Philosopher Nerija Putinaitė on three Lithuanian Europes

Nerija Putinaitė
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

What prevents Lithuanians from feeling fully European? Why is European-ness sometimes experienced as an annex to the “true” and “authentic” Lithuanian identity – or even as something inimical to it? Why do Lithuanians constantly feel like they are “returning” to Europe rather than in it? What is the Europe that makes sense to Lithuanians and worth their while? In raising these question, Putinaitė defines three identity paradigms that still structure the way Lithuanians think of themselves as a nation.

Ramūnas Bogdanas talks to the author.

In 2004, you published a book called “The Exiles from Athens of the North”, where you traced searches for the Lithuanian identity and visions of Europe in the 20th century. The book caused some controversy, mainly because you dared to question national heroes that had been thought untouchable. Were you distressed by how your book was received?

The book was received well, it became very popular. I realized that not everyone understood what they read. Back then, the issue that interested me was identity. Academia has changed since then, people look at things differently. Ten years ago, we discussed whether there was just one paradigm [of national identity], as it had been thought until then, or whether there might be several.

But most of the scolding I got was because I analysed how the narrative of Jonas Basanavičius [early-20-century Lithuanian activist, one of the “founding fathers” of the 1918 Lithuanian Republic] was reconstructed during the Soviet times.

In your new book, you describe three Lithuanian national identities.

Yes. One of them is the ethnic identity which I associate with the figure of Jonas Basanavičius and which is characterised by insularity, cultural and political defensiveness. He [Basanavičius] eliminated both the influence of Christianity and the European civilization [from his definition of what it means to be Lithuanian]. This paradigm excludes non-ethnic Lithuanians.

One of the founding fathers of the EU, Robert Schuman, said that Christianity was the moral foundation of the European Union. This means that this kind of ethno-cultural identity does not link Lithuanian-ness with Europe?

The link is a peculiar one: via envy towards that civilization. It acknowledges the latter’s welfare, but at the same time sees it as a temptation that one must not succumb to, lest one be swallowed up. This ambivalence takes the form of moral resistance.

Hence the fears felt by some Lithuanians to move too close to the EU?

Exactly. One sees guile everywhere. This paradigm does not include a positive cultural programme. Even before the war, Antanas Smetona [Lithuanian president 1926-1940] talked about the need to change and develop. This kind of identity bases itself on a very strict and narrow notion of what it means to be Lithuanian, something that needs to be defended. The Soviet regime brought us back to this point that Smetona had tried to move away from. He understood well that ethnic dances were not enough for progress.

When I was writing my first book [ten years ago], before our accession to the EU, I thought these identity issues were purely cultural, a topic for academic enquiry, but after a decade in the EU, these ideas have expanded and became political.

You must be referring to the referendum on land sale to foreigners?

Yes, because the discourse that surrounded that referendum treated land as something almost sacred. The referendum advocates wrote about land as part of their identity, something permeated with Lithuanian-ness. I think the air of resistance that surrounds this kind of identity is very appealing, so it is easily accepted by all generations and social classes.

It seems that you position the ethnic identity and the political identity as opposites.

From the perspective of the former, politics must be made to serve the cultural identity and ensure that it remains untouchable. Therefore the ethno-cultural identity does not place that much importance on national sovereignty. I was surprised to discover that it flirts with the idea that the Soviet Union did a rather good job in taking care of national cultures. But this is not a coincidence – when you define a nation in purely ethnic terms, it can develop very well even without democracy or statehood. Democratic citizenship is more characteristic of another identity paradigm, one I call civilizational.

When we have a state to run, we cannot escape the question of political identity.

The land sale referendum brought to light the clash of these two paradigms, because political pragmatism suggests a completely different definition of nationhood. Insular in character, the ethno-cultural identity has no potential to grow, therefore it adapts and begins acting like a substratum. For instance, our national holidays are mostly Christian, but the public discourse is full of references to ethnographic elements like Christmas Eve charms. Even before the war, no one would put bundles of straw underneath tablecloths. This practice is pure reconstruction, deriving from historical sources rather than live tradition.

Does this mean we have no other civilizational identity, equivalent to the Christian one, that we live in?

The civilizational identity encompasses both, cultural and political, orientations, but the three are different. The civilizational identity primarily means guidelines for development, it puts forward an ideal to follow. Christianity puts forward an ideal and defines limits so that the ideal does not turn into ideology.

Can all the three paradigms coexist in one mind?

They all find expression, but give rise to contradictions. If people were perfectly consistent, it would mean chaos. The three paradigms intermingle in the society and our heads.

On this point, you note in your book how people value Vytautas the Great [Grand Duke of Lithuania 1392–1430]. He built a political identity which is quite at odds with the ethno-cultural one. In the minds of many people, however, these two paradigms can coexist.

Contradictions emerge most clearly when you start talking about these issues, ask questions and argue consistently.

There are essential questions that cannot go unanswered. For example, who are foreigners in Lithuania, what is the place of the Lithuanian language? Political decisions depend on the way you answer these questions. If we define ourselves in ethno-cultural terms, we say that we merely tolerate foreigners in Lithuania. But if we adopt the paradigm represented by Vytautas, the thing that matters is one’s loyalty to the state and sovereignty rather than one’s ethnicity. That way, nationhood easily absorbs foreigners, but might exclude a portion of ethnic Lithuanians.

The Sapiehas, the Olshanskis were not of Lithuanian origin, but they became great noble houses of the Grand Duchy of Lithuanian.

And big patriots. More so than those “authentic” Lithuanians who, fearing unrest in their lands, would hide in the barn to avoid trouble.

Each nation has its own way of relating to Europe. In your book, you argue that Lithuanians constantly feel like they have to catch up with Europe. This reminded me of Vytis, the coat of arms of Lithuanian rulers, which is referred to in chronicles as “Pogonia” (pursuit, chase). This is not a name of a knight, but of an action.

Interesting, I haven’t thought of that. Indeed, I did not find any evidence that Lithuanians, through their heroes, ever understood themselves as integral part of Europe. This chasing of Europe has become part of our identity. Other European nations, too, might be short of some achievements, but they do not measure themselves against the distance they’re behind Europe – as we do.

Lithuania has been in the EU for ten years. How has this decade changed Lithuanians?

Firstly, identity considerations have been elevated to the political plane. You cannot escape defining yourself when you’re in a union. Not only does it allow, it positively forces us to think of who we are, what our role in Europe is. This is of great help to the development of our Lithuanian-ness and realization of who we are. I hope that, within five years or so, our political parties will include arguments on identity into their platforms – this way, we will be able to see how Lithuanian parties use one or other identity paradigm to define their values.

That’s a domestic mission. What is our mission in the EU?

The EU is viewed differently in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe. The latter associates the union with a civilizational, cultural ideal – so our mission could be defending this ideal within the EU, to make it fit our identity.

And by working with Eastern Partnership, we are trying to expand the European civilization. But there’s still the task of civilizing ourselves in European ways. When politics and culture overlap, this brings interesting changes and I believe that our opening-up to Europe will show the direction we’re moving. Lithuania is currently living in very interesting times, with great implications for its identity. Never before has it been so open, and possibilities for growth are unprecedented.

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