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Vilnius/Wilno/Vilna

Behind the name

Whatever the spelling used for its name, the city was the capital of Lithuania for hundreds of years, even when Lithuania was conjoined with Poland in a Commonwealth. The Polish partner in the Commonwealth dominated it to the extent that Polish was the dominant language and the city was called Wilno. After the partition of Poland in the late 18th century, that part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became part of the Russian Empire, and the name of the city was Russified into Vilno. With the emergence of nationalist aspirations in the 19th century, Lithuanians referred to the city as Vilnius and wanted an independent Lithuania with the city as its capital. Poles wanted an independent Poland with Wilno as their third city - after Warsaw and Krakow. In the Russian Empire the city was regarded as culturally a doorway to the exciting west.

The First World War of 1914-18 and Russian Revolution of 1917 unleashed a century of great change in the city.

The city was a thriving centre of learning and culture, located at the crossroads between east and west, north and south. Ethnically it had long been populated by vast numbers of Poles and Lithuanians as well as smaller numbers of Russians from the east and some Germans from the Hanseatic League to the north. By 1939, during what the Lithuanians referred to as the Polish occupation, only 5% of the city population was Lithuanian. The rest were predominantly Catholic Poles and Jewish Poles.

Nearly half of the city's population in 1939 (in fact 40% according to some historians) was Jewish and it was so much a centre of Jewish learning, with so many schools and synagogues, that it was dubbed "the Jerusalem of the North". The Jewish inhabitants, who were often multilingual (Yiddish, Polish, Russian) but whose first language was often Yiddish, called the city Vilna.

Changes in the 20th century

Up to 1915
From the late 1790s onwards the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided up among Russia, Prussia and Austria. Vilno was regarded as the third city in the Russian Empire in terms of culture and commerce (after St Petersburg and Moscow).

1915 (Sept 5)
Russian troops left the city during World War I

1915 (Sept 19)
German occupation by the Kaiser’s troops

1918 (Feb 16)
Lithuanian declaration of independence – German authorities allow authorities control of the city on 11 Nov

1918 (Dec 16)
Workers Council, supported by Lithuanian Bolsheviks, proclaims Soviet power in the city

1919 (Jan 1)
Poles occupy the city and execute the “communards”

1919 (Jan 6)
Russian (Soviet) army returns. Soviet power restored. Terror starts

1919 (Apr 16)
Polish troops retake city

1920 (Jul 14)
Russian (Soviet) army returns and ousts Poles

1920 (Jul 15)
Lithuanian forces liberate city

1920 (Aug 26)
Lithuanian government institutions move from Kaunas to Vilnius

1920 (Oct 9)
Polish troops, led by Gen Zeligowski, “disobey” orders from Warsaw’s supreme commander Pilsudski and invade city, taking it in breach of League of Nations declaration of its neutrality. Polish occupation until 1939. It is later established that Pilsudski was in on the “disobedience”.

1939 (Sep 19)
Soviets take over the city under the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union

1939 (Oct 10)
City ceded by Soviets to Lithuania

1939 (Oct 27)
Soviet troops withdraw from city; Lithuanian rule for 7 months

1940 (Jun 15)
Soviet troops occupy whole of Lithuania, then in July the Lithuanian soviet socialist republic is proclaimed with the city as its capital

1941 (Jun 22)
German air force bombs the city (when Germany reneges on Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and goes to war against its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union)

1941 (Jun24)
Nazi occupation of the city, establishment of ghettos for Jews, mass executions of Jews by Nazis and local sympathisers, and evacuations of civilian population

1944 (Jul 13)
Soviet units under Gen Chernyakhovski take the city; Soviet power restored. Polish inhabitants transported to Poland. Lithuanian partisan anti-Soviet resistance until early 1950s; 45 years of Soviet rule

1990 (Mar 11)
Lithuanian independence declared, Soviet power dismantled


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