Bye-bye litas, hello euro!  Share

On 1 January 2015, it will be exactly 13 years since the euro became our official currency. For Lithuania, it will be first day. The last of the three Baltic states will be joining the euro area at the beginning of next year, making it the 19th member country.

Under the terms of the 2003 Treaty of Athens, Lithuania joined the European Union along with nine other States, including its Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Latvia, which became part of the Eurosystem respectively in 2011 and 2014. Since 2004, the Lithuanian currency, the litas, has been pegged to the euro at a rate of 1EUR to 3.4528 LTL.

Lithuania was under Russian rule from 1795 to 1918. During this time, opposition to Russia gradually gained momentum. In 1915, during the First World War, the Republic of Lithuania was established. Although still occupied by German troops, the Council of Lithuania declared the country’s independence on 16 February 1918 and Lithuania became a republic once again on 2 November 1918. There then followed the three Lithuanian Wars of Independence. The first one lasted from December 1918 until August 1919 against the Bolshevik Army; and the second war was fought against the Western voluntary Army from August to December 1919. This was a counter-revolutionary and pro-czarist army that was active during the Russian revolution. The last of the three wars broke out in August 1920 against Poland. Indeed, Polish designs on Vilnius were no secret at the time. Besides, almost 30% of the capital’s population is Polish. After a short occupation, a central Republic of Lithuania was declared and later annexed to Poland in March 1922. Vilnius was to remain under Polish rule until 1939, with Kaunas becoming the capital city during this period of the country’s history. Lithuania became a dictatorship under Antanas Smetona, who was first of all President in 1926 and then dictator from 1929 to 1940.

5 litai, 2000

5 litai, 2000

In 1939, following an ultimatum from Germany, Lithuania handed over the territory of Klaipeda but won back the region of Vilnius. During the war, Soviet pressure became more insistent and Smetona left the country, which promptly became a socialist republic. A pro-Soviet government was installed. From spring 1941, the litas was taken out of circulation by the USSR. And, in June of the same year, after the deportation of 35,000 Lithuanians to Siberia and the massacre at Rainiai, Nazi Germany was welcomed in Lithuania as a liberating hero. The situation was to change quite quickly since the country was one of the worst affected by the Holocaust, with a rate of between 95 and 97%. All in all, nearly one-third of the Lithuanian population was decimated during the Second World War. When the war was over, Lithuania once again found itself under Russian rule. In 1989, the new First Secretary of the Communist Party, Algirdas Brazauskas, supported the pro-democracy movement called Sąjūdis that was in favour of independence. This was declared on 11 March 1990. Lithuania became the first of the Soviet socialist republics and the following year, the USSR recognised its independence.
The litas was first introduced on 22 October 1922. Each litas was made up of 100 centų and was covered by 0.150462 grams of gold held at the Bank of Lithuania, established on 27 September in Vilnius. Replaced by the ruble in 1941, it regained legal tender in Lithuania on 25 June 1993. As for the design, Lithuania’s coat of arms was chosen to feature on the back of the coins as early as 1922.

Coats of Arms by the artist Arvydas Každailis

Coats of Arms by the artist Arvydas Každailis

The first signs of this coat of arms being used date back to 1366 as the emblem of Algirdas, the Grand-Duke of Lithuania from 1330 to 1377. At the time, the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania spanned Belarus, Ukraine, Transnistria and even some Polish and Russian regions during the 15th century. During the 14th century, coins with this symbol on one side or the other began to enter into circulation, depicting the columns of Gediminides. These columns were also sometimes featured on the horseman’s shield. Originally without a name, this coat of arms was referred to as Pahonia from the 15th century onwards. The double cross featured on the shield was adopted by Jogaila. This pagan married the Catholic Hedwige I of Poland in 1386 and after his conversion to Catholicism, he took the name of Ladislas II Jagellon as a tribute to Saint Ladislas, King of Hungary in the 11th century whose coat of arms was derived from the patriarchal cross.

The interpretation of the 19th century knight was highly popular because he is seen to be driving back the invaders, in this case the Russians. Artist Juozas Zikaras’s design was chosen to be used on the litai coins. Prohibited under the Soviet rule, the Knight Vytis became a symbol of independence. A new design was approved in 1991 and was produced by Arvydas Každailis. The coat of arms depict a Knight Vytis dressed in white against a red background, brandishing a sword in one hand and a blue shield decorated with a yellow double cross in the other.

500 litų, Vincas Kudirka

500 litų, Vincas Kudirka

Just like Belgian franc notes at certain moments in time, Lithuania’s currency features key figures in its history, whether a writer, a historian, a statesman or even a hero. On each banknote, miniature versions of the coats of arms can be found. When independence was regained, the 1 litas, 2 and 5 litai were all issued as notes but they were replaced by coins by 1993-1994. The 10 litų note is the lowest denomination, while the biggest is the 500 litų, which is worth roughly 144.81 €. The choice of personality to feature on this note is quite interesting because it was the poet Vincas Kudirka, author of the Lithuanian national anthem, and thus a strong symbol to mark independence from the USSR.

1 & 2 euromunten Litouwen

1 & 2 euro coins, Lithuania

The litai coins are produced at the Lithuanian Mint, called the Lietuvos monetų kalykla. Formerly the Vilnius Royal Mint, these minting works date from the 14th century. When it came to the euro, it was no real surprise that the national side chosen by Lithuania was to remain in the country’s historical lineage. All the euro coins were designed by a sculptor called Antanas Žukauskas. There was nothing shocking for Lithuanians in the change of design since there are very few differences of style between the euro and the litas. So the new euro coins are produced at the Lithuanian Mint in Vilnius.

Baptiste Cuvelier
Museum guide

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