The in-depth article by architecture historian Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis (originally published in February edition of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine) is a great bonus to our blog entry '18 Facts About Laisvės Alėja' that we posted in December. We hope it's not the last time we're inviting you to Laisvės Alėja, the most important street in Kaunas.
“Let’s meet on the Freedom” is a phrase that at least four generations of Kaunasians grew up hearing. For most, this saying is so familiar that the symbolism behind it is long forgotten. “Laisvė” literally means “freedom” in Lithuanian, but this is not just a name of the avenue, it’s also a token of the different stories which this object faced, and managed to keep its actual freedom.
The people of Kaunas haven’t lost their ability to talk freely even during occupation years – those who remember that period say that the planks with “Stalin’s Avenue” written on them were merely a title for bureaucratic documents, whilst most resident still used the old name “Laisvės Avenue” daily.
Let’s go back 150 years: this avenue wasn’t born out of freedom, it was rather a result of authoritarian planning in the 19th century. The Russian empire’s aim to urbanise its territories lead to a relatively unsuccessful cloning of two types of cities: one was in the shape of a rectangle – this was in the plans for Kaunas too. Such planning wasn’t really logical or adaptable in terms of the geography of different towns, however the main piece of information here is that most blueprints had a single or several main streets planned for an urban area, and the central avenue in Kaunas got the name of Tsar Nicholas.
Without even spending a year in the historic capital of Lithuania, the country’s first government evacuated to Kaunas by train in early 1919. They didn’t know at that time that Kaunas would go on to be the temporary capital for so many years, but they reckoned that since the fight for independence was still on, Lithuanians craved for national symbols and rituals to fill a void in their minds.
The one-year anniversary of independence was the perfect occasion to strengthen the country’s identity, however there wasn’t much money to spend on appropriate public events, so renaming the streets of Kaunas became a valid and important move: the avenue named after Tsar Nicholas and later Kaiser Wilhelm was now called Laisvės, while the former Ivan street was now known as Vasario 16-osios [February 16th].
Over twenty years the muddy, messy avenue – which still sometimes had hoofed animals roaming around – turned into a representative crux of Kaunas. Talking of it, the representative part has widened its spectrum a bit since there weren’t enough vacant lots and most governmental institutions had to settle on K. Donelaičio street nearby.
There’s a saying that we shouldn’t judge the past using today’s standards. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were talks of reconstructing or even demolishing Soboras (St Michael the Archangel Church) in the late 1920s: people still remembered it as being a part of the Russian politics of denationalisation – the main streets of larger cities had Orthodox churches growing like mushrooms and that wasn’t a coincidence at all. Soboras was barely 30 years old at that moment, and the rivalry with Poland was another factor to bring the church to the ground: in 1926, Polish people blew up Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral which had stood in the main square of Warsaw.
The active life of Bohemians added another layer to the freedom cake of our avenue: most cultural and leisure events of Kaunas took place here. We shouldn’t forget that the buildings which are mostly associated with losing the freedom are still right here too: it was the state theatre – one of the most significant cultural hotspots of the country – that witnessed Soviet government officially declaring its regime in Lithuania, while the former USSR consulate building in the beginning of the street was used to recruit the local weaker-spirited cultural individuals.
The former house of security and municipal affairs saw Soviet agents changing the function of the building into a one of torturing dissidents and partisans. Symbolically, the avenue got the name of Stalin in 1940, yet lost that name right after that until 1944.
When the “Khrushchev warming” was upon the union, the avenue regained its title back, but that had two meanings to it: from one side, the street was given the name which was already used by most people; from the other side, it was a certain legitimisation of the Soviet regime, which carried the message “Lithuanian SSR has all the freedoms it needs”. In any case, this avenue name reflected the mentality of independent Kaunasians, and the avenue became a symbolic and also actual place for Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation. A completely new generation was fighting for freedom here – they hadn’t seen independence before, but they accepted the memory fragments received from their parents and added their own western twist to it. Once again, “the freedom avenue” wasn’t merely a name.
Despite some buildings on this avenue suffering heavy architectural loss during Soviet years, one of the essential elements of the street was given to it by the architects of those very days. Since the late 1950s, Europe experienced a wave of pedestrianisation, with special zones being dedicated to pedestrians all around the continent. Laisvės Avenue wasn’t the first place like that in Lithuania, but its new role and the unique architectural conception resulted in a speedy adaptation to the city’s life. It became part of the freedom symbolism.
Much like after 1918, the reputation of the avenue wasn’t great in the 1990s as well: scandalous stories accompanied many of its buildings; there was much work to be done in terms of architecture and aesthetics. Even though the street was packed during daytime, it turned into an empty space in the evenings because of high crime rate. In spite of entering a new era, organising a large number of nocturnal events, architects preparing close-to-utopian reconstruction projects, Laisvės Avenue was still associated with anarchy and was often referred to as “the shoe avenue”. The story of Laisvės radio station is a good illustration of how things went down in the 1990s: with the circumstances being very unclear, December of 1998 had radio speakers installed throughout the whole avenue – they were supposed to play instrumental music, be an advertising medium and, most importantly, provide information about various things happening within the street. More often than not they just broadcasted an advert of Urmas shopping centre, while several hundred complaints were filed against them in just a few months.
We have the “Freedom Avenue” back today, free of pseudo-anarchist intricacies of the 1990s. After congratulating Lithuania during the centennial celebrations in 2018, we can wait for February 16th, 2019 to sing “happy 100th birthday” to the biggest symbol of freedom in Kaunas.