Volume 27, No.1 - Summer 1981
Editor of this issue: Tomas Venclova, Thomas Remeikis
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1981 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Two noted graduates of the University of Vilnius in two distinct eras present here enlightening glimpses of its life in recent history. Czeslaw Milosz, the noted Polish poet and scholar, Nobel laureate in literature (1980), graduated from the University of Vilnius, then called the Stephen Bathory University, during the years when Vilnius was under Polish rule, years of intense nationalism and conflict between Lithuania and Poland. Tomas Venclova studied at the University of Vilnius when the Lithuanian academic community began to revive after years of Stalinist repressions. Their thoughts, presented in the following articles, were expressed at a public commemoration of the University of Vilnius quadracentennial, held at the University of California, Los Angeles, in May of 1979.

The Years of Persistence

University of California — Los Angeles

I entered the University of Vilnius in 1954, twenty five years ago. Now I am beginning to realize what an immense stretch of time it is. One sixteenth of the University's history has passed before my eyes — undoubtedly one of the most difficult and perhaps one of the more interesting parts of that history. The year 1954 was a year of profound changes. Stalin had died recently, and the guerilla war was waning in the Lithuanian forests.

The University was gloomy, neglected and rather dirty. Heaps of garbage lay in the wonderful ancient courtyards; the floor was on the verge of collapse; the sewage system did not work. The University was closed by Germans, and after their departure it underwent a kind of earthquake or Biblical flood, which lasted infinitely. To tell the truth, this earthquake still is going on: some parts of the University now look tidy and are shown to foreigners, but there is permanent lack of money, and while one medieval corridor is being repaired, the neighbouring corridor is crumbling down. Only one hope remains: builders of Stephan Bathory's times did their job more thoroughly than the present builders. The University occupies an enormous block — almost one third of the Old City; one can wander about this block for many hours; and, despite everything, its beauty overwhelms.

The University's tradition was interrupted and simply ignored, nevertheless it proved itself stronger than expected. The courtyards at first assumed the names of "Central", "Observatory" and so on; but in approximately five years their old ineradicable names somehow came back. The Renaissance courtyard of Skarga reminds one of a square in a middle-sized Italian city; the classical courtyard of Poczobutt is secluded and mysterious, and the shadow of naked branches in March or April falls there on the round observatory towers decorated by Zodiac signs; the courtyard of Sarbiewski, where, it is told, the University's activities started in Bathory's times, is the oldest, it has Gothic buttresses, and an empty cracked fountain can be seen in its middle. There is also the courtyard of Mickiewicz; expert guides show there the windows of the poet's apartment, where he stayed with his namesake, an old professor of mathematics, as well as other windows where Philomaths held their secret meetings. In due course I examined the University's interior. The hall of Smuglewicz in former times had served as refectory; the medieval Madonna, in a strange way preserved on its ceiling, coexisted with the portraits of Democritus and Epicurus, and in the remote corner one could observe a small table on which, according to the legend, the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was signed. The hall of Lelewel with his personal collection of maps once had served as chapel. In the White Hall the library stacks were placed (and the stacks are regions of no admittance in the Soviet Union); but sometimes one could visit the telescopes of the ancient observatory (of course without lenses) in the narrow round room where Jan Sniadecki spent his days and nights one hundred and fifty years ago.

At first there was only one memorial plaque at the University; it was dedicated to Felix Dzerzhinski, the chairman of fairly well-known Cheka, who strictly speaking had nothing to do with the University (this task was left to his successors). But gradually other plaques emerged, as if surfacing from the depths. They were crackled, sooty, with either Polish or Latin inscriptions; of course they always remained in their places, but were at first painted over, covered or intensely ignored. The splendid Baroque Saint John's Church, where Mickiewicz, Slowacki and Daukantas had attended Masses in olden days, was turned into the storehouse of paper belonging to the official organ "Tiesa"; nevertheless later a museum was established in place of the storehouse, and curious frescoes of the Sarmatism epoch were found on the vaults. Those improvements came slowly, sometimes for questionable reasons; in any case, it was somehow impossible to turn the University into the regular Soviet office. In the most unexpected places came out either the statue of a poet in Romantic cloak, or Saint Christopher carrying the Child across the river, or classical ceiling made by Ferdinand Ruszczyc. Even the new frescoes of doubtful taste — Greek muses and so on — painted in Soviet times on the Philology Department walls, somehow get accustomed to the place — or the place and four-hundred-year tradition get accustomed to them. Two years ago in Berkeley I met Czeslaw Milosz. Of course a lively conversation about our University sprang up at once. We graduated in extremely dissimilar, perhaps just opposite circumstances, but we shared a lot of common memories which enabled us to look at one-hundred-year old Berkeley somewhat condescendingly.

Super-patriots are breaking lances apropos of Vilnius (or Wilno) University: it is considered either a strictly Polish or a strictly Lithuanian phenomenon. This controversy inflames the passions among the émigrés and in Lithuania (as well as in Poland) itself where it is muffled and for this very reason extremely painful. Two ideas are popular among Lithuanians: some hold that the University was an alien (Polish) body, some believe that Polish culture in Lithuania can be neglected since it was "virtually Lithuanian." It is customary, for example, to lituanize names of certain ancient University figures. I always considered both ideas as incorrect. The categories belonging to the nineteenth and twentieth century cannot be applied to thinkers or poets of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were neither Lithuanians nor Poles in our sense of these words: first of all, they were East Europeans. Their ethnic consciousness was somehow broader; perhaps the ethnic consciousness of our grandsons will broaden itself as well, although in a different manner. The ancient University also was neither a Lithuanian nor a Polish phenomenon; it was — and, let us hope, it will remain — a European phenomenon.

Incidentally we, students of the University of Vilnius, knew our most recent tradition least of all. The Polish university which existed between the wars was never mentioned (although, among other things, the largest part of the library was its legacy). The university of independent Lithuania was a mysterious and half-forbidden topic as well. This legacy was beyond all question and at the same time ought not to be recognized. Two or three professors of that university remained, but many of them perished or were simply razed from our memory.

Emigrant press emphasizes the Russification of the University. For the present, the Russification is rather unostentatious: there are some Russian groups and some Russian lectures, but their number still remains relatively insignificant. In the lecture-halls or on the courtyards Lithuanian undoubtedly prevails. Now about eighty percent of the students are Lithuanians. About two percent are Poles (the proportion before the war was exactly opposite). But all students — the Lithuanian, the Pole, the Russian, the accidentally accepted Jew — are expected to leave the University as a single whole — an undifferentiated Soviet mass. It is a more real problem than strictly ethnic discrimination. Of course, the degree of success of this policy is quite a different question.

I was not a witness of the worst times of the University, although I have heard about them a lot. Immediately after the war, when the University possessed no doors, no windows and no fuel, the repairs of course were of secondary importance; the main purpose was reeducation. Old professors either revised their views or disappeared; those who had revised sometimes disappeared as well. Some incredibly stubborn persons were spared; their names became legendary — Ignas Jonynas, the historian, Juozas Balčikonis, the linguist, Tadas Ivanauskas, the biologist. They practiced a kind of intellectual opposition. Several others simply tried to be neutral, which was perhaps no less dangerous. As is known to everybody who has lived there, Soviet control of minds does not limit itself to crossing out words or sentences: one must add something as well. People soon get accustomed to this practice, and additions expected by the authorities begin to appear quite automatically. The intellectual and spiritual independence of superior quality consists in escaping from this habit.

Pogroms followed pogroms, self-criticisms followed self-criticisms. Everybody had to study the so-called Marxist genetics of Michurin, Lysenko and Lepeshinskaya, then Stalin's linguistic works; and all of a sudden 233 papers were devoted to the analysis of Babayevski's novel "Bearer of the Gold Star" and of long poem "Usnynë" by Tilvytis, which by its content is similar to this novel. Perhaps there is only one country in the world where professors of philosophy can be sentenced to hard labour; and, of course, professors Karsavin and Sezemanas were sentenced to hard labour. Their place was occupied by newly arrived persons of a rather particular kind. Especially famous among those new professors— 1 would omit his name — had denounced more than ten colleagues in various universities, including the brilliant folklorist and semiotician Meletinsky. Students were imprisoned or deported more often than professors. On the whole, the situation did not differ very much from the situation in Moscow or Leningrad, but on top of everything else nationalism was desperately rooted out — real as well as imagined nationalism. But let us repeat: I did not see those hard times myself.

Nevertheless I was a bit astonished by the University customs. One day a week we were forced to dismantle and then to assemble training rifles and machine-guns or to memorize field manuals. This useful practice continued without any essential change until our graduation. The rest of the time was dedicated primarily to Marxism, strictly speaking, to the party's history. We were rather dissuaded from reading "Capital" or "The Eighteenth of Brumaire", since those complicated texts could obscure our minds; "Anti-Dühring" was generally permitted. Professor Bordonaitë, wife of Lithuanian communist leader Antanas Sniečkus — by the way, she was a rather likeable person — explained to us the difference between the fourth and the fifth party congress, as well as between the eleventh and the twelfth. Soon the course of "scientific atheism" was introduced. It was nominally optional, but the student who had missed it could not obtain his degree. I had graduated before I had the time to take that course, and I rejoice in my good luck.

The students' response to all this was either indifferent or humorous. There were also several devoted members of the Komsomol (cynicism came later). I have heard of two unusual cases: one student had refused to prove the advantages of Marxism on the basis that he had preferred Schopenhauer, and another had embarrassed his professor by asking about the difference between the collective-farm system and serfdom. Both were immediately expelled from the University, but as far as I know, no other penalty was imposed. Quite naturally there were many informers, especially in the philology department which is an eyesore to any dictatorial government. We did not notice many of them. Only an unexpectedly successful career of a mediocrity after graduation served as an indicator. Some were entangled involuntarily, some simply looked for subsidy. Almost all students were in desperate need, they came mainly from poor villages, and monthly grants were sufficient perhaps for one good dinner. To tell the truth, there were also several individual grants bearing the names of Lenin, Dzerzhinski and for some reason of Leo Tolstoy who probably felt uncomfortable in their company.

Our time was wasted on demonstrations (supporting single political trend), on electoral campaigns (supporting single candidate), on wallpapers (supporting both the trend and the candidate). Every year we spent several weeks digging out potatoes in collective farms; although potatoes were rather scarce, farmers for some reason could not do that job themselves. It seemed all this had a single purpose: to ward us off from the library (half of which was forbidden all the same), to leave no time for thinking or even looking around. I chose to study Lithuanian literature, but somehow could not begin my real studies. By the way, Lithuanian folk-lore was taught very poorly — one derived no benefit from this course. The course of old Lithuanian literature was interesting, but made little sense without complementary courses of Grand Duchy's history, law, art, of corresponding languages and so on; and those courses were undesirable, sometimes even unthinkable in the former capital of the Grand Duchy. Polish was optional and attended by few persons; any serious Polish studies, indispensable for every scholar of Lithuanian, were nonexistent. Incidentally, history was considered and still is considered especially harmful. Chairman of the history department was professor Ţiugţda who died recently, having reached an advanced age. Following the good rule de mortuis aut bene aut nihil I will tell nihil on him.

Nevertheless I found the field of studies which gave me some satisfaction: it was classical philology. We read Catullus and Ovid in small rooms facing small courtyards and gardens; later we left the University block and moved to the lane where Mickiewicz once wrote Graţyna. There was also a museum of Mickiewicz, closed "for temporary repairs" many years ago. Some of our professors were a bit eccentric and in any case did not resemble others. I tried Greek, but could not cope with Sanskrit. Perhaps Passer mortuus est meae puellae and Odyssey would remain the best reminiscences of my youth; but just then the University began to change — very slowly and irreversibly. Not only old names, memorial plaques, parchments, signatures of Sigismund Augustus and ancient catechisms in the library began to surface; the tradition of Vilnius' science, poetry and politics began to emerge as well.

The University has taught me one important thing: culture and taste for freedom practically cannot be destroyed. They find roundabout ways, remain concealed for decades, emigrate and go to camps, but finally they come to life, and nothing can be done about it. Evidently all this depends on the layers of former culture. Those layers were multiple and thick in Vilnius, as well as in Tartu or Leningrad, where I also was fortunate to witness this resurrection. It is lingering, convulsive, with hundreds of interruptions and setbacks. Culture is constantly trampled down or bribed, or turned to safe channels: such practice is successful to the point of forcing almost everyone to despair, but it cannot be successful on the whole.

Numerous former students of my age (sometimes my friends) now are writers. Their generation forms the basis of new Lithuanian literature. When they are speaking or writing about their youth, they seldom mention the University, and even when they do, they talk about disillusionment. It does not surprise me; nevertheless certain lack of perspective takes place here. They simply don't notice themselves. And the most valuable element of the University consisted of them. They tried to create literature having nothing in common with the literature squeezed into their minds by force; the best among them had succeeded, even if many had failed. I speak about writers, since I knew them intimately; but the revival was a common phenomenon. There were endless and serious discussions in the dorms. Of course the informers were generally present, nevertheless the discussions made sense. Books by émigrés and forbidden writers were read and frequently copied by hand. In the days of the Hungarian uprising an inscription appeared in the courtyard of Sarbiewski: the authorities painted it over with zeal. The highest point of the uprising coincided with All Souls' Day. Everybody went to the Rasos cemetery. Since Lithuanians came to the grave of Basanavičius, and Poles to the grave of Pilsudski's heart, a brawl was expected; it did not take place, and many people were arrested without any formal reason. Much more were subjected to brainwashing (I was among the latter), but brainwashing proved itself completely unsuccessful, since even the Komsomol was a bit unreliable. Almost everybody belonged to Komsomol: thus the percent of rebels in Komsomol was quite high. I remember meetings where Stalinists fell flat and surprising proposals were adopted by voting: for example, the proposal for helping the Lithuanian deportees and of organizing Lithuanian schools in Siberia. The old Vilnius' habit of forming secret patriotic circles also proved itself ineradicable: perhaps some of these circles remained undiscovered. Years later those early attempts inside the University and outside it crystallized into the Lithuanian underground press and human rights movement.

Science experienced a kind of rebirth as well. One cannot completely abolish rules of normal thinking in certain fields: therefore Vilnius' mathematicians and probably some physicians and physicists in time reached the level of world standards anew. Philology is a more dangerous discipline. Therefore new professors of philology were mainly intimidated high-school teachers or young and trustworthy informers. Nevertheless I took courses given by some genuine literary scholars. I will not mention their names, since they have experienced many troubles already. They were held back by the insane library system, by the isolation from modern trends, by the sad necessity of playing cat-and-mouse with censors and by understanding that, in Kavafis' words, "the Medes will finally come through". Tartu University was much more successful in the field of literary studies, but Vilnius' linguists created their own genuine school. Linguistics resembles mathematics, but not a single Vilnius' mathematician has perished in mysterious circumstances and the best-known linguist Jonas Kazlauskas has perished; thus the resemblance most likely is superficial. There is also the school of Baltic archaeology and ethnography, although the course of Baltic mythology, as is commonly known, is taught only at UCLA.

In all this discordant chorus I can discern a theme which has personal significance to me. With several friends (pupils of the literary scholars discussed above) I decided to publish a literary anthology: not a samizdat anthology (the very concept of samizdat was unknown at that time), but a "normal" and censored anthology printed in the state printing-house. Perhaps one could feel an influence of Kazys Boruta in our poems (Boruta, a leftist Lithuanian poet, had come back from the hard labour camp not so long ago); there was also an influence of Pasternak whom everybody of us respected and some even read. The critical section was dedicated to the émigré writer Vincas Krëvë. Generally, it was a rather risky undertaking. We even maintained some contacts with Alexander Ginzburg who at that time did similar things in Moscow. Our ruin most likely was caused by the title "Kűryba" (Creation). It coincided with the title of a literary periodical published under German occupation. (By the way, that periodical '' was rather anti-Nazi and printed, for example, Oscar Milosz who was half-Jew). Although the coincidence was purely accidental, an investigation and pogrom followed immediately. As a matter of fact, the authorities were interested first of all in our teachers: now they could expel them from the University on formal grounds. I will never forget a kind of court in the University's Hall of Columns, the caddish speech of a Party boss and subsidiary speeches of obvious and semi-obvious informers. I will never forget the unexpected steadfastness of many defendants as well. Our teachers and some students were expelled. The editor of the anthology obtained his degree twenty years later, after the publication of a hundred valuable historical works. But we understood for the first time in our lives that our judges were frightened much more than we were ourselves.

Many years have passed, and I still remember my University as a place where thought is ineradicable. Perhaps this is a definition of a good university. Now the University has doubled its size, its lecture-rooms and courtyards are overcrowded. Some supposedly unofficial festivals, an "underground" theatre and other harmless entertainments are permitted. The totalitarian educational machine is expected to generate — and often generates — narrow-minded specialists, faceless "optimists" and provincial snobs. The genuine ' historian, philosopher or literary scholar is considered a disaster; nevertheless such disasters happen and will continue to happen. My schoolmates are working at high-schools, in the publishing houses, in the Academy of Sciences, some of them are in the Central Committee, some in prison, some in New York. Now I am separated from my University by two continents and one ocean (looking eastward or westward, it makes no difference). I know well that its students despite everything resemble my friends of  1956 very much. There are more of them now, that's all.