Fictional characters whose origins can be found in the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth have become commonplace in American literature.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist but also a cannibalistic serial killer was the main character of The Silence of the Lambs, a famous novel written by Thomas Harris. This character was born in Lithuania and appeared in several of Harris’s books. Harris created his character as a Lithuanian count who had moved to the US after the Second World War. Before the war, he had an idyllic childhood at Castle Lecter, deep in the Lithuanian countryside. The Lecters were proud to be descendants of Hannibal ‘The Grim’ (1364-1428), a fearless warlord who helped Poland and Lithuania defeat the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald (1410). This was one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages and saw a force of Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Tatars, Moldavians and others challenge the power of the Teutonic Order.
. During the war Lecter lost his parents. Following this, he and his sister were captured by a band of Nazi collaborators, who murdered and ate his sister before his very eyes. Lecter later learnt that the collaborators had also fed him his sister’s remains. Irreparably traumatized, Lecter was taken back to his old castle that had been converted into a Soviet orphanage. There he was bullied by the other children and abused by the dean. He was eventually adopted by his uncle who lived in the US.
In 1991 the novel was made into a film under the same title. The American psychological horror directed by Jonathan Demme (1944-2017) stars Jodie Foster as a young FBI trainee who is hunting a serial killer named “Buffalo Bill”, who skins his female victims. In order to catch him, she seeks the advice of the imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who is played by Anthony Hopkins. The movie is regularly cited by critics and film directors as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. It became the third film in the history of cinema to win an Academy Award in all the top five categories: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Dr. Lecter the greatest villain in American cinema.
Thomas Harris and Dr. Lecter, his legendary villain, are commemorated with a plaque on Literatu g. (Literati Street) in Vilnius. This street bares the names of authors and famous novels related to Lithuania. The name of the street originates most probably from the fact that the most prominent Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) lived there. His romantic poetry was inspired to a great extent by Lithuanian and Belarusian folklore, as well as pagan beliefs. Mickiewicz was also fascinated by Crimean Tatar culture. Literati Street is a short narrow street in the Old Town of Vilnius, where decorative and artistic plaques dedicated to writers who lived and worked in the city, or otherwise shared a connection with Vilnius and Lithuania, are displayed. The first plaque was added in 2009 when Vilnius was designated the European Capital of Culture. Since then, the collection has grown to some 200 plaques. One of them is dedicated to Czesław Miłosz, a Polish-American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature who was born in Lithuania and lived for many years in Vilnius.
The Hunt for Red October was published in 1984 and is the debut novel of American author Tom Clancy (1944-2013). It depicts the exploits of Lithuanian Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius as he goes rogue with his country’s cutting-edge ballistic missile submarine named Red October. The novel marks the first appearance of Clancy’s most popular fictional character Jack Ryan. US President Ronald Reagan described the book, which had been given to him as a Christmas present, as “the perfect yarn” and “unputdownable”. His endorsement boosted the novel’s sales and solidified Clancy’s reputation. The Hunt for Red October was instrumental in restoring confidence in the American military and government, which had endured a bitter defeat in the Vietnam War (1964-1975). According to Clancy, “Ramius, half Lithuanian, had childhood memories of a better place, a coastal village whose Hanseatic origin had left rows of presentable buildings”. This suggests that the fictional village was located near Klaipėda, a city on the Baltic Sea coast that for centuries had been a part of East Prussia. The region was a Polish fiefdom between 1466 and 1657. Nevertheless, Ramius was raised in Vilnius, the capital of the country, by his paternal grandmother. She left an enormous imprint on his personality, with Clancy writing that “Ramius remembered her as a silver-haired old woman who told wonderful bedtime stories. Religious stories. It would have been far too dangerous for her to bring Marko to the religious ceremonies that had never been entirely stamped out, but she did manage to have him baptized a Roman Catholic soon after his father had deposited him with her. She never told Marko about this. The risk would have been too great. Roman Catholicism had been brutally suppressed in the Baltic states. It was a religion, and as he grew older Marko learned that Marxism-Leninism was a jealous god, tolerating no competing loyalties. Grandmother Hilda told him nighttime stories from the Bible, each with a lesson of right and wrong, virtue and reward”. Ramius’s affiliation with Vilnius haunted him throughout his lifetime. In fact, even “His first Charlie-class submarine was called the Vilnius Academy”. Interestingly, Vilnius University, the third oldest university in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, was founded in 1579 as a Jesuit Academy. Of course, Clancy’s novel unconsciously alluded to contemporary politics. For instance, Ramius killed Captain Putin, a political officer, so that he would not interfere with his defection.
Clancy was inspired by the adventures of Jonas Pleškys (1935–1993) who was a Soviet Navy submarine captain born in the region of Samogitia, Lithuania. In 1961 Pleskys secretly steered his submarine away from the Soviet Union to the Swedish island of Gotland. Clancy contacted Pleškys, who agreed to become a consultant for the book. In 1990 the novel was adapted into a film under the same title. The film was directed by John McTiernan and starred Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin and Sam Neill. At the 63rd Academy Awards the film was honored with the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, along with nominations for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. In the movie, Ramius navigated his submarine to the Penobscot River in Maine. From the sail deck, Ramius, pleased to have made it safely to America, offers Jack Ryan a quote from Christopher Columbus: “And the sea will grant each man new hope; as sleep brings dreams of home”. Ryan nods in agreement and responds in return, “Welcome to the New World, Sir”.