From The Economist print edition
Vilnius is an example to others—a contested city, but not a divided one
Vilne, in Yiddish, was home to one of Judaism’s greatest rabbis, a saintly brainbox known as the Gaon (Genius) who gave his first sermon aged seven and kick-started the great Jewish intellectual revival in the 18th century. “Vilna is not simply a city, it is an idea,” said a speaker at a Yiddish conference in 1930. It was the virtual capital of what some call Yiddishland, a borderless realm of east European Jewish life and letters in the inter-war era. At times, the majority of the city’s population was Jewish. Their murder and the deportation of many Poles by Stalin meant that the city lost 90% of its population during the second world war. Present-day inhabitants of Vilnius may find much they did not know in Laimonas Briedis’s subtle and evocative book about their city’s history.
Poles mourn the loss of Wilno, one of their country’s great cultural and literary centres. Poland’s two great poets studied there: Adam Mickiewicz nearly two centuries ago, and in the pre-war years Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel prizewinner. Yet both men saw their Lithuanian and Polish identities as complementary, not clashing.
For Russians, Vilna had harsher echoes. Fyodor Dostoyevsky stayed there briefly, detesting the subversive pro-Polish sentiment of what was the third-largest city in the tsarist empire. Earlier it was centre stage in Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of 1812. Mr Briedis neatly sums up the city’s appearance in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. “A crossing through Vilna was like a passage of honour: to the east…lay Russia—a familiar land offering spiritual comfort and self-respect; to the west—Europe—a foreign territory prompting national self-doubt and embarrassment.”
In any of the dozen possible renderings of the city’s name, its roots evoke mystery. Wilda, its old German label, comes from the word wild. In Lithuanian come hints of the words for devil (velnias), the departed (velionis) and ghost (vele). That ambiguity is fitting. In its 700-odd years of recorded history, the city has been both capital city and provincial backwater. Outsiders have been struck by its filthy streets and shameless women, and also by its glorious architecture and heights of scholarship. Pilgrims flock to the Gates of Dawn, its most holy Catholic shrine. It has been the epitome of tolerance and a crucible of the Holocaust.
In a modern Europe Vilnius can seem peripheral. Mr Briedis, however, begins by noting that when French geographers recently plotted the mid-point between Europe’s cartographical extremes, they found the continent’s true centre was a derelict farmhouse just outside the city.
Foreign visitors have left few written accounts, but Mr Briedis uses them all as sources. A hapless papal delegation provides the first. In 1324 it tried and failed to persuade Lithuania’s great pagan ruler, Gediminas, to adopt Christianity. He showed no desire to forsake Perkunas the thunder god, berating his visitors for their intolerance. “Why do you always talk about Christian love?” he asked the pope’s men. “Where do you find so much misery, injustice, violence, sin and greed, if not among the Christians?”
Lithuania eventually adopted Christianity, along with a dynastic deal with Poland, in 1387. A cathedral was built on the pagan temple, the holy fires doused and the sacred groves felled. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania flourished. At its height in the 16th century it was a vast multiconfessional empire, stretching to the Black Sea, with no fewer than six legal languages, including Hebrew and Armenian. Even as that declined, the Vilnius style of Baroque architecture ripened in glory, a “splendid autumn” in one of Mr Briedis’s many well-turned phrases, that paid “a gracious farewell to its phantom golden age”.
The most poignant chapter is on cemeteries past and present, many of which were desecrated by the Soviets. Mass graves are still unearthed in Vilnius. They hold victims of Stalin’s NKVD, of the Nazis, and—as in one recent example—thousands of fallen soldiers from Napoleon’s shattered Grande Armée. Vanished civilisations and lost empires leave a city stalked by horror and steeped in wonder.