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VARPININKAI, a term derived from the monthly Varpas (The Bell), a clandestine periodical published in East Prussia (Lithuania Minor) from 1889-1906. The editors, contributors, publishers, supporters and distributors of the periodical came to be known as varpininkai, who through their publication greatly advanced the Lithuanian national movement. In the beginning, when It first came out, most of the Lithuanian intelligentsia of that day belonged to varponinkai. While separated by their personal philosophies, they were united by a single cause, preserving the individuality of the Lithuanian nation and releasing it from the yoke of Russian oppression. Later, as the ideological groups within Lithuanian society began to differentiate themselves, varpininkai continued to be identified with the liberal positivist group, which had manifested itself in the first issues of Varpas and which finally evolved into the Peasant Populist Union.
The very first varpininkai were members of a student society called Lietuva (Lithuania), founded in Warsaw in 1888. The society's first officers were all medical students: Jonas Gaidamavicius, president; Juozas Kaukas, treasurer; and Vincas Kudirka, the future editor of Varpas, secretary. The latter wrote that the goals of their society could only be achieved with time: the restoration of the Lithuanian nation as a separate, self-governing entity, the organization of industry and trade, founding of schools, libraries, museums, theaters and other cultural institutions. More specifically varpininkai gave themselves the task of educating the Lithuanian populace and strengthening their economic condition. This they sought to accomplish through the pages of Varpas.
Yearly meetings were held to discuss financial and editorial matters pertaining not only to Varpas but to other periodicals as well. The first such gathering took place on June 29, 1889; from that time until 1905 there were seventeen meetings in all. Usually 40-50 people participated, who each year elected an executive committee, a control committee, and other committees to deal with specific problems. All of their activity was carried on secretly, since the Russian administration had forbidden any type of organized assembly in Lithuania. Kazys Grinius, who served on the executive committee for 12 years, in his memoirs (1947) mentions close to 400 individuals who were at one time varpininkai. Until 1895 the most active members were the students of the Uetuva society and a sizeable group of Catholic priests and clerics at the seminary of Seinai, among the latter: Pranciskus Bucys, Aleksandras Burba, Adomas Grinevicius, Antanas Milukas, Jonas Sutkaitis, Juozas Tumas-Vaizgantas. When the Catholics withdrew their support, Varpas found itself in financial peril, but a large group of varpininkai in Moscow helped to alleviate the problem. The Moscow group included Juozas Bagdonas, Motiejus Cepas, Kazys Grinius, Feliksas Janusis, Antanas Krisciukaitis, Petras Leonas, Motiejus Lozoraitis, Baltrus Matusevicius, Stasys Matulaitis, Jonas Raciunas, and Liudas Vaineikis. Some of its members with stronger radical and revolutionary views soon joined the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (1896).
At the turn of the century, a particularly active group emerged in Vilnius. In their midst were Jonas Bortkevicius, Felicija Bortkeviciene, Gabriele Petkevicaite, Jurgis Saulys, Jonas and Petras Vileisis, and Povilas Visinskis. Some of them also became known as the "Twelve Apostles of Vilnius" because of their outspokenness about the rights of Lithuanians vis-a-vis the Russian administration and the Polish ecclesiastical hierarchy. At the Oct. 17, 1902 meeting of varpininkai it was decided to establish the Lithuanian Democratic Party which was to work toward a free and independent Lithuania, within its ethnographic boundaries, governed by a body elected by the people. The meeting was attended by, among others, Juozas Bagdonas, Jonas Biliunas, Kazys Grinius, Pranas Masiotas, Gabriele Petkevicaite, Jonas Vileisis, Povilas Visinskis, and Morta Zauniute. During the Great Assembly of Vilnius (1905) the younger Democrats formed the Peasant Union, and at the time of the revolution in Russia (1917) the moderate varpininkai founded the Lithuanian Socialist Populist Democratic Party (see Socialist Populists). After the restoration of the independent Republic of Lithuania, these political groups merged into the Peasant Populist Union (1922), whose leading members were Felicija Bortkeviciene, Kazys Grinius, Jonas Makauskis, Albinas Rimka, Mykolas Slezevicius, Jonas Staugaitis, and Jonas Vileisis.