By Miltiades Varvounis
IN 1795, THE NAME OF LITHUANIA WAS ERASED from the map of the world. Most of the lands of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania were directly annexed by the Russian Empire, and a policy of Russification was fiercely implemented. Describing the horrible Russian occupation of Lithuania, the poet Simonas Stanevičius exclaimed in 1823:
Behold, despondent world!
What happened in the north.
Lithuania’s ancient families
In the destruction whole remained.
One of these was the Mineyko (Mineika) family, who belonged to the noble class of the Grand Duchy. A singular member of this family was Zygmunt Mineyko (Zigmantas Mineika), whose life, which we know mainly from his memoirs, is no less adventurous than that of Alexander Duma’s fictional Count of Monte Cristo. But who was this man, who spent a long and colorful life far from his native land?
Childhood and Youth
Zygmunt was born in 1840 into the family of Stanislaw Jerzy Mineyko and Cecilia Szukiewicz in Balwaniszki, a village in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (now Zyalyoni Bor in the Hrodna/Gardinas region of Belarus). He was brought up by his parents to be a Lithuanian patriot, hoping one day to witness the restoration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. About his childhood and growing up under foreign tyranny, Zygmunt mentioned in his memoirs that, “we learned to hate the Muscovites through increasing our knowledge of their barbaric crimes […] parents told their children how the enemy (Russians) destroyed our identity […] I could see that barbarians ruled beloved Lithuania.”
In 1858, young Mineyko graduated from the high school based in Vilnius, destined to further study in a military academy. It was in the interest of his parents that one of their sons should commit to military service, otherwise the family might lose the privilege of belonging to the noble class. Mineyko’s brother-inlaw, Aleksander Tydman was a close relative of the popular Russian general Eduard Totleben and recommended him to the Military Engineering School, the prestigious Nicholas General Staff Academy in St. Petersburg. Entering the academy was not an easy matter, since it was the best of its type in the entire Russian Empire. Candidates were mostly Russians, the sons of generals and the highest aristocrats. However, Totleben had a lot of influence and helped Mineyko to enroll in the academy. Despite this opportunity, Mineyko was unhappy to leave Vilnius, the city in which he had spent his school years, saying in his memoirs, “I felt like I was leaving paradise. I was banned for unknown reasons from my beloved city.”
During his stay in the Russian capital, “a forsaken city,” as he called St. Petersburg, Mineyko never assimilated into Russian society. His only purpose was to study hard and gain as many professional skills as he could, but he met a few students from the former Grand Duchy and became fast friends with them. After spending three years at the military academy, Mineyko returned to Lithuania and immediately joined the underground movement against the Russians. His mission was to spread anti-Russian agitation among the Lithuanian peasants.
Under persecution by the authorities, Mineyko escaped to Italy, where he enrolled at the famous Military School in Genoa established in 1861 by Garibaldi, who was supportive of the Polish-Lithuanian cause at that time. There, among other Polish and Lithuanian students, Mineyko lectured on the subject of war fortifications and further improved his knowledge of military matters. When the January Uprising against the Russians broke out in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1863, Mineyko returned to his homeland to fight for freedom.
Escape from Siberia
During the first months of the January Uprising, Mineyko was under the command of Marian Langewicz in Galicia, a region of southeast Poland, taking part in a battle near the village of Grochowiska on March 18, 1863. Although the rebels won this battle against the Russians, the campaign in that area failed, and Mineyko fled to Lithuania. Self confident and with a strong will, he managed to organize a small partisan group of about thirty militants, but in the first battle, near the village of Rosoliszki, about sixty miles from Oszmiana (Ašmena/Ashmyany in today’s Belarus), they lost against Russian regular troops. Mineyko did not have a choice other than to escape again. After a betrayal, the Russian police captured and imprisoned him in Vilnius. There, he was sentenced by a court marshal to death by hanging. However, he escaped the death penalty because his mother bribed some Russian officials, for 9,000 rubles, and his sentence was reduced to twelve years at hard labor in the mines of Siberia.
Undoubtedly, few in his family had reason to expect that Zygmunt would survive the frozen hell of Siberia, but he was to prove them wrong. While on his long journey to the end of the world, between Tobolsk and Tomsk, his close friend Strumiùùo died of Typhus. Here, luck smiled at Mineyko, because Strumiùùo’s sentence was much lighter than his—the Russians had sent him for resettlement and not for hard labor. Because Mineyko resembled Strumiùùo in age and appearance, he successfully switched identities, ending up in Tomsk practically a free man. There he started his own business, running a millinery shop that made pillows and fur hats. Soon he saved enough money to finance his escape from that miserable town. He bought a wagon, horses and a supply of food, and headed west. His long journey was full of adventure, but Mineyko managed to reach St. Petersburg safely. Under a false passport, belonging to an Estonian nobleman named von Mebert, Mineyko left Russia on a British ship. Initially, he spent some time in the Netherlands, but later moved to Paris, where he studied at the best military academy in France, the School of the Armed Forces Staff (École d’Application d’État Major). He graduated in 1868 with a degree in civil engineering, specializing in the construction of bridges, roads and railroads. Two years later, Mineyko fought for France in the Franco-Prussian War.
While working in the French colony of Morocco, in 1871 Mineyko would make a big decision, moving to the Ottoman Empire, the only major power in the world that had never recognized the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In fact, Constantinople (Istanbul) was the only capital worldwide to maintain a Polish ambassador until World War One.
Thus, in 1842 a Polish settlement near Constantinople was founded by Duke Adam Czartoryski, Chairman of the Polish National Uprising Government. The village was named Adampol (today’s Polonezkoy) and during the Crimean War in 1853, it held around 220 Poles and Lithuanians, mainly runaways from Russian captivity. It is not known if Mineyko initially lived in Adampol or Constantinople.
For twenty years, Mineyko worked for the Sultan, building roads and bridges in the European part of the Ottoman Empire, mainly in the Greek lands of Macedonia, Thrace and Epirus. Working as a head engineer in Ioannina, the capital of Epirus and once the seat of the formidable Ali Pasha (1740-1822), Mineyko established close links with circles of the Greek intelligentsia. From that time, having been brought up on Lithuanian traditions of the struggle for independence and having been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863, Mineyko would dream of reuniting Greece.
Greece, His Second Homeland
After conducting successful archaeological research near Ioannina, where he discovered the Greek temple of Zeus in Dodona, in 1880 Mineyko married Persephone Manari, a daughter of the director of the Zosimea School in Ioannina. With her, he would have two sons and five daughters, including a son named Witold (Vytautas) and a daughter named Aldona. (Some sources claim that he had three sons and six or seven daughters.) In 1891, Mineyko decided to stay permanently in the Kingdom of Greece, and from that time he devoted his abilities to the country that he would later consider his second homeland.
He found himself as a chief engineer in the Ministry of Public Works and participated in the restoration of the Olympic facilities, including the imposing Panathinaiko Stadium, which would host the first modern Summer Olympic Games in 1896. During the Games, which had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date, Mineyko was a press correspondent for the Polish newspapers Czas and Gazeta Polska. One year later, when the GrecoTurkish War broke out, he headed the cartographic section of the General Staff of the Greek Army.
Unfortunately, Greece lost the war with the Ottoman Empire, causing deep depression to philhellene Mineyko.
On the eve of the twentieth century, Mineyko continued to work at the Ministry of Public Works. In 1910, he was granted honorary citizenship by the Greek Parliament, and one year later he visited his beloved Vilnius, donating a numismatic collection to Vilnius University. In autumn 1912, the First Balkan War pitted the Balkan League (Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Serbia) against the Ottoman Empire. Despite his old age (72 years), he was once again made the head of the cartographic service, and he would contribute to the Greek victory over the Ottomans on the Epirus Front by helping the Greek Army capture the strong Ottoman forts of Bizani, near Ioannina. These forts were very well known to him from his stay in Ioannina. Therefore his advice and cartographic plans were crucial for the Greek Army’s liberation of the capital of Epirus from Ottoman tyranny in 1913. The Athenian newspapers Patris and Nea Ellas revealed Mineyko’s contribution, and he received the Greek Golden Cross of Merit. However, there was a casualty in Mineyko’s family during the First Balkan War, when on the Macedonian front, one of his daughters’ husbands was killed in battle.
Mineyko was also involved in politics. He particularly favored the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, founder of the Greek Liberal Party. After the unification of Greece in 1913, Mineyko accepted Venizelos as the real creator of a new Greece as well as his political program. He described him as a “man of genius,” capable of “securing a great future for his homeland,” and backed his decision to cooperate with the Entente during World War One. These were times when the Megali Idea (Great Idea) was the main policy of Venizelos’s government. The Megali Idea was an irredentist concept of Greek nationalism, which expressed the goal of establishing a Greek state that would encompass all Greek-inhabited areas, including the large Greek populations still under Ottoman rule in Asia Minor and Constantinople. With just a pair of words, this policy implied the goal of reviving the Greek Empire of Byzantium.
During World War One, Mineyko publicly stressed the similarities between Polish and Greek histories and their political roles. In his letters to the Polish press, he stressed that, “without the regaining of freedom and independence in Poland, slavery would be common all over the world and wars would continue. Neither would the Eastern Question ever be solved.” Mineyko also wrote, despite his old age, that he was “strong enough to join the struggle and pay my debts to the fatherland,” proving he was not only interested in Greek, but also Polish and Lithuanian affairs. After Poland regained her independence in 1918, Mineyko contributed to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Greece and Poland, and convinced Venizelos to support the Polish cause in the arena of international politics.
Since Poland had regained her freedom, Mineyko and his wife had thoughts of moving to Cracow or Vilnius. They never fulfilled their plans, but Mineyko visited Vilnius in 1922 and 1923, receiving numerous Polish military awards, such as the Virtuti Militari Cross and the rank of colonel.
Zygmunt Mineyko died in Athens on December 27, 1925, at the age of 85. Thousands of Freemasons from all over the world attended his funeral because he belonged to the Vox Ukrainia, Grand Orient de France, and Pythagoras Masonic lodges. Mineyko also belonged to the Supreme Council of Greece of the Old Masonic and Accepted Scottish Rites.
One of Mineyko’s daughters, Sofia, married Georgios Papandreou (1888-1968), the Governor of Chios, during World War One. He was also a supporter of Venizelos and an opponent of the monarchy. Their son, Andreas Papandreou, was born in Chios in 1919. Few could then imagine that Georgios Papandreou would later establish the powerful Papandreou political dynasty. His political career spanned more than five decades, when he served three terms as Prime Minister (1944-1945, 1963, 1964-1965) and Deputy Prime Minister, from 1950-1952. He was often referred to affectionately as Geros tis dimokratias—the old man of democracy.
Andreas Papandreou (1919-1996) also became a politician and a dominant figure in Greek politics. A Harvard-trained academic, he served two terms as Prime Minister of Greece, in 1981-1989 and 1993- 1996. His assumption of power in 1981 strongly influenced the course of Greek political history, ending a system of power dominated by conservative forces. In a poll conducted by the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in 2007, the first four years of Papandreou’s government were voted the best government Greece had ever had. He was referred to simply by his first name, Andreas, a unique situation in Greek political history.
Andreas’s son, George A. Papandreou (b. 1952), following in the steps of his grandfather and his father, was the third member of the family to serve as Prime Minister of Greece (2009-2011). Unlike his father Andreas, however, George never became popular among the Greek people, and today he is held, among others, responsible for the Greek debt crisis that began in late 2009. That is why in Greek popular culture he is known by the nickname “Jeffrey,” definitely not a positive reference.
Zygmunt Mineyko, without exaggeration, can be considered a Lithuanian Count of Monte Cristo. He was a romantic adventurer, an excellent engineer, horseman, hunter and dancer. He could speak Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, French, Turkish and Greek. His contemporaries were impressed by his “Lithuanian steadfastness” and patriotism toward Vilnius. His house was decorated with both the Polish Eagle and the Lithuanian Vytis, showing his continued faith in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1911 he had written, “I have visited many places in the world and have seen various cities of rare beauty, but Vilnius forever remains the most striking of all, its inhabitants—the nicest, its girls—the most beautiful, and Lithuania—the most charming land of my imagination.”
Despite upholding the concept of old Lithuania, Mineyko only thought of the restoration of the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth, supporting the cause of Jozef Pilsudski, who fought to federate Poland with Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. The idea of creating an independent ethnic Lithuanian state, promoted by Simonas Daukantas, Motiejus Valančius, and the “patriarch of Lithuania,” Jonas Basanavičius, had probably never reached the ears of Mineyko. Obviously, he could not distinguish Lithuania from Poland, and that is why he supported the Polish cause during World War One. Even though national consciousness was maturing all over Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mineyko could not understand or value the desire of the Lithuanian intelligentsia and public to create an independent state with no connection to Poland. During those turbulent times, the image of the noble Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was vanishing from the nationallyminded Lithuanian consciousness, and only the denationalized romantic Lithuanian nobility, together with the Poles, continued to support Pilsudski’s cause.
Today, in various sources, Mineyko is considered Polish. But in reality his actions and writings prove that he was a gente lituanus, natione polonus, a Pole of Lithuanian origin. Actually, Mineyko was a child of both Poland and Lithuania, at least of Old Lithuania. The vision of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had gradually declined since 1795; but prominent sons of the Lithuanian lands, such as Adomas Mickevičius (Adam Mickiewicz), Jozef Pilsudski and “the Lithuanian Count of Monte Cristo” could not accept (or imagine) the permanent death of the ancient multicultural state that once extended from the shores of the Baltic to the Black Sea.