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Travel

Photos of Rural Lithuanian Discos Reminiscent of Ancient Pagan Rituals

Exploring the Soviet past of Lithuania's provincial towns one tiny dance hall at a time, American photographer Andrew Miksys found traces of the country's pagan legacy amid the smoke machines and lasers.

by Paweł Mączewski
Apr 3 2014, 10:52am

This article originally appeared on VICE Poland.

Photographer Andrew Miksys was born and raised in Seattle, but his family is Lithuanian. The first time he visited his homeland was back in the 1990s, when he traveled there to meet some distant relatives. On his second visit he stumbled upon a small disco in the outskirts of a tiny Lithuanian village. Fascinated by the atmosphere and the people he met there, Miksys set out to tour small towns around the country and photograph the places where the locals unwind. He later collected those photographs in a book, Disko.

I had a chat with him about the inimitable Lithuanian provinces—places with a strong memory of their Russian past and even stronger hopes for a better future.

VICE: Tell me about your first trip to Lithuania. How was it?
Andrew Miksys: I traveled there with my father to visit some of our relatives in 1995. It was a pretty amazing feeling to meet people we'd known about but hadn't had a chance to meet in person because of the USSR. To be honest, I wasn't that interested in going to Lithuania at that point. But once I got there, I was blown away by the people and the place. Right away, I decided I wanted to go back and photograph more. In 1998, I got a Fulbright and had a chance to photograph for a year in Lithuania.  

When was the first time you visited a Lithuanian disco?
I was in this village and saw some kids going into a building with a case of beer. This was in 1999. I'm not sure exactly why, but I decided to follow them and discovered a disco. It was pretty run-down and still looked the way it must have done during Soviet rule—there was even a metal Lenin head on the wall. Later, the bartender gave me the head as a gift. I went back there a few times to take more photographs, and on the way I noticed more discos in the villages I drove through. In the following weeks and years, I found more of these discos all over Lithuania.   

What was it that made you want to turn this into a project?
Mostly I was fascinated by how strongly these places still echoed their USSR past. All the young people who frequented them were caught somewhere between those memories and an unknown future. Lithuania changed a lot during the 2000s. It went from a being a former Soviet republic to an EU member state.

Culturally, the shift was quite dramatic. The future was filled with possibility, but the past weighed heavily on everything. The Friday or Saturday night disco was one of the few places in most villages where people could go to feel modern and get a little crazy. This transition somehow made everything feel more alive. Today, these villages are sparsely populated, as young people have moved away, looking for work and adventure in other countries. I wanted to capture all this before it was gone. 

Did you meet any interesting characters in those discos?
The best person I met while photographing was one of the DJs, who went by the name of DJ Playboy. The first time I visited his town he greeted me with open arms, gave me a beer, and introduced me to his friends. The place where he worked was a little intimidating. Fights would break out frequently. But DJ Playboy always looked after me, and his friends would always make sure I was safe and take care of my equipment. We're still friends.

He eventually moved to Vilnius, where I live, and works at a hospital across the street from my apartment. I had a book release in Vilnius recently, and he played music at the after-party.

Did you have any interesting experiences?
Driving through the Lithuanian countryside, under a full moon, on the way to a disco is a pretty cool thing to do. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to give up paganism and accept Christianity. Although village discos weren't part of any pagan ritual, they made me think of ancient times when villagers celebrated their pagan holidays in the forest. Maybe their rituals in the woods were the first discos. The full moon and the stars make a pretty awesome disco ball.

Did you learn anything while working on this project?
Back in Lithuania my book has received a lot of bad press. People seem to think that I shouldn't be showing people and places that they don't consider modern, or that fit with their image of Lithuania as a model EU member state. Some of this comes from a desire to completely erase all remnants of the USSR. I understand this.

If you've been following the events in Ukraine, you can see how ugly authoritarian regimes can be. Imagine what it must have been like to grow up in the USSR. But, in another way, the criticism comes from urban people who look down on rural life. This kind of blindness doesn't suit me—I think the people and places in my photographs should have a voice too.

See more of Andrew's work here.

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