Row over royal palace divides elite

  • 2001-10-25
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - In October 2000, in a rush of patriotic fervor, the outgoing Parliament dominated by Conservatives and Christian Democrats hastily passed a law demanding that the great palace of the Lithuanian grand dukes in Vilnius be rebuilt with state budget money by 2009. A year later, three center-right opposition MPs have proposed that the law be abolished.

The idea, from Centrist MP Virginijus Martisauskas, Modern Christian Democrat MP Algis Kaseta and Liberal MP Eligijus Masiulis, was supported by signatures from 45 other MPs of opposition factions. But Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas and his ruling Social Democrat Party are adamant that the palace be rebuilt.

"We can't rebuild the palace," commented Liberal MP Jurate Juozaitiene. "There is not enough historical information about what it looked like. We can only build a Hollywood-style palace. It is pseudo-patriotic and populist of the government to continue the project."

She warned it would cost 120 million litas ($30 million) to 200 million litas to complete, adding that this must not come from taxpayers' pockets.

Brazauskas is an enthusiastic fan of restoring the palace to its former grandeur, and remarked on Oct. 17 that "the law exists" and must be followed through. Two weeks ago, the government announced it was putting 7 million litas toward the task.

Ironically, Brazauskas' adviser on culture is Catholic philosopher Arvydas Juozaitis, Juozaitiene's husband.

On the back of the law a year ago, a group of historians, poets and other cultural figures set up a foundation for the rebuilding of the palace, which lies immediately behind Vilnius Cathedral. They say that it should be rebuilt as a symbol of Lithuanian statehood and exist as a link between modern Lithuania and the grand duchy of the Middle Ages.

Members of the foundation, which is also collecting private money for the reconstruction project, point to paintings from the 16th-18th centuries that provide enough details about what the palace looked like.

But not all of Lithuania's cultural elite support the idea.

"I'm against rebuilding the palace. It would not be authentic. I think a Louvre-style glass pyramid over the ruins could be the best solution. It's better to spend money on schools. We also have churches built in the 15th and 16th centuries whose roofs are not repaired," Arturas Dubonis of the History Institute told The Baltic Times.

Restoration of the royal palace is supported by the Lithuanian World Community, which claims to represent 1 million Lithuanians in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. Singers have held concerts in the ruins to raise funds. Folk singer Veronika Povilioniene and saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas played earlier this month.

Passions over what to do with the site are reaching boiling point. President Valdas Adamkus told the daily Lietuvos Rytas recently that he has changed his mind and no longer supports the idea of rebuilding the palace. He said it would not be the authentic palace of the grand dukes.

But the Social Democrats are not surrendering. On Oct. 20, the party once again affirmed that the project would go ahead as planned.

Some commentators say that the criticism of the right is pure left-wing populism, and shows a lack of ideas. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the newspaper Pravda criticized Vilnius with the same rhetoric for its courageous decision to rebuild Trakai Castle in the 1960s. Trakai is now one of the region's most attractive landmarks.

On Oct. 22, cultural personalities supporting the reconstruction held a press conference by the royal palace ruins. "Most European capitals have palaces. The royal palace in Vilnius could become our main attraction," Edvardas Gudavicius, a Vilnius University history professor, said.

"Cathedral Square without the royal palace looks like a man dressed in suit that lacks one sleeve," commented architect Jonas Glemza.