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One of the three Baltic states, the Republic of Lithuania is in the northern corner of eastern Europe. Latvia is north of Lithuania, and Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south, and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad Oblast is to the southwest. The city of Vilnus, the second largest in Lithuania, is the capital. Before World War II, Vilnius was one of the biggest Jewish centers in Europe and was called the Jerusalem of the North by Napoleon. More than 86% of the residents of Lithuania are Lithuanian, and the remainder are mostly Poles, Russians, Belarusians, and Ukranians.

From the ninth century to the eleventh century, Lithuania was raided repeatedly by Vikings and they paid tribute to Denmark from time to time, as well as to the loose confederation of Slavic tribes known as the Kievan Rus'.

In the beginning of the thirteenth century, the pagan Lithuanians lived with the constant threat of the German crusaders. The Knights of the Sword had used force to convert the Latvians, just north of Lithuania. The neighbors to the south, the Prussians, had been in a similar situation with the Teutonic Knights forcing conversions. An alliance would certainly be helpful. Lithuanian chieftains weighed their options: adopting the Orthodox Catholic religion of Russia or the Roman Catholic religion of the Romans. They opted for Rome, and in 1251, a supreme chieftain named Mindaugas and his family were baptized. He was crowned king of Lithuania by Pope Innocent IV's authority in 1253. In 1263, Mindaugas, who had returned to paganism, and two of his sons were assassinated by the pagan opposition. These assassinations sparked great unrest and a civil war.

Lithuania held on to its pagan religion until the late fourteenth century at which time they were the last remaining pagan kingdom in Europe.

Lithuania expanded to the east and the south into the areas that are now Ukraine and Belarus at the beginning of the 14th century under the leadership of Gediminas, grand duke of Lithuania from about 1315 until 1341. Eventually, Lithuania had amassed still more land, but there were not enough Lithuanians to form colonies. Since they could not defend their land with people, they did so through several strategies, including religious tolerance. Many of the upper warrior class had intermarried women who were of different religions.

In 1385, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila and his betrothed, Queen Jadwiga of Poland created an official prenuptial document called the Union of Krewo. because the queen was only 12 years old, numerous concessions were made on the part of Jogaila, including his conversion to Christianity. Other terms of the Union were that the Grand Duke would be crowned the King of Poland, thus beginning four hundred years of alliance between Lithuania and Poland.

They were married in 1386, Jogaila went back to Lithuania, and in the spring, there was a mass conversion and baptism for Lithuanians. The Teutonic Knights, who forced conversions through military tactics. The pope banned the Knights from any sort of warfare, or any other detrimental actions, against Lithuania in 1403.

By 1480, Lithuania had expanded its realm so that it extended from the Baltic Sea south to the shores and east, nearly to Mozhaisk, 100 miles west of Moscow. When Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow came to power as sovereign of all of Russia, he decided to claim all of the lands of the old Kievan State. Most of those lands, including Kiev, were part of Lithuania. For the next two hundred years, Moscow and Lithuania fought over land.

On July 1, 1569 during a common parliament meeting in Lublin, parliament converted the personal union of the individual states into one country via a commonwealth with a document called the Union of Lublin. Each state, they agreed, would elect a single joint sovereign, continue to have a common parliament, and have their own military and laws. But the fact that it was a commonwealth meant that they would blend their principles, cultures, and languages. By 1700, Lithuania and Poland were all but indistinguishable from one another.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lost much of its political power during the 18th century. From 1772 through 1795, Lithuania lost lands inhabited by East Slavs followed by land where ethnic Lithuanians lived, most of it to Russia, however the lands which were southwest of the Nemunas River were annexed by Prussia and combined in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which was established in 1807 by Napoleon. During the 1815 Congress of Vienna, that duchy became the Kingdom of Poland and was put under Russian rule.

The Russian Revolution lifted some of the authoritarian rule for Lithuanians, with prohibitions removed from speech and press. And in 1918, congress declared Lithuania an independent state. Despite a struggle with the Red Army, by 1919, the country was indeed independent.

 

 

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