We were in Vilnius this weekend. I did not have any internet there, sorry. Vilnius is beautiful. It is a baroque city, very green, on the hills. It was very hot, I could not believe how hot is here in Lithuania now. We are so close to the Polar Circle!
I am writing about Vilnius since it is a very Polish city. It is actually a very international city - almost everybody there speaks at least 3 languages - Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and sometimes English.
Vilnius (Wilno in Polish) is the capital of Lithuania, and its largest city, with a population of 555,613 (847,954 together with Vilnius County) as of 2008. It is the seat of the Vilnius city municipality and of the Vilnius district municipality. It is also the capital of Vilnius County.
The city underwent a period of expansion. The Vilnius city walls were built for protection between 1503 and 1522, comprising nine city gates and three towers, and Sigismund August moved his court there in 1544.
The young Sigismund III Vasa, as King of Poland
Its growth was due in part to the establishment of Almae Academia et Universitas Vilnensis Societatis Jesu by King Stefan Bathory in 1579. The university soon developed into one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Commonwealth. During its rapid development, the city was open to migrants from the territories of the Grand Duchy and further. A variety of languages were spoken: Lithuanian, Polish, Ruthenian, Russian, Old Slavonic, Latin, German, Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkic; the city was compared to Babylon. Each group made its unique contribution to the life of the city, and crafts, trade, and science prospered.
King Stefan Bathory
The 17th century brought a number of setbacks. The Commonwealth was involved in a series of wars, collectively known as The Deluge. During the Russo-Polish War (1654–1667), Vilnius was occupied by Russia and Saxon forces; it was pillaged and burned, and its population was massacred. During the Great Northern War it was looted by the Swedish army. An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1710 killed about 35,000 residents; devastating fires occurred in 1715, 1737, 1741, 1748, and 1749. The city's growth lost its momentum for many years, but the population rebounded, and by the beginning of the 19th century its population reached 20,000.
In the Russian Empire
Cossacks during campaign in Europe
The fortunes of the Commonwealth declined during the 18th century. Three partitions took place, dividing its territory among the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia. After the third partition of April 1795, Vilnius was annexed by the Russian Empire and became the capital of the Vilna Governorate. During Russian rule, the city walls were destroyed, and, by 1805, only the Gate of Dawn remained. In 1812, the city was taken by Napoleon on his push towards Moscow, and again during the disastrous retreat. The Grand Armee was welcomed in Vilnius, since its inhabitants expected Tsar Alexander I to grant the country autonomy in response to Napoleon's promises to restore the Commonwealth. Thousands of soldiers died in the city during the retreat; the mass graves were uncovered in 2002.
Following the November Uprising in 1831, Vilnius University was closed and Russian repressions halted the further development of the city. During the January Uprising in 1863, heavy fighting occurred within the city, but was brutally pacified by Mikhail Muravyov, nicknamed The Hangman by the population because of the number of executions he organized. After the uprising, all civil liberties were withdrawn, and use of the Polish and Lithuanian languages were banned. Vilnius had a vibrant Jewish population: according to Russian census of 1897, out of the total population of 154,500, Jews constituted 64,000 (so around 41% percent). During the early 20th century, the Lithuanian-speaking population of Vilnius constituted only a small minority, with Polish, Yiddish, and Belarusian speakers comprising the majority of the city's population.
During World War I, Vilnius (Wilno) and the rest of Lithuania was occupied by the German Army from 1915 until 1918. The Act of Independence of Lithuania, declaring Lithuanian independence from any affiliation to any other nation, was issued in the city on 16 February 1918. After the withdrawal of German forces, the city was briefly controlled by Polish self-defence units which were driven out by advancing Soviet forces. Vilnius changed hands again during the Polish-Soviet War and the Lithuanian Wars of Independence: it was retaken by the Polish Army, only to fall to the Soviet forces again. Shortly after its defeat in the battle of Warsaw, the retreating Red Army, in order to delay the Polish advance, ceded the city back to neutral Lithuania after signing the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty on 12 July 1920.
Poland and Lithuania both perceived the city as their own. The League of Nations became involved in the subsequent dispute between the two countries. The League-brokered the Suwałki Agreement of 7 October 1920 allotting Vilnius to Lithuania. On 9 October 1920, the Polish Army surreptitiously, under General Lucjan Żeligowski, seized Vilnius during an operation known as Żeligowski's Mutiny. The city and its surroundings were designated as a separate state, called the Republic of Central Lithuania. On 20 February 1922 after the highly contested election in Central Lithuania, the entire area was annexed by Poland, with the city becoming the capital of the Wilno Voivodship (Wilno being the name of Vilnius in Polish). Kaunas then became the temporary capital of Lithuania. The predominant languages of the city were still Polish and, to a lesser extent, Yiddish.
The Orthodox Cathedral of the Theotokos, with Gediminas's Tower in background
Under Polish rule, the city saw a period of fast development. Vilnius University was reopened under the name Stefan Batory University and the city's infrastructure was improved significantly. By 1931, the city had 195,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth largest city in Poland with varied industries, such as Elektrit, a factory that produced radio receivers.
Elektrit, somewhere between 1935 and 1939
World War II
World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had partitioned Lithuania and Poland into German and Soviet spheres of interest. On September 19, 1939, Vilnius was seized by the Soviet Union (which invaded Poland on 17 September). At first, the city was incorporated into the Byelorussian SSR, as the city was a centre for Belarusian culture and politics for over a century. The heads of Soviet Belarus moved to the city, Belarusian Language schools were opened, as well as a newspaper (The Wilno Pravda). These actions were encouraged by Soviet Union leaders until it was decided to use Vilnius as one of the pretexts to begin interfering in Lithuanian internal affairs. The USSR and Lithuania concluded a mutual assistance treaty on 10 October 1939, with which the Lithuanian government accepted the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. On 28 October 1939, the Red Army withdrew from the city to its suburbs (to Naujoji Vilnia) and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. A Lithuanian Army parade took place on 29 October 1939 through the city centre. The Lithuanians immediately attempted to Lithuanize the city, for example by Lithuanizing Polish schools. However, the whole of Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union on 3 August 1940 following a June ultimatum from the Soviets demanding, among other things, that unspecified numbers of Red Army soldiers be allowed to enter the country for the purpose of helping to form a more pro-Soviet government. After the ultimatum was issued and Lithuania further occupied, a Soviet government was installed with Vilnius as the capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR. Up to 40,000 of the city's inhabitants were subsequently arrested by the NKVD and sent to gulags in the far eastern areas of the Soviet Union. The Soviets devastated city industries, moving the major Polish radio factory Elektrit, along with a part of its labour force, to Minsk in Belarus, where it was renamed the Vyacheslav Molotov Radio Factory, after Stalin's Minister of Foreign Affairs.
On 22 June 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. Vilnius was captured on 24 June. Two ghettos were set up in the old town centre for the large Jewish population — the smaller one of which was "liquidated" by October. The larger ghetto lasted until 1943, though its population was regularly deported in roundups known as "Aktionen". A failed ghetto uprising on 1 September 1943 organized by the Fareinigte Partizaner Organizacje (the United Partisan Organization, the first Jewish partisan unit in German-occupied Europe), was followed by the final destruction of the ghetto. During the Holocaust, about 95% of the 265,000-strong Jewish population of Lithuania was murdered by the German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators, many of them in Paneriai, about 10 km west of the old town centre (see the Ponary massacre).
Lithuanian SSR - in Soviet Union
In July 1944, Vilnius was taken from the Germans by the Soviet Army and the Polish Armia Krajowa (see Operation Ostra Brama and the Vilnius Offensive). The NKVD arrested the leaders of the Armia Krajowa after requesting a meeting. Shortly afterwards, the town was once again incorporated into the Soviet Union as the capital of the Lithuanian SSR.
The war has irrevocably altered the town - most of the predominantly Polish and Jewish population was either exterminated during the German occupation, or deported to Siberia during the first Soviet occupation. Many of the surviving inhabitants, particularly members of the intelligentsia were now targeted and deported to Siberia in the beginning of the second Soviet occupation. The majority of the remaining population was compelled to relocate to Communist Poland by 1946, and Sovietization began in earnest. Only in the 1960s Vilnius began to grow again, following an influx of rural Lithuanian and Polish population from neighbouring regions and well as from other areas of the Soviet Union (particularly Russians and Belarusians). Microdistricts were built in the elderates of Šeškinė, Žirmūnai, and Justiniškės.
THE FATE OF LITHUANIA The Problems of Small States Re-examined
Vytautas S. Žvirzdys
Vytautas S. ŽVIRZDYS, born in Beržoras, Lithuania, had studied at the University of Tuebingen, W. Germany, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from Carroll College, Helena, Mont. Majoring in Political Science, he received the degree of Master of Arts from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. At the present time he is writing a Ph. D. dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in political science at the same university. V. S. Žvirzdys is one of the founders of the Lithuanian Student Association in the U. S .A. and has been its first president. His articles in English and Lithuanian may be found in numerous Lithuanian newspapers and magazines.
The fate of small nations in our modern world is not enviable. Although the Wilsonian principle of self-determination was re-affirmed in the Atlantic Charter, today's international politics have reduced this principle to a shining but empty generality. It is argued that an independent existence of small nations is possible neither economically nor militarily. Especially in a world which is divided into two power blocks, the independence of small nations is neither favored nor desired.
Great Progress of a Small Nation
Lithuania is a small nation, although in terms of territory it is larger than Belgium or the Netherlands. Situated on the North-eastern Baltic sea coast and inhabited by a people racially neither Slavic nor Germanic, the Lithuania of the Middle Ages was a large state extending from the Baltic to the Black sea. This territory included most of the Ukraine, White Russia, and some Great Russian lands. In 1569 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was united with Poland in a manner similar to the Scotch-English unification under James I. However, the rise of Russia and the mismanagement of the union-state bound together by the ties of a personal union resulted in a division of Lithuania and Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria; in other words, between the rising Russian and German Powers. It is interesting to note that Russian-German friendship usually brings about the abolishment of independent political entities situated between the German and the Russian worlds.
Lithuania was occupied by the Russians (1795—1914). The XIX century was probably the blackest in Lithuanian history. After an unsuccessful insurrection against the Czar, the only university of Lithuania was closed in 1833. As a consequence of another misborn rebellion in 1863, all Lithuanian schools were banned. Printing the Lithuanian language in Latin characters was declared illegal and violations were punished with banishment to Siberia (1864-1904).
However, the spirit of independence was not suppressed. Because of the determination of her people and as a consequence of World War I, Lithuania regained her independence in 1918.
The following twenty-two years (1918-1940) were a period of over-all national progress. Not only was the standard of living brought up to the level of Central European countries, but also the cultural life of the nation burgeoned faster than that of the Soviet Union. At the end of her political independence, Lithuania had two state universities, 12 academies of higher learning, two opera houses, several municipally supported drama theaters, and many professional schools. These achievements should be evaluated against the background of the Czarist Russian occupation prior to 1914 when Lithuania was permitted to operate only approximately 1000 grammar schools and a handful of secondary schools for a population of three million. There were no universities, colleges, academies or other establishments of higher learning allowed by the Russians.
Lithuania's political independence was first recognized by Germany and the Soviet Union, the two states which 20 years later jointly conspired against the independence of that very country. The cornerstone of Lithuania's foreign politics was her trust in the collective security guaranteed by the League of Nations; the furtherance of close relations with her neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, through the Baltic Entente; and neutrality amidst the clashes between the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany. Culturally and politically, however, Lithuania was oriented toward Western Europe. More than 40% of her foreign trade went to Great Britain alone. French was the first foreign language taught in the schools. Students were sent for postgraduate studies to Western European countries.
An interesting sidelight is this: that the volume of Lithuanian foreign trade with the far-away United States was larger than that with the neighboring Soviet Union.
Roots of Tragedy
The League of Nations could insist upon, but could not guarantee the political independence of her smaller members. Although the achievements of the League are not unimportant to an historian of international relations, it must be noted that the League failed utterly as an organization for collective security. It did not stop the rise of Hitler. It could not protect Lithuania from Hitler who in 1939 took away her only port and the territory of Memel - Klaipeda. Nor could the League restrain the Soviet Union from attaching Finland or enforcing an involuntary ''mutual assistance pact" which permitted the stationing of Soviet troops in Lithuanian territory. These troops were the Trojan horse which helped to complete the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in June of 1940.
As in 1795, the occupation of Lithuania by a foreign power was the result of an agreement between Russia and Germany. Indeed, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 28, 1939, partitioned the buffer zone between the Nazis and the Soviets, and, as a consequence, the Baltic States and other Central Eastern European countries lost their independence. The declarations of complete neutrality that were made by the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia at the beginning of World War II could not save the lambs from a hungry and determined Soviet wolf.
It is sometimes alleged that the independent existence of Lithuania and the other Baltic States was contrary to political reality in Eastern Europe. All of the familiar arguments against the existence of small nations are advanced to prove this point. However, the fact of the independent existence of these states has proven conclusively that Lithuania and her neighbours were able to conduct successfully their domestic affairs and were capable of becoming worthy members of the international community. The disappearance of the Baltic States from the post war map does not prove the futility of independent existence of small states. It rather shows the failure of the collective security system as organized by the League of Nations. It is commonly agreed today that this system was ineffective and unsuccessful. The fault largely lies with Big Powers which organized Europe between the two wars and later with those that planned peace for the post - World War II period. In the same breath it must be mentioned that the United States, Canada, and some other countries have not recognized the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, thus affirming to Lithuania and her neighbours the right to independent existence.
Small Nations in the Atomic Age
Without going deeper into the problems of small nation-states, it must be stated that the most recent political developments warrant a reappraisal of the views advanced in opposition to the independent existence of small states.
First, in an atomic age the relative size of the territory or the population are of decreasing importance for the organization of a state for security and prosperity. No matter how large or wealthy, a nation cannot afford the risk of standing alone against the danger of the Soviet Union.
Second, the Soviet threat is no less ideological than it is military or political. The religion-like, Messianic philosophy of Soviet Communism has an universal ideological claim to the entire world. Consequently, Soviet politics is crusading politics. The very multifarious Soviet expansionism is driven by the Marxian promise of a paradise on earth. Translated in terms of power, this expansionism means Soviet imperialism with intentions to win domination not only over the old philosophies of life also over new territories and the already established power structures of culturally varied societies. Several decades ago, when the expansionist claims of states were based on economic, ethnic, linguistic or merely strategic claims, the imperialism of Russia or any other was of a limited character. The present imperialism of the Soviet Union is totalistic. Therefore, the rise of the Soviet phenomenon in international politics has changed completely the nature of international relations. The Soviet Union has of necessity enforced upon the world totalistic international politics which makes all partial solutions of world tension ephemeral and unsuccessful. In other words, the Soviet phenomenon in international politics excludes the possibility of a lasting compromise on which a peaceful coexistence among different economic or political power structures can be based.
This development makes it impossible to think that any nation can feel protected from the claims of Communism that is supported by all the destructive weapons that modern civilization has devised for mankind. Consequently, the size of a nation is not a shield of protection. This fact opens new vistas for considering the problem of small nations. In the opinion of the author, it completely refutes the arguments in principe against the existence of small political entities. On the other hand, it raises questions about a new world order in which no big and no small nation would have to suffer the fate of Lithuania or of the other Communist enslaved nations.
LITUANUS Lithuanian quarterly journal of arts and sciences
La Belle Époque in Vilnius
Like other cities of Central and Eastern Europe, in the early twentieth century Vilnius was a multinational city with a variety of cultures and religions. According to the 1897 census, the Jews made up 40 percent, the Poles 30.9 percent, the Russians 20.1 percent, the Belorussians 4.2 percent and the Lithuanians 2.1 percent. The predominance of the Jews can be accounted for by the fact that tsarist laws prohibited their settlement in central Russia. Thus numerous Jewish communities emerged in the towns and cities on the western fringes of the empire, especially in Vilnius. *The Polish community was large, although a lot of its members identified themselves with Lithuanians rooted in the tradition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and based on the principle gente lituanus, natione polonus. This mentality was cherished mainly by the landed Lithuanian gentry, for whom the Polish language and culture were a natural historical heritage. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian national movement produced a modern concept of the nation, one that implied that a person is a Lithuanian if he or she was born in the territory of ethnic Lithuania, spoke Lithuanian, was of peasant origin and had not experienced Polonization. The number of the representatives of this viewpoint in Vilnius at the beginning of the twentieth century was scarce, but constantly increasing. The processes of national identification and ethnic tensions were taking place in the city.
(* Comment Pieter, I think that my dziadek Josef Kotowicz Schlachtza family was part of this ethnic group)
Nikolai Sergeiev-Korobov. “New Vilnius, with the Church of Saints Philip and Jacob.” 1918, oil on canvas, 105 x 71 cm, Lithuanian Art Museum.
Following Lithuania’s annexation by Russia in the late eighteenth century, the capital of the country, Vilnius, became an ordinary provincial town, suffering from tsarist repression, persecution of the non-Russian and non-Orthodox Christian inhabitants and press censorship. The situation changed for the better only after the 1905 revolution in Russia, when Tsar Nicholas II issued a reform decree on civil liberties. In Vilnius, this liberalization was realized in various ways. National movements of all ethnic communities became legal; their aftermath was the establishment of many organizations, unions, schools, the formerly forbidden publication of periodicals and books in national languages, as well as the organization of various campaigns and events. This aspect is covered most comprehensively in the historical literature. The other aspect characteristic of early-twentieth-century Vilnius was the cultural modernization of the city and its recreational life, denoted by the term la belle époque. The present paper is devoted to this relatively unstudied subject.
In art studies, the French term la belle époque 1 refers to the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that ended with World War I. It was an outcome of capitalist prosperity, a period when leisure time became a way of life for the middle class and a new artistic and entertainment culture blossomed in European cities. A new urban environment arose: spacious streets, avenues, and tree-lined boulevards – with banks, hotels, large shops, and fashionable cafés – were laid out. The urban population was lured by public amusements, social gatherings, trade fairs, and fashion shows. The urban nightlife and the world of theaters, restaurants, cafésconcerts, cabarets, and vaudeville shows was suffused with the rays of the newly invented electric light. In addition, there were leisure-time activities in the open air, strolling along boulevards and through parks, picnics and outings in summer gardens, as well as gambling at racecourses.
Did Vilnius experience all of this? It might be assumed that it was not amusements that the people of Vilnius had been drawn to. They were suffering from tsarist oppression, economic backwardness and provincial conservatism, and were above all concerned with national revival. Nevertheless, la belle époque was not a prerogative of just the major European capitals.
In Vilnius, the new lifestyle mixed with the old standards and with religious festivals, especially Catholic wakes, processions and fairs. Crowds of people gathered around churches on the Feast of Saint Casimir, on Palm Sunday, and for the Way of the Cross; such festivals were accompanied by fairs. The most important spring fair was the feast of Saint Casimir, which took place in Cathedral Square and, following the building of a monument to Catherine II, was moved to Lukiškės Square. The fair was famous for ”the largest sale of homemade wood work.” Quite a large fair used to be held near the Church of Saints Peter and Paul during the Feast of St. Peter.
Spectacular and colorful saints’ feasts served as the favorite entertainment, although ordinary fairs, where rural elements mixed with urban types, attracted visitors as well. A masterly portrait of this side of life was revealed by the painter Stanisław Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz in his album entitled Pen-and- Ink Drawings (published in 1914). His witty and hilarious drawings are a small chronicle of Vilnius life: genre scenes of Vilnius markets, the sale of wild game, a moment of rest in an unharnessed cart, accidental flirtations, the bustle of the crowd... Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz was fascinated by the old, rural side of urban life.
“Sale of Wild Game in Vilnius.” 1903. Pen and ink drawing from Rysunki piórem (1914).
However, another side of Vilnius existed as well – the city was modernizing. In 1903, a power station, which lit major streets, was completed, many public buildings and private houses were built and new streets laid out. St. George’s (now Gediminas) Avenue, lined with banks, cinematograph theaters, hotels, shops and a circus, was the most important among them.
The green islands of entertainment were famous – including Schumann’s restaurant with a vaudeville show and an amusement park in the Bernardine Garden and the summer residence of the Noblemen’s Club on the banks of the Vilnia River. Favorite places for strolls included the Bernardine Garden and Cielętnik at the foot of Gediminas Hill, where a town skating rink was located in winter. The city had a number of concert halls: the Hall of the City (now Philharmonic); a summer theater in the Bernardine Garden; the winter theater in the Town Hall; a hall for Jewish theater that was installed in 1909 (currently Naugardukas St. 10); Liutnia theater established in 1909 (currently Gediminas Ave. 4); the so-called Great Theatre in the house of Isaak Smaženewicz (currently Gediminas Ave. 22–24); and finally, the new Polish Theatre emerged (currently Basanavičius St.) in 1913. They showed plays staged by professional and amateur actors. These were performed in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish and Belorussian. Many visiting troupes used to come to Vilnius. The musical life of the city was active as well – concerts were given and the symphonic orchestra, organized in 1909, became an indispensable part of Vilnius artistic culture.
The cinema appeared in Vilnius in 1902: during a fair devoted to agriculture and industry, a ”biopleograph” – views of Warsaw and Vilnius (Wilno) – filmed by the engineer Kazimierz Proszynski, was demonstrated in the pavilion of the Bernardine Garden.2 A boom of cinemas in the city started in 1907, with the opening of the so-called electrotheaters – Iliuzion, Szary, Parad, and Biophon. Screen presentations included views of exotic countries and simple-plot features.
The people of the city were attracted by restaurants, cafés, and K. Sztrall’s patisseries – White Sztrall in Pilies Street, Red Strall at the corner of St George’s Avenue (currently Gediminas Ave.) and Totoriai Street, and Green Sztrall in Smazenewicz’s house on St George’s Avenue – that enjoyed high popularity. Ferdynand Ruszczyc and other painters, as well as theater people and literati, met at the restaurant of St George’s Hotel (currently Gediminas Ave. 20): its architecture and interior, designed by the architect Count Tadeusz Rostworowski, were appreciated by them above all the other entertainment places in the city. In summer, the environs of the city revived. People were invited to the restaurant Riviera in Lentvaris, on the shore of a lake. Trakai and the Green Lakes were popular places for outings and picnics, both for townspeople generally and various associations.
Many recreational activities revolved around public organizations, which were abundant in the city. In the early twentieth century, there were clubs for noblemen and military officers, a city club, professional associations and other groups. After 1905, a number of national organizations were established that held parties, dances, and concerts with tableaux vivants. Especially impressive was the invasion of the Lithuanian Art Society into the cultural life of Vilnius, the artists Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, and Petras Rimša organized festive vernissages, lotteries of art works, and concerts. Aristocratic society and the well-todo held parties, soirées, ”five o’clocks,” and other gatherings. Various more or less public events provided ladies with an opportunity to parade their dress and display their knowledge of high-fashion trends. It was Charles Baudelaire, a poet of contemporary life, who had already written about the modern Western artist exalting the world of beauty and fashion embodying the ideals of urban life. This keynote was reflected in the Vilnius art world as well. The recognized portraitists of prominent Vilnius citizens included the painters Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz and Ludomir Janowski, who were more concerned with reproducing good looks than psychological depth. Both were famous for their impressive representative portraits of Vilnius ladies; they also created intimate images of women’s fin-de-siècle spirit. The press wrote that Janowski should have lived in Paris for a long time and should have mixed in high society, but, in fact, he had never worked abroad. There were ladies displaying good knowledge of haute couture in Vilnius as well, and he was able to render it in his canvasses. Another type of modern woman – emancipated, educated, intellectual, and professional – is reflected in “Portrait of a Wife” painted by Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. The Lithuanian women of this type – writers, doctors, and teachers – played an important role in the national rebirth activities in Vilnius.
Stanisław Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz. “Vilniusite.” 1912. Tygodnik ilustrowany, 1912, No. 5.
Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. “Portrait of a Wife.” 1910. Oil on plywood. National M. K.Čiurlionis Museum of Art.
The best opportunity to demonstrate garments was provided by balls and carnivals. The people of Vilnius had their traditional forms of entertainment, for example, carnival balls that were popular in nineteenth-century Vilnius, but came to be restricted by the tsarist administration after the uprising of 1863. They were revived and became an especially lively tradition following the political and cultural liberalization of 1905. Charity fund-raising carnivals took place in the halls, theaters, and hotels of the city from Christmas to Shrove Tuesday and were organized by associations and clubs. The most opulent carnivals were held at the winter hall of the Noblemen’s Club, where the whole beau monde of Vilnius was present as well as the gentry recently arrived from the provinces. A more democratic and liberal club was the one established by Vilnius bankers, uniting the Polish intelligentsia. The sets, scenery and costumes for these carnivals were in the hands of Vilnius artists. Carnivals were not just a haphazard exhibition of various masks; instead, they were thematic masquerades, in which costumes were linked together to make a scenographic whole. For example, early in 1909, a masked ball entitled In the Spider Web, with the set design by the painter Stanisław Jarocki, was held at the municipal hall; the Women’s Trusteeship Association organized a splendid dance ball Rainbow at the mansion of Countess Klementyna Tyszkiewicz, and the hall of St. George’s Hotel hummed with the colorful masquerade Butterfly.
Artists themselves used to hold parties and gatherings with music, concert programs and dances. As a way to raise funds for the organization and because of their popularity with the public, ”Saturday Gatherings” of the Vilnius Art Society were open to everyone. The public was attracted by masked balls, which members of the society prepared for in advance: in 1912, a special commission (consisting of Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, Ivan Rybakov and Ber Zalkind) was elected to coordinate such events. Echoes of Western life reached the city via the Vilnius artists studying and living abroad. In 1912, cabaret shows under such intriguing titles as Parisian Inn, A Stray Dog in the District of Montmartre, Hell, and At the Witch’s House were held. These were satirical and quite grotesque in character.
Such parties were styled after cabaret shows, which were so admired in Munich and Paris in the last decade of the nineteenth century and which attracted artists, poets, musicians, actors, intellectuals and the curious well-to-do. Especially famous were the cabaret shows of Parisian bohemian artists; their pioneer was the artist Rudolf Steiner, who established the shocking cabaret Le Chat Noir 3 in Montmartre, which served as a gathering place for artists and poets, where exhibitions and balls took place, and a satirical periodical was issued. This tradition of artist gatherings was to continue through the Divan Japonais, the Lapin Agil and other cabarets. In Poland, the famous literary-artistic cabaret Zielony balonik (Green Balloon), was active in Michalik’s patisserie (known as Jama Michalika) in Cracow between 1905 and 1912 and served as a gathering place for the Young Poland poets. It was here that the humorous verse by Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski was created and the Sztuka group artists, who decorated the walls with their works, gathered; speeches were given here time and again by the Lithuanian writer Juozapas Albinas Herbačiauskas.
In the early twentieth century, cabarets started spreading in Russia. Here the best-known cabaret was The Stray Dog, which was established in St. Petersburg in 1911 by Nikolai Kulbin. A small restaurant located in the cellar served as a nightclub for artists, where they could gather to discuss the news and to improvise. Shows were given on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Especially mirthful were the Shrovetide carnivals.
Following the renovation of the premises of the Vilnius Art Society in 1913, one of the rooms, designed by painter Rybakov, was called the Bohemian Cabaret and was devoted to the parties and masquerades held by the society. In 1912, at the suggestion of Lithuanian artist Žmuidzinavičius, caricature parties were started and natural-size caricatures produced during the get-together adorned the walls of the society‘s premises. In 1913, the artists issued a manuscript satirical journal titled Subbotnik khudozhnikov (The Saturday of Artists). Only one copy of this journal (issue No 2) is preserved by the Lithuanian Art Museum: the caricatures mock the life and problems of the artists. For example, one of them tells the story of how the members of the Association pawn their wives and children after realizing that the Association‘s coffers are empty. The caricatures for the journal were produced by the artists Rybakov, Moishe Leibovski, and Zalkind. In one of the caricatures, they ironically pictured their group as antique satyrs – half-men and half-goat – preparing the material for the journal. Along with art, cartoons reflected musical events; they included caricatures of local and touring stars.
Ber Zalkind. “Cartoon of Violinist Eugene Isaya.” 1913. Pencil, watercolor, 28 x 24.5 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum.
In January 1913, the Vilnius Art Society organized a masquerade entitled Contemporary Artistic Trends with masks mocking ”classics, realists, impressionists, symbolists, pointillists, the triangle, decadents, futurists, the donkey’s tail, landscape painters, marine painters, painters of battle-scenes, caricaturists, animal painters, decorators”; and in November of the same year, cubo-futurists were parodied during a Saturday gathering of artists.
Lithuanians living in Vilnius started liberating themselves from a peasant mentality as well. The Rūta association was holding masked balls and eventually, in 1913, the first Lithuanian cabaret performance in celebration of the New Year was given. The program included humorous couplets on topical themes and national issues; the audience was especially delighted by the Chanticleer cabaret. These were the manifestations of a modern urban culture, the seeds of which took root in Vilnius. In addition, the Lithuanian community held salon gatherings with artists. For example, the intelligentsia and artistic society, which included Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Ona Pleirytė-Puidienė and Liudas Gira, frequently gathered in the apartment of Julija and Antanas Smetona before World War I.
Various combined literary and artistic circles started gathering in Vilnius. Around 1909, a Polish group named Banda (Clique) was established. Its members included the writers Benedykt Hertz, a young poet Jerzy Jankowski, the painter Ferdynand Ruszczyc, as well as actors and musicians from Vilnius who aimed at rousing the city from the commonplace banality and burgher morals and tastes. The actress Maria Morozowiczowna, a member of the Banda group, wrote:
Here, in a wonderful courtyard near the Vilnia River, the parties of ours, Banda members, took place – eagerly awaited and spent dancing and singing... I danced like the barefooted Duncan, creating expressive scenes against a background of music, Jerzy Jankowski improvised, and in what an extraordinary manner! Benio (Benedykt Hertz) amused us all with his stories; Ludomir Rogowski improvised boisterously on the piano... 6
The product of their communication was Żorawce (Cranes), the finest art almanac in Vilnius in the early twentieth century designed by Ruszczyc. The Lithuanians published their own almanac Pirmasis baras, (The First Furrow), and a splendid literary magazine Vairas (The Helm), the illustrations for which were produced by the artists Adomas Varnas, Petras Rimša and Vilius Jomantas.
Adomas Varnas. “Headpieces of the almanac Pirmasis baras.” 1914.
The members of Banda included the inseparable couple of the feature writer Hertz and the composer Ludomiras Ragauskas; the former created humorous texts for songs, vaudevilles, and cabaret shows; the latter composed music. An especially famous Vilnius cabaret was Ach (Ah). Each year between 1908 and 1914, at the end of January, the cabaret presented one performance, which attracted masses of visitors and ticket prices reached incredible levels. Ach had two authors: the artist Bohusz- Siestrzencewicz staged cabarets and designed scenery and costumes, while the physician Michal Minkiewicz created humorous verses. Ach was made up of amateur singers along with professional performers: its enthusiastic participants were Lithuanian aristocrats and landowners – the Broel-Platers, the Rostworowskis, the Meysztowiczes, the Römers and others. The performances were of a non-commercial nature – the funds raised were donated to St. Anthony’s orphanage in Vilnius.
The Ach performances combined various genres: comedy, revue, amateur theater, ballet, and satire, and addressed various current themes. For example, a performance given in 1909 depicted how stunning innovations, accompanied by the noise of cars, electric trams and aeroplanes, were encroaching on the traditional everyday life of a nobleman. A performance in 1911 pictured Pierre searching for his beloved (a lady with a white rose), while belles of various styles and periods as well as mechanical dolls were passing by. The poetic, lyrical spirit of the turn of the century was united in them with irony, sarcasm and phantasmagoria. “Ach is a yearly colorful and live chronicle, at the same time being a wonderful poem of lines and colours.” Audiences were offered Ach publications, containing cabaret illustrations and texts, and caricatures of the spectators were drawn before each performance.
The aesthetics of the turn of the century demonstrated a special appreciation for the spirit of witticism, satire and irony. Consequently, humorous illustrated magazines gained a huge popularity in Europe. The best-known publication was Simplicissimus, which was published in Munich. Since 1904, when the tsarist prohibition of the Latin alphabet in Lithuania was revoked, a fair amount of periodicals in various languages appeared, and humorous publications became popular in Vilnius as well. Judging by their abundance (more than thirty titles), which seems surprising today, the demand for them was huge. In most cases, they were nonperiodical publications of ephemeral character: usually only several or a dozen issues were published. They contained caricatures that were very uneven in artistic quality and ranged from amateur drawings to vivid, individual stylizations. The caricatures by Bohusz-Siestrzencewicz and Adomas Varnas, which are characterized by a slender rhythm and a touch of secession style, remain unsurpassed. Examining both serious and trivial themes – from the stinging ridicule of human foibles to a parody of tense relations between nations and witty commentaries on the city news – the humorous magazines contributed to the development of the art of caricature in Vilnius in the early twentieth century.
Various forms of entertainment and witty publications became particularly numerous in the early 1910s. The closer the First World War was, the more active was the artistic and merry-making life of the city. It was a period of formation for modern urban culture, reflecting a new, capitalist way of life. The new forms of entertainment and leisure – cinematograph, cabaret, carnival, parties and matinées of various societies, art almanacs and illustrated humorous magazines – attested to the cosmopolitan nature of la belle époque. Its creators in Vilnius were artists of diverse nationalities, while the public was multiethnic and multilinguistic, consisting of Poles, Jews, Russians and Belorussians. It should be noted that the Lithuanian intelligentsia of peasant origin who actively participated in the cultural activities of Vilnius soon took on the modern urban lifestyle.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Gitana Purtulytė
Laima Laučkaitė is a senior researcher of the Institute of Philosophy, Culture and Art, Vilnius. She holds an MA in art history from Vilnius Art Institute and a Ph.D. from Moscow University. Seventeen Rendezvous in Vilnius (Vilnius: 2005, in English, German, French, Polish and Russian) is her most recent work.