Lithuania in 2003

On October 10, 2003, my driver Martins drove me from Riga to Vilnius. This takes only about 3 hours and the border formalities were rather fast. Vilnius is a nice surprise because it is built on hills. It has about 600,000 people which makes it larger than Tallinn, but smaller than Riga. Lithuania has 3.5 million people and is 80% ethnic Lithuanian with Russian and Polish minorities.

Unlike the other Baltic countries, Lithuania is Roman Catholic. It is the northern most and eastern most Catholic country in Europe. It was a bastion again the Reformation in the 1500s. By 1400, Lithuania, in combination with Poland, was an empire stretching to the Black Sea. It included most of Ukraine, Belarus and large parts of Russia. In 1410, Lithuanian and its allies crushed the Teutonic Knights, ending their regional domination for good. It entered a formal commonwealth with Poland in 1657 and was partitioned in 1795 and given to Russia.

Like the other Baltic countries, Lithuania become independent in 1918 until it was forcibly occupied by the Soviets in 1940. In many ways, it was the leader in the independence movement in the late 1980s. As I explained in my other reports on Estonia and Latvia, the Baltic Chain stretched across the Baltics on August 23, 1989 in an unbroken chain from Tallinn thru Riga to Vilnius. Luda, my guide supported the Baltic Chain, but did not actually take part. Paulius, my driver, was too young to participate, but his parents did.

The largest number of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania live in Chicago and this was, for me, the best known of the Baltic countries before I visited. Valdas Admakus, born in Lithuania and forced out by the Soviets, lived for many years in Chicago before he returned to become the President of Lithuania in 1998. Unfortunately, there was a lot of rain during my brief stay and I did not get to explore Vilnius to the same extent as I did in the other Baltic capitals.

Like the other Baltic states, Lithuania has joined NATO and will become a part of the European Union on May 1, 2004. Even so I learned talking to people, there is fear of what Russia might do in the future. When you look at the map, you see that Lithuania has borders with Kaliningrad (Russia) and Belarus. Further Lithuania could be subject to Russian economic pressure. So independence is not something everyone takes for granted. It requires vigilance.

Trakai Trakai Castle the medieval seat of power in Lithuania. Fou rStage Tower The 4 stages of this bell tower in the center of Vilnius were built in different centuries.
University Vilnius University was founded in 1570 and is the oldest in Eastern Europe. Presidential Palace The striking thing about the Presidential Office Building is the lack of obvious security.
Napoleon favorite Church Napoleon's favorite Church. He said he wished he could engrave it in his palm and take it back to Paris. Napoleon was thru Vilnius to and from his invasion of Russia. Mary Altar Poor quality photo from the Sts Peter and Paul Church, the most important church in Lithuania, with a breathtakingly beautiful Baroque interior with 2,000 stuccoed figures.
River View View of new skyscrapers and of the river thru the center of Vilnius. Gediminas Tower in Distance Gediminas Tower, at the highest point in the old town, in the distance with the Lithuanian flag flying.
Luda at Ausros Vartai My guide Luda stands in front of the famous Gates of Dawn. Paulius at Gediminas Tower My guide Paulius stands in front of the Gediminas Tower, one of the end points of the Baltic Chain.