The Europeans – The Former Capital

The Europeans is a portrait of modern Europe. Over the course of this multi-year project, photographer Rob Hornstra and writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen will travel from region to region and from theme to theme to create a contemporary snapshot of the European heartland. During the Forum on European Culture, the makers present the project’s first chapter: The Former Capital.

A project By
Arnold van Bruggen & Rob Hornstra
More information about the exhibition
Welcome to Europe, home of The Europeans. 

Soldiers march in the woods. Countless soldiers. They are young. It is wet and cold. The seniors march ahead of the children, leading the way. “We’re preparing for life,” says a boy wearing a pin from the local brigade. Marching, learning discipline, followed by a cup of soup and a speech from a respected veteran: life is not a game. We’re in The Former Capital. Here they have enough experience with neighbouring superpowers and occupying forces to know these paramilitaries have to be ready at any time. They have to be able to survive in the wild, just like their ancestors did. At the back of the group, a heavily tattooed man in combat gear drives the support vehicle. A few years ago, he pelted a gay singer with an egg. The fight against the enemy must be fought on all fronts.

On this spot, where two rivers meet, on centuries-old trade routes surrounded by sprawling empires and great civilisations is a small city. From the sloping green banks, the church towers and city walls seem to rise almost straight out of the water. Impressive bridges span the rivers; steep, overgrown banks on the far side give way to endless forests.

Countless rulers have occupied this area. Strategic marriages created great empires while ground wars gradually conquered the land. Like the annual growth rings of a tree, churches and buildings from all those periods show precisely what happened here over the years.

One such period makes the former capital particularly proud. Imposing statues of knights recall the time that this nation controlled large parts of Europe, in a tolerant, multicultural empire with unprecedented freedoms for that time. The empire’s borders stretched from sea to sea. It was a glorious episode that all patriots are familiar with and is proclaimed again and again: once we were great. Once we were powerful. No one knows what the next growth rings will look like.

A peculiar array of people is gathered outside a former warehouse: drug users, housewives, a few confused men. Some have bicycles laden with all their worldly possessions. Others are dressed in their Sunday best and quietly line up against the wall. Then the door opens to reveal a government employee. “Get in line! There is no pasta, we haven’t received anything. There isn’t enough sausage and milk, so you have to choose,” she announces. One by one the people shuffle past. “We live like monkeys,” says one woman. “We’re given some money, given some help and we scrape together everything we can get our hands on. Thanks to the food bank, we can keep our pride.” Stanislava, who runs the food bank, deals briskly with her customers. “Our problem is that we don’t have a middle class,” she says. “People either earn well and are part of the global economy, or they earn nothing and make up the underclass of Europe. But it’s even worse for our neighbours. They do the work of our underclass. And our underclass heads west.”

Butchers of the Former Capital

Just a generation ago, which some regard as ancient history, the former capital was part of another empire. It took 30 years for the imperial decorations to be taken off the bridge over the river, like a thief in the night. In other countries, historians, sentimentalists and minorities from the former imperial motherland fiercely opposed the destruction of history. That’s why it was done here at night, to avoid months of debate and provocation back and forth. The decorations symbolise the most gruesome war crimes committed by the former regime. You should not bargain with such a past. Although it was so recent, there are few reminders of those days – until you reach the suburbs. In row upon row of factories and apartment buildings, the architectural style betrays a time when people across thousands of kilometres of empire were intended to live in almost identical buildings, in unity and brotherhood. At least, that is what was said. The local history, littered with exiles, executions, incarcerations and a protracted guerrilla war, tells a different story.


Irene was born here almost 100 years ago, during the city’s glory days as the capital. The seat of government was here. The finest architecture from that period adorns the streets: the administrative buildings, ministries, banks and embassies that a capital attracts. It was a multicultural place where languages and names from all over the world could be heard. Irene herself lived in a community where only her language was spoken, at school, in church and in the shops. Then war broke out. First the Germans invaded, then the Russians. Irene speaks German even though her family has lived here for six generations. After the war, she returned to a city consumed by fear. A provincial town, a former capital. Only in secret did she and other German speakers meet to celebrate their religion, language and traditions. In public, she disappeared into the masses who were supposed to take the country forward as a united people. But she saw the opposite happening. “The war and everything that followed it tore the different groups apart,” she sighs. Her children barely speak her language. Her oldest son served in the army of the last occupier, just as her father served in the army of the first occupier. “I feel at home wherever I am,” says her son. “My family is incredibly European; throughout history we’ve lived in almost every country. But we’ve only felt like that recently, because we now live in a city where only one nationality is in charge and is dominant. And this nationality’s biggest hero, the one immortalised in the knight statues, didn’t even speak their language! Apparently, they need something to be proud of now. In the future, cultures will mix again. Nothing stays the same.

Kotryna grew up in the suburbs of the former capital

Kestutis parks his off-road vehicle in the woods outside the former capital. A path leads from the dirt road along a winding stream to a clearing in the trees. This is where his grandfather, who fought for years after the Second World War against the occupying force, is commemorated. From bunkers in the woods, he and his fellow partisans launched guerrilla campaigns, until they were caught, shot and their bodies displayed in village squares as a deterrent to others. When Kestutis was drafted into the occupying army, a political officer warned him, “If you survive military service and go underground, you’ll end up in the same coffin.” The officer knew the occupation would not last forever.

Kestutis in his shed full of national history

Kestutis lights some candles, cleans up and strokes his hand over the wet boulder that commemorates the partisans in the woods. His shed at home is a shrine to independence. Dozens of photos recall his family and all the times they had to fight for independence. In pursuit of that goal, Kestutis says, choices sometimes had to be made that in retrospect were questionable. “History isn’t black or white. We’re a small country. In the struggle against our eastern neighbours, we always needed our western neighbours. And vice versa. We had to jump from a wolf on a bear.” As a result, symbols that recall one of the darkest episodes in Europe’s history, the holocaust, are associated by some here with the struggle for freedom and the fight against a greater evil. Kestutis’ heroes are now being pulled from their pedestals and plaques removed from walls. Those heroes persecuted Jews, according to researchers. Kestutis sees this backlash primarily as an attempt to criminalise his grandfather’s guerrilla war. “We continue to be inundated by propaganda from abroad, about mistakes in our past, about how we have to adapt. Foreigners try to force ideas about families and children on us. They want us to take in refugees. Open borders are good, but we must be able to make our own rules.”

Photo by Pijus on Facebook

Pijus, 23, lives in the same city as Kestutis. A few years ago, he logged in to Facebook, wrote a short message and publicly posted a photo he had just taken of him kissing his boyfriend. Five years later, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that after he posted the photo, the regime had failed to adequately investigate incitement to hatred and violence against LGBT people in general and against him and his boyfriend particular. The basis for the ruling was the thousands of comments the photo attracted, many of which stated that Pijus should be burned, gassed or killed in some other horrific manner. Same-sex relationships are forbidden in the former capital. There are no gay bars, no Pride events. The police and courts at all levels blamed Pijus for provoking the comments. He took the case to Strasbourg, where the court ruled in his favour and awarded him damages. “I don’t understand it – the whole idea that only one kind of person should be allowed to live here,” he says. “I think it’s unpatriotic. It’s stupid. We should be happy that others see opportunities here, opportunities that we sometimes might not even see ourselves.” Despite the aggression, he believes in his former capital. He visited cafés and shops, offering them stickers and a listing on his websites if they wanted to present themselves as openly gay-friendly. It worked. During ultranationalist marches, Pijus held up a banner reading ‘This is not the Third Reich’, and the police protected him. “I love this city, truly,” he says. “I’ll always come back here.”

This is Europe. A continent in a state of flux. The financial and migrant crisis seems to have been averted, but the political aftermath is only now becoming apparent. Where some political forces are seeking refuge in a united Europe, others are vociferously turning away from it.  According to analyses, the political battle is no longer being fought over socio-economics but over culture and identity: urban versus rural; newcomers against the versus natives; tradition versus new norms and values; the globalised economy and culture versus the more orderly world of village, city and countryside. The call for strongmen and leaders is growing louder, both in the political and cultural domain.

Against this backdrop, The Europeans Project set out to travel the periphery of Europe. Drawing on our earlier experiences for the long-term The Sochi Project, we spend extended periods in places far from the daily news cycle. Documenting the direct causes of tensions in Europe is not the main goal of this project. Rather, The Europeans is a journey into contemporary Europe and an examination of what it means to be European in the 2020s. How will we look back at this decade?

Our stories of the Europeans are for a large part truly interchangeable. That’s because we love to focus on what historian Fernand Braudel called le temps conjoncturel, the level of time in history in which societal and cultural changes take place, contrary to a focus on le histoire événementielle, the level of time in which politics, hypes and trends take place. A great example of this is our meeting with Birute, a 90 year old lady. “I’ve lived under four different regimes,” she said. “I don’t care. I pay someone for my water and my wood, that’s about it.” What, we thought, would happen if you try to remove as much as possible of this histoire événementielle from our stories. The first big intervention we made was to skip the names of countries. Try it for yourself: we met this girl who’s a real experienced smuggler of cigarettes and medicine. She comes from a family that has defied the rules of her government, always, because they believe the government doesn’t work for people like them. The girl is from Italy. United Kingdom. Latvia. Sweden. France. What different stories popped up in your head, putting the same, personal story in a different country? It’s incredible what layers of biases a country name brings to a story. The second big intervention will be interchanging stories throughout Europe. It’s a cliché of course, but one that’s interesting to find out how it works in practice: the horizontal layers of society across borders have much more in common than the vertical layers within one country.

Come try The Europeans. We publish books, exhibitions, online documentaries, articles, social media. You can support us or invite us, like many who believe in our project.

The Europeans is a part of the Forum on European Culture. Do you want to visit the exhibition, please click here. If you want more information about the Forum on European Culture click here.

Arnold van Bruggen & Rob Hornstra

The Europeans