3 Quarks Daily pointed me towards Tomas Venclova's essay how the city of Vilnius, now the capital of independent Lithuania, has long been the object of desire for numerous competing (but potentially complimentary) nationalisms.
The text of Vilnius has been abundantly discussed on many occasions, though the term "text", now widely exploited in cultural studies, may not always be used. The text of Vilnius is undoubtedly among the most interesting in Europe and has features we would not find in other larger and more influential texts. Vilnius is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is frequently mentioned, too, allowing us to see Vilnius as a pastoral city with "wild" but idyllic nature intruding into the city centre and adorning its baroque décor. Another feature of Vilnius, which has recently become particularly fashionable for its "political correctness", is its multicultural, polyglot nature, linking the Lithuanian capital to Czech Prague, Italian Trieste or Bosnia and Herzegovina's Sarajevo. The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century Jesuit dramas, where Lithuanian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.
But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied stories and cultural discourses overlay one another, letting dissimilar, even competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict and an urgent need to choose. According to Milosz, a resident of Vilnius is neither Lithuanian nor Polish nor Belarusian. I would suggest that he or she is in some ways reminiscent of Kekstas – Lithuanian poet, Polish soldier and Russian prisoner.
What probably marks Vilnius most strongly is the fact that the city is almost always construed as an object of nostalgia. The text of Vilnius is created by people severed from their city and thus extremely sensitive to the particulars of its everyday life: at this point one should remember Kekstas and his extraordinary letters, but also more prominent personalities, for instance, Czeslaw Milosz or Adam Mickiewicz. There is a similarity between Vilnius and Warsaw here, but in the text of Warsaw, nostalgia surfaces either during the war years as, for instance, in Julian Tuwim's and Aleksander Wat's texts, or marks the longing for the past, for the irrevocably destroyed pre-war city. In the text of Vilnius, such emotional complexity is also present, but nostalgia here is more frequent, more deeply rooted and more multilayered. And – this is probably the most important aspect – it affects not only individuals but entire ethnic and national groups. I suggested a long time ago that the Lithuanian capital had always been a border city with its border moving from place to place over the years: Vilnius would, for instance, find itself close to the lands of the Teutonic Order (Prussia – ed.) or, in the interwar period, some 30 kilometres from independent Lithuania; now, too, it is located 150 kilometres from Poland and a mere 30 kilometres from Alexander Lukashenka's Belarus and thus at the eastern border of the European Union. This bordering frequently cut off the nation nostalgic about the city considered theirs: before World War II, these were the Lithuanians; now they are the Poles, Belarusians and Israel-based Jews.