I am not religious by any means, and if you think this post will be a theological discussion, then I am sure you can find another site on the internet which will pander to your ecclesiastic proclivities. Instead, this is about my travel to this historical site, and the significance this location played in Lithuanian nationalistic sentiment.
Upon awaking in the city of Kaunas, my friend Tom and I went in search of the hill of crosses in Lithuania, 15 kilometers north of the town of Siauliai. Unlike other visitors traveling to this location who take part in pilgrimages or are possessed by a yearning for an overwhelming religious experience, we decided to explore this location for the peculiarity and uniqueness this site boasts. To see something of this magnitude was awe inspiring in of itself, and my pictures and words cannot pay homage to this site, which blends history, religion, and defiance all at the top of a hill–which, in my opinion, is more of a bump on the ground.
Down a narrow country road, with verdant fields stretching out on both sides, we came to the Hill of Crosses. We had traveled a few hours from Kaunas that morning after having breakfast at a Russian cafe which is still trapped in the sixties. Its wall of golden wood paneling adorned with leather, geometric, multicolored mural artwork, brought one back to a time when the Soviet Union dominated this country, with reckless abandon for style. This cafe, serving only piroshki–the soft, doughy, egg washed exterior nestling a myriad of meat fillings–was a spectacular surprise. These savory meat pastries were the perfect accompaniment with the strong black coffee, melting my cup and saucer, as its diaphanous steam wafted into the cool air of the cafe. Pleasantly full and ready for adventure, we steered our rented Yaris through the narrow streets, heading north out of the city, anxiously awaiting a possible underwhelming experience. But, we were to find, that was not the case.
You may think that the underwhelming comment is out of place or odd, but because of our travels, we expect this kind of experience. See, Tom and I have travelled many times together, and almost always in countries during their off-season. This results in a strange sort of travel where the guidebook becomes somewhat useless, directing you to cafes which boarded their windows up months before our arrival. You have to remember that most travel guides are made for the tourist season of that region or area of travel, not the dead times. As a consequence of this type of travel, we have been extremely disappointed, at times feeling led astray–when photos and descriptions illustrated a grand experience, which ended up being nothing but underwhelming. Because this happens to us so often, we just expect it, and are disappointed, if when vacationing, we don’t have an experience which quickly deflates whatever little bit of expectation, adventure, and excitement we had for a location. So, while on this trip through the Baltics, we had not stumbled upon this usual phenomenon. We continued to expect it lurking around the corner, hidden in some dark alley awaiting to disappoint on some self-deprecating, albeit satisfying, level. But, as we travelled down that rural road, we saw in the distance the crosses jaggedly cut the horizon as they rose high above the green pastures stretching before us, and we realized, this might actually live up to all the hype we had heard. This might not be the disenchanting experience for which we yearned.
After parking the car in a gated, pay-for-parking lot that oozed tourist trap, we made our way past the outdoor gift shop selling photos of Pope John Paul II and wooden crosses, which caused us to wonder how authentic this experience really could be. The path from the parking lot wound through an emerald field of tall grass bending against the blowing wind, which sped the clouds overhead. As we approached the hill, the mass of wooden crosses all huddled on this slight incline of land, they looked like toothpicks askew in a shot glass, ready for large fingers to pluck them from the dark earth and green grass, only to pick meat from between jagged teeth. The crosses seemed to cascade over the hill, down, and around each side, like wine spilt across a wood floor, finding the grooves and contours which guide its thinning stream. It was like urban sprawl, but of religious icons, sculptures of the most reverent nature. They spread throughout the open ground of the field, and around the backside of the hill, encompassing any little bit of space that could be found. These crosses were so tightly packed together it would be impossible to walk through forest of religious zealotry, unless on the paths created–and those were becoming encroached upon as well, making these dirt alleys just cracks to squeeze through, fissures in this sea of crosses. The only walking spaces on the hill and through the spillage, is a central staircase which climbs the mound, bisecting the wooden sculptures, while small goat paths wind their way through the dense mass, reminiscent of an overcrowded cemetery, bodies all stacked atop each other with no room to move.
What can I say? We were in awe. We were not underwhelmed, but instead, stood in awe of the craftsmanship and skill of which the Lithuanians showed in the carving of these crosses and statues, along with the sheer numbers and abundance of all these. We had both read differing figures on the numbers for this location. Some were 50,000, but that number could easily be discounted just by walking around the hill and field, and taking in the grand perspective of the whole site. Then there was 100,000. We both heard that as well, but again, just looking at scattered, small locations where people had deposited miniature crosses and rosary beads, we realized that just couldn’t be possible. In some spots there were heaping, mounded up piles of crucifixes reaching up to my waist–I am six foot four–and this phenomenon was EVERYWHERE. We both took a guess, and figured about 200,000, at least. This was like the jelly bean jar at the local hardware store but on a mass scale, where you cast your vote on the amount inside the Mason jar. So, you probably ask yourself, why? What is so important about this spot? Well, originally, this had more to do with defiance, cultural dissent, and opposition to an oppressive government, than it did about religion.
Religion was key in this act of defiance, which spat in the eye of Soviet rule, but this hill has even an earlier history of interest. In the 14th century Teutonic Knights occupied the region around the town of Siauliai, and crosses planted in the soil around this period became symbols of Lithuanian defiance against foreign invaders. Centuries later the borders of the world map had shifted again and again, and the region of Siauliai was incorporated into Russia at the end of the 18th century, only to be reincorporated into Lithuania in the early 20th century. Crosses began appearing upon this hill during the mid-1800’s peasant uprising against Russia, and by 1895 there were 150 crosses. These crosses spat in the face of oppression, and Lithuanian’s used this symbol of Catholicism as a shear act of defiance, in which their religious rights were subjugated. In 1914 over 200 crosses crowded this hill, and in 1940 over 400 large crosses, with a growing variety of small crosses filling in spaces as well. But, then, after WWII….
The hill of crosses became a pilgrimage site for Lithuanians during Soviet rule. Between 1944 and 1991 this nation was occupied, and known as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR. As a form of nationalism, native Lithuanians trekked to this remote location, placing more and more crosses upon this hill. This tradition of defiance, stretching back centuries ago, had not lost its potency, and their act of dissent did not go unnoticed by the government. In a nation controlled by a government that oppressed religious freedom, Lithuanians outwardly placed crucifixes on this hill, until it was bulldozed by the Soviet government. The wooden crosses were burned in effigy, the metal crosses were scrapped and repurposed, and the hill itself was leveled with the area becoming a dump of waste and sewage. But, the Baltic nations are populated with people who are nationalists, proud of their heritage and their country’s beliefs and cultures.
After bulldozing the site, the Soviets learned it was hard to keep the Lithuanian population downtrodden. With a quick step, the locals repopulated this site with crucifixes, and the site was yet again bulldozed. But the site was repopulated again with crosses, some as tall as 20 feet, and this time the Soviet’s left the site alone. These crosses became a silent, yet screaming indictment of the Lithuanians’ perseverance for their freedom and nationalistic sentiment. Their religion became a tool, a form of defiance against Soviet rule. You have to remember, people were tortured in these countries, beaten, murdered, and disappeared under KGB guidance, so those who ventured here, continuing this tradition in protest, put their lives in danger every time they visited this hill. These acts were quiet, yet screamed in the face of oppression.
As I moved around the site, I was not moved in a religious sense, but there was a reverence I felt, a reverence I feel in a national cemetery or a war memorial. To think, every time someone entered this area and came with TWENTY FOOT crucifixes, planting them on a hill, to curse the oppression they lived under day after day, well, they did this out in the open, and that is impressive. Think about it this way, you could not hide this act of defiance, act like a faceless protester with a mask on. You had to walk across open fields, stand on top of a hill, with a cross that probably took multiple people to carry, and plant this in the open, within view of any KGB officers watching you. I call that brave.
As we left this area, we headed back to Riga, to be greeted with another form of nationalistic sentiment–but this time in Latvia–Victory Over Facism Day, or May 9th. But that is for another post.