True Lithuania

19th Century Fortress of Kaunas

The massive ring of fortifications, batteries and other installations that surround the city of Kaunas is indeed impressive. Unlike in many other places where such magnificent 19th-century urban fortresses existed in Kaunas you can still see a large percentage of all this.

The Mighty Red Forts of the Fortress

All 13 forts still exist in various stages of decay. The first circle (1st-8th forts) surrounds the city center completely whereas on the intended second circle only one fort (the 9th fort) was completed and additional 4 (10th-13th) under construction by the time Germans captured the entire fortress after a mere week of siege (fortress commander was then tried by the Russians). No two forts of the 1st circle are more than a couple kilometers away from each other so that no enemy could easily enter the city without deadly barrage from the surrounding forts. Every fort is designed to resemble natural grass-covered hills for the advancing enemy, but inside the territory, there are many semi-subterranean structures (barracks, escarpments, warehouses, tunnels).

Two of the forts have been turned into museums. The 7th fort in the northern part of the 1st circle is the Fortress museum. Owned by a group of military history enthusiasts it is continuously improved although not yet complete. The museum that is set up in the concrete 9th fort (the newest of the completed forts) is dedicated to the genocides of people of Lithuania as the 9th fort used to be a prison (since the 1920s) and a place of mass killings in the World War 2. The museum was established by the Soviets to portray Nazi German brutality (some 15 000 Jews were murdered in the forts) but the place is now expanded to include Soviet massacres as well.

7th Fort of the Kaunas fortress served as the Central State Archive in the interwar period. This is still reminded by the name of the street leading to it - Archyvo. Now it became the Museum of the fortress owned and operated by volunteers who are carefully restoring the fort to its former glory. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The remaining forts are largely abandoned and while most can, in theory, be visited, muddy/dirty paths provide the sole access to many of them. One derelict fort that you can easily drive directly into is the 6th fort, which also served as a Soviet and German prison. Its eerie walls overgrown with grass and paintball is now played in some of the buildings. The nearby 6th fort roundabout where three major streets converge is overlooked by a small "forest" of large crosses. These were built by people largely in 1991 and represents the then contemporary strive for independence. There are crosses for Iceland and Denmark (a gratitude for recognizing independence), another one for the liberators of Kuwait (Gulf War). Some later crosses are related to other problems, such as abortions and organized crime. A small column calls for peace on earth to prevail.

Crosses and traditional chapel-poles commemorating the issues of the early 1990s near the 6th fort roundabout. The fort itself is behind these crosses. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šančiai Borough: Abandoned Barracks and Warehouse Church

Together with the military installations, many new streets were laid, new districts were built with barracks for the soldiers, warehouses, and other infrastructure.

Among such districts is Šančiai to the southeast of the New Town. Red brick 3 stories barracks still line the Juozapavičiaus Avenue there. Some of them are restored and turned into hotels or apartments. Many others stand abandoned or even decayed to a mere outer shell with nothing purposefully changed since the times of the czar a century ago.

The old barracks lining up Juozapavičiaus Avenue in Šančiai borough. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another interesting building in Juozapavičiaus Avenue is the Jesus Heart church, an interwar building (1938). Next to it still stands the old church, converted from a military warehouse after Šančiai became a civilian district.

The Military cemetery where soldiers of World War 1, World War 2 and other eras lie is also in Šančiai. Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, and others have their final resting place less than "a cannon shot away" in between them.

Panemunė Borough: Barrack Zone That Turned Into Resort

On the opposite bank of Nemunas from Šančiai is Panemunė, another district built for 19th-century barracks. Barracks of Panemunė are concentrated in two groups, both visible from the main Vaidoto street, the smaller one to the north and the larger one to the south, surrounding a stadium (the southern group of barracks served as Lithuania‘s military academy in the 1930s).

Panemunė also has a fair share of interwar wooden and brick buildings as its calm atmosphere between Nemunas river and Basanvičius park was sought for by Kaunas residents of the era. In fact, Panemunė was a recognized resort. The pre-1940 buildings are mostly on the outskirts of the district whereas the center of Panemunė is dominated by Soviet apartment blocks.

Nemunas enbankment in Panemunė in Autumn, a popular place for a stroll. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Basanavičius park (280 ha) north of Panemunė is larger than the borough itself and a popular place to stroll.

Freda Borough: Botanical Garden and Old Cemetary

To the west of Panemunė lies the district of Freda. Once it was home to the Central Fortification of the fortress that was effectively a ring 0 of its defensive might. In every place not covered by the rivers, this additional circle made the last major obstruction for the enemy before he could finally conquer the heart of the city.

Next to the former Central Fortification and the small Freda manor, the Kaunas botanic garden is now established. In summer tickets are sold whereas in winter it is free to visit. Not far away along a new district of modern homes (called Freda Township - Fredos miestelis) a 19th-century cemetery remains. The first commander of the Kaunas fortress, as well as German soldiers of the World War 1, are buried here next to the now abandoned Saint Sergei Russian Orthodox Church once used by the soldiers of nearby barracks. Several old barracks still survive in the neighborhood.

Napoleon Hill near Piliakalnio street between Freda and Panemunė is the location where the French Emperor's doomed invasion of Russia began by crossing Nemunas (trees now obstruct the views he saw).

Map of the Kaunas fortress, its districts (Freda, Šančiai, Panemunė) as well as the Aleksotas and Vilijampolė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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