A Visit to Vilnius
Earlier this month I visited Vilnius, to participate in a conference, ‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’, organised by Melanie Ilic (University of Gloucestershire) and Dalia Leinarte (Vilnius University). The conference centred around exploring the implications of using oral testimony, memory studies and life writing when researching aspects of everyday life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The two day conference comprised a fantastic mixture of interesting and thought-provoking presentations on a diverse range of research projects relating to broader themes including identity construction, gender, nostalgia and trauma studies. I delivered a paper entitled ‘Conversations about Crime in Communist East Central Europe’, focusing on my own use of oral testimony during my research into crime in late-socialist era East Central Europe, and the resulting question and answer session was pretty lively, giving me lots of food for thought about popular perceptions of morality and criminality under communism! In addition to a series of 20 minute papers delivered in the ‘traditional’ conference style, we were also treated to a reading from the transcript of an interview-style conversation between Barbara Alpern Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya, two scholars who conducted several interviews for their seminal study A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, Colorado, 1998). This was followed by a question and answer session with Barbara Engel herself, who joined us live via Skype.
I stayed on for an extra day to explore Vilnius after the conference ended – as I only had 24 hours there I confined myself to exploring the Old Town and surrounding areas, but still found plenty to see and do and I’d certainly recommend visiting if you have the chance! Vilnius itself was lovely, thoroughly charming and quietly cultivating a relaxed ‘shabby chic’ feel as the post-communist renovation of the city’s stunning architecture gradually continues (Vilnius Old Town gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004), combined with more modern developments. The contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Vilnius was particularly apparent when looking out across the city from the top of Gediminas Castle:
This contrast was also visible when wandering around the city, as the more ‘modern’ feel of the broad streets and designer fronted stores along Gedimo prospect juxtaposed with the more traditional narrow, winding, cobbled roads leading past the smaller souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants snaking down Pilles Street and throughout the University quarter.
Of course, I visited several of the main tourist attractions including the Cathedral, the remains of Gediminas Castle, St Annes Church (along with several other beautiful churches) and the Dawn Gate. I also enjoyed sampling some traditional Lithuanian cuisine!
Vilnius also had a very ‘arty’ feel to it, something that was particularly apparent as I wandered through Uzupis, a bohemian city district that declared itself an independent republic in 1997! However, I also enjoyed stumbling upon the street art dotted around the old town, and was intrigued to spot several trees that appeared to be ‘dressed’ in brightly knitted jumpers. I know we’re heading into autumn and that the Baltic winter is notoriously cold, but do the trees really need cosy knitwear?! A quick enquiry on Twitter when I returned informed me that the tree jumpers were an example of ‘yarn bombing’ or ‘guerilla knitting’ a form of urban art that I hadn’t seen before!
The quiet, relaxed feel to Vilnius belies its turbulent recent history, however. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the visit for me was exploring some of the lingering traces of Soviet occupation. This was most evident in the Soviet-era kitsch on sale in the many flea markets and souvenir stalls set out (similar to that I’ve seen elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc) and the tall Soviet statues which remain proudly standing at the four corners of Žaliasis tiltas (Green Bridge), over the river Neris.
However, there is an argument to be made that the brutal nature of Soviet occupation means that the psychological legacy rather than the physical traces of communism lingers longest for many Lithuanians. With that in mind, one particularly striking aspect of my time in Vilnius was my visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, an extensive exhibition housed in the former KGB headquarters on Gedimo prospect, which charts the oppression and suffering of the Lithuanian people under successive foreign occupations between 1939-1991. The exhibition takes you through periods of successive Soviet (1940-1941), German (1941-1944) and Soviet again (1944-1991) occupations, although the Nazi occupation receives a lot less attention that the years of Soviet domination – this is a sobering tale of suffering and oppression, charting partisan warfare, collaboration, opposition, dissent, imprisonment and mass deportation.
The final part of the exhibition guides visitors down into the basement, formerly used as a prison by the KGB, where visitors can tour the cells, prison exercise yards and even visit the former ‘execution room’. By now, I think of myself as something of a veteran visitor to such sites – I regularly read and teach about the ‘darker aspects’ of totalitarian regimes, and have visited Auschwitz, the Stasi Headquarters in Berlin and Budapest’s ‘Museum of Terror’ in recent years. However, the tour of the former prison still affected me on a personal level (more so, I found, than similar visits in Berlin and Budapest, but less than my visit to Auschwitz , which was emotionally draining, an experience I previously blogged about HERE). There was something about the heavy feeling that settled in my stomach while my footsteps echoed down the dark, dank, narrow corridors (the fact that I was entirely alone in an otherwise deserted basement prison probably contributed to this!). I felt increasingly unnerved and unsettled as I peered through the cell doors to view the ‘punishment cells’ set up to demonstrate how prisoners would be forced to stand on narrow platforms surrounded by icy water for hours on end (inevitably to plunge into the freezing water when they lost their balance or lost consciousness); illustrating how prisoners condemned to isolation were incarcerated alone in cramped, dark boxes for days (and sometimes weeks) on end and how padded walls were installed in some cells to block out the sound of cries of pain from prisoners subjected to physical torture. All of this was accompanied with information about various individuals who had spent time (and sometimes even died) whilst in the prison. I’d certainly recommend visiting the museum if you are in Vilnius, but I must confess that I was glad to escape out into the fresh air and the sunshine when my tour ended.
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