Municipal history


In 1998, the act of announcing Kaunas City Day gave emphasis to the following dates in the history of Kaunas:

In 1030– The legendary year of the founding of Kaunas (scientists are not assured about this fact; in general, this fact remains only a legend, as the date is taken from the Bychovc chronicle (or the Comprehensive Lithuanian Yearbook), which tells the legend of Duke Palemonas, that praises the elite of GDL.

In 1140– Arab traveler and cartographer Al Idrisi mentions Kaniyū on a published map, which is identified with the name of Kaunas (scientists also doubt this fact).

In 1361– The first known record of the name of Kaunas in a written source- in the New Chronicle of Prussia by the chronicler of the Teutonic Order Vygandas Marburgietis.

In 1408– The ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Vytautas granted Kaunas residents a privilege based on the law of self- government in Magdeburg, which legalized a community of free and economically independent merchants and artisans directly responsible to the ruler (the privilege did not remain).

In 1463– On May 20, Kazimieras Jogilaitis, the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, granted the city of Kaunas a privilege, which confirmed and extended the city’s rights (the oldest remaining privilege).

The beginning of Kaunas city self- government

The establishment of city self- government is the beginning of the history of Kaunas as a city. Among the cities of present- day Lithuania, Kaunas was the second to receive the rights of Magdeburg after Vilnius. On February 14, 1408, Vytautas granted them. On March 22, 1387, Jogaila granted the city of Vilnius self- government rights. This meant the liberation of the townspeople community from the direct rule of the ruler or his deputies, the opportunity to use the right of the city, to create self- government of the city. These privileges led to the formation of organized urban communities and laid the legal framework for the urban population. Urban self- government is a very important phenomenon in the history of Lithuania; therefore, it is important to mention the date of the establishment of Kaunas self- government properly.

A copy of the privilege granting Magdeburg rights to Kaunas states that it was granted on Thursday, on St. Valentine’s Day, 1408. However, Valentine’s Day in 1408 was not on Thursday; historians do not know when exactly it was granted, whether on Thursday before or after Valentine’s Day, because the person who created the forgery of this privilege inadvertently omitted the words ante (before) or post (after). Prof. Zigmantas Kiaupa made a partial reconstruction of the privilege comparing the forgery of this privilege and the content of Kazimieras’s privilege for Kaunas in 1463. Therefore, the date of the earliest known privilege for Kaunas has not been specified for a long time. This is what determined the decision of Kaunas municipality to choose the date of another privilege for Kaunas, which causes less uncertainty, for the City Day celebration. Kaunas residents relied on the oldest surviving privilege for the city and in 1998 they declared that they choose May 20th as Kaunas City Day based on renewed and expanded city rights by Kazimieras Jogailitis on May 20, 1463.

The text of the privilege dated in 1408 is not original- it is the text that appeared at the beginning of 17th century in Lutheran Kaunas. Historical research has shown that the authors of a 17th century text used a copy of, or a summary of, the authentic 1408 privilege. The date of the privilege is beyond doubt. Thus, 1408 should be considered as the beginning of Kaunas city self- government.

While granting privilege Vytautas handed over scales, wax and the cutter. These were profitable, monopolistic companies. Scales are used to weigh goods delivered to the city or consignments of goods prepared here. The wax is inspected for the quality of the wax prepared for export or melted into pieces of a certain size, and the cutter finishes the processed fabrics.

The privileges of the rulers strengthened the self- government of the city: the legal and economic immunity of Kaunas city was further strengthened by other privileges of the rulers: in 1415- by Vytautas, in 1432- by Zygimantas Kestutaitis, in 1440, 1449 and 1463- by Kazimieras, in 1492- by Aleksandras, in 1507 and 1508- by Zygimantas Senasis. The privilege of Kazimieras in 1440 allowed to organize one 8-day fair in Kaunas every year during St. Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15). This was one of the first permits to organize fairs in Lithuanian cities. Among other provisions, the privilege of Kazimieras in 1449 prohibited retail merchants in Kaunas from retailing. It was extremely significant for the city’s economy in 1492.

The privilege of Aleksandras. The ruler established that guests merchants do not have the right to come with goods to Lithuanian villages and towns that do not have the right of Magdeburg, they can trade only in Kaunas and only with Kaunas residents; Kaunas’ right to mediate was announced, prohibiting guests in Kaunas from trading with each other. The right of assembly had already been confirmed in Kaunas, which stated that after bringing the goods to this city, the guests had to stay here for at least 3 days and sell them to Kaunas residents, and only after that they could transport the goods to other GDL cities or abroad. In addition to trade, crafts also developed rapidly in Kaunas: the first four workshops were established in the second half of the 16th century, at the end of 17th century there were already twelve workshops, and in the 18th century, there were 23 artisan workshops, covering at least 36 crafts. There were barbers, pilots, weavers, tailors, gunsmiths, glass workshops etc.

Respublica Caunensis: since 1408 Kaunas grew as a real European city. Kaunas residents, having received extensive legal and tax immunity, created a strong community, and for contemporaries it was called Respublica Caunensis- Kaunas Republic.

The Kaunas city government consisted of three most important, interrelated institutions- Vaitas, Magistrates (12 counselors and 4 mayors) and the Court of Suolininkai (12 persons). According to Magdeburg right, Vaitas was the highest municipal official in the city, a representative of the city. The office provided more honor than power. Vaitas presided over the Court of Suolininkai and announced his decisions. The second institution after Vaitas was the Magistrate (Council). It managed and supervised the life of the city, adopted regulations, took care of the implementation of rulings, as well as performed the functions of one of the city courts: resolved civil cases of citizens, guardianships, property, inheritance issues. The lowest in the city government was the Court of Suolininkai, which dealt with criminal cases of citizens, property disputes and various violations of the city order.

In the late 16th– early 17th century Kaunas experienced the greatest economic boom. During this period, many new buildings and masonry houses were built. After the wars in the middle of the 17th century, the Russian occupation and the crisis in the city, a number of changes took place, such as the Court of Suolininkai became part of the Magistrate, and a new joint Vaito- Magistrate Court was created to hear criminal cases against city officials.

The city especially guarded and cared for its privileges. In 1542, construction of the City Hall began. The coat of arms of the city of Kaunas, which appeared during the reign of Vytautas in the 15th century, is one of the oldest known city heraldic seals in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the beginning of 17th century, the construction of a brick city wall began, which also gave Kaunas European features.

Kaunas is not only a community of citizens (city), but also nobles and clergy. Citizens outside the city had to obey the laws of a state ruled by nobility. The situation began to change after the Law on Cities passed by the Seimas on April 18, 1791. All its inhabitants, including the nobility, had to obey the law of the city. The latter, who had houses in the city, were able to become citizens, and some rights of the nobility were recognized to the citizens. Unfortunately, the reforms were not implemented, because in 1795 the Polish- Lithuanian state collapsed.

The collapse of self-government in the years of tsarist rule: at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the old privileges and the law of Magdeburg were still in force. However, the competences of the magistrate were limited, and the city became subordinate to the officials of the Vilnius and St. Petersburg authorities (and from 1843 to the Board of Kaunas Province). In 1808, the City Magistrate was replaced by the Duma of six persons. The power of the Duma was modest. Urban self- government in tsarist Russia was considerably limited. By the end of the century, the competencies of urban municipalities had been further narrowed.

The main institutions of city self- government under the Cities Act of 28 June 1870 were the Constituencies, the City Duma and the City Board. The City Duma (municipality) began to be collected not by representatives of the classes, but by the owners of the property. The City Duma performed organizational functions. It consisted of people elected for four years, and its composition ranged from 69 to 72 members.

Peculiarities of interwar self- government: during the period of the First Republic of Lithuania, Kaunas City Council was elected six times: in 1918, 1920, 1921, 1924, 1931 and 1934. The position of mayor in Kaunas appeared in 1921. From then until 1931 Jonas Vileisis was the first mayor of Kaunas. Mayors Antanas Gravrogkas (1932-1933) and Antanas Merkys (1933-1939) continued his works. Kaunas City Council elected a board from its members (its functions have been transferred to the mayor since 1931). The size of the board depended on the number of council members. Various political parties, organizations and communities took part in the elections to the city municipality. The new Municipal Law of 1931 strengthened the functions of the Ministry of the Interior, which controls municipalities. With the censorship of property (the right to vote is reserved only for owners of farms and enterprises and employees of state institutions and municipalities) and the change of the age limit (from the age of 24), very few people were able to participate in municipal elections. In 1924, 46.000 Kaunas residents were able to take part in municipal elections; in 1931, only 27.000 had the right to do so. It will be possible to get to know the development of Kaunas city self-government in more detail from 1408 to 1940 in the exposition “Kaunas in the Signs of History” that will start at the Kaunas City Museum on February 15.

Specifics of Soviet self-government: on June 15, 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, municipalities were destroyed. In principle, since then, it has not been the municipalities that have acted, but only their leaders- county governors, mayors of cities and heads of counties. However, the functions of these officials have also been narrowed down. The real government became the functionaries and repressive bodies of the Communist Party of cities, counties and districts.

Self- government since 1990: the first free and democratic municipal elections in Lithuania after a long break took place on March 24, 1990. This time elected representative body of Kaunas City Municipality was initially called Kaunas City Council of People’s Deputies (100 deputies were elected), Kaunas City Council since April 1990, and Kaunas City Municipality since July 1994. The first mayor of Kaunas, Vidmantas Adomonis, took office on May 15, 1990.


May Kaunas City always remain the symbol of Lithuanian strength. 07/03/98

Former President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus


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