23 January 2018
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Lithuania has a proud 700-year history as home to numerous nationalities


Text: Aage Myhre

International Lithuania got its “flying start” already in 1323, when Grand Duke Gediminas founded Vilnius as Lithuania’s capital city, and immediately decided to invite merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers, and soldiers from all Europe to come to the new capital, guaranteeing all freedom of beliefs and good working conditions. Vilnius became international, though with less of German or Scandinavian influence, as one could expect, rather influenced by Rome – greatly different from the other two Baltic capitals.

Below is our brief presentation of some main waves of immigration to Lithuania, and the role foreign nations and cultures have had here.


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On Didzioji Street you can see St Nikolay Orthodox Church in original yellow colour. Built in 1514. In 1609-1827 it belonged to Uniates order. Then, in Russia Empire times, the church was re-modelled.

Russian culture is a very important part of the polyphonic culture of Lithuania. It is characterized by professional forms of modern urban culture - theatre, music, and art. Two stars of Russian theatre are connected with Lithuania - Vera Komisarzhevskaya and Vasily Kachalov. Literature occupies a special place. It was created by people of different aesthetic orientations, religious backgrounds, and ethnic origins: Pavel Kukolnik, who was of Austrian ancestry, Vasily von Rotkirch, who was descended from a line of German knights, Aleksander Navrotsky, who was born in St. Petersburg, and Aleksander Zhirkevich, who was an heir to nobles of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Diverse in genre and theme, fables, tragedies and dramas, poems, novellas and short stories, sketches and memoirs make up a rich library. Between the world wars important contributions were made to the cultural development of Lithuania by the artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, the opera singer and director Teofan Pavlovsky, the writer and journalist Arkady Bukhov, the culture historian and philosopher Lev Karsavin, and the historian Ivan Lappo. Also noteworthy in the Russian literary life of Vilnius were such celebrities as Vyacheslav Bogdanovich and Dorofei Bokhan as well as the poets Vasily Selivanov and Konstantin Olenin.

This heritage is being discovered anew by the Russians of Lithuania (roughly 308,000 people, who make up 8.7 percent of the total population of the country). It is valuable as a fruitful experience of cultural interaction.



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Tatar Mosque in Nemėžis, near Vilnius. 

The Tatars are a unique ethnic group currently living in Lithuania, in the western part of Belarus, and along the eastern border of Poland. During the 14th-16th centuries their ancestors settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  

Lithuanian Tatars are descended from the Golden Horde and the Crimean Khanate. Their distinctive community, although separated from its Tatar-Turkic roots and surrounded by a foreign world, was able to preserve the culture and characteristics of their ancestors as well as their national and religious identity. For various reasons Lithuanian Tatars lost their language rather quickly, but on account of their profound attachment to Islam, they have preserved their national consciousness for 600 years. The rulers of Lithuania and Poland have always been tolerant of the Tatar community and its religion. In these lands the Tatars built mosques and freely practiced their religion. They were granted various rights and privileges; the Tatar aristocracy had the same status as the nobility of Lithuania and Poland. For centuries Lithuanian Tatars maintained the image of fearless and capable warriors; their main activity was warfare. During various periods the Tatar community found its place in the life and liberation struggles of the Lithuanian and Polish nations. At the beginning of the 20th century national struggles for independence also roused the Tatar intelligentsia to a national reawakening; educated Tatars appeared in various fields, in learning and in warfare. Encouraged by the movement of national rebirth, Polish scholars of Tatar ancestry have begun to study the history of Lithuanian Tatars.

During the period of sovietisation, Lithuanian Tatars lost much in the area of spiritual culture and religion. The national rebirth of Lithuania and restoration of independence at the end of the 20th century created the conditions for Tatar communities to return to their ethnic culture, to their roots, to the sources of their national life.

In 1988 the Lithuanian Tatar Cultural Society was re-established, and with it - the social activity of Tatar communities. In 1997 the 600th anniversary of the settlement of Tatars and Karaims in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was celebrated. In 1998 a spiritual centre, or muftiate, was re-established for Lithuania's Sunni Muslims.



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Karaim temple, a ‘Kenasa’, in Trakai 30 km from Vilnius.

The Karaims are the smallest ethnic group in Lithuania, inextricably linked with the Crimean victories of Grand Duke Gediminas who brought 380 Karaim families to his castle in Trakai back in 1397.  

According to the ethno statistical data collected in 1997, there are 257 Karaims living in Lithuania. Their social activity is directed, first and foremost, toward the preservation of their distinctive culture, language, customs, and religion.

During the 600 years that they have lived in Lithuania, this small Turkic people have preserved a strong national consciousness. A rather inward-looking community life, firm moral principles based on the teachings of the Karaim religion, and steadfast adherence to tradition - all these things have contributed to the survival of the people, of their basic characteristics, such as language, customs, and rituals, and thus, of their national identity. What also helped the Karaims of Lithuania survive under difficult conditions was the tolerance and respect for them expressed during all those centuries not only in the everyday contacts between people but also in the official state documents of various periods.

An exceptional period in the history of Lithuanian Karaims was the Soviet occupation, which thoroughly shook up the accustomed foundations of Karaim community life. The consequences of that time, which are still felt today, make it much more difficult for people to "return to their roots," to the rhythms of their national life.

Many world scholars are interested in the cultural heritage that Lithuanian Karaims have preserved to the present day. The still living Karaim language, which belongs to the West Kipchak subgroup of the Turkic family of languages, receives the most attention. It is being studied from several angles - as a language that has preserved rare old forms and words that have disappeared from other languages of the Turkic family and also as one that has borrowed and in its own way adapted some features of vocabulary and syntax from neighbouring languages (Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish).


Jews (Litvaks)

Vilna Great Synagogue, destroyed/burned by the Nazis
and later by the Soviets during/after WWII. 

Vilnius was for centuries called „Jerusalem of the North“ , due to the fact that the Lithuanian Jews, known as “Litvaks”, had created a flourishing, diverse culture in the course of almost 700 years of their presence here.

The religious culture of Lithuanian Jews enriched the world Jewry. A wealth of famous scholars of Judaism lived and worked in Lithuania. The Vilnius Gaon Eliyahu was one of the most prominent Talmudists of all times. The spiritual academies - yeshivas - attended by young men from many countries were known throughout the world. In different periods of time there were over 250 synagogues in Vilnius.

Litvaks made a weighty contribution to the development of Judaism, and cherished a highly developed secular culture, which enriched not only the culture of world Jewry, but also that of Lithuania, as well as the whole world. Litvaks spoke Yiddish and created outstanding literary works.

The Lithuanian Yiddish is considered to be the fundament of the literary Yiddish language. Books on Judaic, published in Vilnius, spread all over the world. Libraries in Vilnius were famous for the wealth and value of books kept there. The world known Judaic scientific institutions, first of all, the Jewish Scientific Institute YIVO, were situated in Vilnius. Jasha Heifets, Zhak Lipshits, Chajim Soutine and many others enriched the world of art and music. Litvaks - emigrants from Lithuania became prominent scientists, public figures, politicians in Israel, the USA, South Africa. The Nazi regime annihilated Lithuanian Jews and their culture. Less than 10% of Jews survived. This practically destroyed the remnants of the Litvak legacy. 



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 Grand Duke
Sigismund the Old

 The grand Duchess, Italian Princess Bona Sforza

 The Lithuanian Royal Palace was designed
and built by Italians in the 1500s


Italy had an extraordinary, but still little known role in and for Lithuania over many centuries.
When Lithuania’s Grand Duke, Sigismund the Old in 1518 married the Italian Princess Bona Sforza, this became an

Italy was involved in and with Vilnius already from its very first days as a capital city in the early 14th century. Even the name “Vilnius” was used for the first time when Grand Duke Gediminas in 1323 wrote to Pope John XXII asking for support in Christianizing the duchy. 

Throughout the Renaissance, when Italy was a trading centre and a melting pot for the world’s greatest civilizations, also Vilnius became a Renaissance centre, competing with Florence and Milan. This development began when King Sigismund the Old (1467-1548) married Bona Sforza (princess of Milan and Bari) and returned to live in Vilnius in 1518.  They created together an Italian community within the court and, under the influence of the Queen, Italian culture became the preoccupation of the city’s elite; macheroni, skryliai, and even the confection marcipanus became staples among the cogniscenti; and life at court became a series of cultural events, with rich noblemen competing for extravagance. In 1532 the Vilnius Cathedral Orchestra was already performing with the Queen singing alto.

The education of their son, King Sigismund August (1520-72), was the responsibility of a Sicilian, Jonas Silvijus Amatas, between 1529 and 1537.  King Sigismund August founded Lithuania’s first library in 1547, and sent scholars and traders across Europe to assemble volumes of practical and historical value.

Italians played a very important role in the development of architecture and art in Lithuania till the end of the 18th century, and it has been said that Vilnius is “the world’s most Italian city outside Italy”.  



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Building in Vokiečių (German) street in Vilnius Old Town, with the gate to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, originally built by Germans in 1555. 

It has been a long history of cooperation between Germany and Lithuania. History tells us that when Grand Duke Gediminas 700 years ago began the restoration of Lithuania, this was done with the help of German colonists, and several cities were founded with the German systems of laws. When Vilnius in 1323 was named a city, this was legalized on background of the so-called “Magdeburg Rights”. German craftsmen and merchants, who had been invited to Lithuania by Gediminas and his successors, may have been the first ones to settle in Vokieciu gatve (the German Street). In the 16th century the German merchants built their beautiful and still existing Lutheran church here. Other Germans came when the Hanseatic League helped to intensify commercial and trade relations with the countries of the Baltic Sea and their neighbours.



The Polish (Holy Spirit) church at Dominikonu street, Vilnius 

The history of the Poles in Lithuania mainly dates back to the 14th century in which Lithuania made an Alliance with Poland that developed into a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569 –1795). In the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Polish culture was mainly dominant in the Vilnius district. After having belonged to the Russian Empire from 1795 onwards the Vilnius district became part of Poland after World War I. It was returned to Lithuania in 1939 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop-Pact. In 1697 when the Sejm/Seimas enacted a bill of rights that resulted in changing the language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into Polish, the prestige of the Polish language (the language of the ‘small nobility’, the so-called szlachta) increased as opposed to Lithuanian as the language of the peasantry. The higher prestige of Polish as well as the usage of Polish by the Catholic Church led to the “Polonisation” of part of the Lithuanian population mainly in the Vilnius region. As several linguists put it, the distinction between Poles and Lithuanians was almost strictly based on economic status and religion. Polish identification was a reflection of status and was independent of ethnic identity.

The Poles live all over Lithuania but the largest groups (90% of the Poles) can be found in Vilnius (18.7% of the inhabitants are Poles), and further on in the Vilnius district and the districts of Švenčionys, Trakai, Šalčininkai and Varėna. Some Poles also live near the Polish-Lithuanian border.

According to the 2001 census the Polish nationality is the largest minority in Lithuania. 234,989 people or 6.74% of the total population consider themselves to be Poles.

Today‘s International Community

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Lithuania is again a free country with open borders for people from around the world. The latest twenty years have proved that the ancient ideals of keeping up this country as an international melting pot are returning. Approximately four million visitors are arriving here now, on an annual basis, and people from more than 50 countries have decided to settle here since 1991. A new, multicultural society is developing. The fifty year of isolation under the Soviet regime is irrevocably over, and a new era for Lithuania’s international community is already here…

Category : Featured black / The world in Lithuania

VilNews e-magazine is published in Vilnius, Lithuania. Editor-in-Chief: Mr. Aage Myhre. Inquires to the
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