Lenin, the gallows and Lithuanian legends: The troubled history of Lukiškės Square

If Józef Piłsudski, the former chief of the Polish state were to rise from his grave today, the Rasos graveyard where he rests would be filled with joy. The Lithuanians had succeeded in achieving a dream that he was never able to achieve during the inter-war period: Lukiškių aikštė, once a symbol of slavery under the Russian tzars, had become a place dedicated to the fight for freedom. Of course, he’d also be sad to see that the monument to him that had stood here was never restored.

On Tuesday, the new “revival” of Vilnius’ Lukiškių square, which has suffered through hundreds of years of Lithuanian history, finally began, ushering in a new “Lithuanian” life. The reconstruction competition has been bogged down ever since 1999, when the idea arose to turn the square into a representation of the state. The state rejected the winning proposal by architect Rolandas Palekas’ ambitious Ramybė project in 2016, and went for the least expensive option – Gitnaras Čaikauskas’ proposal.

Though not all the capital’s architects like it, it is still ill-advised to delay in turning Lukiškių square into a site representing the fight for freedom. You see, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Fortunately, it does so to varying degrees.

Polish tried to renew it

“Pilsudski, the Polish head of state who occupied Vilnius, tried to reconstruct Lukiškės square and call it Freedom square. Back then, they also discussed how the square should look. The plan was to turn it into a representative space and to present it as a symbol of the Polish nation and Russian tzarism,” said historian Vytautas Jagėla.

The inter-war Poles, like the Vilnius politicians and architects of our era, spent a long time preparing competitions and having discussions, but they did little. Then, in 1939, the Bolsheviks arrived, taking back Vilnius and Lukiškių square and briefly returning them to Lithuania.

The generous occupiers soon took Lithuania for themselves and attached it to the Soviet Union and installed a statute of Lenin, the father of Bolshevism and the Soviet system, in the square. When the occupiers established the Lukiškės market and raised a statue of Lenin in the square, only then did it become a symbol of Vilnius.

Tangled history

The history of Lukiškės square began long before the monument to Lenin was erected there in 1952. The history of the square was described in the greatest detail in a book by V. Jogėla, Virgilijus Pugačiauskas and Elmantas Meilus.

The history of Lukiškės suburb, which soon became a central square in the city, seems to reflect the entire development of the newer parts of Vilnius.

Up until the XVIII century, Lukiškės had been a suburb of Vilnius rather than a part of the city. It was a village that was home to the descendants of many of the Tatars who had been invited to Lithuania in the XV century in the times of Vytautas the Great.

The name of the area is shrouded legend. Historian Jonas Jurkštas believes that the name could have meant a place by the river, and that fishing spots or meadows by the river could have been known as ‘lukiškės’.

Lukiškės were first mentioned in historical sources in 1441 by Grand Duke of Lithuania Kazimieras Jogailaitis. In that text, it was written: “Forever more we give our field: on one side from the very city to the river Neris, and on the other from Pamėnkalnis to Lukiškės.“

However, it is not clear from the text whether Lukiškės was a village or some other sort of place. Until the XVI century, Lukiškės was just a field stretching along the Neris to the West from Vilnius – until the land began to be handed out to noblemen.

In about 1600, Tomaš Makovski’s city panorama shows that the bottom-left part of the city plan, in the bottom corner of the panorama, was filled with chaotically laid-out buildings.

Prospering as a river port

In the XVI century, Lukiškės became known as a river port. Important trade routes stretched along the Neris linking Kaunas and Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad). The eastern part of Lukiškės, which had become a Vilnius suburb, was called Puškornia.

It was only in the second half of the XVIII century that Lukiškės began to expand quickly and melt into the city as a suburb. During the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), the Lukiškės area was home to quite a few Tatars.

Part of the area, in the XVII-XVIII centuries, was referred to as the Tatars’ Lukiškės. At the time, about 30 Tatar homes stood there, and several impoverished families lived in each. Next to their small mosque stood a graveyard. Some Tatars worked as merchants or bleached laundry on the banks of the Neris.

When the war with Russia (then still the Grand Duchy of Moscow) began in 1655, an army of Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks looted Vilnius, and Lukiškės also suffered when the buildings were burned down.

According to some sources, Moscow tzar Aleksei Michailovich visited Lukiškės in a large tent erected there in 1655.

Some sources also say that Lukiškės was a stopping point for Russian divisions marching through the area, who would disassemble locals’ homes for firewood.

The Northern War, which began in the 18th century, once again halted Vilnius’ and Lukiškės’ development. The city was looted by Russians, Swedes, Saxons and other armies.

Lukiškės also suffered during the Russian army’s looting of Vilnius in 1734, as the mosque and the surrounding area were a temporary home for roving divisions of Bashkirs and Kalmyks.

The tsar’s gallows

When Russia occupied Lithania and Poland in 1795, Lukiškės square became one of Vilnius’ marketplaces. The suburb expanded according to the plans put in place by the tsar in 1837 and 1875. As such, Lukiškės started to become a centre of attention.

With the 1863-1864 uprising in the GDL lands occupied by Russia, Lukiškės square became an execution site for members of the uprising. The uprising’s leaders, Zygmuntas Sierakovskis and Konstantinas Kalinovskis, were hung on the gallows erected here. A total of 21 members of the uprising were executed here.

At the end of the 19th century, the leather factories here had the greatest effect on the growth of the Lukiškės suburb. New streets were laid, administrative buildings were erected, and governmental institutions began forming. In the beginning of the 20th century, when the Žverynas area was connected to Vilnius with a bridge, Lukiškės are finally became a part of Vilnius proper.

Lukiškės also became one of the city’s cultural centres. Various exhibitions, circus shows and Polish theatre performances were held here. At the beginning of the 20th century, the former suburb finally became a part of the city’s centre due to its convenient geographical location.

KGB chasing pigeons and punks

In 1920, Lukiškės square was renamed J. Pilsudksi square after Poland took Vilnius from Lithuania. In 1936, a monument to the dictator, whom the Polish loved, was erected in the centre of the square.

“During the Polish occupation, there were sometimes parades in Lukišių aikštė and discussions on how to turn it into a representative square. However, the market continued to operate here,” said Jogėla.

Pilsudski’s reign in Lukiškės was short, however, as after the Soviet occupation in 1940, his monument was torn down. In 1952, Lenin rose in his place.

The square gradually did come to represent something – because the KGB built its central offices there.

It’s unclear how much truth there is to this rumour, but it is said that young KGB officers were made to circle around Lenin’s statue to scare off pigeons, which were fond of soiling the leader’s head.

A fact that many do remember, however, was how militiamen and plain-clothes men dressed in black from the KGB building would chase away young subculture representatives who didn’t look Soviet from the square.

They especially hated punks, and as soon as they dared to sit down on a bench, militiamen would present themselves and hit the punks in their backs. Perhaps this is why the square dedicated to Žemaitė, a tolerant Lithuanian writer, and became a punk subculture meeting place.

The Vytis

Lenin was only removed from the square along with other Soviet monuments in Lithuania rather late – on 23 August 1991. As the monument fell, its legs snapped off, and many onlookers seemed to enjoy this.

After a long period of isolation by the city’s municipal services, the statue found its final resting place in Grūto parkas, a repository of old Soviet monuments.

On Tuesday, the square was finally closed for renovations that will cost about €2 million.

The main accent of the square, according to senior architect Mindaugas Pakalnis, should be a symbol of Lithuania – the Vytis, Lithuania’s coat of arms. However, money has not yet been set aside for a memorial. The municipality is also planning a separate idea competition, but it has not yet announced its start or even the requirements.

If the Vytis does appear in the square, we must hope that it spends a far longer time there than either the Russian czar’s gallows, the monument to Pilsudski or Lenin’s statute.

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