Nearly a decade on from visiting, Vilnius lives in my mind as a city of statues. From the Green Bridge’s awe-inspiringly huge socialist realist figures of soldiers, workers, farmers and students, since controversially removed, to the incongruous bust of Frank Zappa erected by a bunch of avant-gardists from the city’s self-declared Republic of Užupis, Vilnius is a place where the monumental matters.
But there is a statue outside the city’s oldest church which just should not be there. The representation of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of Vilnius whose feast day is celebrated in the city on July 25, shows him as a great muscled giant, tenderly bracing the Christ child against his cheek, but straining every sinew to plunge forward into a rushing river – the legend tells us the small boy suddenly became “heavy as lead”. The statue was intended for the city’s Rasai Cemetery, but it ended up being installed in the churchyard in 1959 instead.
In fact, the statue should not really have existed at all. As a tribute to a former priest of the Church of St. Nicholas, Kristupas Čibiras, who was killed in Soviet bombing of the city during the war, and a religious symbol in a time of state-enforced atheism under the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, it was a major gamble for its artist, Antanas Kmieliauskas. He would be excluded from the Lithuanian Artists’ Union for making it.
But the statue was doubly dangerous as a symbol of Lithuanian national pride. The process of ‘Sovietisation’ had seen Vilnius’ coat of arms featuring Saint Christopher banned, while Čibiras had been a prominent champion of Lithuanian culture, even participating in the 1917 Vilnius Conference which laid the ground for an independent Lithuania. Kmieliauskas’ tribute to Čibiras was therefore a monument to aspirations of national self-determination as much as anything else.
Saint Christopher’s Day this year founds the city continuing to celebrate both its past and its future in spite of an ongoing existential threat from Russia, one writ large when July’s successful NATO summit was swiftly followed by concerns that the strategically important Suwałki Gap running between Belarus and Kaliningrad on the southern border was facing imminent occupation by Wagner troops.
The day is marked with a music festival bringing together the old and the new through a series of unlikely duets of Lithuanian artists, for example pop starlet Jessica Shy taking the stage with Igoris Kofas, frontman of spiky 1990s synth-rockers Lemon Joy.
The festival’s title, As Young As Vilnius, is one which acknowledged Saint Christopher’s association with youth and, as part of the city’s 700th-anniversary celebrations, is typical of the Lithuanian tendency to the wilfully absurd, but it is also one which shows that Lithuania – like Kmieliauskas’ statue – may be carrying the weight of the world on its shoulders, but is always striding forward.