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Vilnius

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Vilnius Old Town
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Vilnius Old Town

Vilnius (sometimes also Vilna in English, Belarusian Вільня, Polish Missing image
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Wilno, Russian Вильнюс, German Wilna, see also Cities alternative names) is the capital and largest city of Lithuania with population in excess of 540 thousand (in 2003).

Contents

Geographic and population data

Vilnius is situated in Southeastern Lithuania (Template:Coor dm) at the confluence of the River Vilnia (Vilnelė) and the River Neris. This non-central location can be attributed to the changing shape of the nation's borders throughout past centuries; Vilnius was once not only culturally, but geographically the center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and was also one of the major cities of the region. Initially it also formed the geographic centre of the Lithianian settled areas, while its population itself was multiethnic throughout most of its history (see article on Demographics of Vilnius).

The distance from Vilnius to the Baltic Sea and Klaipėda, the main Lithuanian seaport, is about 312 km. The distance is rather large, but other Lithuanian major cities such as Kaunas, Šiauliai, and Panevėžys can be reached quickly and easily. They are 102, 214 and 135 km away from the capital, respectively.

The current area of Vilnius is 402 square kilometres. Buildings cover 20.2% of the city and in the remaining areas, greenery (43.9%) and waters (2.1%) prevail.

According to the 2001 census by the Vilnius Regional Statistical Office, there were 542,287 inhabitants in Vilnius city, 57.8% of which were Lithuanians, 18.7% Poles, 13.9% Russians, 4.0% Belarusians; the remaining have not indicated their nationality or indicated other nationalities. Vilnius is the largest administrative centre in Lithuania with all major political, economic, social and cultural institutions located in the city. Vilnius County covers the regions of Vilnius, Šalčininkai, Širvintos, Švenčionys, Trakai, Ukmergė and the municipality of Elektrėnai, totalling up to 9,650 km².

History

Main article: History of Vilnius

Cathedral in Vilnius, as seen in
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Cathedral in Vilnius, as seen in 1912

The beginning

The earliest settlements in the area of present Vilnius appear to be of mesolithic origin. Numerous archaeological findings in different parts of the city prove that the area has been inhabitated since the early Middle Ages. Initially a Baltic settlement, it was also inhabitated by Slavs and, since at least the 11th century, by Jews. Some historians identify the city with Voruta, a forgotten capital of King Mindaugas.

The city was first mentioned in written sources in 1323. The original centre of Vilnius at that time was the wooden castle built by Gediminas, Duke of Lithuania on the hill. The city became better known after Gediminas wrote a letter of invitation to the principal Hansa towns in 1325, offering free access into his domains to men of every order and profession. It was granted city rights by the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Wladislaus II of Poland (Lithuanian: Jogaila, Polish: Władysław Jagiełło) in 1387. The town was initially populated by Lithuanians, but soon the population began to grow as craftsmen and merchants of other nationalities settled in the city.

Lithuanians have a tale about founding of Vilnius: according to the story, Vilnius per se was founded after Gediminas, Duke of Lithuania had a prophetic dream about an iron wolf howling on a top of the hill. When he asked a priest krivis Lizdeika for an explanation, he was told that he must build a castle on the top of that hill, which was strategically surrounded by three riversVilnelė, Vilija (also known as Wilia or Neris) and Vingria (now underground)—and a grand city around that hill, so that "the iron-wolf-like sound about this great city would spread around the world". So Gediminas somehow turned pagan Lithuania back to Mindaugas pro-Western and Christian Europe establishing a capital in the former capital place though forging the original name to Vilnius.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Between 1503 and 1522 the city was surrounded with walls that had nine gates and three towers. Vilnius reached the peak of its development under the reign of Sigismund II of Poland (Lithuanian: Žygimantas Augustas, Polish: Zygmunt II August), who moved his court there in 1544. In the following centuries, Vilnius became a constantly growing and developing city. This growth was due in part to the establishment of Vilnius University by Stephan I of Poland (Lithuanian: Steponas Batoras, Polish: Stefan Batory) in 1579. The university soon developed into one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Of course, political, economic and social life was also in full swing there. This is proved by statutes issued in the 16th century, the last of which was still in force until the 19th century. In 1769 the Rossa cemetery was founded; today it is one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in the world.

Rapidly developing, the city was open to migrants from both East and West. Communities of Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Jews, Russians, Germans, Karaims, Ruthenians and others established themselves in the city. Each group made its contribution to the life of the city: At that time crafts, trade and science were prospering. In 1655 Wilno was captured by Russian forces, pillaged and burned, and the population was massacred. City's growth lost its momentum for many years, yet the number of inhabitants quickly recovered and by the beginning of the 19th century the city was the third largest city in Eastern Europe.

After the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Wilno was annexed by Russia and became the capital of a gubernya. Russian occupation policy required the destruction of the city walls and after the 1799-1805 period, only the Dawn Gate (Aušros Vartai in Lithuanian or Ostra Brama in Polish, also known as Medininkų Gate) remained. In 1812 the city was seized by Napoleon on his push towards Moscow. After the failure of the campaign, the Grande Arme retreated to the area where thousands of French soldiers died and were buried in the trenches they had built months earlier. After the November Uprising the Vilna University was closed and repressions halted the further development of the city. During the January Uprising in 1863 heavy city fights occurred, but were brutally pacified by Mikhail Muravyov (nick-named The Hanger by the population because of the number of executions he organized). After the failure of the uprising all liberties were halted and the Lithuanian, Polish, and Belarusian languages were banned.

The beginning of the 20th century

During the World War I Wilna was occupied by Germany from 1915 until 1918. On February 16, 1918 Lithuanian Taryba proclaimed The Restoration of Independence of Lithuania in Vilnius. After withdrawal of German forces the city was seized on January 1, 1919 by Polish self-defence units recruited from the local Polish population. The institutions of the state were established but very soon but on January 3 1919 the city was taken by Bolshevik forces advancing from the east and proclaimed the capital of the short-lived Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. On April 19, 1919 the city was seized by the Polish Army but on July 14 it was again taken by Soviet forces.

Shortly after the defeat in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the withdrawing Red Army handed the city over to the newly reborn Lithuania. On July 12 1920 a peace treaty was signed between Lithuania and Soviet Russia, who recognized Vilnius as the capital of the independent Republic of Lithuania.

However, on October 9, 1920 the Lithuanian-Belarusian Division of Polish Army under General Lucjan Żeligowski seized the city after a staged mutiny. The city and its surroundings were proclaimed a separate state of Central Lithuania (Litwa Srodkowa) and, after free parliamentary elections, in a result of the decision of Central Lithuanian Parliament, on February 20 1922 the whole area was made a part of Poland, with Wilno as the capital of the Wilno Voivodship. The League of Nations initially protested this decision , but at a later stage the Conference of Ambassadors approved it. However, Lithuanian authorities never accepted these elections and the Lithuanian constitution continued to mentioned Vilnius as the capital of the state. All diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Poland were broken. Lithuania declined to accept the Polish authority over the Eastern Lithuania and considered it an illegal occupation until 1938.

In the meantime, for yet another time in its history the city enjoyed a period of fast development. The university was reopened under the name Stefan Batory University and the city's infrastructure was improved significantly. By 1931 the city had 195,000 inhabitants, which made it the fifth largest city in Poland. However some Lithuanians dispute this picture of economic growth and point out that the standard of living in Vilnius at this time was considerably lower compared to other parts of today's Lithuania.

In consequence of the secret protocol attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dividing Eastern Europe into a Soviet and a German sphere, a Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland was staged by the Red Army. The city was seized on September 19, 1939. Initial Soviet plans were to make the city the capital of the Belarussian SSR, but after talks in Moscow on October 10, 1939 the city and its surrounding areas were transferred to Lithuania in exchange for Soviet military bases established in various parts of that country. The Lithuanian authorities entered Vilnius shortly afterwards and the capital of Lithuania started to be gradually transferred there from Kaunas. However, the process was not yet finished when in June of 1940 Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Vilnius was made the capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR. Approximately 35,000 - 40,000 of the city inhabitants were arrested by the NKVD and sent to Gulags at that time.

In June 1941 the city was seized by Germany. In the old town centre two ghettos were set up for the large Jewish population, the smaller one of which was "liquidated" (which meant the population was murdered) already in October 1941. The second ghetto lasted until 1943, though its population was regularly decimated in so called Aktionen. A failed Jewish ghetto uprising on September 1 1943 was followed by the final destruction of the ghetto. About 95% of the local Jewish population was murdered. Many of them were among 100,000 victims of the mass executions in Ponary, about 10km west of the old town centre. Most of the remaining 30,000 victims of the massacre were Poles: POWs, intelligentsia and members of the Home Army.

After Second World War

In July 1944 initially Polish Home Army and then the Red Army seized Vilnius, which was shortly afterwards incorporated into Soviet Union and made capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR.

After World War II, Soviet government decided to expel the Polish population from Lithuania and Belarus. This decision was implemented during the so-called repatriation, organized by Soviet and Polish communist governments. Despite that the repatriation was claimed to be voluntary and though parts of the Polish population remained where they had lived, it was very questionable from the side of humanity and justice. This way many old inhabitants left Vilnius, in what is still seen by many people as a misfortune, especially due to its negative effect on the city's community and its traditions.

These events, coupled with the migration of Lithuanian rural population and Russians from other Soviet republics during post-war years had a critical influence on the change of the demographic situation of the city. However, the growth of the cities in Lithuania during this period and decrease in rural population caused a rapid population upsurge in Vilnius since approximately 1960.

Beginning in 1987 there were massive demonstrations against Soviet rule in the country. On March 11, 1990 the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR announced its independence from the Soviet Union and restored the independent Republic of Lithuania, which had been annexed by Soviets back in 1940. The Soviets responded on January 9, 1991, by sending in troops, and on January 13 during the Soviet Army attack on the State Radio and Television Building and the Vilnius TV retranslation tower 14 people were killed and more than 700 were seriously injured. However, the Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence in August 1991.

Since then, Vilnius has been rapidly evolving and improving, transforming from a Soviet into a European city in less than 10 years.

Vilnius Coat of Arms

The Vilnius coat of arms is St. Christopher (Kristupas) wading in the water and carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders. The coat of arms was given to the city in the seventh year of its existence, i.e. in 1330.

In pagan times, i.e. until the end of the 14th century, the Vilnius coat of arms featured Titan Alkis, hero of Lithuanian ancient tales, carrying his wife Janteryte on his shoulders across the river.

The origin of the name Vilnius

It is believed that Vilnius, like so many cities, was named after a river on whose banks it lies, i.e. the River Vilnia.

Tourism information

Central Vilnius in winter
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Central Vilnius in winter

Vilnius is a cosmopolitan city with diverse architecture. There are more than 40 churches in Vilnius to see. Restaurants, hotels and museums have sprouted since Lithuania declared independence, and young Vilnius residents are providing the city a reputation for being the most hospitable in the world as evidenced by the large membership of the Hospitality Club.

Like most medieval towns, Vilnius has developed around its Town Hall. The main artery, Pilies Street, links the governor's palace and the Town Hall. Other streets meander through the palaces of feudal lords and landlords, churches, shops and craftsmen's workrooms. Narrow, curved streets and small cosy courtyards developed in the radial layout of the medieval Vilnius.

The Old Town, historical centre of Vilnius, is one of the largest in Europe (3.6 km²). The most valuable historic and cultural sites are concentrated here. The buildings in the old town - there are nearly 1,500 - were built over several centuries, creating a splendid blend of many different architectural styles. Although Vilnius is often called a baroque city, here you will find some buildings of gothic, renaissance and other styles. The main sights of the city are the Gediminas Castle and the Cathedral Square, symbols of the capital. Their combination is also a gateway to the historic centre of the capital. Because of its uniqueness, the Old Town of Vilnius was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 1995 the only known cast of Frank Zappa was installed in the centre of Vilnius with the permission of the government. Konstantinas Bogdanas, the renowned Lithuanian sculptor who had previously been casting busts of Vladimir Lenin, immortalized Zappa.

Famous Vilnians

Climate

The climate of Vilnius is transitional between continental and maritime. The average annual temperature is + 6.1 degrees Celsius, in January being – 4.9 and +17.0 degrees Celsius in July. The average precipitation is about 661 mm per year.

There are extremely hot summers with temperatures above thirty degrees Celsius throughout the whole day. It is a real joy for owners of bars, cafs and night clubs as well as for people desiring entertainment: night life in Vilnius is in full swing on such days.

Transport

Vilnius is the starting point of the Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipėda and the Vilnius-Panevėžys highways. Though the river Neris may be navigable, no regular water routes exist. Vilnius International Airport serves most Lithuanian international flights to many major European destinations. Vilnius railway station is an important hub as well.

There is a trolleybus network for main public transport routes. An urban rail system is planned for the future. More information can be found at the Vilnius Transport (http://www.vilniustransport.lt/e_index.htm) website.

External links

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cs:Vilnius da:Vilnius de:Wilna es:Vilna eo:Vilno fr:Vilnius it:Vilnius la:Vilna lt:Vilnius nl:Vilnius nds:Vilnius ja:ビリニュス no:Vilnius pl:Wilno pt:Vilnius ro:Vilnius ru:Вильнюс fi:Vilna sv:Vilnius

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