Vilniusis the capital of the Republic of Lithuania located at the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris rivers between the hills of the Lithuanian Lake District and Asmiany Plateau. It has a population of over 500,000.
Vilnius, situated at the intersection of routes running from the four parts of the world, has been a major political, economic, cultural and religious centre in that part of Europe since the down of time. The documented beginnings of the town date back to the 14th century. The city is believed to have been founded by Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas who moved the capital of his state to that place. The year 1387, when Lithuania accepted Christianity under the rule of Gediminas’ grandson, Władysław Jagiełło, was crucial for the history of the city which received not only bishopric with a cathedral but also Magdeburg rights as a result.
Vilniuswas in its true heyday in the 16th century under the rule of King Sigismund II Augustus. After the unification of Pahonia with the Crown under the Union of Lublin in 1569 the city and its residents underwent a relatively fast process of Polonization. From the Third Partition of Poland Vilnius was part of the Russian Empire and became the main city of the province. The 19th century was a time of Russification of Vilnius, even though the city was the cradle of Polish Romanticism. In the interwar period Vilnius was a provincial capital in the Second Polish Republic. During World War II it changed its statehood several times: it belonged in turns to the Republic of Lithuania, Lithuanian SSR, and Reichskommissariat Ostland. The Soviet occupation of 1940–41 was a time of deportations of thousands of Poles deep into Russia. The time of German occupation of 1941–44 was marked by the mass murder of 70,000 Vilnius Jews. In the summer of 1944, Vilnius again became the capital of the Lithuanian SSR. By the mid-1950s the city was left by some 200,000 repatriating Poles. The exact number of Poles deported deep into the USSR at that time is not known. In 1990, Lithuania was the first republic of the USSR to declare its independence. Vilnius became the capital of the Republic of Lithuania.
Vilniushas always been a city of many cultures, nations and religions; a homeland not only for Lithuanians or Poles but also for Jews (Vilnius used to be called Jerusalem of the North), Byelorussians, Russians, Crimean Karaites, Tartars, Germans and other minorities. The traces of this colourful mosaic can be seen also today, as Lithuanians account for slightly more than 50% of the city’s population, while some 20 percent admit their Polish identity. Vilnius has Polish newspapers (e.g. Kurier Wileński) and Polish radio Znad Wilii. The Polish Culture House and the Polish Institute in Vilnius are thriving cultural institutions. Apart from Polish schools there is also a Polish University which is not recognized by Polish authorities. The Church of the Holy Spirit is a traditional place gathering Poles in Vilnius.