It’s something that surrounds us in Kaunas, and at the same time is entirely unnoticeable. When thinking about what makes the city unique, Kaunas fortress, born out of anticipation of the World War I, keeps popping into mind.
At the end of the nineteenth century, with the Russian and German relations deteriorating, the empire turned to Kaunas, perhaps the most western part of the Russian Empire. A city located at the confluence of two large rivers, with important railway lines and great infrastructure was supposed to become a dominant defence point.
On the 7th of July, 1879 Russian Emperor Alexander II approved the military leadership’s proposal to build a fortress in Kaunas. Even much of the current urban population have no clue about the scale of this engineering project: all of Kaunas was supposed to be turned into a fortress. It consisted of about 750 objects: batteries, warehouses, hospitals, churches, barracks, administrative buildings, etc. 250 have survived until today. The essential objects, i.e. forts receive the most attention.
After the start of the anticipated conflict, Kaunas fortress collapsed. Despite it being the most modern in the whole of the Russian Empire, the fortifications were breached after 11 days. Kaunas fortress was helpless in the face of rapidly developing military technology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - especially the artillery. All attempts to modernise forts were tardy. After the war, the project lost its defensive purpose. At least 4 forts were left unfinished: Palemonas, Romainiai, Mara and Domeikava.
The current state of the forts is not great, but in the last few years, several significant and necessary steps were taken towards the preservation of this cultural heritage. There were many unsuccessful attempts to sell the forts. The break came only a few years back. At the moment, the preservation and conservation of Kaunas fortress are carried out by Kauno tvirtovės parkas (Kaunas fortress park) and Kauno tvirtovės asociacija (Kaunas fortress association). Each fort has its own crew, and they receive assistance from local volunteer communities. A first festival - one of its kind – Baterija - brought together different art branches and diverse artists - some of them for the first time - into the forts and surrounding objects. Right after that, Kaunas crew travelled to Venice where they attended the meeting of the European Federation of Fortified Sites - Efforts. By the way, this association has an inspirational slogan, “From strongholds to welcoming arms.”
The 1st fort / Šiltnamių g., Kazliškiai
The least urbanised fort, located at the most western point of the city. Today, like several others, it has become a territory occupied by bats. During World War I, the fort was severely damaged by German artillery. Part of its premises is under water. The fort was not protected during the years of Soviet occupation; therefore, it suffered no less than during the war. The fort was used for economic needs, and some of the valuable elements of the facade were dismantled. Currently, it is being managed - tours are held, there is a functioning equestrian centre, and various events are organised. Nearby lie a breathtakingly beautiful Marvelė River valley and cascades. To protect the bat population, the visiting of all vaults of the fort is prohibited from the 1st of October until 1st of May.
The 2nd fort / Pilviškių g., Julijanava
Contrary to the first fort, this one is heavily urbanised. It is surrounded by the settlements of Julijanava and Kazliškiai. The pentagonal layout of the fort has even determined their street network plan. This fort was hit the worst during the World War I. In addition to that, it was also slightly damaged during World War II, at the bombardment of Aleksotas aerodrome. Due to several disastrous events in recent years, many entrances are closed. There are claims that due to lack of activity carried out in the fort, one could probably find soldiers’ remains and unexploded century-old warheads. Now, bats reign there too. It is not recommended to visit the fort. The territory is full of prohibitive and warning signs.
The 3rd fort / Titnago g., Seniava
Compared to the first two, the 3rd fort suffered less during the conflict. In it, you can still see some original details: doors, stairs, railing, etc. The fort has been heavily urbanised. It is surrounded by residential neighbourhoods, and part of its territory is privatised. Currently, it is one of the best-preserved and most used objects in Kaunas fortress. It was tidied up and transferred for the public use with the help of the local community. When bats are not wintering there, the fort is hosting various events and tours. It has a community centre and a permanent exhibition of Lithuanian army clothing. You can reach the fort territory by public transport.
The 4th fort / Plytinės g., Rokai
The leadership of the Tsar’s army hoped that this fort would have to be the first to be attacked by the enemy. However, it didn’t take much part in the defence. The fort has an asymmetrical, tetragonal layout. It is considered to be one of the best fortifications of its time. During the German occupation, about 4000 Jews were killed in the fort. In 1998-1999 the 4th fort was being cleaned and cleared for mines, but later, the works ceased due to discontinued financing. The territory was tidied up again in 2012, but part of its spaces and premises were flooded due to the damaged drainage system. Tours are organised in the fort; however, it is also forbidden to visit the territory during the cold season because of the protected bat population.
The 5th fort / Alksnių g., Zuikinė
This is of the most complex structures in Kaunas fortress because it was set up according to the mountainous terrain. As a result, it became one of the most expensive objects of Kaunas fortress. It was barely untouched during the WWI - only some constructions were demolished by the retreating troops. However, there was a massive explosion in the fort during the WW2, and the circumstances behind it are not precisely known. It is located right next to Kaunas lagoon, in a very picturesque spot. The fortifications are being taken care of, and the large part of the territory belongs to the active paintball club. The environment is quite wild: the fort is hard to see, both from the nearest street and the bird’s eye.
The 6th fort / K. Baršausko g., Kaunas
The fort has hardly suffered any damage in both world wars and is therefore well preserved. During the interwar period, it served as a military prison, where the famous “Four Communards” were shot. During the WW2, about 35 thousand prisoners of war were killed there. During the Soviet period, a tank that supposedly took part in the 1944 liberation of Kaunas was exhibited nearby. Later, a small hill of crosses was set up to commemorate thousands of victims. Nowadays the fort is intensively and actively managed; it is planned to move the exhibition of military technology to the fort from Vilnius. Works are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019, and the exposition will contain about 150 exhibits of war technology. The fort is in a busy city area and is easily accessible.
The 7th fort / Archyvo g., Kaunas
Located near the Hospital of Lithuanian University of Health Sciences. Part of the fort’s territory - trenches and mounds are visible when driving in Sukilelių pr. No military action ever took place in the fort. During the Nazi occupation, the first concentration camp in Lithuania was located in the 7th fort where more than 5,000 Jews were killed. The fort suffered the most during the Soviet occupation: many original details were destroyed during a reconstruction. At the moment, the fort is privatised. It has a museum and many events as well as an informal children’s education is taking place in it. The environment is highly urbanised; a few of the busiest arteries of Kaunas are located nearby.
The 8th fort / Pryšmančių g., Kaunas
It was planned to build only 7 forts in Kaunas, but later on, it was decided to set up two more. This fort was built not only from red bricks but concrete as well. This is the first fort with electrical wiring. It’s funny that the fortification became useless as soon as it was built because due to the oversight it was built on a small hill, and therefore open to the enemy’s fire from nearby heights. Currently, it is abandoned and unattended. A large part of the fort and even some old technology is underwater. Buildings’ inventory hasn’t been checked; they don’t belong to anyone, and a lot of the fort is not formed. It is only actively used by the locals - they have set up their gardens in the territory. Occasionally you can attend poetry readings in the fort.
The 9th fort / Žemaičių pl., Kaunas
The newest and the most modern fort of Kaunas fortress completed just before the WWI, is probably best known to each Kaunas’ resident or anyone else travelling via highway A1. From it, you can see a monument of an impressive size built in 1984 to commemorate the victims of fascism (sculptor Alfonsas Ambraziūnas, architects G. Baravykas and V. Vielius, fine artist K. Morkūnas). During the interwar period, it served as a hard labour prison. Its prisoners were cultivating their own vegetables. In 1940–1941 it was an NKVD prison and later a concentration camp where 30 to 50 thousand Lithuanian citizens were killed. In 1958, a museum was established in the fort, and it has been operating to this day. The museum offers guided tours and exhibits many grievous Nazi and Soviet genocide artefacts. The fort has been renewed, and almost all of its premises are available for visiting.