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The ancestors of the modern Lithuanians were known as Balts and probably reached the area from the south-east around 2000 BC. By the 12th century the Balt peoples were split into tribal groups, all practising nature religions. The two main groups in Lithuania were the Samogitians in the west and the Aukstaitiai in the east. In what is now south-west Lithuania and in neighbouring parts of Poland were the Yotvingians, also a Balt people, later to be assimilated by the Lithuanians and Poles.

In the mid-13th century Mindaugas, leader of the Aukstaitiai, unified the Lithuanian tribes for a short time under the Catholic mantle. Pagan princes fought back, then were subjugated by another Christian, Vytenis, who became grand duke in 1290. His brother Gediminas, grand duke from 1316 to 1341, took advantage of the decline of the early Russian state to push Lithuania's borders south and east. It was Gediminas' grandson, Jogaila, who converted to Catholicism and married the crown princess of Poland in 1386, thus forging a 400-year bond between the states. The Aukstaitiai were baptised in 1387 and the Samogitians in 1413, making Lithuania the last European country to accept Christianity. By the end of the 16th century Lithuania had sunk into a junior role in its partnership with Poland, especially after the formal union of the two states at the Treaty of Lublin in 1569. Lithuanian gentry adopted Polish culture and language, Lithuanian peasants became serfs, and the joint state became known as the Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth).

Poland-Lithuania began to cast interested eyes over Livonia (Latvia) and Estonia, as did Sweden and Russia's Ivan the Terrible. Ivan invaded first in 1558, initiating the 25-year Livonian War. It took Poland-Lithuania and then Sweden many years to expel Ivan and his Russian compatriots. After they managed this in 1592, Catholic Poland-Lithuania and Protestant Sweden settled down to fight each other in the Baltics. The Swedes won, securing Estonia and most of modern Latvia. Meanwhile, conflict continued between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, with the Russians eventually invading the Rzeczpospolita and annexing significant territory. A Prussian revival in the 17th century further weakened the Rzeczpospolita, which was eventually carved up by Russia, Austria and Prussia, with most of Lithuania going to the Russians.

Lithuania was involved in two Polish rebellions against Russian rule in the 19th century, and its peasants weren't freed until 1861. The Russians persecuted Catholics and, from 1864, books could only be published in Lithuanian provided they used the Russian alphabet, and publications in Polish were banned altogether. During WWI Germany occupied Lithuania, but on 11 November 1918, the day Germany surrendered to the Allies, a Lithuanian republican government was set up. Matters were complicated by the re-emergence of an independent Poland. Polish troops took Vilnius in 1919 and retained it, apart from three months in 1920, until 1939. In 1920 Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with Lithuania recognising its independence.

Lithuania suffered a military coup in 1926 and from 1929 was ruled by Antanas Smetona along similar lines to Mussolini's Italy. But on 23 August 1939 Nazi Germany and the USSR signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which placed Lithuania under the Nazi sphere of influence. When Lithuania refused to join the Nazi attack on Poland, it was placed in the Soviet sphere. Lithuania regained Vilnius in October 1939, when the Red Army invaded eastern Poland; Germany invaded western Poland at the same time. By August 1940 Lithuania had been placed under Soviet military occupation, communists were in government and the nation had become a republic of the USSR. Hitler invaded Lithuania in 1941, and during the Nazi occupation nearly all of Lithuania's Jewish population was killed in camps or ghettos. The Red Army reconquered Lithuania by the end of 1944, and it took until the late 1980s for the nation to take its first steps towards regaining its sovereignty.

A popular front, Sajudis (The Movement), formed as a direct result of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of

In response, Moscow carried out weeks of intimidatory troop manoeuvres, then clamped an economic blockade on Lithuania. Sajudis leader Vytautas Landsbergis agreed to a 100-day moratorium on the independence declaration in return for independence talks between the respective Lithuanian and Soviet governments. However, Soviet hardliners gained the ascendancy in Moscow, and in January 1991 Soviet troops occupied strategic buildings in Vilnius, killing 13 people in the storming of the TV tower and TV centre. Everything changed with the 19 August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow. The western world finally recognised Lithuanian independence and so too did the USSR on 6 September 1991. On 17 September 1991 Lithuania joined the United Nations and began to enjoy its rediscovered nationhood. In early 1998 the fruits of the Lithuania diaspora became apparent when Valdas Adamkus, who had spent most of his adult life in Chicago working as a senior policy expert for the US Environmental Protection Agency, was elected president.


Lithuania has the most ethnically homogenous population of the three Baltic states. Modern Lithuanians are descended from the Balt tribes, and the Lithuanian diaspora is by far the biggest of any of the peoples of the Baltic states, mainly due to emigration for political or economic reasons in the 19th and early 20th century and during WWII. Lithuanians are stereotypically gregarious, welcoming and emotional, placing greater emphasis on contacts and favours than method and calculation. Cooler Estonians and Latvians see Lithuanians as hot-headed and unpredictable. The independence campaign of the late 1980s and early '90s illustrated the contrast between Lithuanians and their Baltic neighbours. In Lithuania the struggle was romantic, daring, cliff-hanging and risky, with at least 20 deaths. In Estonia it was gradual, calculated and bloodless, leading to the unkind saying that 'Estonians would die for their freedom - to the last Lithuanian'.

Lithuanian is one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. Low Lithuanian is spoken in the west and is a different dialect to High Lithuanian, which is spoken in the rest of the country. The Catholic Church is a conservative force in Lithuanian society, and its head is the Archbishop of Kaunas. Russian Orthodoxy is practised in the country, and there are also Old Believers, a sect of the Russian Orthodox church that has suffered intermittent persecution since the 17th century. There are also pagans in Lithuania, highlighted by the Romuva movement, which has congregations in Vilnius and Kaunas as well as among Lithuanian communities overseas. The movement works towards rekindling Lithuania's ancient spiritual and folklore traditions.

The first major fiction in Lithuanian was the poem Metai (The Seasons), by Kristijonas Donelaitis, describing the life of serfs in the 18th century. Jonas Maciulis, known as Maironis, is regarded as the founder of modern Lithuanian literature thanks to the poetry he wrote around the beginning of the 20th century. Lithuania is also the birthplace of several major Polish writers, among them Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel prize for literature.

An interesting Lithuanian folk-art tradition is the carving of large wooden crosses, suns, weathercocks or figures of saints on tall poles that are placed at crossroads, in cemeteries, village squares or at the sites of extraordinary events. In the Soviet period, such work was banned, but it survived to amazing effect at the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai.

Dairy products and potatoes are mainstays of the Lithuanian diet, and pancakes are particularly popular. A traditional (and unforgettable) meal is cepelinai, a zeppelin-shaped parcel of a glutinous substance (allegedly potato dough), with a wad of cheese, meat or mushrooms in the centre. It comes topped with a sauce made from onions, butter, sour cream and bacon bits. Sakotis is a tall, Christmas-tree shaped cake generally served at weddings, while dinner on Christmas Eve consists of 12 different vegetarian dishes. Utenos and Kalnapilis are the best local brands of beer, perhaps preferable to midus (mead), which can be as much as 60% proof. Those who prefer to make their own decision about when to lie down should look out for stakliskes, a honey liqueur.

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