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A powerful state in its own right at its peak in the 14th to 16th centuries, Lithuania subsequently fell under the Polish then Soviet yoke. Bar a brief interwar period of independence, Lithuania was not independent again until 1991. Kaunas' Military Museum of Vytautas the Great and Vilnius' National Museum cover the whole span of Lithuania's history.

Tribal testosterone

Human habitation in the wedge of land that makes up present-day Lithuania goes back to at least 9000 BC. Trade in amber started during the Neolithic period (6000 to 4500 years ago), providing the Balts - the ancestors of modern Lithuanians - with a ready-made source of wealth when they arrived on the scene from the southeast some time around 2000 BC.

Two centuries on, it was this fossilised pine resin and the far-flung routes across the globe its trade forged - brilliantly explained in Palanga's Amber Museum - that prompted a mention of the amber-gathering aesti on the shores of the Baltic Sea in Germania, a beast of a book about Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire written in 1009. The same year Lithuania was mentioned for the first time in written sources (the Kvedlinburgh Chronicle) as the place where an archbishop called Brunonus was struck on the head by pagans in Litae (Latin for Lithuania). Its 1000th anniversary will be celebrated in Vilnius, where an entire palace is being rebuilt brick by brick to mark the event; visit the site for the full story.

By the 12th century Lithuania's peoples had split into two tribal groups: the Samogitians (lowlanders) in the west and the Aukštaitiai (highlanders) in the east and southeast. Around this time a wooden castle was built atop Gediminas Hill in Vilnius.

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Medieval mayhem

In the mid-13th century Aukštaitiai leader Mindaugas unified Lithuanian tribes to create the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, of which he was coronated king in 1253 at Kernavė, the 'Pompeii of Lithuania'. Mindaugas accepted Catholicism in a bid to defuse the threat from the Teutonic Order - Germanic crusaders who conquered various Prussian territories, including Memel (present-day Klaipėda). Unfortunately neither conversion nor unity lasted very long: Mindaugas was assassinated in 1263 and Christianity rejected. Vilnius did reap its first cathedral, though, from this sacred decade of peace.

In 1290 Lithuania was reunified and under Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-41) its borders extended south and east into modern-day Belarus. After Gediminas' death two of his sons shared the realm: in Vilnius, Algirdas pushed the southern borders of Lithuania past Kyiv, while Kęstutis - who plumped for a pretty lake island in Trakai as a site for his castle - fought off the Teut-onic Order. After Algirdas' death in 1377, Kęstutis drove Algirdas' son and successor, Jogaila, from Vilnius and made himself sole ruler of Lithuania. But in 1382 Jogaila captured Kęstutis and son Vytautas, and threw the pair into prison (where Kęstutis died).

With the Teutonic threat increasing, Jogaila found himself in a quandary. His Orthodox princes advised alliance with Moscow, the rising Russian power in the east, and conversion to Orthodoxy, while his pagan princes suggested conversion to Catholicism and alliance with neighbouring Poland.

Jogaila's decision was a watershed in Eastern European history. In 1386 he wed Jadwiga, crown princess of Poland, to become Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland and forge a Lithuanian-Polish alliance that would last 400 years. The Aukštaitiai were baptised in 1387 and the Samogitians in 1413, making Lithuania the last European country to accept Christianity.

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Glory days

Jogaila patched things up with Vytautas, who became Grand Duke of Lithuania on condition that he and Jogaila share a common policy. The decisive defeat of the Teutonics by their combined armies at Grünwald (in modern-day Poland) in 1410 ushered in a golden period of prosperity, particularly for its capital Vilnius, which saw its legendary Old Town born.

Vytautas ('the Great') extended Lithuanian control further south and east. By 1430 when he died, Lithuania stretched beyond Kursk in the east and almost to the Black Sea in the south, creating one of Europe's largest empires. Nowhere was its grandeur and clout better reflected than in 16th-century Vilnius, which, with a population of 25, 000-odd, was one of eastern Europe's biggest cities. Fine late-Gothic and Renaissance buildings sprung up, and Lithuanians such as Žygimantas I and II occupied the Polish-Lithuanian throne inside the sumptuous Royal Palace. In 1579 Polish Jesuits founded Vilnius University and made the city a bastion of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Under Jesuit influence, baroque architecture also arrived.

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Polonisation & partitions

But Lithuania gradually sank into a junior role in its partnership with Poland, climaxing with the formal union of the two states (instead of just their crowns) at the Treaty of Lublin in 1569 during the Livonian War with Muscovy. Under the so-called Rzecz-pospolita (Commonwealth), Lithuania played second fiddle to Poland. Its gentry adopted Polish culture and language, its peasants became serfs and Warsaw usurped Vilnius as political and social hub.

A century on it was Russia's turn to play tough. In 1654 Russia invaded the Rzeczpospolita and snatched significant territory from it. By 1772 the Rzeczpospolita was so weakened that the Prussia-Brandenburg state of Russia, Austria and Prussia simply carved it up in the Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793 and 1795-96). Most of Lithuania went to Russia, while a small chunk around Klaipėda in the west went to Prussia.

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Power to the people

While neighbouring Estonia and Latvia were governed as separate provinces, Russian rule took a different stance with rebellious Lithuania.

Vilnius had quickly become a refuge for Polish and Lithuanian gentry dispossessed by the region's new Russian rulers and a focus of the Polish national revival, in which Vilnius-bred poet Adam Mickiewicz was a leading inspiration. When Lithuanians joined a failed Polish rebellion against Russian rule in 1830 and 1831, Tsarist authorities clamped down extra hard. It shut Vilnius University, closed Catholic churches and monasteries and imposed Russian Orthodoxy. Russian law was introduced in 1840 and the Russian language was used for teaching. From 1864 books could only be published in Lithuanian if they used the Cyrillic alphabet, while publications in Polish (spoken by the Lithuanian gentry) were banned altogether.

In 1861 Lithuanian (and Russian) peasants were emancipated: power to the people! National revival became a hot trend in the 19th and early 20th century, the rapid industrialisation of Vilnius and other towns simply lending nationalist drives more clout. Vilnius became an important Jewish centre during this period, Jews making up around 75,000 of its 160,000-strong population in the early 20th century to earn it the nickname 'Jerusalem of the North'.

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Ideas of Baltic national autonomy and independence had been voiced during the 1905 Russian revolution, but it was not until 1918 that the restoration of the Independent State of Lithuania was declared. During WWI Lithuania was occupied by Germany and it was while still under German occupation on 16 February 1918 that a Lithuanian national council, the Taryba, declared independence in Vilnius in the House of Signatories, open to visitors today. In November Germany surrendered to the Western Allies, and the same day a Lithuanian republican government was set up.

With the re-emergence of an independent Poland eager to see Lithuania reunited with it or cede it the Vilnius area, which had a heavily Polish and/or Polonised population, things turned nasty. On 31 December 1918 the Lithuanian government fled to Kaunas, and days later the Red Army installed a communist government in Vilnius. Polish troops drove the Red Army out on 2 January 1919, only for the Red Army to recapture it three days later. The Poles hit back on 19 April, but were again thwarted. Following the Peace Conference of Paris on 1 June 1919, Lithuanian independence was recognised, and on 15 May 1920 the first parliament met in Kaunas at the State Theatre Palace (today the Kaunas Musical Theatre). But on 9 October 1920 the Poles occupied Vilnius for a third time and on 10 October 1920 annexed the city once and for all.

Thus from 1920 until 1939, Vilnius and its surrounds was an isolated corner of Poland while the rest of Lithuania enjoyed independence, for the most part under the iron-fist rule (1926-40) of Lithuania's first president, Antanas Smetona (1874-1944). See the politician's statue and learn how he ruled along similar lines to Mussolini in Italy at Kaunas' Presidential Palace, now a museum. Kaunas was Lithuanian capital throughout this interwar period. In 1923 Lithuania annexed Memel (present-day Klaipėda).

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WWII & Soviet rule

With the fatal signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact, Lithuania fell to the Nazis and soon after (when it re- fused to join the Nazi attack on Poland in September 1939) into Soviet hands. The 'mutual-assistance pact' the USSR insisted on signing with Lithuania regained it Vilnius in October 1939 (the Red Army had taken the city in its invasion of eastern Poland at the same time as Germany had invaded western Poland). But this was little consolation for the terror Lithuania experienced as a USSR republic - a fate and history it shared with its immediate neighbours, Estonia and Latvia. Soviet purges saw thousands upon thousands of Balts killed or deported.

Following Hitler's invasion of the USSR and the Nazi occupation of the region in 1941, nearly all of Lithuania's Jewish population - between 135, 000 and 300, 000 people according to varying estimates - were killed; most Vilnius Jews were killed in its ghetto or in Paneriai Forest, a horribly unnerving place to visit today. An estimated 45, 000 Lithuanians were enlisted in German military units; others were conscripted for forced labour; and 80, 000 Lithuanians escaped to the West between 1944 and 1945 to avoid the Red Army's reconquest of the Baltic countries. In all some 475, 000 Lithuanians perished during WWII.

Between 1944 and 1952 under Soviet rule, a further 250, 000 Lithuanians were killed or deported, suppression of spirit and free thought being the order of the day. Nowhere is this dark, dark period in Lithuanian history explained more powerfully than at the Museum of Genocide Victims in the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius.

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A yearning for independence had simmered during the glasnost years, but it was with the storming success of Lithuania's popular front, Sajūdis, in the March 1989 elections for the USSR Congress of People's Deputies (Sajūdis won 30 of the 42 Lithuanian seats) that Lithuania surged ahead in the Baltic push for independence. The pan-Baltic human chain formed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a few months later confirmed public opinion, and in December that year the Lithuanian Communist Party left the Communist Party of the Soviet Union - a landmark in the break-up of the USSR.

Vast proindependence crowds met Gorbachev when he visited Vilnius in January 1990. Sajūdis won a majority in the elections to Lithuania's supreme soviet in February, and on 11 March this assembly declared Lithuania an independent republic. In response, Moscow carried out weeks of troop manoeuvres around Vilnius and clamped an economic blockade on Lithuania, cutting off fuel supplies. The pressure was finally removed after 2½ months, when Sajūdis leader Vytautas Landsbergis agreed to a 100-day moratorium on the independence declaration in exchange for independence talks between the respective Lithuanian and USSR governments. No foreign country had yet recognised Lithuanian independence.

Soviet hardliners gained the ascendancy in Moscow in winter 1990-91, and in January 1991 Soviet troops and paramilitary police occupied and stormed Vilnius' TV tower and TV centre, killing 14 people; tourists bungee jump from this tower today. Some of the barricades put up around the parliament remain. On 6 September 1991 the USSR recognised the independence of Lithuania.

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Towards Europe

Lithuanians have a sense of irony: they led the Baltic push for independence, then, at their first democratic parliamentary elections, in 1992, raised eyebrows by voting in the ex-communist Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP). Presidential elections followed in 1993, the year the last Soviet soldier left the country, with former Communist Party first secretary Algirdas Brazauskas landing 60% of the vote. Corruption scandals dogged his term in office - a painful time as inflation ran at 1000% and thousands of jobs were lost from inefficient heavy industry. The collapse of the country's banking system in 1995-96 did little to aid economic performance.

But change was underway: Lithuania's currency, the litas, replaced the talonas (coupon), the transitional currency used during the phasing out of the Soviet rouble in Lithuania; Lithuania opened a stock exchange, abolished the death penalty and joined the NATO Partnership for Peace programme; and Lithuanian became the official language and an association agreement was signed with the EU. Presidential elections in 1998 ushered in wild card Valdas Adamkus, a 71-year-old Lithuanian émigré and US citizen, resident in the US since his parents fled the Soviets in 1944. Hopes that Adamkus would inject some Western life into the failing economy ran higher still when he appointed a member of the ruling Conservative Party, 43-year-old Rolandas Paksas, prime minister in 1999. The popular Vilnius mayor and champion stunt pilot won instant approval as 'the people's choice' - so much so in fact that he ran against Adamkus in 2003 presidential elections and won.

By 2001 the Lithuanian economy was being praised by the International Monetary Fund as one of the world's fastest growing, thanks to large-scale privatisation in 1997-98 and a rigorous campaign to lure international cash by focusing on the country's low operating costs, cheap workforce and its status as a transport hub between East and West. When deep recession struck following the 1998 Russian economic crisis (GDP shrank by 4.1%), forward-thinking Lithuanians clawed their way back by diversifying into new EU electronic, chemical and manufacturing markets. Lithuania joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, and in 2002 - in a bid to make exports competitive and show determination to join Europe - pegged its currency to the euro instead of the US dollar.

In 2001 Lithuania took over as annual chair of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers at its 109th session in Strasbourg, and the Dalai Lama paid a visit. In 2003 it became the first Baltic country to resolve border disputes with Russia (over its shared land and maritime borders with Russian-owned Kaliningrad).

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