An Excellent Book About Vilnius

Here is a  review I wrote of of an exceptional book about Vilnius by the Lithuanian-Canadian geographer, Laimonas Briedis.

The city of Vilnius, says geographer Laimonas Briedis, has no narrative canon, no identity in the manner of other European cities. The author seeks to remedy this problem by assembling various historical descriptions of the city by writers both obscure and famous, such as a Papal legate, an editor of the newspaper for German soldiers in WW1, the English writer, G. K Chesterton, and many others.

The result an exceptional piece of writing  – this stunningly beautiful and melancholy evocation of the “lost” memories of Vilnius is breathtaking in its scope.

The historical reports are like beads held together by Briedis’s strong conceptual thread. He is an erudite geographer who writes with all the power of Simon Schama, whose Landscape and Memory this book resembles in tone. But buyer beware! This is no text for the faint of heart. Anyone who picks up Vilnius, City of Strangers, expecting a light travelogue will get far more than she bargained for.

Vilnius begins in the fourteenth century as a city in the wilderness, an island in a vast tract of forested land made desolate by twice-annual raids from the Teutonic knights and their Western European guests, who raid the pagan lands for sport. A papal legate reports in this period that growling Gediminas, the ruler of Lithuania, refuses Christianity because the Lithuanian empire consists of people of many religions, and he does not see why he should force anyone to believe anything.

The Vilnius of the first couple of centuries is a surprising place because one comes upon it suddenly, a confusing city filled with miserable wooden houses and, eventually, beautiful churches and synagogues. It is very hard to reach across the swamps and forests except in winter, when the roads are hard and passable. It is a place at the intersection of cultures and religions, a dynamic mix of Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism in two forms, Islam, and paganism.

Vilnius is Babylon; Vilnius is said to be very dirty, the natives very rough, the streets dangerous, the women very free in sexual morals. It is even said to have a local disease, a strange condition of the scalp, the plica polonica that can lead to mental illness and death.

This powerful city declines in the seventeenth century under pressure from Moscow and other internal and external pressures. In this period, the shrinking local population turns inward into a sentimental nativism called “Old Sarmatia”, a belief system that Briedis calls a “vague phantasmagoria”. The eighteenth century decline is even worse, as Swedish and Russian armies loot Vilnius, the plague depopulates it by half, and fires burns it repeatedly.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the city has become a provincial czarist town without even a single bookstore. Great hopes come with Napoleon, but they fade quickly as the last of his retreating Grand Armée is slaughtered in the streets of Vilnius after its retreat from Moscow.  he city is repressed again and again in the nineteenth century, the university closed, the local elites rubbed away, and the very word “Lithuania” banned.

But the place comes alive with the reforms of 1905 when the majority of the population is Polish or Jewish and the population rises to 200,000. The city in this period is polyglot ideal for the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin and becomes known as the Jerusalem of the North for the learning of its Jews. To the disappointment of the Lithuanians, this city becomes a part of Poland after WW 1.

The city is known as Vilna, Vilne, Wilno, or Vilnius, depending on who is talking, but this multiplicity of layers is destroyed by WW 2 and its aftermath, when 57,000 of 60,000 local Jews (to say nothing of the thousands of Jews from elsewhere who had fled to Vilnius as a refuge) are killed by the Nazis and their local collaborators. Resident Poles are forced to leave the new capital of the Soviet socialist Republic of Lithuania in 1945, and so in a very short period, Vilnius loses most of its inhabitants and most of its narratives.

The curious subtitle of the book is explained in the conclusion. The post WW2 immigrant Lithuanian inhabitants of Vilnius were largely ignorant of its past, and thus “strangers” in their own country’s new capital. The prewar city of Poles and Jews was gone and its dead were largely unacknowledged, and thus were “strangers” in their own demolished cemeteries. Even the survivors who had been forcibly repatriated to Poland were “strangers” because the city they had left was gone and when they returned to visit, they found little evidence of their past.

Briedis resurrects the multitudinous dead of Vilnius, the forgotten Jewish Karaites, the Muslim Tartars, the Byelorussians, along with the better-known inhabitants as seen through the eyes of visitors. With them, he has revealed the layered narratives that have been unheard for so long and written an essential text for anyone who wants to know Vilnius.

Vilnius City of Strangers by Laimonas Briedis Central European University Press (March 4, 2009)