Virginia Barton

Lithuania’s fairy tale landscape and love of freedom

 

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Charterhouse Chronicle, Catholic Herald, 12 October 1990

 

There’s  a man I know who breaks into God Save the Queen, and salutes, whenever he flies into Heathrow over Windsor Castle. The consternation of his neighbours in the aeroplane may be imagined.

Whilst not indulging in such freakish behaviour myself, I can sympathise with the sentiment. A taste of deprivation sharpens one’s gratitude. Here, within reason, we can do pretty well as we please; freedom of thought, speech and movement are so integral a part of our daily lives we take them for granted. Even my well-heeled American and German chums concede that Britain is a great country to live in, and this happy state (it is called democracy I believe) ought to be cherished.

Should you have doubts, take a trip to the USSR. Yes I know, good times are just around the corner, Gorby’s terrific, and in 500 days all will be hunky-dory. But I think it will take longer than that to undo the work and repair the damage done by 70 years of Bolshevism.

The destruction has not just been economic – in a way that is the lesser evil. The psychological damage is more grave. A field will produce a decent crop in a year or two given the right treatment, and a factory could be churning out consumables within months, given sufficient funds and expertise.

But a human psyche may take years to recover from a diet of half-truths, blatant lies, intimidation, violence and fear. We in the West cannot claim a monopoly of the truth; we do however offer conditions in which lies are discouraged because they can be exposed and punished.

These sombre reflections come to me now that I am back home “sitting on my pleats” (this rough translation of a gorgeous old Polish expression describes the state of mind one finds oneself in, smug at one’s desk after prolonged gallivanting). You may remember that in September I wrote that I hoped to go to Vilnius. Well the visa for Lithuania, doubtful up to the last moment, became, for two short weeks, one of the most precious bits of paper I ever owned. Had it not been reclaimed on the return journey I would have framed it. There are so many aspects to my journey it’s hard to know where to begin.

 

Baltic pragmatists

Imagine a fairytale landscape with deep mysterious forests, wide rivers, acres of pasture and abundant wild flowers. Speckle that landscape with huge baroque churches, villages of timber cottages set among prosperous garden plots, and people it with giants.

The Lithuanian heroes of old were massive of deed, and the modern citizen is tall of stature, spare in figure and athletic, well-fitted to the national sport of volleyball. They are a reserved people, not given to displays of temperament like their volatile Slav neighbours.

These Baits struck me as hard-working pragmatists, just as stubborn as the British, tenacious of their history, language and rich culture.

Unlike the Russians, they have enjoyed freedom within living memory, between 1918 and 1940, and it was to that condition that they attempted to return in March this year when they declared independence; their yearning for it has never waivered which makes one optimistic for their future – provided they are allowed half a chance.

I can only assume there are “political reasons” that prevent the Big Boys weighing-in on their side – support from the UK and US has been halfhearted to say the least.

 

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Proud nation

Half the size of England, and with a population of only three and a half million, this small, proud nation may legitimately boast the most beautiful capital city in Europe. Vilnius is about 400 miles south of both Leningrad and Helsinki.

The patron of this gem of a city is St. Christopher – perhaps because the stately river Neris flows through its heart? The forest hovers invitingly in the suburbs; indeed encroaches upon the very streets, and even the scaffolding for the extensive restoration programme is made of pine wood.

The churches have been given back to their rightful owners and most of them have been, or will soon be re-opened. The cathedral (an art gallery until 1988) lacks only its exterior statuary high on the roof.

The church of St. Casimir, a museum of atheism if you please until just the other day, will soon re-open in all its baroque confection – pink, white and gold, complete with crown on top. I have never seen so many glorious churches in so small a space, clamouring for attention – man’s best artistic endeavour in a paean of praise.

 

Death nearby

Lithuania, the youngest daughter of the Church (she embraced Christianity 600 years ago) has suffered terribly in the past 50 years. There are reminders of this suffering everywhere: in museums, in every church, in wayside shrines, public memorials and in personal reminiscences.

Virtually every family lost a member either in the war, or later under Soviet rule. The dead are recent, fresh in people’s memories, often talked about. Flowers, single or in bunches, are a constant, silent reminder everywhere.

Mercifully times are changing and there are signs of hope and promise, but it’s a tense business. Tanks were out in the capital’s streets when I left, a show of strength probably intended to provoke. Advised by their government not to react, the Lithuanians went calmly about their daily lives.

In Kaunas, the second city of Lithuania, the seminary has recently expanded to accommodate the 200 students. In 1979 the total number was 51, the annual intake only a dozen or so. And next year the religious orders should be able publicly to resume their way of life.

The Three Crosses have been replaced on the wooded hill in central Vilnius, and in Siauliai the KGB no longer destroy the forest of votive crosses.

 

Bookery nook

No space this month to tell of the melancholy beauty I found in Bielorussia, or the precarious promise of better times ahead for Poland. Even the pugnacious Bookery Nook must be squeezed into a few words.

The Anchorhold (Enid Dinnis) turned up in Wimbledon, as a loan from archive material. A London reader sent in a clutch of requests, here are two of them: The Pilgrim’s Way by John Adair (Thames and Hudson, 1975), and Pilgrimage: an Image of Mediaeval Religion by Jonathon Sumpter (Faber, 1975).

From Cornwall a request comes for The Apprentice Saint by Louise Collins (Michael Joseph, 1964). Please hunt in your bookshelves for these titles; some of the letters are quite heart-rending, just as if the search was for old friends.

 

Now I am going to Durham to witness the installation of a Reverend Professor friend into the 3rd Stall. It is unlikely that the serenity of the Close will be disturbed by tanks. Then I shall return to sit on my pleats.

 

 

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