- Vilnius Between Nations, 1795-2000 by Theodore R. Weeks
Histories of East European cities are rarely presented in English and there are few quality works on them in other languages. Vilnius Between Nations helps to fill this lacuna.
Theodore R. Weeks, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, chose a difficult topic: Vilnius in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it was taken over by several states, sustained terrible war injuries, lost most of its population including the entire Jewish community, changed its ethnic profile, and was in a position of contention between several nations. This last point was particularly notable in the Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius. Consequently, it is difficult to write a history of this city. Yet, Vilnius Between Nations is a well-written, meticulously researched, fresh, and innovative contribution to our knowledge of the history of Vilnius, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe in general.
First, Weeks weaves concepts like nation, state, and symbolic appropriation together. He writes about the importance of Vilnius and names the crucial themes of his book: "cultural diversity, nationalist rhetoric, [and] state-sponsored efforts to nationalize urban space" (1). Chapter one, "Historical Background," covers the history of Vilnius since its establishment in the fourteenth century. Chapter two, "A Center of Polish and Jewish Culture, 1795-1862," describes the Russian occupation of the city after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, a Napoleonic episode of 1812, and the Polish uprising of 1830-1831. Vilnius became a Russian provincial capital but Polish culture remained dominant. The city endured almost [End Page 355] unchanged until it was linked with St. Petersburg and Warsaw by rail in 1862. Vilnius was the centre of Polish patriotic and cultural activities even with the presence of a number of Russians. In fact, the entire region became increasingly Polish.
Visible changes came after the failure of the Polish uprising of 1863, which provoked Russian anti-Polish restrictions (chapter three: "The Period of Russification, 1863–1914"). Weeks believes that Russia was "fundamentally a premodern, dynastic state, far more interested in specific personal loyalty of elites than any putative ethnic connection between tsar and nation." Therefore, Weeks continues, russification policies "were only seldom put into practice and, even then, carried out only for a short period" (59). The authorities tried to make Vilnius purely Russian but they did it slowly. The industrialization and modernization of the city and the lead-up to the 1905 revolution are not covered appropriately in the book. He writes about the persistence of Polish culture but does not present the rich Polish social life in the city. Surprisingly, there is nothing about the Polish Socialist Party (pps). Weeks mentions the elections to the Dumas after October 1905 but does not give their results.
Chapter four, "World War I, 1914–1922," can cause lengthy discussions. It describes the German occupation of Vilnius in 1915, and the Ober Ost, but does not explain the plan hidden behind this name. The Germans were surprised with the city's Polish character and tried to counterbalance the Polish influences. The author presents the German Lithuanian policies but ignores the Belarusians. The Belarusian leaders claimed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the first Belarusian state and, when a chance appeared to rebuild it, they wanted Vilnius to be its capital. After 1918, the Belarusian population in Vilnius grew quickly. Yet Weeks ignored these issues.
In January 1919, the Red Army took Vilnius but, contrary to the author's statements, there was no "power vacuum" in the city (111–112). A Polish Committee had been active in Vilnius and the Polish "self-defence" attacked the Germans in December 1918. Yet, Vilnius was taken by the Soviets, recaptured by the Poles in April 1919, conquered by the Red Army in July 1920, and given to Lithuania. In October 1920, General Lucjan Żeligowski and his Division "revolted" against Józef Piłsudski and took the city. Contrary to the Lithuanian narrative echoed by Weeks, Żeligowski's operation was not an act of Polish imperialism...