“National conscience” Marcinkevičius stirs emotions, national debate from beyond the grave

Justinas Marcinkevičius. Pauliaus Lileikio nuotr.

A dead poet can stir emotions and even political debate long after he has been buried. Justinas Marcinkevičius became a household name in the 1980s and early 1990s, when during Lithuania’s movement for independence the man himself and his melodious well-rhymed poems were staples at every anti-Soviet rally.

Dubbed by many “the nation’s poet” or “the national conscience” of Lithuania, Marcinkevičius explored key moments and issues in the nation’s history.

His monumental trilogy of historic plays – Mindaugas, Mažvydas, and The Cathedral – is dedicated to what many see as the key aspects of the Lithuanian nation building: its history (Mindaugas was the medieval king who united Lithuanian tribes under his rule), language (Mažvydas was the author of the first Lithuanian printed book in 1547) and religion (The Cathedral dramatizes the construction of Vilnius Cathedral in the late eighteenth century). Marcinkevičius poems, often describing the Lithuanian countryside and a nostalgia for an implied paradise lost, resonated with Lithuanians under Soviet rule and were recited by adults and children at school alike.

No wonder that Marcinkevičius was given a full state funeral when he passed away in 2011. Still, Marcinkevičius’ oeuvre has not escaped controversy, elicited in no small part by his universal adoration. Literary critics have noted his poems reeked of sentimentality and nineteenth-century romanticism, not quite in keeping with the modern literary tastes of the day.

There have also been more political objections. After all, Marcinkevičius wrote his key works under the supervision and endorsement of Soviet censorship. His early works contain panegyrics to Soviet leaders and the “bright future of communism” that were required from any author who wanted to be published.

All that is part of a healthy debate about art and history that, until now, rarely transcended the polite circles of lecture halls and coffee-shop conversations. Until last week, when the dead poet’s oeuvre became a subject of a political debate.

Each year, the Ministry of National Defence and the Lithuanian Publishers Association give out the ‘Patriot Prize’ to several books that are deemed to “advance love and loyalty for one’s country”. A commission, made up of representatives from both institutions, pick two or three books, fiction or otherwise, that usually explore key moments of Lithuanian history and identity.

This year, the commission short-listed three publications for the award, one of which was a study of atheism in Soviet-ruled Lithuania by scholar Nerija Putinaitė. The book was “a breath of fresh air” in the scholarship about the Soviet times, the commission said.

However, when time came to present the prize, National Defence Minister Juozas Olekas said he would not sign off on awarding it to Putinaitė. The minister said that, in his personal opinion, the study entitled “Trimmed Pine: Atheism as a Personal Choice in Soviet Lithuania”, was not worthy of the patriot prize for no other reason than presenting a critical take on Marcinkevičius’ oeuvre.

“With all due respect for every person’s right to have and express an opinion, I must also voice my personal attitude towards Justinas Marcinkevičius and his work that Nerija Putinaitė uses as a case study in her book. When the Movement [Sąjūdis] for freedom began, I had not once or twice stood behind Justinas Marcinkevičius on rally platforms. Unlike Nerija Putinaitė, I drew strength from Justinas Marcinkevičius’ work during the Soviet years,” Olekas explained his decision in a statement.

Quite predictably, Putinaitė, who had already been publicly named as a recipient of the award, compared the minister’s decision to Soviet practices.

“I am well aware that I live in a post-Soviet society with all the characteristic convulsions,” she said. “There are people who see prospects of freedom and there are others who have not been de-sovietized and believe that present-day Lithuania is a continuation of the Soviet Lithuania. I find this very characteristic – a perfect image of contradictions afflicting today’s post-Soviet Lithuania.”

At least some in the literary community seem to agree with her. The team of authors that were to be awarded this year’s Patriot Prize for a study of twentieth-century architecture of Kaunas have publicly rejected the award in protest of the minister’s move.

Convenient form of nationhood

Justinas Marcinkevičius plays a significant role in Putinaitė’s argument which challenges the accepted view of the poet as a key figure in Lithuania’s national resistance to the Soviet rule.

Quite on the contrary, she argues, his romanticist treatment of the nation had cleansed it of any political meaning and helped the Soviet authorities channel national sentiment into “safe” expressions like ethnic song and dance festivals rather than demands for political autonomy and self-rule.

“In his later works, written during the Khrushchevian thaw, Marcinkevičius does turn his attention to national issues,” Putinaitė is quoted by LRT. “But so did the nomenclature of Lithuania at the time. […] They did so, because if they continued to oppose the society’s interest in the nationhood, there could have been an explosion. So they allowed expressions of nationhood in forms that presented no threat to the Soviet ideology. And in this sense, Marcinkevičius was a central figure.”

State-endorsed atheism was also a central part of the Soviet ideology and Marcinkevičius played a part in it, too, Putinaitė argues. She quotes his early works that are openly atheist and were part of the standard fare that every author had to deliver under Soviet censorship system.

However, even in his later works, written under the less stringent post-Khrushchev regime, his concept of God is very secular. “In Marcinkevičius’ poetry of the 1960s, God is substituted with nature, motherland and also perhaps bread,” Putinaitė argues.

Culture wars

Religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular played an important role in Lithuania’s movement for independence and challenging the religious credentials of one of its prominent figures is not unlike accusing a Republican presidential candidate in the US of atheism.

Indeed, commentators have dubbed the debates about Lithuania’s recent history of Soviet rule and liberation as “culture wars”. “New barbarians!” is how philosopher Arvydas Juozaitis, also a figure in the independence movement and a comrade of Marcinkevičius, has responded when asked to comment on Putinaitė’s argument that the poet could have been used by the Soviet authorities to channel national and religious sentiment into harmless expressions.

“It is indecent to even speak about it in a respectable company,” he told LRT. “It is not for us to judge whether Marcinkevičius was an atheist or a deeply believing man. Sometimes, in the Soviet times, a person would say he was atheist just to be left alone with his god.”

Another close friend of Marcinkevičius, poet Algimantas Baltakis, says that the author’s later work cut ties with everything he could have written under pressure from censorship authorities before.

“Until his death, he felt he had a mission to recover what had been taken away from our culture and history. When I hear today Justinas being attacked, it makes me think about many people, including prominent politicians, what they were and how they lived during Soviet times,” he says.

Others might feel that the topic touching on a history so recent is too much of a hot potato. Historian Alfredas Bumblauskas says that while Marcinkevičius’ oeuvre defies unambiguous judgement, he would like to stay away from the debate which he says was started by the culture magazine Naujasis Židinys-Aidai whose contributors include Nerija Putinaitė and other writers keen to re-examine Soviet-era authors.

“They are putting a load on Marcinkevičius. Well, this might be the Naujasis Židinys way of looking for truth. But I do not know what to say to that, I stay away from that discussion,” Bumblauskas told LRT.

“Whatever you can say about poetry, it was a phenomenon in our Soviet-era culture and literature,” he adds. “For me, his trilogy – Mindaugas, Katedra, Mažvydas – is a more substantial piece of history than the entire Soviet historiography. Therefore I do not point fingers at Marcinkevičius.”

Nor does Putinaitė herself dispute Marcinkevičius’ prominence. “He was doubtlessly very talented, a master wordsmith. He was able to deliver what resonated with the society,” she says.

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