The Lithuanian Legend of the Iron Wolf and the Fall of the Soviet Union

A legend surrounds the founding of Vilnius, the present day capital of Lithuania. It is The Legend of the Iron Wolf.

The legend begins with a hunting trip undertaken by the Grand Duke of Lithuania,[1] Gediminas to the holy woods in the Valley of Sventaragis around the year 1323. Gediminas was joined by the nobles of his court. Among his retinue were servants and beaters with large packs of hounds. The great forest was disturbed by the uncommon activity. In mortal fear, all the animals, great and small reacting to the terrifying clamor invading their provincial tranquil serenity scurried into the thicket.

The Grand Duke Bags a Lithuanian Bison

 Though the animals fled into the brush, the hunters were expert and skilled. Their royal horses were tenacious, and their arrows never missed the target. Many wild animals were killed. The greatest trophy of the hunt, a splendid specimen of the great Lithuanian bison, was killed by the Grand Duke himself.

Camp at the Confluence of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers

 In pursuit of his prize bison Gediminas came to the apex of a high mountain located at the junction of the rivers Neris and Vilnia. The view from the spot was glorious and Gediminas ordered camp be set at this place. At his command, fires were sparked and furs were spread for sleeping.

Gediminas Has a Dream

The day had been tiring. Soon Gediminas was asleep and dreaming. In the dream he envisioned an iron wolf on this mountaintop. This lone wolf of iron was uttering such howls that they sounded as if hundreds of wolves were bellowing in unison.

When he awoke, Gediminas spoke of his dream to his courtiers, asking for their thoughts. They were unable to explain it. He then sent for High Priest Kriviu Krivaitis, of the shrine to Perkunas, the Lithuanian god of thunder, which was nearby.

A Priest Interprets the Dream

 The priest listened thoughtfully to the Grand Duke’s rendering of his vision. The priest nodded in deference to the great ruler, and reflectively stroked his long white beard. He then pronounced the meaning of the vision: “Sire, the Iron Wolf signifies a large and mighty city. The city will stand as strong as iron and its walls will protect the land from its enemies. The howling means a clamor will arise from it reaching far beyond the country’s borders and proclaiming through long centuries the glory of Lithuania.”

Vilnius is Founded Based on the Dream

Gediminas was pleased with the priest’s explanation. Upon returning to his residence at Kernave, he summoned artisans and craftsmen from around Europe to design and construct a strong and beautiful castle on the top of the mountain where he had dreamed of the Iron Wolf. The castle was completed and Gediminas moved his domicile, signaling the establishment of a new capital for his country: Vilnius.

The Iron Wolf’s Howl is Heard Far Beyond Lithuanian Borders

The priest’s reading of Gediminas’ Iron Wolf dream proved prescient. Vilnius grew and prospered after Gediminas’ founding. Lithuania grew into a great medieval power in alliance with Poland.  Jagiello, Gediminas’ grandson, became king of Poland in 1386[2].  The Jagiellon Dynasty ruled the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland until 1572 covering vast European land area from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The Lithuanian-Polish union begun by Gediminas’ grandson survived over 400 years. The Iron Wolf’s howl was heard for centuries far beyond Lithuania’s borders.

Occupations and Invasions: Vilnius’ Central Role in European History

Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Russians, Poles, Germans and the French[3] have sought to control Vilnius since its founding. From 1795 to 1915, Russians occupied Vilnius[4] and Lithuania.  In 1831 and 1863 Lithuanians unsuccessfully revolted against Russian rule. Gediminas started a city that thousands have fought and died for, and that the Lithuanian people have considered the capital of their homeland for over 650 years.  It has not mattered the invader or occupier, the native Lithuanians have preserved their language, culture, heritage and belief in the destiny of a free Lithuania centered in Vilnius.

 Control of Vilnius in the 20th Century

The 20th century was tumultuous for Vilnius with control changing nine times in thirty years. The following chronology of control gives pause as to how any city could survive the trials experienced by Vilnius:

  • Russia through September 19, 1915
  • Germany September 19, 1915 to January 1, 1919[5]
  • Soviet Red Army January 5, 1919 to April 21, 1919[6]
  • Poland April 21, 1919 to July 14, 1920
  • Soviet Red Army July 14, 1920 to August 20, 1920
  • Lithuanian SSR August 20, 1920 to October 9, 1920[7]
  • Poland October 9, 1920 to September 19, 1939[8]
  • Soviet Red Army September 19, 1939 to June 24, 1941
  • Nazi Germany June 24, 1941 to July 13, 1944
  • Soviet Red Army July 13, 1944 to March 11, 1990[9]

Communist Expansion and Forcible Incorporation

In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the Russian tsar.  The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded five years later in 1922.  The USSR grew its influence with the forcible inclusion into its “union” many of the countries bordering Russia.  Atheistic communism, with a centrally planned economy, government ownership of all property, government regulation of every element of each citizen’s life and a stated purpose of imposing communism upon the world were the hallmarks of the USSR.

Countries, such as Lithuania, incorporated into the USSR at gunpoint were said to be behind the Iron Curtain. The second half of the 20th century would become a competition[10] for dominance between communist dictatorships and nations operating under democratic free market principles. Millions living behind the Iron Curtain desired freedom, but for people to even discuss such thoughts risked imprisonment or worse.

Russian Bear versus the Lithuanian Iron Wolf

Lithuania under communism suffered from Stalinist repression and mass deportations to Siberia. During nearly half a century of Soviet rule, Lithuania lost nearly a quarter of its population through deportations, labor camps and prisons.  A Lithuanian guerrilla resistance movement opposing the Soviet occupation arose immediately after World War II and lasted nearly ten years.

In 1989, the Soviet Union consisted of 16 Soviet Socialist Republics, all under the authoritarian rule of Moscow.[11]  Soviet hegemony spread beyond its borders to other communist countries. Though the Soviet Union was a nuclear armed superpower imposing its will by military threat, the innate human desire for freedom remained alive among the captive populations.  In Lithuania, the heritage of Gediminas and the Iron Wolf had never died.

Vytautas Landsbergis: Lithuanian President During Struggle for Freedom

On March 11, 1990, despite the Soviet military presence, Lithuania became the FIRST Soviet republic to declare its independence.  The Soviets responded to the declaration with political and economic sanctions, and a heightened military profile. The Lithuanians did not back down.

The Lithuanians continued on the course of freeing themselves from the yoke of Moscow despite the many hardships through the winter of 1990-91.  Most energy supplies had been cut off by the Russians and many Lithuanians froze in their homes.  The economic sanctions had little effect. The Lithuanian Seimas operated independently and Lithuanians assumed control of their own media, broadcasting messages of freedom, opinions and uncensored news.

In January, 1991, the Soviets had had enough of this “renegade republic”. Soviet troops began seizing various public buildings and the intent to pursue and forcibly draft Lithuanians into the Soviet Army was announced.  On January 10, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sent a telegram to Lithuanian leadership advising that if the acts of independence were not revoked, “presidential rule” would be the result. The Soviet troops increased activity around the country, and on January 13th prepared to move on Lithuania’s communication capability and seat of government.

January 13, 1991, From a Journalist’s Notebook by David Satter[12]

“A crowd of more than a thousand persons had gathered in front of the Vilnius Television Tower, to defend it against seizure by Soviet troops. There was a holiday atmosphere as young people danced to music played on a portable tape recorder, couples strolled arm in arm under the streetlamps, and vendors sold coffee and rolls.  At 1:00 AM, however, the tension suddenly increased. Twenty Soviet tanks began moving down Kosmonautų Street, rattling the windows of nearby apartment buildings, and then pulled into the adjoining woods. Demonstrators linked arms as all eyes focused on the tanks, whose lights glowed amid the bare winter trees. The demonstrators, including Loreta Asanavičiutė, a twenty-four-year-old Vilnius factory worker, stepped back to form a protective ring around the tower.

 Suddenly, tracer bullets lit up the sky. The tanks, surrounded by soldiers, began moving toward the tower. The soldiers threw smoke bombs and, as the defenders started to disperse, the soldiers opened fire and the tanks accelerated, driving into the crowd. The area was filled with screams as the demonstrators realized that they were being attacked. Loreta began to run from the tower with a group of friends across a field shrouded in smoke and crisscrossed with the beams of searchlights.

 The tanks were cutting through the fleeing crowd, racing around the tower in circles. Loreta, disoriented and partially blinded by the smoke, found herself in the path of a tank. As her friends looked on in horror, she lost her footing and fell under the tank. The massacre at the television tower, in which thirteen persons were killed and more than six hundred injured, was the climax of a drive by Lithuanians to emancipate themselves from communism.”

The Howl of the Iron Wolf Heard Far Beyond the Borders of Lithuania

The Soviets had planned to take over the Lithuanian Parliament as well.  That was abandoned as tens of thousands of Lithuanians, upon hearing of the Television Tower massacre built barricades and formed a human shield at the Parliament.  In September, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of Lithuania and her sister Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia.  On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the entire world changed.

In interpreting Gediminas’ dream in 1323, the priest said the howl of the Iron Wolf signified a clamor arising from the city to be founded that would be heard far beyond Lithuania’s borders.  That clamor arose on January 13, 1991.

Watch Soviet Troops v. Unarmed Lithuanian Civilians


[1] In the early 14th century Lithuania was a pagan country.  Kings derived their divine right to rule with the blessing of the pope.  Gediminas, while exercising the equivalent authority in Lithuania as a king did in a Roman Catholic country, did not do so with the pope’s blessing,and carried the title of Grand Duke, not king.

[2] Jagiello was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, recognized as king by the pope. He ordered Lithuania’s conversion to Catholicism in 1387.

[3] Even Napoleon and his Grand Armee invaded the city in 1812.

[4] The Russians also occupied Vilnius from 1655 to 1661.  Struggles for control over the city founded by Gediminas have gone on for centuries.

[5] On February 16, 1918, while occupied by Germany, the CouncilofLithuania proclaimed Lithuanian independence.

[6] The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had overthrown the tsar.

[7] Vilnius was turned over to a government thrust upon Lithuania by the Russians.

[8] While Poland occupied Vilnius, Lithuania functioned as an independent nation with its capital in Kaunas.

[9] After World War II Lithuania’s forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union was completed with a permanent presence of the Soviet Army in the country.

[10] This competition was referred to as the ColdWar and the leaders of the competitors were the Soviet Union and the United States.

[11] There were the written trappings of law, a constitution, statutes, stated protections for civil rights and more, but the reality was it was the rule of men, not law.

[12] David Satter served as Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London and special correspondent on Soviet affairs for the Wall Street Journal. More of his account of January 13, 1991 can be found in the LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES.


For Further Reading



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