People I met in Vilnius
The Choral Synagogue
Around Vilnius Old Town
The University Bell Tower
|Nickname(s): Jerusalem of Lithuania, Athens of the North|
|Motto: Unitas, Justitia, Spes
(Latin: Unity, Justice, Hope)
Location of Vilnius
Vilnius ([ˈvʲɪlʲnʲʊs] ( ); see also other names) is the capital of Lithuania, and its largest city, with a population of 539,939 (806,308 together with Vilnius County) as of 2014. Vilnius is located in the southeast part of Lithuania and is the second biggest city of the Baltic states.
Vilnius is the seat of the Vilnius city municipality and of the Vilnius district municipality. It is also the capital of Vilnius County. The first known written record of Vilnius as the Lithuanian capital is known from Gediminas‘ letters in 1323.
Vilnius is classified as a Gamma global city according to GaWC studies, and is known for its Old Town of beautiful architecture, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. Its Jewish influence until the 20th century has led to it being described as the “Jerusalem of Lita” and Napoleon named it “the Jerusalem of the North” as he was passing through in 1812. In the year 2009, Vilnius was the European Capital of Culture, together with the Austrian city of Linz.
Etymology and other names
The name of the city originated from the Vilnia River. The name of the river derives from the Lithuanian language word vilnis (“a surge”) or vilnyti (“to surge”). The city has also been known by many derivate spellings in various languages throughout its history: Vilna was common in English. The most notable non-Lithuanian names for the city include: Polish:Wilno, Belarusian: Вiльня, German: Wilna, Latvian: Viļņa, Russian: Вильнюс, Yiddish: ווילנע (Vilne), Czech: Vilno. An older Russian name was Вильна / Вильно (Vilna/Vilno), although Вильнюс (Vilnius) is now used. The names Wilno,Wilna and Vilna have also been used in older English, German, French and Italian language publications when the city was part of Poland. The name Vilna is still used in Finnish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Hebrew. Wilna is still used in German, along with Vilnius.
The neighbourhoods of Vilnius have also names in other languages.
Historian Romas Batūra identifies the city with Voruta, one of the castles of Mindaugas, crowned in 1253 as King of Lithuania. During the reign of Vytenis a city started to emerge from a trading settlement and the first Franciscan Catholic church was built.
The city was first mentioned in written sources in 1323, when the Letters of Grand Duke Gediminas were sent to German cities inviting German members of the Jewish community to settle in the capital city, as well as to Pope John XXII. These letters contain the first unambiguous reference to Vilnius as the capital; Old Trakai Castle had been the earlier seat of the court of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
According to legend, Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling on a hilltop and consulted a pagan priest for its interpretation. He was told: “What is destined for the ruler and the State of Lithuania, is thus: the Iron Wolf represents a castle and a city which will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world”. The location offered practical advantages: it lay within the Lithuanian heartland at the confluence of two navigable rivers, surrounded by forests and wetlands that were difficult to penetrate. The duchy had been subject to intrusions by the Teutonic Knights.
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Vilnius was a flourishing capital of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the residence of the Grand Duke. Gediminas expanded the Grand Duchy through warfare along with strategic alliances and marriages. At its height it covered the territory of modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Transnistria, and portions of modern-day Poland and Russia. His grandchildren Vytautas the Great and Jogaila, however, fought civil wars. During the Lithuanian Civil War of 1389–1392, Vytautas besieged and razed the city in an attempt to wrest control from Jogaila. The two later settled their differences; after a series of treaties culminating in the 1569 Union of Lublin, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed. The rulers of this federation held either or both of two titles: Grand Duke of Lithuania orKing of Poland. In 1387, Jogaila granted Magdeburg rights to the city.
The city underwent a period of expansion. The Vilnius city walls were built for protection between 1503 and 1522, comprising nine city gates and three towers, and Sigismund August moved his court there in 1544.
Its growth was due in part to the establishment of Alma Academia et Universitas Vilnensis Societatis Iesu by King Stefan Bathory in 1579. The university soon developed into one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Commonwealth.
During its rapid development, the city was open to migrants from the territories of the Grand Duchy and further. A variety of languages were spoken: Lithuanian, Polish,Ruthenian, Russian, Old Slavonic, Latin, German, Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkic; the city was compared to Babylon. Each group made its unique contribution to the life of the city, and crafts, trade, and science prospered.
The 17th century brought a number of setbacks. The Commonwealth was involved in a series of wars, collectively known as The Deluge. During the Russo-Polish War (1654–1667), Vilnius was occupied by Russian forces; it was pillaged and burned, and its population was massacred. During the Great Northern War it was looted by the Swedish army. An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1710 killed about 35,000 residents; devastating fires occurred in 1715, 1737, 1741, 1748, and 1749. The city’s growth lost its momentum for many years, but even despite this fact, at the end of the 18th century and before the Napoleon wars, Vilnius with 56 000 inhabitants entered the Russian Empire as its 3rd largest city.
In the Russian Empire
The fortunes of the Commonwealth declined during the 18th century. Three partitions took place, dividing its territory among the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and theKingdom of Prussia. After the third partition of April 1795, Vilnius was annexed by the Russian Empire and became the capital of the Vilna Governorate. During Russian rule, the city walls were destroyed, and, by 1805, only the Gate of Dawn remained. In 1812, the city was taken by Napoleon on his push towards Moscow, and again during the disastrous retreat. The Grande Armée was welcomed in Vilnius. Thousands of soldiers died in the city during the eventual retreat; the mass graves were uncovered in 2002. Inhabitants expected Tsar Alexander I to grant them autonomy in response to Napoleon’s promises to restore the Commonwealth, but Vilnius didn’t become autonomous by itself nor as a part of Congress Poland.
Following the November Uprising in 1831, Vilnius University was closed and Russian repressions halted the further development of the city. Civil unrest in 1861 was suppressed by the Imperial Russian Army.
During the January Uprising in 1863, heavy fighting occurred within the city, but was brutally pacified by Mikhail Muravyov, nicknamed The Hangman by the population because of the number of executions he organized. After the uprising, all civil liberties were withdrawn, and use of the Polish and Lithuanian languages was banned.Vilnius had a vibrant Jewish population: according to Russian census of 1897, out of the total population of 154,500, Jews constituted 64,000 (approximately 40% percent). During the early 20th century, the Lithuanian-speaking population of Vilnius constituted only a small minority, with Polish, Yiddish, and Russian speakers comprising the majority of the city’s population.
During World War I, Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania was occupied by the German Army from 1915 until 1918. The Act of Independence of Lithuania, declaring Lithuanian independence from any affiliation to any other nation, was issued in the city on 16 February 1918. After the withdrawal of German forces, the city was briefly controlled by Polish self-defence units which were driven out byadvancing Soviet forces. Vilnius changed hands again during the Polish-Soviet War and theLithuanian Wars of Independence: it was taken by the Polish Army, only to fall to the Soviet forces again. Shortly after its defeat in the battle of Warsaw, the retreating Red Army, in order to delay the Polish advance, ceded the city to Lithuania after signing the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty on 12 July 1920.
Poland and Lithuania both perceived the city as their own. The League of Nations became involved in the subsequent dispute between the two countries. The League-brokered the Suwałki Agreement on 7 October 1920. Although neither Vilnius or the surrounding region was explicitly addressed in the agreement, numerous historians have described the agreement as allotting Vilnius to Lithuania. On 9 October 1920, the Polish Army surreptitiously, under General Lucjan Żeligowski, seized Vilnius during an operation known as Żeligowski’s Mutiny. The city and its surroundings were designated as a separate state, called the Republic of Central Lithuania. On 20 February 1922 after the highly contested election in Central Lithuania, the entire area was annexed by Poland, with the city becoming the capital of the Wilno Voivodship (Wilno being the name of Vilnius in Polish). Kaunas then became the temporary capital of Lithuania. Lithuania vigorously contested the Polish annexation of Vilnius, and refused diplomatic relations with Poland. The predominant languages of the city were still Polish and, to a lesser extent, Yiddish.
Lithuanians at the time, were a small minority, at about 6% of the city’s population according even to contemporary Lithuanian sources.
Vilnius University was reopened in 1919 under the name of Stefan Batory University By 1931, the city had 195,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth largest city in Poland with varied industries, such as Elektrit, a factory that produced radio receivers.
World War II
September 1939 – June 1941
World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had partitioned Lithuania and Poland into German and Soviet spheres of interest. On 19 September 1939, Vilnius was seized by the Soviet Union (which invaded Poland on 17 September). The USSR and Lithuania concluded a mutual assistance treaty on 10 October 1939, with which the Lithuanian government accepted the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. On 28 October 1939, the Red Army withdrew from the city to its suburbs (to Naujoji Vilnia) and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. A Lithuanian Army parade took place on 29 October 1939 through the city centre. The Lithuanians immediately attempted to Lithuanize the city, for example by Lithuanizing Polish schools. However, the whole of Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union on 3 August 1940 following a June ultimatum from the Soviets demanding, among other things, that unspecified numbers of Red Army soldiers be allowed to enter the country for the purpose of helping to form a more pro-Soviet government. After the ultimatum was issued and Lithuania further occupied, a Soviet government was installed with Vilnius as the capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR. Between 20,000 and 30,000 of the city’s inhabitants were subsequently arrested by the NKVD and sent to gulags in the far eastern areas of the Soviet Union. The Soviets devastated city industries, moving the major Polish radio factory Elektrit, along with a part of its labour force, to Minsk in Belarus, where it was renamed the Vyacheslav Molotov Radio Factory, after Stalin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
On 22 June 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. Vilnius was captured on 24 June.Two ghettos were set up in the old town centre for the large Jewish population – the smaller one of which was “liquidated” by October. The larger ghetto lasted until 1943, though its population was regularly deported in roundups known as “Aktionen“.A failed ghetto uprising on 1 September 1943 organized by the Fareinigte Partizaner Organizacje (the United Partisan Organization, the first Jewish partisan unit in German-occupied Europe), was followed by the final destruction of the ghetto. During the Holocaust, about 95% of the 265,000-strong Jewish population of Lithuania was murdered by the German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators, many of them in Paneriai, about 10 km (6.2 mi) west of the old town centre (see the Ponary massacre).
Lithuanian SSR – in Soviet Union
In July 1944, Vilnius was taken from the Germans by the Soviet Army and the Polish Armia Krajowa (see Operation Ostra Bramaand the Vilnius Offensive). The NKVD arrested the leaders of the Armia Krajowa after requesting a meeting. Shortly afterwards, the town was once again incorporated into the Soviet Union as the capital of the Lithuanian SSR.
The war had irrevocably altered the town – most of the predominantly Polish and Jewish population had been expelled and exterminated respectively, during and after the German occupation. Some members of the intelligentsia and hiding in forests former Waffen SS members, were now targeted and deported to Siberia after the war. The majority of the remaining populationwas compelled to relocate to Communist Poland by 1946, and Sovietization began in earnest. Only in the 1960s did Vilnius begin to grow again, following an influx of Lithuanian and Polish population from neighbouring regions and as well as from other areas of the Soviet Union (particularly Russians and Belarusians). Microdistricts were built in the elderates of Šeškinė, Žirmūnai,Justiniškės and Fabijoniškės.
On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR announced its secession from the Soviet Union and intention to restore an independent Republic of Lithuania. As a result of these declarations, on 9 January 1991, the Soviet Union sent in troops. This culminated in the 13 January attack on the State Radio and Television Building and the Vilnius TV Tower, killing at least fourteen civilians and seriously injuring 700 more. The Soviet Union finally recognised Lithuanian independence in September 1991. The current Constitution, as did the earlier Lithuanian Constitution of 1922, mentions that …”the capital of the State of Lithuania shall be the city of Vilnius, the long-standing historical capital of Lithuania”.
Vilnius has been rapidly transformed, and the town has emerged as a modern European city. Many of its older buildings have been renovated, and a business and commercial area is being developed into the New City Centre, expected to become the city’s main administrative and business district on the north side of the Neris river. This area includes modern residential and retail space, with the municipality building and the 129-metre (423′) Europa Tower as its most prominent buildings. The construction of Swedbank‘s headquarters is symbolic of the importance of Scandinavian banks in Vilnius. The building complex “Vilnius Business Harbour” was built in 2008, and one of its towers is now the 5th tallest building in Lithuania. More buildings are scheduled for construction in the area. Vilnius was selected as a 2009 European Capital of Culture, along with Linz, the capital of Upper Austria. Its 2009 New Year’s Eve celebration, marking the event, featured a light show said to be “visible from outer space”. In preparation, the historical centre of the city was restored, and its main monuments were renewed. The global economic crisis led to a drop in tourism which prevented many of the projects going ahead to their planned extent, and allegations of corruption and incompetence were made against the organisers, while tax increases for cultural activity led to public protestsand the general economic conditions sparked riots. Today, Vilnius’ population and economy are rapidly growing. In 2011, Arturas Zuokas was elected Mayor.
Vilnius has access to groundwater, and there is no need to use extensive chemicals in treating surface water from lakes or rivers, providing residents with some of the cleanest and healthiest tap water access in Europe.
On November 28-29th, 2013, Vilnius hosted Eastern Partnership Summit in the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Many European presidents, prime ministers and other high-ranking officials participated in the event. On 29 November 2013, Georgia andMoldova initialed association and free trade agreements with European Union. Previously Ukraine and Armenia was also planning to initial such agreement, but decided to delay it. Due to such decision, Euromaidan began in Ukraine.
On 20 December 2013, CNN named Vilnius Cathedral Square Christmas tree as the best in the world, while EssentialTravel.co.uk mentioned Vilnius as one of the ten best destinations to spend your Christmas.
Once widely known as Yerushalayim De Lita (the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”), Vilnius since the 18th century, was a world centre for the study of the Torah, and had a large Jewish population. A major scholar of Judaism and Kabbalah centred in Vilnius was the famous Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, also known as the Vilna Gaon. His students have significant influence among Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the globe. Jewish life in Vilnius was destroyed during the Holocaust; there is a memorial stone dedicated to victims of Nazigenocide located in the centre of the former Jewish Ghetto — now Mėsinių Street. TheVilna Gaon Jewish State Museum is dedicated to the history of Lithuanian Jewish life.
The Karaim are a Jewish sect who migrated to Lithuania from the Crimea to serve as a military elite unit in the 14th century. Although their numbers are very small, the Karaim are becoming more prominent since Lithuanian independence, and have restored theirkenesa.
Vilnius is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vilnius, with the main church institutions and Archdiocesan Cathedral located here. There are a number of other active Roman Catholic churches in the city, along with small enclosed monasteries and religion schools. Church architecture includes Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassicalstyles, with important examples of each found in the Old Town. Additionally, Eastern Rite Catholicism has maintained a presence in Vilnius since the Union of Brest. The Baroque Basilian Gate is part of an Eastern Rite monastery.
Vilnius has been home to an Eastern Orthodox Christian presence since the 13th or even the 12th century. A famous Russian Orthodox monastery, named for the Holy Spirit, is located near the Gate of Dawn. St. Paraskeva’s Orthodox Church in the Old Town is the site of the baptism of Hannibal, the great-grandfather of Pushkin, by Tsar Peter the Greatin 1705. Many Old Believers, who split from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1667, settled in Lithuania. The Church of St. Michael and St. Constantine was built in 1913. Today a Supreme Council of the Old Believers is based in Vilnius.
The pre-Christian religion of Lithuania, centred around the forces of nature as personified by deities such as Perkūnas (the Thunder God), is experiencing some increased interest. Romuva established a Vilnius branch in 1991.