Vilnius – the capital, the centre, the heart
1. The capital – a throne for rulers and presidents
Vilnius became a place of residence for rulers in the times of Grand Duke Gediminas. During the reign of Aleksandras Jogailaitis, the city established permanent administrative institutions. Vilnius was also an important residence of the Jogailaičiai Dynasty – Sigismund the Elder and the Italian Duchess Bona Sforza, Sigismund II Augustus and Barbora Radvilaitė – and the rulers of the Vasa Dynasty. Rulers and envoys from other countries visited the city during the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The envoy of the kings of England and France, Guillebert de Lannoy (15th century), and Freiherr von Herberstein, a diplomat of Maximilian I, the Emperor of the Roman Empire (16th century) told stories about Vilnius. After regaining its freedom in 1990, the city became the residence of heads of state again. Presidents have been residing here since 1993. In 30 years, presidents, kings and queens, Popes and even the Emperor of Japan have visited Vilnius. Thus, Vilnius is not only the capital but also a city that is in harmony with both the old (Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and modern (democratic) Lithuania.
2. Romanticism of Vilnius
Vilnius is undoubtedly a romantic city. In the first half of the 19th century, it was a centre of romanticism in Central and Eastern Europe. The city was full of historical memories of the glorious Grand Duchy of Lithuania, old legends, landscapes of the Old Town, the spirit of the university and its secret societies (Philomaths and Filaret Association), and the dreams of liberation from Tsarist oppression united the bright stars of Romanticism: Joachim Lelewel, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Vladislav Sirokomle-Kondratowicz, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, Simonas Daukantas, Stanislovas Moniuška, Taras Shevchenko, Teodoras Narbutas, Kanutas Ruseckas, and others. Their legacy gave a strong impetus to the national consciousness of Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians.
3. ilnius as the Jerusalem of the North in Litvak culture
The Great Synagogue and the Vilnius Gaon laid the foundations for a new Jewish spiritual centre in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. The multi-layered Vilnius took on another face – it became the Jerusalem of the North for Jews of the region seeking wisdom. They supported the desire of the Vilnius Gaon to protect traditional Judaic ideas from the avid Hasids from Ukraine. This symbolic Jerusalem of the North name brought honour and commitment to the Jewish community of Vilnius. In the context of the secular ideas of the 20th century, they managed to separate Jewish spiritual culture from religion. However, fostering the Yiddish language and culture, they preserved the honour of the Jerusalem of the North in the Jewish diaspora all over the world. Moišė Kulbakas, Avromas Suckeveris and Chaimas Gradė’s poetically sung of their love for Vilnius in Yiddish; Lazar Segal depicted a longing for the city in his paintings; and the sculptures of Mark Antokolskis became famous worldwide. These artefacts transcend Vilnius, but originate from the spirit of the Jerusalem of the North and speak to the world about Jewish Vilnius before the Holocaust.
4. The Bastion of the National Revival of Lithuania and Lithuanians
The leaders of the Lithuanian national revival beginning at the end of the 19th century were mostly from the province. However, the legend of Vilnius as the capital became one of the main sources of inspiration for their activities. The old capital was also associated with the ideal of the Lithuanian city, as well as the ideas of Lithuanian autonomy and the independent state. Eventually, Vilnius became the centre of the aspirations of Lithuanian identity and statehood. The city also formed a political programme of national revival. The Great Seimas of Vilnius gathered in the Vilnius City Hall (currently the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society) prompted the history of modern Lithuania. The idea of an independent state was entrenched at the Vilnius conference held at the beginning of the 20th century. When Vilnius became the cultural and political centre of Lithuania, the national awakeners and parents and mothers of the state gathered in the city: Jonas Basanavičius, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Felicija Bortkevičienė, Žemaitė, Aleksandras Stulginskis, Mykolas Römeris, Antanas Smetona, Steponas Kairys, Mykolas Biržiška, Mykolas Sleževičius, the Vileišiai brother and more.
5. Vilnius as an ideological soil for the Belarusian national revival
During the interwar period in Vilnius – which was ruled by Poland – Belarusians and Lithuanians shared St. Nicholas’ Church as a place of worship and visions of implementing their own national aspirations. At the beginning of the 20th century, Belarusian poet Aloiza Paškievič communicated with Marija Šlapelienė, the nurturer of Lithuanian identity. Their ideological paths constantly intersected with Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Jankas Kupala. The latter is the pioneer of new Belarusian literature. From 1906 to 1915, he paved the way for the national revival of Belarus in the newspaper Naša Niva (Our Soil) on Vilniaus Street. In the 20th century, the Belarusian intelligentsia in Vilnius, a city filled with national ideas, laid the foundations that allowed Belarusian identity to be maintained, even during the later Sovietisation of Belarus. Today, the European Humanities University continues the Belarusian tradition of science and culture in Vilnius.
6. Singing Revolution – Sąjūdis
The people oppressed by the Soviet regime needed only a small crack in the dam for freedom to break through with the force of a mighty waterfall. Reforms started a rift, and the waterfall that erupted was the Singing Revolution or Sąjūdis, supported by the Lithuanian people. Armed with songs and the desire for freedom, they stood up for their ideals: independence for the country, freedom for themselves, and a conscience for everyone. The hall of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, the Cathedral Square and Vingis Park became the centre of Lithuania’s awakening in Vilnius in 1988-1990. The human chain of Baltic people starting at Gediminas Tower turned the entire region into the centre of the world, even if just for a moment. The songs filled every street. Vytautas Kernagis invited the nation to awaken and Eurika Masytė sang about freedom.
7. Contemporary leadership of Vilnius
The demolition of the evil empire began in Vilnius at the end of the 20th century. After its collapse, the city became a synonym of regional and Euro-Atlantic integration leadership. The leaders of twelve Central and Eastern European countries gathered in Vilnius in 1997. The Vilnius Ten was established in 2000, uniting ten countries seeking NATO membership. In 2001-2002, when Lithuania chaired the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the Vilnius Declaration on Regional Cooperation and the Consolidation of Democratic Stability in Greater Europe was adopted. The OSCE Ministerial Council met in Vilnius in 2011, and when Lithuania took over the presidency of the Council of the EU in 2013, the main events related to the function took place in Vilnius.