Lithuanian Culture Institute

100 Years in One Month: The Athens of the North

Lithuanian Culture Institute
Vilnius buildings on a hill

Birutė Bikelytė's illustration

In 1990 restored Lithuania took not just political but also cultural traditions and ideas from the interwar years of the republic. In that pre-internet era a significant role in forming a new cultural programme and a value orientation was then played by the cultural press, which was published in print runs in the tens of thousands and widely read. It is not hard to guess where its ideological influence lay from the titles of the publications that began to be published: the interwar journal Naujoji Romuva (The New Romuva), revived under the same name, and instead of using the name Židinys (The Hearth), another interwar journal, a new journal with the name Naujasis Židinys (The New Hearth) appeared. The new cultural journal Šiaurės Atėnai (The Athens of the North) appeared just before the restoration of independence. Even though there had never been a publication with that name before, its ideological thread stretched back to the interwar years. 

The name of the periodical was borrowed from the vision created by the diplomat and poet Oscar Milosz (1877–1939), who lived in France. The poet prophesied that Europe would endure a catastrophe in which Lithuania would also suffer. However, Lithuania would later recover and rise up as a kingdom of spirituality which he called ‘The Athens of the North’. As an earlier European civilization had risen from the Hellenic Athens in the South, now from the Athens in the North, that is, in Lithuania, a new European civilization will be able to grow because of this country’s very deep history and culture. 

The publishers of this new cultural periodical did not have any civilizational ambitions to save Europe. In giving the publication the title The Athens of the North, they harboured the opposite goal – to contribute to Lithuania’s return to Europe, which is ‘inseparable from democracy, from political and civic rights, and from being a free and responsible person’. The Athens of the North meant a reminder saying that Lithuania should not close itself off in a stronghold of ethnicity but had to see itself in the context of all of Europe and base itself on its universal values. ‘Athens is the beginning of a universal life, comprehensible to all humanity. Athens means universal values, which in defending them every nation matured. Athens is the constant measuring stick of contemporary civilization and progress,’ wrote the editors in greeting their readers. Their vision expressed the belief that Lithuania could return to Europe only by actively creating culture. 

The famous semiotician Algirdas Julius Greimas (1917–1992), an exile also resident in France, was of a similar opinion, even though he did not specifically mention The Athens of the North. In 1991 he suggested that a Council for Culture, made up of experts and with an advisory voice, be created under the institution of the presidency, which could suggest ‘an ideal utopian model of a future Lithuania, one of a kind that we wished for’ and the ways and means by means of which we could come close to such a model. This think-tank of visions should also think about agriculture, science, economics and social problems, but it was clear that most of all it should help the implementation of not just an ‘economic revolution, but also a transformation in the culture of the nation and its lifestyle’, which would mean its cultural integration into the Western world. 

Tomas Vaiseta