Observing the changing landscape of monuments in Vilnius

  • 2011-06-08
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

THE REMOVED MADAM: Monument of Catherine II in the Cathedral Square in Vilnius in 1904.

VILNIUS - Lithuania’s landscape of statues has changed dramatically since the late 1980s, when many monuments were swept away by the peaceful anti-Soviet revolution: the statues of Soviet leaders were removed from town squares, and now they are exposed in Grutas Park near the spa resort of Druskininkai. The patriotic monuments of the 1920s-1930s were resurrected and new ones appeared throughout Lithuania.

Now Vilnius even has giant monuments to a cat (built near the house of late writer Jurga Ivanauskaite, who loved cats) and to an egg. They are quite artsy, not kitschy in the style of statues of a sheep or banana as in Australia. Vilnius’ landscape of statues lacks such extravaganza as a monument to honor a prostitute, which was unveiled in 2007 with the participation of sex worker trade unions in Amsterdam’s Old Town (such a statue could have stood on Totoriu Street, which a century ago used to be Vilnius’ Red Light District, though now certain Christians and Swedish-style hardcore feminists would make nasty noises against this idea).

Anyway, Vilnius has its monument to Frank Zappa, famous rock musician and teaser of religious and feminist bigots who dare to fight against the laws of mother nature. The latter monument was allowed to be built in the early 1990s, because the bohemian folks, who promoted the idea of construction of a statue of Zappa, suggested, for fun, that Zappa had the roots of Lithuanian Jews (actually, he was a Baltimore Italian) and the Vilnius municipality did not want to be accused of anti-Semitism. Interestingly, the statue of Zappa was designed by a local sculptor who used to create statues of communist leaders. Now the National Art Gallery, which is a branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum, presents photos and videos of Soviet-era monuments of communist leaders as well as statues which stood in Vilnius during the occupations by czarist Russia and Poland.

The exhibition is titled “A Walk around Vilnius. Monuments that are not.” It is kind of a virtual walk, from Gedimino Avenue via Cathedral Square to the Vilnius Railway Station. The most famous of those monuments is the statue of Lenin. It was built in 1952. Lenin’s hand was invitingly pointing towards the KGB headquarters, which stood in front of the statue. The dismantling of this statue on Aug. 22, 1991, became the most worldwide known icon of the fall of Soviet Communism due to photos in international media and footage on CNN. The exhibition’s visitors can watch the video of communist rituals which were held during the Soviet state holidays: communist nomenclature, pioneers (Soviet scouts) and young people dressed in Lithuanian national clothes laying flowers at the feet of Lenin. The identical ritual can be watched at the feet of Kapsukas, Russia’s communist puppet, who was supposed to become Lithuania’s master if the Red Army would succeed in occupying Lithuania in 1918. The statue of Kapsukas stood in front of the Vilnius Old Town Hall.

The exhibition presents photos of construction work for the erection of the statue of Russian Governor General Mikhail Muravyov, who suppressed Lithuania’s anti-Russian uprising of 1863. After the uprising, Muravyov imposed a ban on publishing Lithuanian-language books in Latin letters (he tried to promote publishing them in Russian letters but such books were boycotted). The statue stood in front of the building which is now the Lithuanian President’s Palace. The Lithuanians were not happy with that statue. One night, they put the grease of a bear all over the statue and all of Vilnius’ dogs ran there, barking at Muravyov’s monument. A similar story happened during the Soviet occupation: once in the night, somebody threw a big quantity of valerian liquid on the statue of Lenin and crowds of cats jumped on Lenin’s monument to lick that valerian – it resulted in a noisy wild drunken party of cats there.

The exhibition also presents the monument to Catherine II, which was designed by Mark Antokolski and erected in Cathedral Square in 1903. This Prussia-born empress of Russia, who reigned from 1762-1796, is known by historians due to her sex life, in the style of German porn (many men tried to make their political careers via her bed), and due to her role as the liquidator of independence of Lithuania and Poland in 1795.

This exhibition in the modern gallery (it was reconstructed into such from the Soviet-era Revolution Museum) is ideologically neutral. Visitors can decide themselves if those presented sculptures are funny or horrible for them. Those sadistic or masochistic visitors who, watching the giant statue of Stalin, which stood in front of the Vilnius Railway Station, would have some tears of nostalgia, are also welcome. 

The National Art Gallery is situated on the Konstitucijos Avenue 22 (close to the Reval Hotel Lietuva). The exhibition is open until Aug. 28 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 12:00-19:00, on Thursdays from 13:00-20:00, on Sundays from 12:00-17:00. Closed on Mondays and state holidays (St. John’s Day/Midsummer Day on June 24 and the Coronation of King Mindaugas on July 6).