Vilnius

Breaking free: The path to independence in 1918

07 Nov 2017

Spurred on by the violent suppression of dissent as part of Tsarist Russia, Lithuanian activists eventually achieved their dream of a new period of independence.

Lithuania lay in the grip of a repressive occupation in the late 19th century. Tsarist Russia had, together with Prussia and Austria, carved up the huge Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the previous century, taking swathes of land in what is today Belarus, western Ukraine and the Baltics for itself. Most of the lands east of the River Nemunas, including Vilnius, became part of the Russian Empire in 1795. Uprisings led by local Polish and Lithuanian nobility were ruthlessly put down in 1831 and 1864.
Brutal measures included executions, deportations to Siberia, a ban on the Latin alphabet, education in Russian only, and a ban on monasteries and convents. The severity of the punishment earned the governor of Vilnius, Count Muravyov, the nickname The Hangman. But all of this only strengthened Lithuanian resolve.

Myths and legends
Taking their inspiration from the mighty medieval Lithuanian Grand Duchy, which once ruled lands from the Baltic to the Black Sea, nationalist activists constructed and moulded facts out of myths and legends in a romantic desire to create a new world out of the ruins of the old.
A new national identity was created. Two of the key figures of this process came from the Lithuanian peasantry – in fact from the same secondary school in Marijampolė. Jonas Basanavičius (1851-1927) studied medicine but later founded the first Lithuanian-language newspaper, Aušra (Dawn), collecting and publishing countless examples of folk tales and songs.
Aušra was published over the border in East Prussia and smuggled – like thousands of books in Lithuanian in the Latin script – into Lithuania, at great risk to the smugglers themselves. Up to 40,000 books a year were brought in this way, about a third of them seized by the authorities. Book smugglers faced exile to Siberia or worse if caught.
Vincas Kudirka (1858-1899) also studied medicine, later founding a secret society called Lietuva and publishing the clandestine newspaper Varpas (Bell). In one issue he published the poem Tautiška Giesmė, which would officially become the Lithuanian national anthem, set to music also written by him.

Multicultural city

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