Russian Vilnyus , Polish Wilno , Russian (formerly) Vilna  city, capital of Lithuania, at the confluence of the Neris (Russian Viliya) and Vilnia rivers.

In 1860 36 to 55 percent of the peasants in Vilna were serfs.

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A settlement existed on the site in the 10th century, and the first documentary reference to it dates from 1128. In 1323 the town became capital of Lithuania under Grand Duke Gediminas; it was destroyed in 1377 by the Teutonic Knights. Subsequently rebuilt, Vilnius received its charter of self-government in 1387, and a Roman Catholic bishopric was established there. The town and its trade flourished and grew; in 1525 a printing press was set up, and in 1579 a Jesuit academy was opened. The city underwent many calamities—Russian occupation in 1655–60, Swedish capture in 1702 and 1706, French occupation in 1812, and recurrent fires and plagues.

Following the craftsmen in other European towns at the end of the 15th century, Vilnius craftsmen began to join together by professions into guilds. Many Catholic churches and monasteries appeared in the town. Stone buildings sprang up inside the Lower Castle. The new Cathedral was among them. Crafts and trade continued to develop in the 16th century. Many beautiful new buildings in the late Gothic and Renaissance style appeared in the town. The most significant event in the cultural life of 16th century Lithuania was the founding of the Vilnius Academy in 1579, which was endowed with the rights and privileges of a university. In 1795 Vilnius became the center of a new gubernia consisting of the lands annexed to the Russian Empire. A number of new Classical style buildings were built, including the Cathedral, which had been reconstructed at the end of the 18th century, a new town hall, and the Governor-Generals' Palace. In 1860, a railway, the first in Lithuania, crossed Vilnius and connected with St. Petersburg and Warsaw.

In 1795 Vilnius passed to Russia in the Third Partition of Poland. It was occupied by the Germans in World Wars I and II and suffered heavy damage. From 1920 to 1939 it was included in Poland (see Vilnius dispute); it was taken by Soviet troops in 1939 and restored to Lithuania. The Soviets annexed Lithuania, including Vilnius, in June 1940. Soviet rule brought mass deportations (1940–41, 1946–50) of ethnic Lithuanians from Vilnius, and many Russians moved into the city. In 1970 the population of Vilnius was 43 percent ethnically Lithuanian (up from 34 percent in 1959) and 18 percent Polish. In 1991 Vilnius again became the capital of independent Lithuania.

A prominent feature of the city before World War II was its Jewish community, for nearly 150 years the centre of eastern European Jewish cultural life. This community comprised 20 percent of the city's population by the middle of the 17th century. In the 18th century, under the influence of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon (q.v.), it underwent a decisive religious and spiritual growth, becoming renowned for rabbinical studies that between 1799 and 1938 produced texts of the Mishna, Jerusalem Talmud, and other works that are still standard.

The first Jews came to Lithuania in the 14th century, lured to the area by tolerant Lithuanian Dukes. By the early twentieth century, half of the city's 120,000 strong population were Jews, most of whom spoke Yiddish—a 1000-year-old German dialect. Before the war, Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North, acclaimed by Jews all across Europe for its Talmudic scholars, and for its thriving Yiddish-language theaters, libraries and schools that clustered around the close-knit 17th-century buildings of the Jewish quarter. Vilnius, or Vilna in Yiddish, was also home to the famed Yiddish Institute of Higher Learning (YIVO) and the Strashum Library, which housed the world's largest collection of Yiddish-language books; both were destroyed by the Nazis.

The first information of an organized Jewish community in Vilna dates from 1568, when it was ordered to pay the poll tax. In February 1633 the Jews of Vilna were granted a charter of privileges permitting them to engage in all branches of commerce, distilling, and any crafts not subject to the guild organizations, but restricting their place of residence in the city. During the first half of the 17th century the Vilna community was augmented by arrivals from Prague, Frankfort, and Polish towns, who included wealthy emigrants and scholars. In this period about 3,000 Jewish residents are recorded out of a total population of some 15,000. Although the Vilna community, now an important Jewish entity, claimed the status of a principal community, or "Community Head of the Courts" (Kehillah Rosh Beth Din), within the organizational framework of the Council of Lithuania (Vaad Lita), the status was not conceded until 1652.  During the uprising against Russia in 1794 a number of Vilna Jews demonstrated their loyalty to Poland in the fighting and the Kahal made contributions to the participants in the uprising. After the conquest of the city by the Russians, however, the Jewish position in commerce and crafts improved.

A Center of Torah Learning

Vilna had already become a preeminent center for rabbinical studies by the beginning of the 17th century. Among the scholars born in Vilna were Joshua Hoeschel Ben Joseph and Shabbetai Ha-Kohen, who served as dayyan of the community. The Rabbi of Vilna in the middle of the 17th century was Moses B. Isaac Judah Lima. Among the scholars of Vilna in the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th were R. Moses, called Kremer, his son-in-law Joseph, author of Rosh Yosef, Halakhic and Aggadic novellas; R. Baruch Kahana, known as Baruch Charif; the grammarian Azriel and his two sons Nisan and Elijah, and Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover. From the second half of the 18th century the personality and activities of Eliyahu ben Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, who attracted numerous disciples, had a lasting impact on Vilna Jewry. The circle thus formed became the most stimulating religious and spiritual center there and had a profound influence on Judaism, especially in the domains of the Halakhah and Kabbalah.

From The Solly Yellin Center of Lithuanian Jewry

In the 19th century the community became a centre for the Haskala (Enlightenment) and was the home also of the first Jewish socialists in Russia; by the beginning of the 20th century it had become the focus of the Zionist movement in Russia as well. A flourishing source of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, with numerous newspapers and literary, scientific, and cultural periodicals, it was the birthplace of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (founded 1924). The German occupation during World War II destroyed the community, reducing the city's Jewish population from 80,000 in 1941 to 6,000 by 1945.

Many historic buildings survive, representing the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and classical styles of architecture. The ruins of the Castle of Gediminas on Castle Hill dominate the old town, with its narrow, winding streets that climb the wooded slopes surrounding the confluence of the rivers. There are a 16th-century Gothic Church of St. Anne and a dozen 17th-century Baroque churches, notably the Church of SS. Peter and Paul. The cathedral dates originally from 1387, but in its present form from 1801.

"Vilnius." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
23 July 2004 

Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved