by Kristina Sabaliauskaité
To mark the Lithuanian Presidency we will be holding a talk on 24th of September which will focus on literature, history and arts, but mostly – on Lithuania in Europe, and Europe in Lithuania.
Lithuania often prides itself being at the geographical centre of Europe, yet not many Europeans would locate it on the map straightaway. European cities are now abundantly populated by Lithuanians in search of a better life or wider possibilities, but do we know much of the cultural background they come from? Formerly Lithuania was much more related and belonging to Europe than, let us say, during the violent 20th century. I am finding endless inspiration for my fiction in exploring the multinational heritage of my country – whether for my Silva rerum novels set in the 17-18th centuries or for the short stories about the more recent past and contemporary times. I am also a firm believer that our history is of much in a wider European context. We have one of the earliest parliamentary systems and probably one of the first European Unions, between Poland and Lithuania, which, looking from a contemporary perspective, was formed in a surprisingly modern and voluntary way. There, in that huge and formerly glorious state, the biggest at the time in Europe, we had something truly unique and precious – voting rights for every noble, similar to contemporary democracies. They executed this right to elect their kings from local dynasties or European – French, Hungarian, Swedish, Saxon – courts.
I come from Vilnius (or Wilno, Vilna – as it was called in olden times) which is, even today, sometimes called “the least Lithuanian city of Lithuania”. No wonder – though small in size, it has always had the demographics of a metropolis in terms of national and confessional minorities. In fact, minorities were so prominent and numerous, they almost became the majority. If you had lived in Vilnius at that time, your lawyer would have probably been Spanish, your artist or your musician – Italian, your imported goods merchant – a Scotsman, a Dutchman or a Russian, your goldsmith and your leather tanner – from Germany, as well as your tailor, (though, if you could afford it, the latter might also be French); you would go for a loan to a Jew and employ a Tatar as your personal bodyguard. Vast wealth, accumulated from the export of grain and timber to Western Europe, our nobility’s tastes, acquired at the European universities, allowed Lithuanians to import the best in arts and trades. The other reason and an important attraction for European refugees was a remarkable religious tolerance for that time, enforced by our elected kings. “I am not the king of your consciences” – those were the words of the Jagiełłonian king Sigismund II Augustus, pronounced as early as the mid-sixteenth century and he indeed did not interfere with his subject’s religious beliefs and set the tone of tolerance for his successors. Hence the capital city was engulfed by immigrants from Western Europe, who shamelessly took over jobs and trades from the local folk. But what a city they created, those skilled immigrant Western Europeans! Vilnius still takes your breath away with Italianate Baroque churches, German Gothic, the four confessional quarters (it is called the Northern Jerusalem for a reason) and the labyrinth of streets.
Historically, though, Vilnius is also a city marked by tragedy and loss, and more recently – by ruthless Soviet social engineering and attempts to re-write the history of the city and to violently reshape living memory. It is also the testimony of the invincible struggle for freedom, of defiance and the survival, of renewal. The once-multicultural state, one of the first European Unions, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is now listed among the vanished kingdoms, but Lithuania is once again very much on the map and I am a firm believer this story of ours can teach a thing or two. Strangely, I still feel belonging to that lost kingdom, that realm of values – the European values of personal freedom and tolerance, of a possibility to coexist despite the differences – which still are relevant today and should never be taken for granted. Maybe many of us are still the citizens of that vanished kingdom as we shall never be subjects to any king or authority who would wish to rule our consciences.
|Kristina Sabaliauskaité is a Lithuanian art historian and writer. She is the author of the prize-winning series of novels “Silva Rerum”. .|