To travel from Riga to Vilnius I once again booked a seat on the Lux Express bus, costing me 23 Euros and taking four and a half hours. The bus was identical to the one which carried me from Tallinn to Riga, and once again the atmosphere, for the first hour or two, was not tranquil. Some utter penis was on the bus in the form of a middle-aged man who looked every inch the stereotypical Jewish guy who still lives with his mum. He was bald, had milk-bottle glasses, and was wearing Ugg boots with his jeans tucked into them. If he wasn’t still a virgin then I’m the Queen of Sheba. Anyway, no sooner had we set off when he made a series of long phone calls, some personal and some work related, during which he bellowed in Russian at the top of his voice. You couldn’t hear yourself think, and I was unfortunate enough to be sat opposite him. This went on for well over an hour, him treating the bus like his office and yelling down the phone without an iota of consideration for anyone else. The only other passenger at the rear half of the bus (in the first class section) was a Swedish lady who didn’t seem bothered, or was too polite to show it. I put up with it for about forty five minutes before I gathered my stuff and stomped off to the back of the bus and as far away as I could get in lieu of punching him in the side of his fucking head. Once I couldn’t hear him so much, I calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the journey.
As with the last bus ride there wasn’t much to see, and again the most interesting thing was whizzing past the old border control buildings and checkpoints as we crossed into Lithuania. It was dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Vilnius, and we passed one or two giant shopping centres before the coach pulled up in a sizeable bus station and we all got out. It took a few minutes to find a cash machine (Lithuania has its own currency as well, Litas, which are about 3.45 to the Euro) and then another few to find the nearby taxi stand, during which time I was joined by the Swedish lady from the bus who was as unfamiliar with the place as I was. I jumped in a taxi, and asked what language the driver spoke. It turned out he preferred Russian, which apparently is pretty common for taxi drivers in Vilnius, with a lot of them coming from Belarus. So off we went to the Novotel situated just on the edge of the old town, but on the other side from the bus station. it was about 5pm, and for the first time since I’d left St. Petersburg I saw traffic, and we were stuck in it. Fortunately, my driver must have learned his trade in 1990s Russia because he mounted pavements, jumped lights, and went the wrong way down streets, huffing and puffing and swearing in Russian. It was all very nostalgic. Even with the traffic (which, to be honest, wasn’t a patch on traffic you’d find anywhere else) we got there in about 30 minutes, and I went to check in. Thanks to several lengthy business trips and the Accor hotel group, by virtue of their being French, being the preferred hotel chain of my employer I hold Platinum membership at the Novotel which means I am likely to get an upgraded room if I ask for one. So I did and I got it, and damned nice it was too!
My room overlooked a large square boxed in by official-looking buildings, and beyond to a reasonably sized city which had several modern office towers and other modern buildings, with a row of small hills in the background.
Looking out of the window and driving from the bus station, I got the impression that Vilnius was much larger and more modern than Riga, although it turns out that Riga has the larger population. Nevertheless, Vilnius looks and feels more like a medium sized metropolis of the sort you can find anywhere in Europe. Indeed, it didn’t feel uniquely Baltic in the way Tallinn or Riga did, and seemed more mainstream European. All the usual retail outlets were there, including a Marks & Spencer, and it looked as though investment was not as limited to Scandinavians and Finns. Whereas Tallinn was a small medieval city, and Riga was an industrial city with a strong bar, club, and backpacker scene, it was harder to pin any particular label on Vilnius. As I say, it was more like a mainstream European town, and you’d have to look pretty hard to find any evidence the Soviets were ever there. Admittedly I didn’t explore much outside the old town and the area immediately north of it where my hotel was located, so maybe I missed something. But what it did have in common with the other Baltic States was that it was clean, organised, cheap, and safe and a very pleasant place to spend a few days. It was also bloody freezing.
It had occured to me that I hadn’t really gone out and enjoyed myself (meaning, get blind drunk) since I left St. Petersburg, tending to hang around quiet-ish bars and strike up conversations. So when I saw Vilnius had a hustle and bustle about it which I hadn’t seen in Tallinn or Riga, I decided it was high time I checked out a club or two. Sitting in my hotel room and skimming the internet, I discovered a club called Tamsta on the other side of the old town which is a dedicated live music venue and came well recommended. There are usually established bands playing at the weekends, but Wednesdays was apparently an open mic night, so I thought I’d go down and check out the local amateur musicians. As you may have gathered from my last night in Tallinn, I like this kind of thing. To get there I had to walk about 25 minutes through the old town, keeping an eye on the GPS to navigate the narrow streets.
The old town of Vilnius is nice, lots of narrow streets giving onto squares with churches, an old university, or the town hall.
It was not as quaint as the old towns of Tallinn and Riga, and modern buildings had crept in to a much greater extent, although in a tasteful manner (with some exceptions). There was plenty of snow lying around, and often I had to walk in the road as the pavements were either too narrow or blocked altogether. By the time I went out, the traffic had mostly died down, but there were still noticeably more cars than I’d seen in the other cities. I was feeling hungry, and so when I happened to pass by a restaurant called Meat Lovers, I decided to give it a try. It turns out this place is fairly well known, and it was pretty good. It was almost full, but I persuaded the waitress to allow me to take one of the reserved tables on the condition I was out within an hour. The menu was on a chalk board on one of the walls and judging by its contents, the place was well named. I ordered a huge burger of some sort and a large local beer. The other patrons were, in general, young, attractive, and having fun.
Once fed, I walked across the town hall square and along a very narrow street until, after a bit of looking around, I found the place I was after. I went inside and paid a tough looking Russian the equivalent of 5 Euros to go inside, and put my coat into the cloakroom. Finally, I had found a venue with a cloakroom (of sorts). This was one of only two I saw on my whole trip, both of them in Vilnius. I continued up some stairs and entered into a purpose-built venue with a stage at one end, a bar running down one wall, lots of chairs and tables in the middle, and a veranda running around two sides. I headed for the bar. I asked the barman, in English, to pick a language in which I’d address him from thereon. He laughed, and said “English, of course.” Like Latvia, it appears the only people who speak Russian in Lithuania are old or have a Russian parent. I found that even my attempting to speak it didn’t go down too well on occasion. So I parked myself at the bar with a drink and waited for the performance. It was obvious from early on that this wouldn’t be an open mic night as there was a full set of equipment on stage and the place was filling up rapidly.
On the hour, whichever one it was, the curtain was whipped back and a band consisting of middle-aged men launched into some serious rock music to huge cheers from the crowd. I joined in just for the hell of it. They belted out a decent rock song, sung in Lithuanian, and went straight into the next one without pausing for breath. When they stopped to let their front man address the crowd, he did so in Lithuanian, and as such I had not the faintest idea what was being said. But the music was good, the sort of 80s rock you’d hear the Russian bands such as Mashina Vremeni or DDT play in their early days (although probably not as good). I noticed the crowd was either folk in their 50s or people in their 20s, with a generation in the middle missed out. I spent the first set trying to work out if this band was playing its own stuff, because everyone seemed to know the lyrics and was singing along enthusiastically, yet the crowd and venue seemed too small for a famous band.
The answer was supplied between the sets by a chap who I’d heard speaking English at the bar earlier, and so to whom I put the question. It turned out the band was Poliarizuoti Stiklai (tr. Polarised Glasses) who made it pretty big in Lithuania in the 1980s before tailing off thereafter, but apparently still draw a reasonable following from people who were (presumably) young, drinking, and getting laid during their heyday. That certainly explained the age of the crowd (the younger lot were probably those who had grown up listening to their dad’s records). One of their biggest hits, which they played twice for us that night, is in the clip below.
The chap at the bar was an American working for the US embassy in Vilnius and turned out to be a top bloke who invited me to join his table, made up of other embassy staffers. He told me Vilnius was a pretty good place to be sent with the US diplomatic service because it was quiet, safe, the Lithuanians are generally pro-American, and Vilnius is a fun place to live. A lot better than Lagos or Islamabad, I’m sure. Ironically, the lead guitarist of the band was working in the American embassy: when the band declined in the early 90s he figured he needed a more reliable source of income so took a job with the Americans, but still playing with the band once or twice a week. Because of this connection, one of the Americans from the embassy managed to get himself on stage and sing two songs - Whiskey in the Jar and Everything About You, the only non-Lithuanian songs sung all night – and did an exceptionally good job of it. It was quite obvious he’d been in a band before, and when I asked him he confirmed as much. When the second set ended, a good number of the crowd rushed towards the stage to get autographs and photos with the band, so although I suspect their fanbase is small, they still have a passionate following. For my part, they were well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee. If I’m ever in Vilnius during one of the summer music festivals, I’ll see them again for sure.
The band wrapped up and everyone started to leave at about midnight. I left with the Americans, walking with them as far as the town hall square before they left for home (unlike me, they had to work the next day). However, they did point me in the direction of a nearby club which was, they said, my best bet for a decent night out. I was in no mood to go home. I followed their directions and as I stood outside where I supposed the place to be, a young chap dressed up against the cold gave me a big grin and asked if I wanted to go into the strip club in the same building. I didn’t, but decided to stop and talk to him anyway. He was a friendly chap, and did his level best to get me inside before admitting, having been prompted by me, that the place was empty, the drinks extortionate, and the girls very, very ordinary. He was one of the few people I met in Vilnius who spoke Russian, and we chatted for a while. He said the club I was heading to was good but empty, and I’d be better off coming back in an hour or so. He pointed to a bar across the square and recommended it as a good enough spot to wait, and suggested he might be in the club once his pimping duties wound up and we could get a drink. Which sounded fine by me.
The bar was located only 100m or so away, and it turned out to be full of Russians. I sat down at one of the only free tables, right in the middle of the room, and took in various couples or small groups of youngish people enjoying what looked to be the last of several drinks (most of them had got up and left within 30 minutes of my arrival, I hope not on my account). They all looked a bit rough, as in not too polished, an image not helped when a group of two Russian couples came in with one of the girls wearing what looked like a set of pink pyjamas. At best it was a fluffly aerobics tracksuit, although God knows why she was wearing it to a bar. Still, it wasn’t a bad place to swallow vodka and coke for an hour while I was waiting for the club to fill up.
I eventually wandered over at some hour which might have been 1am. You tend to lose track of the hours when it gets dark at 4pm. Salento, as the club was called, was much like any mainstream club you’d find in Russia or elsewhere in continental Europe, with the same music you can hear anywhere. It wasn’t busy, maybe 40 people in a club which could take four or five times that number, and most of them were young girls in their 20s, dancing badly in groups. For my part, I headed straight to the bar and started drinking vodka and coke. I think it was quite cheap, but by the time I figured out what this Lithuanian money was worth I was back in Nigeria and by then I didn’t care. I know I went out with a fistful of notes, anyway. I’d not been at the bar long, not long enough to finish my first drink anyway, when I started talking to a girl stood nearby and who, she told me later, thought I was a local. I blame the haircut and underfed look.
Sadly I wasn’t a local and instead she found herself talking to a Brit who lives in Nigeria. She had dropped into the club out of boredom, I think, after having been out buying groceries, including a jar of olives which she still had with her. She was intent on dancing to every other tune, during which I remained rooted to my place at the bar and drank. But she was matching me drink for drink. More people arrived, but people were leaving at the same rate, meaning there was a steady turnover of people and the place never filled up. There were still quite a few young women, and several men in their 30s, including an Italian who was absolutely enormous and looked as though he’d take ages to beat up. Fortunately that wasn’t necessary (never mind doable) as his brief conversation with me was friendly enough. I didn’t budge for hours, never stepping onto the dance floor save for once brief and misguided instant, and just ordered drink after drink and Rasa, my friend with the jar of olives, kept pace with me right up to me leaving sometime around 4 or 5am. At some point I ran out of money, but Vilnius being civilised and not full of thieving bastards, I was able to pay by credit card. Only in order to avoid the transaction fee, I decided it was better to buy four drinks at once. I vaguely remember the walk back to the hotel through streets narrow, twisting, and frozen, although how I navigated them is anyone’s guess. The streets were utterly deserted, quite unsurprisingly, so I couldn’t have asked for directions. At any rate, I had fulfilled my mission to find a club and get hammered. And I never did see the pimp again.
By this time, I had had enough of doing touristy stuff, such as wandering around old towns taking photos (which is why I have so few of Vilnius). So I decided to relax and, also because my head was pounding from the night before and it was afternoon anyway, I decided I’d spend what was left of the day in bed. Only there was some bloke in the square outside busking with a concertina, and the noise of those things could penetrate lead. On and on he droned and had I a rifle I would have shot him from my window, which would have been a shame because he was very good and he knew a lot of songs. Only these things aren’t appreciated when they are outside your window and you have a hangover.
When I woke up I found a text message from Rasa asking if I wanted to go to a traditional Lithuanian restaurant that evening. I did. So later on I found myself being led sheep-like into a restaurant situated in the basement of what must have been a very old building. From a small entrance lobby you had to go down a very steep, twisted flight of stairs, ducking under a very low beam, which brought you into a low-ceilinged corridor with several rooms branching off in which the tables and chairs were located. After a bit of wandering around poking our heads into various rooms (the place was a rabbit warren) we settled on one location where we found a free table and waited a while for the waiter to turn up. It was all done up in an olden style, but the details escape me. But it was very nice, only there was no obvious way out if the place decided to suddenly catch fire. Thinking it unlikely, I didn’t worry about it.
The menu came around and all of it looked good. It was quite exotic, with most dishes claiming to be the product of a hunter’s encounter with something that moves fast through a forest. I settled for a soup made from beer followed by wild boar goulash. I felt like Obelix. The soup arrived and it was superb, but it was pretty filling (as soups in these sort of countries tend to be), which meant that when the wild boar goulash came around I couldn’t eat much of it. I was terribly disappointed because it was really, really nice. I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset about not being able to eat something before. The whole lot was washed down with a fine Lithuanian beer which, according to the menu, comes from a brewery in Klaipėda which was set up in the late 19th century by a chap called Reinecke, which went a long way to explain its quality. It was an excellent choice of restaurant.
Afterwards we went to a street full of bars, where Vilnius’ 25-40 crowd was out in force. There was no shortage of bars, most of them ranging from very busy to packed to the rafters. We went into one which slotted nicely into the latter category, where I managed to find 2 square feet in which to stand wedged in the corner while Rasa got some drinks in. Of course, for a bar made for 60 people 3 small coat pegs had been attached to the wall so unless you could find space to add yours to the enormous leather, fur, and nylon tumour that was protruding from the far wall then you had to stand about in your jacket, allowing you to experience how the Michelin Man feels when he takes the London Underground at rush hour. I stashed mine beside some hippies who were sitting on the windowsill, and eventually stopped complaining. The crowd was mixed, but one chap I remember, because you see him in every bar in the western world which caters to the thirty-something crowd: thick glasses, a beard, wearing a funky t-shirt, and without a shadow of a doubt in his fourth of fifth “final year” of a music or modern politics degree. At one point he set off on a quest to find a pen and paper with such determination that I was curious enough to peer over his shoulder to see what he was going to do with them once said objects had been obtained. He drew a Chad. We proceeded through another one or two bars of similar nature, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Certainly the atmosphere was good, and everywhere was packed. I went home with the impression that the nightlife in Vilnius is pretty much what you’d find in any decent European city, and there was plenty going on.
In Lithuania I did detect a certain attitude towards Russia (or at least the language and its connotations), but I’d stop short of describing it as hostility. I was more like “Russia was then, and it was shit, and now we have moved on, and it is better, so why would we be interested in anything Russian?” And as I neared the end of my trip through the Baltics, I began to think that they might have a point. I remember years ago talking to an Uzbek girl in a dodgy club in Dubai who complained that the Russians had come to “their country” and taken all the resources, money, etc. This is hardly a novel complaint, I hear people whining about it all the time (ironically Russians too, in the context of the international oil projects on their territory). But if you were to take an objective look at what the Soviet Union did for the regions which became the independent Central Asian states, you’d be hard pushed to deny that they didn’t bring with them a lot of development and improvements. When the Tsarist Russians first moved into what is now Uzbekistan, the place was unbelievably backward. Petty tyrants ruled small pockets of territory in the manner of medieval lords, often unaware of the regions beyond their borders, until deep into the 19th century. Literacy, numeracy, and all the other indicators of human development were practically non-existent outside a very select elite. By the time the Soviets left a hundred and something years later, your average Uzbek, Tadjik, and Kyrgyz was literate, numerate, more often than not well educated, and could expect to live as long as his comrades from the west of the empire. Secondary industries had been introduced, cities built (and in the case of Tashkent, rebuilt following the earthquake of 1966) which were not exactly modern by western standards but were as good as the Russians enjoyed in Europe, cities equipped with schools, hospitals, universities, and other marks of development and civilisation, from which the population would without question benefit greatly. Not that I am endorsing the Soviet regime and its policies in Central Asia (many of which brought about abject misery); but that the Russians brought certain, major benefits which the regions would otherwise never have had is to me pretty incontestable. When you look at their neighbours – particularly Afghanistan – it is hard to imagine that a Central Asia without Russian involvement would have resulted in anything which could be regarded as an improvement on their status in 1990.
But when you look at the Baltics, it is extremely hard to make the same argument. Had the Soviets not imposed themselves for half a century and more, would independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have nonetheless enjoyed the rewards of modern cities, industry, electricity, health, education, and transport systems? Well, yes they would. Unlike say Tadjikistan, the development of Lithuania was not dependent on being ruled by a government in Moscow. Debates may be held over whether the independent Baltic states would have prospered more or less than as part of the USSR, but an independent people free of idiotic communism would unlikely have done much worse. In my opinion, the Baltic states would have done just fine on their own, even better if they’d formed a loose federation among themselves, and joined Nato and the other European institutions. I’m sure many Russians, if they were to read this, would point to the Baltics’ lack of resources – meaning oil, gas, and timber – as a reason why they could never have prospered, but that can easily be dismissed by pointing to the fact that Finland had vastly fewer resources than the USSR yet enjoyed a much higher standard of living. Plus, as a cursory look at Nigeria will tell you, having oil, gas, and other primary resources is not in itself a guarantee of prosperity. I don’t see any reason why the independent Baltic states could not have developed and prospered along the lines of Denmark, Finland, or Norway following WWII. And from what I can see, the Baltic people do have a useful resource: themselves. Small, well-educated populations tend to enjoy high standards of living, as Scandinavia and Finland demonstrate. And, again from what I can see, the Baltic people tend to have more in common with their western neighbours than Russians in that they don’t seem to fuck each other over at the first opportunity. When money arrives in a government account in Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius to fix roads, the roads get fixed (even if perhaps some gets skimmed off). When money arrives in a government account in Russia to fix roads, the money turns into a fancy dacha for the mayor built in full view of everyone and the roads stay broken. I’m being a bit simplistic here I know, but I have written at length about the importance of trust in making a country rich, and I don’t believe that the Baltic states are cursed with the same degree of corruption, bureaucracy and greed which has perpetually condemned Russia to fall way short of its potential. Interestingly, I reckon that the Russian populations of the Baltics would realise this very quickly were they to ever be transplanted to Russia, and would likely find they have more in common with the non-Russians they left behind than their new Russian neighbours. I know this was the case for one Russian woman pushed out of Lithuania following independence, and found her new neighbours in Sakahlin to be a pretty hopeless bunch.
In short, the educated child of a Kyrgyz engineer who had been through the Bishkek Academy of Sciences would be hard pushed to claim that he doesn’t, in some small part, owe his status to the Soviet Union. But it would be very hard to make the claim that the educated child of a Lithuanian engineer would, were it not for the Soviet Union, be eking out a living in the forest and unable to read. And that, I think, explains the attitude which I felt in Latvia and Lithuania towards Russia and the aspects of Russian culture imported during the Soviet era; it’s not hostility, it is one of utter indifference or, when faced with it, slightly irritated contempt. The Soviet Russians were never needed or wanted, nothing is owed, they just want to be left alone. There were no chips on shoulders that I could see.
Estonia is probably the exception because the politics there has made the problem of cultures and identity more acute, but I didn’t see much nationalistic fervour in Latvia or Lithuania. Certainly they’re a proud enough bunch, but they don’t seem to have adopted the overly patriotic stance of the younger generation of Kazakhs, for example, which seems artificial and ever so slightly forced, as if they are trying too hard. Quietly confident, they define themselves as who they are rather than who they are not, which was good to see.
Being small countries, the future economic development of the Baltic states will depend on the fortunes of the rest of the world, especially Europe. But I don’t see any reason why their futures should not be bright, with the only dark spot being the identity politics being practiced in Estonia which is driving a wedge between people who, if just left alone, would probably work things out for themselves.
As for Vilnius, it is a city in which Europeans would perhaps find it easier to live than Riga or Tallinn, it being (seemingly) larger and more cosmopolitan than the others. I’m sure I’ll go back to Lithuania as I would like to go to the Curonian Spit, for no other reason than it looks interesting, a bit like the Outer Banks of North Carolina or the lagoons at the north end of Sakhalin Island. And I’d like to go to Klaipėda, probably at the same time, for the single reason that a terrible battle was fought there in the closing months of WWII, when the town was called Memel, and is described in harrowing detail in The Forgotten Soldier which I read in my teens and never forgot.
But – and I think you’ve all got the message by now – I’ll make sure I go in summer.