(Un)erased from the history of Vilnius University
Universities, similarly to other autonomous public institutions of high standing, had always been a significant obstacle for totalitarian regimes in their strive to modify the societal structure according to their ideological views. While unable to completely destroy universities, communists and Nazis sought to violate their autonomy, undermine their authority and turn them into obedient instruments of the system. On 15 June 1940, Lithuania lost the statehood it had been building for a couple of decades, and was turned into a ground for social and political experiments of the interchanging totalitarian regimes. Vilnius University, one of the most important research and studies institution, was then faced with major challenges. Very soon the destruction of the academic community by eliminating ideologically unacceptable teachers, students and service staff became an integral element of the grim reality.
The most devastating loss suffered by the University was that during the Second World War and the post-war sovietisation times. The first dismissals of the academic staff for political reasons took place in autumn 1940 when several professors who did not comply with the vision of a Soviet university were laid off. This campaign, however, failed to gain pace before the start of the war between the USSR and the Nazis Germany, as the Soviet occupational regime did not manage to promptly mobilise the sufficient number of loyal local specialists that could fill the vacant positions of the dismissed professors. Neither did the ‘cleansing’ of the students according to social and political criteria build any sufficient momentum in 1940–1941. Although nearly 800 students alone are known to have left the University in the autumn semester of that academic year, it is not clear how many of them were actually expelled. Nor has it been established how many Vilnius University teachers and students of different nationalities were deported during the mass deportation campaign in June 1941.
Furthermore, the University community suffered some major upheavals with the Nazi occupation. On the order of the Nazi occupying authorities, all Jewish teachers were dismissed from work in summer 1941. A little later this was followed by orders to expel all Polish and Jewish students from the University. According to some data, during the first months of the Nazi occupation the administration of the University was forced to dismiss about a third of the academic staff, and about a thousand students for racial and political motives. Nearly all Jewish members of the University community that had been expelled and forced to terminate their studies subsequently became victims of the Holocaust: they were killed in Paneriai in the vicinity of Vilnius, and other locations of mass extermination, or forced labour and concentration camps. Having suffered heavy losses at the beginning of the Nazi occupation, the University continued to experience oppression in the subsequent years. While building their plans to Germanize Lithuania, the Nazis were restricting the activities of the Lithuanian universities, and looking for pretexts to have them closed. The intentions were finally realised on 17 March 1943, when all higher schools, including Vilnius University, were closed when Lithuanian intellectuals were accused of having ruined a mobilisation to an SS legion.
A new stage in destroying the University started after the return of the Soviets to Lithuania. In summer 1944, when the Soviet army was approaching Vilnius, tens of the former University teachers and students retreated to the West in fear of possible repressions. Therefore, that autumn as little as one-fifth of the personnel started the new academic year under extremely difficult conditions, and with only about half of the academic staff. The Soviet regime especially mistrusted the intellectuals that had worked in Lithuania during the German occupation, and therefore all the incumbent teachers and professors at Vilnius University were closely followed by the repressive structures of the Soviet regime. After collecting sufficient evidence of anti-Soviet views, professors were forced to turn on their colleagues, or were subject to repressions themselves. The mass arrests of the teachers started early in 1945, and lasted for several years up to the very death of Stalin. Many distinguished teachers were included in the lists of Stalin’s terror victims. Even more professors, although managed to avoid repressions, were dismissed on political grounds. Particularly affected were the Faculty of Nature and the Faculty of History and Philology where at the end of the 1950s the academic staff felt the greatest effects of the pseudo-scientific and heavily ideologised and over-politicised discussions that had spread across the entire Soviet Union.
The procedure for admission to higher educational establishments set forth by the Soviet authorities had to ensure that no persons opposed to the regime were among the future intellectuals or students. Special mandate commissions were set up to select students to the higher schools. First of all, such commissions would check the social origin and the political credibility of applicants. Priority was given to applicants whose parents were active supporters of the Soviet power, workers or small farmers. For that reason, a great many gifted young people could not enter higher schools. Politically unreliable persons would find it especially difficult to become students in the humanities. Provision of false data could result not only in expulsion from the University, but applicants could even be punished under criminal law. The standing mandate commissions would regularly check the provided data, and in case any new facts became known students could be expelled from the University even in the middle of an academic year.
In the period after Stalin’s death when the classical Vilnius University was turned into a Soviet-type university, and on that occasion was awarded the name of the Vilnius Order of the Red Banner of Labour State University of Vincas Kapsukas; the repressions against the University community were no longer massive, but cases of individual political repressions were still recurrent. One of the best-known cases was that instituted against the Department of Lithuanian Literature lasting from 1958 to 1961, after which four teachers of the Department were forced to leave the University. That was one of the darkest times during the period of occupation in the history of the University that represented the success of its sovietisation. This was the first time ever when a political crackdown ordered by the authorities was not only, as usual, executed by the hands of the administration, but was also followed by public approval and even support on a great part of the University community itself.