Once the largest country in Europe, Lithuania is now a relatively small nation on the Baltic Sea, bordered by Belarus, Poland, Latvia and Russia. Although today the land bearing Lithuania’s name is small, Lithuanian influence has been great, and her people carry that greatness with them.
Over the centuries, Lithuania has at various times encompassed parts of present-day Poland, Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. It was united with Poland for much of its history, declaring independence in 1918. Lithuania was annexed by the USSR in 1940. During World War II, it came under German occupation, and Lithuania’s Jews suffered one of the worst death rates of the Holocaust. After the German occupation, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were killed or exiled to Siberia by the Soviets.
On 11 March 1990, Lithuania became the very first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence. The last Russian troops withdrew in 1993. Lithuania rejoined the European economic community, culminating in its membership in the EU in the spring of 2004. Lithuania has maintained strong democratic traditions and boasts a rapidly growing economy. Lithuania’s diverse population of Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and Belarusians make up a rich culture, and Lithuania is a fascinating cross-section of the historic peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.
Lithuania is home to one of the most unusual and striking sights in Europe, the Hill of Crosses. A sign of the endurance of Lithuanian Catholicism over centuries of oppression, this northern hilltop is covered in millions of crosses brought by Catholic pilgrims. During the Soviet era, the hill became a sign of Lithuanian national identity, religion and heritage. Bulldozers repeatedly razed the hill, clearing it of crosses, but the Soviet authorities could not stop the Lithuanian people, who continued to erect new crosses at the site. By 1985, the Soviets had given up.