Lithuanians are believed to have settled in the region about 4,000 years ago. During the first 10 centuries A.D., their land was successively invaded by Goths, Poles, Germans, Russians, and Vikings. In the 12th century, the Lithuanians were the only Baltic people to maintain their independence against conquering forces from the West. They held fast to their pagan beliefs and to their ancient ways and customs until centuries later.
A strong grand duchy developed in the 13th century in opposition to the Teutonic Knights. Under such 14th- and early 15th-century grand dukes as Gedimin, Jagello, and Witold, Lithuania became one of the strongest nations in medieval Europe. Its realms extended across eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Royal marriage brought Lithuania and Poland under a combined crown in 1386. Accepting Roman Catholicism and much of Poland's culture, Lithuania was incorporated into Poland in 1569, thereby losing its separate identity. With the partitions of Poland, ending in 1795, Russia gained control of the country and ruled until the German occupation of World War I.
The war and the Communist Revolution in Russia brought independence to Lithuania in 1918. The new nation carried out extensive land reform, breaking up large estates formerly owned by Polish, Russian, and German nobles and distributing the land to the Lithuanian peasantry. The country made significant economic and educational advances.
Despite difficult relations with Germany. Poland, and the Soviet Union, Lithuania continued as a sovereign country until August, 1940, when it was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union. Germany occupied Lithuania in 1941; the Soviets retook it in 1944.
In the postwar years, the Soviets deported about 300,000 Lithuanians to slave-labor camps in Siberia. Authoritarian rule was imposed, and church and cultural activities were severely restricted. The Soviets also changed the economy, collectivizing agriculture and increasing industrialization.
During the 1960's and 1970's, a resurgence of nationalist sentiment among the Lithuanians led to a revival of church activities and traditional arts. The Soviet government was unable to repress such endeavors, but remained firmly in control. In the late 1980's, nationalist sentiment intensified. Mass demonstrations against the Soviet government occurred and nationalists gained control of the Lithuanian Communist party. In 1989 the Supreme Soviet (Lithuania's parliament during the Soviet era) voted in favor of establishing a multiparty democracy.
Elections for the Supreme Soviet were held in 1990 and resulted in a nationalist majority. The new government declared its independence. The Soviet Union rejected Lithuania's declaration and responded by cutting off supplies of fuels and certain raw materials. In 1991, after the breakdown of formal discussions between Lithuania and the Soviet Union concerning independence, Soviet forces seized several important facilities in Lithuania, including the main television and radio stations. During 1991 the Soviet central government gradually lost authority over most of the union republics. In September, Lithuania was granted independence. Shortly afterward, Lithuania became a member of the United Nations.
In a national referendum in October, 1992, Lithuanians approved a constitution that made the country a parliamentary democracy with an elected president. In parliamentary elections later that year the Democratic Labor party (formerly the Communist party of Lithuania) won a majority of the seats in the legislature. In 1993 Algirdas Brazauskas, a former Communist, was elected president. Also that year Russia withdrew its military forces from Lithuania. (Russian forces had been in Lithuania since 1944.) In 1998 a United States citizen, Valdas Adamkus, was elected president. Adamkus was born in Lithuania but fled to the United States when the Soviets occupied the country. Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
See also Flag (color page); Kaunas; Klaipeda; Vilnius.