THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Jonas Basanavičius (23 November 1851 – 16 February 1927) was an activist and proponent of Lithuania's National Revival and founder of the first Lithuanian language newspaper Aušra. He was a signatory of the Act of Independence of Lithuania on 16 February 1918 Basanavičius is often given the unique informal honorific title of the "Patriarch of the Nation" for his contributions and help in re-establishing the Lithuanian state.
By Aage Myhre, Editor-in-Chief
“A man's country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.”
- George William Curtis
It is 16 February 2013. It is today exactly 95 years since a group of brave men wrote the Lithuanian declaration of independence after the country had been under Tsarist Russia's iron heel through more than 100 years. These men represented a generation that certainly felt an overwhelming sense of pride at the dawn of renewed independence. The Act of February 16 was signed by all 20 representatives of the Council of Lithuania, proclaiming the restoration of an independent State of Lithuania, governed by democratic principles. The meeting and signing procedures were chaired by Jonas Basanavičius, the man often given the unique informal honorific title of the "Patriarch of the Nation" for his contributions and help in re-establishing the Lithuanian state.
What these men presented from the balcony of a house in Pilies street here in Vilnius Old Town was not much more than a piece of paper. But it was a paper that symbolized a nation willing to throw off the yoke.
A nation that had won back its self respect and dignity in spite of the injustice and oppression that had been going on since the Russian occupation started in 1795.
We salute these men for their courage and foresight. We salute them because they, in faith, hope and dignity clearly showed that Lithuania wanted to live up to its proud history as a nation of greatness.
Great nations are founded on self-belief!
As we now know, the newfound freedom was not going to last much more than 20 years. But they were 20 important years in which Lithuanians showed the world and themselves that the citizens and the country's leaders had the ability to collaborate an utterly successful reconstruction of the nation. Pride, dignity and courage came to characterize the inter-war years of this country.
The years 1988-1991 were also characterized by dignity and confidence. The quiet revolution that defined the Lithuanian and the other Baltic States' revolt against Soviet rule was almost like a textbook on how a nation's inner strength can lead to freedom originating from within, from its own citizens.
Jonas Basanavičius was an activist and proponent of Lithuania's National Revival and founder of the first Lithuanian language newspaper Aušra. He was one of the initiators and the Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the 1905 Congress of Lithuanians, the Great Seimas of Vilnius. He was also the founder and chairman of the Lithuanian Scientific Society (1907).
As a member of the Council of Lithuania, he was a signatory of the Act of Independence of Lithuania on February 16, 1918. Basanavičius is often given the unique informal honorific title of the "Patriarch of the Nation" (Lithuanian: tautos patriarchas) for his contributions and help in re-establishing the Lithuanian state.
Basanavičius was born in the village of Ožkabaliai (Polish: Oszkobole) in Congress Poland, client state of the Russian Empire, to a family of Lithuanian farmers. Birth complications prompted his parents, devout Catholics, to pray and promise that they would educate their firstborn to be a priest. Keeping up with the promise, the parents supported a village tutor for local children. There Basanavičius learned basic reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as serving the altar. He further attended an elementary school in Lukšiai. During that time Polish was regarded as the more prestigious language of the nobility and well educated people. Russian was used in state administration, while Lithuanian was used among the peasants. After the Uprising of 1863, Tsarist authorities implemented various Russification policies in an attempt to reduce the influence of Polish language and culture. One of such policies allowed Basanavičius to attend Marijampolė Gymnasium. Before the uprising, a son of a Lithuanian could hardly expect to be admitted to a school catering to Polish nobility. Basanavičius failed his first entrance examinations in 1865, but succeeded a year later.
Basanavičius developed appreciation for Lithuanian language, culture, and history from local hill forts and his parents, who provided a loving treasure of local songs, legends, stories. This appreciation grew and deepened at the gymnasium were Basanavičius got acquainted with classical authors of Lithuanian history (Maciej Stryjkowski, Alexander Guagnini, Jan Długosz, Marcin Kromer), studied Lithuanian folk songs, read classical poems The Seasons by Kristijonas Donelaitis, Konrad Wallenrod by Adam Mickiewicz, Margier by Władysław Syrokomla and historical fiction by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski. He drifted away from religion after reading criticism of Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan. Upon graduation in 1873, he managed to persuade his parents to allow him to attend Moscow University and not the Sejny Priest Seminary.
Basanavičius traveled to Moscow first to study history and philology, but after two semesters he transferred to the Moscow Medical Academy. Again, he benefited from the post-uprising Russification policies. He received one of ten fellowships (360 rubles annually) established for Lithuanian students from Congress Poland. He also supplemented his income by taking up private tutoring, but the living conditions were harsh and that had a lasting impact on his health. Basanavičius actively participated in student affairs, followed developments in Lithuania, and continued his studies of Lithuanian heritage. Collecting data from Rumyantsev and university libraries, he hoped to write a study on Grand Duke Kęstutis. He usually spent his summers in Lithuania, collecting folk songs, fairytales, riddles.
Medical career in Bulgaria
After graduation in spring 1879, Basanavičius made a trip back to Lithuania and had a few patients in Ožkabaliai, Vilkaviškis and Aleksotas. He returned to Moscow in October 1879 hoping to establish his private practice, but soon he accepted lucrative proposal from the Principality of Bulgaria to become the head of a hospital in Lom Palanka, a town of about 8,000 inhabitants. After arrival in late January 1880, he found a run-down hospital located in a former hotel and energetically took measures to construct a new building, establish outpatient service, and combat perception that the hospital was a place to die rather than to get well. In 1880, the hospital had 522 inpatients and 1144 outpatients compared to just 19 patients during 1879. The position paid well, expenses were low, so he was able to quickly repay debts and accumulate savings. Basanavičius also wrote medical research articles, liberal political articles supporting Petko Karavelov, and cultural articles for Prussian Lithuanian, including Tilžės Keleivis, Lietuwißka Ceitunga, Mitteilungen Der Litauischen Literarischen Gesellschaft.
After assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in March 1881, Bulgarian Prince Alexander of Battenberg attempted to crack down on liberal politicians. Afraid of persecution Basanavičius left Bulgaria in May 1882. He traveled for several months, visiting Belgrade, Vienna, Lithuania, before settling down in Prague in December 1882. There he organized publication of Aušra, the first Lithuanian-language newspaper. First issue appeared in March 1883 and marked a major milestone in the Lithuanian National Revival. Basanavičius directed the editorial policies, while Jurgis Mikšas handled printing in Ragnit in East Prussia. The newspaper then would be smuggled to Lithuania as publication in Lithuanian language was illegal in the Russian Empire. Basanavičius soon lost editorial control of Aušra to Jonas Šliūpas.
In Prague Basanavičius met Gabriela Eleonora Mohl, a Bohemian German, and they married in May 1884. immediately after the wedding the couple moved to Bulgaria, where political situation had improved. Basanavičius first found a position in Elena, but managed to return to Lom Palanka in 1885. Life there was marked by a series of hardships. The Serbo-Bulgarian War brought a wave of war casualties to the hospital and a typhus epidemic. Basanavičius became seriously ill with pneumonia and typhus in February 1886. In August 1887, he survived an assassination attempt, but one bullet remained logged under his left shoulder blade for the rest of his life and caused various health issues. His attacker, Alexander Manoilov, served a ten-year sentence but never fully explained his reasoning. In February 1889, Mohl died of tuberculosis that she apparently contracted while still in Prague. The death of his wife sent Basanavičius into depression and melancholy for almost a year.
In 1891 Basanavičius acquired Bulgarian citizenship and was promoted to Varna in 1892, but his health problems intensified. He suffered from arrhythmia, neurasthenia, neuralgia, paraesthesia. That prompted him to resign from public position in 1893 and limit his work to his private practice and palace visits to Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. Basanavičius traveled to Austria several times searching for cures to his ailments. In 1900 he suffered a stroke.
In Varna, he joined the Democratic Party and was elected to the Varna City Council from 1899 to 1903. He also participated in the party congresses and helped develop party program in health care.
Return to Lithuania
In 1905, upon hearing that the Lithuanian press ban was lifted Basanavičius returned to Lithuania, and continued to play an important role in the Lithuanian national revival.
He was the main force behind Great Seimas of Vilnius, that culminated with the Act of Independence of Lithuania in 1918.
Dr. Basanavičius explored Lithuanian history, culture, folklore, ethnography and linguistics, writing more than forty works in these fields.
He died in Vilnius on February 16, 1927, Lithuanian Independence Day, and was buried in Rasos Cemetery.
Lithuania’s Independence Day
16 February 1918 was the date Lithuania declared its independence from
Imperial Russia and established its statehood
Standing: K. Bizauskas, J. Vailokaitis, Donatas Malinauskas, kun. Vl. Mironas, M. Biržiška,
The Act of Independence of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuvos Nepriklausomybės Aktas) or Act of February 16 was signed by the Council of Lithuania on February 16, 1918, proclaiming the restoration of an independent State of Lithuania, governed by democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital. The Act was signed by all twenty representatives, chaired by Jonas Basanavičius. The Act of February 16 was the end result of a series of resolutions on the issue, including one issued by the Vilnius Conference and the Act of January 8. The path to the Act was long and complex because the German Empire exerted pressure on the Council to form an alliance. The Council had to carefully maneuver between the Germans, whose troops were present in Lithuania, and the demands of the Lithuanian people.
The immediate effects of the announcement of Lithuania's re-establishment of independence were limited. Publication of the Act was prohibited by the German authorities, and the text was distributed and printed illegally. The work of the Council was hindered, and Germans remained in control over Lithuania. The situation changed only when Germany lost World War I in the fall of 1918. In November 1918 the first Cabinet of Lithuania was formed, and the Council of Lithuania gained control over the territory of Lithuania. Independent Lithuania, although it would soon be battling the Wars of Independence, became a reality.
While the Act's original document has been lost, its legacy continues. The laconic Act is the legal basis for the existence of modern Lithuania, both during the interwar period and since 1990. The Act formulated the basic constitutional principles that were and still are followed by all Constitutions of Lithuania. The Act itself was a key element in the foundation of Lithuania's re-establishment of independence in 1990. Lithuania, breaking away from the Soviet Union, stressed that it was simply re-establishing the independent state that existed between the world wars and that the Act never lost its legal power.
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