Opinion: Repercussions of the Grand Duchy or public perception of the Ukrainian War in Lithuania

Kiev's Maidan
DELFI (Š.Černiausko nuotr.)

A former fountain at the Seimas was redesigned in July 2013. The fountain became a pyramid with a map on each side projecting the historical borders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania onto today’s political borders.

The underlying map of the Grand Duchy is a growing black spot with its historical lands swelling to overlap modern Belarus and Ukraine before finally stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This was easily read as a political statement of the Lithuanian government trying to point to an imagined historical continuity between the former multi-ethnic Grand Duchy and today’s nation state of the Republic of Lithuania.

Some critical comments involving the notion of gigantomania were published back in July 2013, but the map has not been changed. Later, a legend was added to explain the different periods of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

During Lithuania’s EU Council presidency, it became clear that the plan to make Eastern Partnership the major issue on the European agenda worked out, but not the way Lithuanian policy makers intended. Belarus dropped out of the process a long time ago and its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, did not plan to rejoin the club.

The Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych decided, after a long zigzag course between strong Russian pressures and weak EU incentives, not to sign the association treaty with the European Union.

The summit to sign the European Union Association Agreement in Vilnius on 28-29 November became a paradoxical event. On the one hand, it showed the complete failure of European policy regarding its Eastern neighbours. On the other hand, the historical link between Lithuania and Ukraine, as projected on the pyramid just outside the Seimas, had been established for good and not just because all the major events took place in the newly reconstructed Palace of the Grand Dukes.

When protests on the Maidan spilled into mass demonstrations, both the Belarusian and Lithuanian media started following the events very closely. As neighbouring countries, this extensive media attention stemmed from their proximity to Ukraine; but even a more relevant reason was the sense that Russia reshaping its foreign policy in what, until recently, had been called “near abroad” would also effect Belarus and Lithuania.

As the protests became more intense, they also became more present in semi-public spaces in Lithuania. Many people followed the Maidan situation on espresso-TV-channel. When violence broke out on the Maidan in late February 2014, people in Lithuania could not take their eyes off.

Immediately after the first Maidan protesters had been shot in January 2014, the Lithuanian parliament announced an official day of national mourning. With the Russian annexation of Crimea that followed, the most important question in the Lithuanian public discourses became how to tackle Russia and its geopolitical ambitions in the region. Radio stations, newspapers, TV channels, public discussions, even the Lithuanian presidential election campaigns were dominated by the war in eastern Ukraine.

Memory, in Lithuniania’s active public perception of the Ukrainian crisis against a backdrop of dramatically deteriorating relations between the EU and Russia, is a political issue that will have an impact on both Lithuania’s geopolitical position and its economy.

For example, until recently, the prices for Russian natural gas paid by Ukraine and Lithuania were some of the highest among all European gas rates dictated by Gazprom. Yet awareness of the contrast between the Russian methods of transnational media wars, logistical support of irredentist partisanship, and the cynical official line of foreign policy derives not just from fear of next winter’s higher heating bills. It triggers the most important individual and social memories related to the post WWII and post 1991 eras.

Within the individual context, many Lithuanians observed in the Ukrainian events an affair they may easily experience in the Baltics again. The current situation reminds many Lithuanians of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940. The narrative of the peaceful Euromaidan protesters overthrown by state violence also reminded the Lithuanian society of its own victims in the struggle for independence in 1990 and 1991. The fighting between unarmed civilians protesting state aggression and armed troops on the Maidan in February 2014 was perceived as a repetition of the events of January 1991, when more than a dozen Lithuanians died at the Vilnius TV tower.

Television images from Kiev triggered even deeper layers of memory. Some recalled Lithuania’s 1940 incorporation into the Soviet Union after only approximately twenty years of independence. Commentators highlighted the striking coincidence in time, noting the appearance of a Russian threat, posed again, after two decades of national independence. The traumatic events of the post-war years, when nationalist partisans fought against Soviet SMERSH units in a civil war, were also actively revived in social memory.

Membership in both the EU and NATO has an important symbolical impact on perceptions of the situation in the region. At the beginning of the Lithuanian EU presidency in 2013, Lithuanian President and former EU commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė hoisted two Lithuanian flags in front of the classicist estate in Vilnius, that houses the President’s Office. Today, a Lithuanian, European and NATO flags fly in front of the palace.

The nearby Green Bridge is a Soviet construction with four sculptures representing Soviet youth, Soviet workers, Soviet peasants and Soviet soldiers. The bridge and its statues are a recurring source of public debate over whether to preserve some Soviet heritage in public spaces. In the spring of 2014 it was bannered with the coat of arms of the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania and the NATO flag, as if to show the iron statues in “the context of their current presence” in Vilnius.

There are many other occasions when frightening memories of historical experiences became co-memorized in the Lithuanian public. The Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine are perceived as a realistic danger for the Baltics as well. Newspapers advised readers on how to prepare for a possible war. Politicians discussed the threat of Russian tanks near the bordering Kaliningrad region. Experiences under Stalinist rule are retold among people in their discussions about the current political situation.

The ongoing military conflict in eastern Ukraine promotes the narrative of Lithuania having regained its independence in 1990 and 1991 as a result of the society’s resistance to Russian oppression. Both, peaceful protest of the civil society at Euromaidan, which began in December 2013, and violence that broke out in February 2014, fit into this official Lithuanian state narrative.

The ongoing conflict reflects the national renaissance movement, atgimimas, which found power in peaceful mass meetings and the long-term occupation of public spaces. It also evokes the heroic narrative of Lithuania’s partisan resistance in the second half of the 1940s.

In regard to the connection between private memory (Gedächtnis) and more institutionalized forms of memory (Erinnerung), I would argue that the Ukrainian events are so prevalent in Lithuania because of two significant current generation shifts. First, the generation that still remembers the immediate post-war years, when the Forest Brothers (Lithuanian partisans) opposed the Stalinisation of Lithuania, are passing away. Their testimonies were added to the public memory reservoir during the last twenty years by such institutions as the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Regimes in Lithuania and the Museum of Genocide Victims in the former KGB building in Vilnius. The Ukrainian events legitimise and update this narrative in Lithuania.

Second, today the events of 1991 have to be told to a new generation born after the fall of the Soviet Union. For them, the late Soviet experience and WWII are rather abstract events with less meaning and presence than for those who grew up during the Cold War.

Many Lithuanians were united with Ukraine in a transnational media space due to a highly active public perception of the ongoing war. Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing struggle in eastern Ukraine are seen differently in Lithuania than in neighbouring Belarus. Despite Lithuania’s NATO and EU membership, the crisis in Ukraine renews co-memorized narratives of Russian occupation.

The last decade has been one of thorough studies of memory in the region. Many dimensions of memory politics have been discussed and brought together with empirical studies on the local, communal, generational and institutional level.

From my point of view, it is problematic to talk about memory wars. What we can see is memory instrumentalised as part of the ongoing media war in Ukraine. Both parties abuse history as a propaganda stunt. Memory is at the core of political choices to be made, as in regard to May 8 or 9 – as you wish. Memory is reshaped by ongoing events, which in turn, change the public perception of those events.

In essence, memory war is not a struggle for the past. As it has been emphatically pointed out, memory is constantly reconstructed in the present context and, theoretically, memory is always a social projection of future visions onto the imagined canvas we call the past.

Today in Ukraine, it is evident that the future is not a virtual issue or something abstract. It is about decisions of global importance, active social engineering, and the ongoing negotiation of self-images constructed by societies at large and on a smaller scale as well. Thus, memory is not the core of the Lithuanian-Belarusian perspective of the current undeclared Ukraine war, but does expresses the political visions of different sides of the conflict whose narratives are difficult to merge.

We need to more actively address the dimension of the future in our analysis of memory – both in the Baltics and in Eastern Europe. We have to make sure, that we do not analyse memory for the sake of a better understanding of the past. Rather, we analyse memory to understand today’s world, to give our own judgement of present times, and to develop a clearer vision for the future of the societies we are part of.

Felix Ackermann is Associate Professor at Vilnius-based European Humanities University. His piece originally appeared on Wilna Notes.

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