Lithuania, Past, Present and Future
A Former Soviet Republic Sees a Renaissance in Creativity
By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor
A trip to Lithuania provides a fascinating view of the country’s long and storied history, but it also exposes the traveler to the vibrancy and excitement of the country’s present as the former Soviet Republic sees a blossoming of creativity in music, drama, art, and other forms of self-expression.
For many years artists and poets and playwrights had to use allegory and double-entendres to avoid Soviet censorship, and now they are finding their own voice and reveling in their newfound freedom.
Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Uzupis, the Bohemian neighborhood in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, which has declared itself an independent republic with an army of 12, four official flags, one for each season of the year, and a constitution which reads, in part, “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity.”
Poet Oskar Milosz, who represented Lithuania in the League of Nations after WWI, predicted that Vilnius would become “The Athens of the North” in the 21st century, and given the beauty of the city, the spirit of the Lithuanian People, and the new birth of freedom there — the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 — he might just turn out to be right.
Vilnius is a strikingly beautiful city with palaces, castles, churches, cathedrals and magnificent public buildings from many different periods of history, as well as one of the oldest universities in the world. The city’s eminently walkable Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some Grim History
After a quick walking tour of Vilnius , our first stop was the Holocaust Museum. This is a very important stop for all visitors to Lithuania. It’s mighty grim — you see the very cells where prisoners were tortured and murdered and photographs of the hundreds of thousands of families who were herded onto trains and transported to Siberia.
The Soviet Union annexed Lithania illegally in 1940, and began systematic deportations and repression. Then the country was overrun by Nazi Germany.
Vilnius was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North” and at the time the country had 240,000 Jewish residents. Ninety percent were murdered by the Nazis. Then the Red Army drove off the Nazis and the Soviets once again began a systematic effort to stamp out all traces of Lithuania as a nation.
Like the Trail of Tears Museum in the Cherokee Nation or the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, the Holocaust Museum in Vilnius has exhibits that leave a visitor stunned and speechless, and it is the attention to details that make these exhibits so powerful.
As in other countries fenced in by the “Iron Curtain,” Lithuanians make a lot of jokes about the mindset of the Soviet bureaucrats who controlled every facet of daily life. But you have to know the tragic history to really get the joke. You have to understand the bitter irony behind the humor.
A Vibrant Present
Another good place to understand the Soviet assault on the Lithuanian national spirit can be found in the Museum of Soviet Sculpture (Grutas Park) in Druskininkai, where founder Viliumas Malinauskas has created a replica of a Soviet prison camp, complete with barbed wire and guard towers. You can even see one of the boxcars that transported Lithuanians to exile in Siberia.
After a quick education in Lithania’s tragic history, one gets a better sense of the vibrant and dynamic spirit of this country that has proved itself unconquerable.
The transition from a command economy to the free market has not been easy, and many people, particularly older people, have had to sacrifice some of the security that the old regime offered.
But for nearly everyone, the sacrifices have been far outweighed by the freedom to express themselves, to travel freely, and to control their own lives.
After all, as I heard many times in the Baltic States, the Russian people suffered under the Soviets as much as everyone else.Not to mention the freedom to have a great time. Vilnius is one heck of a party town. People come from all over the world to enjoy the nightlife, especially Russians. And they’re welcomed. No hard feelings.
We arrived there on one of the first warm nights of the Springtime, and the city turned into one giant outdoor cafe.
Watch out for the cars, though. They barrel through crowded pedestrian areas, and it’s up to you to look out for them, not the other way around. Under the Soviet regime, it took up to 20 years to get a car, so now the Lithuanians are making up for lost time.
One place to see some of the works of post-Soviet-era artists is at the Museum at the Centre of Europe (see our photogallery) just 17 kilometers east of Vilnius, Lithania.
The collection includes more than 90 works from 27 countries, including Armenia, Belarus, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Russia, the United States, and Venezuela.Here, partly on land that belonged to his family before WWII, and partly on land leased from the government, a 19-year-old art student named Gintaras Karosas founded the museum, which includes a collection of outdoor sculptures placed in carefully landscaped woodland settings.
The first piece you come to is Karosas’ own installation, LNK Infotree, a 700-meter labyrinth in the form of a tree, which includes 3,000 television sets, with a toppled statue of Lenin in its center.
While just over half a million of Lithuania’s 3.2 million inhabitants lives in Vilnius, there are many other places to visit in this charming little country. Trakai Island Castle is definitely one of the best.
Construction of the castle was begun in the 14th century by Grand Duke K?stutis and expanded by his son Vytautas the Great, who famously defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Tannenburg in 1410.
The reconstructed castle is a great family destination, with fascinating exhibits from the stone age to the present day.
There are axes and grinding stones dating back 10,000 years unearthed in archaeological digs at the site, weapons and coin hoards from the medieval period, exquisitely carved ivory artifacts from the 17th century, and many other interesting treasures.
And just walking over the drawbridge into this beautifully restored castle is a journey into the distant past that makes history come to life. Kids can take target practice with longbows and crossbows or try out the stocks and tumbrils used to punish malefactors back in the day.
The town of Trakai is surrounded by five enormous lakes with lots of opportunities for boating and beach-going, and it also plays host to classical music concerts and medieval festivals. On the other side of Lake Galv?, Užutrakis, a historic manor with an English garden, is also worth a visit.
In Druskininkai in southern Lithania, we visited the Museum of Soviet Sculpture (mentioned above) as well as Lithuania’s famous year-round ski area, known as the Snow Arena.
The Snow Arena, which cost 32 million euros to build, opened last September, and has been a remarkable success with attendance that has exceeded expectations.
It’s one of the largest indoor ski areas in the world, and the largest in Europe, with a slope that is 460 meters long (1,500 feet) and 50 meters wide (164 feet) with a vertical drop of 66 meters (216 feet). The area also has a seasonal outdoor slope 640 meters long (2,100 feet).
Druskininkai has been a resort town popular with European tourists for centuries. Despite the vast destruction of WWII, many spas have been rebuilt, as well as Lithania’s only waterpark. The town is also host to many museums, art galleries and festivals.
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Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.