Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Stroll Down Memory Lane, a.k.a. Tilžės Street

The origins of the city of Šiauliai go back to the thirteenth century and to the efforts of the Teutonic Order to convert the not-always-entirely-grateful locals to Christianity.  Another of the key dates has to do with the conferring of urban rights upon the city in 1568.  The cathedral, one of the few architectural treasures to survive the two twentieth-century world wars, dates from 1625.

But this chronology probably exaggerates the antiquity of the place.  It was not until the eighteenth century that modern industry—in the form of a textile mill, a tannery, and a brewery—appeared in the city.  And my informants tell me that it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that several key transportation links opened this corner of the world up to trade and modern commerce.  Arguably the most important of these was a road that was cut southwest from Riga, the Latvian capital on the Baltic coast, through Šiauliai and onward to the East Prussian town that the Germans called Tilsit.  This road still exerts an influence on this part of Eastern Europe.  Within the corporate limits of the city of Šiauliai, the road is called Tilžės (the Lithuanian version of Tilsit) gatvė, and it is the city’s main NE-SW traffic artery.  I learned most of this from my colleague, Aiste Lazauskiene, the author of Miestai ir Miesteliai, a very fine book of photographs documenting the modern history of Lithuanian towns and villages.

Jane and I are living in the city center here in Šiauliai.  In fact, our flat is on the fourth floor of a building situated on a pedestrian street—one that attracted quite a lot of attention back in the 1970s, when it was celebrated as the first pedestrian district in the U.S.S.R.  As it happens, our flat is some three blocks from Tilžės street, and that’s where I go in the morning to catch a #12 bus that takes Tilžės Street to the southern edge of the city, home to the Šiauliai University Social Sciences Fakulty.

In Europe, instead of municipal street signs, they hang plaques on the sides of buildings (see photo #1, above)—clever little signs that tell you the street address, but also (by means of that little triangular thingie underneath the number), the direction of the street numbers’ ascent and descent.  During my first few trips on the #12 bus, I noticed what I thought were a great many street signs that had been defaced—usually by rubbing out the street name while leaving the number itself intact.  You probably can see where I’m going with this (see photo #2, above).

I figured that after 1940, during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, the name of Tilžės street was changed to something more politically correct, and that in turn had to be undone when Lithuania restored its independence as the Soviet Union was dissolving in the early 1990s.  I’m assuming that city officials on both occasions thought it more important to install up-to-date street signs in the city center, rather than on the periphery, where it would have been easier to make allowances for obsolete street signage (most of the old ones seem to be blue; the newer ones are mostly green) with rubbed-out street names.  And that would explain the increased rate of defacement as one approaches the outskirts of town.  I proposed this hypothesis to Aieste, who seemed to think it plausible.

So, all I needed to test my idea was a detailed street map printed sometime between 1940 and 1990.  Unfortunately, these do not appear to be lying around just anywhere.  I still haven’t found one!  And so I put out a call to the Šiauliai University library, and the librarians there, led by the redoubtable Vilija Montviliene, managed to turn my hunch into a real research project; she even got her family involved!  A few days ago, Vilija confirmed my hypothesis.  As the Big Enchilada of Šiauliai streets, Tilžės gatvė was accorded the honor of being rechristened (so to speak) Lenino Street.

Then Vilija unveiled the results of her own research.  There were many streets that changed names under the Soviets, and what I learned from Vilija was that the street names jettisoned by the Soviets—the street names of interwar Šiauliai—serve as eloquent reminders of the importance of journalists and the literati in the national language and culture movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  Here are what I regard as some of the highlights of Vilija’s research (by the way, gatvė is the Lithuanian word for street):

·        Aušros alėja (Dawn Avenue) was named for Lithuania’s first newspaper, Dawn (1883-1886); the street was rechristened V. Kapsuko gatvė by the Soviets.  Kapsukas, a revolutionary politician, was one of the founders of the Lithuanian Communist Party.

·        J. Basanavičiaus gatvė was named in honor of the first editor of Dawn, signer of the Declaration of Independence, scientist, and medical doctor; the Soviets changed the name of the street to Taikos, meaning peace.

·        V. Bielskio gatvė was meant to honor an engineer, journalist, and underground book distributor who also was a Šiauliai resident; when their turn came, the Soviets countered with K. Preikšo, a Communist party activist.

·        Dvaro gatvė is a reference to a formidable 19th-century estate (dvaras in Lithuanian).  The Communists had no use for estates, so they turned the street into a tribute to Marytė Melnikiaitės, a young Soviet partisan who was tortured and killed by the Nazis.  (See photo #3, above.)

·        As a place of residence, Russian aristocrats sometimes preferred Lithuania to Mother Russia.  One such was Count Zubovo, a celebrated philanthropist.  When the Soviets had their innings, they countered with Alexandr Pushkin, the romantic poet and writer.

·        Vincas Kudirkos was a Lithuanian doctor, novelist, poet, critic, translator, editor of a newspaper called the Bell, and composer of both the music and the lyrics of the Lithuanian national anthem; he was, in short, a renaissance man.  When it came time for the Soviets to demote Kudirkos, they did so by putting in his place a Communist Party functionary named Karolis Požela.

·        Lukšio street was named for Povilas Lukšys, the first Lithuanian soldier to die in the independence movement at the end of the Great War; his successor on the street signs was the month of October—Spalio in Lithuanian—a reference, of course, to the October Revolution in Russia.

·        Miglovasos gatvė was named for a Lithuanian writer and book distributor; the Soviets changed it to Sportininkų gatvė, i.e., Sportsman’s street.

·        J. Šliūpo gatvė was named for Jonas Šliūpas, another doctor and all-purpose publisher who was born in the Šiauliai region.  His replacement on the street signs was I. Michurin, a biologist who rejected Mendelian principles of genetic inheritance as being insufficiently Marxist.  The Soviets, who intended to build the human race anew, found Michurin’s logic irresistible.

·        Meanwhile, Mariiampolės gatvė, named for a non-descript Lithuanian town, was scrapped to make way for T. Lysenko, the “geneticist” who, inspired by Michurin’s theories, conducted crackpot agricultural campaigns that resulted in mass famine all over the Soviet Union.  (Comrade Lysenko believed, in short, that dogs raised in the woods give birth to wolves.)

·        When it came time to rechristen Trakų gatvė, a tribute to the original Lithuanian capital of Trakai, near Vilnius, the Soviets came up with A. Kleinerio gatvė; Alteris Kleineris was Secretary of the Communist Party in Šiauliai.

·        Varpo Street, which is very near our flat in the city center, is a reference to Varpas, or Bell, the national newspaper of the early twentieth century.  After World War II, the Soviets changed it to Komunarų gatvė, a reference to generic communards or communes.

·        Vasario 16 gatvė, also in the city center, is a reference to the day—February 16, 1918—that Lithuanians celebrate their independence; the Soviets substituted Gegužės gatvė, International Labour Day.

Those are the ones that I found most interesting.  In the post-World War II era, other streets in Šiauliai were renamed for Maxim Gorky, May Day, the Soviet Cosmonauts, and locally prominent communist mayors or other politicians.  A city is a palimpsest, some more so than others.

There is an irony here.  The town that the Germans used to know as Tilsit—the city that Šiauliai honors with the street it once again calls Tilžės gatvė—currently lies just across the Lithuanian border in the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad (they call it an exclave, by which they mean a non-contiguous enclave, an interesting idea in itself) and it is now called Sovetsk.  So much for Tilsit, and East Prussia, for that matter.  The victors get to write the histories—and name the streets.



  1. A similar changing of names occurred in Columbus' German Village at the time of WWI. Shiller Park, named after the famous German poet, became Washingtom Park (since returned to the original name); my address changed for Seibert St to Sixth St; and there were others I don't recall. Names can get changed by the occupying aggressor, as well as by the politics of the residents of the city or neighborhood.

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Michael. Shiller Park became Washington Park, but German Village was still German Village? Not Dutch Village?

  3. Good question. I'm not sure the german village was German Village back then. I think that was a product of the renewal/restoration effort and gentrification that began in the 1960s.

  4. I suspected that might be the case. Very, very interesting.