Ukmergé is one of Lithuania’s oldest settlements having grown from an ancient hill fort, the remains of which can still be visited within the city. It is first mentioned in documents of 1225, was recognised as a town in 1435 and by 1486 was a city. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was one of the largest ‘countries’ of early medieval Europe, but her position on the north European plain made her vulnerable to foreign pressures. Thus the fortunes of Ukmerge, along with Lithuania, have been linked to her large and powerful neighbours: Poland and Russia.

Poland and Lithuania were effectively united in 1386 through the marriage of the Polish Queen to the Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania. This became a dual state – eventually referred to as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This unification, relatively speaking a union of equals, continued until the Prussian, Russian and Austrian land grabs of 1772 to 1795, in which Lithuania and Poland ceased to exist until their re-emergence in 1918/9. Lithuania had become part of the Russian empire.

Almost two centuries under Russian rule was seen as an occupation rather than a union as the Polish rule had been, and Ukmerge played its part in resisting this occupation. During the ‘November uprising’ of 1830 Ukmerge held out against the Russians for several months and in 1863 the city initiated a further unsuccessful rebellion. In 1918 with Russia in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution, civil war and military defeat in the First World War, Lithuania was able to assert her independence and enjoy a brief period of freedom until 1940 when it was once again occupied firstly by Russia and the following year by Germany. In 1945 it fell under Russian control as the ‘Iron Curtain’ went up across Europe, finally gaining its freedom again in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Ukmerge marked Lithuania’s independence in 1918 by adopting a modern name – Ukmerge replacing the medieval name of Vilkmerge – the river name by which she had previously been known. The city also built a monument to their liberation, the Lituania Restituta – to have it torn down by the Russians in 1950. It was rebuilt in 1990 – even before Lithuania became independent again in 1991. Today Lithuania celebrates two national Independence Days: 16 February marks the day in 1918 when they declared independence as Russia left the First World War and 11 March marks the day in 1991 when the present state of Lithuania was established.

Over centuries of turbulent history, an increasingly chaotic Polish rule and Soviet domination, Ukmerge’s growth was slow. Poland, alone among European countries of the time, elected its monarchs from among its nobility, leaving its rulers at the mercy of those nobles and preventing many of the economic and social reforms which elsewhere in Europe led to the development of an urban-dwelling middle class and the growth of towns and cities such as Ukmerge. Additionally Ukmerge, built predominately from wood, was totally destroyed by two catastrophic fires in 1391 and 1877, and it was heavily bombed by allied action during World War 2. The population was decimated by a particularly bad outbreak of the plague in 1711 while about 10,000 Ukmerge Jews were killed during the German occupation of the 1940s.

However, Ukmerge has changed and prospered enormously since the fall of the Soviet Union. Lithuania is now a fully-fledged member of the United Nations and NATO. She joined the European Union in 2004 and has subsequently enjoyed considerable prosperity and security. In Ukmerge this prosperity relies on the city’s traditional economic heritage with many of its citizens engaged in the timber industry, including the manufacture of wooden furniture and wood by-products such as fibre board. There is also a metal working industry and clothing factories. Its modern technical school has well-regarded faculties in wooden and metal engineering.

While Lithuanian, a particularly ancient form of our common Indo-European speech, is spoken with pride, Russian is still the most widely spoken second language, a direct legacy of their dominance in recent history. Another Soviet legacy for Ukmerge is the presence nearby of two abandoned nuclear missile sites, now in ruins through which the public can wander at will.