The Center(s) of Europe – Into The Hearts of Belarus & Lithuania (Searching For The Center of Europe Tour #5)

Belarus has been billed as Europe’s last dictatorship. Aleksander Lukashenko has totally controlled the government apparatus for almost thirty years. This has made Belarus an outlier in Europe, Soviet style state that continues to be a political pariah. Currently, Belarus does not have much in common with either Poland or Lithuania, thought it has been historically connected to both. While the latter pair have joined the European Union and grown increasingly prosperous, Belarus continues to languish far behind the rest of Europe. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which was partly launched from Belarus only served to set the country back even further. Belarus has a long way to go when it comes to human rights, freedom of the press and openness to democracy.

In 2000, Belarusians learned that they had something more than historical ties in common with both Poland and Lithuania, a claim that the Geographical Midpoint of Europe was in Belarus. This claim was received with a great deal of skepticism, which did not come as a surprise. The Center of Europe on Belarusian territory, even it was just geographical, was a thought that many were not willing to stomach due to the nature of its government. Adding to the skepticism, the midpoint’s location was in the countryside, but marked with a monument in the city of Polotsk sixty kilometers to the northeast. Despite such misgivings, the Belarusian midpoint does offer those searching for the Center of Europe an opportunity to visit a country that most know little about.

Through the heart of Europe – Dvina River at Polotsk, Belarus (Credit: Andrey Schelkunov)

Natural History – A More Ancient Europe
At the beginning of the 21st century, a couple of Belarusian scientists published findings that the Geographical Midpoint of Europe was located near Lake Sho in the northern part of the country. The location was exceedingly remote by European standards, but also quite beautiful. Thick pine forests and pristine lakes dot the area. When people think of Belarus, they often think of the Soviet Union and industrialized, urban cityscapes. There is another Belarus though. One full of serene nature, extraordinary bird life and shimmering waters. Anyone traveling deep into the countryside on a journey to the midpoint is bound to discover this Belarus, one only known to its inhabitants and the odd traveler that has taken the time and energy to explore this entrancing landscape. This is a land of natural wonder, where the draconian political environment of Minsk is a world away.

The Belarusian claim to the Center of Europe may be open to question, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. Consider that the first claimed midpoint in Sucholow, Poland, the most scientifically accurate one near Girija, Lithuania and the Belarusian claim near Lake Sho could all hypothetically be visited on the same day on an eight hour drive. The proximity of the three midpoints means that the true Geographical Center of Europe is likely somewhere in this area. The area also acts as a corrective to the image of Europe that many have of a heavily urbanized and ultra-modern continent. The Europe found in northeastern Poland, southeastern Lithuania and northern Belarus is the more natural one that has existed since time immemorial. The next time someone refers to Old Europe, it is unlikely that they are talking about this region, but they should.

Crossing Over – Lithuania & Europe
Crossing the border from Belarus to Lithuania on the way to visit yet another the Geographical Center of Europe also means crossing one of Europe’s greatest geopolitical fault lines. From autocracy to democracy, dictatorship to the peaceful transfer of power, fixed elections to free elections, unity by force to unity by choice, Belarus and Lithuania could not be any more different. While the differences are glaring, there are also some striking similarities, specifically in the natural world. Lithuania, like Belarus, has thick forests and stunningly clear lakes. Like Belarus, Lithuania also has a claim on the Center of Europe which can be found in the countryside. Of all the claims for the Geographical Midpoint of Europe, Lithuania’s has the most scientific backing. The fact that this claim for the Center of Europe did not originate from Lithuanians gives it a degree of credibility that the other claimants lack.  It came out of France which, except for the time Napoleon and his Grande Armee spent in Lithuania during his invasion and retreat from Russia, has no clear connection to Lithuania.

Ancient Europe – Old Growth forest in Belarus (Credit: Mikhail Kapychka)

Calculations done by the French National Geographic Institute placed the midpoint in a field near the village of Girija, just half an hour by bus from the capital of Vilnius. The claim has been wholeheartedly embraced by the Lithuanian government, which saw it as a way of bringing the small Baltic country that much closer to Europe. Of all the monuments that have been placed at the various midpoint claims, the one in Lithuania is by far the most grandiose. It is an expression of Lithuania’s need to be recognized as European. The work of sculptor Gediminas Jokubonis, the monument is a white granite column crowned with gold stars. A little further back stands a nine-ton boulder which was placed on the site several years earlier. The Lithuanians wanted to make it as clear as possible that the Center of Europe was within their borders.

Frontier To Forefront – Present At The Center
The Center of Europe monument in Lithuania is part of a reserve which was created at the site in 1992, incorporating nearby Lake Girija and Bernotai Hill which contains the archaeological remnants of a castle that stood atop the latter from the 1st through the 5th centuries AD. This deep rooted cultural history adds to the aesthetics of the site. The monument for the Center of Europe was unveiled on May 1, 2004, the same day that Lithuania joined the European Union. Flags of the member states of the European Union fly on-site with the Lithuanian tricolor in all its red, yellow, and green glory unfurling alongside of them. For Lithuanians, joining this exclusive club of the most progressive and prosperous countries in Europe was the ultimate culmination of their fight for independence.

Well centered – Panorama of the Girija village and lake close to the geographical midpoint of Europe (Credit: Anaiptol)

Freeing Lithuania from the yoke of foreign rule had been centuries in the making. The scientific claim that the Center of Europe resides within its territory is a point of great pride for all Lithuanians. Rather than being located on the far flung frontiers of Europe and subsumed within Greater Poland, the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, as it was for hundreds of years, Lithuania is now part of what might be called mainstream Europe. The country has come a long way since it gained independence in 1991, but as the French National Geographic Institute’s calculations showed, Lithuania was already at the Center of Europe.

Click here for: Floating Away – Saaremaa: An Estonian Island (Searching For The Center of Europe #6)


Answering The Call – Riga:  Echoes of Friendship (Eastern Europe & Me #9b)

No matter how much I wished to make the call from Riga to my friend back home, I knew it would not be easy. Making an overseas phone call without a smart phone was an exercise in irritation that required multiple steps and a great deal of patience. The process was fraught with petty difficulties that might easily cause things to go awry. For those of us who did not carry a smart phone on overseas journeys at that time we were always at the mercy of an archaic form of communication. This was in the form of a pay phone. As phone calls went, this was the equivalent of a string, paper cup, and tin can.

Echoes of friendship – Answering the call

Handheld Devices – Calling Cards
In remembering my phone call from Riga, Narvesen serves as the ultimate marker of memory. It was the setting for self-medicating with cough and cold relief as well as procuring an international calling card. Conveniently located a stone’s throw away from Narvesen was a pay phone, the closest thing to a museum artifact still in daily use at that time. Even in 2011, the pay phone was going the way of the dodo. They seemed to have more in common with the telegraph than the latest and greatest of digital technologies. Another relic of that recent era was the international calling card. This handheld device made millions for telecommunication companies fleecing those desperate enough to make impromptu international calls. Skype came in handy, but only if both parties to a call had access to a laptop or personal computer. I did, but my friend recoiled at any technology that might take him beyond the television.

Thank goodness that Narvesen and the nearby phone booth had everything I needed to overcome these technology deficit disorders. To be completely honest, there is no way to understate the role Narvesen played in this personal drama. For me, the mere mention of that name is evocative with Old Riga, Narvesens is synonymous with the capital of Latvia. I am sure many other travelers who visit the Baltic states feel the same, as do the region’s inhabitants. While doing research for this post, a Google map search in Old Riga for Narvesen turned up no less than twelve. And they are not just found in the city center, Narvesen is something of an institution in Latvia. The chain is based out of Norway. where its founder Bernard Narvesen first started the business after receiving a concession from the Norwegian State Railways in the late 19th century. This allowed him to sell newspapers, magazines, and other literature at railway stations across the country. This spurred the growth of Narvesen.  

Echoes of glory – Riga in the 16th century (Credit: Civitates Orbis Terrarum)

Bright Prospects – Baltic Empire  
One of Narvesen’s most successful forays beyond the borders of Norway has been in the Baltic States. By 2016, Latvia (249) and Lithuania (260) combined had more Narvesens than Norway (370). I will always remember Riga not as the Baltic region’s biggest city or for its wonderfully evocative Old Town, instead I will think of all those Narvesens. The bright glow of the store’s interior and the smartly kept shelves. This was the place I came to frequent more than any other in Riga. I doubt Rough Guide, Lonely Planet or Bradt Guides will tell you much about Narvesen, but they should. Anyone visiting Riga is likely to spend time there. Pardon the digression, but my love of Narvesen has stayed remarkably pure in the twelve years since I set foot in one. Without Narvesen, I would probably not have made my call back home. Nor would I still remember it.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine the trouble that went into making a continent-to-continent phone call at that time. First an international calling card was purchased at a place like Narvesen. Then the code was found by using one’s fingernail to scratch off a gritty grey substance. This would reveal a pin code that had to be entered prior to dialing a country code and phone number. This byzantine process was worsened by the directions on those cards. They were printed in what looked to be a one-point font. A magnifying glass would have been useful when trying to decipher the directions given in several languages. These had to be read and understood before entering the booth because the caller would be pressed for time. A line would often form outside the booth as others prepared to make their own calls. If all this was done correctly the phone would begin ringing half a world away. In my case, I waited with bated breath for an answer.

Echoes of History – Old Riga at dusk (Credit: Diliff)

Comfort & Kindness – A Series of Possibilities
It was evening when I made the call from Riga. After twenty seconds, there was an answer. A familiar and trusted voice was on the other end of the line, it was Brian. He would always greet me with “Christopher.” The proper English mannerisms never escaped him, even when fifty years removed from the British Isles. He was happy to hear I was still alive, as well as my travels. With fondness he related how he had been following my journey through the photos I uploaded to the internet. He kept a Times Atlas of the world beside the sofa where he always sat. Peeling back the pages to find Eastern Europe, he followed me from point to point. One man’s journey was another man’s vicarious glory. For both of us, maps were a series of possibilities that offered infinite options to satisfy our curiosities.

The long-awaited call between us lasted less than twenty minutes. The length hardly mattered, it was the love we shared, the ability to reaffirm the deepest of friendships that always mattered the most. The comfort felt from hearing the voice of a kindred spirit, one that would echo across thousands of kilometers. The call brought comfort, kindness, and the knowledge that on this journey I was not alone, neither would I ever be. His voice still echoes in my ears and informs my imagination. 4,184 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes have passed since that call was made and it feels like today.

Click here for: A Way We Will Never Be – Esterhaza & Lost Possibilities (Eastern Europe & Me #10)

Making That Call – Riga: Land of Narvesen (Eastern Europe & Me #9a)

I never knew it would come to this. As I write, it is 1:28 a.m. on a Thursday morning in the middle of March 2023. This early hour at which I still find myself awake is not the product of insomnia, it is the product of memory. I am half a world and over a decade away from the place that consumes my thoughts. To be exact, I am 4,184 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes away from that moment in Riga. In my hand I have a calling card, in my mind I have a phone number, and I am standing inside a phone booth. It is so cold that I can see my breath. A pay phone is my conduit to contact someone I have longed to speak with since this journey began. This call is not an easy one to consummate. I am attempting to speak with someone who despises phone calls and refuses to answer unless he knows the time when I will call. I have already emailed one of his daughters who has been kind enough to let him know when I will call. He will be sure to answer. The call means the world to me, as I know it does to him.

Who is this person I must contact and why? There is no use taking the time to explain the deepest of friendships and purely unconditional love. There are some things in life you just know, this is one of them. There are very few things in life I have ever been sure of, except for this. Several weeks have passed since we spoke. There is much to discuss concerning my experiences in Warsaw, Krakow, Lviv, and Kyiv. He has no idea that I have made the leap from the banks of the Dnipro to the banks of the Daugava. Bounding over Belarus in a matter of hours in journeying from Kyiv to Riga. This great leap north will come as a surprise, but not a totally unexpected one. He knows me about as well as I know him. We are both impossible to predict, except for our adherence to habit. Mine is caprice, his is tea.

Land of Narvesen – As seen in Riga

Astonishing Anecdotes – Staying Out of Trouble
An American and an Englishman. One in the depths of alcoholic despair, the other cruising through the final years of his teaching career. When we first met, I was trying to pull my life back together after recurrent bouts with boos. He could have cared less about alcohol, but he always cared about me. I would always be the student and he the professor. His indirect manner had its way with me. Never quite telling me what to do, he inferred what would be in my best interest. For some reason he always listened to me. Spending hours taking in my ridiculous tales and wild dreams of destinies that might carry me far from home. I also scattered in a few words of advice, sometimes he even took them for everything they were worth.

He once told me that I kept him out of trouble. Many years after his death, his wife told me that I always spoke to his good side. I consider that to be the greatest compliment I have ever received. The truth was much messier, we both kept each other away from our dark sides. He escaped his with family, our friendship and by sitting in the same room for years on end telling a few fortunate souls the most astonishing anecdotes of history and of his upbringing in postwar Stockport. I listened attentively. We were going nowhere fast and that was a good thing. Ours was a match made in oblivion. His journey was from Cambridge to Cullowhee, from the heights of academia to the hills of Appalachia. He unwittingly rescued me from alcohol. I repaid him with weekly calls. This one would come from Riga, for the first and only time.

Old Riga – The historic city center from a distance (Credit: Karlie Kalviskis)

Night Sweats – The Evening Chill
Narvesen. The first time I heard the name it came by way of an Aussie accent. I needed drugs, bad. Not the illicit kind, but the ones you can purchase over the counter in almost any European country. I caught a cold not long after touching down in Riga. The difference in temperatures between Kyiv and Riga was substantial. The Ukrainian capital, where I had just spent four days was in the grip of an Indian summer. The city was enveloped in warmth, I can still recall sweating it out while running up, over, and around the hills above the Dnipro River. The weather in Riga could not have been more different. I can still recall that view from the plane as it descended over the land. The dark green forests, islands of water, and angry clouds moving closer towards the earth. This was Latvia, the middle child of the Baltic states. I knew very little about Latvia and only associated it with Lithuania and Estonia.

For all I knew, Latvia was another of those anonymous, postage stamp sized European nations. A place of relative prosperity and as I was about to discover, penetrating cold. Exiting the airport, the first thing I felt was a hypothermic chill in the air. This was just the beginning of shivering my way around Riga. The wind would sweep moisture off the Daugava River and into Riga’s beautiful Old Town. It was difficult to enjoy as an icy scythe sliced through the winding streets. I had not been in the city more than a few hours when I felt soreness in my throat, then came the congestion, followed by several nights of sweating through a fitful sleep. Thank goodness for Narvesen. The Aussie told me there was one right down the street from where I was staying. I found it with ease.

Magic act – Old Riga a starry night (Credit: Mariss Balodis)

Easing My Pain – A Degree of Fondness
The name of Narvesen will long live on my lips. I would soon discover other Narvesens in and around the Old Town. There seemed to be one on every street corner. Latvia will always be the land of Narvesen to me. Nothing was going to cure my cold, but at least they had a few things that could ease my pain. I still recall Narvesen with a degree of fondness. This is not only because of the relief I found there, but also because it played a leading role in my call home.

Click here for: Answering The Call – Riga:  Echoes of Friendship (Eastern Europe & Me #9b)

Extinction Event – The Curonian Colonialization (From Hungary to Gambia to Baltic Germans – Part Two)

European colonialization in Africa during the 19th century resulted in the British, French, Belgians and Germans carving up most of Africa. They redrew boundaries to fit their commercial needs while adhering to Great Power politics. The age of exploration in earlier centuries gave way to the age of exploitation. By the turn of the 20th century, Africa had become little more than a vassal continent which paid tribute to European powers by giving up its vast natural resources. They had little to no choice in the matter. The abuses and excesses of the colonizers during this time period are so infamous that they obscure earlier efforts by Europeans to stake their claims to parts of the continent. Commercial and colonial interests went hand and hand. This had a long history prior to the 19th century which is often overlooked. One of the most obscure endeavors was undertaken by the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. I only learned about this due to a single sentence in an old copy of the Lonely Planet Africa: On A Shoestring guidebook. This enterprise was far removed in time, distance, and interest from European colonial exploits now covered in classrooms throughout the world.

Visionary – Jacob Kettler depicted on a Latvian Postage Stamp

Remotest Reaches – An Exercise in Obscurity
If the Duchy of Courland and Semigailla does not sound familiar in the annals of colonialization that is because very few outside of Baltic or Eastern European historians are aware that it ever existed, let alone its remarkable colonial history. The Duchy’s location in Latvia also works against it. The popular perception of a European colonial power is not one located on the fringes of northeastern Europe. Connecting Latvia, the Baltic states and Eastern Europe with African colonialization is an exercise in obscurity. The two are rarely, if ever related to one another. That is for good reason. There were hardly any Eastern European political entities involved in African colonial enterprises and the most notable one has been relegated to the remotest reaches of history. Even the people behind that enterprise, the Baltic Germans who made up the ruling authority of the Duchy, no longer exist. They became a casualty of World War II, when the Red Army swept through the region in 1944-45. Despite its obscurity, the Curonian Colonization deserves a place in the annals of colonial history.

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was neither big, nor powerful. Instead, it was first a vassal state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then part of the Polish Kingdom. As a political and economic entity, the Duchy was constantly fighting to distinguish itself and establish a degree of independence since its inception in the mid-16th century. Its rise in prominence occurred during the 17th century due to the efforts of a remarkable leader with vision and foresight. Jacob Kettler was born into the aristocratic Kettler family which ruled the Duchy, He was highly educated at several of the best schools in Prussia. Prior to becoming Duke of Courland, Kettler led a regiment in battle during the Northern War against Russia. He also traveled widely on a grand tour of Europe. His education combined both worldly experience and traditional academics. He was well versed in politics and economics, a combination that would serve him well when he became the Duchy’s co-leader in 1638 and its sole ruler in 1642.

Small spot on the map – Duchy of Courland and Semigailla shown on a map of Europe (Credit: Gabagol)

Anchored in History – Setting Up Ship
Under Kettler’s leadership, the Duchy became an economic hub whose influence radiated outward all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean and West Africa. Kettler unlocked the economic potential of the Duchy through aggressive expansion of its trade and commerce. One way he made this happen was through a shipbuilding program. Kettler leveraged the Duchy’s timber resources to have a fleet of ships constructed. His merchant marine fleet facilitated trade with the major European powers. It was not long before the Duchy’s mercantile interests expanded beyond Europe in a program of colonization which first made its mark in the Caribbean. An inaugural attempt to settle the island of Tobago in 1637 failed, a second attempted colony two years later also foundered. Despite continuing Spanish efforts to hinder the project, efforts in the 1640’s and 50’s proved more successful.

Kettler’s Curonian colonization efforts soon turned towards Africa. In 1651 ships from the Duchy sailed along the coast of West Africa and then entered the mouth of the Gambia River. They floated thirty kilometers upstream to James Island (now known as Kunta Kinteh Island/once known as St. Andrew’s Island). The island, along with land along the riverbank leased from the area’s ruling king became part of a Curonian trading colony. The area was rich in resources that could be exported back to Europe. The most intriguing of these was gold, which Kettler’s intrepid adventurers hoped to find further up the Gambia River. To this end, an expedition with three ships was outfitted for exploratory work. There was a paucity of Courlanders with experience in Africa, so Kettler hired a Dutchmen to lead it. This was a disaster. The Dutchman turned out to be a crook who was defrauding the expedition. Kettler was not one to give up easily and funded a second expedition which never made it beyond Europe. Finally, he sent a Courlander down to govern the colony and get the situation under better control.

Rusting relic – Ruins of English colonial fort on James Island (Credit: Leonora Enking)

Losing Contact – The Dream Deferred
Meanwhile, settlers on the island constructed Jacob’s Fort, a considerable work that included military style bastions. There was also a church which served the settler’s spiritual needs. The colony lasted for most of the decade until trouble back in the Duchy arose. Kettler and his family were captured and held hostage by Swedish mercenaries involved in Sweden’s War against Poland. The settlers lost contact with Kettler for several years. This proved too much to overcome. The Dutch and then the English vied for control of the island. It was finally seized by the English in 1661. The island later became infamous for its role in the slave trade. As for Kettler, after regaining his freedom in 1660, he spent the last two decades of his life trying to restore the wealth and position the Duchy once enjoyed. While less than successful, Kettler still left a legacy. While his efforts at colonization were short lived, they were quite an achievement against considerable odds. Kettler had dreams beyond the Baltic. Those dreams were realized for almost a decade on a small island in the Gambia River. Today that island contains many ruins that attest to the presence of European colonizers. Somewhere buried in that sandy soil are the last remnants of Curonian colonization.

Waging War On The Soviet Legacy – Latvia Revises History (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #122)

As the war in Ukraine continues to grind on, there has been one Eastern European nation notably absent from much of the news cycle. The Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania have constantly been in the news. The former for their fervent support of Ukraine and anti-Russian sentiment espoused by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. The latter for cutting off all Russian gas coming into the country and holding up sanctioned goods that Russia is trying to transit into Kaliningrad. Whereas Latvia, sandwiched between its two Baltic neighbors, has maintained a low profile. This is nothing new. Estonia is known for perfecting digital services, giving the world Skype and the splendid medieval walled city of Tallin, their national capital. Lithuania once had an empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and helped bring the Soviet Union to its knees when it became the first Soviet republic to declare independence.

As for Latvia it is the middle child of the Baltic. Like many siblings sandwiched in between two more prominent ones, Latvia strikes a largely anonymous pose. During the Ukraine-Russia War, Latvia has continued along on its quiet, dutiful way. A staunch member of the European Union and NATO, firmly supporting Ukraine in their fight to resist Russian aggression. The Latvians are the quiet partner of the Baltic states, but their comparative silence is deceptive. The Latvians are just as determined as Estonians and Lithuanians to rid themselves of Russian influence. For Latvia, that means not just confronting the Russian threat in the present, but also dealing a decisive blow against the Soviet past that did so much harm to the nation.

Going down – Red Army soldiers on monument in Riga’s Victory Park

Stoking Tensions – Post-Soviet Subversion
Like the other Baltic states, Latvia has watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with concern. It shares a 214 kilometer (133 miles) border with Russia and a 141 kilometer (88 miles) border with Belarus. Adding to their concerns is the fact that 27% of Latvia’s 1.88 million citizens are ethnic Russians. Since Latvia gained its independence in 1991, the relationship between ethnic Latvians and Russians has been contentious at times. Much of this has been stoked by the Kremlin. Russian media has played a prominent role in reminding ethnic Russians in Latvia that their bigger brother across the border keeps a keen eye on their interests. Sewing dissent and causing friction in Latvia’s government has been a long-standing strategy of the Putin regime. The Latvians may be rather quiet, but they are wise to the attempted subversion. They are also pushing back against any attempts to revive the Soviet past. Lately, they have been working assiduously to relegate the Soviet legacy in Latvia to its rightful place, the dustbin of history.

Latvia’s Parliament, the Saeima, has taken proactive measures to ensure there will no glorification of Soviet history in the country. To this end, they passed a law in mid-June prohibiting the display of any objects that glorify the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Those two totalitarian regimes effectively destroyed any hopes of an independent Latvian state between 1940 – 1991. (Soviet occupation 1940-41 and 1944-91/Nazi occupation 1941-44). The Latvian government is enacting the law with resolute action to be taken as soon as possible. Last week, a committee of experts presented their findings after completing a survey of 162 historical markers, plaques, sculptures and monuments. Their conclusion was that 69 of these would need to be removed. This work will commence in the coming months with the goal of having it completed by November 15th.

Speaking out against Russian aggression – Kaja Kallas

Rallying Points – A Monumental Problem
Removing glorifications of the Soviet Union in the public sphere is a valuable corrective that will help set the historical straight for everyone in Latvia. It is a controversial undertaking due to the sensitivities of the nation’s ethnically Russian population which still leads largely separate lives from Latvians. The potential for Latvia’s ethnic Russians to become a fifth column for the Kremlin is something the government must guard against at all costs. Soviet era monuments in the country have been rallying points for ethnic Russians. Most prominently, the monument in Victory Park located in the national capital of Riga. It contains the statue of a woman representing the Soviet motherland and three victorious soldiers of the Red Army. This has been the scene of large rallies on May 9th, the day when Soviet victory in the so called Great Patriotic War over Nazi Germany is celebrated. One of these rallies brought out an estimated 250,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were ethnic Russians.

For Latvia, World War II was not a liberation, but the beginning of a fifty-year imprisonment as part of the Soviet Union. Most of the ethnic Russians in Latvia do not see it that way. Their opinion of the war and its glorification is in line with that of Russia. This divide is a dangerous fault line in Latvian politics, one that the Putin regime has exploited in the past to cause dissension inside of Latvia. The wholesale removal of Soviet era monuments at the direction of Latvia’s government seems like a risky undertaking with Russia already on war footing. Putin and his propagandists are hyper-aware of anything that smacks of anti-Russian sensibilities in their near abroad. In the past, such perceived anti-Russian actions in Latvia would have been met with vehement denunciations by the Kremlin. They would then engage in disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. That could happen, but this time protests from the Kremlin will likely be little more than verbal disapproval. The reason is obvious, the Putin regime’s focus must stay on Ukraine. They do not want to lose control of the war there. Latvia is also a member of NATO, a fact that limits the options for Russia to non-military measures or else they would be risking a widespread war.

Point of contention – Monument in Riga’s Victory Park for Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War

Window of Opportunity – Revising The Historical Record
Latvia’s government senses a window of opportunity to eradicate one of the worst excesses of the Soviet past. The Kremlin does not have the time, inclination or energy to do much about it. When the war in Ukraine does come to an end, the Putin regime will realize that not only has the world changed, but so has the past. Putin may still lament the Soviet Union’s collapse, but in Latvia they celebrate it. Latvia’s effort to revise the Soviet historical record is not only commendable, but also vital.

Click here for: Losing Lysychansk – Decision In The Donbas (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #123)

Beginning of the End – Kybartai & Kaliningrad (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #116)

I stopped watching apocalyptic movies about nuclear war years ago because they were the closest thing to having a perpetual nightmare. The scenes were so disturbing that I could not get them out of my mind. To this day, the nuclear detonations in Threads and The Day After are literally seared into my memory. Both movies showed the effect of a nuclear war on cities. In The Day After, Kansas City got a starring role as an epicenter for obliteration. In Threads, I can still recall a mushroom cloud rising over Sheffield. Then a few minutes later, a second flash melted much of the city. Kansas City and Sheffield were likely selected as the setting for a nuclear apocalypse to ensure the horror would hit home with viewers. The message was clear, if a nuclear strike could destroy these cities in the heartlands of America and the United Kingdom, then they could certainly destroy hundreds of other cities, one of which most viewers were living in or around.

The end is near – Kybartai (Credit: Hugoarg)

Another Crisis – Border Tensions
Since history has been recorded, the end of the world has been predicted countless times. Personally, I do not think the world is going to end anytime soon, but humanity just might if it is not careful. There have been so many close calls since the nuclear age began in 1945, that it is a miracle humanity has escaped the detonation of a nuclear device in wartime for the past seventy-seven years. Fears of a nuclear war have been a rising concern ever since Russia invaded Ukraine four months ago. The chance of a conventional war escalating into a nuclear one as Russia and NATO get entangled in Ukraine will continue to be a distinct possibility, one that cannot be taken seriously enough. If such a war were to occur, I doubt the flashpoint would be any of the usual suspects. Kyiv or the Donbas, Moscow or Washington, London, Paris and Berlin are much too obvious. Instead, it might happen at a place few have heard of. A place like the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Perhaps a disagreement would begin right along its border, maybe at a town like Kybartai in the southwestern extremity of Lithuania. This is improbable enough to be plausible.

The hypothetical scenario involving Kaliningrad and Kybartai is not as farfetched an idea as it sounds. In the past two weeks this area has become a flashpoint. That is because Lithuania has begun implementing checks for sanctioned materials and goods on Russian trains that transit through its territory to Kaliningrad. Some of these materials and goods are banned from being transported across the borders of European Union member states. The checks have angered the Russians who have promised that there will be serious consequences for Lithuania. The Lithuanians are standing their ground, supported by a decision from the European Commission that they are well within their rights to take this action. In turn, the Commission is working to find a way to negotiate a way out of this crisis before it further exacerbates tensions between Russia and the European Union.

Sometimes a small crisis has a way of encapsulating a much bigger problem. In this case, the European Union and its member states are serious about using sanctions as a tool to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine. This sets up a potential clash. The standoff at the border between Kybartai and Kaliningrad is being used to send a message of strength to Russia. This could lead the Russia to take matters into their own hands militarily to force through their goods to Kaliningrad. This would be tantamount to a declaration of war on NATO and the European Union, since Lithuania is a member of both organizations. Kaliningrad bristles with weapons. The exclave is an outpost of Russian militarism, armed to the teeth. The weapons include Iskander missiles that can be armed with nuclear warheads. Vladimir Putin’s paranoia gives rise to his belief that NATO deliberately infringes upon what he perceives as Russia’s sphere of influence. Any miscommunications and misjudgments on Kaliningrad’s border with Lithuania could end with catastrophic results.

On the edge – Map showing location of Kybartai in Lithuania

Whirlwind of History – Touched By Fire
For a place that might best be associated with the middle of nowhere, Kybartai has a strange way of finding itself in the eye of the European storm. This nondescript town on the fringes of Lithuania has a deeply conflicted history. The making of modern Kybartai has been informed by a tug of war between East and West. It became more than the proverbial wide spot in the road when the Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway was built through it in 1861. That connection also put it in the sights of armies that have passed through it periodically with destructive results. Since the 20th century began. Kybartai has been part of the Russian Empire and Interwar Lithuania, occupied by Nazi German forces, taken over by the Soviet Union and now part of Lithuania.

The whirlwind of history has periodically touched down on a town that is most recognizable for not being recognizable at all. Kybartai has suffered near destruction, not once but twice, due to fighting in the First and Second World Wars. Something similar or much worse could threaten it in the future. Kybartai straddles a geopolitical fault line between Lithuania and Russia, NATO and Russia, the European Union and Russia. In geopolitics, location is everything. Paradoxically, Kybartai finds itself on the fringes of Europe and at the center of matters. No one could possibly imagine that nondescript Kybartai might be a starting point for World War III, but truth is often stranger than fiction and history stranger still. Judging by Kybartai’s past its centrality to a potential future conflict should not be that surprising.

Heading into history – Railway station in Kybartai around 1900

Ground Zeros – Conflicted Settings
Will the end of civilization as we know it start in Kybartai? Almost certainly not, but anonymous places like it are scattered all along the borders between NATO member states and Russia. More than a thousand flashpoints between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Russia are possible ground zeros for conflict. Kybartai is one of these places and as such worth keeping a close eye on. World War III could start here or maybe it already has and it took trains stopped at the Lithuanian border for people to realize it. Kybartai will never have a starring role in one of those nuclear war movies, but it could end up with something much worse, the real thing.

Click here for: Wake Up Call – The G7, Vladimir Putin & Russia (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #117)

A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

The Bezdany Raid came to me as a gift, falling into my mind on a mid-winter’s day. Like the most fascinating aspects of history, it left me wanting to learn more. The raid was Eastern European history at its finest, shrouded in obscurity, a lesser known mystery. I knew the main man behind it, Jozef Pilsudski, that great Polish patriot and founder of modern Poland. What I did not know was how the raid at Bezdany brought Pilsudski and several others to prominence. It had also led to the development of a viable Polish military force. All this from the robbery of a single treasury train on the frontiers of the Vilna Governorate (present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). This information came to me, as so many things do, while I was reading about something entirely different. The path to Bezdany started with Ekaterine “Kato” Svanidze (Joseph Stalin’s first wife). Svanidze’s story led me to the famous 1907 Bolshevik Bank Robbery in Tiflis (present day Tbilisi, Georgia). Then the Tiflis robbery brought up the subject of other famous turn of the 20th century robberies in Eastern Europe. That was where I stumbled upon the Bezdany Raid.

The Power of Place - Bezdonys Train Station

The Power of Place – Bezdonys Train Station (Credit: Aleksandrs Timofejev)

Staying Power – Living On The Edge
My path to the Bezdany Raid was short and serpentine, simple and sublime. I had not planned on reading about anything other than Stalin’s first wife and her death from typhus. In the process, I found a reference to the Tiflis Bank Robbery which Stalin helped mastermind. This landmark historical event provided the Bolshevik movement with badly needed funding. The robbery was also illustrative of the extremes to which men like Stalin would go to in support of their ideological values. Little did I know that Pilsudski would do much the same thing. The difference is that Pilsudski and his fellow Poles’ actions are viewed as supporting a worthy cause, an independent Poland free from foreign occupation. Maybe that was why I found the raid so fascinating and decided to write about it. In my opinion, Pilsudski and the Poles were the good guys, lovable underdogs who risked their lives for an admirable ideal – the Polish nation – which is still with us today.

Speaking of today, the sleepy little village of Bezdonys, Lithuania (in Polish it is known as Bezdany thus the name of the raid) is still there awaiting rediscovery. While the village is within an easy of commute of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, the size and scale of the place looks to have changed little over the past century. It also has one attraction of interest to anyone intrigued by the life and legacy of Pilsudski, its railway station. The station’s exterior has changed since the early 20th century, but it is likely the same sub-structure and stands in the same place as its predecessor. The fact that a railway station still operates in Bezdonys is worth noting. If nothing else, it is a symbol of staying power. This despite massive geo-political upheavals that have seen Bezdonys change from Russian to Polish to Soviet to Lithuanian territory in little over a century. Lithuanians and Poles have a litany of historical grievances, but what happened with the Bezdany Raid is not one of them. Throwing off the Russian imperial yoke was in both their interests. As for the village today, it remains forgettable and obscure. That, along with its historical value, put it on my travel radar.

Pilsudski's & Poland's Past - Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Pilsudski’s & Poland’s Past – Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Back To The Start – A Product of the Imagination
A bit of research showed me that I could visit Bezdonys to relive or reconstruct the robbery. Following the trail of this obscure and important history would be a trip to remember. Such an immediate undertaking was out of the question, but that did not stop me from imagining a trip to Bezdonys. My eventual goal would be to stand where Pilsudski and his accomplices made the heist that was integral to creating a free and independent Poland. It was worth a visit, if not in the flesh, at least within the realm of imagination. And let’s face it, every journey starts somewhere in the imagination. Making imagination into reality is as much a matter of belief as it is of having enough time or money for travel. Would I really spend several thousand dollars traveling to Lithuania to visit a railway station in a non-descript village halfway around the world just because something historically important happened in and around there? Absolutely.

The railway station that stands today in Bezdonys looks much the same as the one that preceded it a century ago, a one-story structure that stands adjacent to railroad tracks. The present station has a much more striking exterior than the earlier iteration. Most of it is painted a dark yellow, with brown trim around the bottom and topped by a bright red roof that has two chimneys protruding from it. The rustic looking station fits well with the area. This is a land of deep forests, serpentine watercourses and small lakes. The kind of terrain that lends itself to hiding out. It is also land that has not changed much since the early 20th century. The landscape is as important as the station in understanding how Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators were able to escape from the authorities.

Those looking to get an idea of what Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators experienced on the historic night of September 26th, should focus their energies on the surrounding area as much as the railway station. While the station is obviously important, it has also been revamped. Pilsudski spent less than an hour at the station, whereas he spent the rest of the night and early morning hours making his way through the forests back to safety. The woods offer people like me a path back to the past. I could see myself traveling to Bezdonys on a late autumn evening in the future. It would be best to visit at the same time of year as when the raid occurred, this way I could experience the woods and waterways just as Pilsudski did. Standing within sight of the train station, I could listen for the whistle of an approaching train then plunge into the woods. From there I would attempt to make my way back to the outskirts of Vilnius.

Train Spotting - Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

Train Spotting – Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

A Mad Enterprise – The Trackless Trail
Of course, following the trackless trail of the Bezdany Raid is a mad enterprise.  By turns, insane and inane, the kind of passion pursued by a person who knows plenty about the past except what it really felt like. A passion that only a delusional and devoted history buff looking not only for accuracy, but also authenticity would care to undertake. The idea of traversing Lithuanian woods at night, wading through watercourses and stumbling through the backyards of people who could not begin to fathom my objective would be foolhardy in the extreme. Then again so was the Bezdany Raid and look at how that turned out.

A Gap In The Defenses – Suwalki, Augustow & Bialystok: Last Forevers (Travels In Eastern Europe #64)

The Seskotai to Warsaw portion of the train trip turned out to be a delightful journey. I had the Welsh couple to keep me company while the train rolled through the gorgeous countryside of northeastern Poland. It was at the height of autumn. The forests were illuminated with fall foliage, while the ponds and lakes which dotted the area shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The Welsh couple I had met on the platform at Seskotai, consisted of a strikingly attractive, middle aged red-headed woman who worked some sort of office job close to Cardiff, while her stocky husband ran the farm they owned together. Both of them were pleasant and talkative, unless the subject turned to the English, whom they found particularly distasteful. If anything was wrong in Britain, then it was an Englishman’s fault according to them.

Their attitude had much in common with Eastern Europeans from small and medium sized nations that had suffered at the hands of much larger foes. As the English were to the Welsh, so the Poles were to the Lithuanians or the Germans and Russians were to the Poles. The couple were frequent travelers to Eastern Europe, coming to watch horse races each year in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city. On these same trips they made time to visit other places in the region. They were now heading towards Brno to watch the races starting in a couple of days. The husband studied the rolling landscape with the eye of a farmer. He noted the many fallow fields, remarking that these could easily be cultivated. The Poles were leaving money in the earth. The lack of development in this region made its nature more spectacular.  The forests, fields and ponds literally glowed beneath a radiant, late afternoon splash of sunshine.

State of nature - The beauty of northeastern Poland

State of nature – The beauty of northeastern Poland (Credit: Lilly M)

A Most Important Unknown Place– Strategic Suwalki
I was entranced by the serene and pristine nature. This was matched by my fascination with the area’s history. Despite its beauty, I knew that this land had been fiercely contested by Poles, Lithuanians, Prussians and Russians for many centuries. The geopolitical situation had stabilized since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but could flare up at any time. Half an hour after crossing the Polish border, the train made a stop in Suwalki. Suwalki was not only close on the Lithuanian border, but to its north could be found the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and to the south, Belarus. Nations that were to be feared rather than trusted.  The area was just as strategically important today as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. The flat narrow strip of land I was traveling through was a highly strategic security corridor for the European Union and NATO alliance.

Known as the Suwalki Gap, the only place the Baltic States border the rest of NATO. It is through this gap, that NATO troops would have to travel if they had to defend the Baltic States from a Russian attack. Conversely, Russia could sever NATO’s connections with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by closing off the gap by moving troops and armor into it. This land pockmarked with lakes and dark forests, rolling fields and rural farmsteads has not changed much over the centuries, either physically or geopolitically. Rumbling through it on a Polish train gave little hint as to its true importance to European and world peace. It was hard to imagine that a land hardly anyone knows, visits or cares about could become the setting for another World War.

The Suwalki Gap

The Suwalki Gap (Credit: Bruno Adrie)

A Primeval World – Beauty & The Beast
After Suwalki the next stop was Augustow, one of those places that was in the wrong place at the wrong time multiple times from 1914 to 1945. The First and Second Battles of The Masurian Lakes brought the German and Russian armies here in the fall of 1914 and winter of 1915. Polish and Lithuanian forces fought the Battle of Augustow around the area in 1920. Then during World War II it experienced multiple occupations, deportations and exterminations. Ethnic Poles were deported to Kazakhstan by the Soviets, the Jewish community was wiped out by the Nazis and the Soviets rounded up Polish Home Army members at the end of the war. As for the physical infrastructure of Augustow, seven out of every ten buildings were destroyed. With a history like this, it was a wonder that anything was left standing. Yet the main attraction of Augustow remained unscathed. The train skirted the Puszcza Augustowska, Polish for the Augustow primeval forest, In addition to the venerable woodlands. The train passed by several large lakes that the sunlight had transformed into pools of liquid fire. The natural world trumped the manmade all across northeastern Poland.

Much the same could be said of Bialystok which was the next prominent place the train stopped. Like so many places in the world which are well endowed with natural beauty, Bialystok was on the edge economically. Ever since the collapse of communism, industry had fallen on hard times. This made it a Polish hinterland and not just in a geographical sense, but also an economic one. Its youth fled to more vibrant cities further west. Bialystok was a place to vacation or visit family in the surrounding area, but very difficult to make a living. The history of Bialystok, was pretty much the history of Augustow, just on a larger scale. Half the population and 75% of the city center was destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt afterward. Unfortunately, this took place under the communist regime which left a dismal legacy of concrete and smokestacks. Looking out the train window it was hard to believe that nearby stood the last stretches of the primeval forest which once covered much of Northern Europe. Deep in these woods the European bison still roamed. This ancient world has been protected in the Białowieża Forest National Park. Comparing the surrounding nature to Bialystok was like a reality episode of Beauty and the Beast.

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways (Credit: Grzegorz Saczyło)

Forever Fleeting – Momentary Raptures
After Bialystock, the stops increased, but were in less prominent places. The kind of towns that people leave, rather than visit. Lapy, Szepietowo, Czyzew, Malkina, Tluszcz. Before long we were on the outskirts of Warsaw. This would be my last train trip for at least six months. I was back to where I started two weeks before. Saying goodbye to the Welsh couple filled me with a wave of sadness. Not because we had that much in common, but from the knowledge that traveling brought me into contact with people and places that were otherwise foreign to me. I became familiar with another world, one that was forever fleeting. These were moments that I could only have for a limited amount of time. Somehow I would have to make them last forever.

Abandoned By The World – Sestokai, Lithuania: A Forgotten Frontier (Travels In Eastern Europe #63)

The morning arrived that I was due to leave Lithuania for Warsaw. My trip was almost over, except for this final train trip. I was surprised to discover that only a single train traveled between the two cities each day. This had to do with geo-politics. A more direct route between the two cities would have gone through the city of Grodno in Belarus. I could have gone this way, if I had an inordinate amount of time on my hands, wanted to chance getting shaken down by Belarusian border guards and purchase an outrageously expensive visa.

Belarus was not in the European Union and was not likely to be anytime in the future. Thus, I would have to take a train to Sestokai, a small town close to the Poland-Lithuanian border and then make a transfer. Almost all of Lithuania uses the old Soviet railway gauge which is broader than the standard European gauge. Thus, one train would take me from Vilnius to Sestokai and then another one from Sestokai to Warsaw. The line that ran from Sestokai to the Polish border opened just two years after the Soviet collapse. So many things are new in the old world of Eastern Europe. For some reason, I imagined Sestokai as a large railway interchange teeming with activity. That turned out to be far from the truth.

Unexpected Nightmares – The Night of Day
I got to the Vilnius Train Station well ahead of time. I did not want to miss the only train that could take me to Warsaw in time for my flight back home the next day. Soon enough we were headed through the Lithuanian countryside. It did not take long before we were at Kaunas, the second largest city in the country. I knew Kaunas, but not from a prior visit. I had seen a terrifying photograph taken in Kaunas during World War II while visiting the site of the infamous Wannsee Conference in a suburb of Berlin. This was where the Final Solution – the planned extermination of the Jews – was planned. An exhibit about the Holocaust in Lithuania contained a photo from what is known as the Kaunas Pogrom in late June of 1941. It was taken during the Lietukis Garage Massacre. In the photo, a man was swinging an iron bar at someone lying on the ground. There was the blood and bodies of Jewish men who either lay dying or were already dead. Soldiers were gathered around watching.

The horror - Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The horror – Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The photo was utterly terrifying. I froze in horror and looked at it for a long time in stunned disbelief. The one thing I remember besides that image, was that it was taken in Kaunas. This memory was a shock to my system. Looking at Kaunas through the train window, nothing hinted at this brutally dark past. It was not fair to judge Kaunas by a photo taken in the city seventy years before in entirely different circumstances, just as it was not fair to judge this city from a train window either. I began to have strange, paradoxical feelings. Ever since that first, fleeting glimpse of Kaunas, I have longed to explore the city, prove that horrific picture wrong by experiencing beauty and kindness there. To find a bright, transcendent light to burn away all that darkness. Unfortunately, light and darkness also can cause blindness. Knowledge of history is a wonderful thing, until you realize that it can lead to unexpected nightmares. I will have to come back to Kaunas, if only to prove history right or wrong.

Crossing Over – Isolated Anxiety
After Kaunas I began to get anxious. I knew the train would stop soon, but I had no idea what was to come. This moment of anticipation heightened my awareness. The train soon came to a dead stop at what had to be Sestokai. There was a small brick station, several sets of train tracks going in either direction and hardly anyone else around. I struck up a conversation with a Welsh couple. They were just as confused as I was. Where was the Polish train that would take us on to Warsaw? The place was nearly deserted. Standing on a platform with no train in sight, it felt like we had been abandoned by the world. There was something cinematic about our situation. Isolated travelers, thrown together on the frontier of a foreign country, having no idea what might come next.  It is moment’s like these while traveling that I feel most vulnerable. Conversely, it is also in such moments that I rely on hope and trust. What other choice was there? We would just have to wait.

An Isolated Anxiety - Sestokai Train Station

An Isolated Anxiety – Sestokai Train Station

We were supposedly in the heart of Sestokai, but whatever town there seemed to be of no consequence. Nothing notable could be seen. This was a strange hinterland. It felt like a border outpost, but was not quite on the border. It was of great importance to travelers, but there were very few to be seen. The railway station looked like it belonged to a forgotten era. It had a provincial, time standing still look about it. Sestokai only enjoyed its notoriety because of a quirk in the European railway gauge system, a relic of the Cold War. In a sense I was standing, not just on a platform, but one of those bizarre fault lines that are a legacy of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. I imagine that as Lithuania becomes more intertwined within the European Union and westward in outlook, Sestokai will become increasingly marginalized. By the looks of it, the place had always been close to that point.

Leaving Lithuania

Leaving Lithuania (Credit: Gediminas)

Leaving Lithuania – An Unknown Fear
The Welsh couple and myself were at the point of wondering aloud to each other whether another train would come for us. That was followed by rhetorical questions about whether we were even in the right place. None of us knew a word of Lithuanian so there was little use in entering the station to ask. Besides, none of us wanted to leave in case the train suddenly arrived. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact less than thirty minutes, a train slowly pulled up to the platform. No one signaled or gave us any hint that this was our train, we just got onboard. As the train began to slowly head west towards the Polish border I relaxed. We were on our way to Warsaw. Leaving Lithuania behind made me sad. When, if ever, would I return? This is a fear I always have when leaving a country or at the end of a trip. Is this the last time? I have no way of knowing and that is one of the main reasons I keep on traveling.

Taking On The World – Lithuanian Long Shots: Basketball The Baltic Way (Travels In Eastern Europe #62)

While walking around Vilnius I began to notice something strange, attached to many of the light posts were basketball goals. Above them were banners heralding the fact that Vilnius would soon be hosting the next World Basketball Championships. It was also a signal that Lithuania’s most popular sport is basketball. In Europe, just as in the world at large, football is the dominant sport. And this dominance is most pronounced in larger countries such as Spain, Germany, Great Britain and France. The chances of Lithuania or any other small European nation making a run at a World Cup title are minuscule. Unlike football, basketball requires only five starting players. To field a world class side, a team only needs a couple of excellent players or a starting five that gels at the right time. Putting together a world class basketball squad is something Lithuania has done time and again, going all the way back to the 1930’s.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990’s and the reconstruction of the Baltic nations, I distinctly remember hearing Lithuanian names for the first time. The two I recall most prominently were Sarunas Marciulonis and Aryvadis Sabonis. Both were excellent basketball players who would go onto careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). This was my first hint that the sporting prowess of the Soviet Union was a distinctly multi-ethnic affair. Many of the best Soviet sportsmen were not ethnic Russians. At first this seems a bit odd, because “the Russians”  was a term synonymous with the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians were  80% of the total Soviet population, but there were millions of Soviet citizens from other ethnic backgrounds as well. Many of these made a name for themselves, especially in athletics. Some groups such as the Lithuanians already had strong athletic traditions that the Soviets built upon.

Nationalist sentiment - Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket

Nationalist sentiment – Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket (Credit: globalite)

A Point Of National Pride – Tipping Off
Basketball in Lithuania owes much of its popularity to the nation in which it was invented, the United States. Lithuanians came to America seeking a better life throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. While working their way up the economic ladder, many of them spent leisure time playing basketball. In 1935, ethnic Lithuanians from around the world were invited back to their ancestral homeland to take part in a World Lithuanian Congress. Lithuanian-American basketball players fielded a team at that event which captured the imagination of their compatriots. The American influence grew the following year after Frank Lubin, whose parents were both born in Lithuania, led the United States to the Gold Medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Lubin followed up this success by traveling to Lithuania and coaching basketball. The popularity of the sport began to soar within the country.

In 1937, Lithuania played in its first international competition, the EuroBasket tournament. Due to the play of several Lithuanian –Americans, who had been late additions to the team, they won the championship. Two years later, Lithuania hosted the event and won again. World War II effectively ended Lithuania’s reign as European champions with subsequent international competitions cancelled for the duration of the conflict. Following the war, Lithuania was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Its star basketball players became the force that would lead the Soviet side to a silver medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics. They starred in future Olympics as well. Many Lithuanians were able to channel their nationalism through basketball. Kaunas’ Zalgiras squad often played their hardest when facing the top Soviet team, CSKA Moscow. The games were a point of national pride and became de facto contests between Lithuania and the ruling regime. Basketball was cathartic, allowing Lithuanians to show their patriotic pride short of a full-scale revolt, which would have been met with deadly force.

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team - EuroBasket 1937 champions

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team – EuroBasket 1937 champions

Giants & Giant Killers – Olympian Achievements
When representing the Soviet Union, ethnic Lithuanians played as though they had something to prove. One of the greatest upsets in Olympic Basketball history and arguably the Soviet Union’s greatest basketball victory in international competition would never have occurred without a triumvirate of Lithuanians leading the way. At the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviets faced off against the tournament favorite United States in a semifinal match. Marciulonis, Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinatis combined to score 73% of their team’s points. Kurtinatis was on fire, leading all scorers with 28 points. The Soviets prevailed 82-76 over a United States squad that was filled with players that would go on to memorable NBA careers. It was a stunning upset. Coincidentally, it would also be the last Olympics where Lithuanians competed for the Soviet Union.

When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the small Baltic nation of just three million people was finally able to field a truly national team. It had been over half a century since Lithuania had competed on their own internationally. They were good enough to make a lasting impression. In 1992, the Lithuanians played as an independent nation in an Olympic Basketball competition for the first time ever. They went on to win a bronze medal in Barcelona. In both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics they managed to duplicate that feat. In the latter, they came close to pulling off another miraculous upset of the United States. In the semifinals, they met an American squad filled with star NBA players. The pre-1990 days when the Soviets put players on the court who were amateurs in name only was no more. Those virtual professionals had been heavily subsidized by the Soviet state.

Now it was the United States sporting a team with real professionals, taken straight from the NBA, the world’s premier basketball league. All-stars such as Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett faced off against a Lithuania team with only two players who would make it to the NBA, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songaila. And both Jasikevicius and Songaila would be journeymen at best. What the Lithuanians had in their favor was a cohesive team that had mastered the fundamentals of basketball. These traits helped them push the American squad to the limit. They nearly became the first team to defeat American professionals in the Olympics, losing a close contest by just two points.

Sarunas Marciulionis - one of Lithuania's greatest basketball stars

Sarunas Marciulionis – one of Lithuania’s greatest basketball stars (Credit: 517design)

A Victorious Expression – Nationalistic Sentiments
Lithuania has secured its place as one of the more formidable basketball teams in the world, a threat to beat the very best. That tradition has continued during the 21st century, with a couple of fourth place finishes in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. In addition, they won the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2010. Basketball is a crucial part of life for most Lithuanians, acting as an expression of sporting prowess and nationalistic sentiment. It allows this small, relatively quiet nation a place on the world stage. A place where they can take on all comers and enjoy the pride and pleasure of victory.