Jonas Basanavičius

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Jonas Basanavičius
Jan Basanowicz
Jonas Basanavicius (1851-1927) cropped.jpg
Jonas Basanavičius
Born (1851-11-23)23 November 1851
Oszkobole, Congress Poland
Died 16 February 1927(1927-02-16) (aged 75)
Vilnius, Second Polish Republic
Resting place Rasos Cemetery
54°40′9″N 25°18′10″E / 54.66917°N 25.30278°E / 54.66917; 25.30278
Nationality Lithuanian
Citizenship Russian Empire, Bulgaria, Poland
Alma mater Moscow Medical Academy
Occupation Physician
Known for Publisher of Aušra, founder of the Lithuanian Scientific Society, signatory of the Act of Independence of Lithuania
Spouse(s) Gabriela Eleonora Mohl
Parent(s) Juras Basanavičius (1826–79) and Marė Birštoniūtė (1826–90)

Jonas Basanavičius (About this sound pronunciation , Polish: Jan Basanowicz; 23 November 1851 – 16 February 1927) was an activist and proponent of Lithuanian National Revival and founder of the first Lithuanian language newspaper Aušra. He was one of the initiators and the Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the 1905 Great Seimas of Vilnius. He was also the founder and chairman of the Lithuanian Scientific Society (1907). As a member of the Council of Lithuania, he was a signatory of the Act of Independence of Lithuania on February 16, 1918.

Basanavičius participated in every major event leading to the independent Lithuanian state and is often given the unique informal honorific title of the "Patriarch of the Nation" (Lithuanian: tautos patriarchas) for his contributions.

Early life and education[edit]

Basanavičius was born in the village of Ožkabaliai (Polish: Oszkobole) in the Augustów Governorate of Congress Poland, client state of the Russian Empire, to a family of Lithuanian farmers. Birth complications prompted his parents, devout Catholics, to pray and promise that they would educate their firstborn to be a priest. Keeping up with the promise, the parents supported a village tutor for local children. There Basanavičius learned basic reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as serving the altar. He further attended an elementary school in Lukšiai. During that time Polish was regarded as the more prestigious language of the nobility and well educated people. Russian was used in state administration, while Lithuanian was used among the peasants. After the Uprising of 1863, Tsarist authorities implemented various Russification policies in an attempt to reduce the influence of Polish language and culture. One of such policies allowed Basanavičius to attend Marijampolė Gymnasium. Before the uprising, a son of a Lithuanian could hardly expect to be admitted to a school catering to Polish nobility. Basanavičius failed his first entrance examinations in 1865, but succeeded a year later.

Basanavičius developed appreciation for the Lithuanian language, culture, and history from local hill forts and his parents, who provided a loving treasure of local songs, legends, stories. This appreciation grew and deepened at the gymnasium where Basanavičius got acquainted with classical authors of Lithuanian history (Maciej Stryjkowski, Alexander Guagnini, Jan Długosz, Marcin Kromer), studied Lithuanian folk songs, read classical poems The Seasons by Kristijonas Donelaitis, Konrad Wallenrod by Adam Mickiewicz, Margier by Władysław Syrokomla and historical fiction by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski. He drifted away from religion after reading a critical essay of Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan. Upon graduation in 1873, he managed to persuade his parents to allow him to attend Moscow University and not to send him to the Sejny Priest Seminary.

Basanavičius traveled to Moscow first to study history and philology, but after two semesters he transferred to the Moscow Medical Academy. Again, he benefited from the post-uprising Russification policies. He received one of ten fellowships (360 rubles annually) established for Lithuanian students from Congress Poland. He also supplemented his income by taking up private tutoring, but the living conditions were harsh and that had a lasting impact on his health. Basanavičius actively participated in student affairs, followed developments in Lithuania, and continued his studies of Lithuanian heritage. Collecting data from Rumyantsev and university libraries, he hoped to write a study on Grand Duke Kęstutis. He usually spent his summers in Lithuania, collecting folk songs, fairytales, riddles.

Medical career in Bulgaria[edit]

Jonas Basanavičius on 50 litas banknote

After his graduation in spring 1879, Basanavičius traveled back to Lithuania and had a few patients in Ožkabaliai, Vilkaviškis and Aleksotas. He returned to Moscow in October 1879 hoping to establish his private practice, but soon he accepted a lucrative proposal from the Principality of Bulgaria to become the head of a hospital in Lom Palanka, a town of about 8,000 inhabitants. After arrival in late January 1880, he found a run-down hospital located in a former hotel and energetically took measures to construct a new building, establish outpatient service, and combat perception that the hospital was a place to die rather than to get well. In 1880, the hospital had 522 inpatients and 1,144 outpatients compared to just 19 patients during 1879. The position paid well, expenses were low, so he was able to quickly repay debts and accumulate savings. Basanavičius also wrote medical research articles, liberal political articles supporting Bulgarian politician Petko Karavelov, and cultural articles for Prussian Lithuanian press, including Tilžės Keleivis, Lietuwißka Ceitunga, Mitteilungen der Litauischen literarischen Gesellschaft. However, these publications were too much under German control and did not satisfy growing needs of Lithuanian activists. Basanavičius contemplated establishing a truly Lithuanian newspaper.

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in March 1881, Bulgarian Prince Alexander of Battenberg attempted to crack down on liberal politicians. Afraid of persecution, Basanavičius left Bulgaria in May 1882. He traveled for several months, visiting Belgrade, Vienna, Lithuania, before settling down in Prague in December 1882. There he organized publication of Aušra, the first Lithuanian-language newspaper. The first issue appeared in March 1883 and is often cited as the beginning of the Lithuanian National Revival. Basanavičius directed the editorial policies, while Jurgis Mikšas handled printing in Ragnit in East Prussia. The newspaper then would be smuggled to Lithuania as publication in the Lithuanian language was illegal in the Russian Empire. Basanavičius soon lost editorial control of Aušra to Jonas Šliūpas. His involvement in an illegal publication prevented Basanavičius from returning to Lithuania until 1905.

In Prague, Basanavičius met Gabriela Eleonora Mohl, a Bohemian German, and they married in May 1884. Immediately after the wedding, the couple moved to Bulgaria, where political situation had improved. Basanavičius first found a position in Elena, but managed to return to Lom Palanka in 1885. Life there was marked by a series of hardships. The Serbo-Bulgarian War brought a wave of war casualties to the hospital and a typhus epidemic. Basanavičius became seriously ill with pneumonia and typhus in February 1886. In August 1887, he survived an assassination attempt, but one bullet remained logged under his left shoulder blade for the rest of his life and caused various health issues. His attacker, Alexander Manoilov, served a ten-year sentence but never fully explained his reasoning. On February 16, 1889, Mohl died of tuberculosis that she apparently contracted from her dying mother while still in Prague. The death of his wife sent Basanavičius into depression and melancholy for almost a year.

In 1891 Basanavičius acquired Bulgarian citizenship[1] and was promoted to Varna, a city of 25,000 residents, in 1892, but his health problems intensified. He suffered from arrhythmia, neurasthenia, neuralgia, paraesthesia. That prompted him to resign from public position in 1893 and limit his work to his private practice and palace visits to Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. When Nicholas II of Russia became the new Tsar in 1894, Basanavičius petitioned to be allowed to return to Lithuania but was refused. Basanavičius traveled to Austria several times searching for cures to his ailments. In 1900 he suffered a stroke and traveled to Vienna, where he had an X-ray taken which showed where the assassin's bullet was logged under the bones. Doctors refused to operate to extract it.

Despite his ailments, Basanavičius continued to work both on medical and ethnographic studies and even joined politics. In 1898, he was elected to the Bulgarian Literature Society. He traveled to East Prussia, where he campaigned on behalf of four Prussian Lithuanian candidates to the German Reichstag in the 1898 elections (Jonas Smalakys was elected). He also joined the Democratic Party and was elected to the Varna City Council from 1899 to 1903. He also participated in the party congresses and helped develop party program in health care. However, his passion remained with Lithuanian language and culture. Despite long distance, he collected Lithuanian tales and songs and published them in 1898–1905 in Lithuanian American presses in United States. Personally he thought that his most important work was the lifelong thesis that Lithuanians descended from Thracians and Phrygians and therefore were closely related to Bulgarians. The thesis has not been accepted by other scholars.

Return to Lithuania[edit]

Great Seimas of Vilnius[edit]

Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War and became engulfed in the Revolution of 1905. In Lithuania, the press ban was lifted. Basanavičius, after years of service, was entitled to receive a Bulgarian pension and considered this a good time to return to Lithuania even though he did not have a permission to return. He departed Bulgaria in May 1905 and arrived to Vilnius in August. Immediately he joined activities of Lithuanian activists and promoted the idea of a Lithuanian assembly which would become the Great Seimas of Vilnius.[1] With help from the staff of Vilniaus žinios, a fifteen-member organizing committee was formed and Basanavičius became its chairman. In November 1905, in the name of the organizing committee Basanavičius authored a controversial memorandum to Sergei Witte, Prime Minister of the Russian Empire, which demanded autonomy for Lithuania in the Russian Empire.

Over 2,000 participants gathered on December 4–5, 1905 in Vilnius for the Great Seimas of Vilnius. Basanavičius was elected as its chairman. After loud, passionate, and intense discussions, the Seimas adopted a four-paragraph resolution which declared Tsarist government as Lithuania's most dangerous enemy and demanded autonomy for Lithuania. The resolution also called for passive and peaceful resistance to Tsarist authorities, such as not paying taxes, organizing strikes, boycotting certain products, etc. The autonomy was not achieved and the Tsarist authorities soon reestablished their control, but it laid the groundwork for establishing the independent Lithuanian in 1918. Using the energy generated by the Seimas, Basanavičius founded the Lithuanian National Democratic Party (Lithuanian: Tautiškoji lietuvių demokratų partija), the first nationalistic party in Lithuania but it did not gain more prominence.

As Tsarist authorities began investigating the Seimas and questioning its organizers, Basanavičius decided to leave Vilnius and traveled to Saint Petersburg. There he approached Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party, but found little sympathy for the Lithuanian cause. When he returned in January 1906, the police was waiting for him and he considered fleeing the country, but his Bulgarian passport was expired. The authorities questioned him, but he was not jailed. He managed to renew his passport and even obtain a one-year permit to reside in Russia. Despite his ailments and recurring health problems, Basanavičius wholeheartedly joined the election campaigns to the newly established State Duma of the Russian Empire, wrote extensively for Lithuanian press, campaigned for use of Lithuanian language in Catholic churches, continued his ethnographic research going through various archives and libraries. The issue of language in churches was particularly important to Basanavičius. When Russian authorities expelled Eduard von der Ropp, Bishop of Vilnius, from Vilnius, Basanavičius attempted to organize a delegation to Pope Pius X to convince the pope to replace Ropp with a Lithuanian bishop. That put Basanavičius in sharp conflict with Polish clergy. Basanavičius chaired a commission organizing the first exhibition of Lithuanian art, which was held in January 1907 at Vileišis Palace.

Lithuanian Scientific Society[edit]

On April 7, 1907, Basanavičius, who contemplated establishing a learned society since the 1880s, formally opened the Lithuanian Scientific Society dedicated to studies of Lithuanian history and language. He was elected as the society's president and the society became the focus of his life. Basanavičius was involved to such a degree that the society was virtually identical with his person. The society published scholarly journal Lietuvių tauta (The Lithuanian Nation) which Basanavičius edited. The society also established a library, archive, and museum. The society was not welcomed by Tsarist authorities, that monitored and restricted its activities. Basanavičius campaigned for the need of National House, an official headquarters for the society. The society raised enough funds to buy a plot of land, but not enough to construct the house. The society and Basanavičius were criticized by younger scholars as too old-fashioned while Christian clergy attacked it for being too secular, but established new standards and levels of quality of Lithuanian scholarship.

The society organized exhibitions, two most prominent were in 1908 for the 25th anniversary of Aušra and in 1914 for the 10th anniversary of the end of the Lithuanian press ban. The society wanted to publish Lithuanian textbooks, but could not find competent authors for the books. It also planned on publishing a Lithuanian encyclopedia, but editorial disputes and financial difficulties derailed the project. The society established a four-member commission (members were Jonas Jablonskis, Kazimieras Būga, Juozas Balčikonis, and Jurgis Šlapelis) which was tasked with standardizing the Lithuanian language. After great debates, Joblonskis emerged as the leading linguist and his book on Lithuanian syntax was published by the society in 1911. The society actively campaigned against city plans to build a water tower on Gediminas Hill and further damage remains of the historic Vilnius Upper Castle; Basanavičius personally traveled to Saint Petersburg to petition the issue.

During its annual meeting in June 1913, the society decided to send a delegation to United States primarily to raise funds for the National House. It was decided that Basanavičius should go and that Martynas Yčas would accompany him. Basanavičius hesitated, citing his health issues, but agreed. They visited Lithuanian immigrant communities on the East Coast (New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and elsewhere). They were discouraged by lax manners of the Lithuanians, infighting between local communities, and attacks by socialists (for example, Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas wrote to Lithuanian American socialist press urging to boycott the donation drive). Basanavičius deeply resented such attack as to him loyalty to one's nation far outweighed loyalty to one's class. In total, they visited 84 Lithuanian communities in 120 days and collected $23,799 from 6,000 donors. The money was not enough to build the National House and it was lost in a Russian bank during World War I.

The exhausting travel schedule further deteriorated Basanavičius' frail health. Observers agreed that he became a lot more passive, more an observer than an active participant. Basanavičius himself recognized that he had trouble speaking, remembering things, was overall weaker. He continued to join various committees and organizations, but he would not automatically become chairman. It seemed that his membership was in honor of his past services rather than in expectation of future accomplishments.

Basanavičius spent World War I in Vilnius trying to preserve and protect holdings of the Lithuanian Scientific Society, organize refugee relief efforts, and represent Lithuanian interest in front of the Ober Ost officials.

Dr. Basanavičius explored Lithuanian history, culture, folklore, ethnography and linguistics, writing more than forty works in these fields. in 1993-2004, the 15-volume Jonas Basanavičius Folklore Library was published.[2]

He died in Wilno (Vilnius) on February 16, 1927, Lithuanian Independence Day, and was buried in Rasos Cemetery.


A street in Varna, Bulgaria was named Dr. Basanovich Street (after the Bulgarian rendition of his name, Иван Басанович Ivan Basanovich) in his honour.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Šlapelytė — Sirutienė, Gražutė (5 May 1977). "Daktaras Jonas Basanavičius". Aidai. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  2. ^ The Jonas Basanavičius Folklore Library: Foreword (retrieved July 19, 2015)
  3. ^ "Л. Д-Р БАСАНОВИЧ; 9010 ЖК ВАСИЛ ЛЕВСКИ, РАЙОН ПРИМОРСКИ" (in Bulgarian). 2002–2008. Retrieved 2009-03-25. [dead link]
  • (Lithuanian) "Basanavičius, Jonas". Encyclopedia Lituanica I: 307-310. (1970-1978). Ed. Simas Sužiedėlis. Boston, Massachusetts: Juozas Kapočius. LCC 74-114275

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