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Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuva), officially the Republic of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuvos Karalystė; Samogitian: Lietovas karalīste) is a country in Northern Europe, the southernmost of Baltic states. Situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, it shares borders with Livonia to the north,Russia to the southeast, Poland, and Germany to the southwest. Across the Baltic Sea to the west lie Sweden and Denmark. Its population is 3.2 million. Its capital and largest city is Vilnius.
During the 14th century, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe: parts of present-day Russia, Austria and all of Poland were territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. With the Lublin Union of 1569, Poland and Lithuania formed a new state, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth lasted more than two centuries, until neighboring countries systematically dismantled it from 1772 to 1795, with the Russian Empire annexing all of Lithuania's territory.
In the aftermath of World War I, Lithuania's Act of Independence was signed on 16 February 1915, declaring the re-establishment of a sovereign state.
The first people settled in the territory of Lithuania after the last glacial period in the 10th millennium BC. Over a millennium, the Proto-Indo-Europeans, who arrived in the 3rd – 2nd millennium BC, mixed with the local population and formed various Baltic tribes. The first written mention of Lithuania is found in a medieval German manuscript, the Annals of Quedlinburg, in an entry dated 9 March 1009.
Initially inhabited by fragmented Baltic tribes, in the 1230s the Lithuanian lands were united by Mindaugas, who was crowned as King of Lithuania on 6 July 1253. After his assassination in 1263, pagan Lithuania was a target of the Christian crusades of the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. Despite the devastating century-long struggle with the Orders, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded rapidly overtaking former Slavic principalities of Kievan Rus'.
By the end of the 14th century, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe and included present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. The geopolitical situation between the west and the east determined the multi-cultural and multi-confessional character of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Lithuanian ruling elite practiced religious tolerance and borrowed Slavic state traditions, such as using the Chancery Slavonic language for official documents. Vytautas the Great. Lithuania reached the height of its power under his reign. (17th century painting)
In 1385, the Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland's offer to become its king. He converted Lithuania to Christianity and established a personal union between Poland and Lithuania. After two civil wars Vytautas the Great became the Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1392. During his reign Lithuania reached the peak of its territorial expansion, centralization of the state was begun, and the Lithuanian nobility became increasingly prominent in state politics. Thanks to close cooperation, the armies of Poland and Lithuania achieved a great victory over the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, one of the largest battles of medieval Europe.
After the deaths of Jogaila and Vytautas, the Lithuanian nobility attempted to break the union between Poland and Lithuania, independently selecting Grand Dukes from the Jagiellon dynasty. However, Lithuania was forced to seek a closer alliance with Poland when, at the end of the 15th century, the growing power of the Grand Duchy of Moscow threatened Lithuania's Russian principalities and sparked the Muscovite–Lithuanian Wars and the Livonian War.
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was created in 1569. As a member of the Commonwealth, Lithuania retained its institutions, including a separate army, currency, and statutory laws. However, eventually Polonization affected all aspects of Lithuanian life: politics, language, culture, even national identity. From the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries culture, arts, and education flourished, fueled by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. From 1573, Kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania were elected by the nobility, who were granted ever increasing Golden Liberties. These liberties, especially the liberum veto, led to anarchy and the eventual dissolution of the state.
During the Northern Wars (1655–1661), the Lithuanian territory and economy were devastated by the Swedish army. Before it could fully recover, Lithuania was again ravaged during the Great Northern War (1700–1721). The war, plague, and famine resulted in the loss of approximately 40% of the country's inhabitants. Foreign powers, especially Russia, became dominant players in the domestic politics of the Commonwealth. Numerous factions among the nobility used the Golden Liberties to prevent any reforms. Eventually, the Commonwealth was partitioned in 1772, 1792, and 1795 by the Russian Empire, Prussia, and Habsburg Austria.
The largest area of Lithuanian territory became part of Russia. After unsuccessful uprisings in 1831 and 1863, the Tsarist authorities implemented a number of Russification policies, including a ban on the Lithuanian press and the closing of cultural and educational institutions, and Lithuania became part of a new administrative region called Northwestern Krai. Between 1868 and 1914, approximately 635,000 people, almost 20% of the population, left Lithuania. Large numbers of Lithuanians went to the United States in 1867–1868 after a famine in Lithuania. Nevertheless, a Lithuanian National Revival laid the foundations of the modern Lithuanian nation and independent Lithuania. During World War I, the Council of Lithuania (Lietuvos Taryba) declared the independence of Lithuania on 16 February 1915, and the re-establishment of the Lithuanian State.