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Frontline Fighting and Flourishing

Frontline Fighting and Flourishing

In Eastern Europe, cultural memory is attached to responsibility, and nowhere more so than Vilnius.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin's weekly newsletter on politics, culture, and music is made possible by American Purpose's generous members. Join today to receive his newsletter and other great benefits.

Vilnius is a walking city. In perfect May weather, the town is full of color and life, with young people filing into shops and parks and charming outdoor cafes. On one such day, I sat recently with two colleagues in a restaurant near the city center to meet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists now exiled from Belarus. The border is 43 minutes by car. On the other side, dissent gets you 15 years in prison.

In Vilnius, history is close. Around the corner from our hotel are the former Gestapo headquarters, a property that sits on the tree-lined Gediminas Avenue across from Lukiškės Square. Today, the building houses the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. The Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in summer 1940. Nazi Germany invaded a year later. Trauma after trauma here.

For their part, German Einsatzgruppen worked efficiently—together with Lithuanian auxiliaries—to cleanse Lithuania of its Jews, some 250,000 citizens, roughly 10 percent of the population. In short order, 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish community was wiped out. Many were shot in the countryside. Some were transferred to death camps in German-occupied Poland.

In summer 1944, the Soviets were back. The city’s main boulevard became Stalin Avenue, which eventually became Lenin Avenue. Gestapo headquarters became KGB headquarters. It was here that resisters and dissidents were interrogated—and tortured. A thousand or so were murdered in the basement. This city never had it easy with the Russians. Lukiškės Square across the street was infamous in the 19th century for public executions. Mikhail Muravyov-Vilensky, the imperial governor, earned himself the nickname “the hangman.” The Moscow-born personification of czarist repression was determined to wipe out local language and culture and kill off resistance to Russification.

No surprise that in Vilnius we met Lithuanians pulling hard for Ukraine. It’s a regional-historical-cultural thing. The Norwegians were in town when we were there conspiring with Lithuanian counterparts on how to get Ukraine into the Atlantic Alliance. Vilnius hosts the NATO Summit in July. The Baltic and Nordic states, along with Poland, are becoming a bloc. We heard from a young Finnish colleague that, back home in Helsinki, the war is almost all her friends talk about. Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

Through thick and thin, the arts and culture have managed to flourish in this vulnerable part of Europe. During the Winter War with Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1939–40, Finland conscripted the near entirety of its population. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra stopped giving concerts. Finnish radio and the Radio Orchestra were evacuated to Pori on the west coast.

Swing was adored in Finland in the early 1940s. People needed an escape. Patriotic music was very popular. One military officer named R.W. Palmroth, “Palle”—a poet and composer of sorts—organized concerts and wrote songs for the troops. His best-known song during the Winter War, Silmien välliin, encouraged Finnish soldiers to shoot Russians right between the eyes.

I’ve noted before the work of our friend Sofi Oksanen, the acclaimed Finnish-Estonian novelist, who has now written the libretto for the new opera Innocence by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The one-act work performed over two hours is multilingual. It’s set in Helsinki, where the son of a Finnish-French family is marrying a Romanian woman. Innocence opens at a wedding reception, where a Czech server is stunned to realize that the groom is the brother of the boy who killed her teenage daughter and several others in a school shooting a decade earlier.

In Eastern Europe, culture butts against culture. Composers Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki are well known in musical circles. Penderecki died three years ago. He was born in Dębica (in Yiddish–Dembitz), in southeastern Poland, in 1933. Before World War II, the town was inhabited mostly by Hasidic Jews. Penderecki was of Armenian-German-Polish stock. His grandfather was a German evangelical. His grandmother came from Stanisławów—now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine—and was Armenian. Here’s lyrical Penderecki. And here’s the composer of defiant avant-garde, with Mstislav Rostropovich playing cello. Rostropovich, who lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, had fled the Soviet Union for the West back in 1974.

The 87-year-old Pärt is attached to cultural memory and responsibility. Last year, he issued a statement that addressed Ukrainians directly: “Forgive us,” he said, “for failing to protect you.” Pärt has composed over his important career exceptionally beautiful secular and sacred music, the latter having led to the disappearance of his work for years during the communist period. Here’s a moving, reflective piece of his.

Vilnius is a town of culture, charm, and even whimsy. A decade ago in summer, classical pianist Petras Geniušas surprised swimmers and sunbathers by performing on a white grand piano stationed on a raft floating down the Neris River. This Saturday there’s city-wide street music. In July, there’s a festival for innovative arts.

Here are three composers all from Lithuania, all women.

Onutė Narbutaitė (born 1956) writes for orchestra, voice, and chorus with vivid, expressive melodies. Here’s a short, wonderful a cappella piece.

Zita Bružaitė (born 1966) served as chair of the Lithuanian Composers’ Union from 2009–17. There’s jazz, ethnic music, and medieval asceticism blended in her music. I like this very much, for clarinet and piano.

Dalia Raudonikytè (1970-2018) composed electronic, instrumental, vocal, and orchestral music. Here’s something with sharp, lyrical, angular tones.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: A street view in Vilnius. (Flickr: Sami C.)

DemocracyCultureEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineMusic