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Vincas Valancius (properly)



Valancius, Motiejus (1801-1875), bishop of Samogitia, historian and writer, born into a well-to-do peasant family in Nasrenai village, county of Kretinga, on Feb. 16, 1801. Early in his youth, he had his baptismal records altered to indicate noble birth; the family name was polonised to Wolonczewski. This practice, not uncommon among prosperous villagers, was a means of providing educational opportunities otherwise denied to peasant children. In 1816 he entered the Dominican school at Zemaiciu Kalvarija and six years later began his studies at the Theological Seminary in Varniai. He transferred to the Supreme Seminary at Vilnius in 1824, from which he graduated in 1828. Ordained a priest that same year, he spent the next six years teaching religion in Boleros. In 1834 he returned to Lithuania to take up a teaching position at the Kraziai secondary school. In 1840 he was assigned to the Vilnius Theological Academy, where he lectured in pastoral theology and biblical archaeology and where he earned his doctorate in theology in 1842. That same year on order of the Tsar, the Academy, its teaching staff and student body, was moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. Valancius came back to Lithuania for reasons of health in 1845 and was appointed rector of the Varniai Theological Seminary, serving in this capacity until 1850.
Having been absent from Lithuania during the anti-Russian uprising in 1831, Valancius was considered to be relatively apolitical, and thus the Russian government did not object when he was proposed as Episcopal candidate for the see of Samogitia. He was consecrated bishop in 1850, the first peasant to ever head that prestigious diocese. Taking up his duties, he quiped the diocese for the next 25 years, years of religious, political and social change not only within Samogitia but also in Lithuania as a whole. He expanded and improved the Samogitian parochial school network, wrote a great many religious books, and in 1858 inaugurated a temperance movement, which grew to encompass nearly a million member, almost half of the country’s population. His pastoral and educational work was interrupted by the uprising of 1863-64 and was made extremely difficult as the Russian government tightened its reins after the collapse of the revolt. Yet these circumstances did not prevent him from following a course which could not but bring him into direct conflict with the authorities. He made every effort to undermine the government’s scheme of Rustication. In 1874 Valancius fell seriously ill and died in Kaunas in May 29, 1875.
His services to the Lithuanian cause were lasting and important. His opposite to the Russian government and the tactics he employed in resisting its policies, particularly the illegal practice of printing Lithuanian books in East Prussia and smuggling them into Lithuania, served to stimulate the emergence of the Lithuanian national movement. An adductor, an able Church administrator, historian and ethnographer, and a talented writer, Valancius emerged as one of the most versatile and influential figures in nineteenth century Lithuania.
Well aware of the rising social importance of the peasantry, Valancius concentrated the activities of the Church towards this class. He was the first bishop who consistently published his pastoral letters in Lithuania, in the Samogitian dialect that he spoke himself. His pastoral letters admonished the peasants for their superstitious beliefs and practices, scolded them when they showed indifference to their faith, coaxed them into supporting education, and always showed a fatherly concern for the welfare of his people, to whom he affectionately referred as his aveles (lambs). He made frequent visits to parishes throughout the diocese; improved the discipline and raised the standards as the clergy; and enlisted a number of his younger, more capable priests in the cause of Lithuania.
In spite of his generality conservative social views and the fact that he sought to establish and maintain friendly with the Polonized lanown nobility, he found his relations with members of this class deteriorating. One of the reasons for this was his practice of intervening on behalf on the peasants, who were maltreated and exploited by estate owners, manorial officials and government representatives. Thus, although he respected the role of the Polish language in the Church and did not consciously attempt to subvert the social supremacy of the country’s Polonised nobility, his own peasant origins and close identification with the village population aroused the landowners’ mistrust.
Valancius used the authority of his office and of the Church to promote two important social movements in western Lithuania during the 1850’s: peasant education and temperance. He systematized the Samogitian parish school system by requiring financial accountability and keeping of student records, and was responsible for the construction of many new elementary schools. There is no doubt that he contributed significantly to the spread of literacy among the peasants, particularly in his own diocese. Some estimates show the peasant literacy rate in that area to be as high as 50 present on the eve of the 1863 insurrection, an impressive figure for that time.
He achieved an even greater, though short-lived, success in the temperance movement of the late 1850’s and early 1860’s (see Temperance). He was the major force behind the establishment of the so-called temperance brotherhoods (Blaivybes brolijos) across Lithuania, but it was in Samogitia that the movement assumed massive proportions. He published many popular books and pamphlets about the evil of alcohol and the virtues of sobriety. The movement spread so rapidly that by 1860 over 80 percents of the Catholics in rural Samogitia are estimated to have taken the oath of abstinence. The total membership in Kaunas gubernia in 1860 was reported as 684,536. The Russian government eventually came to realize that the temperance societies posed a serious economic and social threat. State income from liquor taxes dropped drastically: in Kaunas gubernia the tax receipts on consumed liquor reportedly fell 67 percent between 1858 and 1859. In 1860 Russian’s finance minister even considered Valancius’ expulsion from the country in order to half the drain on the Tsar’s treasury. Furthermore, the government recognized the temperance societies as a dangerous precedent in the Church’s organization of a volatile peasantry. In 1864 the government banned the temperance movement.
Public demonstrations against the Russian government began in 1860, and an armed rebellion broke out in Lithuania early in 1863. In many localities in Samogitia these demonstrations were constructed through the churches, which served to aggravate the tense relations existing between Valancius and the authorities because of the temperance movement. Realizing that an insurrection could not end without affect the Catholic Church, in December of 1862 he appealed to the clergy to refrain from participating in a revolt. In the ensuing warfare he tried to steer a middle course between the rebels and the government, but his concern for the survival of the Church made this position uneatable. In the spring of 1863, together with Archbishop Krasinki of Vilnius, he published a special pastoral letter to the faithful of Lithuania urging a half to the bloodshed. With the arrival of Governor-General M. N. Muraviev (q. v) in Lithuania in the May 1863, his position became even more difficult. Muraviev immediately pressured Valancius to declare himself against the uprising. Reassured by Muraviev that an amnesty would be granted to those who laid down their arms, the bishop sent the governor-general a copy of a proposed pastoral letter condemning the insurrection and imploring the faithful to desist. One of Muraviev’s aids made changes in the letter, which Valancius was compelled to accept, and it was proclaimed, from the pulpits in September 1863. Thousands of copies of the letter entreating the peasantry to follow the example of the nobility incising armed resistance were published by Muraviev and distributed throughout Lithuania.
For his apparent support of the Russian government, Valancius was bitterly criticized by many of the rebels as well as by some later historians. Other scalars have tried to show that he secretly sympathized with and, in fact, supported the rebels. The best available evidence indicates that he was a realist who foresaw the futility of the uprising. The welfare of the Church remained his foremost concern. Indeed, the events following the uprising showed that he had good reason to be concerned. The government promulgated a series of anti-Catholic measures forbidding the construction of new churches, controlling the appointment of parish priests, limiting seminary enrolment, forcing school children to attend Orthodox services, and closing all parochial schools. Furthermore, the government intensified its policy of Rustication by introducing the Cyrillic alphabet into the Lithuania language and placing a ban on the Lithuania press. In May 1864, Valancius was ordered to transfer his residence from Varniai to Kaunas where his activities could be under closer scrutiny and, according to the Russians, his “harmful opposition to the government minimized”.
In late 1865 the Russian government’s so-called Commission for the Examination of Lithuanian-Samogitian Books ruled that Valancius’ religious books and pamphlets of the 1850’s had had a define anti-Russian slant. Actually, it was only in 1865 that Valancius began what can be termed a campaign of passive resistance against the government. In the pursuit of his duties he unavoidably skirted government regulations restricting Catholic activities and, on a number of occasions, was subjected to heavy fines. After approving the very first edition, he refused to give his imprimatur to any subsequent Lithuanian books printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. Finally, between 1867 and 1869, Valancius financed and organized the clandestine publication of a series of his own anti-government pamphlets. The titles of the publications are illustrative of their content, for example, Broliai katalikai (To Our Catholic Brethren), Perspejimas apie sventa viera (A Warning Concerning the Holy Faith), Snekesys kataliko su nekataliku (Dialogue Between a Catholic and Non-Catholic), and Vargai baznycios Lietuvoj ir Zemaiciuose (The Travails of the Church in Lithuania and Samogitia). In these pamphlets, which were printed in East Prussia, smuggled into Lithuania and disturbed to the people through a secret network, Valancius disclosed the government’s plan to Russify Lithuania and to convert the people to Orthodoxy, and set forth a program of resistance. He told the people not to accept the Cyrillic books and not to send their children to the Russian schools; urged them to educate their children at home using old Lithuanian prayer books as texts and to organize secret schools in the villages. He also appealed to the peasants’ emerging sense of nationality by stressing the importance of preserving their native language.
In 1870 the Russian police, in collaboration with Prussian officials, uncovered the secret network through which the pamphlets reached the people. The priests who had distributed the literature were exiled to Siberia. But pamphlets had had their effect. As a result of his campaign coupled with the Lithuanian peasants’ natural suspicious of the Orthodox government, the people completely rejected the Cyrillic books. Even more importantly, Valancius by publishing books in Tilze (Tilsit) and smuggling them into Lithuania paved the way for the later massive smugglers’ movement (see Knygnesys), which defended the press ban and was probably the most remarkable expression of the peoples’ determination to preserve their own culture. It is for this reason that Valancius although primarily concerned with the defence if the Catholic Church must be considered as one of the founders of the national renascence movement.
In this field, Valancius played an equally important role, for which he has the title of father of Lithuania prose. His writings consist of religious, scholarly, and prose works. During his 25-years tenure as Bishop of Samogitia, he wrote a great many religious books and pamphlets intended primarily for the peasantry. Written in simple language that the people could understand, these works were immensely popular among the peasantry and stimulated the reading of Lithuanian books. Furthermore, his literary style was a vast improvement over previous religious publications, which often included superstitions and were full of Slavicism. Of his religious works, noteworthy are Zyvatas Jezaus Kristaus (The Life of Jesus Christ, 1852); Istorija sventa Senojo Istatymo (Sacred History of the Old Testament, 1853); Zyvatai sventuju (Lives of the Saints, 2 vols. 1858, 1868); and the translation Tamosius is Kempes arba kniga sekiojimo Kristaus (Thomas a Kempis or the Book on Following Christ, 1853). His scholarly work pertains to history and ethnography. The two-volume Zemaiciu vyskupyste (The Diocese of Samogitia, 1848), not only gives a broad account of the history of the diocese from its founding in 1417 up to 1841, be also contains much information on the political and cultural life of Lithuania. It is well documented, written in a vivid style in the Samogitian dialect, and remains a work of enduring value, since many of the sources used are no longer available. To the field of ethnography belongs his Patarles Zemaiciu (Samogitian Proverbs, 1867), which contains over 1,300 popular adages and which until fairly recent years was the first major work of its kind.
But it is with his secular prose works that Valancius secured his reputation, these are didactic in nature and portray the virtues and vices of everyday life. His best work in this genre is the delightful narrative Palangos Juze (Juze of Palanga), a collection of tales as told a village tailor, Juze, about his travels through Lithuania with many colourful descriptions of the customs and more of the people. This book went through many editions and was, quite possibly, the most widely read work of fiction in the 19th century. No less popular was Vaiku knygele (Little Book for Children, 1864), short stories teaching the young the moral principles.