4 mins

Lithuania: the past and the present

Lithuania's recent past has included bloody occupation, but its present is definitely restorative – in more ways than one

Trakai Castle, Lithuania (Charlie Phillips)

Ever since I first saw soldiers brandishing Kalashnikovs as a schoolboy at Moscow airport, the Soviet Union and its legacy have held a certain fascination. Of course, things have changed dramatically since Cold War days, particularly in Lithuania. Arriving at Vilnius in 1999, the airport staff had no apparent inclination to point a gun at me. This wasn’t at all surprising, since Soviet control collapsed in a tide of nationalist fervour seven years ago. Foreigners are now treated as welcome guests rather than capitalist conspirators.

Nationalism has always been one of Lithuania’s strong points. Having survived the imperialist aspirations of Teutonic Knights, Tsars and Nazis, it was only a matter of time (45 years) before Lithuania also proved too much for the Soviets.

On 13 January 1991, several months after Lithuania became the first Soviet Republic to declare independence, the Russian army stormed Vilnius’s TV Tower. As soldiers poured in, Lithuanian TV made a final announcement: “The tower and studios are being attacked by the Red Army. But we will celebrate victory in the end.” Eleven people were killed and the Russians began a 222-day occupation but, as the broadcast had predicted, it ended in complete Russian withdrawal.

I had my first run-in with the national spirit on the evening I arrived in Vilnius. A Lithuanian basketball team had just won the European Cup. I had no idea Lithuanians even played basketball – apparently they won a bronze in the last Olympics. Even so, I never thought the game warranted much enthusiasm, but celebrations ran wild as I walked through the streets. Car loads of flag-waving fans sounded their horns around town long into the night.

A remarkable, irrepressible people

Of course, the Soviet occupation did take its toll on the country. Vilnius is a city of spires with 40 churches of all denominations jostling for attention. Over half were shut down in 1956, used as factories or left to crumble. The cathedral only avoided complete destruction because the Soviets were persuaded to make it into an art gallery.

Three hours west of Vilnius near the town of Siauliai, the Hill of Crosses also suffered. Originally established as a place of remembrance in the early 19th century, crosses began to spread all over the hill in the 1950s as Lithuanians remembered their relatives and friends that hadn’t returned from the Siberian gulags.

Both the religious and political resistance it symbolised led to the hill being bulldozed by the Soviets in 1961 and on two subsequent occasions. But despite patrols, fences and the threat of arrest, the crosses kept returning.

Today there are approximately 100,000 of all sizes and descriptions. I was there on a cold, drizzly day and the sound of the wind humming and rattling through the crosses added to the sobering experience. As the notice at the entrance reads, ‘The Hill of Crosses is a symbol of suffering, hope and undefeated faith of the Lithuanian people’.

Back in Vilnius, I saw several exhibitions recalling the persecution and repression of Lithuania. On the outskirts, the TV Tower’s ground floor is dedicated to the 1991 massacre. A scale model of the tower is punctuated with 11 red dots to mark where the victims fell and a series of pictures graphically portray the events of that night. In the centre of town, the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People has been established in a building previously used by the KGB. A former inmate showed us around cells used for torture, interrogation and imprisonment.

On a hill just outside the centre, one of the few survivors of the Jewish ghetto introduced the Jewish Museum. She spoke with passion about what had been a flourishing community until the advent of Nazism but which suffered almost complete annihilation in the 1940s. Her words were backed up by a comprehensive collection of shocking photographs and reports of the genocide.

Restorative effect

Considering this hellish recent history, the pride with which our various tour guides spoke of independence was not surprising. The buzzword today around Lithuania, and particularly Vilnius, is ‘restoration’. Many of the churches maltreated over the last few decades have been restored or are in mid-restoration. Lithuanian folk frescoes on the Vilnius University buildings – once covered in concrete to prevent the Russians destroying them – are now visible again. Books banned during the repression have been brought out of storage and returned to the shelves of the beautiful library.

Smart hotels, bars, restaurants and – wait for it – bowling alleys have been springing up, and Vilnius’s Old Town has a new and vibrant air. It’s all beer-swilling, shot-shooting and table-to-table folk bands – just what you’d expect in an up-and-coming Baltic capital. Even the opera house, despite its ugly 1970s Soviet-style design, is becoming a major venue for international performers.

On the other side of the country, Lithuania’s premier beach resort, Palanga, wasn’t quite as buzzing. My fault for arriving mid-April, but it was still quite difficult to imagine that in the summer thousands flock from all over Eastern Europe for that elusive Baltic suntan. No such bronzing for us as we lunched in a kind of community hall on meat-flavoured squash balls with only the waiter for company. The previous night, over an admittedly high-class baked potato, the guide had said, “We’ve always had good food,” which I found to be the exact opposite of reality. Although you can eat well occasionally in the Baltics, chocolate rations are a life-saver.

More signs of life than in town

The 400m L-shaped pier stretched out into an eerie white light so bright I could see no distinction between sea and sky. Fishermen and boys lined the sidings, old men wobbled precariously on vintage bicycles, and couples strolled in long coats and berets. I chose to idle my time away squinting at the promenaders since I hadn’t foreseen the need for sunglasses.

We stayed overnight in Klaipeda, the last city to be annexed by Hitler before the Second World War. In the central square is a monument to a girl called Anne by a poet-priest who became besotted when presiding over her wedding. Sadly, it’s a replica of the 18th century original which was hidden and then lost during the Soviet crackdown. Still, the telling of a pleasant love story nicely overrides the image of Hitler ranting and raving from the main balcony.

Our guide on this stage of the journey was Rita, a somewhat fearsome lady who had worked as a tour rep during the Soviet era. Over dinner she explained how difficult life had been as an Intourist worker. Once on a trip she was asked about a building site by an inquisitive member of her group. She explained that it was an unfinished government project and, as a result, was severely reprimanded upon her return to the office. The next time someone asked about the building, she replied, “I don’t know... it wasn’t there yesterday.” She was overjoyed to be living in post-Soviet Lithuania: “It’s just like heaven and earth. Impossible to compare the old and new systems.”

Kaliningrad: the bad old days

Driving down the desolate spit that connects Lithuania and Kaliningrad, I prepared to step back into the past. Kaliningrad got left behind in the tide of revolution that swept through the Baltics and remained a Russian enclave, principally because it has the only Baltic port that doesn’t freeze over.

I had met a rather old-school British diplomat in Vilnius the day before I set off for Kaliningrad and asked him what he thought of the place. “Of course you’ll get the odd anorak that will want to poke around some old Soviet outpost,” he replied. “But essentially it’s a bloody miserable place. Lithuania’s far more beautiful.”

At the border, I could partly see his point. Seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very little seemed to have changed. Even with the benefit of our ex-Intourist guide and her enviable ability to spin fantastical stories on the importance of her group (“they are three hours late for a meeting with the city mayor”, etc), the crossing was as bureaucratic and slow-moving as it had been the first time I visited Russia.

The border official’s combination of combat trousers and absolute silence had its desired psychological effect and only after much evil-eyeing on his part, and a tentative offer of boiled sweets on ours, did he soften up and let us through. An additional three-cigarette bribe at the next checkpoint and we were free to be anoraks exploring an outpost.

Further confirmation of the diplomat’s sweeping generalisation came as we wound our way through potholes to the city of Kaliningrad. It is not easy on the eye. British bombers wiped most of it out in 1944 and Soviet development took its toll on the rest. Nowhere is this more evident than at its very heart. Königsberg Castle, founded by the Teutonic Order in the 13th century, dominated the centre until the 1960s, when the Soviets declared it a monument to fascism and blew it up.

It was replaced by what is now unaffectionately known as The Monster, a huge H-shaped concrete block with a well-deserved reputation for being the ugliest construction in Russia. Ironically, funds dried up before it was quite finished. They got as far as wallpapering the rooms but what was intended as a dominating House of Soviets has never been used.

“A monument to stupidity,” was how our wonderfully frank local guide, Olga, referred to it. “I don’t know why they chose this awful design. It was done in a time when the world was obsessed with robots.” Shrugging her shoulders, she concluded that “the phrase ‘Soviet architecture’ is an oxymoron”.

Soviet-style haranguing

Despite what the diplomat had said about anoraks, I found Soviet-spotting fascinating. Whereas most Lenin statues in Lithuania are currently piled up and destined for a kind of Soviet museum park, Kaliningrad’s still stand tall and proud in the main squares. Around one such statue in Market Square we came across a communist rally. Energetic men in shabby tweed three-pieces stood in front of banners shouting rhetoric at old women with shopping bags and aggressive eyeliner.

When they discovered a British group in their midst, they unleashed a torrent of abuse at our lax politics and corrupt lifestyles. We were fascist, we were profiteers and we were America’s whores. Their conviction was formidable but their cause was lost. Behind Lenin, the person responsible for ruining all the churches, a new Orthodox Cathedral is being built. “I suspect when it is finished, he will walk away,” smiled Olga.

Michael Kalinin, after whom the region is named, was a Chairman who began his career under Lenin and continued under Stalin. He was so dedicated a party member that he sent his own wife to a concentration camp, although some locals say he was just determined to avoid alimony. Either way, the city has made no moves to rename itself as Leningrad did. Before the Russians took control of this highly strategic Baltic enclave in 1945, it was a German province called Königsburg and whatever the wrongdoing of its namesake, Kaliningrad is now too Russian to have a German title.

Despite widespread poverty, a near-impregnable language barrier and food you’d think twice about giving to your cat, there is a positive side to Kaliningrad. As I trundled around in clapped-out taxis, I found the place absorbing. Take for example the city’s central island. Caught in the flow of the River Pregolya, it was once a Hanseatic version of Paris’ Isle de la Cité. Most of it went in the war but the once heavily damaged medieval cathedral is now almost fully restored.

The enthusiasm of Nickolai Liamkin, curator of the cathedral’s brilliant museum, was refreshing in a largely unsmiling city. “We believe and we are sure that this cathedral will live again.” The great dandy philosopher Kant rests beneath the cathedral and so the place can’t help but be colourful. As we left, we watched one of the many wedding parties which come here for good luck.

New money: Russian money

In the north of the city, I got lost in the central market where you can buy everything from loofahs and caviar to strawberry plants and shoes (new or used). This was nothing like the Russia of old. Thousands of people bustled through the narrow passageways, as much to meet and gather as to find a bargain.

And later, having escaped from the maze of market stalls, my night began innocently but ended intriguingly in a pool hall-casino. The novelty of Russian billiards – lots of large white balls, a massive table and very small pockets – wore off quickly and gambling seemed like a much better idea.

Roulette is roulette wherever you are in the world, except in Russia where it’s Russian Roulette. Not the traditional game with a bullet and a circle of sweating men but the one with lots of dubious characters betting money of even more dubious origin. Each spin of the wheel precipitated a flurry of tense betting. Most punters avoided eye contact and muttered to themselves as waitresses flitted about with drinks and cigarette lighters.

One drunken high-roller in a garish shirt was kept upright by his bodyguards as he threw his high-denomination chips at the green baize. It wasn’t the most relaxing place for tourists but it was interesting to see where Russia’s nouveau riche go to offload their nouveau cash.

On the next morning we saw the source of Kaliningrad’s old money. As any Jurassic Park fan will know, amber takes 40 to 60 million years to form. It was a particular favourite of Nero’s wife, and Catherine the Great was presented an entire room made of it in the 18th century, but it was only in the 1860s that the amber trail was fully realised. West of Kaliningrad, we stopped at the village of Yantarny, site of a mine that now produces 90% of the world’s amber.

As we watched, children scrambled perilously around the mountains of earth looking for discarded pieces of ‘Baltic Gold’. A few hundred metres on, a waste water pipe from the mine pours into the sea. Here, men and women ‘fish’ for the amber and earn a relatively good living as a result.

The following day, sunbaking outside a café in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, it felt as though the amber scavengers had been part of a different world. Kaunas is bright, happy and distinctly un-Russian. The main square of the old town is flanked by colourful medieval buildings and dominated by an outlandishly pointy town hall. The main street in the new town could have been Parisian. Pedestrianised, tree-lined and thriving with shoppers and café-goers like myself, the only thing that set it apart were the no-smoking signs. This would never happen in Paris... but none of it would have happened in Lithuania just a decade ago.

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