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Information Text: Vilnius 1655, Russian Invasion - Military History

The 17th century was a period of great change in the Baltic. To the north, the rising power of Sweden was becoming a major threat to Lithuania. This was compounded by the fact that Sigismund Vasa, the King of Poland-Lithuania, was also the successor to the Swedish throne. In 1592 he was crowned the King of Sweden, but was quickly deposed in 1599 because of his adherence to Roman Catholicism in an increasingly Protestant nation. The brief reign of Sigismund Vasa taught many lessons for future relations between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania, however. The deposing of Vasa soon led to war between the two states as Vasa didn’t want to give away the crown of Sweden – it was very important for the monarch to keep effective control of his throne. While the Lithuanian army scored some early surprise victories (the most notable of which was the 1605 Battle of Kircholm when 4,000 Lithuanians defeated 16,000 Swedes), the tide soon turned in favor of Sweden who ultimately won Livonia and Riga in the Truce of Altmark in 1629. This truce was short-lived and Sweden invaded Lithuania again in 1655.

Russia was a constant threat to Lithuania beginning at the end of the 15th century when the two nations began nearly three centuries of war that only ended with the destruction of the Lithuanian state. The primary source of the conflict lay in the Eastern Christian Orthodox lands within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the course of these wars, Poles and Lithuanians were able to occupy Moscow and regain Smolensk in 1611 when Russia was distracted by civil war. Another short war began in 1632 when Russians attacked Smolensk. Polish-Lithuanian forces were quick to react and the Russians were defeated again. Poland and Lithuania, which were united into the Republic of the Two Nations by the Union of Lublin in 1569, were shocked by the Cossack Ukraine uprising in 1648. The uprising turned into war with Russia (in 1654) and Sweden (in 1655). The entire territory of Lithuania was occupied by the enemies.

In 1655 Russian and Swedish forces occupied all of Lithuania. In August 1655, several miles from Vilnius, the Lithuanian army desperately tried to stop overwhelming numbers of Russian troops. On August 8, 1655, however, Vilnius was occupied when its walls failed to keep the attackers at bay. The entire city was looted (virtually everything was stolen) and razed with fires that raged for 17 days. For the next six years Vilnius was occupied by Russian forces. Perhaps the greatest insult suffered during these years by the city was when the grand Cathedral of Vilnius (long regarded as a great symbol of the entire city) was turned into stables by the Russians. As bleak and hopeless as these years appeared, the Lithuanians found an inner strength that allowed them to drive the enemy from their country. While Lithuania was now free from foreign occupation, the country was devastated and, in many ways, would never fully recover. Nearly forty percent of the entire population was dead or had been taken to Russia as slaves. Furthermore all of Lithuania’s cities had been destroyed. As a result of these horrors, this period of Lithuanian and Polish history is often refereed to as the “Deluge.”