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Country of the Week: Lithuania

In Countries by Continental Staff1 Comment

This week we’ve arrived in the ex-Soviet republic of Lithuania. Located on the Baltic Sea, this small country has made great strides over the last couple decades and is quickly becoming one of the gems of Northern Europe.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Vilnius
  • Population (2015): 2,898,062 (139th)
  • Total Area: 65,300 km² (123rd)
  • Official Language: Lithuanian
  • Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
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Vilnius in the winter

History

For many centuries, disparate tribes that settled around the Baltic Sea populated Lithuania. It wasn’t until the early 13th century when Mindaugas was crowned King of Lithuania (in 1253) that these tribes were united. After his assassination 10 years later, Lithuania found itself thrust into conflict with Christian crusaders (the country was pagan) including the Teutonic Knights and Livonian Order. Lithuania managed to weather this century long storm and soon began expanding rapidly. Taking over much of the region, Lithuania was, by the end of the 14th century, one of the largest countries in all of Europe. With many cultures and faiths a part of the Grand Duchy, Lithuania preached multiculturalism and religious tolerance to keep everyone together under the same ruler.

In the late 1300’s Lithuania formed a union with Poland as it slowly moved towards the Christian faith. Lithuania reached still greater heights under Vytautas the Great (who rose to power in 1392). While the Mongols defeated his forces in 1399, Lithuania and Poland won a great victory over the Teutonic Knights at the 1410 Battle of Grunwald. After Vytautas’ death, Lithuania was soon threatened by the emerging Duchy of Moscow and forced to remain close with Poland, despite some nobles pushing for an end to the union.

In 1569, Poland and Lithuania officially entered into a commonwealth together whereby Lithuania was meant to retain its national institutions. Despite this, Polish culture seeped into many aspects of life in the country including art, language, and more. As the nobility and rulers of both Poland and Lithuania were granted ever-greater powers and liberties, anarchy became the order of the day.

The Northern Wars of the mid 17th century saw Lithuania decimated by the Swedes while the Great Northern War (early 18th century) resulted in the country ravaged once more. Foreign powers stepped in and parts of Lithuania were soon controlled by Russia (the largest portion), Prussia, and Austria. As part of the Russian Empire, many Lithuanian cultural works and institutions were banned, but survived thanks to book smugglers and underground education. As tensions between Russia and Germany increased throughout the 19th century, Lithuania began to experience a national revival, which would eventually lead to independence.

Independence was declared amidst the chaos of World War I. However, regional disputes were still commonplace with Poland occupying and later annexing Vilnius (the capital) in 1920. The interwar period was characterized by intense animosity towards the Poles. Things got worse during World War II. After the Soviets returned Vilnius, the Nazi’s invaded and occupied Lithuania in 1941. Thousands of people were killed during the occupation until the Soviets managed to take the country from Nazi Germany towards the end of the war.

After the war, Lithuania became a Soviet republic. While there was resistance amongst Lithuanian partisans in the 40’s and 50’s, the Soviets remained in power throughout the Cold War. As the Soviet Union weakened, an anti-communist party known as Sąjūdis took power and Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence on March 11, 1990.

While the last Soviet troops didn’t leave until 1993, Lithuania worked quickly to become closer to the west. Today, it is a member of the UN, NATO, the EU, and the eurozone. With a free-market economy, Lithuania has undeniably transformed since the days of communism just a couple decades ago.

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Trakai Island Castle

Culture

Due to its location in Northern Europe, Lithuania has a unique mix of regional cultures and traditions. This includes Nordic culture and Christian customs as well as Slavic and Germanic influences. Despite this, the population is one of the most homogenous in the region with the vast majority (about 83%) identifying as Lithuanian. There is a Polish enclave of sorts around Vilnius while those of Russian background can be found throughout the country.

Folk music is an important part of Lithuanian culture. Whether about romance, weddings, work, or war, these tunes have large historical and cultural importance to the Lithuanian people. This music, as well as dance and traditional instruments, have garnered much esteem both at home and abroad.

Sports are important in Lithuania, especially when it comes to basketball. The national team is historically one of the strongest in Europe and the country has produced a number of NBA players over the years.

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Lithuanian schoolchildren participate in a festival on the first day of school

Geography

Situated on the Baltic Sea and Curonian Lagoon, Lithuania features a 262 kilometre long coastline. Beyond the coast, much of the land is very flat with lakes, swamps, and forests found throughout. There are some hills, however they are relatively small (300m max) and only make up a small part of the topography.

Lithuania is the most populous of the Baltic States with many people based around the cities of Vilnius (the capital) and Kaunas. There are many other cities throughout the country, though most are relatively small with the population spread out between them.

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Lakes and swampland cover much of the country’s landscape

Did you know?

  • As of 2011, Lithuania had the fastest internet in the world
  • The country is 1/3 forest
  • The national bird is the stork and the myth about where babies come from is still kept today
  • Vodka was first made from corn in Lithuania
  • There is a national perfume
  • There is only one port in the country – the Port of Klaipeda
  • There isn’t an Easter Bunny – there’s an Easter Granny
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A view over Vilnius – the capital

Last Word

While Lithuania may have reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, it has made significant strides since the end of the Cold War and is today a highly developed and westernized country.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.

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