are Lithuanian, Russians and Poles are the two largest minority groups, but there are also sizable number of Belarusians and Ukrainians who live in Lithuania. All minorities have full citizenship rights.
Language Lithuanian, the official language, is one of the oldest Indo-European languages still in everyday use. It belongs to the Baltic language group along with Latvian and some extinct languages such as Yatvangian and Old Prussian. Its rules of grammar are similar to those of Sanskrit and Homeric Greek. The formation of Standard Lithuanian was not completed until the 19th century because Polish (and sometimes other languages) had been used as the state language from the 13th century onward. By the 17th century the Lithuanian language survived only among rural peasants because urban dwellers spoke Polish. After 1795, when Lithuania and Poland ceased to exist, Russian was introduced and encouraged among Lithuanians. When Lithuanian was later revived, four main dialects evolved out of the many that had existed before. As a result of the period of Soviet domination, most Lithuanians can speak Russian, and many are now learning English.
Religion Most Lithuanians belong to the Roman Catholic Church, which is regaining influence in the country. Under Soviet domination, organized religion was repressed and many churches were closed. Lithuania is also home to Christians of many other sects, as well as Jews and Muslims.
Marriage and family
Lithuanians usually marry while in their 20s, but some couples wait until they have more financial security. Because of housing shortage, most young couples live with their parents during the first years of marriage and may rely on them for financial support for some time. It is becoming more popular to live together before, or instead of, getting married. It is a legal requirement that marriages be performed at city hall, but many couples now also have a church ceremony. Weddings in rural areas may be quite elaborate, with the celebration lasting two days. Traditional customs are enjoying resurgence in popularity. One of these involves the groom’s way through a succession of “ropes” of flowers that block the way home from the ceremony, that last of which usually stretches across the gate of couple’s home. According to tradition, parents meet the newlyweds at the door with bread, salt, and wine glasses filled with water. The average family has one or two children; larger families are unusual. The father is generally considered the head of the family, but both parents share in raising children and working outside the home. In cities, most people live in apartments, but single-family homes are more common in rural areas. Many people in urban areas own or rent small gardens on the outside of cities to grow food and to have a place to relax.
Eating Lithuanian cuisine has been influenced by many cultures. Traditional specialties include smoked sausage, various cheeses, cepelinai (meat cooked inside a ball of potato dough, served with a special sauce), and vedarai (cooked potatoes and sausage stuffed into pig intestines). Soup is usually served with the main meal. Lithuania produces a range of dairy products as well as fruits (apples, pears, plums, strawberries) and vegetables (carrots, cabbage, peas, beets). Tea, milk and coffee are the most common drinks. Lithuanians eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. People usually eat three meals each day. Breakfast is between 7 and 9 AM, the main meal between 1 and 3 PM, and a lighter meal between 6 and 8 PM. In rural areas, meals are eaten earlier than in urban areas. For the midday meal most people either go home or eat in cafeterias at work. Toasts are often made during meals, whether guests are present or not.
Socializing It is customary when greeting for man to shake hands, but women are likely to do so. A handshake is nearly always used in professional contact. Good friends may kiss cheeks. Much socializing in Lithuania takes place in the home. Punctuality is expected, and it is customary to bring an odd number of fresh flowers for even a brief visit; the flowers should be unwrapped before being presented. Dinner guests often bring flowers wine. Impromptu visits, even between friends and neighbors, are not very common, although unexpected visitors are usually made welcome. When invited for a meal, it is impolite to leave food on the plate because it may suggest that one has not enjoyed one’s meal.
Recreation Popular sports include basketball, soccer, rowing boats, volleyball, cycling, tennis, and skiing. Families enjoy camping, and those who live near the coast enjoy going to the beach. Other popular leisure activities include watching television, visiting and gardening. Cultural events are usually well attended, especially ones involving national dance and song.
Holidays and Celebrations
The official public holiday of Lithuania include New Fear’s Day (1 January), the Restoration of the Lithuanian State (16 February), Mother’s Day (first Sunday in May), Easter, the Anniversary of the Coronation of Grand Duke Mindaugas of Lithuania (6 July), the National Day of Hope and Mourning, also known as All Souls’ Day (1 November), and Christmas (25-26 December). Various local festivals are held throughout the year.
Like many nations of Europe, Lithuania cultivates classical and popular music styles while maintaining a rich folk-music tradition. The capital, Vilnius, has been a center for musical learning and performance since the 1600s. A common performance aesthetic is to embellish the melody subtly on each repeated stanza. A very old type of choral singing is known as sutartine. This rapidly vanishing genre is often sung with nonsense phrases thought to represent a form of
an archaic language. These are most often sung while dancing, and mostly by women.
Infrastructure Government A new constitution went into effect in 1992. The president, who is directly elected for a five-year term, is head of state. A prime minister heads the unicameral legislature, called the Seimas, which consist of 141 members who are directly elected.
Transportation and Communication
Few people have cars and therefore most Lithuanians use public transportation, which is generally efficient. Local buses and trolleys operate in cities, and there is a countrywide bus network. Lithuanian Aviation flies to and from various European destinations. Ferries connect Lithuania with Germany, ant trains connect to Warsaw, Poland, and Berlin, Germany. There are three start-owned government newspapers: one in Lithuania, one in Russia, and one in Polish. A number of privately-owned papers have appeared and disappeared as the free press has developed.
Education Children are required to attend primary school for 10 years (2000), and they may continue with secondary school for two years. Education is provided free at all levels. There are 16 institutions of higher education, including Vilnius University, the University of Vytautas Magnus, and Vilnius Technical University. Exam results determine the relatively few people who earn placement. General education schools offer an optional course in religion. Ethnic minorities have the right to be taught in schools that use their language; Russian and Polish are the basic languages of instruction in more than 300 schools.
Health and Welfare
Lithuanian has a national Health-care system, but parts of it are scheduled to be privatized and some private clinics already exist. The system generally provides for the needs of the people, although modern equipment is lacking.