It won’t please those who like extremes: Mažeikis on the Russian language, Russian writers and those fleeing mobilisation

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There is no room for halftones in war. There is no room for postmortems; the enemy always seems to be the scoundrel, and the friend is always right. Under such conditions, it is almost impossible to feel sympathy for Russians who remain silent, do not protest or vote with their feet, i.e. flee the country when they feel the threat of mobilisation, Eglė Samoškaitė Writing at news portal.

When the war starts, when the atrocities of the Russian soldiers in Bucha become apparent, one wants to give up the Russian language, Russian culture, Russian names – everything that is Russian. Thus the Russian Drama Theatre becomes the Old Vilnius Theatre, and it is proposed that measures be taken to ensure that as few children as possible learn Russian in schools and choose other languages instead.

However, Gintautas Mažeikis, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University, argues that it is much more complicated than that. He believes a distinction should be made between Putinism and the Russian language. However, he acknowledges that there are certainly authors and poets in Russian culture whose names should be prefixed with an asterisk, explaining that the person in question is a Russian imperialist with anti-Ukrainian attitudes. But Mažeikis does not believe that all the works of these writers or poets should be rejected.

According to the professor, when Nazi Germany went to war in Europe, the aggressor country was fleeing its citizens of various origins. There were a lot of questions about how to evaluate German authors, philosophers and poets, so this is a familiar situation for Europeans, and we can use the answers we have found already. It is only in this case that we need to see the halftones. 

When Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine began, some people began to say that they did not want to hear Russian anymore, that they did not want to speak it anymore, not with Ukrainians, not with other Russian-speaking newcomers, not with Lithuanian citizens who had not learned Lithuanian properly. How about you? Are you allergic to the Russian language?

First of all, I do not understand what this is about. I do make a distinction between Vladimir Putin, Putinism and the Russian language. The other thing is that it is clear that some of the roots of this conflict really lie in Russian culture. But this is where we need to look more closely, and we are not going to decide so quickly whether Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky is guilty or not. Similar questions have been asked about Nazi Germany: is it Friedrich Nietzsche or Richard Wagner? But nevertheless, in a Europe with hundreds of millions of dead together, it was decided between Nietzsche and Wagner and the German language. So I do not think that this war and massacre by Mr Putin is very different from the war started by Nazi Germany.

I do not think that the assessment should be any different. This means that we already have examples of how we should react to such totalitarian violence, what we should do about it and what we might think about it.

For example, the Germans who fled from Nazi Germany to Great Britain and then to the United States behaved in very different ways: some continued to write in German, others studied English, institutes and universities were opened for the Germans who fled, and many people were recruited to universities in the United States and Great Britain, such as Professor Ernst Cassirer, Theodor Adorno and Max Forchheimer. And I could go on for a very long time here.

It was also a matter of looking at the origin of those who had escaped Nazism: whether they were Jewish or Slavic. And we look at those who leave Russia in the same way, whether they are Caucasians, whether they are from Tatarstan, whether they are Buryats. It does not matter to us. Our view of Russia and Russians is sometimes worse than the European view of Germans and German culture in their time.

What makes you think it is worse?

I do not want to generalise, which is why I said ‘sometimes worse’. But, for example, our first reaction was that the Russian language, the Russian culture, is to blame for what is happening here. Nothing like that. In some places, guilty. In other places, maybe not guilty. Who among us has looked into this? Although, yes, there are ideas that actually encourage wars or an imperial outlook.

I want to point out that William Shakespeare, whom we love and read, was a great promoter of British imperialism at the time and expressed a rather racist or anti-Semitic view on more than one occasion. But we have not stopped reading Shakespeare, we have not stopped reading Shakespeare in Africa, and he is not despised in Israel.

So there are limits to cultural rationality in this case as to how and what we should discuss. Nevertheless, Alexander Pushkin, who Russia praises, wrote some rather bad poems about Ukrainians at a time when he was talking about the Battle of Poltava and despising one of the Ukrainian leaders, Mazeppa. The fact that he despises Mazeppa means that we can certainly suspend him here. Only some of A. Pushkin’s work reminds him that Pushkin is an imperialist and that he despises Ukraine in some of his poems.

Or Mikhail Bulgakov, who is adored here in Lithuania for The Master and Margarita and The Heart of the Dog. But in ‘The White Army’, he writes badly enough about the Ukrainian people and despises Petliura, one of the modern Ukrainian leaders, who was a fighter for Ukrainian independence. We are not, after all, going to give up The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog just because other texts need to be better. But we can say that Bulgakov was a Russian nationalist, and we can be open about it.

The same goes for Joseph Brodsky, who is a Nobel Prize winner and even much adored in Lithuania. Here is a trio of friends: Tomas Venclova, Česlovas Milošas and Brodský. They pose together in many photographs. But Mr Brodsky has written the most horrible text that can be found in literature about Ukraine. It was written on the occasion of Ukraine’s independence and openly despised Ukrainians. At one point, it was even debated whether he had not written it at all, but later on, even an audio recording was discovered of him reading the lines with gusto.

I would like to say that later Milan Kundera and some other writers openly and publicly denounced this text of his and said: “Listen, you are a brilliant poet in places, you write very well, but you have very deep imperial roots”. So we have to name it.

It was very similar to the treatment of Nazi poets or writers. For example, in Lithuania, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who is much admired, translated and commented on, was openly a member of the National Socialist Party from 1933 onwards and even carried out repressive acts, ordering the persecution of Jewish students at his university on his own personal order. Another philosopher and lawyer who has been translated and commented on, Carl Schmitt, was at one time Adolf Hitler’s main lawyer, defending and justifying the idea of the Führer, but that does not mean that we have stopped translating him into Lithuanian. It’s just that in every case, a good commentator points out that, look, here’s the problem.

The point is that the kind of talk I am talking about does not exist in the Lithuanian discourse. Because it doesn’t exist, it is like people buying medicines and thinking they will help with anything. So if I read an author, I always have to keep a critical distance. Brilliant writers and poets are caught up in some war or other horrible story because they were brave. But, unfortunately, they chose and chose the wrong side. But that is why we study and read, to recognise these troubles.

I do not see the problem in the Russian authors themselves, but in how we present Russian writers or poets in our universities, schools and discussions. In other words, by reading uncritically, we allow someone like Pushkin to display his full imperial power and influence. But to ban him would be to turn ourselves in Lithuania into barbarians, uneducated and irrelevant in Europe, a complex people, an unthinking nation.

And if we return a little to the question of the Russian language, is it adequate to seek to minimise the use and knowledge of the Russian language because of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine? Because there has also been talking about reducing the teaching of Russian in schools. Is this an adequate reaction, or is it more out of fear and helplessness – if we cannot punish the Kremlin, let us at least punish the Russian language?

You have already mentioned an important point – fear and helplessness. But at the same time, we think that not knowing Russian protects us from Russian propaganda, and I partly agree with that. In other words, the less we know Russian, the better our young people are protected from propaganda.

However, there is another side to the coin. When we have Ukrainian refugees, Belarusian oppositionists and Russian oppositionists who are not liked by everyone, who is afraid of Putin and do not want to take part in the war, this means that we have large groups of neighbours with whom we do not want to talk in a language that we can all understand. That seems rather idiotic. It is similar to Pushkin: on the one hand, he is worth reading, but on the other hand, you have to remember what the problems with him are.

For example, I have now seen Russians admitted to Sakartvel and Kazakhstan. In some places, they are asked the question: who owns Crimea? As soon as they say ‘Russia’, they tell them to take their papers and go back. And if they say Ukraine, then other decisions. That is what I am talking about: if a person openly says that Putin and his clique are criminals, but does not want to go to prison in Russia, then fine, we can talk to him. Maybe he will help us to fight this totalitarianism.

We have quite clearly developed the idea that the war against Ukraine is not only Putin’s responsibility, not only the Kremlin’s responsibility, but also the responsibility of Russian society because a large part of it is supporting the war, and another part is conveniently silent. This is very likely to be true. But sometimes it seems that, from our point of view, good Russians should either be in jail in Russia or have left Russia before 24 February, or even better in 2014. Everyone else is a bad Russian because they only flee when mobilisation is announced. But is this not too simplistic a view?

It reminds me of childhood books about Indians, where they used to express that a good Indian is a dead Indian. So when we say that the good Russians left earlier, before the war, and everyone else is no longer good.

After all, most of the Lithuanian population is not sufficiently active in citizenship itself, and I would say more than 50%. If a major problem were to arise, for example, God forbid, if some authoritarian regime were to emerge, that 50% would continue to do nothing. When they are crushed, they would run to Poland and scream in horror, “How bad it is here!” and the Poles would say, “Where have you been for five or ten years? What have you been doing?”.

Of course, some of the activists left earlier because they were intelligent and understood what they were doing. However, for example, there are all sorts of theatre workers who have staged plays, criticised Putin’s Government between the lines, and tried to fight within Russia by artistic means. I would like to point out that the activists in some musical groups or theatres who are speaking out against Putin only started to flee two or three months ago, that is to say, very recently. For example, some of the journalists from the well-known television channel Dozhd or the radio station Echo Moskvy (I am not a big fan of either because I do not think they are strong anti-Putinists) managed to leave in time, but some other people got ticket for the next day and on that day, the gates closed for them and we said ‘that’s it’, they had to leave early. How absurd!

My purpose here is to discuss the situation’s complexity, which we do not see. I am not saying that everyone here now should be pitied. 

We see a few things. It is good that we have not let in what is known as the ‘cotton wool’, that is to say, those obscure people who do not really understand this world. These obscure people with obscure opinions are now going not to the Baltic countries but to Sakhartvel, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and similar countries. They go, and there is a very big discussion there. In Sakartveld, they have already noticed that some of the Russians are actually oppositionists who are worth welcoming, who are honest people who used to work as programmers, who were not interested in politics, but who have now realised that the catastrophe has come. But they are not, in principle, putinists and have no intention of being putinists. And some are frightened of war but are putinists. So there can certainly be a debate here.

One of my suggestions was to try to filter these people. One example is when a person says in public, on camera, whether he supports Putin or not, who owns Crimea? Of course, some of them will lie, but that is one example, and there can be many examples of such filtering.

I would like to point out that after 1990, when we started to be able to go to the United States, they did not bother to talk to anyone about their views, and there, around 30% got visas, and 70% did not. And we have taken a sort of lazy man’s position – all the new people leaving Russia is bad, and those who have left in the past may not be bad.

We also see examples of this in the media: if good Russians have fled to a country, nothing is written here, but if a putinist has come to Sakhartveli or Kazakhstan and has done some work, then, of course, it will be shown how stupid Russian women are talking nonsense, and so on.

And do you yourself find it logical that Lithuania should not accept those fleeing mobilisation?

We have a dual position. Firstly, it is publicly stated that the Russians have to fight against Putin, and we will not accept them. Secondly, it is noted that the Russians are not coming to us, so we are avoiding problems. However, even if we escape the moral decision – to try to sort them out somehow, who is a Putinist and who is not – I imagine that Belarus will be drawn into this war very quickly. Then the belligerent will be about 40 kilometres from Vilnius.

When mobilisation begins in Belarus, as it may well do, very soon, not only will those who fled with Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya find themselves in Lithuania, but a new and huge wave of Belarusians will pour through all our barbed wires. What will we do in that case? If we have avoided dealing with this issue now, we will have to go back to it in that case. We should probably not be thinking about a passive policy of non-acceptance, but what should the active policy be, what should we do in such a situation, and how should we proceed? Should we create any battalions in Lithuania in the name of Konstantinas Kalinauskas? Or do we drive those potential Kalinauskas battalions out, and when we are attacked, we will not have them?

But in the absence of resources, it seems more rational to mobilise them by taking in Ukrainian refugees than by taking in Russians who are fleeing mobilisation. So we cannot split it in two.

I totally agree. I would emphasise even more that some of the tourists from Russia sometimes attack Ukrainians. I have seen it myself. It is good that Russians are not allowed to be violent in the Lithuanian environment. I do not even know where the Russians came from, whether from the Kaliningrad area or from Latvia, but they feel that they can behave freely enough here and feel very influential. This is because of the commercialisation of tourism. That is where I see the problem, and that is why I propose that those who come should be filtered in one way or another. We are certainly not going to solve the problems of St Petersburg, Moscow or other places, and if we do, it will only be for the Russians of the Kaliningrad area. Because they now have two options for where to go – either to Poland or Lithuania.

It is sometimes said that those fleeing should concentrate and stand for at least a few minutes with a protest banner in Russia. Then there could be at least some effect. It even jokes that Iranian women are capable of resisting a theocratic dictatorship, whereas Russians are not.

But the question is what we are talking about. Are we talking about the Russians in Moscow, or are we talking about the Russians in the Kaliningrad region, who are supposed to overthrow Mr Putin in some way?

I wonder what would have happened if the British had said to the Germans fleeing from Hitler, ‘What the hell? Better overthrow Hitler!’. How would it have ended for those who were not accepted? They would all have been in concentration camps and would not have overthrown Hitler.

In May, the Yougov poll was published, which showed that 66% of Lithuanians believe that Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine, but in Scandinavian countries, for example, and in the UK, 79% to 85% think so. This shows that, although politically, we are able to see Russia’s intentions, there is a more diverse society if you take the small number of people who think that NATO and Russia (11%), or NATO (10%), were equally responsible for the war.

I would say that there has always been a similar picture in Lithuania, where there are about 60% of people actively support independence, democracy and other similar ideas. However, some of them still have deep Soviet sympathies. We just need to understand how that smaller part of society has such an attitude, what is the matter with them, what social factors determine their attitude, and maybe inequality contributes. It is a big and complex question. It is better not to deceive ourselves and to speak out because when the elections come, we will all be surprised to find that in those elections, everything is not going the way we thought it would. I will just remark ironically that the local elections in Kaunas will be a very good indicator of the great mood of Lithuania – whether Kaunas residents will vote for Visvaldas Matijošaitis or not. I would say that this will be the litmus test.

But although Lithuania is fighting very hard against Russian propaganda and is one of the leaders in Europe (we have made very good decisions that Germany and other countries only dream of), citizens still watch those propaganda channels, share that news in communication bubbles, plus another factor is at work – if electricity is getting more expensive, it is the fault of the Government. And if the Government supports Ukraine, then it is the right thing to do. So that strange reasoning also works.

The Kremlin’s propaganda hopes that the spike in gas and electricity prices in Europe will cause people to doubt that the war is to blame and the war is going on because the Ukrainians are still resisting it. Of course, some people understand that Russia, which attacked Ukraine, is to blame, but some people will also say that the Ukrainians are to blame because they are resisting. There are major sociological and psychological problems here, and they need to be discussed and solved.

Regarding the prices of energy resources, the Lithuanian Government should be much more active in discussions with the public, in informing the public, just as it was during the pandemic. The Minister has to turn up almost every day and explain to the people what is happening. Like Aurelijus Veryga.

Do you think our society will be able to maintain its pro-Ukrainian stance in the face of depressed electricity and gas prices? But, on the other hand, can we still have various protests and dissatisfaction?

I do not think that pro-Kremlin people would dare. I have not seen a single sociological study that proves this. I would guess that less than 1% of people in Lithuania actively and openly support Putin. I do not even want to name those people who go to Minsk or Moscow. But there may be many more who are passive, who may think that Lithuania is on the wrong path in terms of the economy or in terms of cooperation with its neighbours. The only thing is that Lithuania has formed a relatively strong majority, educated in the values of the Sąjūdis.

But here, we must distinguish two things: if someone rationally criticises the Government and presents the energy sector’s problems, this does not mean that he is a Putinist or anti-Ukrainian.

Since you yourself mentioned the open Putinists in Lithuania who go to Minsk and Moscow, from your point of view, should efforts be made to convict them, or is it better to ignore them because they are not influential?

This is a delicate matter. Public trials tend to increase the popularity of people we might not like. Suppose, for example, if the same Švenčionienė and Co. are prosecuted, their popularity could go from something like 0.1% to 1-3%. I think it is best to ignore them if they are not committing a clear crime. If they do, they should be punished, and the punishment should be indisputable but not the harshest. This includes that long phase from administrative fines and warnings so that it is clear that we are not going straight to the harshest penalties and that there has been a process. The law must be followed precisely in this respect.

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