As a result of the WWII and in the course of the post-war decades, Vilnius experienced such immense social, cultural and demographic cataclysms that seem rather exceptional even in the context of that dramatic historical period. Before the WWII, the majority of Vilnius inhabitants consisted of Polish and Jewish population, with Lithuanians making only less than 1 per cent (in 1931). During the war, over 90 per cent of the 60 000 Jews that inhabited Vilnius in 1939 were killed, along with all their vibrant and rich Litvak culture (thanks to which Vilnius had earned the name of “the Jerusalem of the North”) being extinguished. Moreover, another dramatic demographic cataclysm awaited right after the war – in 1944–1946, when the Soviet regime initiated the so-called campaign of “exchanging” the ethnic Poles and Lithuanians with Poland. This Soviet homogenization plan is considered by historians to be simply a forced eviction campaign bearing certain traits of ethnic cleansing. However, it resulted in 80 per cent of the surviving Vilnius population (about 90 000 of people out of about 110 000) being forcefully moved to the empty East Prussian territories that fell to Poland after the WWII. Those not willing to leave were threatened with deportation to Siberia. Among the expatriated was nearly all the Polish and Jewish cultural elite and intelligentsia of the inter-war period, who the Soviets were especially anxious to get rid of. While in exchange, a ridiculously small number of Lithuanians (only about 14 people) arrived from Poland.
Thus, with over 90 per cent of its former inhabitants either killed or exiled, the city was left empty and devastated. Big part of it was ruined. Statistically, about 34 per cent of 525 buildings in the central part of Vilnius were more or less damaged during the war. However, many of them could have been renovated, but were completely demolished instead already after the war – to make space for the massive urban reconstruction efforts undertaken by the Soviet regime along with attempts at shaping the collective memory and erasing part of the Vilnius history that did not suite its ideological purposes. New streets and infrastructure were formed, the old streets renamed, and new monuments erected.
Having changed also its political system and national affiliation, the devastated city gradually filled in with new population. Immediately after the war, when Lithuanians were not too enthusiastic to move to the empty and ruined city because of its extremely poor living conditions, a big number of people came to Vilnius from Belorussia, Ukraine and various Russian regions. Many of them were escaping from even greater poverty and famine in their war-devastated lands, but a considerable number were “professionals” brought by the Moscow authorities to ensure promotion of the Communist ideology and the Soviet-style modernization. While people from various regions of Lithuania moved to Vilnius mostly in an attempt to escape threatening deportations and hoping to hide in the big and disorderly city.
Lithuanians started moving to Vilnius in greater numbers only in the second post-war decade, after the forced collectivization was completed in the countryside, turning most of the farmers off their land. After Stalin’s death in 1954, these newcomers also included former deportees released from Siberia, but banned from returning to their native communities. However, majority of the people coming to Vilnius in the late 1950s and 1960s were planning either to study at the University or the newly established institutions of higher education, or to work in numerous newly built factories. Vilnius gradually became a Lithuanian city in the sense that ethnic Lithuanians formed and increasingly bigger part of its population (finally, in 1989 the part of Lithuanians reached over 50 per cent).
The new arrivals mostly came from the villages or small townships, bringing along their typical everyday routines, tactics of procuring the necessary living means, and ways of communication. In the first post-war decade, marked by massive devastation, shortages and lack of supplies, interpersonal relations and mutual assistance were of utmost importance: people formed “country-like” neighborhoods in the city, helping and supporting each other almost as family members. Some of them even engaged in agricultural practices (growing vegetables in the yards of the city center, etc.). According to their narratives, at that time they did not care so much for the city’s history, culture, and identity, even for the enforced socialist ideology, concentrating instead on daily survival.
The situation altered significantly from the late 1950s, when relative economic growth started to yield its results. The government launched an extensive housing program, with entire new living areas of residential blocks springing up in rather short time. Many families were able to acquire new modern flats and upgrade their living conditions. However, as is evident from the memoirs, this also involved growing alienation and breaking of the formerly established social ties. As a rule, people arriving to Vilnius at that period were much less concerned with daily survival, therefore they seem to have been much more inclined to reflect upon the history and culture of Vilnius, its symbolic significance as the Lithuanian capital, and its urban identity. However, even they preserved some of their inherited rustic practices and preferences in taste and ways of living, creating some kind of peculiar “folk-urban” identity of the Vilnius’ dwellers.
All these shifts and developments are the subject of the autobiographical narratives that are in the focus of the present research project. The collected narrative material presents the post-war Vilnius history and modernization at its grass-root level and from an individual perspective.