Lithuanian forests are so deep, so haunting, so ancient, so filled with spirit, they would make the Blair Witch cringe. Moonlit views of those forests when I awoke were what made me suspect the bus had crossed the border from Poland and into the Fatherland. Lithuanian language roadside signs confirmed it: we were in Europe’s heart of darkness. In this mysterious land that held out as the last pagan nation in Europe, I would spend the Winter Solstice.
Deep forests and swamps made Lithuania both impenetrable and not valuable to foreign invaders. That, combined with the truly brutal war and torture techniques used by Lithuanian warriors meant Lithuania was the last Christianized country in Europe, finally choosing it voluntarily, somewhat surprisingly, in 1387.
The old polytheistic Baltic religion, sometimes called Romuva, emphasized the holiness of nature and ancestor worship. Lithuanians quite visibly still incorporate these ideas into their folk and religious art to this day. Seeing the land in its forlorn winter beauty makes those ancient beliefs very easily understandable.
A fiery sense of independence and national pride is found in many nations, for instance Ireland, Chechnya and Iran. My 2007 trip to Lithuania (see summary here) let me realize just how unique the Lithuanian mentality is, and how standout its psyche is, even amongst its similarly independent- minded neighbors. I succinctly compared and summarized the national psyches of the Baltic region in my on-the-move analysis in this entry; I’m proud of the result, typos and all.
St Ann’s, a most beautiful church, approaching the Solstice.
Lithuania’s tenacious dedication to national identity is, unfairly or not, subconsciously my benchmark in measuring other countries’ national psyche. To be honest, Lithuanian pride sometimes comes off as over the top and a little intimidating. But for the most part, that Lithuanians honor their past and culture so deeply is inspiring.
As everyone knows, I am not unbiased in my love for Lithuania, as this is my ancestral home. But I am genuinely in belief that the country is superlative in several regards—its toughness, its tolerance, and its unbreakable spirit. My friend Aistė was an important part my first trip to Lithuania in 2001, helping me get to know the country’s spirit. This trip she again helped me, with both my pronunciation, current events and history.
CS Lewis wrote that it is reasonable for everyone to honestly think that their country of origin is the most beautiful. Well I also think my country’s food is the best, and in temps like they have on days like today, you need those calories.
For anyone who thinks a meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with one eye, this is a good place for you. Also if you like oodles of curd, potatoes and hearty, hearty rye bread. As I was swallowing another tasty piece of rye Aistė delivered the most potent line of the trip “I don’t understand why Americans like white bread–what is it called, wheat?” You know the cuisine is rich when wheat is considered weak.
Back to the nature. Adam Mickiewicz walked in the hills outside of Vilnius when he was writing some of his most famous works.Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health. How much one should prize you, he only can tell, Who has lost you.
So begins the Slavic world’s most famous poem, Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. In its golden age, Lithuania once held most all the territory of Slavic nations Ukraine and Belarus, and some of Russia as well. Then it united with Slavic Poland, so though Lithuanians are Balts, not Slavs, Lithuania figures substantially in Slavic history. What’s the difference between a Slav and a Balt? For one, Slavs seem more emotional and expressive, Balts more focused and serious.
But a key facet of Lithuanian history was identification with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for those who are not ethnic Lithuanian. For Mickiewicz, who was ethnically Polish, to call Lithuania his fatherland is not exceptional. Many ethnicities identified with the land. My blood is ~75% from Lithuania, but probably has Ukrainian and even likely some Prussian (sworn enemy of Lithuania, defeated decisively 600 years ago at the epic battle of Grunwald/Tanneburg/Žalgiris). Nevertheless, those settling on the Lithuanian soil of all nationalities had a connection to this weather-beaten yet inspiring landscape.
Whether people call their homeland a Motherland or a Fatherland supposedly sheds light on the national psyche. Lithuania is definitely a Fatherland, a brutal and unnurturing landscape teeming with pride and valor.
For several hundred years in the middle ages, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe. Still, the shadow that their dynasty cast was not one of terror; the Lithuanian rulers chose to be tolerant, incorporating customs, beliefs, and even language of the peoples whose lands they ruled. The Jews made Vilnius one of their main centers of learning; the Karaim, with their Islam-influenced Jewish beliefs, were specifically invited by the Grand Duke of Lithuania to move from the Crimea to help the Duchy. Belorussian, a Slavic language, was made the official court language despite Lithuanians speaking a Baltic tongue close to Sanskrit. Think of it as the European Ghengis Kahn, incorporating customs from its peoples who lived from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
Not until the 1790s, 800 years after its birth, was Lithuania ever conquered by a foreign power. The Lithuanian noblemen’s creation of the first democratic constitution in Europe, in the 1790s, was the impetus for Catherine the Terrible to be the first to conquer the place. The Lithuanians haven’t been cool with the Russians ever since. The Russian language is occasionally heard and is sometimes understood as Russia’s shadow is strong and there are many people here, but the Russian language is not acceptable within the Lithuanian community. This isn’t Latvia or Estonia after all…
Lithuania’s past is illustrious, the will of the people formidable. So Lithuania since the fall of the USSR, how has it changed? Track, basketball, and soccer—they are still the only sports here. Mostly basketball, so that’s a good thing. Lithuanians’ successes in the sports world have mostly come with basketball, with multiple Olympic medals in its short history. In economic topics, Lithuanian prosperity has not been as good.
According to Aistė, the storied Lithuanian history is being tarnished with theft and selfishness in recent times, such as the country’s 3rd biggest bank shutting down a couple weeks ago when its owners fled to London with the cash. Despite high taxes, prices are probably twice, maybe three times as high as when I was first here ten years ago. Some of that is due to prosperity and joining the EU, some of that reflects the widening disparity of wealth.
The population is down half a million since the last census, reflecting an ageing population and young Lithuanians going abroad to find work. How much comes back in remittances is not clear, but it’s increasingly tough for the elderly here.
Things are bleak in some ways, but there is positive economic growth, one of only a few EU countries to have this even in the current world economic downturn. And the national spirit remains. The newly-opened Church Heritage Museum, housed in an old church near St Ann’s is dedicated to church art: vestments, monstrances and such, and has a very inspiring documentary on wooden cross carving, the nation’s best folk art that has its roots in the pagan and nature loving history.
Lithuanians are very in touch with nature. Lietuva (Lithuanian in their own tongue) means rain. The sun, the plains, the hills, the forests, are all very close to the Lithuanian soul. As compelling and beautiful as it is foreboding and mysterious, Lithuania is one of the few places that I would go back again tomorrow in a heartbeat. For comparison, I feel this way also about Syria, Jerusalem, Paris, and South Africa. But even more so in this ancient mystical northern land, I want to go back again so badly, and I only have been gone a few hours. I am inspired every time I travel here. It’s still in touch with the ancient spirit. More on than in a later post…