I’ve just been on holiday to the Baltic states, and when I left Vilnius at the end of July there were posters of the poet Czeslaw Miłosz everywhere. (And I mean everywhere; it was if someone had bought up the city’s outdoor advertising inventory for a product launch). Miłosz won the Nobel Prize for Literarature in 1980, and this year marks the centenary of his birth. There is also a newly unveiled plaque to Miłosz in the University in Vilnius, also to mark his centenary.
Now, normally, I’d have written ‘Polish’ in front of the word ‘poet’ in the first sentence of this post, but in the complex 20th century history of central Europe, with its shifting borders, it seems that things are not exactly as they appear.
Miłosz wrote in Polish, and lived and worked in what is now Poland for nearly twenty years, but he was raised in what is now Lithuania – but was at the time of his birth still part of Tsarist Russia. He also attended university in Vilnius. Researching this post, I discovered that he identified himself as both Polish and Lithuanian. A couple of quotes in his entry in Wikipedia capture this ambiguity:
“I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian.”.
“My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English, so I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me”.
These multiple identities, of course, are common across many parts of the world, especially those marked by wars and migration. In the second half of his life, Miłosz lived in France and then the United States. And if you’re one of Europe’s newest states, it is important to make these claims: Lithuania, like the other Baltic states, first became independent in 1918, only to be invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, regaining its independence only in 1990. The advertising is working; for I’d have known none of this had the city not been decked in posters advertising the country’s most famous poet.
The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.