A few hours after landing in Riga from Berlin, my friend Pablo and I hopped on the bus to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We arrived at around 7 p.m., and immediately started heading down to the city center.
The walk into the Old Town was not long—and was pretty scenic. The first thing I stumbled upon was the mural of Trump making out with Putin that’s been making the rounds online. I hate them both, and a picture was mandatory.
The walk led to one of the city gates. Souvenir vendors were already wrapping up for the day, but there were still a couple of stands full of religious paraphernalia. As opposed to the other two Baltic States, religion is a big deal in Lithuania. It is traditionally a Catholic country and, especially during Communism, Catholicism became one of the pillars of national identity for many Lithuanians. And yeah, there are A LOT of churches there, not only Catholic but also Orthodox—even though Lithuania has the smallest Russian minority of the three Baltic States.
Lithuania was (in union with Poland) a European power until it disappeared completely in 1795. That year, the Russian and Austrian Empires and Prussia completely dismembered the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in what is known as the Third Partition (there were two partial partitions before that), and both Lithuania and Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years.
This joint historical development of Poland and Lithuania means that both countries are still somewhat connected—and have unresolved issues, particularly regarding the Lithuanian capital.
Vilnius is the historical capital of Lithuania. It was the capital of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the first Lithuanian state. When Poland and Lithuania were reestablished in 1918, the city found itself within the borders of Poland (Second Polish Republic). Vilnius was then handed over to Lithuania by the Soviet Union in 1939. Today, the sizable Polish minority of Lithuania is concentrated around Vilnius and, just like with the Russian minority, there can be a bit of animosity from time to time—especially when it comes to the usage of the Lithuanian language.
This means that you’ll read and hear some Polish when you are in Vilnius. In the Chapel at the Gate of Dawn (no connection to Pink Floyd), the texts are in Polish. Mass is officiated in both Lithuanian and Polish, and many commemorative plates outside of buildings are written either in Polish or in both Polish and Lithuanian. Add the large Russian minority into the mix for a bit more flavor.
And don’t forget the Jewish influence. Up until the 20th century, Lithuania was known as the “Jerusalem of the North” and was a global center of Jewish culture and learning. The historical and tradition-rich Jewish communities in the Baltics were eliminated by the Germans and their local auxiliaries in the 1940s—and the vestiges of their presence, such as cemeteries or even the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, were then destroyed by the Soviet government in the 1950s. The Soviet government did not only destroy that but also did its best to destroy any remnants of the Lithuanian state. The three Baltic States were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 (and again in 1944) and were Soviet Republics until regaining independence in 1991. During this time, monuments, cemeteries, and institutions were destroyed and replaced with Soviet symbols.
As in other former Soviet republics, the Lithuanian government is getting rid of a lot of vestiges of the Soviet Union—which, despite all apologetic arguments, still represent foreign oppression. Without attempting to provide a definitive answer to the question, I would just say that the whole past of these countries should not be reduced to the Soviet period. The Baltics are moving on. Lithuania’s capital was a proper European city, a meeting point of cultures. Attempting, for example, to rid the city of all Polish or Jewish elements would be ridiculous since the city developed through this interaction over centuries, but getting rid of the generic statues designed to replace national identities, which were planted by the Soviet Union over a relatively short period of time? Completely justifiable to this observer. That being said, the Lithuanian government is very thorough when it comes to getting rid of Soviet statues and monuments and you won’t see many of them in Vilnius.
Anyway, Vilnius is beautiful. I ate a heavy Georgian meal and got me a can of Lithuanian beer to gear up for my wandering. I entered a shop and asked the lady behind the counter if she spoke any English, to which she replied “no” by shaking her head. I then asked her if she spoke Russian, she said yes, and I conducted the transaction in our only common language. I said Spasibo (thanks) and was getting ready to leave when a girl blurted out “it’s not spasibo, it’s aciu. Like when you sneaze.” She was being cool and friendly about it, and I know that it is polite to learn how to say “thanks” in whatever language is spoken wherever you are, but in this case I was speaking to a Russian-speaking lady in the only common language we had.
I was expecting a bit more grit in Vilnius, to be honest. The city center was extremely clean and full of expensive places. No cool bars in sight. Pablo and I spent some hours in Užupis, a neighborhood of the capital known for being home to several artists. Užupis declared itself a sovereign state in 1997, and has a constitution and a president. We sat down by the river to drink a beer, which was interrupted by a fight between local drunks on the other side of the river. They both fell down this little green area, and one hit his head on the stone floor. He was then kicked into the very shallow river by his opponent, at which time he lost consciousness. The water flowing by his head turned red. We ran over to help calm the guy, who had regained consciousness and was a bit hysterical, and waited until the ambulance arrived (which only took for fucking ever).
One of the coolest things about Lithuania was just how aware they are of their history, especially young people. Some of the people I met were into Lithuanian traditions and folklore, which seems to be rare in Europe nowadays (but normal in the part of the world I grew up in). I found that refreshing. And by the way, Lithuania (and Latvia) also has a very healthy micro-brew scene!
I liked Vilnius a lot. Despite being a mid-size city, it has the character of a small town. It’s amazing the amount of empty buildings in the city center—many of which are being renovated. Development and gentrification is well under way in Vilnius, and I hope the city doesn’t change that much. Nevertheless, according to the people I asked, the city had already changed beyond recognition. My hosts from Couchsurfing, Audrius and Simona, and their friends were extremely helpful and welcoming. My time there was short but it won’t be the last time I visit.
Have you been to Lithuania? What were your impressions? Share ’em in the comments! And don’t forget to like my page on Facebook to help Between Distances grow.
Thanks for reading! Greetings from Berlin, Seb
Next up: Latvia.