18th April 2012
The best place to get a view over downtown Vilnius is from the top of the belfry of Sts Johns’ church. The church is part of the University complex and although Evaldas kept chasing me that I really must visit the area there was only so much time and with almost everything having been closed Wednesday was going to be my only chance to get into anything before I had to leave for the airport in the early afternoon.
As luck would have it on getting back from Trakai on the Tuesday I had noticed somebody staring out from the top of the tower. I thought it was late for visiting but gave it a go. No problem, it was too late to get into the university but I could certainly visit the belfry. And the lift isn’t working so you have to climb the wooden stairs.
There was not a lot of room with my wee rucksack on my back and the 193 authentic wooden steps (they tell you) spiral upwards in a very tight square. Keep your eyes on the way up, don’t look down, don’t think about just how authentic the steps might be (The church was finished in 1426. Does wood really last 600 years), just think of the exercise.
On reaching the top there was a hole in the ceiling/floor and out I squeezed onto the upper platform. If I thought that the climb had been a tad too authentic I was more than happy to note that I was not allowed to climb any higher. The wooden ladder up to the bells looked like it was made of two; sticky-taped together.
The view from the top though was worth the experience as the belfry is situated in the centre of the old town and I had fallen lucky with a clear evening. Coming down again was another exciting experience as I took my time making certain that the steps were evenly spaced. I had also noticed that the Ssssh! Ladies were in fact young security guys who looked very fit and must have had thighs like a Percheron. When I motioned to the lift and suggested that Sod’s Law meant that it would be working again in the morning, one of the guards smiled and replied : Sport.
And so my final morning in Vilnius arrived. I had almost nothing to pack but weighed everything to give myself an idea as to how much in presents I could bring back without Ryanair stinging me for excess luggage.
The morning dawned clear and sunny once the mist had burnt off. This offered me a chance to revisit a number of places and retake photos in sunshine. Evaldas accompanied me on the ride into town working away merrily on some document or other for his day at the University. Happy days, of underlining the important bits (assuming you haven’t missed the point entirely) and hoping that you can commit them to memory. And he was doing it all in Lithuanian !
We said goodbye and I set off with the zeal of an Asian to photograph lots of sunny things.
I knew that I was only going to get the chance to visit one museum during the morning, after which I was going to have to eat a proper meal as opposed to my bread and water diet of the past few lunchtimes, and then wend my way to the station and departure.
From the very first afternoon in Vilnius, Vytautas had suggested that the KGB Museum would be of interest to me as I was acquainted with life in Soviet Russia and the madness that Stalin had imposed on the USSR.
The museum is housed in the former KGB Headquarters on Gediminas Prospect an imposing structure (and slightly reminiscent of the Lubyanka in Moscow) that started life in 1899 as the Vilnius Courthouse under the Russian Empire. It changed function with the varying fortunes of the country being used as an Army Recruitment Centre for the Lithuanians, a Commissariat for the Bolsheviks and a HQ for the Gestapo. It could be said that laughter was not something that has ever been heard ringing down its corridors.
Around the outside are inscribed the names of the victims from the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991. It was only Lt6 to get in but rather bizarrely you are told that you cannot take photographs with a camera, so leave that and your luggage in the cloakroom. Please feel free to use your mobile phone to take pictures. So I did.
The collection is based on three floors and starts with the history of the building; the initial Soviet occupation in June 1940; followed in 1941 by the arrival of the Nazis. The Germans were welcomed as liberators by sections of the population and Hitler famously visited Klaipėda to a rapturous reception. Fatal mistakes were made by high ranking Lithuanians, first and foremost, the slagging off of the Soviets. When the Russians returned in 1944 the came back with a vengeance.
There then followed a nine year partisan war led by the Lithuanian Resistance movements trying to regain the country’s independence. This is something of which I knew absolutely nothing about and I could better understand why Vytautas expresses his fears about Russia today. Even though Lithuania is now part of the European Union would we just stand idly by if Russia invaded again – as we have done in the past. There is no oil in Lithuania.
The partisan war eventually dwindled out as thousands of the resistance were killed or captured (then given a fair trial and executed). Ultimately the problem was that people simply accepted the new regime and got on with their lives. If you didn’t accept it you were deported to the Gulags (The acronym for the Soviet Labour and Correctional Camps).
One of Stalin’s favourite methods of converting people to his way of thinking was the mass deportation of entire ethnic cultures to Siberia. Tens of thousands of Lithuanian families suddenly found themselves uprooted. Few survived long enough to make it home again.
The rooms that the expositions are shown in are the offices used by the KGB and some have been maintained to show their primary function. I remember how back in the eighties if you wandered too far off the tourist track in Moscow there was a good chance that an anglophone I just happened to be passing by native would inform you that : You must be lost, here I will show you way back to centre.
Here in Vilnius was an office organised for the surveillance of us tourists. The recording equipment, the filing cabinets of what must have been incredibly boring reports – anybody who followed me about learned very quickly how to walk at a fast pace for hours.
The final floor of the museum is the basement where you visit the holding cells. There are the padded cells which were completely soundproofed to avoid having to listen to the beaten and crazed inmates screaming. There are solitary confinements cells which are dry and others which are flooded. The occupant had to stand on a raised disc surrounded by freezing water.
Ultimately there are the execution chambers where over a thousand Lithuanians were unceremoniously dragged in and shot, sometimes as many as forty a night.
I would only add two comments. The museum whilst popularly known as the KGB Museum is more correctly entitled : The Museum of Genocide Victims. In that respect it has a remarkable hole in its history during the Nazi occupation when many Lithuanians happily collaborated with the Gestapo in deporting the large Jewish population to the extermination camps – 90% of their population was wiped out. Jewish perhaps but still Lithuanians.
Secondly, whilst not wishing to diminish the trauma that Lithuania underwent, what I found really frightening was the fact that this was happening across the Soviet Union and in particular in Russia itself. The cult of, my neighbour is spying on me, so I need to make the pre-emptive strike, was everywhere.
Far from happy times.
Coming back outside into the sunshine was a welcome relief and it was lunchtime as well. Up until now I had not tried the cold beetroot soup called : šaltibarščiai. A bit similar to a Russian Borscht it is obviously served cold and has hard boiled eggs in it. But, and this is the truly good bit, you get a side plate of roast potatoes to dunk. You are never far from spuds in this town. Having tried it, I might consider giving it a go at home. The hardest part surely has to be getting the eggs right.
It was sadly time to pick up some presents with my remaining Litas. I had bought a guide at the museum so that was about 500 grams I reckoned, so I was going to get away with about another three kilos as I wanted to pick up a kilo of bread as well. Goodies bought, I went for a final dander around the back streets to have a look first at St Anne’s church which may be small but is a riot of red brick Gothic architecture. It is however dwarfed by the Bernadine church immediately behind it. The book says that the former doesn’t live up to its exterior whilst the latter surpasses it so that was how I made my choice.
The book certainly got it right. Despite having been mistreated by the Soviets the ongoing restoration plan is returning the building to its former glory.
Oh well, the final walk to the station via the Gates of Dawn. Just before them though is the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit and once again Evaldas had been armed with his cattle prod insisting (amongst the dozens of other places) that it would be interesting.
The first thing that struck me on entering was the enormous space (no seats in an orthodox church) in green and gold. The second was the knock-down smell of incense. I had only walked half a kilometre but it was like entering a different world.
Up at the front are the bodies of Saints Jonas, Eustachius, and Antanas who were executed on the orders of Grand Duke Algirdis in 1347 for having preached the Orthodox religion in the streets. The Duchess was a believer but Algirdis himself only ever paid lip service to conversion from his pagan principles. It was his son Jogaila (as in King of Poland, Vytautas and Grunwald) who would convert the country to Catholicism – because the Teutonic Order considered Orthodoxy as an aberration and would not have accepted that Lithuania had become Christian.
The three bodies are said to be incorruptible and although usually covered are revealed once a year. I would have taken a closer photograph but there was another chap who just couldn’t drag himself away from the glass reliquary. Which would have been creepier, him or them ?
Up to the station, out onto platform 7 and wait on my train to the airport. The only thing that I was missing was my bread. I knew what I was looking for but hadn’t spotted a loaf of that particular name. The others may also have been well flavoured with caraway seed but I wasn’t taking the risk. No need to worry. Vytautas met me at the airport and on hearing of my plight made a quick phone call.
No point in working in the airline catering industry if you can’t get your hands on a loaf. Ten minutes later a lorry pulled up at the front and one of his colleagues dandered in with a kilo of bread.
It helped keep the memories of a wonderful trip alive for a few more days. After that it has been back to baking bread with a handful of caraway seed thrown in. Not quite the same but one makes do.
Looking back a month on and having gone over places and events (getting my facts and figures correct) I am reminded as to how little of Vilnius I actually got to see. None of the major museums, few of the churches because there are just so many to chose from, and definitely not enough bars.
Sometime in the not too distant future I will have to go back and fill in some of the gaps, drink more beer and reduce their potato surplus.
That is it, my story is told. Sniff !
Posted : 21 May 2012