This essay is about Vilnius and its bid to become a European Capital of Culture in 2009. The city of Vilnius is the capital city of Lithuania and has had a wide and varied history, which has been significantly influenced by various political regimes, notably Communism in the 20th century. This essay will attempt to study the influence of Communism on religion in Vilnius and also what they define as ‘culture’ which makes them eligible to be considered a European Capital of Culture.
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Lithuanian culture has been heavily influenced by its colourful historical past. Conflict has shaped the country’s cultural heritage and due to factors such as the mass movement of persons during the Polish-Lithuanian partitions in the 18th century or the change in political regime during Communism in the second half of the 20th century. Lithuanian culture has been heavily influenced through its ethnic diversity which is particularly vast due to the borders of the country being regularly changed throughout history. Lithuania has a population of approximately 3.2 million people (which makes Britain approximately 22 times larger in terms of population that Lithuania), of that 83.45% are Lithuanians, 6.7% Poles, 6.3% Russians, 1.2% Belarusian, 0.7% and 1.65% from other nations (www.omnitel.net [online source]), this background has lead to traditions and rituals from many other nations being integrated into Lithuanian culture. Lithuania was only formed as an independent state in 1992, which meant that many of their national traditions are both only recently formed and either taken or adapted from those of other countries. Many Lithuanian rituals and elements of their culture are similar to those of Russia due to Russia’s presence in Lithuanian life for hundreds of years.
Vilnius as a European Capital of Culture promotes itself as a city which has undergone great change into modernity and claims to be ‘A European capital of the future- open to people, cultures and innovation.’ (www.culturelive.lt [online source]). The city aims to ‘promote cultural and civic activities of residents in the culture of today’s contemporary European society in order to create conditions for all to become participants of the live culture programme.’ (www.culturelive.lt [online source]). Furthermore, they aim to increase tourism to both Vilnius and Lithuania as a whole (which is usually an inevitability when a city becomes a Capital of Culture), and to enhance and further economic development and investment opportunities. The condition of the Lithuanian economy has dramatically improved since becoming an independent and democratic state as it mean that other nations are more willing to trade with it and since joining the European Union in 2004 the Lithuanian economy has begun to transform from a Soviet-style economy to one which is similar to those used in Western states.
During the year in which Vilnius is set to be a European Capital of Culture (2009) it has many ‘cultural’ events on. The city has chosen to perpetuate elements of culture which do not dwell on its Communist past such as music, art and cinema. These practices are deeply entrenched into Lithuanian culture as they used these ways to help divert their attentions away from how miserable their lives were under an oppressive regime, and therefore these elements are pivotal in Lithuanian culture.
The city is also hosting an Alternative International Culture Festival during its time as the European Capital of Culture; this is set to involve youth, members of subcultures and a number of public groups. Lithuania has many groups which could be considered to be subcultural. As a large proportion of Lithuanians are of one religion, those who are not are considered a subculture, and also small ethnic groups are subcultural. Although Lithuania clearly recognises that these subcultures exist, unlike some other states which ignore and almost play-down the influences of subcultures, by including it into its ‘cultural celebration’ they are still considered subcultures and not integrated thoroughly into society and said to form a part of culture.
The Ministry of Culture for the Republic of Lithuania who are in charge of what is considered ‘cultural’ and what shall take place during the period when Vilnius is one of the European Capital of Culture have also created the ‘Culture Live’ initiatives. The idea behind the initiative is creation, and the project promotes individual and personalised creation in every sphere of life. The Culture Live program also believes that the most crucial aspects of the city are ‘its people, their wisdom, interaction, their dreams, imagination, creativity and happiness.’ (www.culturelive.lt [online source]). The concepts of creation and freedom of expression are particularly important in Lithuanian culture as for many years in Lithuania the people were oppressed and therefore not allowed to speak out or act against the way which their oppressors wished them to act, therefore when Lithuania was given independence in 1990 and constructed its constitution in 1992 the principle of freedom of speech and expression were deeply entrenched into the constitution.
Religion is a fundamental part of Lithuanian culture and exhibitions of their passion for it can be seen in great number throughout the country, specifically in Vilnius, in the forms of many cathedrals and religious icons throughout the country. Religion is important in Lithuanian culture as during the periods where the people were enduring great suffering they relied on religion as reasoning behind their suffering, in the sense that Vardys and Sedaitis claim that 84% of the population in 1945 claimed to be Roman Catholic (Vardys and Sedaitis 1997: 207) they would seek comfort in the fact that the Catholic Church says that their suffering in this world will lead to their eventual just treatment in the afterlife. Also, religion is important in Lithuanian culture as it is a unifying factor in society and beings people together no matter what background they are from. During the communist regime (1945-1990) the Soviet government deported about 350,000 Lithuanians to labour camps in Siberia as punishment for holding anti-communist beliefs or resisting Soviet rule. In 1949 the communist regime closed most churches, deported many priests, and prosecuted people possessing religious images, this forced religion to go underground. People would practice religion in their homes or in small groups in their homes or in places where they were unlikely to be found through risk of persecution. Although the Soviet Union closed many religious buildings and banned iconography the fact that religion was prohibited only transformed believers into a closer community and also encourages more people to join.
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After the fall the communism Lithuania sought to establish a liberal democratic state. The Lithuanian Constitution faced a dilemma as although it stipulated that ‘freedom of thought religion and conscience shall not be restrained…’ but it also specifies that ‘the state shall recognise those churches and religious organisations if they have support in society ad if their teaching as well as their rituals does not contradict with law or morality.’ This reinstates the role of religion into society and still to this day remains a vastly influential element in Lithuanian culture. Although religion is still a key feature of Lithuanian culture there has been a rise in atheism since the fall of communism in 1990. This may be because as religion was banned people chose to take the deviant path to keep practicing their religion, but as soon as it was legal to choose whichever religion you wanted the allure of religion dissipated and so secularisation began to increase, however this is in no way to say that religion is a lost entity in modern day Lithuania.
Religion is very important to Lithuanian culture as it underpins all of their moral codes and ritualistic practices. However, in the bid for Vilnius to be a European Capital of Culture no focus has been drawn to the city’s historical sacred architecture and its large religious associations even though religion, in particular Catholicism, is prominent in Lithuania, and especially present in Vilnius. It seems strangely unorthodox to negate a subject which is so central in Lithuanian culture. For example the Vilnius Archicathedral which has stood since the 13th century and was badly damaged during Soviet occupation has not been mentioned in what Vilnius considers its ‘culture’.
In conclusion, Vilnius is set to be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2009 and has already constructed a lavish program of events in an attempt to unite the people of Vilnius, Lithuania and even Europe. They define their culture as modern and about creativity and having personal freedoms in their newly formed democratic state, however it seems apparent that although there is that side to Lithuanian culture which understandably they would want to promote to the world, there is also another side which is saturated in history and shows that although Lithuania and Vilnius have only come into existence recently there is record of thousands of years of conflict which has given the country such a colourful past and such a diverse culture. Lithuanian culture is notably about the harmony between their old historical past and their new modern creative culture and this makes their culture one which is notably diverse.
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