"Key to understand East now" Top 5 Page for this destination Vilnius Travelogue by matcrazy1

Vilnius Travel Guide: 1,734 reviews and 3,618 photos

Key to understand the culture

This travelogue was written thanks to great help and inspiring thoughts of my friend OlafS from Belgium. Thank you Olaf.

All pictures were taken on the barricade which was put up by defenders of Lithuanian parliament surrounded by Soviet troops in January 1991.

I think that history is the key to understand each culture. But it works even stronger in Vilnius, Lithuania and the whole area of Central Europe which is still called Eastern according to old, political instead of geographical criteria. Hmm... to be honest the criteria are still (2004) not at all old. Soviet occupation and/or rule, one way or the other, changed wrongly human minds of people who had lived under the Soviet regime.

People under communist regime were not forced to choose, life was simple (and poor) with no choice. So, now, many of people must learn to choose and as for now they choose wrong many times. Hmm... look how many exotic personalities - politicians they choose (including casual criminals), how many Polish farmers protested against EU enlargement and now they get for their meat... twice more money etc., etc.

Joining the European Union will not change automatically anything although it MAY make the changes faster. I think that in this part of Europe the economic changes are much faster than changes in human minds, at least 1-2 next generations have to pass away and be born to seal in real the changes.

Keep in mind that regaining independance after being part of totalitarian Soviet regime is not a moment. In real it is a very long and hard process of rebuilding of independent and democratic institutions, then changing human minds, behaviours, customs etc. It's real paradise for well educated, very active, full of energy, ambitious, wise and first of all very strong and patient people (minority!) and at the early beginning when the democratic institutions are still very weak it's paradise for various thefts, fraudsters and cranks as well.

Additionally "the new" sometimes hurts at least some citizens of these countries. What hurts?
Do you want the whole list? Ok, I can say about Poland.
- high unemployment,
- hard work (haha :-),
- rich neighbours (they are more numerous and well seen, not more hidden in their enclaves),
- lack of vodka at work (well, it worked that way at some jobs; drunk population was easier to rule),
- necessity of taking responsibility for ourselves (before anonymous state = THEY were responsible for everythig),
- never ending stressful choosing (which health/retirement program, which bank, which school, which and again which; before: no choice, ONE was favourite number: one party, one ideology, one truth etc.),
- mass media which disclose political/criminal scandals one by one (before: strict cenzorship = ... no scandals),
- the fact that it's not so easy to find guilty of poverty or difficult individual situation somewhere outside (before: always THEY = communist authorities were guilty),
- new knowledge that we are not so beautiful and the best as the Soviet propaganda used to say (hmm... Poland was 10th economic power in 70', can you believe? ;-),
- lack of free holidays/trips, tickets to cinema/concert for a family (paid by state owned factory =... by workers in real)... etc. etc.

Life in Poland and Lithuania (under Soviet rule)

Some people seem to miss communist times, esp. those who didn't find much better place for themselves in new times like: long-therm unemployed, the least educated, some poor pensioners. But... it's deeply human to see own youth in lighter colours. They don't miss (or don't want to remember) empty shelves in stores, very high inflation rate, poverty for all, corruption everywhere (well, it's still present at some places), repressions, boring and full of liers newspapers and TV news, no choice, and first of all no hope for better future (except immigration to magical West... if they give you a passport).

Well, living in Poland (formally independent state) and Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic had to be quite different before 1991. I was in the former Soviet Union a few times but exclusively in Kiev and western Ukraine.

I was told that the Soviet system was "more tolerant and human" in Lithuania than in other Soviet republics. Did it really work that way? Why? Maybe because of strong and long lasting resistance of Lithuanians against Soviet power after WWII. It's easy to understand why they survived free minds ("rebelious" for Soviets) if you look back at glorious history and rich traditions of Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

I remember story of a friend of my father, Lithuanian guy who visited us in Krakow in 70'. Once in Moscow, when he replied a Russian guy, that he was from Lithuania he had heard: Lithuanian? Hmm... "pribaltijskije faszisty" which means "Baltic fascists". Explanation: Lithuania is located by the Baltic Sea where East Prussia (German state) was located till WWII. In real it's area of Russian enclave - Kaliningrad district now. Hmm... it seems that Soviet propaganda publicized a lot of fake pre-judices and provoked a lot of ethnic conflicts which surely coudn't explode without their control in totalitarian system but could be used to convince Russians that occupying of say Lithuania was necessary. Pardon, they never used the word "occupation", they were talking that Lithuanians (how many? 10?) asked them to join Lithuania to great family of Soviet republics. I still have my school books on history full of such liers. But I was taught history at home not at school.

I have no doubts that life was much easier in Poland in say 70' and 80' than in Lithuania, not mention hard Stalin's times of 50'. Thousands "wrong" Lithuanians were transferred to prisons and concentration camps in deep Soviet Union (Siberia). Poles from Poland as well but - as I know - it stopped (exciles to the Soviet Union) in 1948-49 in Poland.
Later on, in 80' we used to talk that life in this circus (Soviet system) was cruel but in our (Polish) barrack it was the most funny. Well, our barrack had... Polish pope and (not for long) Solidarity Trade Union (huge and anti-communist movement in real).

For me as travel addicted from the youngest years it was important that from say early 70' (kiddy time for me) we could travel (as individual tourists!!!) to the West. I was with my parents in Austria, Italy, Greece and Turkey that time which was never to forget experience for my very young mind. Well, my passport was stored at the passport department of police and it was very tiring and difficult to get a passport (before each trip) and to get limited amount of foreign money because of Soviet-style law and huge and absurd beaurocracy that time but it was possible (at least once a year). Additionally it was unbelievably expensive for us, so we were often more workers or tradesmen (or smugglers) than real tourists. Never mind, citizens of the Soviet Union were not allowed to travel to the West that way and that time. So, they couldn't compare real life there with what Soviet propaganda told them. Did they believe in lies about "bad and poor life in the imperialistic West"?

Poland, Lithuania under Soviet rule - differences

In Lithuania, like in Poland, there was an underground press against Soviet authorities and the population as a whole remained generally rebelious. What probably did make a difference is that Lithuanians, like many other nationalities in the USSR, actively needed to be Lithuanians in order not to become "Soviets".

Nationalism was needed to survive as a nation in Lithuania and as a free state (despite communist system) in Poland. I think Lithuanians were told a different category of lies about their history than the Poles. The Lithuanians were taught pro-Russian and additionally anti-Lithuanian lies. I was taught lies at school, but these lies weren't anti-Polish!
Additinally (in 70' and even more in 80', after founding Solidarity Trade Union or rather movement) I was told "true" history at home.

So, in contrast to Lithuania the Polish nature of Poland was never in danger. But nationalism both Polish and Lithuanian was part of life in the Soviet system. And it's still alive here and there at least from time to time.

Different approach to history

Problem with history is that people tend to look at it differently. It's not just facts, it's also emotion. And people tend to forget dark sides of history of their countries. I could easy to observe it in Vilnius when I heard quite different stores told by local guides: in English to American tourists and in Polish to Polish. Just two examples:

1. Many Poles are pround to form one state with Lithuania from 1385 to 1795. They think that modern common state of Poland and Lithuania, crowned by the world's second oldest constitution, the Commonwealth of the Two Nations was the protoplast of European Union.

Some (many? most?) Lithuanians underline Lithuanian autonomy in the common state and criticize aggresive Polonisation of Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the common state. They underline that Vilnius lost its meaning when the capital of the common state was moved to Krakow, Poland and Lithuania at all lost its pagan identity, traditions, customs etc.

2. Pilsudski is a hero in Poland and rather (probably? for sure?) an enemy in Lithuania.

Poles think that he saved Vilnius (inhabited mainly by Poles and Jews and only in 1.6 % by Lithuanians in 1917 - German census) and protected it against Soviet bolsheviks in 1919 when Polish troops defeated bolsheviks who just proclaimed Soviet Republic of Lithuania and Belarus. During Polish-Bolshevik war 1920 Polish troops who defeated invincible Red Army survived not only Lithuania but Europe as the bolshevicks planned to stop in Paris, France. Then Polish majority of annected Vilnius area (so called Middle Lithuania) voted to incorporate them to Poland and the Middle Lithuania came back to Poland. A lot of Poles come to visit Vilnius cemetery where half of Pilsudsli's heart is placed (the second half is on Wawel Castle in Krakow).

Lithuanians think that it was next aggression of imperialistic Poland against Lithuania and that many Lithuanians were persecuted (again) by Poles. No excuse to Poland for that aggresion against the most Lithuanian city and Lithuanian old capital.
Lithuanian guide told visitors that Vilnius had always been the Lithuanian capital. In the 18th century it became "Polonized" but the surrounding area still was mostly Lithuanian until the 1920's. I believe it was more or less official Lithuanian history that Polish speaking citizens of Lithuania were still Lithuanians, not ethnic Poles.

Polish and Lithuanian nationalism and future

Recently I read on cover pages of all Polish most popular newspapers information about the final sentense of Lithuanian High Court. What's a story?

At one Lithuanian town/city inhabited mostly by Poles, local self-government decided to rename one street to Pilsudski. This administrative decision was appealed (by the self-government of higher, county level) and... finally the Lithuanian High Court decided to forbide renaming the street to Pilsudski. The newspapers informed that this decision will be appeald to European Tribunal now, as referring to EU law, the naming of streets belongs exclusively to local authorities.

I don't know details on that case. I know that Pilsudki is a hero for Poles. He restored Poland to a glory it hadn't had in centuries. However, for Lithuanians he is not. The annexation by Poland of Vilnius and surrounding area might have been a liberation for Poles and Jews maybe, I don't know. However it was the start of bitter opression for Lithuanians in the same region (never mind how many lived there). If I must believe Lithuanian sources some extremely nasty things happened there in that period. In that light I can perfectly well understand Lithuanian authorities refusing to name a street after a man who, after all, was an enemy of the Lithuanians. Because that is how they look at it. Polish Lithuanians should respect that.

Sometimes the past is better left alone, especially if we want to have a future. I think that now, both countries and its people need to search for the truth and first of all for good future. I think that there are better ways to remember the Polish side of Lithuania, even to remember Pilsudski, ways that don't provoke anyone (except perhaps for nationalist fanatics, but nobody should care about that).

And finally , I don't think that EU law (too detailed and complicated) can help solve the real problem in any way. It's a thing of human minds not of law. I would prefer to spend that money which will go to the Tribunal for subsidizing say 100 pupils to come to meet Polish friends in Poland or reverse.


5th century (probably) - the first settlement,

13th century - castle and wooden houses already stood, maybe Vilnius was the capital, for sure the capital was in Voruta (unknown place till now!) and was transferred first to Kernave, then to Trakai,

1323 - first written notice about Vilnius ("in our king's city"),

1385 - 1568 Personal union of Poland and Lithuania: beginning of the common state of Poland and Lithuania (the deal: marriage of Lithuanian Grand Duchy and Polish Queen, Lithuania admits catholicism)
Vilnius was multicultural city of Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians, Ormians, Jews, Germans and Tatars.

1569 - 1791 Real Union: one state called Commonwealth of the Two Nations: Poland and Lithuania (one parliament, one king, one foreign policy, seperate central and land offices, treasure, army and courts).
Vilnius lost its meaning as the capital of the common state was first in Krakow then in Warsaw, Poland. Western European and Polish culture came to Vilnius. The local gentry called themselves: "gente Lithuanus, natione Polonus" which means in Latin: of Lithuanian family, of Polish nation. Polish language was thought at schools and used by aristocrats. Belarusian and Lithuanian was common as well.

1791 - 1795 the world's second oldest constitution - Constitution of 3 May 1791: one state of Poland with incorporated Lithuania.

1795 - 1915 Eastern Poland with Vilnius incorporated to Russian Empire,

1915 - 1918 German occupation. Dates referring to German sources:
pop. 139,000
Poles - 54%
Jews - 41 %
Lithuanians - 1,6 %, yes, only 1,6 %! Difficult to say that Germans could made a mistake...


1919 - wars: Vilnius under various rule of Germans, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Soviets proclaimed bolshevik Soviet Republic of Lithuania and Belarus, on 19th April Polish army with marshal Pilsudski entered Vilnius,

1920 - 1921 Polish-bolshevik war, Soviet Red Army enters Vilnius but... Polish troops with no fights comes back, proclamation of so called Middle Lithuania which was populated mostly by Poles

1922 - 1939 parliament of the Middle Lithuania decided to incorporate the area of the Middle Lithuania to Poland, Vilnius in Poland again (accepted officially by foreign governments in 1923).

1939 WWII begins, secret deal between bolshevik Russia (Stalin) and Nazi Germany (Hitler) divided Europe between them. Lithuania and Vilnius should belong to Germany. It was secrectly corrected (deal between Lithuania and Soviet Russia) and... Vilnius with 322,000 Poles was invaded by Lithuanian troops - beginning of Lithuanisation of Vilnius: 66% Poles was treated as foreigners (= no job for them), Lithuanian became official language, University was closed, no more Polish schools, theaters and other institutions... etc., etc.

1940 - Soviet troops entered Lithuania and they founded communist government of Lithuania, beginning of Socialist Soviet Republic of Lithuania inside the Soviet Union. Very hard times for Vilnius started: massive deportations to deep Russia esp. of Poles, nationalisation of land, commerce and industry (read: robbery). Well, Lithuanians had to discover that it was Soviet trick: Soviet's gift for Lithuania that was Vilnius (from Polish hands) was NOT unselfish. There was Lithuanian catchphrase from those times: "Vilnius musu, o mes rusu" which means: Vilnius belongs to us but we belong to Russians.

1941 - 1944 Nazi German occupation, over 90% of huge Jewish population was murdered, numbers of partisants grows in the area but mainly anti-Soviet (they were active till 1953)

1944 - 1989 Soviet occupation: very hard first period (till late 50'): repressions, deportations esp. of Polish people, later: softer version of Soviet regime, for example they didn't demolish catholic churches (like in Ukraine), they... closed most of them, in 1987 Lithuania could celebrate 600th anniversary of christianisation (forget about it in say Belarusian Soviet Republic).

1988 - 1991 - period of fights for independence of Lithuania, the most intensive just in Vilnius (doesn't it prove strong cultural roots of its citizens ?)

Since 1991 - independent Lithuania :-)))

  • Page Updated May 9, 2016
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