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.

Estonia’s Forest Brother: August Sabbe:  Fighting Beyond The Bitter End

About once a year I hear the story retold of World War II soldier Hiroo Onoda. Onoda was the Japanese intelligence officer who hid out in the jungles and mountains of the Philippines for over three decades. He continued fighting the war, believing Japan had never surrendered. For Onoda, the Japanese surrender was unfathomable. Only in 1974, after Onodo’s former commanding officer traveled back to the Philippines and convinced him that Japan had long since surrendered, did he finally give up the fight. Onoda’s single-minded zealotry has been viewed as symbolic of the Japanese mindset during the war. He may be an outlier, an extreme example, but Onoda’s fanaticism shows how seriously many fighting for the Japanese cause took their duty.

Freedom fighters - A group of Estonian Forest Brothers

Freedom fighters – A group of Estonian Forest Brothers

Beyond The War – Taking To The Woods
Hidden behind the iron Curtain and almost unknown to westerners, the same fanatical resolve was also to be found in several parts of Eastern Europe after the World War II officially ended. In Ukraine and the Baltic States, partisans continued to fight the Soviet regime throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Hiding out in the woods was a way of life for these fighters. None more so than those in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They became known as Forest Brothers. Living a precarious existence, hiding out among the thick, dark woods and impenetrable lakes of the inland Baltic landscapes, these fighters managed to exact a considerable casualty toll on Soviet armed forces.

In skirmishes large and small, using guerilla tactics, along with their knowledge of the landscape, many of the Forest Brothers managed to evade capture for years. Still others perished not long after they took to the woods. By one estimate the fighting between the Forest Brothers and Soviet forces led to over 50,000 deaths. For all their courage and skill at wilderness warfare the Forest Brothers were up against more than they would ever be able to defeat. The Soviets could marshal an endless supply of soldiers and intelligence operatives, while the Forest Brothers had only a limited number of men to spare. The weight of numbers would turn out to be too much, but that did not keep a few men fighting well beyond the 1950’s.

August Sabbe (on the left) - Legendary Forest Brother

August Sabbe (on the left) – Legendary Forest Brother

Holding Out – The Lonely Fight
In southeastern Estonia, within a half hour’s drive of the Russian border, stands the tiny village of Paidra. Here the landscape is totally pastoral, with forests interspersed with fields and a handful of farmsteads. On the village’s eastern border runs the Vohandu River, on its western flank is Pikkjarv Lake. The greater area is surrounded by woods. This is a land that time forgot. Besides roads and humble dwellings, not much has changed in this land for centuries. One thing that has is the political system. It has now been over a quarter century since the Soviet Union collapsed and an independent Estonian state was re-established. The Soviet collapse was unexpected, but even more surprising was the fact that it occurred peacefully. That is because in parts of Estonia, the fight against Soviet power went on for decades. It is hard to imagine that a place like Paidra was a hotbed of rebellion, but it once was. The little village gave birth to one of the great Freedom fighters and final holdouts against the Soviet reoccupation of Estonia which took place in 1944.

August Sabbe was born under one empire and would die under another. In 1909, the year of his birth, Estonia as a nation was just an idea. The land into which he was born bristled under Tsarist Russian rule. When he died – if in fact he did die – in 1979, Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic, a small constituent part of the Soviet Union. Sabbe was not even ten years old when Estonia first gained its freedom. All through his teenage years and early adulthood he grew up in an independent nation. This all changed with the outbreak of World War II, first the Soviets, then the Nazis and once again the Soviets occupied Estonia. The latter occupation was harsh and deadly for Estonians, as tens of thousands were shipped off to Siberia, while the country was flooded with ethnic Russians who were seen as loyal to the Soviet regime.

Thousands of Estonian men took to the woods, in what became a valiant yet ultimately futile attempt to fight for their small nation’s freedom. By 1953 most of these fighters had either been killed or gravitated back to domestic life. August Sabbe was not one of them. Sabbe somehow managed to hold out, living by his wits, backwoodsman skills and aid from friendly villagers. Twenty-five years after the fight had been all but lost, Sabbe was still living in a bunker not far from his birthplace. As unyielding as Sabbe was in continuing the lonely fight for independence, so to were the Soviets in their efforts to apprehend any Forest Brothers that still roamed the vast woodlands of rural Estonia. Many of those who had helped Sabbe survive over the years, eventually grew older and died. He was forced to move closer to settlements. After a series of petty thefts close to the area Sabbe was from, the authorities began to take notice.

August Sabbe Memorial Monument - near the Vohandu River in Paidra Estonia

August Sabbe Memorial Monument – near the Vohandu River in Paidra, Estonia where he is said to have died

Open To Conjecture – Not To Be Taken Alive
In September 1979, while the 69 year old Sabbe was fishing in the Vohandu River, he was approached by two KGB agents posing as fishermen. Sabbe tried to pull a gun on the men, but he was not quick enough. They lunged at Sabbe and all three men ended up in the river. A fierce tussle ensued. When the KGB men finally pulled Sabbe from the water, he seemed to finally be subdued. Then suddenly he broke free from their grasp and dove back into the river. He would not be seen alive again. The river was quite shallow, leading some to believe that Saabe may not have drowned, but was killed. One thing is for certain, Sabbe would never be taken alive. He was true to the values of the Forest Brothers until the day he died. Whenever and however August Sabbe’s death might have occurred will always be a mystery, not unlike the man himself.

A Dream Lost In Time: A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: The Memorable & The Unforgettable (Travels In Eastern Europe #61b)

In 1866 a Polish artist by the name of Jozef Marsewski visited Trakai. He proceeded to paint a view of Trakai Island Castle from an opposite shoreline of Lake Galve. In the painting, the bare ruins of the Castle stand austere and dignified. Two decrepit bastions appear to the left of the main castle tower which rises above everything in the painting except for a luminescent sky. Sunlight warms the left side of the tower and collection of ruins which spread out beneath it. The waters of Lake Galve are placid and act as a giant watery mirror, reflecting an array of colors across the sky. On the left side of the painting, the sky and water almost become one, blending in a glorious shade of pastel pink. In the foreground, two figures on either end of a boat glide atop the still waters. I saw this painting long after I visited the castle. It made me yearn for another visit to Trakai. One that would take place in the waning afternoon hours of an intensely warm summer day. To watch the sun slowly evaporate into a pink hued horizon while the castle shimmered in a medieval mirage.

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski (Credit: National Museum in Warsaw)

Capturing Trakai – Ruins & The Imagination
Such a scene did not materialize on the day I visited Trakai. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have that experience , but I can always dream or at least gaze at Marsewski’s painting which has much the same effect. The painting can be seen today in the National Museum in Warsaw.  The scene Marsewski captured at Trakai evoked an intense mysticism in me. That mysticism was shadowed by a sense of irrevocable loss. It would be difficult enough to find a day similar to the one Marsewski portrays, but impossible to find Trakai Island Castle in ruins. The restored castle I visited on that gray autumn day looked thoroughly grand and astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, it did not speak to me the way those ruins did as seen in Marsewski’s painting. Perhaps that was because the finished product of the present does not lend itself to the imagination the way ruins do.

One thing that could be recreated from that picture was a boat ride on the waters of Lake Galve. As I was leaving the castle, a lone boatman pleaded with me and a handful of others walking the grounds to go on his watercraft. He was insistent to the point of irritation. His beckoning followed me in and out of the castle. I heard him bellow forth at others with the same phrases. His cacophonous voice was the only sound in an otherwise silent environment. He was persistent, following whomever would listen or look his way. There was nothing remotely threatening about the boatman. When I thought about him later I felt a bit sad. Here was a man at the end of tourist season trying to make a living. His prospects for the next six to eight months were bleak. No wonder he was trying so hard. I think he deserved payment for being so adamant and obstinate. He left an impression on me that developed into an eternal soft spot for him in my heart.

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880 (Credit: Arz1969)

Imperiousness – At Everyone Else’s Expense
On my way back to the mini-bus I met the Englishman who was on the tour with his mother. We struck up a conversation. He thought the castle was a fabulous sight, but Lithuania was not for him. The people were reserved, if a bit cold. There was so much silence. Even though I enjoyed Lithuania, I knew what he meant. There was something about this land and the people that made me feel alone. A quietness and solitude seemed to pervade everything. The only exception was our tour guide, who came walking briskly up to us ready to unload a mindful of information. It was supposed to be a short ride back, but I felt a sense of inevitable interminability coming on. Sure enough, as soon as we began the ride back toward Vilnius, the guide told us everything she wanted us to know about Lithuania. What Lithuanians did for fun, what sports they played, what the economy was like, what daily living was like and strangely enough, when she might get married. She was the Lithuanian version of a walking almanac.

I had to give her credit though for trying so hard. Plus, I came to value her torrent of information much more after the imperious, older Norwegian lady began to talk about herself. She owned many businesses, had been insanely successful and made sure we knew it. She reminded me of a haughtier version of successful small-town businessmen in America that I have known. No one could do it better than her. And she did it at everyone else’s expense. I wondered what the Englishman and his mother thought. They were humble middle class people, polite and deferential. By the time we got back to Vilnius I knew this woman was better than me and everyone else she had ever met. It was a relief when the mini-bus dropped us off in the Old Town.

Ready to go - Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance

Ready to go – Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance (Credit: Henryk Kolowski)

Warmth & Wonder – A Mother’s Instinct
The Englishman then asked me if I wanted to have a drink with him and his mother. I said sure. We found a nice outdoor café and ordered a few beverages. I noticed when we were at Trakai that his mother always stayed behind. When she walked, it was with noticeable pain. I wondered if this was the product of some sort of recent injury. It turned out that she had a chronic arthritic condition. She winced while trying to sit down and getting up was just as difficult. It was painful  to watch her facial expressions as she tried to get comfortable in a chair. Her son was infinitely patient. He helped her get up or move around. The mother looked to only be in her early 50’s, if that.

Despite her physical condition, her outlook on life was cheerful. She enjoyed talking to me about her life on the outskirts of London. Her eyes radiated a sense of warmth and wonder. I could not imagine how painful it must have been for her to travel to Lithuania or on the bus just to visit Trakai. She and her son gave me their addresses and phone numbers, then told me to come visit if I was ever near their home. We finished up our drinks and said short goodbyes, hoping to meet again in the future. I deeply regret that somewhere along the way I misplaced their contact information. It is almost certain that I will never see them again. It is also certain that I will never forget them. That was worth the trip, both to Trakai and Lithuania.

The Floating Fortress – A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: Irritability, Beauty & Tranquility (Travels In Eastern Europe #61a)

After a couple of days in Vilnius I decided that it was time to see something of the Lithuanian countryside. My newfound friends at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast recommended a day trip to nearby Trakai Island Castle. One look at a photo of Trakai convinced me this was where I should go. Trakai is the eye candy of Lithuanian castles. It sits on an island, its red brick image reflecting off the water. The photos I saw of Trakai before booking the tour were astounding. So much so that when the tour operator told me that the interior of the castle would be closed because it was a Monday, I could have cared less. Such minor scheduling details would not preclude me from taking photos or walking along the walls. Trakai was not going to be an exercise in history so much, as it was an exercise in vanity. Thus, I found myself at 10 a.m. on my last morning in Vilnius boarding a bus with a small group that included an English woman, her adult son and a broad shouldered, imperious looking Norwegian lady.

Hill fort mounds in Kernave

Hill fort mounds in Kernave (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Unimaginable Past – Kernave
Our guide was a Lithuanian woman who looked to be in her late 20’s. Once she started talking, she hardly ever stopped.  We heard, but did not learn, a withering amount of Lithuanian history over the next 45 minutes. Her idea of leading a tour was to tell us so much information that we would be too exhausted from listening to ask any questions. Between the bus ride and an unending stream of facts, I was ready to sleep for a month. Finally, the bus made a stop at an overlook for the ruins of Kernave. Here stood what was reputed to be the first capital of Lithuania. The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and were supposed to be the main attraction. Unfortunately, during the 1920’s a magnificent, yet entirely out of place neo-Gothic Church was constructed nearby. There were other churches in this area from the 15th through the 19th century, either they fell into ruin or were removed. The irony is that during Kernave’s golden age, the inhabitants were pagan. They were fighting for their very existence from Christian crusading Teutonic Knights. Now a massive church overlooked all that remained of their glorious past.

The remnants of Kernave sat on a plateau just above the Neris River. While I found the various mounds and ruins impressive it also was a reminder of just how few people lived in even the most important settlements during the early medieval period. A small town in Lithuania today would easily swallow these mounds the represented Kernave. During this time, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside, their existence was precarious at best. Kernave’s population would have expanded to capacity when they were under attack. It was as much a seat of protection, as it was of power. Kernave was likely the greatest Baltic hill fortress of its time. Nevertheless, its current condition did not look very impressive. Those were very different times, as unimaginable to us as today’s world would have been to Kernave’s residents.

A Magic Moment - Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

A Magic Moment – Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

The Magic Of The World – In Progress
The guide continued to talk incessantly as we headed towards Trakai. It was difficult to even get in a word. When I did ask her a question, if it did not fit in with her pre-prepared narrative, she became rather abrupt. By the time we arrived in Trakai, I was less interested in seeing the castle than getting a break from her ceaseless chatter. I fled from the bus and headed straight towards the edge of Lake Galve, which surrounds the island that Trakai stands on. Just about the time I was getting ready to snap my first coveted photo of the castle, I noticed a sailboat sliding silently across the water. It was a moment of stunning beauty and picturesque serendipity. I was instantly pleased with the photo, which looked so enchanting that I could hardly believe such a scene was there for the taking. Sometimes beauty and tranquility conspire to create a perfect moment that captures the magic of the world in progress.

I then made my way over the footbridge leading to the castle. Though the interior was not open, just walking around the castle walls proved illuminating. Trakai Castle had undergone an extensive restoration which was visible to the naked eye. The lower parts of the walls were original and did not match up with the bricks that had been used to rebuild the taller parts of these walls. The restoration had taken over a decade. Strangely enough, it was done under the communist regime. This seemed odd, as the idea of nobility was anathema to the communists. I noticed this same phenomenon at work while visiting the Old Towns of Riga and Warsaw. What possessed these regimes to rebuild historic neighborhoods and structures was hard to fathom. Perhaps it was done in a paradoxical bid to create confidence in a communist system that was an imposition on national honor. A reminder that not all was bad. Or at least the past offered respite from the present. Whatever the case, the restoration was fabulously done.  It did make me wonder though, had the castle ever really looked this good. All restorations approximate the past. This one was so magnificent that any faults I could find seemed like mere quibbles.

Reconstructing history - The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

Reconstructing history – The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

At The Mercy of History – The Decline Of Trakai
And what of the history of Trakai Castle? The castle underwent three phases of construction between the latter half of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century. Its principle usage was as a fortress guarding against attack by the Teutonic Knights. One of these attacks brought it to ruin in 1377. This brought home to me the martial prowess of the Teutonic Knights. Taking Trakai meant overcoming nature as much as man. The castle would be rebuilt only a few decades later in stouter and stronger form, accentuating the Gothic elements. After the Teutonic Knights were soundly defeated at the Battle of Zalgiras (more famously known as the Battle of Tannenburg) in 1410 the castle morphed into a palatial residence for the Grand Dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The castle only went into perpetual decline after being badly damaged in the 17th century wars with Muscovy. It fell into disuse and was abandoned, left to the mercy of the elements.  The fact that it would eventually be resurrected in its current form did not mean that the ruins were without value, especially for artists.



The Power Of False Promises – Napoleon In Vilnius: Conquest & Failure In Lithuania (Travels In Eastern Europe #60)

When I think of Napoleon, the image that usually comes to mind is of a masterful military commander and visionary political leader. A self-made emperor, whose intoxication with power and flawed genius changed Europe forever. His vision and conquests reshaped the continent. I rarely think of Napoleon as having anything to do with Eastern Europe, but if I do it almost always involves his disastrous Russian campaign. Scenes such as the dyspeptic dictator directing his forces at the bloody Battle of Borodino or standing in the smoking ruins of Moscow. While visiting Vilnius I scarcely gave a thought to Napoleon, why would I? Vilnius seems light years away from anywhere I would associate with Napoleon. Yet he spent eighteen eventful days in the city during the summer of 1812. Long enough to leave both a legend and legacy behind.

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

Force Of Will – Liberation Without Freedom
Napoleon’s invasion of Imperial Russia commenced in territory that is now part of modern day Lithuania. His army crossed the Niemen River on June 23, 1812. He was soon being feted by the mayor of Kaunas.  Four days later, Napoleon arrived in Vilnius. The city had been liberated by his troops with hardly a casualty. First, the Russian Tsar Alexander and then his troops hastily retreated to the east. Upon his arrival, Napoleon was given a mixed reception by the residents of Vilnius. On one hand, he was a possible liberator, who would restore the independence of Lithuania. Pulling it out away from Tsarist rule. The reality turned out to be much more complicated. While Napoleon created a provisional government in Lithuania, he appointed French officials to have the final say in its affairs. The provisional government was created not to liberate Lithuania, but to help raise men and supplies for the invasion of Russia.  Napoleon was only going to give the Lithuanians a little of what they wanted to ensure their loyalty. In return, he received nine regiments of Lithuanian infantry and cavalry to assist the Grand Army. Twenty thousand men were called to arms. Little did they realize that in the coming months they would be marching into a deathtrap.

Right after his arrival, Napoleon toured the fortifications protecting the city, then over the coming days he visited a few more of the most prominent sites. I can vouch for the fact that the one which amazed him most is certainly worth seeing on a visit to Vilnius. The idea of Gothic architecture as flamboyant seems contradictory. Gothicism is usually dark, brooding and intimidates as much as it inspires. St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius is styled in what is known as Flamboyant Gothicism. The church’s façade is fantastically exuberant, with towering spires soaring skyward. No less than thirty-three different types of brick were used in the creation of the edifice. Imagine a red brick Bat Mobile turned vertical in a wonderous dynamism of stone and style. Such a spectacle led a man as deeply cultured and brilliant of intellect as Napoleon to have been profoundly moved by the sight of St. Anne’s. Legend says that upon seeing the church, Napoleon remarked that he would like to carry it back to Paris, “in the palm of his hand”. It is unlikely that Napoleon used these exact words, but it would not be surprising if he found St. Anne’s an otherworldly architectural wonder. Sadly, his reverence did not stop the church from being used as a military warehouse during the war.

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius (Credit: Adas)

The Gate Of Dawn – Soldiering On
Another famous place in Vilnius that Napoleon visited was the Gate of Dawn. Just as today, the Gate of Dawn was the only one of the original nine city gates still standing, the rest having been torn down in the late 18th century by the order of Russian Tsarist officials when they took over the city. The gate gained its fame due to a venerated painting known as Our Lady of the Gate Of Dawn, which has been known to have miraculous powers. The painting portrays the Virgin Mary in northern Renaissance style. Long after the painting was done, a chapel was constructed around it and became a place of pilgrimage. That reverence continues today, just as it did two centuries ago. Napoleon first entered Vilnius through the Gate of Dawn while heading toward the city center, what is presently the Old Town. His first impression of Vilnius was that the locals were not as enthusiastic towards him as they had been earlier in Warsaw. Nevertheless, he and his soldiers were welcomed by crowds hoping that Napoleon would throw the Tsarist yoke off Lithuania once and for all.

The presence of his troops was a different story. The Grande Armée wore out its welcome not long after its arrival. They commandeered or looted crucial food stores and livestock from the locals. The peasantry took to the forests, trying to safeguard their possessions from marauding soldiers. Within a matter of days, the Grande Armée went from being viewed as liberators to obstinate occupiers. Relief only came to the area when they marched out of Lithuania, eastward into Russia. Vilnius would soon become a distant memory for them and their leader. A little less than five months later, a very different Napoleon was back in Lithuania. His army had been defeated by the vast spaces, harsh winter and a Russian Army that fought to the death for their territory. Napoleon arrived back in Vilnius on December 6th. His stay lasted less than a day, as he almost immediately left for Paris. There he hoped to fend off a coup d’etat and then raise another army. Napoleon may have been defeated, but he would live to fight another day.

French Army - in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

French Army – in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

Grand Failure – Blind Ambition
The same could not be said for the Grande Armée, which by this point was barely recognizable as a fighting force. Thousands of starving, emaciated, frost bitten soldiers descended on Vilnius. Many were past the point of exhaustion. They died at the outskirts, in the streets and on doorsteps all over Vilnius. Mass graves were dug to bury the corpses of an army that could no longer be termed “Grand”. The same soldiers who had once taken whatever they wanted from Lithuanians were now reduced to the status of beggars. Just as Napoleon had provided Lithuanians with false hopes, he did the same with his army. The campaign proved to be a death knell for Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. His visits to Vilnius at the start and end of the campaign, illustrate both his ambition and ultimate failure.