Reviewed by Magdalena Waligorska (Bremen University)
Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel (Ruhr University Bochum)
Vilnius/Vilne/Wilno/Vilna: A Short History of Overwriting
After Laimonas Briedis’s Vilnius: City of Strangers (2008) and Tomas Venclova’s Vilnius: A Personal History (2009), the city “on the brink of Europe” receives another English-language monograph. This is well deserved, as Vilnius/Vilne/Wilno/Vilna constitutes an intriguing case study that opens the window onto larger questions of multiculturalism, the overwriting of space with different national narratives, and memories of absence. Czesław Miłosz once wrote that “the history of this city is so bizarre that it simply begs mythologization.” Theodore Weeks’s Vilnius Between Nations narrates this bizarre history adhering to unembellished facts, exposing national myths, and confronting uncomfortable silences. While his succinct and unbiased treatment of over two hundred years of Vilnius’ turbulent history provides a good digest of the most essential facts, dates, and developments that shaped the city at the time of rising and rival nationalisms, readers more familiar with the history of the region will appreciate the apt synthesis provided by the study but will miss more depth of the analysis.
The opening chapter provides a short historical background, sketching the town’s history since the Middle Ages. The first period that undergoes a closer scrutiny, though, is the years 1795-1862, marked by the Polish and Jewish cultural predominance in the city. Taking Vilnius’ occupation by the Russians in 1794, the Napoleonic campaign of 1812, and the 1830 anti-Russian uprising as milestones that define the period, Weeks provides a short account of the cultural life and institutions of the three nationalities inhabiting the city (Poles, Jews, and Russians). Chapter 3, “The Period of Russification, 1863-1914,” presents the measures adopted by the Russian authorities to put a Russian (and Orthodox) stamp on the city after the failed Polish uprising of 1863. While new monuments were meant to mark Vilnius as part of the empire, the birth of Lithuanian nationalism soon further complicated the dynamics of interethnic tensions in the city.
These erupted with an unprecedented force during and in the aftermath of the First World War, which constitutes the main focus of chapter 4. Between 1914 and 1922, Vilnius changed hands half a dozen times, which put the intergroup relations in the city under a severe strain. With Poles and Lithuanians putting a claim to Vilnius, the city’s Jewish population found itself between a rock and hard place. But as both groups attempted to win Jewish support for their cause, the pogrom organized by the Polish troops in 1919 and the following Polish takeover of the so-called Middle Lithuania did not bode well for the future of intergroup relations in the city.
The following period of Polish rule (1919-39), described in chapter 5, witnessed the policies of the young Polish state to secure its hegemony in the multiethnic eastern territories. Concentrating on the re-opening of the university and mapping Vilnius as a tourist attraction, Weeks portrays the difficult fate of the minorities (both Jewish and Lithuanian) faced with increasing marginalization.
Chapter 6 touches on the most traumatic period in the city’s modern history, spanning the time from the Soviet occupation through the Nazi invasion and the Holocaust (carried out with the help of Lithuanian collaborators) to the liberation by the Red Army, “repatriation” of Poles (labeled “ethnic cleansing” by Weeks,) and the policies of turning Vilnius into a Soviet Lithuanian city. While the complexities of ethnic relations under these changing conditions could fill the pages of several monographs, Weeks boils down this history of atrocity, appropriation, and amnesia to the most essential facts and statistics, reporting them without bias and without avoiding difficult aspects of the events that ultimately changed Vilnius beyond recognition.
The concluding chapters, “Soviet Normalcy in Vilnius, 1955-1985” and “Building a Lithuanian Capital City, 1985-2000,” somewhat remove from sight the leitmotif of conflicting nationalisms and ethnic relations. While the former focuses on the new urban planning and the rise of Soviet consumer culture, the latter traces the way Lithuanians restructured their built environment and history telling after Lithuania regained independence. The Polish and Jewish minorities are mentioned merely cursorily and Lithuanian-Polish conflicts (for example, over bilingual street signs in areas with a considerable Polish minority), the continuing Polish nostalgia for Kresy, and the post-1989 rediscovery of the Jewish Vilne are not addressed here.
Writing the history of cultural borderlands like Vilnius is not an easy undertaking, because a full picture can only be obtained by tapping into different national/group narratives and literatures that are rarely linguistically accessible to a single researcher. Weeks’s ability to navigate sources in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German, and French gives him a good vantage point to regard the city as a truly multilingual organism. His selection of primary sources (including archival documents, memoirs, guidebooks, maps, and statistics), however, could have profited from more focus on visual and literary sources. Also, at multiple points Weeks’s authoritative narrative should have given more voice to the actual inhabitants of Vilnius. While the section “Vilnius Cultures” in chapter 2, for example, presents the concerns of the nineteenth-century Polish and Jewish communities, it does not quote a single contemporary.
Vilnius between Nations paints a nonpartisan portrait of a city that has featured large in Polish, Lithuanian, Jewish, and Belarusian mythologies and whose identity is still subject of heated debate and nostalgia. Weeks is therefore very correct in saying that “Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius existed on at least two planes: on the hilly terrain on the eastern edge of what is now the Republic of Lithuania and in the minds of its residents, visitors and exiles” (p. 236). All the less understandable, then, is his decision to omit Belarusian narratives of Vilnius. Explaining his choice by stating that “Belarusians never managed to organize in a way that threatened to dominate urban space” (p. 9), the author overlooks this particular “imaginary Vilnius” and the Belarusian claim to the city, which, during the LitBel episode in 1919, briefly became Belarusian capital. Given that Vilnius, especially after 1994, has become a destination for many exiled Belarusian citizens and institutions (such as the European Humanities University) and a stage for subversive Belarusian culture, this presence, even if not “threatening to dominate urban space,” has left an important imprint on the city, and its portrait cannot be complete without factoring it in.
Although the cultural history of Vilnius in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries supplies enough material to keep a historian busy, widening the lens at time to consider certain key developments in a comparative perspective could have added depth to Weeks’s study. For example, when the author ponders the postwar silence over the Jewish identity of the victims of Ponary/Ponarai (pp. 182-183), a reference to a similar policy of subsuming Jewish victims into the pantheon of national martyrs in postwar Poland, Soviet Belarus, and the rest of the eastern bloc would have put the Lithuanian case in a perspective and shed more light on the larger transnational phenomena that left their mark on Vilnius, but were not unique to this city alone.
Despite all that, Vilnius between Nations provides a good introduction not only to the urban history of Vilnius, but also to the complexities of ethnic tensions in modern eastern Europe. Theodore Weeks’s book will be a welcome addition to university syllabi on eastern European history and will be of interest not only for academics, but also for travelers to Vilnius.
. Laimonas Briedis, Vilnius: City of Strangers (Budapest: CEU Press, 2009), 19.
. Czesław Miłosz, Szukanie ojczyzny (Kraków: Znak, 2006), 124.
. Per Anders Rudling, The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), 97-101.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Magdalena Waligorska. Review of Weeks, Theodore R., Vilnius between Nations, 1795–2000.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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