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

A History of the University of Vilnius

In the course of preparations for the 400th anniversary of the University of Vilnius, a major project was launched in Lithuania. Approximately ten years ago a special editorial board was created with the express purpose of publishing the history of the university. At the head of this editorial board was the rector of the university, Jonas Kubilius himself. The project was carried out by a group of historians and other scholars. The first volume appeared in 1976 (Vilnius, ,,Mokslas", 1976, 318 pp.). It presents a survey of the history of the university from its foundation in 1579 till 1803. The history of the university and the subsequent fate of the higher educational establishments in Lithuania till 1940 is examined in the second volume (Vilnius, ,,Mokslas", 1977, 342 pp.). During the occupation of Vilnius region by Poland the University of Vilnius was separated, as it were, into two academic bodies: the Polish university in Vilnius and the Lithuanian university in Kaunas (founded in 1922). In 1940, when Vilnius and the adjoining area were returned to Lithuania, those two bodies merged into a single university again. The history of the university from 1940 until the present time is described in the third volume (Vilnius, ,,Mokslas", 1979, 432 pp.). This volume is illustrated by portraits of all outstanding professors of recent times, by group photos and by photographs of the university's halls and dormitories. All three volumes are provided with indexes and detailed contents in Russian, English, and German.

One can see from the broad historiographical survey and from numerous footnotes that the authors and editors have utilized almost all published sources and literature, as well as many still unpublished sources about the university. Quite a few formerly unknown facts are presented.

The description of the Jesuit period of the university (1579-1773) is based, among other sources, on the documents of Jesuit archives in Rome whose copies were provided by B. Natoński, a professor of the Cracow University.

The chairman of the editorial board, Prof. Jonas Kubilius, a well-known mathematician and rector of the university from 1958, states quite frankly in his introduction that the present history differs in many respects from the histories formerly written by Lithuanian and foreign scholars. It is ,,based on Marxist-Leninist methodology". The meaning of this statement is elucidated by the following remarks of J. Kubilius: the book will contribute "to the communist education of the students of our republic" and "will remind all the new generations of students of the difficult and sometimes tragic past of our Alma Mater, teaching them to appreciate in the most obvious and sincere manner the victories of our people under the guidance of the Communist Party." (v. I, p. 5)

Those statements explain to us the fact that the comparatively short Soviet period of the university's history (1940-1979) gets much more space and attention than the previous ages. Undoubtedly, the university in this period has developed since the faculty and student body have increased and quite a number of new disciplines have been added to the schedule. One cannot evaluate the quality of the university in various periods so easily. Beyond any doubt the period of 1803-1832 excels any other period in fame. Then the University of Vilnius was considered the best in the Russian Empire and was compared to Oxford and Goettingen. It seems that for some reason the authors of the book were not inclined to publicize that period. The most recent thesis on it, written by French scholar Daniel Beauvois, escaped their notice.

The ethnic composition of the university in the Soviet period undoubtedly is more favorable to Lithuanians than before. The interesting table on p. 88 of the third volume shows us the percentage of various ethnic groups in the university during 1945-1979. The percent of Lithuanians sank to its lowest level in 1951/52 (74.6%), but generally it is 80-85%. The percent of Russian students is relatively stable as well (7-8%). The percent of Jewish students diminishes dramatically (7% in early Soviet period and 1.2% in 1978/79). The percent of Poles is stable (3%).

Nevertheless, many of the scholarly works written by the university's professors and accurately registered by the authors of the monograph are published in Russian primarily in the field of exact sciences. Thus it seems that the Russian influence in the university now is stronger than at any time before. Although Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire in 1803-1832, the Russian influence was almost absent at that time. Most likely Czarist Russia (at least in the beginning of the XIX century) was more tolerant from the cultural point of view than Soviet Russia. The Polish university in Vilnius and the German university in Tartu (Dorpat) lead an almost unhindered existence for some time. The censorship of science and scholars was virtually absent as well. Although the authors describing that period always put the word liberalism into inverted commas, the liberalism of the early XIX century was undoubtedly a more real phenomenon than now. E.g., Adam Mickiewicz, a famous pupil of the university, who became a "dissident" and was exiled into Russia, was accepted quite heartily by Russian high society. Incidentally, one could doubt the statement of the authors: "Philomaths were rather close to Russian Decembrists in their views" (vol. II, p. 31). As is known, the Decembrists were groups of Russians of extremely various opinions (mainly military officers), who tried to change the political structure of the Russian Empire. Some of those groups were inimical to ethnic minorities and, most of all, anti-Polish: of course they had nothing in common with Philomaths.

Nevertheless, one has to recognize the serious and sometimes even pioneering contribution made by the authors of the monograph. One also has to notice their praiseworthy effort to prove that the university, in spite of its cosmopolitan spirit, was always organically connected with Lithuania and its problems. Unfortunately they did not utilize in this respect an interesting document published by Rev. Stanislaw Bednarski in his study on the genesis of the university (Księga Pamiątkowa Uniwersytetu Wilenskiego, t. I, Wilno, 1929, p. 3, footnote 3). An unknown historian tried to explain the foundation of the university and the role of Jesuits in Lithuania in 1609, when the thirtieth anniversary of the university was celebrated. In his Latin text this good Catholic (probably a Jesuit himself) considers the help of Divine Providence in those matters quite obvious. Nevertheless, he mentions two earthly causes as well. According to this author, although 232 years had passed after the Christianization of Lithuania (this is a mistake: 222 years had passed), the Lithuanians still had no knowledge of the most primary elements of faith (in rudimentis fidei). One of the causes was the absence of priests and monks speaking Lithuanian before the arrival of the Jesuits (and not only in the villages, but in the capital city of Vilnius as well, though there were 18 churches, the cathedral, and 4 monastic orders there). Naturally the people exclusively knew the rites of baptism, having no idea of Christ or the doctrines of the Church. The second and no less important cause was the severe lack of parishes themselves. Although Lithuania covered the area of 500 German square miles or more, it was divided just into two dioceses (of Vilnius and of Samogitia) and into 300 parishes. One could not express astonishment in such a situation seeing the people who still worshipped snakes and similar creatures and sacrificed bulls, pigs, sheep, and hens to them.

Most likely the author exaggerated a bit in this picture of Lithuania before the arrival of the Jesuits and the foundation of the Academy of Vilnius. In any case he clearly understood the Jesuits' task. Unfortunately, the Jesuits themselves more often than not were lacking such an understanding. The authors of the book make every possible effort to show the interest of the academy in the Lithuanian language. Nevertheless, this language occupied only a minor place in the academy and later. The Polish university before 1939 did virtually nothing for its propagation. Only in 1940 did the University of Vilnius, following in the steps of the University of Kaunas, offer the Lithuanian language the place which it rightly deserved. Undoubtedly the university will do even more to its promoting now, since this is the main task of the nation's leading school. This task was already foreseen by the historian whom we have just quoted.

In a short review one cannot cover a wide range of questions concerning the history of the university. E.g., in the book the reader will find much interesting and authentic material on the teaching of various scholarly disciplines in Vilnius and on their level as compared to other European universities. On p. 148 (vol. 1) there is a table presenting the number of students in 1675-1772. However strange it may seem, this number remained pretty stable for a hundred years. This fact proves the conservatism of the Lithuanian society of those times and the lack of concern for scholarship. On the contrary, the number of students in 1803-1832 grew rapidly (from 300 to 1300, see vol. II, p. 26). The years 1939-1979 have witnessed even more rapid growth.

All such information is based generally on reliable primary sources. Nevertheless, one finds some factual errors in the book. E.g. on p. 238 (vol. 1) there is a statement: in 1797 Russian governor Repnin formed the educational commission in Lithuania and appointed the Bishop of Vilnius Juozapas Kasakauskas (Józef Kossakowski) its chairman. Of course this is impossible since the unfortunate bishop was hanged in Warsaw in 1794. Repnin appointed Jonas Kasakauskas (Jan Kossakowski), who at that time was still Bishop of Livonia (he became Bishop of Vilnius in 1798).Finally, we would like to touch upon a problem encountered by many editors, authors, and publishers in Lithuania. The identification of a person only by a first initial is incomplete even there. In any case, the identification by full first name and, if possible, by date of birth and/or death is to be hoped for in the indexes. One deplores the lack of it there. Incidentally, the editor-in-chief of volumes l-ll is V. Merkys. Is he a well-known historian Vytautas Merkys or a lesser known, but mentioned several times mathematician, V. Merkys, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics from 1974? One cannot even get any information concerning the full name of the latter. Sometimes even the full first name does not help, since we learn from the gallery of portraits in Vol. Ill that there are two Professors Vincas Lapinskas in Vilnius.

The problem of proper identification remains unsolved not only in the reviewed monograph but in most books and journals in Lithuania, as well as in Lithuanian publications abroad. One needs to utilize the American experience here.

Vincas Trumpa