Leonas Bistras

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Leonas Bistras
Prime Minister of Lithuania
In office
25 September 1925 – 31 May 1926
Preceded by Vytautas Petrulis
Succeeded by Mykolas Sleževičius
Minister of Education
In office
18 June 1923 – 4 February 1924
Prime Minister Antanas Tumėnas
Preceded by Petras Juodakis
Succeeded by Kazys Jokantas
In office
17 December 1926 – 3 May 1927
Prime Minister Augustinas Voldemaras
Preceded by Vincas Čepinskis
Succeeded by Konstantinas Šakenis
In office
28 March 1939 – 21 November 1939
Prime Minister Jonas Černius
Preceded by Juozas Tonkūnas
Succeeded by Kazimieras Jokantas
Minister of Defence
In office
25 September 1925 – 31 May 1926
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Teodoras Daukantas
Succeeded by Juozas Papečkis
Minister of Foreign Affairs
In office
21 April 1925 – 31 May 1926
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Mečislovas Reinys
Succeeded by Mykolas Sleževičius
Personal details
Born (1890-10-20)20 October 1890
Liepāja, Courland Governorate, Russian Empire
(now Latvia)
Died 17 October 1971(1971-10-17) (aged 80)
Kaunas, Lithuanian SSR, Soviet Union
Resting place Petrašiūnai Cemetery
Political party Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party
Alma mater University of Freiburg

Leonas Bistras (20 October 1890 in Liepāja – 17 October 1971 in Kaunas) was one of the most prominent Lithuanian politicians of the interwar period. A Christian Democrat, he rose to the peak of his career in 1925, when he was appointed as the Prime Minister of Lithuania. Bistras also headed the ministries of education, defense and foreign affairs in several different governments throughout 1920s and 1930s and twice served as the speaker of the Lithuanian parliament, the Seimas. After the 1926 Lithuanian coup d'état and the subsequent fall of parliamentary democracy, Bistras led the Christian Democrats and, despite persecution, acted as an outspoken leader of the opposition to the authoritarian President Antanas Smetona.

After the Soviet occupation and annexation of Lithuania, Bistras was arrested, sentenced without a trial and deported from Lithuania, only returning permanently after the death of Josef Stalin. Bistras lived the remaining years of his life in obscurity and poverty, supported only by the local people of Kaunas.

Early life and education[edit]

Bistras was born in 1890 to a working-class family in Liepāja, Courland Governorate of the Russian Empire (now in Latvia), where his father had emigrated. He graduated from a local gymnasium in 1911.[1]

Bistras attempted studying medicine at the University of Geneva, switching to philosophy at the University of Freiburg a year later. He then returned to studying medicine in Dorpat (now Tartu), but was unable to finish due to the complex international environment leading up to World War I. Upon the start of the war, Bistras was conscripted to the Imperial Russian Army and served in Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution, initially as a private and later as a medic.[1][2] After the war, Bistras returned to Lithuania and helped to establish the Kaunas municipality, and worked for the press office in Lithuania and Switzerland.[3][4]

Bistras finally graduated from the University of Freiburg in 1921, with a PhD in Philosophy. Between 1922 and 1940 he taught at the faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Kaunas University. Throughout his life, Bistras did not publish a single article in philosophy (other than his doctoral thesis), but was proud of his doctoral degree, signing his name "Dr. Leonas Bistras" throughout his political career.[5]

Political career[edit]

Entry into politics[edit]

Bistras first ventured into politics during the World War I. The February Revolution liberalized the political environment and allowed for discussions on the status of Lithuania. In Voronezh, Bistras met other active Lithuanian Catholics and edited the newspaper Voice of the Lithuanians (Lietuvių balsas), giving him his first experience in journalism – an activity that would take much of his interest in the coming decades. In 1917, Bistras joined the activities of the emerging Lithuanian Christian Democratic movement.

The political situation during the war led to the formation of two parties styling themselves as the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party. One was originally established by Lithuanian refugees in Russia, led by priest Mykolas Krupavičius, and was radicalized by the ongoing revolution there. The other, established in Lithuania, was led by Aleksandras Stulginskis and was more moderate in its goals. In November 1918, a conference was called to unite the two parties. During the conference, Bistras emerged as one of the leaders of the movement and proposed a solution once an impasse was reached – both radical and moderate Christian Democrats would be represented in the joint leadership of the party and both programs would remain in place until they could be aligned.[5] This goal was eventually achieved and the party remained united. Bistras officially joined the party as a member in 1921 and from 1922 onward was regularly elected to its central committee.

Member of the Seimas[edit]

Bistras' growing prominence in the Lithuanian politics was evident when, in 1922, he was elected to the First Seimas from the constituency of Raseiniai and became its speaker.[2] He played a role in the election of Stulginskis as the President of Lithuania, dismissing complaints from the opposition politicians that the Seimas did not have the necessary quorum when voting on his candidacy.[6] The first Seimas, however, had a short and troubled life – no clear majority had emerged in the elections (Christian Democrats and their allies won 38 of the 78 seats allocated), making governing difficult. In fact, Prime Minister Ernestas Galvanauskas failed twice to get his cabinet approved by the Seimas and Stulginskis dissolved the First Seimas on 12 March 1923. However, the Seimas did play a role in the history of interwar Lithuania, authorizing the Klaipėda Revolt that would see the Klaipėda Region become an autonomous part of Lithuania between 1923 and 1939.

Bistras was reelected to the Second Seimas in 1923. Between June 1923 and January 1925, he served as the minister of education in the successive cabinets headed by Galvanauskas and Antanas Tumėnas. As a minister, he took a hard line insisting on religious instruction in public schools, drawing criticism from political opponents.[5] Between January and September 1925, Bistras again served as the speaker of the Seimas.

Prime Minister[edit]

In September 1925,[7] the government of Vytautas Petrulis opened negotiations with Poland over the navigation of the Neman as required by the Klaipėda Convention. Successive Lithuanian governments bitterly contested the Polish possession of the Vilnius region and refused to open diplomatic relations. Although Petrulis' government saw negotiations as technical and not constituting a diplomatic recognition, the public and military discontent was widespread. An ultimatum from military offices forced Petrulis to resign and Bistras was appointed as the Prime Minister of the 12th cabinet on 25 September 1925. He also served as the minister of defense and, after the resignation of Mečislovas Reinys, as the minister of foreign affairs. His government was in power for less than a year, until the Seimas elections the following spring.

Bistras' cabinet withdrew from the negotiations with Poland. Feeling isolated in the international arena, Bistras started negotiations with the Soviet Union on the Soviet–Lithuanian Non-Aggression Pact that would eventually be signed by the government of Mykolas Sleževičius in 1926. Bistras later regretted this shift in political direction. Seeing the growing power of the Soviet Union and Germany in mid-1930s, he advocated for stronger ties with Latvia, Estonia and, above else, Poland, even if it meant accepting the Polish possession of Vilnius.[7]

A major challenge for the Bistras' government was managing relations with the Holy See in the Vatican. While Christian Democrats were naturally aligned with the Church in their views on a number of matters, organization of the Catholic Church presented the Lithuanian government with a headache. Even after the declaration of independence in 1918, Catholic churches in Lithuania continued to be organized under ecclesiastical provinces based in foreign countries. The issue escalated in 1925, when the Holy See signed the Concordat of 1925 with Poland and assigned the contested Archdiocese of Vilnius to the Polish ecclesiastical province. While this did not confer a diplomatic recognition of the Polish possession of Vilnius, public opinion in Lithuania turned against Vatican and the Christian Democrats, who were perceived as their allies. Despite protests, Bistras accepted the establishment of the Lithuanian ecclesiastical province without Vilnius in 1926.[5]

Bistras was elected to the Third Seimas in 1926, this time in Marijampolė,[2] but Christian Democrats and their allies did not fare well in the elections. For the first time in six years, the party was in opposition to a left-leaning coalition that attempted to normalize the life in Lithuania by lifting the martial law and introducing far-reaching reforms. Christian Democrats proved to be an active opposition in the parliament, with multiple interpellations to the government, many of them co-authored or signed by Bistras. Christian Democrats voted against the treaty with the Soviet Union that was originally conceived under Bistras' government and criticized other government decisions, as support for the government waned, especially among the military officers and the clergy.

Coup d'état and Smetona's rule[edit]

In December 1926, military officers executed a coup d'état, removing Mykolas Sleževičius as the Prime Minister and Kazys Grinius as the President. Although Bistras and the Christian Democrats were not directly involved in the coup, they participated in implementing its outcome.[8][9] Christian Democrats voted to elect Antanas Smetona as the President, thus giving him constitutional legitimacy, and initially joined the government, with Bistras appointed as the minister of education. Bistras, ever trying to reach a compromise,[10] initially hoped that a new election would be called, allowing the Christian Democrats to return to power. As the prospect of new elections waned and the Third Seimas was dissolved, Bistras, together with the other Christian Democrats, resigned from the government, leaving Smetona's Nationalists Union of Lithuania as the sole governing party.

Bistras assumed the leadership of the Christian Democrats in 1927, leading it through a difficult period. Smetona did not call for new elections to the parliament until 1936, severely limiting the activities and influence of the party. Party leadership was constantly persecuted and put under surveillance, and party congresses were banned in 1929. Apart from the pressure from the government, the Christian Democrats also struggled to maintain unity with their traditional allies (the Farmers' Association and the Labour Federation) as well as within their own ranks.[5] The party, along with other opposition political parties, was finally banned in 1936.

Bistras was openly critical of the government during the period. In 1927, he was alleged to have influenced several military officers who attempted to force Smetona to form a coalition government. The intervention failed and Brisas fled Lithuania for Germany, only returning the following year.[1] Starting with 1930, he, together with other Catholic leaders, criticized the government for their attempt to curtail the activities of religious organizations and, in 1935, he openly criticized the government in a speech at the Global Lithuanian Congress.

Until 1936, Bistras also edited newspaper Rytas (The Morning) giving a voice to Christian Democrats in Lithuania. The newspaper was often critical of the ruling Nationalists and Smetona, and was often a target of censure and fines. In 1928, the publication of the newspaper was suspended as a result of "infractions" and Bistras started publishing Sutemos (The Dusk) instead, expressing the editor's view of the situation in the country. Bistras had many political articles published in minority (especially Jewish) press, which was less subject to censure.[5]

For his activities in inciting protests against the government, Bistras was sentenced in 1938 and sent to a three-month exile to Alytus, separating him from the political elite in Kaunas. His sentence was cut short and Bistras even returned to the government after Lithuania lost the Klaipėda Region after the German ultimatum of March 1939, serving on the 20th cabinet as the minister of education. Even as part of the government, Bistras maintained an explicitly cold relationship with Smetona, refusing to present the president with the work plan for his ministry.

Later life and death[edit]

In July 1940, Bistras was arrested, imprisoned in the Kaunas Prison and, without a trial, deported to the region of Archangelsk in 1941.[8] Charges laid against him were related to the suppression of the Lithuanian Communist Party in the interwar Lithuania. Proving Bistras' involvement in implementing the suppression was not seen as necessary, his mere participation in the government and the Christian Democratic Party was enough.[7] Due to health reasons, he was transferred to Atbasar in Kazakhstan, where he worked as a medic. In January 1945, he was sentenced again, for allegedly providing a fake certificate of absence, but was released seven months later and allowed to return to Lithuania.[7] In Lithuania, he worked at the library of the Archdiocese of Vilnius. In 1950, he was again arrested, sentenced and sent to Siberia, only returning in 1954[2] or 1956.[11] As he was not granted a pension or given work by the Soviet government, Bistras lived on donations from the people of Kaunas, where he died in 1971, three days before his 81st birthday. He was buried in Petrašiūnai Cemetery in Kaunas.


  1. ^ a b c Juozas, Girnius. "Filosofija pralaimėjo, politika laimėjo". Aidai.eu. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Leonas Bistras (1890–1971)". Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  3. ^ "Lietuvių ir Lietuvos atstovavimas Šveicarijoje 1915–1975 metais". Lithuanian Embassy in Switzerland. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  4. ^ "Leonas Bistras". Government of the Republic of Lithuania. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Svarauskas, Artūras (2015). "Leono Bistro visuomeninės ir politinės veiklos fragmentai nepriklausomoje Lietuvoje 1918-1940 m." (PDF). Parlamento Studijos. 19: 145–161. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  6. ^ Senn, Alfred Erich (1966). The Great Powers lithuania and the Vilna Question, 1920-1928. Brill. p. 106. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  7. ^ a b c d Lukšas, Aras (23 October 2009). "Politikas, nerašęs prisiminimų". Lietuvos Žinios. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  8. ^ a b Eidintas, Alfonsas (2015). Antanas Smetona and His Lithuania: From the National Liberation Movement to an Authoritarian Regime (1893-1940). BRILL. pp. 105, 430. ISBN 9004302042. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  9. ^ Tamošaitis, Mindaugas (2008). "Tautininkų ir krikščionių demokratų pasitarimų protokolai (1927 m. balandis, spalis–lapkritis)". Istorija. Mosklo darbai. 71. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  10. ^ Stundys, Valentinas. "Leonas Bistras – primirštas valstybininkas". XXI amžius. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
  11. ^ "Leonas Bistras". Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania. Retrieved 25 November 2016. 
Preceded by
Vytautas Petrulis
Prime Minister of Lithuania
25 September 1925 – 15 June 1926
Succeeded by
Mykolas Sleževičius