Vilnius

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Vilnius

Vilnius (vĬl´nēŏŏs), Rus. Vilna, Pol. Wilno, city (1993 pop. 590,100), capital of Lithuania, on the Neris River. It is a rail and highway junction, a commercial and industrial city, and a center of education and the arts. Industries include machine building, computers, food processing, and the manufacture of consumer electrical goods. Vilnius was officially founded in 1323 when the Lithuanian prince Gediminas made it his capital and built his castle there. The city also became (1415) the metropolis of the Lithuanian Orthodox Eastern Church. The city declined after the merger of Lithuania and Poland, and its Lithuanian-Belarusian culture was replaced by Polish institutions. In the third partition of Poland (1795), Vilnius passed to Russia, where it became a provincial capital (1801–1815). Jewish learning flourished in Vilnius in the 18th and 19th cent., culminating in the Heskala (Enlightenment) movement. After World War I the city was disputed between Poland and the newly independent Lithuania, which claimed it as its capital. The Paris Peace Conference assigned the city to the Lithuanians, to whom the Russians gave it (1920) after capturing it from the Poles. In the same year, however, Poland retook Vilnius, which became part of Poland (1922) after a plebiscite of doubtful validity. A theoretical state of war between Poland and Lithuania continued until 1927, and diplomatic relations were resumed only in 1938, when Lithuania abandoned its claim to Vilnius. In 1939, Soviet troops occupied the city, and it was transferred to Lithuania, which in 1940 was incorporated into the USSR. Vilnius was occupied by the Germans in World War II and was heavily damaged. The large Jewish population was exterminated, extinguishing the foremost center of rabbinical learning in Europe. There are numerous academic institutions, including the city's university, founded by Stephen Báthory as a Jesuit academy in 1579 and one of Europe's oldest universities, and the post–cold war European Humanitarian Univ. Vilnius is also the seat of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences (founded 1941). The city's historic nucleus contains numerous old churches and synagogues. The old town hall is now a museum. The Ausros Vartai (Pol. Ostra Brama), or Pointed Gate, the sole remnant of the city walls built (1552) by Sigismund I Jagiello, still stands. Above the gate is a shrine containing an image of the Virgin, long an object of pilgrimage. Ruins of the 14th-century castle built by Gediminas still remain. Baroque, rococo, and classical style buildings, and the graves of the Lithuanian kings, are also of interest.

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