Lithuania — History and Culture
Lithuania has experienced pockets of independence throughout its lifetime, although much of its history shows heavy oppression by Russia/Soviet forces and has been heavily influenced by its surrounding neighbors. Despite this, the modern culture radiates festivity and pride, as displayed in the many events and lifestyles of local citizens.
By the 13th century, Lithuania was one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe. Nobility and feudalism reigned, leading to the existence of vast social inequalities. However, in 1569, Lithuanian rulers joined with Poland to establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Aspects of local culture flourished thanks to the Renaissance and Reformation within Europe, but the Northern Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries devastated the economy and the country, which led to annexations of various regions by adjacent powers.
By the late 19th century, Russia’s relationship with the ever-growing German Empire wore thin, leading to massive construction of defence walls along the western front of Lithuanian territory. Travelers can visit the Kaunas Fortress (Kaunas, Lithuania) and Vytautas the Great War Museum (K. Donelaicio Street 64, Kaunas) for more details about Lithuania’s fortresses, including battles fought on this stage.
Lithuania gained its independence from Russia in 1918, although Vilnius was acquired by Poland in 1920 for 19 years with almost no diplomatic relations between the two. During WWII, Lithuania changed hands from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union numerous times, before the Soviets finally gained control after Germany’s retreat.
In 1944, the Soviet Union began its iron-fisted reign over Lithuania enforcing a new “nationalization” of the country. Independent movements in the 1950’s and 1960’s led to hundreds of thousands of people disappearing or being shipped to the gulag prisons in Siberia. By the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sajudis was established, becoming a recognized national group fighting for freedom. This led to uprisings and backlash from the Soviet troops, including monumental massacres like Medininkai. The Museum of Genocide Victims (2a Auku Street, Vilnius) can tell you more about the ruthless Soviet reign.
In 1991, Lithuania finally regained its independence after more than five decades of Soviet occupation. Lithuania was the first Eastern bloc country to do this publicly and by September 1991, had already joined the United Nations. In 1994, the country filed an application to join the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO), but wasn’t accepted for another 10 years. In 2004, the same year Lithuania became a member of NATO, it also became a member of the European Union (EU). Three years later, Lithuania voted to be part of the Schengen Agreement. The National Museum of Lithuania (Arsenalo Street 1, Vilnius, Lithuania) can tell you more about the country’s rich history.
Lithuanians love to get out and about, especially when it comes to the weekend. The summer months are packed with amazing festivals and it’s as if the country is making up for lost time while under the oppressive control of the Soviet Union. National culture and identity are extremely important to locals.
Sport, in particular basketball, is an important part of life, as is music. Lithuanian folk music has been around for hundreds of years and can primarily be heard at festivals throughout the year.