Friday, May 01, 2009

Vilnius book review


Contested city

Apr 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Vilnius is an example to others—a contested city, but not a divided one

THE choice of name for the capital of present-day Lithuania—Wilno, Vilna, Vilne, Wilda, Vilnia or now Vilnius—shows who you are, or were. In the 20th century alone, it has been occupied or claimed by Germany, Russia, Poland and the Soviet Union, with only brief periods of Lithuanian autonomy.

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.


Bea said...

It's the first time I hear that the name Vilnius has something to do with velnias, velionis, vėlė (the three have a common root, indeed). But probably only non ethnic Lithuanians believe that is what the name Vilnius comes from. Vilnius doesn't come from them. Vilnius was earlier called exactly like the rivulet which flows through the city - Vilnia. And the name Vilnia comes from the Lithuanian word vilnia or vilnis, which means a wave. The rivulet has waves indeed, since it has stones in and the water flows quite quickly over them. Vilnius is a derivavtive of Vilnia. It was probably created later with a different ending to mean a city on the banks of Vilnia, the name of the city (masculine form) was made to differ from the name of the river (feminine form).

news said...

I think the above comment by Bea illustrates in a nutshell why different ethnic groups still get upset over ¨who¨ Vilnius belongs to. Everyone thinks ¨their¨ version is correct.

BTW, my map of Vilnius has two rivers, the Neris and the Vilnele. When did the Vilnia become the diminutive Vilnele?

Edward Lucas said...

Interesting point. My review made the point because the author raised it.

Kristopher said...

I've heard of Vilna, hadn't heard Vilne.

roman said...

My father was born in Vilno, Poland in 1927. At the age of 16, he was taken against his will to Germany and made to work as a farm laborer in 1943. Like many others in his position and being an orphan, he had no real home to return to at the end of the war.

news said...

Vilne is Yiddish. Vilno is interesting, it might be an anglicised version of Wilno. Maybe an Ellis Island (if in the US) immigration clerk's phonetic transcription of Wilno.

In the London suburb of Wimbledon there is street called Wilna Gardens.

Bea said...

Vilnia did never become Vilnelė in official papers, it's just a deminutive since the river is seen as a rivulet, imo.
Btw, I've never heard Wilda as an official German name of the city either. The official German name is Wilna. The Wilda might have been some joke name, exactly like the origin of Vilnius explained from velnias, vėlė, velionis might have been some non Lithuanian half serious version to curse or explain the curse of the city and its bad fate. Vilnius was a half pagan place for long and the Lithuanian language was cursed as pagan language by non Lithuanians for long as well. Most of the non-Lithuanians never learned enough of the language, just heard some strange curiosities and made some wild jokes about it. That must explain it. And the author of the book did not aim to present mere facts, he aimed to present opinions, impressions, sayings, legends... ;) it's still fine and interesting, but the article may make you lots to create more legends now.

Edward Lucas said...

Thanks for these comments.
@Bea Wilda is clearly used on old German maps some of which are used in the book.

I think some of this vindicates my point that even modern-day residents of the city will find things about its history they didn't know.

Bea said...

Here you are right, Edward. Most of the present day residents of the city can be sure they'll find something new and interesting to themselves in the book. ;) Thanks for the article, btw, it's a good promo. I haven't seen the book myself yet.

Are the maps from the times of crussades or before them?

Vaidotas said...

Thank you for this review. Another topic that came to me after reading this article is about the other Lithuanian neighbour - Belarus, and some history interpretations in this country that could lead to interesting developments in the future. I mean, as we know, Belarussian people still have a different vision of their identity (or no vision) and the heritage of Grand Duchy on Lithuania. I mean, there is no doubt that the search for identity could lead to the rise of some "heritage questions" including the questions of Vilnius that are mentioned in the review if changes come to Belarus and the nationalism takes it's part. In this case new tough questions could arise in Lithuanian-Belarussian relations. It would be very interesting also to hear Mr. Lucas' insights on this topic:)

roman said...


Vilno is interesting, it might be an anglicised version of Wilno.Sorry, it is Wilno. English speakers , like myself, spell phonetically and thus the error.