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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Your Bill, Sir

Vilnius yo...

It was a pretty quiet weekend, except for my daughter, whose social calendar was taken up with a play date on Saturday afternoon and a classmate's birthday party on Sunday afternoon. If that wasn't enough, her class spent the first two nights of the ensuing school week at a recreational park outside of Vilnius, to be followed by a school picnic in the middle of the week as the term winds down on Friday. My wife and I haven't done much in comparison, with the occasional trip to a shopping mall and my daily walks (the weather didn't help - the intermittent rainfall put paid to my plans to go for a bike ride during the weekend). I wouldn't even be posting except for something I came across late last week while out for an evening stroll, a find which became relevant in light of the recent claim by the Russian ambassador to Lithuania that his country is owed $72 billion by the Lithuanians for Soviet-era investments.

As I passed by the headquarters for Lithuanian National Radio and Television on S. Konarskio gatvė, I noticed an obelisk with a small bell at the top standing out front:

There was also an explanatory sign in Lithuanian and English:

The words refer to what is known as the January Events of 1991, when the government of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to restore the USSR constitution in Lithuania after the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic had adopted the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania in March 1990. A crippling economic blockade was followed starting on January 11, 1991 by the seizure of key government facilities by Soviet troops, including the capture of the building pictured above in the early hours of the 13th. Fourteen people were shot dead or crushed by tanks attempting to prevent soldiers from seizing the TV tower, located about five kilometers away from the HQ building. A crowd that eventually grew to a size of 50,000 successfully prevented troops from entering the Seimas Palace, home to the Lithuanian Supreme Council.

In the end, of course, Gorbachev's moves ended in failure. Lithuanian independence would be recognized by the Soviet Union in September 1991, and the USSR itself would cease to exist by the end of the same year. The memorial in front of the radio and television building honors not only those killed defending the TV tower, but seven customs officers executed by Soviet special police units in July 1991 in what is known as the Medininkai Incident:

The events of January 1991 were defining moments in the reestablishment of Lithuanian statehood, and they're solemnly commemorated every year. I've come across memorials at the TV tower and the Seimas parliament building, and have visited the graves of the victims at Antakalnis Cemetery. Gorbachev may be remembered in most of the Western world as the man who ended the Cold War and freed Eastern Europe (even if the end results weren't his original intentions), but his legacy in Lithuania is somewhat less respected. Any understanding of modern Lithuania must take into account of what took place on the 13th of January, 1991 in what the Lithuanians refer to as "bloody Sunday".

As for that $72 billion claim? Understandable, actually. Occupying and annexing a sovereign state, and following that up with executions and forced deportations of the populace, doesn't come cheap.

Oh, and in other news I became another year older on Wednesday. Shu-E and Amber tried to find a Lithuanian national soccer team jersey for me as a present, but couldn't track down one (national basketball team gear, on the other, is easy to locate, an indication of which sport is more popular here). So instead my wife bought an FK Žalgiris jersey, the local favorites as well as the most successful club in the top flight A lyga:

And that's all for now. Barring any unforeseen events, the three of us will be in the United Kingdom until the end of this month, so expect to see a few pics from that trip on these pages early in July.

Until then, I leave you with a few random photos taken on my walks around town:

 The Vilnius District Prosecutor's Office, looking like it's covered in Band-Aids

 On the Neris river

The Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, a Soviet-era legacy opened in 1971 and mercifully left unused since 2004

 A heavily filtered photo of a shuttered house on Vytauto gatvė

A doner kebab burger and a cup of joe for only €3.50

A late evening view of Old Town from Bastion Hill

Sunday, June 4, 2017

What is art but a way of seeing?*

In fat (1998), Eglė Rakauskaitė. This video installation was one of the creepier works Amber and I saw this afternoon at the National Art Gallery. From a distance it looked like a real person lying inside a tank of filthy water

Before my daughter was born, I told myself that I wasn't going to be one of those parents who tried force art and culture onto their offspring. Well, that didn't last long. I regularly take Amber to art museums, and she's developed an interest in the more traditional forms of expression, though religious depictions of saints getting tortured still bothers her. She's more sceptical of modern art, but is at least willing to give it a try. And so on a glorious (though a little chilly) Saturday afternoon we drove across the Neris to the National Art Gallery, home to a collection of Lithuanian art from the early twentieth century onwards. The building is a modernist minimalist structure from the late 1960's - this kind of architecture was apparently tolerated by Soviet authorities at least in the Baltics:

The view from the front of the museum, looking across the river:

The First Swallows by J. Mikėnas, a typical Soviet statue now in the process of being overshadowed by the forces of decadent capitalism:

Amber listens to a rant by an angry Italian feminist. A blistering criticism of dogma expressed in dogmatic terms by a dogmatist:

My daughter after discovering the crucifix on the wall to her right was made out of chocolate:

WARNING: What follows is more photos of modern Lithuanian art than I should've taken. Feel free to scroll past these in order to continue reading what happened during the rest of the weekend:

 View of Kaunas from Žaliakalnis Hill (1933),Vladas Eidukevičius

 Portrait of the Girl with a Box (1927), Liudomiras Slendzinkas 

 Woman with Fruit (1940-1), Juozas Mikėnas 

Kolkhoz Founding Meeting (1950), Vincas Dilka. Rendered in dramatic Socialist Realism style.

 Tractor Drivers (1965), Sofija Veiverytė

The Tragedy of Pirčiupis (1959), Augustinas Savickas. One of my favorites, depicting the aftermath of an atrocity committed by the Germans against the inhabitants of a Lithuanian farm village in 1944. The statue on the right is that of a partisan.

 7½ Self-portraits (1972), Vincas Kisarauskas

Bridge (1965), Jonas Švažas. Another one of my favorites from the museum's permanent collection.

Demonstration of the Unemployed (1965), Vincentas Gečas. Is this a depiction of something that actually occurred behind the Iron Curtain?

 Scenes from Everyday Life (1950), Viktoras Petravičius

At the Post Office II (1975), Arvydas Šaltenis. Amber remarked that it didn't look like a post office to her.

 Bay II (1988), Šarūnas Sauka

 Pioneer Girl (1991), Valentinas Antanavičius

 Self-portrait with a Pumpkin (1977), Algimantas Švėgžda

 Checking out White Composition (1978), Kazė Zimblytė

 Teacher (2005), Jonas Gasiūnas. One of my daughter's favorites. 

 The Past (1902-3), Ferdinandas Ruščicas

Modern Madonna (1928), Juozas Zikaras, an artist known for his take on the Coat of Arms of Lithuania.

 Still Life with Crockery (circa 1930), Adomas Galdikas

 Cubist Composition. Sitting Woman (1930), Vytautas Kairiūkštis. Obviously. 

Paris (1930's), Neemija Arbitblatas

In the basement was an exhibit on pre-1940 Lithuanian female artists:

The museum has several floors-within-floors linked by short staircases, but fortunately self-operated lifts are in place which aided Amber greatly in getting around. Still, when we were finished seeing everything, she welcomed the chance to relax outside in the sunshine in the museum's cafe, drinking a Fanta and taking in the view, while trying to balance a one-cent coin on her chair's armrest:

We returned home after five, and went out again an hour later together with my art-averse spouse, as we had a reservation at an international restaurant on Stiklių gatvė in Old Town called Bistro 18. Dinner began with a sampler of three different soups, then followed by a main course of red curry, and washed down with a couple of local beers (draft, of course). My daughter and I both ended our meals with some scandalously good chocolate fondant:

Sunday was Father's Day in Lithuania. We didn't do anything paternally-related, but we did take Doering, my soon-to-be-departing supervisor at work, out to see the geographical center of Europe. Amber, Shu-E and I had visited the position at latitude 54° 54', longitude 25° 19' in mid-February, when the site was covered in snow. This time the ground was clear, and we were all given certificates to prove that we had been there. Unlike our previous visit, large mosquitoes were out in force this time:

A selfie with a typical Lithuanian cross:

We returned to Vilnius and had dinner together at Manami, an Asian restaurant located on the top floor of the Panorama shopping mall. Despite the cool evening air, we sat outside on the terrace, enjoying our meals and taking in the view:

The American Father's Day will be in two weeks' time, where if all goes to plan we'll be observing the occasion somewhere in London. I'll close this post with some random images taken this past week during my daily walks:

 An abandoned building in a neighborhood south of the main train station

These little angel figures can be seen at various random locations around central Vilnius. You can read about them here and here

*Saul Bellow