When one first encounters Lithuania, the most striking feature for many is the language. It has its own melody, a cadence that is mesmerizing. Life here is the same way: melodic and rapturous; but this isn’t something that you can see, that is obvious, it is an undercurrent, that comes at you from behind and sweeps you along. Suddenly, you realize that you are in Lithuania, and it is amazing. But this culture did not appear, or gradually evolve: it was fought for, and forcibly built over one thousand years of history, occupation, oppression, revolution, and finally freedom.
When the Roman Empire spanned the breadth of the Mediterranean and further, Lithuania was there, though not in a strictly national form. The loose Baltic tribes that would become this amazing nation mined a rare golden substance, and traded it with other “barbarian” tribes, who in turn, carried this strange jewel to the centers of Rome along what was know as the “Amber Road.”
At the turn of the first millennium these amber traders were immortalized forever, this time as a nation called Lithuania, for in 1009 a brief entry in a German manuscript notes that the first person who tried to bring the growing religion of Christianity to the pagans of Lithuania was killed in the attempt. Lithuania would be the last European nation to adopt Christianity, desiring to remain free, even from the religion of their neighbors. Russian manuscripts from the next 100 years make mention of Lithuania, usually to note battles fought with the Lithuanians. Ironically, the Russians should have listened to what was already evident: Lithuanians do not take to being ruled by foreign powers.
By 1253 a man by the name of Mindaugus unified the loose Baltic peoples into the State of Lithuania and he was crowned king of the Lithuanians. Lithuania grew until Vytautas the Great came to power and instituted a rule that encompassed Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia, but the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not to last. By the 1400’s Lithuania as a nation was starting to break apart, and under threat of a growing Russia, they formed a union with Poland in 1569. This lasted for almost 200 years until 1795 when Russia grew to enormous size and swallowed Poland and 90% of the land that was Lithuania. They would not be free again until 1918 when Lithuania would declare its independence from the Russian Empire.
Even though the political nation was under much duress and change during the latter half of the first millennium, the culture was stronger than before. In 1547 the first book, a catechism, was published in Lithuania. Books would become a unique feature of the culture, and a sign of rebellion, once Lithuania fell under the control of Russia. By 1865 there was an underground publishing movement that printed books by the thousands and smuggled them throughout Lithuania. The Russians had forced the populace to learn Russian, and only allowed Russian to be printed, but these illegal book makers preserved the language, and through it, the culture of Lithuania in a time of oppression. Fascinatingly enough, the majority of those involved in this process were ordinary peasants, and not intellectuals. The common people of Lithuania fought a revolution, not with swords and bullets, but with culture and literature.
For forty years Lithuania struggled to maintain itself, and in 1940 a new Russia, the Soviet Union, occupied Lithuania. Utilizing their self-reliance and deep commitment already learned under hardship, the Lithuanians maintained their culture and endured. From the 1970s and beyond, a small cultural revolution was being fought, again, mostly through culture: music, films, and literature. The Soviets were cruel, and ruthless, but they could not conquerer, only occupy, and when, in 1991, the Iron Curtain shattered, Lithuanians were there to sweep away the pieces and found a new Lithuania for the second millennium.
Since March 11, 1991 Lithuania has been free, joining the European Union and NATO of a free will, and in 2009, on the 1000 year anniversary of their first mention, they will become the cultural centre of a unified Europe. Surely this is a moving tribute to the long standing Lithuania that refused to die.
Throughout their history, Lithuanians have been set apart by fierce independence as a nation, and unyielding devotion to language and literature as a people, building from that a culture truly unique.