Review by Magdalena Garbacik-Balakowicz

augusztus 24th, 2023 § 0 comments


Brie­dis, La­i­mon­as. Vil­ni­us: City of Strang­ers. Vil­ni­us: Bal­tos lan­kos, 2021.

Vil­ni­us: City of Strang­ers was first pub­lis­hed in 2009, with trans­la­tions into Lit­hu­a­ni­an, Ger­man, Rus­si­an, and Por­tu­gu­ese pub­lis­hed to date. The Eng­lish edi­ti­on was re-published in 2021. The year 2023, when Vil­ni­us, one of Europe’s most cul­t­u­rally comp­lex ca­pi­tals, ce­le­b­ra­tes the 700th an­ni­ver­sary of the city’s fo­und­ing, is a good oc­cas­ion to re­turn to Briedis’s book. Alt­ho­ugh Vil­ni­us: City of Strang­ers fo­cus­es on his­to­ri­cal do­cu­ments, one sho­uld not think of this book as re­se­arch dis­cus­sing the his­to­ry of Vil­ni­us in a tra­di­ti­o­nal way. The book is a cont­ri­bu­ti­on to the field of cul­t­u­ral geo­gra­phy. Brie­dis cho­se to tell the sto­ry of Vil­ni­us from the pers­pec­tive of strang­ers, tho­se who came to Vil­ni­us kno­wing litt­le or noth­ing abo­ut it, more out of for­ced cir­cum­stan­ces than of the­ir own cu­ri­o­sity. Vil­ni­us: City of Strang­ers re­se­ar­ches tra­ve­lo­gues on Vil­ni­us writ­ten over the last se­ven cent­uri­es. The­ir aut­hors are scho­lars, po­li­ti­ci­ans, writers, and sol­di­ers, who spent a lon­ger or shor­ter pe­ri­od of time, som­etimes li­te­rally only a few days, in Vil­ni­us. The aut­hors of the­se tra­ve­lo­gues dif­fer in the lan­gu­a­ges they speak, the­ir backg­round, and so­ci­al sta­tus. They also dif­fer in how they ex­pe­ri­en­ced Vil­ni­us. For some, it was a po­sit­ive con­tact, for ot­hers a ne­ga­tive one.

Brie­dis de­picts Vil­ni­us, which was cont­rol­led by many em­pires du­ring the tur­bu­lent cent­uri­es, as a down­right ma­gi­cal place, sur­roun­ded by po­wer­ful na­tu­re, rush­ing ri­vers, den­se fo­rests, and dang­erous swamps that could only be cros­sed sa­fely in win­ter, when everyth­ing fro­ze over. One of the city’s most pro­mi­nent fea­tu­res is its mul­ti­cul­t­u­ral­ism and mul­ti­l­in­gu­al­ism, and sur­pri­singly Lit­hu­a­ni­an has not been the main lan­gu­age of the city over the co­ur­se of its his­to­ry. Brie­dis pla­ces Vil­ni­us beyond the centre‒periphery pa­ra­digm and descri­bes it as a city cha­rac­te­ri­zed by “mar­gi­na­li­sed cent­ra­lity” (12). He uses a me­tap­hor drawn from Wal­ter Ben­ja­min and talks abo­ut tres­hold, which is a “zone whe­re time and space swell” (13). In Briedis’s book Vil­ni­us ap­pe­ars as a mee­ting place for vi­si­tors from all over Euro­pe and Asia, a place whe­re West meets East, and East meets West. For Euro­pe, it was the ga­tew­ay to the Rus­si­an Em­pire and the Ori­ent. For Rus­sia, it was a ga­tew­ay to the world of Euro­pe­an culture.

The book is di­vi­ded into eight chap­ters, each chap­ter fo­cus­ing on succ­es­sive his­to­ri­cal pe­ri­ods, when do­mi­na­ti­on in Vil­ni­us was se­i­zed by dif­fe­rent em­pires. The his­to­ry of Vil­ni­us and the nar­ra­tive of the book are co­ve­red ch­ro­no­log­i­cally. The first chap­ter, The Brink of Euro­pe, descri­bes the cir­cum­stan­ces of the city’s fo­und­ing and Lithuania’s ent­ry onto the sce­ne of Ch­ris­ti­an Euro­pe, sho­wing the conf­lict bet­ween Pope John XXII and the Te­u­to­nic Or­der and the­ir stan­ces to­ward the newly form­ing sta­te at the edge of the Ch­ris­ti­an world. Brie­dis pre­sents the le­gend of the city’s fo­und­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the le­gend, Ge­dim­inas, the Grand Duke of Lit­hu­a­nia bet­ween 1315 and 1341, hun­ted in the fo­rests whe­re the Vil­nia Ri­ver flows into the Neris Ri­ver. When he went to sle­ep in his dream, an iron wolf ap­peared to him at the top of the hill, how­ling fi­er­cely. Ge­dim­inas as­ked the pa­gan pri­est to expla­in the me­aning of the dream. The pri­est told Ge­dim­inas to build a castle and city on the hill whe­re he saw the wolf, the city was to bring fame to Ge­dim­inas and Lit­hu­a­nia. As Brie­dis points out, “Ge­dim­inas en­vi­si­on­ed Vil­ni­us as a mee­ting ground of Euro­pe” (24), whe­re equ­a­lity and re­li­gi­o­us to­le­rance are a gi­ven. The re­fu­sal of Ge­dim­inas and ot­her Lit­hu­a­ni­an nob­les to con­vert to Ch­ris­ti­a­nity re­sul­ted in the ini­ti­a­ti­on of a holy war aga­inst Lit­hu­a­nia. Brie­dis also descri­bes the an­nu­al rey­sa, i.e. the nor­t­hern crusa­de, which bro­ught the first known wave of ar­med “strang­ers” to the Lit­hu­a­ni­an ter­rit­ori­es and Vil­ni­us itself.

Chap­ter two, Map­p­ing Sar­ma­tia, fo­cus­es on the po­li­ti­cal union with Po­land and the Re­na­is­sance and Ba­ro­que pe­ri­ods. Brie­dis pays much at­tent­ion to re­li­gi­o­us fre­e­dom, mul­ti­l­in­gu­al­ism, mul­ti­na­ti­o­na­lity, and the re­sult­ing cul­t­u­ral comp­le­xity, which was “hard for fo­rei­gners to grasp” (45). The geo­po­li­ti­cal con­text is dis­cus­sed th­ro­ugh the con­cept of Sar­mat­ism, which Brie­dis un­der­stands af­ter Tho­mas Da Cos­ta Ka­uf­mann as a “Re­na­is­sance na­ti­o­nal self-definition” (47). The tra­ve­lo­gues dis­cus­sed in this chap­ter inc­lu­de texts by Sig­is­mund von Herbs­te­in, a dip­lo­mat at the Habs­burg co­urt, who was sent to se­cu­re a sett­le­ment bet­ween Lit­hu­a­nia and Rus­sia, and Ale­xan­der Gwag­ni­ni, an Ita­li­an of­fi­cer, who was the aut­hor of one of the first scho­larly works on the no­ti­on of Sarmatia.

Chap­ter th­ree, En­ligh­ten­ment Sha­dows, fo­cus­es on one cha­rac­ter, and the chap­ter can be descri­bed as a bri­ef bio­gra­phy of Ge­org Forster. The nar­ra­ti­on is bas­ed on ex­ten­sive qu­o­ta­tions from Forster’s works and cor­res­pon­den­ce. It goes beyond the bri­ef pe­ri­od in Forster’s life when he sta­yed in Vil­ni­us (Forster ar­ri­ved in Vil­ni­us in 1784 at the in­vi­ta­ti­on of the Edu­ca­ti­o­nal Com­mis­si­on and left at the end of the sum­mer of 1787). Forster was chair of na­tu­ral sci­en­ces at the Uni­ver­sity of Vil­ni­us, but he was also ent­rus­ted with ot­her tasks, such as ar­rang­ing a bo­ta­ni­cal gar­den of Lit­hu­a­ni­an flo­ra or est­ab­lish­ing an ag­ro­nomy prog­ram. Forster saw Vil­ni­us as a back­ward city in which he could not find his place. He cons­idered his time in Vil­ni­us as was­ted ye­ars in terms of his ca­re­er. Brie­dis points out that “Forster’s an­ti­pa­thy to­wards the chi­ef city of Lit­hu­a­nia (still a lar­ge if im­po­veris­hed count­ry) was for­med th­ro­ugh the prism of his cos­mo­po­li­tan upbring­ing, a life-altering ex­pe­ri­en­ce unu­su­al even for his age of aca­de­mic in­ter­na­ti­o­nal­ism and ex­ten­sive Euro­pe­an tra­vel­l­ing” (63).

In chap­ter four, Napoleon’s Cur­se, Vil­ni­us is shown from the pers­pec­tive of se­ve­ral cha­rac­ters. The first is the Frank fa­mily. Jo­han Pe­ter Frank, one of Vienna’s most re­now­ned doc­tors, came to Vil­ni­us with his son, Jo­sef Frank, also a doc­tor, and his fa­mily. Wit­hin a short time, the el­der Frank mo­ved to St. Pe­ter­sburg, whe­re he be­came a per­so­nal doc­tor to tsar Ale­xan­der I. His son sta­yed at the Fa­culty of Me­di­ci­ne in Vil­ni­us. The Frank fa­mily ex­pe­ri­en­ced Vil­ni­us qu­i­te dif­fe­rently from the Forsters and “fit well into the im­pe­ri­al world of this pro­vin­ci­al met­ro­po­lis” (84). Jo­sef Frank con­duc­ted me­di­cal re­se­arch and be­came in­vol­ved in cha­ri­tab­le and so­ci­al ac­ti­vi­ti­es. His de­vo­ti­on to Vil­ni­us is ap­pa­rent in the fact that he re­turned to the city with his fa­mily af­ter the War of 1812, and it was only the es­ca­la­ti­on of the tsa­rist regime’s po­li­ci­es that led him to le­ave the city. In the fol­lo­wing sec­ti­on, Brie­dis descri­bes in de­ta­il the va­ri­o­us sta­ges of the War of 1812, or the French in­vas­ion of Rus­sia ‒ the cros­sing of the Rus­si­an bor­der by the Gran­de Ar­mée, the march on Vil­ni­us, the cap­tu­re of Mos­cow, the ret­re­at, and the fi­nal ca­la­mity of the Gran­de Ar­mée. Brie­dis gi­ves vo­i­ce to the sol­di­ers and qu­o­tes from the­ir me­mo­irs ex­ten­si­vely. The aut­hors of the tra­ve­lo­gues inc­lu­de: Count Philipe-Paul de Ségur, Ge­ne­ral Ar­mand de Ca­u­la­in­co­urt, Carabiner-Sergeant Vin­cent Ber­trand, Ser­ge­ant Bour­gog­ne, and Li­e­u­ten­ant Hein­rich Au­gust Vossler.

Chap­ter five, Rus­si­an Int­ri­gue, co­vers the pe­ri­od of Rus­si­an do­mi­na­ti­on over Vil­ni­us un­til World War I. Brie­dis qu­o­tes an ex­cerpt from Tolstoy’s War and Pe­ace and shows the cont­rast bet­ween the way Vil­ni­us is port­ra­yed in the no­vel and the re­a­lity. Tolstoy’s “com­fort­ing Rus­si­an town” was in re­a­lity a po­li­ti­cally un­stab­le city. Brie­dis dis­cus­ses se­ve­ral is­sues, inc­lu­ding the role of Vil­ni­us Uni­ver­sity as the main place of re­sis­tance for the Po­lish in­tel­li­gentsia, the quest­ion of re­li­gi­o­us loyal­ti­es, the si­tu­a­ti­on of the Uni­te Church and the Jewry, Rus­si­fi­ca­ti­on, and the con­cept of Vil­ni­us as a Ye­rus­ha­la­im d’Lita (Je­rusa­lem of Lit­hu­a­nia). Brie­dis descri­bes how Vil­ni­us be­came an in­sig­ni­fi­cant pro­vin­ci­al city un­der the Rus­si­an rule. Only the se­cond half of the ni­ne­teenth cent­ury and gro­wing mo­der­ni­za­ti­on bro­ught a chan­ge. What sav­ed Vil­ni­us from dec­line was the ra­il­road and the ope­ning of the Sa­int Petersburg‒Warsaw line in 1862. Brie­dis ci­tes the tra­ve­lo­gues of Da­nish eth­no­gra­p­her Age Meyer Be­ne­dict­sen, Rus­si­an playw­right Ale­xandr Ost­rovs­ky, and Dostoyevsky’s wife Anna Gri­goryev­na Snitk­ina, who all descri­be the­ir short stay in Vil­ni­us. He also shows Mik­ha­il Bakhtin’s and Mstis­lav Dobuzhinsky’s aest­he­ti­ci­zed re­la­ti­onship with Vil­ni­us. The city be­came an ins­p­ira­ti­on for cre­a­tive work for both of them.

Chap­ter six, Ger­man Int­ru­si­on, de­als with Vilnius’s sta­tus du­ring World War I, when the Ger­mans took ad­mi­nistra­tive po­wer in the city. Brie­dis pre­sents the de­mo­gra­phic re­la­tions that exis­ted in Vil­ni­us at the time and high­lights the prob­lems fa­ced by the Ger­mans in daily com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, na­mely that Vil­ni­us ci­ti­zens be­longed to se­ve­ral lin­gu­is­tic gro­ups, with a do­mi­nance of Po­lish and Yid­dish. Brie­dis descri­bes how wit­hin a short time, Vil­ni­us and Lit­hu­a­nia be­came not only the Ober-Ost (Upper-Eastern ter­ri­to­ry) but a part of the Va­ter­land for the Ger­mans. Brie­dis ci­tes descript­ions of Vil­ni­us in the German-language pe­ri­o­di­cal Wil­na­er Zei­tung, pub­lis­hed by the Tenth Army and add­res­sed to Ger­man sol­di­ers sta­ti­on­ed in Vil­ni­us. He also ex­ten­si­vely ci­tes descript­ions of Vil­ni­us by Paul Otto Hein­rich Fech­ter from his guide-book Wan­ders­tun­den in Wil­na, pub­lis­hed un­der the pse­u­do­nym Paul Monty.

Chap­ter se­ven, The Ab­sent Na­ti­on, is pla­ced in the con­text of the dis­co­ur­se on na­tion­ho­od and newly for­med sta­te­ho­ods in Euro­pe af­ter World War I. Ac­cord­ing to Brie­dis, “a nation-state was an ans­wer to the in­he­ri­ted prob­lems of the old world, but it did not ser­ve everyone equ­ally or iden­ti­cally. On a coll­ec­ti­vi­sed journey of a self-discovery, New Euro­pe de­man­ded the sur­rend­er of a sig­ni­fi­cant part of one’s past, dis­card­ing per­so­nal me­mory and pri­vate ex­pe­ri­en­ce as att­ri­bu­tes of a by­gone age” (194). This chap­ter is de­vo­ted to Je­wish Vil­na, its cul­tu­re and his­to­ry. To a les­ser ex­tent, it de­als with the Po­les, who, next to the Jews, cons­ti­tu­ted the lar­gest na­ti­o­nal gro­up in Vil­ni­us. Brie­dis pre­sents the his­to­ry of Vil­ni­us from this pe­ri­od th­ro­ugh the eyes of Alf­red Döb­lin, ex­ten­si­vely qu­o­ting from Döblin’s texts from his tra­vels in Po­land and Lit­hu­a­nia in se­arch of a true Je­wish identity.

Th­ro­ug­ho­ut the first se­ven chap­ters, one gets the imp­r­es­si­on that the tit­le and the un­der­stand­ing of Vil­ni­us as a city of strang­ers only app­li­es to the aut­hors of the tra­ve­lo­gues. The eighth chap­ter, Mael­strom Euro­pe, pro­vi­des yet anot­her in­terp­re­ta­ti­on. In terms of his­to­ri­cal com­pi­la­ti­on, this is the weak­est chap­ter. In a do­z­en pa­ges, Brie­dis dis­cus­ses the pe­ri­od of World War II, the ye­ars of So­vi­et oc­cu­pa­ti­on, the fall of Com­mu­nism, the res­tora­ti­on of Lithuania’s in­de­pen­den­ce, up to Lithuania’s ac­ces­si­on to the Euro­pe­an Union. Howe­ver, this is the most aut­ho­ri­al chap­ter and com­men­tary on coll­ec­tive me­mory. Brie­dis high­lights that “con­vers­ions and mi­s­in­terp­re­ta­tions of me­mory” (221) are pre­sent in the dis­co­ur­se on Vil­ni­us. Bet­ween 1939 and 1949, Vil­ni­us lost 90% of its po­pu­la­ti­on and “be­came a va­cu­o­us place” (228). Furt­her­mo­re, Vil­ni­us “mis­la­id most of its nar­ra­ti­ves and mem­ori­es” (228). Brie­dis qu­o­tes mem­ori­es and re­cords of vi­sits to Vil­ni­us writ­ten by for­mer res­idents or the­ir des­cen­dants, who could not find the­ir city du­ring the­ir stay. One of the ci­ted re­coll­ec­tions puts it di­rectly, “Vil­ni­us is be­au­ti­ful. Vil­ni­us, not Vil­na, which no lon­ger exists” (239). This chap­ter can be cons­idered Briedis’s es­say on coll­ec­tive me­mory and its sig­ni­fi­cance for the cul­tu­re and iden­tity of Vilnius.

Alt­ho­ugh the book is writ­ten in an ac­ces­sib­le lan­gu­age, in pla­ces the­re se­ems to be an over­lo­ad of qu­o­ta­tions. Brie­dis of­ten qu­o­tes ex­ten­sive ex­cerpts from se­lec­ted texts, leav­ing them wit­ho­ut com­men­tary and mak­ing no at­tempt to conf­ront the­se opin­ions with ot­her sour­ces of the par­ti­cu­lar his­to­ri­cal pe­ri­od. At times, it se­ems that the pro­ta­go­nist of Briedis’s book is not Vil­ni­us but in­di­vi­du­al his­to­ri­cal fi­gu­res, the aut­hors of the tra­ve­lo­gues. This co­mes to mind in pla­ces when Brie­dis de­vo­tes a lot of at­tent­ion to a gi­ven aut­hor and his bio­gra­phy. Of co­ur­se, it can be said that thanks to this, we get a more comp­le­te pic­tu­re of a gi­ven cha­rac­ter, and the nar­ra­tive is pla­ced in a broa­der con­text. Howe­ver, the ba­lance bet­ween the im­por­tance of a gi­ven sour­ce in exp­lor­ing the multi-layered cul­t­u­ral lands­cape of Vil­ni­us and the at­tent­ion paid to sour­ces is not ma­in­ta­ined at some points. This be­co­mes espe­ci­ally ap­pa­rent when one re­a­li­zes that the at­tent­ion to par­ti­cu­lar his­to­ri­cal pe­ri­ods and events va­ri­es th­ro­ug­ho­ut the book. Some events are descri­bed in gre­at de­ta­il, ot­hers bri­efly, whi­le some events are ba­si­cally omit­ted. The most comp­re­hen­sive dis­cus­si­on con­cerns just a few months of Napoleon’s march on Mos­cow and the sub­se­qu­ent comp­le­te col­lap­se of the Gran­de Ar­mée. In cont­rast, sur­pri­singly litt­le at­tent­ion is paid to the pe­ri­od of World War II, the So­vi­et era, the res­tora­ti­on of in­de­pen­den­ce, and more re­cent times. All of the­se are pla­ced in a sing­le chapter.

The sour­ces that Brie­dis ci­tes are qu­i­te di­ver­se, writ­ten in dif­fe­rent lan­gu­a­ges, by aut­hors from dif­fe­rent backg­rounds. In fact, the­ir only com­mon point is that they all talk abo­ut Vil­ni­us. Howe­ver, one of­ten has the imp­r­es­si­on that they are tal­king abo­ut comp­let­ely dif­fe­rent ci­ti­es. The his­to­ri­cal sour­ces are not com­bi­ned into a sing­le con­sis­tent nar­ra­tive. Brie­dis cons­ci­o­usly did not at­tempt to link the­se “cent­ri­fu­gal de­pic­tions” (14), ins­tead he treats them as equ­al imp­r­es­sions that en­ab­le him to show the con­nec­ti­on bet­ween Vil­ni­us and its his­to­ry and the geo­po­li­ti­cal lo­ca­ti­on at the in­ter­sec­ti­on of the east-west, north-south tracks.  For Brie­dis, the­se sour­ces crea­te a multi-voiced nar­ra­tive, and they are not only texts that say som­eth­ing abo­ut Vil­ni­us, they are texts that say som­eth­ing abo­ut the es­sen­ce of Euro­pe, or more pre­ci­sely, abo­ut the chang­ing idea of Europe.

The his­to­ry of Vil­ni­us and the his­to­ry of Euro­pe in­tertwi­ne in Vil­ni­us: City of Strang­ers. As Brie­dis points out, “the city [Vil­ni­us] has ne­ver pos­ses­sed a sing­le iden­tity. The place spe­aks of Je­wish Vil­ne, Po­lish Wil­no, Rus­si­an and French Vil­na, Ger­man Wil­na, Bye­lo­rus­si­an Vil­no and Lit­hu­a­ni­an Vil­ni­us” (14). The cha­rac­ter of Vil­ni­us that emer­ges from Briedis’s book is a com­bi­na­ti­on of lo­cal and uni­vers­al tra­its. The book de­monst­ra­tes an in­ter­play of Euro­pe­an his­to­ry, geo­gra­phy, but abo­ve all ideo­logy, which cla­ims do­min­ion over me­mory.  Ne­vert­he­less, the city that is de­pic­ted here does not exist any­mo­re. Vil­ni­us. City of Strang­ers is an at­tempt to res­tore the me­mory of this lost city.


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