11.06.09Lithuania – Near and Far, a Country of Ancient Times
The reason of my visit to the Republic of Lithuania was the invitation and my participation in the scientific conference called “Higher Education – competence in theory and practice”, organized by colleagues of mine from the Kaunas University of Applied Sciences. On entering the country my first impression was the similarity, almost identity, between the general look and colours of the national flags of Bulgaria and Lithuania. This made me wonder about the origin of two nations, and I spontaneously set myself a task to find the roots and connections in this similarity, the answer I will try to give in this essay. To find closeness between two countries, intriguing facts and cause-and-effect relations between two seemingly distant countries, nations and their symbols is a difficult task. Nevertheless, why not?
Lithuania – the largest in territory and population among the three Baltic countries. Lithuania –the women’s kingdom, in which the president, the prime minister and the minister of defence and many other officials at the moment are women, also has its national masculine image and sovereignity. Lithuania – the land of beautiful nature, verdure and lakes (between 2800-3000 depending on the season) and at the same time with only just one tunnel, Lithuania – the land with the credo “Vienybė težydi” – (Let unity flourish!), whose soldiers participated in the Pleven battle during the Russo-Turkish liberating war and whose Peace Corps volunteers today work in our country (e.g. in the village of Kran), in which I finally found, only here from the whole world, a corresponding word to our homely Bulgarian dialect word for a delicious appetizer – “I sveikata”. Well, the challenge is worth it and it doesn’t seem such a causa perduta, does it?
The symbols of the country always carry national characteristics. Lithuania’s national flag is composed of three equal colour fields – yellow, green, red, ordered horizontally in this way from top to bottom and is a rectangle with a ration ofwidth to length 3:5. After the end of the 15 century the historical colour of the Lithuanian flag was red with a white knight on it. Lithuania’s flag (like the hymn and the national emblem) are official symbols of the Republic, laid down in the article 15 of the Constitution, passed after a referendum in 1992 and described very thoroughly in the Lithuania national flag law. Yellow symbolizes dawn, light and the sun, green – grass, and red – blood, shed for Lithuania’s freedom – colours most commonly found in the national costumes of its people. All this comes very close to the symbolism of our national flag.
The coat of arms derives from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Pogonia (in Lithuanian Vytis). It is a red shield on which there is a silver horseman on a white horse. In his left hand the horseman is holding a shield with a double golden cross and his right hand is raised above his head, holding a silver sword. The saddle and the reins of the horse are blue and the handle of the sword and the stirrups are golden. “Duke Norimont who moves the capital from Novogorodka to Kernave had a coat of arms, more of a seal or a symbol of his knighthood – an armoured man on a white horse in a red field and a bare sword, wielding it above his head, while he was driving away foes, and he had the popular name “pogonya”.
Towards the end of the 14th century the knight is depicted on the background of a heraldic shield on the seals of the dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. From the beginning of the 15th century the knight becomes the Duchy’s coat of arms and the final shape and colours are set towards the middle of the century. Later the coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania becomes part of the coat of arms of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the third partition of Poland and the inclusion of the territories of the Lithuanian Duchy in the Russian empire in 1795 the horseman becomes part of the empire’s coat of arms as one of the nine shields, rounding the main shield with the two-headed eagle. Pogon (Vytis) is also used in the emblems of Vilnius and the Vilnius district, in some cities in Poland and Prusia, and was a symbol of Belarus for a period of time. Between 1920 and 1922 the horseman together with a white eagle is a part of the coat of arms of Middle Lithuania, similarly to the emblem of the Commonwealth. Pogon (Vytis) is also an emblem of the independent Lithuanian state between 1918 and 1940. From 1988 on it has been widely used as Lithuania’s national symbol and after independence was declared it become official coat of arms and remains a purely Lithuanian symbol. The national hymn or people’s song (in Lithuanian “Tautiska giesme”) was written in 1898 by Vicnas Kudirka.
Lithuanian history is millennia old and full of endless ups and downs. It all starts with the coming of the Indo-Europeans to the territory of today’s Lithuania, who, according to the curator of the Kaunas historical museum, from Ireland to India spoke the same language. During the Bronze Age the Baltic tribes appear – Pruses, Lithuanian and Daugaws, and in 1th -4th centuries AD they develop working with iron. Then the Romans appear, then the Hunes in 5th -6th century, the Vikings in 11th -12th c. and then the German tribes. The country was permanently set in 10th -13th c although its foundation is officially thought to be in 1009 – the first written records of the Lithuanians as a people. Warfare developed in the region of Kurlandia which the above mentioned tribes attacked in 12th -13th c near Denmark and Sweden. Fortresses start being built, riding develops further, part of the symbol and eventually a national emblem. As a protective fortress Kaunas appears in 1360-8, built by Duke Vitas, rebuilt by Rittersberger and converted to a fortress for the Lithuanian regiments in Russia in the second half of 14th c. Towns on Lithuanian territory appeared as early as 13th century with the creation of the Duchy of Lithuania. The first settlement that became a town was Klaipeda, and nowadays there are 103 towns in the country with a population of more than 3000 people or with a previous status of a town. The first famous Lithuanian ruler and only king for about 500 years (and this is a similarity with Bulgaria because we also were kingless for 500 years) was Mindaugas (Mindawg 1238-1263), baptized in 1251, crowned on 6 July 1253 (Lithuania’s national holiday) and united the separate feudal duchies and territories. In 1386 there was a marriage between the Lithuanian Duke Jagelo, Vitas’s brother, and the Polish queen Jadviga (Juvita). This marriage laid the foundation of a 400-year-lasting union between Poland and Lithuania, and in 1569 the Lublin union, through which the two countrieswere united. The cooperation with Poland in 1386 led the two countries to a union under one leader, a union that lasted up to 1795. In 1387 the population was baptized and Catholicism became the nation’s religion. Lithuania was the last country in Europe in this aspect and did that much later than Bulgaria, which accepted Christianity over 13 th and 14th c. From 1392 on Lithuania was ruled by the Great Duke Vitas (Vitovt, Vitautas, in Lithuanian Vytautas) and during the time of his rule (1392—1430) the pinnacle of the country’s might was reached. In 13th -14th c. the territory of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy increased dramatically and reached the shores of the Black sea (the estuary of the Dnester river). At the same time as early as the beginning of 13 c the Lithuanian dukes struggle against the Crusaders (who reached Kaliningrad and Riga) and the Teutonic (Leon) order, broken in 1410 in the Gruenwald battle by the united armies of Lithuania, the Czechs (under the leadership of Jan Stika) and Poland. To do this Lithuania enjoined the into union with the Ukraine, and the Russian Latvinians, living around Moscow and in the above mentioned great territories. In the beginning of 15th c heavy armoury appeared and the armours style was taken from Hungarians, Hussars and Bulgarians. Stephan Berguis, a Pole born in Hungary, who recreated the war traditions, had a major contribution in this process and also recreated the Balkan influence in the army and crafts. Looking at the horseman, the map and the wax figures from the Trakai castle one inevitably associates the Tatars, who settled in Lithuania and Bulgaria at that time, as well as the similar fate of Duke Jagelo and the Bulgarian King Kaloyan in the war against the crusaders. Unlike this similarity with us, Lithuania’s small military fleet was of course borrowed from Poland and built in Gdansk. In 1514 about 10000 Lithuanians fought for independence against Ukraine in the region of Orta (Ortos) by the Dnester, Belarus, and the second half of 15th c the Moscow kingdom threatens the lands by Smolensk. After that, over the years, the country has been under Swedish rule (after the battle at Salabius in 1605 Sweden was the greatest enemy because it was united with the Leon order), Polish and Russian rule (the influence of the absolutist state decreased after 1795 and Lithuania joined Russia), even under Napoleon’s rule (1812), then under German and Soviet government, but nevertheless, there was a continuous and permanent political influence, territorial shifts and economic dependence, which makes it very similar to our country.
After WW1 on 16 February 1918 in Vilnius the representation of the Lithuanian people – Lithuania’s Council (in Lithuanian Lietuvos Taryba) proclaimed Lithuania independent, and this lasted up to 1940 when it entered as the Lithuanian Republic of the USSR. On 11 of March 1990 the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic passed an act recovering the sovereignty and independence of Lithuania, it was recognized as a state on 6 September 1991 and 11 of March is commemorated as the Independence day. I know of no other country celebrating so emphatically its independence twice in a year!
These crucial events in the history of Lithuania have been eternalized by three symbolic crosses rising above Vilnius, reminding future generation about the independence.
Historical relations between the two countries are a point of interest. Dating back to the Middle ages, they have never been ones of wars or conflicts. Just the opposite, they have developed exclusively in the sphere of spirituality and letters. Nowadays the relations in culture, science and education develop on the basis of the Agreement between the government of the Bulgarian Republic and the government of Lithuania for cooperation in the field of education, science and culture. (April 1996)
There are two kinds of higher education (the natural focus of attention at the conference and of our visit): university education (usually in universities and academies) and non-university education in a higher institution (usually a college). The non-university education is professional, with a focus on the practical application, that is often a continuation of secondary school. Studying takes 3-4 years. The graduates of these schools acquire a bachelor’s degree and/or professional qualification. The college in Kaunas is namely of this type. Master’s programmes are open for those who have bachelor’s degree. Studies last 1,5 – 2 years. Graduates, just like here, get a master’s degree. As far as I know, there are 14 universities and academies in the country, the most important are in Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda, and the colleges – in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Alytus, Panevezys.
One of the oldest high schools is in Vilnius, the oldest in the Baltic region and the whole of Europe – Vilnius university, established in 1579 by the Jesuits. It is a Renaissance style complex of man buildings with countless inner yards, a library and a church, erected just after Christianity was accepted in 1387. This complex is a town within the town that has been developing for more than two centuries depending on the educational demands. The literature of the country began with the first book dating back to 1547, continues its development with the poem Metai (The Seasons), written by the Lutheran pastor Kristionas Donelaitis in 13th c. Simonas Daukantas (1793-1864) wrote the first historical book in Lithuanian and published other popular books. These religious and otherwise important moments of the spiritual development of Lithuania were represented in a unique way on the bas-reliefs at the main entrance of the Vilnius University. I will mention only the key words talking about the conference – organizational motivation and humane work, social competence – skills, habits and attitudes, motivation and application now, not in future. And a charming joke – the professor should have a profession!
According to its altitude and its highest point of 292 m Lithuania is exactly 10 times lower than Bulgaria. However, it is exactly the opposite if we compare the economical aspect of implemented reforms to improve the investment climate over the last year. According to the new joint report of the International Bank Lithuania and Slovakia are the first in this criterion in Central and East Europe. What’s more, the economy of this agro-industrial country is part of the first 20 economies in the world as for the easiness of business, despite the currency board introduced in 1994. The main sectors are machine building, metal and wood works, chemical industry, textile and food industry. Tourism is respected and, we should admit, the infrastructure is good. The national GDP according to different data is $ 44,727-48,132 or 14, 135-14,273 billion per capita with a decrease of 1.5 million over the last two years due to the economic crisis in the world, which puts the state on the 75th place in the world, and that with a population and territory about twice smaller than Bulgaria’s! Lithuania’s quick economic growth pushed inflation above the target threshold of the euro zone and the country is already trying to get rid of the currency board. The minimal salary in Lithuania is 800 litas monthly (about EUR 235), from 1 January 2008. But Lithuania is also the EU country that underwent and is continuing to suffer some of the heaviest recessions.
According to the Lithuanian Central Bank, cited by EUbusiness, the state’s economy had shrunk by 19,3% by the end of 2009 and about 14% for 2010, the recession lasted and destroyed Lithuania’s reputation as the fastest developing EU economy. Nevertheless, the country retains an economically justified deficit of 3-4%. Another difference with Bulgaria is the clear opinion on nuclear power plants, great Lithuanian trade chains and the virtual lack of abandoned industrial buildings. In Lithuania more than half the population is against nuclear power, an opinion that has become stronger and stronger after the close down of their only nuclear power plant in Ignalina at the end of 2009 and after the tragedy of Fukushima, Japan and after Belarus’ intention to build a nuclear plant just 20 km away from Lithuania’s border.
Lithuania is also on the top of the black list with most killings per year – 8,76 to 100 000 people a year for the period 2002 – 2008. The only other countries where there are more than two killings per year to 100 000 people are Finland, Bulgaria, Scotland, Romania, The Czech republic and Ireland. The other thing that struck me were the panel and brick blocks of the Russian type in districts with the original name sleeping districts that reminded me that Lithuanians and were part of the same system not long ago.
Talking about Lithuania one cannot miss the national cuisine and the amber jewellery. After restoring independence in 1990 the traditional cuisine became one of the ways to celebrate Lithuanian identity and the connection between sities and kaimas. Perhaps the most popular speciality is the cold beetroot soup and the Zeppelins (in Lithuanian Cepelinai) – potato dumplings, filled with minced meat, cheese or mushrooms. Everything actually has some kind of filling: kibinai, marrows, etc. As our kind host Viktoria Marcinkeviciene says: “National dishes are always simple. These Zeppelins and Kugelis are made in the most simple way and that’s why they are so tasty. And if they are garnished with the wheat brandy (Lithuanian Samane), you can only hear Cheers! or Drink it all up! (in Lithuanian I sveikata or Iki dugno!)”.
Vilnius, earlier called Vilno or Vilna is the capital and the biggest city of Lithuania. It was first mentioned as such in historical records in 1323 and was established by Duke Gediminas on the hill where he dremt a wolf. Another fact about the closeness of the two peoples, because as I already mentioned in  the wolf is a symbol of old Bulgarians and a savior spirit. The ancient Vilnius developed in the valley of the Neris river, in the foot of two castles (one of which is not preserved today). It was between them that the old town appeared with its fan-like net of streets. Nowadays the Old town of Vilnius is one of the biggest in Europe and a main tourist spot of the country. From 1994 on it was included in UNESCO world heritage sites. Vilnius is defined as a baroque city since the abundance of architectural monuments from this period is simply breathtaking. Of course the churches, the hermitage places and the temples are the best visiting card of the city – no other town in Eastern Europe has such a collection of magnificent ancient temples in such a small area.
I was impressed by the story of the Miracle stone – a tile on the square, on which a circular writing says stebuklas – miracle in Lithuanian. This was the place where in 1989 almost two million people, hand in hand, made the Baltic road – a live chain of 600 km connecting Vilnius, Riga and Talin. This peaceful protest was the beginning of the Baltic independence. Lithuanians believe that if one stands on the Wonder stone and turns three times around, their most cherished wish will be granted!
And of course my colleagues and I turned and now we are waiting for our wishes to come true! Last but not least, I’ll mention that the place in Vilnius district Uzupis, where we dined, with its angel – the statue of the Republic and because Ujupis has its own Constitution, i.e. it was pronounced by the intelligentsia as a Republic, perhaps somewhat humoristically, but nevertheless – a symbol of free thinking!
I already mentioned about Kaunas. However, I will not miss the symbol of the statue of Liberty in the new centre of the town and the longest pedestrian street, the emblematic sundial on the building where Napoleon stayed, the monument of Duke Vytautas and the writing “Kartu ♥ Kauna” that means “Together we love Kaunas.”, while I interpreted it as a coincidence with the surname of my humble person. Of course the small town of Trakai, not far from Vilnius, is the ancient Lithuanian capital. It is charming with its castle that was regarded as one of the strongest fortresses in Eastern Europe and it was the Duke’s residence for a long time. Now there is a historical museum there with lots of important documents, books and works of art.
LITHUANIA – NEAR AND FAR, A COUNTRY OF ANCIENT TIMES!
Now I know. Closeness is in the human soul, in the kind treatment of people, in the permanent struggle for freedom and independence, striving towards a better life. I was deeply impressed by the welcoming and kind attitude of the people. All this would not happen without the immense help and assistance of Viktorija Marcinkeviciene, Jurgis Maciulevicius, Ausrine Peleckiene from Kauno Kolegija and all that helped us to touch and to keep something in our hearts from this country.
To their infinite kindness goes my humble THANK YOU!
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