ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.1 - Spring 2011
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Book Review

At Sea in Vilnius

Laimonas Briedis. Vilnius: City of Strangers. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2009, 296 pages, 76 illustrations. ISBN 978-9-63977-644-9.

Vilnius: City of Strangers, by Laimonas Briedis, purports to be more than just a book about Vilnius. It is also a book about Europe. Indeed, even as it can hardly be thought of as central to the contemporary European imaginary, save for its purely geographical centrality, Briedis finds that “the city gathers the history of Europe and streams it into uncharted channels. In this sense, Vilnius is more like a threshold than either a centre or periphery. … not a place, but a condition” (13). Reading travel narratives, letters, official accounts, and journalistic reports, Briedis crafts a narrative of how strangers have moved through Vilnius and, in reflecting about doing so, have narrated themselves and their continent. While spanning seven centuries, in Briedis’s assemblage of narratives about Vilnius, strangerscum- locals and natives-cum-strangers narrate the emergence of modernity, its constitutive others, and the unruly spaces in between.

Briedis’s book is beautifully written. Since he does not rely on over-theorized framings and uses authoritative references with caution, at times it reads more like a historical novel than a scientific work. Most of the heavyweight figures – Bakhtin, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, and Tolstoy among them – appear as narrators of Briedis’s object of inquiry, which through the course of the book variously emerges as Vilnius, Europe, or modernity. In sum, Briedis’s book is a compelling, conceptually rich, and open-ended work, stimulating new questions and departures rather than providing definitive answers or resolutions.

Born of the Lithuanian wilderness rather than opposed to it, Vilnius emerges in the fourteenth century as “autochthonous, pagan, and unconquered” (23). With its symbiotic relationship to nature and Lithuanianness, Vilnius stands in sharp contrast to the colonial character of Riga, Tallinn, and Königsberg, fortress towns founded to “advance and strengthen foreign hegemony over the conquered lands and indigenous peoples” (23). Written in an inspiring, if somewhat romantic vein, the first chapter of the book chronicles Gediminas’s premodern pagan commitment to religious tolerance and equality, and demonstrates the monarch of the Duchy of Lithuania’s ability to stand strong in the face of Roman Catholic claims of supremacy: “Why do you always talk about Christian love? Where do you find so much misery, injustice, violence, sin and greed, if not among the Christians? Especially among those crusaders, who put on the robes of pious monks but only spread evil everywhere” (27). Surely, many would like to imagine themselves in place of Gediminas, speaking truth to power.

Vilnius’s harmonious existence comes to an end with Catholicism and, subsequently, the Enlightenment moments by which Europe traditionally records her progress. The “cultural vastness and heterogeneity of Lithuania” remains hard for foreigners to grasp throughout the centuries. A Baroque city in every sense of the term, Vilnius never quite fits into neoclassical Enlightenment categories. Its multiple and therefore ambiguous political and national identities as Vilnius, Vilna, Vilno, Wilna, and Wilno, unsettle and confound many travelers well into the twentieth century. The city lacks a coherent national and state identity until the simultaneous Sovietization and Lithuanization of Vilnius following World War II.

For eighteenth century travelers passing through on their way elsewhere, Enlightenment is everywhere, except in Wilna or in its immediate surroundings. It is here that the story of Wilna becomes a story of the problem posed to Europe by its Eastern European half. Envoy extraordinaire of Louis XVI to the Russian imperial court in St. Petersburg, Count Ségur’s travel narrative is especially telling in this regard. Upon entering Poland on his way to St. Petersburg, Ségur feels as if he has “left Europe entirely, and the gaze is struck by a new spectacle: an immense country almost totally covered with fir trees always green, but always sad, interrupted in long intervals by some cultivated plains, like islands scattered on the ocean; a poor population, enslaved; dirty villages; cottages little different from savage huts; everything makes one think one has been moved back ten centuries, and one finds oneself amid hordes of Huns, Scythians, Veneti, Slavs, and Sarmatians” (68). For Ségur, Prussia’s eastern borderlands escape what Jacques Derrida (1968) calls the Western metaphysics of presence. They are neither fully present nor fully absent. They are incomprehensible, a puzzle, a contradiction, a space in Europe, but not quite of Europe. As Larry Wolff has put it, “in spite of his overland intentions, Ségur was at sea” (1994:19).

Following the defeat of Napoleon’s multinational army in and around Vilna, Vilna becomes imperial Russia’s frontier to Western Europe, yet is “plagued by disarray and an unruly spirit” (126). During the course of the nineteenth century, Lithuania acquires the highest Jewish population concentration in Europe. Jews enjoy communal autonomy and a rich cultural life, though Russian imperial rule tries to limit both from time to time. While imperial, Russian rule is also intimate since, “cultural and religious links between Vilna and Byzantium had been in existence since the historical beginnings of the city. Many wives of pagan and Catholic Lithuanian grand dukes, for instance, came from Russian princely families” (132).

This peculiar kind of intimacy marks other historical moments as well. European nobility intermarries, and the various travelers that come through Vilnius and occasionally settle there are plugged into broader European networks of nobles, intellectuals, and administrators. The translocal connections between people and places – rather than any positive content – are what ultimately constitute the identity of Vilnius in Briedis’s book. The local residents of the city emerge as strange, sometimes savage nonentities that serve as objects of observation and reflection for the enlightened mind (144). While the resulting image of Vilnius as a strange, foreign, and exotic locale is a function of Briedis’s well-substantiated conceptual and methodological choices (15), a demanding reader might nevertheless wonder if Briedis’s book is not itself another form of travel narrative, and might find the reliance on foreign narratives to be an easy way out of what might have otherwise amounted to overwhelming and arduous labor in local archives. Most, if not all, of Briedis’s narrative is based on secondary published sources. He reads them well and crafts a compelling story, though the question of what new insights the book provides with regard to Western European narratives about Eastern Europe does come up (Wolff 1994, Todorova 1997).

How might an in-depth engagement with local narratives enrich and complicate this story? Briedis’s treatment of the twentieth century brings the direction and relevance of the book’s intervention into sharper focus. The end of World War I brings the expansion of the modern nation-state in Europe. Nationhood demands ordering the heterogeneous past and present in national and political categories, which, for the most part, remain strange to the residents of Vilnius. For modern travelers, in turn, Vilnius is hard to grasp precisely due to its unresolved political and national identity (210). The nation in Vilnius remains a new phenomenon. Yet, the material and symbolic violence that nationhood imposed on Vilnius’s heterogeneous terrain during the course of the twentieth century is not only the doing of the Soviet or the Lithuanian states in particular, but also a function of the nation-state form in general. This emerges as one of the book’s most salient contributions – namely, an invitation to critically consider not only particular states, but also their place in European modernity as a whole.

In one of his most interesting and intellectually satisfying moves, Briedis inverts the relationship of his protagonists in the second half of the book. While most of Vilnius’s former Jewish residents perished during the Second World War or came to reside elsewhere, they still felt a part of the city. Its new residents, mostly Lithuanians and Russians, knew little about the city’s recent past: “In a way, the line separating indigenous from foreign was inverted: a native became a stranger – a newcomer turned into a local” (229).

The conclusion of the book is not only interesting, but also well grounded. Briedis finds that the dead in Vilnius constitute “sites of anti-memory, challenging every version of local history. Unable to fit within the memorial perimeters of Vilnius’s soil, the local dead reach for the map of Europe” (245). Year 2001 brings the discovery of human remains of the Grande Armée, which perished in Vilna in 1812. Although the French assumed administrative responsibility for the military relics, it was difficult to claim them as part of French national heritage, since the vast majority of soldiers were not of French origin (246). After detailed scientific analysis, the remains of the soldiers of the Grande Armée were buried “in the most ideologically and nationally diverse cemetery in Vilnius.

Appropriately, this large cemetery, known as the Soldiers’ Cemetery, contains the remains of soldiers of many wars and nationalities. But alongside German, Russian, Polish, Soviet, and now Napoleonic, troops, there are also graves of Lithuanian Communist Party officials, local cultural and academic elites, and the victims of the Soviet army attack on Vilnius in 1991” (248). Evidently, the unspoken centrality of the Unknown Soldier to the national imaginary described by Benedict Anderson in the opening pages of Imagined Communities (2000) runs into problems in Vilnius. Anderson argues that “many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentineans?” (2000:10) The Unknown Soldier in Vilnius has no self-evident nationality, for the multiplicity of soldiers lying beneath the earth exceed and elude national narratives and political identifications. It is precisely through contemporary attempts to recruit the dead of Vilnius in ongoing geopolitical dramas that we see how nations continue to be made and unmade. Reading about how some of the dead have been ideologically accredited in the post-Soviet European present, while others remain discredited, raises the question of whether state-based multiculturalism offers any solution at all to the challenge of reconciling a heterogeneous past with a national present (245). These are European questions. But at sea in Europe’s “City of Strangers,” they appear in sharper relief and acquire special urgency.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso Press, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Dace Dzenovska, Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley