Geography and the Geographical Society in Lithuania



Geography has quite an old history in Lithuania, but an independent Geographical Society was only established in 1934. Despite various turmoils, it lives on to this day, uniting all geographers and geographically inclined people.


The development of geography as a science in Lithuania


Geography evolved as a science in Lithuania corresponding to the general scientific development in Europe. Its progress was heavily influenced by various historical circumstances, as well as the cultural and scientific environment in the country [1].

The maps drawn by the palace artist Antonijus Vydas during the reign of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Žygimantas Augustas (1544-1572) can be identified as the first geographical works in Lithuania. The best known of them is “Moscovia”, mentioned in the Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster [2].

The most famous and significant work of that period is the map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, published in 1613. Its creation was lead by Mikalojus Kristupas Radvila Našlaitėlis (Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł (Sierotka)). The map was drawn by Tomas Makovskis (Tomasz Makovski). This map, which was produced in very high quality for its time, contained comprehensive notes on the nature, resources, agriculture, trade, climate, customs and history of the Grand Duchy [2].

In the 17th century meteorological research was started at Vilnius University: in 1643 Jonas Počapovskis (Joan Poczapowski) defended his master's thesis – a monograph “Universa meteorologia” which also analyzed Lithuanian meteorological phenomena [1].

Systematic dissemination of geographical ideas was started in the middle of the 18th century. A compendium “Compendium geographiae” was published in 1743 in Vilnius by Kazimieras Holovka (Kazimierz Aloyzy Hołowka). It summarized the geographical knowledge of that period. At the same time many subjects related to geography were taught at Vilnius University. The first textbooks were published. It is commonly held that the first to spread the basics of geography in Lithuanian was the historian and geographer Karolis Virvičius. In 1773 he published the first textbook of “General geography” [3] in which he laid out the ideas of physical and general geography, linking them to the practical needs of people (transportation, mining, defense, etc.) [2: 119].

The ideas of Jean Chevalier, a professor at Vilnius University, about the global structure and occurring phenomena were very interesting and novel for their time. He claimed that physical phenomena can be explained only once the interaction of the Sun and the Earth are understood. These interactions, according to him, could explain the localization of flora in the world, as well as other physical geographical objects [2: 99].

The observatory of Vilnius University, established in 1753, initiated works of land measurement, creation of the first large scale topographical maps and training of specialists of geodesy [2: 119]. In addition to this, 1770 marked the start of consistent meteorological measurements, which were uninterrupted since 1777 [5].

At the end of the 18th century Lithuania became a province of the Russian e mpire and the connections to Russian science became stronger. At the beginning of the 19th century topography advanced significantly, especially under the influence of a famous astronomer and topographer of that time - Jonas Sniadeckis (Jan Chrzciciel Władysław Śniadecki). He was a professor at Vilnius University and the director of the observatory. His textbook “Geography or The mathematical and physical description of the earth” („Jeografia, czyli Opisanie matematiczne i fiziczne Ziemi“), published in 1804, was later translated into Russian and became an important resource for training Russian topographers [1: 7]. In this textbook geography is understood only as the physical description of the earth, as this was “reliable and evident”, where as the research of social phenomena was deemed unreliable as the actions of people are influenced “by various arrangements, whims, politics, etc.” [4].

In 1820 the department of geodesy was established. Many specialists got their education there, members of the department compiled maps in Lithuania, including those of the “Struvė Geodetic Arc”, as well as in Russian empire.

Due to the involvement of students and professors in the 1831 uprising, Vilnius University was closed and did not function until 1919. This halted the progress of science, including geography, in Lithuania. The establishment of the Russian imperial geographical society's north-western section in Vilnius on the 26th of February, 1867, was an impulse for the promotion of geographical ideas and explorations of the land. Though not independent, this was the first public geographical organisation. It was quite active and even had its own publication - „Zapiski Severo-Zapadnogo otdela imperatorskogo russkogo geografitsheskogo obshtshestva“. The section was most active on the eve of the Great War, but its work was ceased by the war.


The beginning of modern geography in Lithuania


The development of geographical sciences was basically started anew after the Great War. The territory of Lithuania was divided between two occupying forces. Here, in addition to Vilnius University, which was situated in Vilnius region, controlled by Poland, and renewed its work in 1919 under the new name of Steponas Batoras University; Vytautas Magnus University was established in the temporary capital Kaunas in 1922. Both universities eventually created geographical departments – 1920 in Vilnius and 1930 in Kaunas. In 1923 the university in Kaunas already had a geophysical class and in 1925 – a geography class, where meteorological and limnological research began. Both universities strived to explore diverse branches of the geographical science. Vilnius has two geographical departments – for physical geography and meteorology, where ethnographic, meteorological and geomorphological research took place. However, after reuniting the Vilnius region with Lithuania in 1939, almost all of the staff left for Poland.

In the Kaunas departments for Geophysics and meteorology, as well as for Hidrology and hydraulics strong schools of meteorology (lead by prof. K. Sleževičius) and hidrology (lead by prof. K. Kolupaila) were formed. The head of the department of geography K. Pakštas was responsible for developing the discipline of political geography. Also, the first research in limnology (conducted by K.Bieliukas), geomorphology, historical cartography and economical geography took place here.

Not long after the establishment of the Geographical department, a new, independent Lithuanian geographical society was created in Kaunas, January 26th, 1934 (illustration 1). Its head was prof. K. Pakštas (illustration 2). Until then Lithuania was one of the few remaining European nations without a geographical society.

It is known that the geographers in Vilnius region took part in the activities of the Polish geographical society. Its website [7] mentions that the head of the department for physical geography in Vilnius, prof. Mečislovas Limanovskis („Mieczysław Limanowski z Wilna“) was at the congress of the society in Gdynia in 1931. However there was no separate section of the geographical society in Vilnius.

At that time the goals of the Lithuanian geographical society were to organize geographical exploration in Lithuania, develop and spread geographical knowledge and improve the state of this discipline in the country's schools. The society had around 100 members, the first of which were not only geographers, but also members of the military, lawyers and financiers. Members of the Lithuanian geographical society developed and spread their knowledge by organizing open lectures and publishing the popular journal “Kosmos”, developing exploratory tourism and taking care of the Lithuanian school system. Close ties were formed with the societies in Latvia, Estonia and Scandinavia. The need for geographical education and representation of Lithuania in international forums motivated geographers to form a professional community. Delegations of the Lithuanian geographical society took part in the International hydrology congress in 1936 and the International geography congresses since 1938. In the same year, by the initiative of the society the first Lithuanian geographical congress took place. The second one, planned for 1940, did not happen due to the soviet occupation.

In the period leading up to the year 1940, geographical research was being developed both in the physical and human directions. The foundations of geography in Lithuania were laid then: first professional geographers, scientific works, beginning of the systematic exploration of the country and an active geographical society.


Geography in soviet occupied Lithuania


After the Second World War the society was split by the iron curtain as many of its members ended up in the west, fleeing soviet repressions. Some of them continued their active work abroad, especially in the USA, advocating for the need to reestablish Lithuania's statehood, as well as recreate the geographical society. In 1952 as representatives of Lithuanian geographers, they took part in the International geographical congress in Washington [8: 15].

In the soviet occupied Lithuania geographic research was concentrated in Vilnius, where both departments at the university were consolidated. In addition to this 1941 marked the establishment of the Institute for geography and geology by the Lithuanian academy of sciences. It began to function in 1945 and had 3 subsections. In the same year departments of geography and geology were formed in the Pedagogical University, which trained teachers. Even though the institutional structures were later subject to change, the three main centres of geographical sciences, concentrated in Vilnius, remained. It is important to mention that at the same time a network of institutions was established, which were responsible for providing data both for the state and for research. These were: the hidrometeorological service, department of statistics, institute for aerogeodesy, etc.

During the soviet era Lithuanians excelled at exploring and researching their country and its nature, important and well known scientific schools evolved: geomorphology, sea coast research, landscape, human and urban geography. Many important works of applied research were carried out. They were crucial for the development of the country, preservation of its cultural heritage and nature. A significant summarizing work - “The atlas of the Lithuanian SSR” - was prepared and published at the laboratory of cartography at Vilnius University's Department of geography. It was characteristic for that time that research in the area of physical geography had better conditions for flourishing as it was less subject to ideological limitations. Economical, human and urban geography was being developed only as much as was necessary for the needs of the country's economy, but other branches of geography were “forgotten”. Because of this geography was more related with physical and landscape research [9].

In 1955, when history's spiral completed the circle, by the initiative of local geographers, a section of the USSR geographical society was established in Lithuania (1955-06-15 LSSR government act No. 296). In fact it was reestablished as it continued the activities of the Russian imperial geographical society. The constituent assembly took place in Vilnius on the 22nd of March, 1957. The academic Kazimieras Bieliukas was elected as chairman. Despite the society's name and its juridical status it continued promoting the traditions of Lithuanian geographical exploration and popularization of geography, united the community of geographers, organized scientific events, trips, grew the network of scientific connections. In 1958 the publication “Geographic annual” was first published and is continued to this day.

Professor Alfonsas Basalykas took over as chairman of the geographical society in 1967 and was succeeded by prof. A. Stanaitis. In 1980 the name of the society was altered and it became the Society of geographers of the Lithuanian SSR. The School of junior geographers was established by the society in 1986 and it continues to involve students in geography to this day.


Geography in independent Lithuania


In 1989 the spiral of fate made the circle once more: when the struggle for Lithuanian independence began on the 11th of September, 1989, an independent Lithuanian society of geographers was re-established. It declared to continue work of the first society. An updated statute of the society was registered on 26th of September, 1994, and prof. Stasys Vaitekūnas was elected as the president of the society, replaced by dr. Ričardas Baubinas in 1995. The society organised the second national Lithuanian geographical congress in 1999 as well as various scientific seminars, exploratory scientific tours, memorial events. Members of the society initiated relevant applied environmental studies, prepared legislation documents and promoted science and representation of Lithuania in other countries. One of the most important works done was the marking of the geographical center of Europe, located 26 kilometers north of the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius, near the village Purnuškės. In 1997 ex-president of the Society prof. S. Vaitekūnas took the initiative to establish the medal named after the first president of the Society K. Pakštas. This award is given every second year to the person (for the outstanding merits enhancing the science and studies as well as discipline of geography, for the important public and scientific publications, for the expanding of scientific connections and promotion of Lithuania in the world) and the authority (for the promotion of geographical science). At the general meeting of the members of the society, which took place on the 14th of May, 2010, the statute was updated and the new board was elected. D. Krupickaitė became the president of the society. At the moment there are about 230 members.


In parallel, the association of geography teachers was established in 1994. It is concerned with geography as a discipline at schools and unites about 500 members.

An important event for the development of geographical science during the first years of independence was the establishment of the institute of geography under the Ministry of Environment in 1990 [10]. It became a national institute one year later. This was the first scientific institute founded in independent Lithuania, which shows the active geographical community at the time. It is important that separate departments of human and regional geography was created at this institute, which was a good start to develop these areas of science. Unfortunately, in 2002, the decision was made to restore the situation of 1941 and to unite Geological and Geographical institutes into one institution which continues the scientific work and mission of the one we had in 1941-1963 as stated in its statute [11]. Later on during the reform of scientific bodies, the institute lost its autonomy and became a part of the new Nature Research Centre.


Another no less important event was the creation of human geography department in Klaipėda University thanks to then rector of the university and the president of the geographical society S. Vaitekūnas.

To sum up the development of geography as a science in Lithuania during the last 20 years we may state that its centre of gravity has shifted from physical geography to human geography and landscape management. This is signified not by the presence of certain institutions but by the structure of scientific publications and final theses of geographical studies. After the reform of the independent geographical institute the main centers of geographical research are now the six geographical departments in universities (Vilnius, Klaipėda, Lithuanian university of educational sciences). Most developed areas are landscape, regional, economical, human, population and settlement geography, hydrology and climate, geographical research of the Baltic sea and its coast, GIS and cartography, geomorphology and geographical educology.




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Information prepared by: D. Krupickaitė, G. Kynė