For Money, and his Life
Friend or foe, fact or fiction, the story of Tadas Blinda continues to capture the popular imagination
Everyone knows about Robin Hood. Several generations of Europeans have been brought up on the story of this noble bandit, as told in books, films and cartoons.
But few have ever heard the name of Tadas Blinda, and the story of this mysterious figure has gripped the imagination of Lithuanians for more than a century. Blinda could be called the Robin Hood of Lithuania, and the legend of this half-historical, half-mythical hero remains to this day a prominent feature of the country’s culture.
The real story of Blinda is shrouded in mystery, with only a few documents attesting to the basic facts in his life. He was born in 1846, to a family of free peasants in the village of Kinčiuliai, in northwest Lithuania.
This remote area, called Žemaitija in Lithuanian, and known to foreign historians as Samogitia, was notorious for its brave, strong-willed and stubborn people who resisted invaders and oppressive authorities for centuries. So, perhaps, it is no coincidence that the country’s most famous bandit comes from precisely these parts.
Blinda was born in the times when Lithuania was merely a provincial borderland of the Russian Empire, stripped of the last vestiges of its statehood in 1795 after Russia, Prussia and Austria had partitioned the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 19th century, Poles and Lithuanians fought unsuccessfully against foreign oppression in two major uprisings, in 1831 and 1863, both of which failed, and provoked a rigid policy of russification on the part of the tsarist authorities.
There is nothing about Blinda’s background that would have predetermined his fate as an outlaw. His parents were relatively well off, and enjoyed the status of “state peasants”, which meant that they paid their dues only to the state, and were free of any obligations to the local landlord. His father owned 40 hectares of land, worked as a forester, and was probably literate, as was as his son, which was uncommon for peasants in those times.
Tadas inherited his father’s farm at the youthful age of 20. He married a peasant girl called Barbora, who gave him three daughters, Ieva, Ona and Marijona. His wedding certificate, which survives to this day, affirms that he had no problems with the law.
Indeed, he seems to have been destined for the conventional life of a hardworking peasant, tending to his prosperous household and respectable family.
But that is not how things turned out to be, as the name of Tadas Blinda soon began to figure in reports of dastardly deeds, such as robbery and horse rustling.
A life of crime
There are several conflicting accounts as to why he became an outlaw. Some argue that he took part in the 1863 rebellion, and was subsequently exiled to Siberia. Others hold that he had a dispute with a local landlord, Duke Mykolas Mikalojus Oginskis, a powerful figure who owned estates all over Lithuania.
As the story goes, Oginskis ordered Blinda, by now a village elder (starosta), to discipline some of his fellow peasants by giving them a good flogging. Blinda refused, and the nobleman, infuriated by this display of disobedience, grabbed a whip and lashed at Blinda himself. The rebellious peasant tore the whip out of Oginskis’ hands, and, quick as lightning, thrashed the nobleman in return.
He may have saved his honour, but from this point onwards he was forced to hide from the law. No matter which story provides the most accurate account of his descent from respectable peasant to rebellious outlaw, he soon became known as the king of the Byvainė forest in northwest Lithuania. Having gathered a formidable gang of followers, he dealt in stolen horses, and moved freely throughout the dense forest and its immediate surroundings.
The tales begin to multiply. According to some, he was an honourable defender of the rights of the poor, and never stole from those who were in need themselves. He is reputed to have distributed the riches he took from the wealthy to poverty-stricken peasants, thus becoming a symbol of social justice and equality.
Some accounts add an anticlerical aspect to his crusade against the rich and powerful. In one tale, disguised as a travelling priest and sitting in a carriage, Blinda allows his hand to be kissed by a Russian official. In another, he walks into the monastery in Kretinga, dressed as a Dominican from a neighbouring town, and collects alms that he then gives out to the poor.
But there is another side to the story. Blinda is also thought to have amassed a great fortune for himself, which remains hidden in the Byvainė woods.
Indeed, some accounts suggest that not only the nobility but peasants too were the victims of his thieving. According to police records, Blinda was lynched as a horse thief on 22 April 1877, St George’s Day, by a mob of angry peasants, and was buried together with suicides in an unconsecrated corner of the cemetery in the town of Luokė.
Was he killed by locals as a punishment for his misdeeds, or was the mob organised by Duke Oginskis and the local authorities, as some witnesses claimed? The question remains unanswered.
Bearing in mind that the police records were discovered by an archivist only in 1993, we can very well still expect to find more documentary evidence supporting new and unexpected interpretations of Blinda’s life and death.
Today in Luokė there are few, if any, material traces of the great bandit. His grave is not to be found in the cemetery where he is said to have been buried. And although many of the village’s elderly residents swear that they have seen and know where his final resting place is, this aspect of his story has many versions, and many of them are contradictory.
The story of Blinda was first popularised at the beginning of the 20th century by activists in the national awakening, by the writers Lazdynų Pelėda and Gabrielius Landsbergis-Žemkalnis (a relative of the famous politician Vytautas Landsbergis).
Žemkalnis wrote a play entitled “Blinda, the Leveller of the World”, in which the Samogitian robber is presented as a defender of the rights of the common people against Polish landlords and the Russian authorities. First put on in 1907, it aroused much enthusiasm and excitement, first in Vilnius and then all over Lithuania.
Since then, Blinda’s story has been deeply rooted in Lithuanian popular culture. During the interwar period, a travel guide described Luokė as a place where “the great leveller of the world” is buried. Even during Soviet times, the story was recycled, with socialist overtones, in theatres and magazines.
But it was a popular Soviet film, made in 1973, and called “Tadas Blinda”, that turned the bandit into a veritable cultural icon. Based on a script by a young writer, it was imbued with nostalgic images of the countryside, dramatic combat scenes, and horse racing.
The main character, played by Vytautas Tomkus, became the very embodiment of Lithuanian machismo.
“After the film was released,” recalls Tomkus, now retired, “I received piles of letters from viewers, mostly young women. They urged us to raise Blinda from the dead, and make a sequel.
“Even now, when in summer I go to spend time in my house in the area where the film was shot, I sometimes have to hide from tourists and visitors who come to look for Blinda.”
Although the film was saturated with overtly socialist messages, it also contained some double entendres that, for a Lithuanian audience of the time, signalled a deeper, hidden meaning.
From a political point of view, Blinda’s forest lair alluded subtly to the still quite recent guerrilla war that was waged in the woods against the Soviet occupiers. From a psychological point of view, in one notorious scene, Blinda’s men give the noblemen a good whipping on their bare bottoms. The scene was apparently meant to be innocently comical, but today’s more worldly audience might find it somewhat kinky.
In any case, the film was an immediate blockbuster, and over time it has matured into an enduring cult classic.
With Lithuania’s independence, Blinda’s legacy has not lost its resonance. The discovery of his death certificate in 1993 inspired a new wave of discussions among historians and the public, while journalists rushed to the area to interview his descendants.
Once again, the legend served to characterise contemporary social developments: a Lithuanian noveau-riche eager to rob his fellow countrymen, a reckless politician, and so on.
According to Dr Tomas Balkelis of the University of (you guessed it!) Nottingham, who generously shared his research on the topic, “Tadas Blinda has emerged as a useful symbol that effectively captures several aspects of post-Soviet Lithuania during these tumultuous years of transition.”
The peak of this latest wave was in 2004, when the popular rock singer Andrius Mamontovas staged the rock musical “Tadas Blinda”, with a plot patched together from Žemkalnis’ play and the Soviet-era film.
Blinda, played by the rock star, was portrayed as a restless fighter for freedom and justice.
Recently, marketing gurus chose Blinda’s image for a new brand of beer: Blindos alus. The extensive advertising campaign for the product refers to a scene from the much-loved film.
And so it seems that the Robin Hood of Lithuania will not be laid to rest soon. In fact, Balkelis believes that, “Tadas Blinda is one of those heroic villains that could add to Lithuania’s image in the world. As a social bandit, he deserves his place among famous historical characters, such as Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Ned Kelly, Jesse James and Billy the Kid.”
As a fallible human-character-turned-mythical-anti-hero, Blinda will most likely continue to command tremendous popular appeal.
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