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  • Ken Ilgunas

Six weeks in Lithuania

[I was recently interviewed by a newspaper in Lithuania. Here’s the transcript of the interview.]

What is the purpose of your visit to Lithuania?

I was curious. I wanted to walk Lithuania’s city streets and forest paths and imagine myself as one of my Lithuanian ancestors. I thought that maybe I could come to understand something more about myself. Could I, after over a hundred years, still in some way be Lithuanian? Obviously I have a Lithuanian name, but I wondered if I might in some way still be culturally Lithuanian.

I have a fascination with what I’ll call “cultural echoes.” Can a culture echo across generations, even if generations of family members have lived within a completely different culture? In other words, can a family retain a culture for several generations even after assimilating into a different culture—in my case a Scottish and American culture? Does a distant culture still echo within a person, or does the culture’s influence inevitably grow dimmer and eventually disappear? For instance, does a Swede remain a Swede after 100 years in America? Does an African remain an African after several hundred years on a foreign continent? I suppose I was wondering if I am still in some way Lithuanian even though my family has completely lost touch with and forgotten its Lithuanian roots. We never talked about Lithuania. We never ate its traditional dishes. We never celebrated its traditions. Yet I still wonder if there is still some part of my character that is fundamentally Baltic that has been unknowingly and obliviously passed down from parent to child ever since Juozas left in the 1890s. I ask myself these questions and my answer is, “I don’t know.” It’s very difficult to examine your character and personality and attribute some aspect of it to a faraway culture and country that you still just barely understand. It would be easier for someone else to make that judgement about me than it would be for me.

Birutė Ilgūnienė and Gediminas Ilgūnas

What is your family history? Could you tell some details about your Lithuanian descent? How do you feel about some ties between you and famous Lithuanian politician Gediminas Ilgūnas?

My great-great grandfather Juozas Ilgunas came to Scotland in the 1890s. My family has forgotten almost everything about him, except for a story about him escaping Lithuania in a rowboat while being shot at by Cossacks. (I have no idea how true this story is.) He made his way to Motherwell, Scotland. The next few generations of Ilgunas’s in Scotland became coal miners, steel workers, ambulance drivers, police officers, house painters, and building contractors. In the 1970s, my dad moved from Scotland to Canada, and eventually my family moved to the U.S. when I was a little boy. I didn’t know anything about my Lithuanian heritage until a few years ago. But of course I always had this Lithuanian surname, and I became curious about my family history.

A woman named Ugne Matuleviciene, the daughter of Gediminas Ilgūnas, found my blog, got in touch we me, and invited me over to Lithuania. It’s unclear if I’m even related to Gediminas Ilgūnas or Ugne Matuleviciene’s family, but they treated me like family and that’s how I view them now. There aren’t any artists in my U.S. family, so I was intrigued that I might be related to Gediminas, who was a writer and adventurer. That certainly fueled my desire to visit. There was something comforting knowing that I might be related to this man.

Do you feel any sentiments about Lithuania?

One can’t help but feel pride for Lithuania when you learn about its history. I’m inspired by Lithuanians’ pagan past, by their resistance against bigger powers, by their quest for independence, by their love for nature. In many ways, I feel a sense of kinship with the country.

And I feel pride knowing that I’m associated with a country that has faced so many challenges and that is so resilient. Lithuania is an underdog country. It’s a country that has been pushed around by powerful countries that surround it, yet it has found a way to prevail. It is a knight that has been surrounded by dragons yet managed to survive. Some people might think this is a narrative of weakness and victimhood, but I see it as a narrative of resilience, resourcefulness, and reinvention. Lithuania has not had it easy, but I think that’s why I view the country’s narrative romantically: by not having it easy, by never having been handed anything, by being forced to be self sufficient, the country has to be the maker of its own destiny. And anybody who comes from humble origins will respect a country like this. I suppose I identify with Lithuania because I like to think of my own life in these terms.

All that said, I try not to get too carried away with a love for certain countries or obsessed with national narratives. Nationalism, as a concept, is a relatively recent phenomenon. And ultimately we all come from Africa, right? I’ll allow myself to feel a healthy and simple pride for certain nations, but I recognize that nationalism — when we love one country too much at the expense of others — has an ugly side, which I want nothing to do with.

On another and completely unrelated note, it was interesting visiting a Baltic country as an American. I never really had cause to think much about the Soviet Union or Russia or the Cold War. Yes, America was a principal player in the Cold War, but the average American wasn’t terribly affected by the Cold War. We don’t think about the Cold War much and we don’t think of Russia at all, except when it comes to them possibly sabotaging our last election. So it was interesting to visit Lithuania, a country that was and still is very much affected by the Soviet occupation.

I went to the KGB Museum in Vilnius and was disturbed to learn how people suffered during the occupation. From new friends, I learned that nearly every family has a relative who was either killed or deported. Neighbors were turned against neighbors. Many people were compelled to do terrible things. It seems a part of Lithuania is still suffering from the psychic wounds of that era.

This may sound terrible and offensive, but I think I’ll share it anyway: There was part of me that was thankful that Juozas got out when he did. My family found a safe harbor in Scotland, faraway from many of the atrocities that plagued Eastern Europe. I grew up in America and had an easy, safe childhood. I was not affected by these atrocities, nor were my parents or their parents. This was the first time I felt a connection with my great-great grandfather, and I wanted to thank him.

Soviet memorial in cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania

What are your most favorite places, towns in Lithuania?

I really liked where I was living. I was on the east side of Vilnius, just east of the old town of Uzupis. I was within walking distance of the city and a network of forest trails, so I had a nice balance of nature and city. I was impressed with Kaunas (especially the Čiurlionis Museum), the Dutchman’s Cap near Klaipeda, Labanoras Regional Park, and the hill fort mounts near Kernavė.

Is the Lithuanian reader of your books close to your experience and views? Or you feel like a martian in Lithuania?

Ha, I didn’t feel like a martian in Lithuania. There is a close relationship between North America and Europe, and I think we all speak a similar cultural language. That said, I think I have had different experiences than Lithuanians. Some of the things that trouble me about American society, such as consumerism, student debt, or the obliteration of the natural world have caused a lot of people to want to live locally, move out into the countryside, and live really simple and low-impact lives.

There is a strong subculture of people in America who want to live outside of the consumer-capitalist system and live in vehicles, tiny homes, and grow their own food. I did not see a similar subculture in Lithuania, so perhaps my story of wanting to live frugally in my van, with only a few things and very little money, does not resonate with a lot of people here. But it makes sense why there may not be such a movement or subculture. Lithuania is still emerging from a long period of material and economic deprivation; perhaps now is not the right time for a minimalist movement that rejects some of the more unsavory aspects of capitalism.

Vilnius, Lithuania
Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius Lithuania. This is a memorial to the "partisans," who lived in the forest after WWII and fought the Soviets as guerrilla fighters.
Vilinius, Lithuania
I believe this is a representation of the 1410 Battle of Grunwald, when Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the Prussian and German Teutonic Knights. For the next several hundred years, this Polish-Lithuanian empire would be one of the largest and strongest in Europe. From what looks like a well-cited Wikipedia source: "At its peak in the early 17th century, the Commonwealth spanned almost 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 km2) and sustained a multi-ethnic population of 11 million." That big guy back there is Vytautas the Great, a Lithuanian hero who commanded the forces at Grunwald.
Vilnius, Lithuania

Kaunas, Lithuania
Kaunas, Lithuania
Dutchman's cap on western border next to Baltic Sea

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Fall 2018 Speaking Schedule

(This will be updated with links and new events as they come.) Thur. Oct. 4, 7 p.m. – New England College (Henniker, NH) in the Great Room Fri. Oct. 5, 4:15 p.m. – Bates College (Lewiston, ME) Tue.


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