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The ancestors of modern Lithuanians first settled in the present-day Belorussian Republic around 2000 B.C. Beginning in the fourth century A.D., Lithuanian tribes were steadily pushed northwest by Slavic tribes until they occupied the territory of the present-day Lithuanian Republic. United into a loose monarchy by King Mindaugas at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Lithuanians began to expand south and east. By the mid-fourteenth century, Lithuania had become one of the largest kingdoms in medieval Europe. With Vilnius as its capital, Lithuania encompassed much of what had been Kievan Rus', including the present-day Belorussian and Ukrainian republics.

The marriage of the Lithuanian king to the Polish queen in 1385 began a period of dynastic union that culminated in the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The union with Poland had a profound influence on Lithuanians. For example, Polonized Western culture was superimposed on native Lithuanian culture, Catholicism was established as the national religion, and Lithuanian nobility was almost completely Polonized.

By the end of the eighteenth century, most of Lithuania, along with parts of Poland, was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The remaining part of Lithuania, known as Lithuania Minor, became part of Prussia. After the Lithuanian national revival of the nineteenth century emerged in Lithuania Minor, it spread to the rest of Lithuania. When the Poles rose in an anti-tsarist, anti-Russian revolt in 1830, Lithuanians joined them. They did so again in 1863. And during the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, the Assembly of Vilnius raised the question of Lithuanian autonomy. By the time of the revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War that followed, Lithuanians strove for nothing less than national independence. To reach that goal, they had to fight not only the Red Army but also the Germans and the Poles.

The independent Lithuanian state that emerged after the struggle was a democratic republic. It lasted until 1926, when it was toppled by rightist forces, which then established a form of benevolent dictatorship. That government lasted until 1940, when Lithuania was absorbed by the Soviet Union following the NaziSoviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939. Thousands of Lithuanians were deported eastward by the Soviet government, the country's economy was nationalized, the peasantry was collectivized, and Catholic believers and Lithuanian intellectuals were persecuted. Not surprisingly, Lithuanians, like other nationalities in the western regions of the Soviet Union, greeted the attacking German army in 1941 as liberators. When the Germans refused to recognize their independence, however, Lithuanian nationalists engaged in underground resistance and partisan activity against them. After the Red Army's recapture of Lithuania in 1944, nationalists turned against the Russians. Guerrilla warfare against Soviet occupation did not end until the late 1940s.

In 1989 an overwhelming majority of the approximately 3 million Lithuanians resided in the Lithuanian Republic, the largest of the three Baltic republics. Small communities of Lithuanians were also in other republics. Although Lithuanians have resisted emigration, they have not been able to prevent immigration of Russians and other nationalities into the Lithuanian Republic. Lithuanians constituted about 80 percent of the residents of the republic in 1989, while Russians and Poles made up most of the remainder.

Lithuanians speak an Indo-European language that is distinct from both the Germanic and the Slavic languages. In 1989 the vast majority of Lithuanians considered Lithuanian their first language.

In 1987 about half of all Lithuanians were urban residents. But because a large number of Russians in the Lithuanian Republic lived in the cities, about 67 percent of the population of the republic was urban. The largest city in Lithuania was Vilnius, the capital of the republic, with a population of about 582,000 in 1989. Four other cities had populations of over 100,000. Relative to their share of the Soviet population, Lithuanians ranked high in terms of education and technological advancement. Although Lithuanians were the twelfth most populous nationality in the Soviet Union, they ranked seventh in the 1970s in both the number of students in higher education institutions and the number of scientific workers. Lithuanian membership in the CPSU was not in equal ratio to Lithuanians' share of the population. Also, Lithuanian representation on the CPSU Central Committee has been less than their share of the population. Native Lithuanians, however, have in the past held the most important positions in the party in the Lithuanian Republic.

Data as of May 1989

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