Prof. Robert Van Voren: Visual Traces of Sovietism are Disappearing

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Lithuania is currently still digesting its traumas of the 20th century, while the entire post-soviet region needs more moral leaders – the kind that would follow the example of Nobel Prize Winner Andrei Sakharov, one of the bravest critics of the Soviet regime, according to the head of Vytautas Magnus University’s (VMU) Andrei Sakharov Research Centre for Democratic Development, human rights activist, political scientist and professor Robert Van Voren, who is also Chief Executive of the Global Initiative on Psychiatry.

You have lived in Lithuania for a long time and have frequently visited Ukraine and other post-soviet countries. How would you evaluate the societies of these countries? Is the situation  improving?

Yes, it’s been getting better, Lithuania has really become a part of Europe. I’ve been living in Vilnius for 18 years, which is a bit ahead in relation to the rest of the country. Visually, it’s getting difficult to find traces of sovietism: you have to go out to the outskirts like Justiniškės just to remember that you’re in a former Soviet republic.

Of course, most of the active politicians are still either from the Soviet period or immediately following it, so the mentality is still very much around. But there have been strong developments with young people. Ten years ago, if I started a discussion about the Holocaust in Lithuania, the usual reaction was silence or reluctance to talk. It’s very different now: young people want to investigate the Jewish history in Lithuania, they finally see it as a part of their country’s overall history.

When I wrote a book about the Holocaust in 2011 and was researching the subject, talking to people in events, they would ask my wife, “Why is he asking these nasty difficult questions, can you ask him to stop?”. They no longer ask that, the situation has changed a lot.

In Ukraine, young people are also open-minded and quite different from their peers in Russia, where the Soviet fear is full-scale. The problem is that the bureaucracy there works just like in the Soviet Union. I’ve been trying to open a bank account as a foreigner in Ukraine for 1.5 years so I could work as a professor at a university. It’s impossible because the only way to open an account is to pay bribes. Well, forget it then.

The biggest problem for countries like Lithuania is that most of the youth emigrate. I can’t blame them: they know the languages, they have the education, Europe is open, salaries are much higher in the Netherlands, Norway, the UK etc. However, it’s sad because the young generation is going out instead of changing this country into a normal functioning democracy based on the rule of law, while the older soviet-educated generations are staying and sliding back into more post-soviet ways rather than into progress of a normal European country. The only way to tackle this is to openly discuss it. The moment you stop talking about things like that, usually it gets worse.

Nowadays the youth is actively using the social media. What do you think about its role in encouraging change?

On the positive side, social media has opened totally different possibilities for campaigning or activism compared to what I was doing in the 1980s. However, it also has risks, because separating the real news from the fake ones is getting more and more difficult. It’s clear that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the most specialized agencies in disinformation, is very actively working with the social media.

It’s almost like contracting malaria: you are stung by a very small mosquito and you don’t even see the difference between an ordinary and a malaria mosquito, but you still get malaria. Likewise, it’s sometimes very hard to see the difference between real and implanted news, but it still sticks to your head. A friend who lives in St. Petersburg used to call me and ask me about some news he’d heard. I would ask him where he’d heard it, he’d say it was on a Russian radio station. “Listen, what radio?”, I’d say. Then he would understand. Still, this bombardment of information works.

You can see how they do it with Sergei Skripal’s poisoning case in Britain: they turn things around very impudently and claim the exact opposite of what happened, and people actually buy it. Democracies are very susceptible to this: for instance, you have this idea in journalism that the truth has to be somewhere in the middle: “The Russians say it was the Brits, the Brits say it was the Russians, so what happened is something in the middle”. The problem is that in cases like this one, it’s not in the middle. The middle road is exactly what they are trying to create.

VMU Sakharov Centre should also be involved in this: analyse the fake media and the way the media is played around. In the old days, you had Kremlin watchers who observed how the old crooks stood in Lenin’s mausoleum to try to understand who was in charge and who was more important in the Soviet Union. Now this art has to be re-learned.

When things went really wrong in Russia in 2011-2012, the Foreign Office in Britain had only four people who spoke Russian. There’s an enormous need to teach the younger generations on how it was. In a way, all the mechanisms we had in the Soviet times are still here. I meet with other sovietologists, who are older than me, every two months in the UK to discuss the situation: for us, it’s a repetition of what we saw in the old days.

Can you describe in more detail how the old methods are returning?

It’s the killing of opponents. During the interwar period, NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB and FSB, was not interested in intelligence gathering outside the country. Their representatives just abducted and killed people. In a way, it’s now back to how it used to be. There are more dissidents being killed today than in the Brezhnev period: in Britain there are currently 22 cases being investigated where the FSB is suspected to have killed people over the past years.

And the other side of the coin is the propaganda to convince the general population in Russia that they have to go to war, that the West is evil and so on.

What Putin has managed to do is something we couldn’t imagine 10 years ago: he has turned Russia again into fairly closed society as far as information is concerned. It’s not that you cannot go online in Novosibirsk and see what’s on my organization’s website. It’s a matter of balance: if you have a bombardment of state propaganda, and the media is dominated by the Kremlin with a few organized exceptions, the news you find outside won’t influence the population.

If you are a worker in Kemorovo, it’s the state news you follow, and if you want more, you listen to “Echo Moskvy” or some other “dissident” outlets, but even these have been streamlined, while everything else is closed down. The result is that whatever information we have here will not reach the Russian people.

At the same time, if people really believe that 76 percent of Russians supported Putin in the election, why did he have to falsify millions of voting bulletins? It’s because he understands that the popular support is fake, it’s created on the basis of Soviet fear. If people lost that fear and got a chance to think independently again, things would change very quickly. That’s why he’s so afraid of Maidan in Russia, that’s why he has an internal army directly under his command, a national guard of 400,000 men with tanks and helicopters. He doesn’t even trust his own military anymore.

The same thing happened with Stalin, who became increasingly paranoid as his circle got smaller and smaller. The question is, how long will Vladimir Vladimirovich’s circle allow him to remain? There are younger, absolutely ruthless people around him who keep him because he protects their money, but the moment his protection becomes a liability, he will be gone. And he knows it, that’s why he has to keep up the pace and the repressions.

Nine years ago you wrote in your book On Dissidents and Madness that Lithuanians were going through a crisis, almost a depression, because the wealth of the cities was not reaching the provinces. You also talked about brain drain, emigration and low wages. Would you say the situation improved at all since then?

Yes and no. No, because there is yet no turning point in emigration. When I ask my students how many of them are going to emigrate, the majority say they will. One of my Lithuanian cousins lives in Amsterdam, speaks Dutch, works at a bank, while I live here in Lithuania. It’s the world upside down. Unfortunately statistics show no hope for improvement. Hopefully they are wrong.

On the other hand, I think one of the key elements of this Lithuanian depression is the trauma of the 20th century: the country was very much a victim of history, but also has a very black page of the Holocaust. Psychologically it’s very difficult to accept that you are the victim and the perpetrator at the same time. Lithuania came out of the Soviet period with the need for heroes, for nation-building, but it turned out that some of those heroes actually participated in the killing of the Jews. It’s absolutely traumatic, and the only way to get over this trauma is to digest it. That’s why my book about the Holocaust was called Undigested Past.

At the same time, Lithuanians have something I cannot fully put my finger on. It’s not only the unexplainably high suicide rate, it’s also the self-victimization. The country remembers its great past when it was the largest in Europe, but at the same time it seems to have an inferiority complex.

It’s funny because I have a Lithuanian and a Dutch passport, so I can compare how people react. When I go to other countries as a Lithuanian and discuss the country in World War II, people immediately go “You killed all the Jews”, which is quite unfair. But if I go abroad as a Dutchman, the reaction is “You tried to save the Jews”, which is nonsense. This difference of reaction is amazing.

But I think the country is digesting, getting through this period, just like a person gets over a trauma by actually going through it. I see it happening around me and it’s very nice to see it and be part of it.

Like Sakharov, you have also been very involved in trying to liberate or improve the conditions of the dissidents imprisoned in mental institutions. What have you learned and has there been a lot of progress?

When I became a human rights activist, I was especially interested in political prisoners who wind up in psychiatric hospitals. Long-term internment is horrible, it can be indefinite, so you have no idea if it will be 2 years or the rest of your life. Plus, you’re locked up with mentally ill people and you’re treated with medication – anybody would go crazy.

In 1989-1990 we started rebuilding psychiatry in almost all former Soviet republics so that it would have an ethical barrier against political abuse. Today most of my work in psychiatry is focused on Georgia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. I visit Ukraine up to 4 times a month.

Mental health is also a litmus test: the way a country treats its mentally ill reveals the society’s cultural and civic level. It’s a mirror of society. The situation in Lithuania has been getting better but in most former Soviet countries people with mental illness are completely outcast and spend the rest of their lives in institutions outside the city. The treatment is outdated, there are massive human rights violations, so it’s a very long way to go.

What are the main priorities and goals of the new VMU Sakharov Centre?

First, it seeks to unite the expertise available at VMU and abroad related to the political developments in the former USSR, especially Russia, such as the return of authoritarianism and the influence it has on the surrounding region: Ukraine, Georgia and other countries. Basically, everywhere where Russia is trying to stick its fingers into someone else’s kitchen and say that the territory is nasha within the former Soviet Union’s borders.

The second goal is to provide a forum to top experts to reach out to students and the public in Lithuania by organizing lectures and other events. We are also planning to launch a book series which would increase the understanding about what is happening in this part of the world. Lithuania is lagging behind in terms of institutions dealing with international issues, as there is no institution like the Chatham House in the UK. We hope to fill that gap.

I was chosen to be the director of the centre because I have worked in this field for a long time. In the 1980s I was part of the Soviet dissident movement, and later worked on trying to develop democracy in the former Soviet republics. Today I’m once again trying to defend human rights in Russia and also working in Ukraine. In a way, my 40 years of activities link the old with the current.

How important is Andrei Sakharov and his work to today’s world?

When I was a young activist, we simply called him “Andrei Dmitrievich” and everyone understood whom we meant. He was an important figure, a moral compass who never compromised on human rights and defended those whose rights were violated. Sakharov paid severely for this, he was exiled to Gorky for six years.

My students remember Sakharov’s name but not who he was, because tragically he has disappeared from the public discourse. There are two bridges in Arnhem in the Netherlands, one named after Nelson Mandela and one after Sakharov. Everyone remembers Mandela, and Sakharov is of the same calibre, but he has lost prominence because he is not necessary: not to the current government in Russia and not to the Russians. He died just before the USSR collapsed, so he never played any political role in the post-soviet period, which is very tragic, because Russia has no moral leaders. The Czech Republic at least has Václav Havel, Poland still has Lech Wałęsa.

So today we’re trying to bring him back into the public discourse and also to bring back the discussion about the absence of moral leadership in this part of the world. Look at Ukraine: after the people’s revolution, what did the people get? Poroshenko, who is just as much a thief as Yanukovich was. Without any leading examples to show the direction, it’s just walking around the desert, a bit like the Jewish people after the escape from Egypt.

In Ukraine we have started holding annual celebrations which have now evolved into so-called Sakharov Days. This year we will have 4 days of concerts, discussions and other events in Kiev and Odessa, all focused on morality and politics. The aim is to look for the moral ground in politics again.

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