The Week before the Festival: Druskininkai Poetic Fall

Why Vilnius rules. On people and monuments

/ by Aira Leonidovna

Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, a small post-Soviet Baltic state. It also used to be the capital of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), with its first written reference dating as early as the 14th century. Lithuania is a young democratic country with long and difficult history to match, winters that will get on your nerves, and one of the oldest languages in the world. Linguists studying the ancient Indo-European languages, chiefly Sanskrit, learn Lithuanian first, because they are closely related: Similar in conjugations, pronouns, names for body parts and structure of a great number of words. Naturally, there have always been many languages spoken in Vilnius: Lithuanian, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, and now also English.

During the interwar period, as Lithuania had lost possession of Vilnius, as well as the Baltic coast, Lithuanians only constituted 2% of the residents of the city. The number only increased after World War II, with Vilnius returned to Lithuania again. For several centuries, it had been a city of Poles and Litvaks, mostly, an interesting crossroad of cultures. Only Jerusalem and Vilnius are said to have so many different temples so close to each other: Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelist, Uniate, Judaist... Vilnius does have a special Vilnian charm.

Baltic states remain a terra incognita to the Western civilization. Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn are confused with each other. So...


What makes Vilnius special?

Many things, really. Vilnian Baroque, established by Silesian architect, Johann Christoph Glaubitz, for instance, and Litvak culture – for several centuries, Vilnius used to be the spiritual center of Ashkenazi Jews, often referred to as the Northern Jerusalem. This is where writer and Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz studied, this is where his friend, Joseph Brodsky, another Nobel laureate, partied. French writer Romain Gary, the only writer ever to win two Goncourt Prizes, was born here. Some wonderful Yiddish-language poets lived in Vilnius – my beloved Moyshe Kulbak, Abraham Sutzkever. Of course, many interesting Lithuanian writers also worked in Vilnius – Žemaitė, S. Nėris and others.

Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s letters to her Vilnian friend were found recently. Polish Romanticist poet Adam Mickiewicz studied here – there’s a monument to him in Paris, too. Born in Vilnius was Jewish anarchist, writer, activist and prisoner, Alexander Berkman, the significant other of the most dangerous woman in the US, in the beginning of 20th century, also Litvak, Emma Goldman. The students of Vilnius Academy of Arts – mostly Jews from around the present-day Lithuania, Belarus and Poland – moved to Paris in early 20th century, forming the second wave of École de Paris, which made a great impact on Western modernism.

One text is evidently not enough to fully reveal the love I have for Vilnius. So let’s do it in a simpler way: I’ll tell you how this whole cultural variety is displayed in the city’s monuments and sculptures.


Four Lithuanian Writers

The central street of Vilnius – Gedimino prospektas – is where she sits: Žemaitė (Julija Beniuševičiūtė-Žymantienė, 1845–1921). A woman in a rustic headscarf and with a pipe. The latter was left out, in the Soviet monument – it was probably considered unattractive: A woman with a pipe, yuck... An impoverished, noble-born girl came to Vilnius from Žemaitija, Western Lithuania. She would walk barefoot because, according to her, “stones tear up the shoes.” She brought up 7 children with her husband, and fell in love with another man 30 years her junior, who later married her daughter. A decided feminist, she took part in the first Lithuanian women’s congress, in 1907. During World War I, on the eve of her 70th birthday, she decided to go to America. Even there, out of eccentricity, she kept the accessory of a countrywoman – the headscarf. It remained the detail of the writer’s personal style.

Next to this monument, feminist readings take place. Me and my friends placed a colorful balaclava helmet on Žemaitė’s head once – after the picket to support the Pussy Riot girls, who were in prison at that time, when we still liked them. In short, this monument is full of life, and Žemaitė Square turns sometimes into an interesting public space.

Close to Salomėjos Nėries gimnazija (Salomėja Nėris high school) resides a bust of Salomėja Nėris (Bačinskaitė-Bučienė, 1904–1945), the poet damned by the Lithuanians. Overgrown in shrubs, as if intentionally hidden from sight. Still considered one of the best Lithuanian poets, a great lyrist, but also a traitor because, once upon a time, being an idealist, she held certain political views that don’t seem appropriate now. In 1940, she pompously went to Moscow with a delegation of Lithuanian writers, in order to ask for the newly-restored modern state of Lithuania to be incorporated in the Soviet Union. Later, it turned out to be an annexation. Without question, the big decisions were not made by poets. But at that time, in the context of authoritarianism, and before Stalin’s gulags, many writers were actually admiring the then-innovative left-wing ideals of a classless society – with Nėris among them. This was exploited by the propagandist machine. Many people refuse to forgive the poet. Pinning everything on ideology, many would like to toss Nėris’s bust out of Grūto parko muziejus (Grūtas Park Museum), where all the Soviet Lithuania’s monuments are collected. Generally, the poet’s biography is polished and very scholastic. Some say she loved women, that she used cocaine and opium – it’s only that no one has dared to analyze this thoroughly.

One of the most beautiful sculptures in the city is the Cat in Stoties (Station) district square, Aguonų street. One of the most distinguished modern writers, painter, traveler Jurga Ivanauskaitė (1961–2007) used to live around here. Bright red shoulder-length hair, quantities of massive jewelry. She didn’t feel at home in semi-official culture or in Lithuania as a country. She travelled a great deal around India and Tibet, looking for other forms of spiritual life. It was only before her death that she converted to Christianity – just like one of the heroines in her book, Pragaro sodai (The Gardens of Hell), which is best read in early youth. I was deeply affected by this book at the time. The writer loved cats, which would become her characters: it’s the cat who chooses the master, not the other way around... and the book Ragana ir lietus (The Witch and the Rain, 1993) was banned – it contains a lot of sex and some priests – fresh out of the atheistic Soviet Union, it was still too intense for Lithuania. I climbed on the Cat with my boyfriend, romantically, once on New Year’s (and it’s rather tall!) – it was fittingly the Year of the Tiger coming. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a guard appeared and asked us to climb down. But we were not upset: The Cat had its own personal bodyguard! The author of the sculpture is Ksenija Jaroševaitė. Works by female sculptors still constitute an absolute minority in Vilnius.

A pretty sculptural composition – a holey umbrella and a bird – is dedicated to Judita Vaičiūnaitė (1937–2001), the poet of the city. The sculpture is hard to notice, towered over by the great baroque Šv. Kotrynos bažnyčia (St. Catherine’s Church). The umbrella should be sought on the wall by Benediktinų street. Vaičiūnaitė liked to write in this little square. Back then, during the Soviet time, the church was closed. According to some, the umbrella is invisible, as if it’s discarded somewhere in the corner. Actually, when I wanted to see this composition for the first time, I couldn’t find it right away. You wouldn’t notice it, if you didn’t know to look. You could ask: Would a sculpture for a male Lithuanian poet be constructed just as imperceptibly?

By the way, there is a Literatų street in Vilnius – it’s charming, decorated in compositions devoted to writers who have to do with Lithuanian culture. Come to see it when you’re in Vilnius.


Litvaks and Vilna Gaon

The term Litvak – Lithuanian Jew – refers to Jewish people from the former GDL, mostly from the territories of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Northeastern Poland. In early 20th century, Jews constituted almost 40% of Vilnians. Before World War II, there were 110 synagogues and 10 yeshivas – centers of Jewish religious studies – in the city alone. Litvishe Yiddish is an individual dialect. Also referred to as Litvaks are Orthodox Jews who do not accept reform, regardless of their origin. Vilnius was famous for the high level of Talmud studies and a large number of student priests.

I met a young man at a party in the Station District once who, along with his Kabbalist friend, aimed at recreating Vilnius as a Northern Jerusalem. He spoke very earnestly, everything sounded rather strange, chilling and wonderfully beautiful...

A bust of a bearded man is placed on Žydų street in the old town. It’s a monument built in 1997 by Lithuanian sculptors, dedicated for Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720–1797). This man turned Vilnius into a center of Orthodox Judaism. You won’t find one book of Jewish history that doesn’t mention him – a rabbi, world-famous commentator of Torah and Talmud. Vilnius libraries were renowned. Judaic books printed in Lithuania were of worldwide reputation. As a popular saying of the time goes, go to Lodz (Łódź) for work, to Vilnius for wisdom. The Great Synagogue of Vilnius, which was replaced by an extremely dull kindergarten in Soviet times – right next to the Vilna Gaon monument – accommodated 5000 people. The interior of the synagogue was created by Glaubitz. Marc Chagall set down a part of the interior, during his visit to Vilnius in 1935. The painting is distinctive because of its way of conveying the colors.

As for the monument for Vilna Gaon, it is quite controversial. It is not customary in Jewish tradition to build monuments in human shape – textual signs are acceptable. This kind of commemoration of Gaon was not generally liked by Jews, but the discussions quietened down. To make it worse, this sculpture, according to Vilnius historian Darius Pocevičius, was included in several work catalogues of artists under different names... In any case, it’s a good thing this personality was honored, even if with some controversy. The history of Jews and Lithuanians is, overall, very painful and not fully realized or talked over by Lithuanians themselves. During the Holocaust, about 90% of the Jews in Lithuania were killed, with not only Nazi Germans, but also Lithuanians involved. Apart from a few brave exceptions, it was kept quiet during the Soviet times. Only recently did it receive public attention…


The Boy with a Shoe and Doctor Aybolit

Following up the Jewish Vilnius, Romain Gary (born Roman Kacew, 1914–1980) was born here. A charming sculpture to him is located on the crossing between J. Basanavičiaus and Mindaugo streets: A boy holding a shoe, his head tilted back. In his book about his childhood in Vilnius, Aušros pažadas (Promise at Dawn), Gary describes the incident that involved him taking a bite of a shoe, to prove his love for a girl. One can only receive the Goncourt Prize once in a lifetime. The writer won his second one under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, something he only confessed before his death. He shot himself, with a red shower cap on his head – some terrifying aestheticism.

The most important person in his life was his strong-willed Jewish mother, Mina Kacewa, a hard-up, lonely woman, not well-liked by others. Since the boy’s early childhood, she looked for his talents and projected his future. At one point, she furiously yelled at her neighbors, in a staircase in Vilnius, that her son will be an “Ambassador of France, a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, a great playwright…” All came true. Kacewa kept a hat shop for the ladies of the city. She would forge the labels with such mastery that the customers believed they were truly buying pieces by famous designer Paul Poiret... Gary was married to actress Jean Seberg. Finding out about his wife’s lover, Clint Eastwood, Gary challenged him to a duel, but he refused to come... A great sculpture, lovingly created on the initiative of the writer’s fans, is much loved by Vilnians, too. The boy is seldom seen without fresh flowers. I left him a couple of blossoms myself before finishing this text today.

A remarkably beautiful sculpture close to Šiuolaikinio meno centras (Contemporary Art Centre) is dedicated to Zemach Shabad (1864–1935), a doctor, theorist of medicine, leader of Jewish society, member of the city council. Shabad is the prototype of the literary character Doctor Aybolit (Dr. Ow-It-Hurts). The story of this character was written by Russian children’s writer Korney Chukovsky. It is said by some that he simply rewrote Dr. Doolittle in his own way. But the writer claimed to have created an original story, focusing on Doctor Aybolit, a real-life doctor from Vilnius whom he knew. According to Nabokov’s letter to Chukovsky, the latter’s children stories were popular not only in Russia, but also among the expatriates.

Shabad would take care of the poor of the city – in addition to healing them, he also arranged lectures on how to maintain hygiene to prevent illnesses. On his initiative, Vilnian women who had babies were first provided with rations of milk, clothes and food. It was the beginning of the now-customary social support in Vilnius. He endowed war refugees and looked after the charity.


Vilnius and the Russian writers

Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) had never been to Vilnius, but he is related to the city in several ways. Positioned near Piatnickajos cerkvė (St. Paraskeva Church), 2 Didžioji street is a sculpture in memory of him and his great grandfather: Two large, long-fingered hands. You can’t see the sculpture from the street; it is visited by people who know about it, and when the gates of the church are open. Legend has it that, in this church, Peter I, tsar of Russia, baptized the poet’s great grandfather, Abram Gannibal. The poet’s son lived in Markučiai, a district of Vilnius where, placed in a beautiful setting, there’s also a bust for the poet. It’s a delightful place to drink wine in the autumn. I remember my friend, who holds a PhD degree from Sorbonne, went on loudly and in French about the shamelessness of a pigeon who took a dump on Pushkin’s head. It was hilarious. By the way, autumn becomes the trees and ponds of Markučiai, as well as the rest of Vilnius.

Letters by Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), one of the most remarkable poets of the Russian Silver Age (late 19th century-early 20th century), were found in Užupis. She was an impressive poet with a dramatic fate – her husband was shot, her daughter imprisoned in Stalin’s labor camps. Tsvetaeva exchanged letters with Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, André Gide, etc., as well as with a Vilnian Polish teacher, Natalja Hajdukiewicz, who studied in Paris and Moscow, with whom she shared a special bond. The letters have recently been published as a book – in Russian and Lithuanian. This is also a monument of sorts.

A Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996) liked to visit Lithuania. There’s a memorial tablet for him in Vilnius, on Liejyklos street. This man used to work in a factory, a morgue, a lighthouse and more, he was a poet, sentenced by the Soviet authorities for scrounging. Friends would invite him to Vilnius to rest and relax. Lithuania was the most Western of the Soviet countries, with a freer atmosphere, which he liked. His visit to Lithuania is reflected in his poetic cycle, Lithuanian Divertissement, and his short poem, Lithuanian Nocturne. Although the poet’s grandparents are of Lithuanian descent, it was his friends who bound him to this country. In Vilnius, Brodsky made the acquaintance of Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian poet, intellectual, and nonconformist who had just marked his 80th birthday. Later, both Brodsky and Venclova translated each other’s texts, respectively, into Russian and Lithuanian.


Lithuanians Writing in Polish? Mickiewicz and Miłosz

Another Nobel laureate and Tomas Venclova’s friend, Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) lived in Vilnius, too. Born in an old mansion of a noble family near Kėdainiai (now central Lithuania), he adopted a stance of a citizen of GDL, which had already turned into an Atlantis of sorts. Although it was difficult to hold multiple citizenships at the time, he considered himself a Polish Lithuanian poet. An independent and uncomfortable position against authentic states and insights. His work, such as The Issa Valley, provided the GDL, a country already lost, with an exceptional cultural significance. In his letter to Venclova, Miłosz miraculously described the clouds above Vilnius: “Baroque clouds over a baroque city…”

On the crossing between O. Šimaitės and Bokšto streets, Miłosz stairs have recently been opened – a monument in itself. On the treads of the stairs, i.e. underfoot, there are fragments of his poems in Lithuanian and Polish. Unfortunately, the words are hard to read, the letters are minute. In spring, with all the sand, they’re practically invisible. And what kind of respect for the honorary citizen of the city, Nobel Prize winner, a great poet, is this, when his words are stamped on with dirty shoes... If you try to make something out, you might topple over, pushed by an unsuspecting passer-by... In spite of everything, this odd kind of memorial is better than nothing.

Only one out of the trio of friends – Miłosz, Brodsky and Venclova – doesn’t have a Nobel prize yet. Tomas Venclova is certainly worthy of it – both for his work and his civil position.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) was a Romantic poet, a Vilnian. A true Romanticism man. A combative type, speaking against tsarism and for the freedom of nation and individual. A monument dedicated to him is in a prestigious place next to the great Gothic Šv. Onos bažnyčia (St. Anne’s Church). He wrote in Polish, but considered Lithuania to be his homeland. As was the case with Miłosz, his family were Polish aristocrats. He started writing while studying at Vilnius University; he became interested in Lithuania’s history, which came to be an important part of his identity. He established a secret society of self-education, called the Philomaths (“lovers of knowledge”). Its members not only discussed each other’s works and artistry, but also spread the anti-tsarian ideas. In 1823, the tsar’s authorities arrested 108 people, Mickiewicz among them. The friends bribed the guard and would get together in the poet’s cell at night. There’s a cell on 7A Aušros vartų street named after one of Mickiewicz’s characters, Konrad.


Conclusions? Or Whatever Goes in the End

In the city, monuments, sculptures and other forms of memory serve as details helping to unexpectedly (or expectedly) find something familiar or new and relevant. Where they are, how they look, their visibility – this partly discloses the outlook of the predominant discourse. Some are better-loved by the residents than others. In Vilnius, most of the monuments for cultural personalities look good and are set in the right places. I’d like to remark on the aspects of ideology and nationality. If an ideologically-inapt sculpture is not removed, it’s covered in shrubs, like Salomėja Nėris’s bust. The head of Vilna Gaon, as well as Czesław Miłosz’s stairs (both men, as we know, are not ethnic Lithuanians) seem to have been carelessly made. All right, at least they’re there. Any sign of history is better than nothing at all.

I’m fascinated by the layers of Vilnius, the great variety of things that are interlaced here. Not very large, not very rich, with potholed streets, expensive to live in. But you don’t find Tsvetaeva’s letters just anywhere! And I’m glad we don’t have to restrict ourselves to the city’s past: At the moment, three projects are being built in Vilnius by Studio Daniel Libeskind, founded by Daniel Libeskind, a famous American architect of Polish Jewish descent, and his wife, Nina Lewis Libeskind. Nina Lewis being of Litvak descent, Vilnius has a special significance to both of them. These projects are the following: The MO Museum, which is to be opened in 2018; Vilnius beacon; a business and leisure center on 18B Konstitucijos street. Their work here is a continuation of the history of Vilnius, as well as a major step forward into worldwide modernity, through architecture. Studio Daniel Libeskind intends to recreate the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. Works by Studio Daniel Libeskind are found all around the world. For those who don’t know, their project won the contest to rebuild the World Trade Center in Manhattan after the September 11 attacks.

What else to say about Vilnius that I haven’t mentioned yet? The old town bears a resemblance to Italy, the Station District is very Dostoyevskyan. Vilnius has magnificent communicating courtyards. Driving through the streets are trolleybuses, already aged but still charming, though there are new ones, too. Many vegetarian places and boutiques of local designers, the internet here is one of the fastest in the world, there are tons of exhibition openings—the cultural life is dynamic. And if you’re wondering what part you should play in Vilnius, stick with classic and be a flâneur – a walker, or a drifter of the city. Walking in a proud, hedonistic, unhurried manner, calling in somewhere, meeting somebody, taking it in, seizing the snippets of the variety. Balzac defined this practice as the gastronomy of the eye. Vilnius is perfect for it!


Translated by Kotryna Garanasvili

Aira Leonidovna

aka Niauronytė is a philologist, freelance Lithuanian language editor, project coordinator for kitos knygos, the most interesting Lithuanian publishing house, a little bit of a Bohemian, a Vilnian, a great admirer of Vilnius.