Lithuania

Border: Poland – Lithuania

At present: Lithuania

Lying on the route of the Saint Petersburg–Warsaw Railway, the town of Turmont is the most northeastern bridgehead of Polishness in Lithuania. Cut off from the Vilnius Region, saturated with Poles, with dense forests surrounding dozens of lakes in the Braslav Lakeland. Hidden in the shadow cast by the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant and built for the purposes of serving it, the city of Visaginas, inhabited mostly by Russians, has fallen into oblivion since the facility’s closing in 2009.

“Visaginas is a settlement of a people of engineers who can split and understand the atom, but cannot split and understand human souls,” says Alex Urazov, while sitting in a room full of strange masks, futuristic rifles, cybernetic limbs. This place is the artistic commune “Toczka” created by him in Visaginas, which is to give young visaginians hope for a different life. 

Meanwhile, the Poles who had lived in the surrounding villages for centuries merely took note of the rise and fall of the power plant. “In my puppies years, the Republic of Poland was still reaching to over here,” says Florian Szałksztet. “They built the power plant, and now they are closing it, and I am sitting in the same place where I was born in 1927. Nothing has changed. My children and grandchildren speak Lithuanian. I haven’t learnt it because I had neither the opportunity nor the need for it. Almost a century has passed and the world has not noticed me. That is probably why I have lived for so long.”
***
At the other end of Lithuania, hundreds of pilgrims cross the bridge over the Mereczanka River in the town of Orany. The river divides this region into two opposite worlds. The other one, left behind, inhabited almost exclusively by Lithuanians and the Vilnius region stretching under your feet, inhabited by the Polish minority.


Until the outbreak of the war, this had been the border between the Second Polish Republic and Lithuania. This prayerful and singing procession sets off from Suwałki every year to reach Vilnius after ten days of hiking. The organizer is the Salesian community from Suwałki, but the initiative is participated by pilgrims from all over Poland. They march through glacier fields and forests, covering thirty kilometers a day and approaching the Gate of Dawn, at which they want to pay tribute not only to the Holy Mother, but also to Poles in the Vilnius Region.


At the head of the march, next to the cross and the Virgin Mary, there are two flags - Polish and Lithuanian. “We arrive to Lithuania as guests and they are the hosts. There is plenty of talk about Polish-Lithuanian dialogue, but the pompous words of politicians, visits by officials and international conferences are not enough to build a true reconciliation. The most important thing is to experience a personal encounter. Looking into one another’s eyes and seeing that this Lithuanian or that Pole is the same person as me, even if in our everyday lives we speak different languages,” says Father Tomasz Pełszyk.  
 

 
Pilgrims on their way from Suwałki to our Lady of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius.
Pilgrims on their way from Suwałki to our Lady of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius.
Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant on the eastern outskirts of Lithuania.
Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant on the eastern outskirts of Lithuania.

Scenes for the HBO series “Chernobyl” were shot here.

In the interwar period it was a Polish-Lithuanian-Latvian border.
In the interwar period it was a Polish-Lithuanian-Latvian border.
Turmont. It was the last Polish railway station before the border with Latvia.
Turmont. It was the last Polish railway station before the border with Latvia.
Graves of Polish soldiers who died during the liberation of Latvian Latgalia from the Bolsheviks.
Graves of Polish soldiers who died during the liberation of Latvian Latgalia from the Bolsheviks.

Dukszty, Contemporary eastern Lithuania.

The Polish cemetery in Bogdaniszki is being renovated by the Odra-Niemen Association volunteers.
The Polish cemetery in Bogdaniszki is being renovated by the Odra-Niemen Association volunteers.

Contemporary eastern Lithuania.

A clock in the “atomic city” of Visaginas that once showed the level of radiation.
A clock in the “atomic city” of Visaginas that once showed the level of radiation.
Visaginas was built from basics in the 1970s for the needs of a nearby nuclear power plant.
Visaginas was built from basics in the 1970s for the needs of a nearby nuclear power plant.
After the power plant was closed in 2009, many inhabitants lost their meaning in life.
After the power plant was closed in 2009, many inhabitants lost their meaning in life.
Of the 20 thousand Visaginas, more than half are Russians.
Of the 20 thousand Visaginas, more than half are Russians.

Lithuanians represent less than 20%, and Belarusians and Poles 9%. Many Russians still do not speak Lithuanian, and Lithuanians, in turn, often treat the Visaginas with suspicion of being a potential Russian “Fifth Column.”

Alex Urazow, creator of the artistic commune “Toczka” in Visaginas.
Alex Urazow, creator of the artistic commune “Toczka” in Visaginas.

“In Visaginas, a silent apocalypse has occurred after the shutdown of the power plant, but no one takes interest in silent disasters.”

“This is a settlement of engineers who can understand the atom, but cannot  understand human souls."
“This is a settlement of engineers who can understand the atom, but cannot understand human souls."

When the power plant no longer functioned, they remained lost like some ancient tribe stripped of their idol and their temple.

Alex: “We are a generation that has not been taught how to live."
Alex: “We are a generation that has not been taught how to live."

"We have not been taught what life is all about. This is what we want to learn in Toczka. We do it in the dark and blindly, but at least we try.”

A young girl shows her handicraft.
A young girl shows her handicraft.

“At least someone here has time to listen to me.”

Lithuanian landscape.
Lithuanian landscape.
Florian Szałksztet, one of the last indigenous Poles in the Visaginas area:
Florian Szałksztet, one of the last indigenous Poles in the Visaginas area:

“They built the power plant, and now they are closing it, and I am sitting in the same place where I was born in 1927. Nothing has changed. My children and grandchildren speak Lithuanian. I haven’t learnt it because I had neither the opportunity nor the need for it. Almost a century has passed and the world has not noticed me. That is probably why I have lived for so long.”

Polish cemetery in Gajdy. The easternmost outpost of Polishness in Lithuania.
Polish cemetery in Gajdy. The easternmost outpost of Polishness in Lithuania.
The village of Zułowo, where Marshal Józef Piłsudski was born.
The village of Zułowo, where Marshal Józef Piłsudski was born.

This tree was planted before the war in the place where there once used to stand the cradle with the future statesman and one of the fathers of the independent Second Polish Republic.

Pilgrims wandering from Suwałki to Vilnius.
Pilgrims wandering from Suwałki to Vilnius.

They cross the contemporary Polish-Lithuanian border, the former border of Lithuania and the Republic of Poland, and cover the areas of the Vilnius Region inhabited by Poles.

Prayer
Prayer
Pilgrims cross the former border on River Mereczanka in Lithuania.
Pilgrims cross the former border on River Mereczanka in Lithuania.
Graves of Polish soldiers who died in the fight against Lithuanians for the city of Orany.
Graves of Polish soldiers who died in the fight against Lithuanians for the city of Orany.

In the interwar period, the territorial dispute over Vilnius and the Vilnius Region was the cause of a deep conflict between Poland and Lithuania.

Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn.
Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn.
Poles from the Vilnius Region greeting pilgrims.
Poles from the Vilnius Region greeting pilgrims.
Meeting of Poles from Poland and Poles from the Vilnius Region.
Meeting of Poles from Poland and Poles from the Vilnius Region.
The first pilgrimage in 1991 was a thanksgiving for the liberation of Europe from communism.
The first pilgrimage in 1991 was a thanksgiving for the liberation of Europe from communism.

From the very beginning, it had an international dimension, beyond borders, but it was also patriotic. Meetings with Poles who kept their identity here.

“They feed us, take care of us, host us in their homes, and we bring them a piece of their homeland”
“They feed us, take care of us, host us in their homes, and we bring them a piece of their homeland”
Landscape of the Vilnius Region.
Landscape of the Vilnius Region.
Almost 200,000 Poles are currently living in Lithuania, mainly in the Vilnius Region.
Almost 200,000 Poles are currently living in Lithuania, mainly in the Vilnius Region.

In the town of Ejszyszki, almost 80% are Poles.

One of the pilgrims: “I have only one house in Poland, and here I have many”.
One of the pilgrims: “I have only one house in Poland, and here I have many”.

“Wherever I go, they treat me like someone close to them. We create a community that reaches beyond borders.”

Prayer
Prayer
Many inland Lithuanians see the Vilnius region as terra incognito and Lithuania B.
Many inland Lithuanians see the Vilnius region as terra incognito and Lithuania B.

There are numerous controversial issues in Polish-Lithuanian relations: no bilingual city name plates, or the obligation to spell surnames only in Lithuania.

“We arrive to Lithuania as guests and they are the hosts".
“We arrive to Lithuania as guests and they are the hosts".

"There is plenty of talk about Polish-Lithuanian dialogue, but the pompous words of politicians, visits by officials and international conferences are not enough to build a true reconciliation. The most important thing is to experience a personal encounter. Looking into one another’s eyes and seeing that this Lithuanian or that Pole is the same person as me, even if in our everyday lives we speak different languages,” says Father Tomasz Pełszyk.

Pilgrim
Pilgrim
Monument in Koniuchy.
Monument in Koniuchy.

In 1944, the Soviet partisans, which also included Lithuanians, murdered at least 38 Polish inhabitants of the village. This place shows how difficult Polish-Lithuanian history is.

102-year-old Stanisława Woronis is one of the survivors of the murder in Koniuchy.
102-year-old Stanisława Woronis is one of the survivors of the murder in Koniuchy.

Her family was saved from death by a partisan who had warned them about the pogrom.

Pilgrims in front of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius.
Pilgrims in front of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius.

A place of exceptional importance for Polish identity.

“All animosities are completely secondary to the historical experience that connects us."
“All animosities are completely secondary to the historical experience that connects us."

“We formed one country after all: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. I hope that both Poles and Lithuanians will be able to overcome their disagreements, and to look ahead shoulder to shoulder - this time not into the past, but into the future“ - heard during the pilgrimage.

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