The Ecstatic Kaunas Spreads its Contradictions

Temporary Capital, as a manner of thinking, is a source of historical pride as well as of vanity, and a possibility of cultural expansion and a place of anxious silence. The difference lies in the thoughtfulness of the look: the same way as in music – one can hear a play of sounds or boast of famous names. National boasting is often a vanity that is seducing, although, gives nothing. However, if not empty, pride can be a source of dignity, attentiveness, and creativity. Self-deception comes to life when vanity is considered to be the essence – for example, the title of Temporary Capital today – when the name is multiplied without the basis of long-standing international activity and a centrifugal network of movements. City galleries, theaters, universities, communities, movements of artists and political activists – all who are willing and able to participate in public life – create the networks. Therefore, the purpose of my essay is a reflection on the contradictions and peripheries that in the case of centrifugation and city ecstatic would gain a proper sounding and acknowledgment.

The fear of the opposites and competition, the desire to hide different stories and people, who do not quite suit centripetal national, religious, or political visions, produce superficiality, impersonation, shames, and traumas. Kaunas, filled with the unifying memory of Temporary Capital, and pride about its struggle against the Soviets, often marginalizes the otherness that was so apparent until 1941. From the sixteenth century, Kaunas has been a city of Polish speaking Lithuanians (Litvin). Later, and especially after the partition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it became a Jewish-Polish-Russian city of the Russian Empire and a fortress. In the interwar Lithuania, it was a distinct Lithuanian-Polish-Jewish center. Of course, the multi-ethnic character is neither an obligation nor an ideological core. The history determined that Kaunas became a Lithuanian city only during and after the World War II. And the ecstatic of the city starts with the overcoming of its present, centripetal state. To overcome the present state means to open up, comprehend, and change the tragic genealogy of the city, at the same time creating and opening ourselves. However, today these layers of differing nationality, multiculturalism, the various political, different lifestyles, and beliefs are divided into the shiny accent and decaying margins. Cultural margins and cellars of the cities are a metaphor of urban subconscious. Similarly to the health of the human psyche, the cultural status of town dwellers depends on the relationship with the concealed or opened unconsciousness, with the necessity to open up and inculture the available cellars.

For example, Kaunas has a great Imperial Russian heritage: forts, churches, gymnasiums, barracks… At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the city was developed as the Russian Empire great fortress and consisted of nine major forts, and four additional ones that were under construction, though they were never finished. The forts are an unquestionable heritage of the Kaunas city, and together with surviving barracks from the period, Saulės (Sun) Gymnasium, and Įgulos (Garrison) Church (Šv. Arkangelo Mykolo – St. Michael the Archangel’s Church – today), they are a part of the marginal and gradually opening unconsciousness. Most of the forts today are abandoned basements and represent Kaunas unconsciousness. This historical heritage remains on the city margins because it is visibly anti-Lithuanian and anti-state. But on the other hand, it is an important historical memory. One can compare it to a trauma – a desire to drive it to the subconscious is always present, but such act would only lead to self-deception and seclusion. Therefore, it is necessary to talk about the policy of openness and transformation, inculturation , and decentering. Kaunas fortress is an impressive complex, but it is impossible to open it in previous imperial, military form. However, it can be restored as a hint, a reference or alter it for new activities. The reconstruction of Imperial barracks in one of the Kaunas areas, Žemutiniai Šančiai, into an attractive residential complex is a great example of change, reconciliation, and overcoming of trauma. Historical references are preserved without offerings to the ghosts of the Eastern Empire while helping to centrifuge the city and its postwar narcissism.

The ways to overcome the vanity of self-deception, that is fueled by the fear of own margins, lie in the research, exposure of contradictions, assistance in the creation of networks of differences, and the trajectories of alternative movement and thinking. For example, the city is alive, when the population investigates, opens, and critically, creatively reflects historical and current events, even if they are contrary to the views of many contemporary townspeople. From the objections of the past and present, from memory struggles, from alternative plans for the future a live conversation on values arises: artistic, social, religious, and lively activity. The spirit of the city is active with this debate that opens the depth, forms critical thinking, and international recognition. Before the World War I, during the entire nineteenth century, Kaunas was mainly the city of Poles, Russians, Jews. Its heritage often remains impenetrable, inaudible, unconscious. However, it was the era that gave the world one of the most famous world leaders of anarchist and feminist movements, Emma Goldman, who grew up in this city and whose works are studied at the major universities of the world. The Jews of the interwar Kaunas also gave the world political and philosophy leaders, the memories of whom rather than their removal from the field of Lithuanianness, open up the prospects of co-operation. The naming of one of the Kaunas squares after a philosopher of global significance Emmanuel Levinas, who once lived here, can be considered to be a fine example of remembrance. Kaunas, as Jewish autonomy and later a Ghetto became the biggest trauma of the city during the World War II and the Holocaust. This history was pushed away into the deepest cellars of the subconscious that have been opened for the first time relatively recently. A clear sign of this reconciliation is the beginning – though slow – of the reconstruction of Radvilėnai Jewish cemetery in Žaliakalnis that witnessed many centuries. Meanwhile, Vilijampolė Jewish ghetto was almost forgotten and testimonies about it cause permanent tension among the population and for local gymnasiums as well… This ghetto contained Jewish children too. Some of them escaped, among them were Aleksandras Štromas, who later became a notable dissident and political scientist, and Irena Veisaitė, who later became a famous literary scientist and theatrologist.

Russian and, especially, Polish Kaunas are remembered even less. Though many celebrities from the former Russian Empire were invited to work in interwar Vytautas Magnus University: professors Vasily Seseman, Lev Karsavin… Russian celebrities of theater and ballet came to live in Kaunas too: Mstislav and Vsevolod Dobuzhinsky, Olga Dubeneckienė and others. And the history of Polish Kaunas dates back centuries, but this memory is almost gone, except mentioning that a famous Lithuanian-Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz worked as a teacher in Kaunas. However, religious, class, political margins exist alongside national ones. Those margins offer even more possibilities for centrifugation and ecstatic, evaluation of equal parallels.

Contradictions and marginal themes cannot and do not have to accumulate into a single major narrative. Therefore, it is highly important to create a centrifugal, though networking city – with networks of different memory, various trajectories of movement, and memorials. And, if to remember the traditional ideology of unity and solidarity, to which Kaunas was the source in Lithuania, and which rests on the idea of Temporary Capital, it is not easy to implement this. Therefore, it is important to support communities of difference that are afraid of neither contradictions nor decentration. The ecstatic means leaving one’s place, the current status. The ecstatic Kaunas would open networks of variety and help the policy of decentration. Centrifugal social and cultural events can include not only various national, class, and religious communities, but also city areas that are different from the urban point of view: Žaliakalnis, Šančiai, Kalniečiai, Dainava, Eiguliai, Freda… And Kaunas region centers, that are rapidly growing as well: Garliava, Vilkija, Ežerėlis, and towns: Karmėlava, Raudondvaris, Rimgaudai, Kačerginė, Zapiškis, Babtai, Kulautuva… With their memories of the noblemen, Jews, Nationalists and other. The ecstatic Kaunas – as Nemunas spilled out of its banks – revives an enormous field of culture, economy, science. As European Capital of Culture, the ecstatic Kaunas undoubtedly has to be open to contradictions and unlock its peripheries to the world.

Gintautas Mažeikis is a Lithuanian philosopher, theoretician of culture, anthropologist, professor of philosophy. Prof. Head of Department of Social and Political Theory at Vytautas Magnus University, author of numerous books. He was one of the first to develop the critique and studies of cultural and creative industries in Lithuania. G. Mažeikis is a visiting professor in many Lithuanian universities and universities worldwide.