FALL COLORS: Lithuanian History

Originally posted 9/20/2010

As fall begins – here in Lithuania anyway – I am determined to spend more time writing, less time roaming the streets. I’m sure the weather will cooperate in furthering this plan. And while I am in Lithuania, what better to write about than history? And where better to begin than at the beginning? The beginning of what? Of my attempt to understand.

As I’ve been working on this book for the last several years, I’ve found the topic of history the most difficult to approach. This morning I thought I’d take a look in Arctic Lace to see how I’d handled history there, since I didn’t have any specific memories of struggling with that subject. Lo and behold, there is no chapter specifically about history in Arctic Lace! How is it that I could have forgotten that? Thinking back even further, though, I do remember having a terrible time on the history chapter for The Knitted Rug. And that was just the history of a craft, not the history of a land, a people, a culture, and so much more, which is what I am attempting now. All in just a few pages! I’ve tried several different approaches, but haven’t been happy with any of them.

First I made a timeline and tried to fill in the names and dates and places the way we would have learned about history when I was in school. Boring! Over simplified to a fault, and at the same time so full of details that no story takes shape. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this timeline on Google. Is it any wonder that I hated studying history in school? Give me stories any day; but put raw facts and figures in front of me, and I’m nodding out in a few minutes.

Next I tried to look at the history from many different perspectives. The Lithuanians have one big, overarching story to tell – their national mythology – just as we have our own in America. But, perhaps because it’s a small country, or perhaps for other reasons that haven’t surfaced in my mind, other versions of the history of Lithuania are fairly easy to come by.

I found books and articles about Jewish-Lithuania, about Polish-Lithuania, about Russian-Lithuania, and even about the Belarusian perspective of Lithuanian history. I also, perhaps obviously, stumbled onto a few histories of Lithuania written from the US or Western European perspective. Depending on the time period covered and the language of the author, we might read about Vilnius, Vilna, Vilne, or Wilno, we might find street names given in Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish, or Polish – or an Anglicized variation of any of these. In each of these stories, nuances lurked in the shadows while some differences were stark. All of the narratives made sense in one way or another, but they jumbled together in my mind like a bowl of alphabet soup. Again, no clear picture took shape for me.

History in the Streets

Third, I thought I would approach the history of this country through my own travels here, pointing out interesting historical events and facts as I discovered them. On my first visit here, I saw the city through the eyes of a stranger and a tourist. The next summer, I lived here as a student of the Lithuanian language and explored the country through its museums, monuments, textiles, and people. On my third visit here, I came as a writer, and I found myself immersed in the stories of the millions of Jews who had spent their lives here at one time or another. This year I feel some confusion as I try to settle in for a longer visit with my husband: Lithuania is home but not home, strange but safe, foreign and familiar, new and old. I am, in a way, seeing Lithuania through my own history of visiting, even though that history spans only a few summers, not decades, centuries, or millennia.

Another Version of History

I am reading a book called “The Borders of Lithuania: The History of a Millennium” a book about the history of Lithuania as seen though maps. The colors I’d like to talk about today (to keep the post on the topic of Fall Colors!) are the colors of maps. And the approach to history I am exploring now is how stories can be told through maps. Maps are interesting things. Some are meant to be miniaturized versions of the real world, showing roads or terrain or the shapes of land masses.

Map of Lithuanian Electrical Power Distribution

Other maps are meant to solidify political borders, make them real to us in a way that can only be done through miniaturization. In the real world, a border is invisible unless it is patrolled or demarcated with a fence or wall. But on a map, we can draw a solid line and say, “Everything in this line belongs to me and mine.” Maps can also be quite abstract but still provide valuable information, the way subway maps do. Maps tell the truth and they tell lies at the same time.

An old street map of Vilnius

The lies are not necessarily intentional deception, but leaving out some information and distorting other information to make the map useful for one purpose, at the same time makes the map useless for anything else. So with each version of history that we read, we must determine the purpose of the author. The mere listing of dates and names may be the most accurate way to look at history, but it does not provide any insight into the culture or motives or thoughts or lives of the people who lived at the time.

I’ve been writing about the history of Lithuania for several years. Drafting and outlining and making notes and drafting some more. I have written four or five versions of this blog post in my notebook, on my iPhone, and on my laptop. And although I still haven’t come to terms with anything, I am starting to see a thread, a spine, that is holding together the facts and figures I’ve been collecting.

The history of Lithuania is very long, bloody, and complicated. That said, here’s what I’ve pared it down to, this is what I see as the basic shape of the history, buried under layers and layers of names and dates and details. This is my outline of Lithuanian history, and you’ll be able to read more of it when my book is finally finished. With this outline I feel as if I finally have away to approach this chapter without getting bogged down by details and without getting too politicized by all of the different viewpoints about each event. My chapter will cover just a bit of what happened, largely from the Lithuanian perspective, but with a few sidebars to highlight other versions of the story where I think something important is left out of the main narrative, and with a few notes about my own travels and personal observations.

0 Pre-history. Sometime after the last ice-age, wandering tribes who would become known as the Baltic people settled in what would, thousands of years later, be called Lithuania. Lithuania was first mentioned in writing in 1009, when Saint Bruno, a Catholic missionary, was murdered by the pagan Lithuanians he had been sent to convert. Although Lithuania is over 80% Roman Catholic today, the nation celebrated the 1000 year anniversary of this event with flair and aplomb.

1 Medieval Lithuania. During the middle ages Lithuania became a unified nation under its first and only king, Mindaugas, who converted to Christianity in order to receive the Pope’s blessing and the crown, and thereafter reverted to paganism, or so the story goes. Ruling as Grand Dukes rather than as kings, Mindaugas’s successors saw Lithuanian lands expand eastward to the Black Sea. Today July 6, coronation day, is still a national holiday. The names of Mindaugas and his successors Gediminas (founder of Vilnius), Algirdis and Kęstutis (brothers who co-ruled over the east and west portions of Lithuania), and Vytautas the Great (who consolidated Lithuania’s power and defeated the Teutonic knights) are on monuments and street signs throughout the country.

2 The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Jogaila was the last pagan ruler of medieval Lithuania. In 1386 he converted to Roman Catholicism, was baptized Władysław II Jagiełło, and married 11-year old Queen Jadwiga  of Poland, beginning a partnership that would last for over 400 years. In 1569, the ties between Poland and Lithuania were tightened further with the formation of the Commonwealth of Two Nations. Lithuania’s influence in the partnership waned over time, as Polish culture gained a stronghold, especially with the gentry, in Lithuania lands, and the empire lost many of its Slavic lands in Kievan Rus’ territory.

3 Lithuania No More? In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was completely dissolved, all of Lithuania’s previous lands being absorbed into Russia, bringing an end to the existence of Lithuania as an official political entity. During the 19th century, a new Lithuanian nationalism was born, in no small part due to forced attempts at “Russification” such as the banning of Lithuanian publications printed with the Latin alphabet, prohibiting the use of spoken Lithuanian in schools, promoting the Russian Orthodox faith, and switching from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar.

4 The Twentieth Century. The twentieth century in Lithuania was dominated by the violence and oppression of World War I and II, the holocaust, and the Soviet occupation, which lasted from the end of the second World War until 1990. Lithuania experienced a brief period as an independent nation, albeit with a portion of the nation including the capital city of Vilnius under Polish rule, from 1919 to 1939, when Stalin and Hitler divided up the land under the Molotov-Ribbintrop Pact.

5 Lithuania Today. Lithuania rejoined the map as an independent nation with the collapse of the USSR. On March 11, 1990, Seimas (parliament) declared Lithuania’s independence and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet military forces. Today Lithuania is a member of Nato and the European Union and is changing at an unprecedented pace.

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