Since we had previously visited Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia, we felt it was only right to finish off the Baltic countries. We are also interested in the history of the former Soviet states. This is an aspect of history that Americans do not normally encounter. I have attempted to simplify it in the Tortured Soul section below.
Unlike Tallinn and Riga, we did not take a cruise ship across the Baltic Sea, but chose instead to fly from our home port of Stockholm as part of our four-day Easter weekend.
Throughout this section, I will sprinkle in pictures of the city that we experienced during our stay. Most of them will not be in context of my narrative.
Vilnius has a deep and rich history that goes back to the 14th century. But even in more modern times, it has been the victim of several tug-of-wars by some very powerful countries. And this has left lasting damage on both the city and its citizens.
The city was occupied by the Germans during WWI. They were eventually driven out by Soviet forces. Vilnius became part of Lithuania. But as part of the Soviet-Polish war, the city quickly became occupied by Polish forces, only to fall yet again back to the Soviets. But as part of its retreat from the battle of Warsaw, the Red Army ceded the city back to Lithuania.
By the end of WWI, both Poland and Lithuania laid claim to Vilnius. But in a sneaky operation known as the Żeligowski’s Mutiny, Poland ultimately gained formal ownership of the city.
In 1939, Vilnius was again seized by the Soviet Union (who subsequently invaded Poland). The USSR and the Lithuanian governments entered into a treaty, unbeknownst to the Lithuanian citizens, that would allow the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. Thus, the Red Army withdrew from the city proper to its suburbs and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. Lithuanian government saw this as a grant of independence and a victory for Lithuania.
The Soviets later demanded that more and more troops be permitted to enter the country. Lithuanian government pushed back, under the perception that they were independent.
This did not bode well with the Soviets. They set out to make sure Vilnius would feel their wrath this time around. They installed their own government and began deporting some of the city’s inhabitants to work camps in the harshest areas of the Soviet Union. Most were thought to have perished; none were ever seen again. The people targeted were primarily those with higher education or critical job positions. These were, for example, doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and engineers. All told, between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens were deported. Basically trying to cut out the entire intellectual sector of their population. Next, they devastated the city’s industries and even relocated a highly successful radio factory to Belarus.
Vilnius KGB Detention Center
Much like the KGB headquarters in Riga, this one is located in the heart of the city. The horror of being taken to this place, from which you will never return. To be held and tortured, and in many cases executed, just feet from where your fellow citizens and your family are walking and working.
Anyone suspected of spying, which included discussions of any kind against the Soviet Union, were arrested by the KGB and tortured and in may cases executed at the KGB main facility right in their own downtown Vilnius.
Today, the building is a museum, and we did spend some time there. I highly recommend it. Like Paneriai it is highly emotional.
So as you can see, the Soviets had totally crippled and completely demoralized this city. This entire process is formally known as ‘sovietization’. How to beat down an entire city, or country until its citizens hang their heads low and swear allegiance to the Union.
At the beginning of WWII, Germany bombed the city repeatedly, destroying Soviet aircraft and killing thousands of soldiers and citizens. Following this, the German ground troops encountered little Soviet resistance and were assisted by the Lithuanians. Since the Lithuanians viewed the Soviets as their oppressors, they saw the Germans as their liberators and hoped they would grant them independence. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The Nazi occupation compounded the cruelty and unspeakable suffering of Vilnius and Lithuania.
The Paneriai Memorial
About 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis, many of them in Paneriai, about 10 km (6.2 mi) west of the old town center. The murders took place between July 1941 and August 1944.
The victims were brought down into the pits wearing hoods, then lined up and shot. Their bodies fell atop the other corpses that had been shot before them. When the pit was full, they were all buried and a new pit was started. There were six pits in total at Paneriai. We did visit the Paneriai Memorial. It is well presented, albeit emotional.
Towards the end of the war, the Nazis realized they were losing. They became paranoid that their heinous crimes would be discovered. They selected additional Jews from the ghettos to form work groups. These groups were made to dig up the corpses and relocate them to a different pit where they were burned. In many cases, people of the work groups recognized the bodies of their own family and friends.
Following WWII, the Soviets reestablished their dominance over Vilnius, essentially picking up where they left off. This time, their occupation lasted from 1944 to 1990.
As you explore the city today, you notice lots of open squares. These were not part of the original design of the city. They are areas that had been bombed as part of WWII. Since the Soviets moved back in immediately following the war, it was their decision not to replace any of the damaged infrastructure or buildings. They serve as a constant, bitter reminder of the abuse this city has suffered.
The war and Soviet dominance prior to the war had gouged a deep scar upon Vilnius the likes of which would take decades to recover. Some aspects of Vilnius will never recover. WWII was a terrible time for all, but Vilnius continued to suffer long after the peace treaties had been signed and the tanks had gone home.
Even through 1987, the terrorization by the Soviets continued. Sovietization and the dominance and horrors of actions carried out by the KGB in the name of communism continued throughout all of the Baltic countries.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, all three Baltic states were finally able to achieve independence. This, in essence, is when Vilnius began its long journey back to the free world. Their infrastructure had been utterly destroyed. Living conditions were barely above third world. They had no experience in the commercial, industrial, or even the banking world. Anyone who possessed key knowledge in these crucial areas had been deported and killed. It was like throwing a baby bird out into a hurricane.
Indeed, one could write another entire volume on Vilnius’ recovery from freedom to stability. But it is human nature to survive, and the people of Vilnius never gave up. It wasn’t until 2015 that they got their first directly elected mayor.
Today, Vilnius is a major tourist destination for the region. It is part of the European Union, and with the help of the banks of Scandinavia, it continues to rebuild its infrastructure and its business community on the global scene. Although they have made great strides, the rebuilding of a civilization is a long and arduous road upon which their journey continues even today.
Like many European cities, it is chock full of cozy cafes, pubs, and restaurants. The food was absolutely exquisite.
Succulent venison, and several dishes unique to the area. Like delicious fried bread with cheese:
While we were there, we also visited the Trakai island castle. Beautifully restored castle from the 14th century. Very well presented and I strongly recommend you go here if you are in the area.
Most of the stone walls are original. Red brick was used in the original castle. They kept as much of that as they could.
I know it felt like a bit of a history lesson this time, but I just couldn’t explain how this city felt without the historical perspective. It is evident everywhere you go. You can see it in the infrastructure, and you can see it on the faces of the citizens and hear it in their voices. It is a city that has endured incredible hardships. And although it has a tortured soul, it also has a strong and determined heart that continues to speak to the world: “I will survive.”