Throughout the Baltic states, Vilnius is the second largest city by population. This city has a very unique and interesting history, including being home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and once earning the nickname “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”
City Size and Population Density
The city of Vilnius covers a surface area of about 401 km2 (155 sq mi). This surface area expands to 9,731 km2 (3,757 sq mi) when considering the entire metropolitan area of Vilnius. The population density comes to approximately 1,392/km2 (3,610/sq mi).
Vilnius is a very ethnically diverse city. At the time of the 2011 census, there were 128 different ethnicities recorded. This by far makes it the most diverse in the entire country. The census also found that 63.6% of the population is Lithuanian. A year later, estimates show that 63.2% of the population are Lithuanian. 16.5% are Polish, 12% are Russian, and 8.6% were categorized as “Other.”
The city of Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania because of its large Jewish community. In the late 1800s, 40% of the population was Jewish. This number gradually has decreased throughout the years, dropping to 27.8% in 1931, then again to 7% in 1959. At the time of the 2001 census, the population of Jews was only 0.5%.
The city of Vilnius first appeared in writing in 1323, although its history began before that. The city in its earliest years was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which extended through what is now Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Transnistria and parts of Poland and Russia.
In the early through mid-1500s, the city expanded, including the building of city walls for protection. The city really began to grow with the establishment of a university, which grew to become one of the most significant universities for science and culture. Migrants began moving to the city, and its residents were extremely diverse. Multiple languages were spoken, including German, Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew.
The 1700s brought challenges to the city. Warfare destroyed the city and killed many of its residents. The bubonic plague and multiple fires also affected the population as well as the city’s buildings. Even though it faced these challenges, it was the third largest city in the Russian Empire by the end of the 18th century.
In the 18th century, the city was annexed and was made the capital of the Vilna Governorate. The city was captured by Napoleon. Thousands died during the retreat, and civil unrest continued throughout the 1800s. During this time, the city’s Jewish population rose significantly.
During the first World War, the city was occupied by the German Army until the Act of Independence of Lithuania declared the country as independent of any other nation. The Germans withdrew, and the city was briefly taken by the Polish until Soviet forces drove them out. The Polish Army later again took the city, then were overtaken by Soviet forces.
In the years that followed, Poland and Lithuania disputed who was the rightful owner of the city. Historians say that it was the Suwałki Agreement that gave control of Vilnius to Lithuania. In 1920, the city was seized again by the Polish Army, and was annexed by Poland two years later. The years that followed saw the city exchange hands several times, until 1990 when Lithuania seceded from the Soviet Union. After a battle that saw hundreds hurt and killed, the Soviet Union recognized the city’s independence in 1991. The Constitution outlined that Vilnius was the historical capital of the country.
Today, the city has undergone some massive changes, including new business and commercial developments, modern residential developments, and updated historic buildings. The city has been named as a European Capital of Culture, has plans to further develop the city, and has a growing economy.
Vilnius Population Growth
Vilnius’ population has risen and fallen multiple times throughout its history. Destruction and fatalities during wars through the years have led to sharp declines, while an influx of refugees and the migration of students have led to increases. In the early 2000s, Vilnius saw years of slight declines in its population, dropping from its peak 644,600 in 1992 to 541,596 in 2008. However, since 2013, the city has seen population increases of less than 1%, indicating that the city may continue to see slow growth in the years ahead.