18 February 2018
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Vilnius University during “Soviet Times”

Excerpt from Tomas Venclova’s book “Vilnius a Personal History”.

I entered the University shortly after Stalin’s death. I was sixteen years old, one of the youngest students there. Times had somewhat improved―become more “vegetarian,” to quote Anna Akhmatova. The war against the anti-Communist Lithuanian and Polish partisans was coming to an end, most of them having been killed. The deportations had stopped, and people―though not all, by far―were coming back from Siberia and the prisons. Yet grim Soviet conditions still prevailed. Polish professors from the prewar era had been ousted―“repatriated” was the official term―and there were scarcely any Lithuanian professors left. Some ended up in America, others in concentration camps or six feet under, and still others were simply not permitted to teach. In the best of cases, they were replaced by high school teachers (most of them very intimidated); in somewhat worse cases, by young careerists; and in the worst of all cases, by individuals who had sent dozens of people into slave labor. Among this third group were many recent arrivals from Russia, who were more successful than the locals in adapting to the system since they knew it better. Lithuanian continued to be the language of instruction. The local Communists thought this was to their great credit, but those in power probably weren’t especially interested in which language was used―what was more important to them was what was said. Marxism (oh, if only it had really been Marxism!) and military training took up almost all the students’ time. At least half of the university library could not be accessed without special permission, something that was practically impossible to get.

Only the University buildings resisted the new times. They were dilapidated and full of garbage. The sewer system didn’t work, and paint and plaster were crumbling off the walls―but the huge labyrinth of inner courtyards, perhaps the most important feature of the Old City, remained. You could wander through this labyrinth for hours. Students joked that there were places where no man had ever set foot. And indeed there were some courtyards we could only see through the auditorium windows; it was a total puzzle how one could gain access to them. All the courtyards had been renamed, since the pre-war names recalled professors of the Jesuit era who, to say the least, seemed suspect to the Soviet authorities. (The Lithuanian nationalists didn’t like the Jesuits much either: although they may not have been Poles, they were cosmopolites.) But sooner or later, the old names turned up again, almost of their own accord. The most archaic courtyard and the one I knew best had a dry fountain with the trunk of a birch tree hanging over it. The southern wing of the courtyard, which had hardly changed since the days of the founding of the University, was supported by massive Gothic pillars. Other, more slender columns decorated an adjoining building; they lent the courtyard color, even cheerfulness, for the upper part was entirely clad in red brick. It was called the Courtyard of Philology, but we all knew that its real patron saint was Sarbievius, the seventeenth-century poet.

Poczobutt Courtyard, on the other hand, dated from a later era. It had an aura of mystery, its arcades usually fading into the dusky light. But the filigree pattern of shadows cast by bare tree branches fell on rough, sun-bathed, cylindrical little towers decorated with bas-reliefs of the signs of the zodiac. On the wall between the towers it was possible to make out Latin inscriptions. I memorized one of them, the hexameter verse, Addidit antiquo nova lumina coelo. Telescopes from the eighteenth century were preserved in the towers’ round rooms. This is where the Jesuit Martin Poczobutt built his observatory, and through these telescopes he observed Mercury, the comets, and the first asteroids. Once, according to his contemporaries, when he was trying to establish the precise orbit of the newly-discovered planet Uranus, he was so exhausted after several sleepless nights that he suffered a hemorrhage and thought he would die. He created a new constellation on the cosmological charts called “Poniatowski’s Bull” (Taurus Poniatovii) in honor of the last Polish-Lithuanian King. Poczobutt proudly carved it into the bas-relief among the other signs of the zodiac. From this courtyard, it is possible to go through a low archway and arrive at the largest and most beautiful courtyard, named in honor of Piotr Skarga, the University’s first rector. In contrast to Poczobutt Courtyard, which calls to mind a semi-dark, idyllic room, the Skarga Courtyard opens up like a wide Italian plaza surrounded on three sides by ochre elliptical arches, and bordered on the fourth by a remarkable façade shaped like an organ, with a massive, square bell tower rising to the right. It looks very southern, even when I’ve seen it during a blizzard. Some compare the plaza to San Marco in Venice.

The façade next to the bell tower is perhaps the consummate work of the architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz. Glaubitz blended it with the very large, old Gothic Church of St. John’s, built by Jogaila. The first school in Vilnius―and in all of Lithuania―was affiliated with it. The University was also established on this spot, which is so rich in tradition. Glaubitz’s façade is late Baroque and truly monumental, yet it seems to vanish into the air. Its colonade consists exclusively of arches and curves; groups of columns tied together by niches, volutes, curved cornices, and metal ornamentation spread out like a web. Silhouetted against the sky with curving, non-Euclidian arcs, the multi-story building becomes smaller toward the top, and its reliefs lighter. Neither solidity nor substantiality remains: architecture renounces itself here and enters the spheres of music and poetry. The kaleidoscopic composition of the ten altars inside the church is in the same style. Originally, there were twenty-two altars, but the most were destroyed in the first half of the nineteenth century; the sculptures and statues were reduced to rubble and carried off in three thousand wagons.

A second misfortune overtook the church after the Second World War. As a student, I couldn’t imagine―even in my wildest dreams―that I would be permitted to enter into the same space where theological issues had once been debated, and where later Mickiewicz and Daukantas attended Mass. With its windows smashed, its interior deserted, the church had been turned into a storeroom for paper―not for vodka, as was the case with St. Casimir’s. Later, the paper probably disappeared too. There was a rumor that some Soviet film outfit was using the church to make a war film, and several dozen live artillery shells were fired off inside the church. It wasn’t until the University’s anniversary that money was found for renovations. The church has only recently once again served as a place of worship.

It was these buildings that kept us from forgetting the very idea of civilization. I am describing only what first strikes one in the Latin quarter of Vilnius. There were countless other mysterious, remote corners: little interior courtyards with upper storeys and pilasters; statues atop old stairways; illegible inscriptions on cracked bas relief, where above windows one could make out medieval symbols. There were chambers preserved from the time of the Jesuits; on one ceiling there was a peaceful Madonna next to portraits of Democritus and Epicurus; Copernicus’s book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was resplendently displayed in a vitrine―a copy that had allegedly been presented to the author on his deathbed. The ceiling arches of the auditoriums, the clumsy wooden benches on which generations of students left their marks with pens or pocket knives, were much more human than the lectures about the history of the Communist Party or seminars dealing with the history of Soviet literature.

Category : Education research & development

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