Tomorrow we will mark the 99th anniversary of Independence day (official name is the Day of Reestablishment of Lithuanian State). On ocassion I am reposting my own report published 5 years ago with minor editions and I am trying to incorporate this report into my series of reports aimed to commemorate 100th anniversary of independence.
On February 16, 1918 Lithuanian Council made its famous declaration to "governments of Germany, Russia and other countries" stating that "based on the recognized right of national-self determination and on the Vilnius Conference's resolution of September 18–23, 1917, it proclaims the restoration of the independent state of Lithuania, founded on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital, and declares the termination of all state ties which formerly bound this State to other nations. February 16th wasn't miracle day and it still was long way to go before the independent state was built. But the February 16th is one of the most important national holidays in this country (except in 1945-1988; it may be interesting that as the national holiday it was celebrated in 1989 and 1990 too).
I don't know how exact is the next citation (I found its translation in one paper and its German original text is very hard to find) but it seems that one of the main German military commanders in the East during WWI - Erich Luedendorff - gave the next characteristic to the different peoples living in this region during WWI: "Latvians ? They were true opportunists and waited to join the winning side at the last moment. Lithuanians ? They got strange feeling that finally their time came and started to build their state. We first laughed at them but they proved to be right. Belarusians ? They did nothing. Poles ? They avoided us and looked adversely to us since they knew that their ambitions aren't fine to us and we could orient our policy to other peoples, e.g. Lithuanians. Jews ? They don't knew what to do but they weren't adversely oriented to us. And also we could understand each other since they spoke Yidish. Russians ? They were our enemies."
The appearance in 1918-1920 of modern Lithuanian Republic (as many other countries in this part of the world - from Finland to Hungary) was the result of favorable geopolitical situation. But definitely It was historically progressive process: since the Great French Revolution Europe began to organize its political structure using national state as the basic element. But the appearance on the map of the new state requires some solid background to exist. And among those new states which appeared on the map in 1918-1920 the case of Lithuania was probably the most miraculous.
Near the Vytautas the Great war museum is situated small monument which in my opinion should be named as the most important monument in this country and to people shown in the monument this country should be most grateful. It is called "Lithuanian school in 1864-1904" and shows mother teaching small child to read and write. Its author is sculptor Petras Rimša. It could be interesting that sculpture was created in 1907 and for the first time was demonstrated at Vilnius Lithuanian art exhibition in 1907. But in public it was built only in 1940 (officially opened on April 29, 1940 (sic!)). Otherwise than other sculptures in Pantheon which were destroyed by Communists in 1948-1949 this sculpture was confiscated by Nazis in 1943 as a "part of metal collection action for army needs". The sculpture was rebuilt in 1990 only:
XIXth century was very hard time for Lithuania. While for many countries and nations of Europe XIXth century meant an age of progress and entrance to modernity for Lithuanians this age meant the regress by many parameters. Rzeczpospolita - part of which was areas of modern Lithuanian Republic - had serious drawbacks and can not be called very progressive country. But the problem and the great tragedy is that in 1795 these lands became part of an even more backward and - from historical point of view - even more retrograd and repressive country - Russian empire. This could be illustrated by several facts. E.g. in 1795 about 30 percent of peasants in modern Lithuania were free peasants while the rest were still in serfdom. The number of free peasants in some Western European countries of course was higher but this result wasn't the worst in European context. After 1795 some "anti-historic" process started in this country - in 1816 there were only 14 percent of free peasants left , in 1834 - 13%, in 1850 - 8%, in 1858 - less than 5% of all peasants were free. The number of peasants in serfdom rose correspondingly in the first half of XIXth century. Such process was completely wild and regressive for the Europe of the first part of XIXth century. As a result there were fewer peasant and other not noble origin children in schools in 1890s than in 1790s in Lithuania !!!! In European context such fact is completely unique.
Another fact is related with the overall level of education. In 1790s about 30% of residents of areas which forms modern Lithuania were literate (in some areas of Samogitia the number of literate people exceeded 50%). This result isn't perfect for Europe of the XVIIIth century (e.g. Scotland in 1690s was literate by nearly 100%; in 1790s England, France, Benelux and many German states had literacy level of 80-90%) but these results sharply contrasted with the rest of Russian empire (literacy level of 5-6% at moment). And it is difficult to believe that in 1860s there were fewer literate Lithuanians than in 1780s (again completely anti-historic and regressive process; on my knowledge only Lithuanians and Irishmen suffered the decrease in education level in the first half of XIXth century). This fact is illustrated by the number of schools in the areas of modern Lithuania: in 1809 there were 49 "higher" and 153 primary schools. In 1839 there were 10 and 67 schools respectively. In 1856 there were 53 schools of all types at all. Again completely wild and anti-historic process.
So in 1860s the future of Lithuanians seemed dark and they seemd to be as very easy target: e.g. infamous Muravyov gave 20-30 years to transform this country to loyal servants of empire of Orthodox faith which later will be transformed to Russian speaking country indistinguishable from other areas of "core Russia". But then suddenly something happened. Process went in completely different way. What did Muravyov, Kornilov, Katkov and Co made wrong ? They did many incorrect things. E.g. they prepared the plan to significantly increase the number of schools. But schools should be only Russian (and not only Russian by language but also Orthodox by soul). The combination of forced introduction of Russian language and Orthodoxity (standard requirement for any state servant including school teachers then was "desirably of Russian origin and necessary of Orthodox faith") was a killer combination in this predominantly Catholic country (religious factor was probably the most important one). As one analyst wrote "Lithuanians had abstinence for those schools": in 1897 Kaunas governory had the lowest percent of children attending schools in European part of Russian empire (50th place among 50) and was in 74th place in whole empire (among 89 territories). Vilnius governory was in 47th place (from 50) in European part of empire.
But srangely at the same time Lithuanians became one of the most literate nations in empire: in 1897 48% of Lithuanians were literate comparing with 28% of literacy level in whole empire (e.g. 29% percent of Russians were literate, 20% Belarusians, 19% of Ukrainians and Georgians, 18% of Armenians, 16% of Tartars were literate). Lithuanians surpassed even Poles (42% of Poles literate in 1897) which had much better conditions for development. The Lithuanians nearly reached the literacy level of Jews in Russian empire (51%). And only several Protestant nations had higher literacy levels: 97% of Finns, 94% of Estonians, 85% of Latvians and 78% of Germans were literate (but here let us take into account the teaching of Marthin Luether that his followers should be able to read the word of God).
How this happened ? Look to the sculpture: modern historians are counting about 4800 illegal schools that worked in Lithuania in 1864-1904. They worked despite the heavy fines (fine for illegal teaching was 200-600 rubles). Those schools were called "daraktor" schools (clipped from "doctor"): volunteers were going from village to village and teaching peasant children. Such schoolls are known in many countries of Europe but the spread of them in Lithuania seems to be unprecedented. Those "doctors" were able to convince the mothers to teach their children too. (The type of schooling produced another phenomena: in 1897 in Kaunas governory there were 54% of literate women and 52% of literate men - the fact absolutely unique; probably that's why later Lithuania became the third country in the world completely equalizing the rights of males and females - we did this earlier than France or Britain did:)))). The efficiency of those schools could be illustrated by the that in 1890s more than 3 million copies of Lithuanian books were published, most of them illegally. This number per capita was one of the highest in Russian empire. And this happened in the country with the lowest number of schools :)
These were the people that formed the modern Lithuanian nation. Probably the most famous researcher of the whole Central and Eastern Europe in XIXth century - Czech historian Miroslav Hroch - counted only 280 Lithuanian activists in 1890. In 1895 this number rose to 2700. Just ten years later - In 1905 - about 80% of villages and townships elected their representatives to the Great Vilnius Lithuanian congress. They simply had the people which could read, vote and participate in political life ! Then probably for the first time the words "We, the nation" sounded not as the fiction. In 1896 LSDP as the first among Lithuanian political parties wrote as their goal "completely independent sovereign Lithuanian national state". In 1905 all Lithuanian political parties had such a goal. As one classic of the late XXth century liked to say: "Proces poshiol". And only the favorable external situation was necessary.
Tomorrow there will be various celebrations near the Signatars house in Vilnius, near the tomb of patriarch Jonas Basanavicius, near the grave of unknown soldier. But the biggest tribute deserve those anonymous "daraktors" and those mothers: without them there will be no February 16, 1918.