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Literary Life in the Cafés of Vilnius
Rimantas Kmita
Informal literary life in the 1960s and 1970s bustled in private spaces, improvized literary “salons,” artists’ studios, editorial offices of leading periodicals, and also in cafés. These private gatherings and the sharing and discussion of books were among the most significant manifestations of unofficial literary life, given the nearly complete absence of unofficial publications or self-published literary work at the time.
The Soviet era is often remembered for time spent gathered in cafés, which became the preferred spot for meetings and discussions. The first modern Lithuanian café, the Neringa, designed by brothers Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis, opened in Vilnius in 1959.
The Neringa Café was an instant hit with artists and the cultural community overall, including graphic artist Stasys Krasauskas, painter Augustinas Savickas, linguist Bronys Savukynas, chemist and educator Kazys Daukšas, economist and writer Domas Cesevičius, composers Benjaminas Gorbulskis and Algimantas Bražinskas, writers Juozas Baltušis, Aleksys Churginas, Eduardas Mieželaitis, Algimantas Baltakis, as well as their contemporaries from Moscow, collectively called the  “shestidesyatniki” (the 60s generation): Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Vasily Aksyonov, Robert Rozhdestvensky, and Andrei Voznesensky.
The Neringa Café, in particular its so-called “Professor’s Table,” is often remembered not only as a favored gathering place of the Bohemian set, but also as a kind of "university" where intellectuals from the inter-war independent Lithuania could share the knowledge they gained during their studies abroad and discuss foreign policy and cultural issues.
The Neringa Café was designed to be the main restaurant serving the hotel of the same name, which often hosted foreign guests. It’s not surprising, then, that the café was also favored by the KGB for the collection of intelligence. Many recall, however, that the presence of listening devices was well known and that fact did not inhibit the numerous, quite candid, discussions taking place at the café.
Though Poet Justinas Marcinkevičius reflected back on the “Neringa era” with some nostalgia after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, Laima Lavastė, Ligita Valonytė, „Legendinėje kavinėje skambėjo ir laisvės idėjos, ir meilės žodžiai“, Lietuvos rytas, 2009 11 07,  when the café opened and was growing in popularity, he criticized younger writers for spending too much time there:
I sometimes worry about our lifestyle. What kind of life do some of our younger writers see for themselves, for example? Their apartment, the editorial offices in which they work. They see the same friends nearly every day and hear the same literary talk, resolving for the hundredth time the same literary questions that, over time, turn into microscopic problems the size of a poppy seed, inflated by the "Neringa Café effect" while sitting on the embankment or under the heat of a string of lights. […] We don’t work enough. And where else does character develop if not at work? Perhaps at our wonderful "Neringa Café"? 1960 m. vasario mėn. 23–24 d. įvykusio išplėstinio LTSR Rašytojų sąjungos Valdybos plenumo stenografinis protokolas, LLMA, f. 34, ap. 1, b. 432, l. 5, 118.
And yet, many ideas were born at the Neringa. For Algimantas Baltakis, it was the place where he often met the authors contributing to the literary journal Pergalė, where he served as editor. Legend also has it that the Neringa Café was also where the idea for the famous film Niekas nenorėjo mirti (Nobody Wanted To Die, the controversial 1966 movie about a village torn between anti-Soviet partisans and pro-government officials) was hatched.
One could hear jazz music, long considered a suspicious genre under Soviet rule, playing at the Neringa, hosting such legendary jazz performers as Vladimir Tarasov, Vyacheslav Ganelin with bass player Grigory Talas, and in the 1980s—Leonid Shinkarenko, Vytautas Labutis, Petras Vyšniauskas, and Gediminas Laurinavičius.
The Neringa was also a popular gathering place for dissident intellectuals, including Tomas Venclova, Pranas Morkus, and Aleksandras Štromas, and Joseph Brodsky wrote his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement” here.
The younger artistic generation, born around 1950, chose to gather at other locations. One of these was the bar known as “Literatų svetainė” (The Writer’s Parlor), at the start of Gediminas (then Leninas) Avenue, on the site of the historic “Birutė” café, Lithuania’s first. Mrs. Šabaniauskienė, wife of singer Antanas Šabaniauskas, was among the bar’s hosts.
It was a place where artists from both the older and younger generations could meet. Even as a lowly student, you could pull up a chair by a table and start a discussion with a famous writer. Jūratė Važgauskaitė, Gediminas Stanišauskas, „Paskutiniai ‘Suokalbioʼ bohemos akordai“, Panorama, 2007 06 15.
Unlike the more studious Neringa Café, where just getting inside was often difficult, the crowd at Literatų svetainė was quite diverse—full of outsiders, students, as well as renowned writers. Marcelijus Martinaitis wrote:
An entire generation of writers completed their ‘internship’ after the war. Later, it was even given it’s own informal name: "chez Šabaniauskienė." [Her husband] Šabaniauskas would spend time here too, and P. Širvys probably felt more at home here then in his "empty and cold home, where no one waited for him." One of the last people I saw there before the café was remodeled was Vytautas Kavolis, grading his students’ work. Marcelijus Martinaitis, „Vilniau, kaime mano…“, Literatūra ir menas, 2007 04 20.
Jonas Strielkūnas’ poem “Retro” captures the most important symbols of the Literatų bar:
When the glow slowly dies over Vilnius,
like it would over some small town, and fewer passersby walk the streets,
I, like Širvys, want to be back in a noisy bar at night,
Where the shadows of our youth still dance to forgotten music.
Let that intoxicating cocktail of our sins, fears, loss and hope
come back to that dingy bar.
Pour me another, Mrs. Šabaniauskienė,
No one closes this life until after midnight, I feel.
August 10, 2002  Jonas Strielkūnas, Ligi dvyliktos, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2003.
For the younger generation, however, the most important concentration of cafés was the so-called Bermuda Triangle. People and artists of different generations speak less about specific cafés that once made up the Triangle and more about the general lay of the land there, which might be described thus:
Vaiva" near Gorki Street, a bit to the right and toward the University there was "Bistro," and on the same street, a bit higher up, "Bačka" (The Barrel, but actually known as Ugnelė - the Little Flame), then turning down Muziejaus Street toward St. Nicholas’ Church there was "Žibutė" (Violet), and further still, almost at the Avenue (or Brodas - Broadway) – "Žuvėdra" (Seagull). Coming back around there were the "stones" at the Cathedral, well worn by all our sitting, and then, completing the cartographic triangle along the banks of the Vilnelė, the summer café "Rotonda," which led one back to Vaiva in the autumn. Jūratė Kavaliauskaitė, „Autentiškumo eksperimentai: ką reiškė prapulti Vilniaus senamiesčio ‘Bermudų trikampyjeʼ?“, in: Nematoma sovietmečio visuomenė, mokslinė redaktorė Ainė Ramonaitė, Vilnius: Naujasis Židinys-Aidai, 2015, p. 62.
The Bermuda Triangle was frequented by young people in search of a more free lifestyle: the hippies and “informals” of the days, including the children of some of the era's cultural elite. Some of them wrote, others photographed and painted, exchanging books, but all of them shared a common view of the world and one “intangibly expressible idea” (Romualdas Trachimas). Jūratė Kavaliauskaitė, „Autentiškumo eksperimentai: ką reiškė prapulti Vilniaus senamiesčio ‘Bermudų trikampyjeʼ?“, in: Nematoma sovietmečio visuomenė, mokslinė redaktorė Ainė Ramonaitė, Vilnius: Naujasis Židinys-Aidai, 2015, p. 97. They were mostly drawn to communion with others like themselves, with their own people. In the words of Antanas A. Jonynas: “our way of life then was a bit different, the times were different—that entire Soviet era—that interaction alone sustained you, which was very important. Audinga Peluritytė-Tikuišienė, Senieji mitai, naujieji pasakojimai: apie naujausią lietuvių literatūrą, Vilnius: Gimtasis žodis, 2006, p. 182.
When asked what most drew him out onto the streets, poet Aidas Marčėnas replied:
How do I know? […] Such was life. That was where your friends were. Today, you walk past "Vaiva" and there’s nothing—you know no one—but back then you’d go there knowing that someone would be hanging out here; someone would have a story to tell. If you were thirsty, you’d have a drink; if you wanted to talk, you’d find someone to talk with. „Likau XX amžiaus žmogus“. Liudvikas Jakimavičius kalbina Aidą Marčėną, Literatūra ir menas, 2010 03 05.
A network of establishments, though less shrouded in legend and not quite as fancy as the Neringa, drew a number of artists to a stretch of today’s Gediminas Avenue near the “Vaga” publishing house. The neighborhood attracted residents from the nearby leafy suburb of Žvėrynas and was centrally located near several cultural and academic institutions, including the Lithuanian Conservatory, the dormitories of the Art Institute and Academy of Sciences, the Semiconductor and Chemistry Institutes of the Academy of Sciences, the Urban Planning Institute, and “Komprojektas”, the central planning design enterprise. This explains why such cafés as “Rūta,” “Mėta,” and “Žarija”, and the beer bar “Tauro ragas” (on today’s V. Kudirkos Street) would draw the “intellectual bohemians,” as Jonynas called them—architects, philosophers, scientists, musicians, and writers. Autoriaus pokalbis su Antanu A. Jonynu, 2015 12 11. This particularly Bohemian community was better socially adapted, with professional careers, while the “Gorkynė set”, gathering in the Bermuda Triangle, consisted more of younger people living on the margins of society.
Here one could run into Ričardas Gavelis, Saulius Tomas Kondrotas, or, wandering over from Žvėrynas—Jurgis Kunčinas, Juozas Erlickas, or Algirdas Verba. The Vaga publishing house was a particularly lively place where one could go for both company and literary pursuits. Historian Alfredas Bumblauskas jokes that the Sąjūdis national reform movement was born in the beer bars of Vilnius. Artūras Jančys, „Legendiniuose alaus baruose sovietmečiu kalėsi ir laisvės daigai“,
In the day, employees working at the editorial offices lining today’s Gediminas Avenue (Komjaunimo tiesa [Communist Youth Truth], Jaunimo gretos [The Ranks of Youth], and others) and the community working and performing at the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre would gather at the “Dainava” and “Palanga” restaurants, the latter being a particular favorite of poet Paulius Širvys. The Dainava boasted of an outside terrace, a rare commodity in the day, which guests called “the bed.” Both the Palanga and the Dainava had evening dance hours.
Toward the start of Gediminas Avenue, the Writer’s Union Café was open late—one could always find writers there of various different ages.
Poet Liutauras Degėsys recalls that the former “Žuvėdra” cafeteria on Vilniaus Street also was a popular gathering spot for younger people, including Saulius Tomas Kondrotas, actor Nijolė Oželytė, and poet Vytautas Rubavičius. The Žuvėdra, like the Narutis Café and Hotel, had a jukebox where one could even find selections from The Beatles.
The café at the Exhibition Hall (today the Contemporary Art Centre) was primarily a gathering spot for artists, but it also saw its share of writers (Kondrotas, Gavelis).
Particularly when compared to contemporary Vilnius, it becomes clear that every time period has its own style and “infrastructure” of social interaction. There are very few memoirs about “Gorkynė” (Gorki Street, today’s Didžioji) in which the author doesn’t look back fondly on the cafés there—now all long shuttered and gone. Vilnius today has lost all of its historic cafés with their unique pasts and cultural traditions, and only the Neringa Café remains with its original interior intact—but with an entirely different clientele and spirit.


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Sources and links

1960 m. vasario mėn. 23–24 d. įvykusio išplėstinio LTSR Rašytojų sąjungos Valdybos plenumo stenografinis protokolas
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 34, ap. 1, b. 432, l. 5, 118
„Likau XX amžiaus žmogus“. Liudvikas Jakimavičius kalbina Aidą Marčėną
Literatūra ir menas, 2010 03 05
„Legendinėje kavinėje skambėjo ir laisvės idėjos, ir meilės žodžiai“
Lietuvos rytas, 2009 11 07
„Legendiniuose alaus baruose sovietmečiu kalėsi ir laisvės daigai“
„Autentiškumo eksperimentai: ką reiškė prapulti Vilniaus senamiesčio ‘Bermudų trikampyjeʼ?“
Nematoma sovietmečio visuomenė, mokslinė redaktorė Ainė Ramonaitė, Vilnius: Naujasis Židinys-Aidai, 2015, p. 62–104
„Vilniau, kaime mano…“
Literatūra ir menas, 2007 04 20
Senieji mitai, naujieji pasakojimai: apie naujausią lietuvių literatūrą
Vilnius: Gimtasis žodis, 2006
Ligi dvyliktos
Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2003
„Paskutiniai ‘Suokalbioʼ bohemos akordai“ [Pradinis šaltinis: Panorama, 2007 06 15]
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