A Road Not Taken

Jasper Bastian

2015 - 2016


The border between Belarus and Lithuania, two countries previously part of the Soviet Union, was once little more than an insignificant, thin line on a map. The people of this area interacted freely with one another. The bonds of their communal life were strong despite their national diversity. Families often intermarried, creating a common social identity.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the erection of the European external border between Lithuania and Belarus in 2004, many of these border towns were divided. This territorial re-alignment not only separated these two countries, it also disrupted the once harmonious lives of the people who live here. Many families were torn apart. Spouses, siblings, and close friends now live an entire world away, although their houses are actually only a few meters on the other side of the border.

Those who remain in these towns along the Lithuanian border are now, for the most part, secluded and forgotten. The majority long for the ‘good old days’, when the borders were open and the Soviet collectives still in operation. These mostly elderly people carefully cultivate their traditions, while being forced to face the demands of changing social and economic conditions. Because of their solitude and the lack of urban amenities, they depend principally on what nature provides.

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  • Viktor takes a walk with his children and neighbor in the woods near Jokubiskes, where a yellow post marks the end of Lithuania. The woods behind the post belong to Belarus. For large stretches the border is designated simply by such posts with no fence. Jokubiskes, Lithuania, 2015.

  • An empty house on the Belarus side of the fence in Kulkishki. In comparison to the Baltic countries, which orientated themselves westwards upon their independence, in Belarus there was no fundamental rejection of the old Soviet system. Kulkishki, Belarus, 2015.

  • A frozen pond in the Lithuanian small town of Sakalinė, one of several ‘ghost towns’ along the European border. These towns are isolated and populated mostly by elderly people. Time appears to be stagnant here. Sakalinė, Lithuania, 2015.

  • The two sisters, Ona (43) and Terese (50), used to gather mushrooms and berries for a living. Now, they are not permitted to enter the forest in Stalgonys. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent change from a state-controlled economy, like many others, they could find no further employment. Stalgonys, Lithuania, 2015.

  • A decaying barn with chickens in Jokubiskes. Most of the people here are self-sufficient, dependent on their fields and immediate surroundings. Jokubiskes, Lithuania, 2015.

  • This border fence, erected in 2004, divides the towns of Sakalinė and Kulkishki. During the Cold War era, these towns were basically merged. In the past, the inhabitants grew up, went to school, inter-married and worked jointly in this frontier. No one took notice of the boundary. Sakalinė, Lithuania, 2015.

  • Like many of the inhabitants of Sakalinė, Juzefa (82) grew up in Kulkishki. When she was 20, she moved to Sakaline and worked at the local collective. Since the Lithuanian independence, she has never returned to Belarus. In her opinion, Belarus is too influenced by the old Soviet system. Although her house is only a couple of meters from the fence, she has no desire to go back. Sakalinė, Lithuania, 2015.

  • Stankiewicz family gathering in Sakalinė in 1956. Like many other families, some of the family lived in both Sakalinė and Kulkishki. Today, the family members have lost contact with those on the other side. Sakalinė, Lithuania, 1956.

  • A scene of everyday village life in Ažubenis, an ordinary, tiny border town. Ažubenis, Lithuania, 2016.

  • When he was 18, Viktor left his hometown Jokubiskes to join the Soviet army. He later found a job and a new start in Vilnius. Viktor returns to Jakubiskes every summer to tend his parents’ house. He has fond memories of his childhood here, when there was a large group of young people. None of his old friends live here anymore. Jokubiskes, Lithuania, 2015.

  • A photo taken in 1992 of Ona and Terese's Belarusian cousins Jonas and Arturas, from the neighboring Belarusian bordertown of Kanbaliskes. This image was taken the last time they met their two cousins from Stalgonys. Stalgonys, Lithuania, 2015.

  • Stanislav (62) lives alone with his dog in Norviliškės in the last house before the border. His aunt, Yanina, lives 400 meters away on the other side. In order to visit her in Pizkuny, he has to travel almost 150 km. round-trip. The border check-point in Norviliškės is open only three times a year, on Easter, 1 November and Christmas. He could cross directly then. A visa is, however, required, which is too expensive for Stanislav. Norviliškės, Lithuania, 2015.

  • A scarecrow protecting the garden of an older couple in Stalgonys. Stalgonys, Lithuania, 2015.

  • 1. A wedding of Ona and Terese's family in 1966 in Stalgonys. Their family came together from both
    sides of the border for such events. It was customary for the entire community to attend weddings
    and other festivities. This family picture was taken in front their parents’ house in Stalgonys, in
    which the two sisters, together with their mother, still live today. Stalgonys, Lithuania, 1966.

  • Galina standing in thought at the river Merkys in Ažubenis, which has been the natural borderline between the two countries for ages. Ažubenis, Lithuania, 2016.

  • Wind-bent trees on a stormy evening in Norviliškės. Directly behind these woods is the Belarus town of Pizkuny. Norviliškės, Lithuania, 2015.

  • Galina plays with her dog in Jurgionys, where she has lived since her childhood. She runs the farm together with her children. The Lithuanian border guards who patrol the town ask for her passport on a daily basis, even if she is just picking up the mail. Jurgionys, Lithuania, 2016.

  • Clouds of smoke from an old farm building burning down in Stalgonys.
    Stalgonys, Lithuania, 2015.