Miłosz’s Anniversary in the Context of Dumb Politics
Lithuania and Poland are marking the world-famous writer and poet Czesław Miłosz‘s centennial birth anniversary. A national program has been outlined, many events will be held. However, as was expressed in an interview with the Vytautas Magnus University’s historian Prof. Egidijus Aleksandravičius, the best way to immortalize this luminary is to read his books and aspire to behave the way he thought was meaningful.
Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004), who emigrated from Vilnius in 1940, earned the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Captive Mind, The Issa Valley and other books reflecting on the Soviet intellectual’s type and life in the multicultural Eastern Europe. He frequently emphasised being a part of both Lithuanian and Polish culture and encouraged a sense of responsibility towards another, perhaps weaker, person.
Egidijus Aleksandravičius, Vytautas Magnus University professor and one of the founders of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation dedicated to the poet‘s commemoration in his hometown Šeteniai, has had plenty of direct communication with the prominent author and is sure of one thing: the words of the great Lithuanian, Polish, American and world citizen are especially relevant in Lithuania today. But, in order to begin following the famous thinker’s ideas that encourage sensitivity towards another human being, personal effort by the citizens themselves is required.
The highly regarded author sought for Lithuanians and Poles to overcome the barriers of national and political tension. He lived and wrote in Poland, France and the USA, but keeps returning to his native Lithuania in the form of ideas still relevant today. Miłosz‘s ideas still carry weight in relation to the Soviet man; according to Prof. Aleksandravičius, remembering them, we would look differently at the Lithuanian-Polish conflict in Vilnius region, which is being conditioned by dumb Lithuanian politics.
Prof. Aleksandravičius, what historical events, or perhaps values, do you first associate with Czesław Miłosz’s personality?
Until the very end of his long life, Czesław Miłosz remained highly productive, his works cover a wide range, and therefore many issues of the past century are associated with him. But, there are two dimensions at the centre. The first dimension is the entire multicultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). At the end of the 19th century, after all the downfalls, Lithuanians did not die like many other nations, but were reborn. This, according to Miłosz, was a miracle, as Lithuanians turned from an actor in the political civilization into a product of philology. The ancient Lithuanians, Vytautas’ predecessors, were political civilization participants who emphasised their nationality irrespective of blood or language: those who defended Lithuania’s freedom and respected the Statute of Lithuania were all Lithuanians, even though most of them did not know Lithuanian language. Meanwhile, products of philology began defining their national dependence by basing it on language. Echoing Adam Mickiewicz’s dimension and times’ choices, his identity to me was like a symbol of a continuing, unending GDL. Together with the crossroads of Lithuanian noblemen and the fate of the nobleman’s ethos.
The second dimension associated with Miłosz’s personality is the Soviet subjugation of Lithuanian nation. He wrote about captive mind, confined to the cage of Soviet indoctrination. The hero’s type, ketman (author’s note: in Arabic culture, ketman is a person who voices support to the government but in actuality is its opponent), symbolised the Soviet man, who pretended to believe the ideals of communism but was acting the opposite when no one was looking. It is a man who says one thing but thinks something else and does yet another thing. These Miłosz’s insights are the great insights of the great subjugation era’s witness that have not been expanded upon in any way to this day.
You have compared Czesław Miłosz not only to Adam Mickiewicz but to the famous political scientist and dissident, Aleksandras Štromas.
Both Miłosz’s The Captive Mind, released in Paris in 1953, and Štromas’ Lithuanian book Lietuvių Politinė Savimonė (Lithuanian Political Consciousness) published in London in 1974, are works which attempt to explain how the Soviet type functions. Štromas, using less metaphoric essayist rhetoric, demonstrated that most were pretending to be communists, but were actually satisfying their egotistical desires, oppressing others and trying to fill the void of a material life.
With The Captive Mind, Miłosz first and foremost strove to explain to Western European leftists that the glittering Soviet showcase facing the front was fake, that life in the countries of the system was completely different and involved repressive structures and captivity of the mind. Less than twenty years ago, British intellectuals could not believe that the mass murder of Poles in Katyne had been the Soviets’ and not Hitlerists’ doing. Convincing the left in Western Europe of the time that the Soviet empire was an evil empire seemed practically impossible. For most Westerners, Miłosz’s, George Orwell’s and Arthur Koestler’s works were a peek through the keyhole into the world behind the Iron Curtain. Also, all three, as well as Štromas, were leftists in their youth, believed in communist ideals but later turned their views around fundamentally.
The analysis of the Soviet man was more oriented towards the Western society, but we also frequently return to it.
Both the young generation and probably us, the grey-haired generation, as well, only pretend to understand what it was all like. But there is still a lack of intellectual analysis. That kind of life enfolded us and we did not fully grasp it. Without firsthand knowledge of the Soviet system, the young generation is probably within the same distance to Soviet realities as the Western public was in 1960. The Miłoszian explanation of the most common, universal features of the past regime is very important to the current generation. Just like it was essential to the Westerners to understand what was happening behind the Iron Curtain, it is also important for us to understand what was happening behind the curtain of time.
Let’s return to the dimension of the GDL, its continuation. In one of his public speeches, Miłosz describes the experience acquired in multicultural Vilnius: “The lessons that I learned in Vilnius convinced me that I gained much by growing up in such a diverse and colourful environment – more than those who come from a culturally uniform community”. Are the encouragements we have heard in public for Lithuanians to integrate into Polish environment in the Vilnius region, and strict responses to it, a feature of a society which has become too uniform culturally?
Nothing can justify Valdemaras Tomaševskis’ words about the supposed integration. These are thoughts of an either dumb or a dishonest man, who is completely ignorant of the Polish culture in the GDL. Person who expresses such thoughts is definitely not a representative of Polish culture – only of the Soviet collective farm. Completely different one – sensitive representation to the Polish culture of the GDL – is noticeable in the case of Czesław Miłosz, as well as Mykolas Riomeris. The latter, in 1930, could talk loudly in Polish in the middle of Liberty Boulevard and still everybody respected him, having no doubt that this person of Polish culture is also a great Lithuanian. Meanwhile, in my view as a Polonist, Valdemaras Tomaševskis is, at best, an altar boy serving to the nationalist Polish politicians. He does not fit into neither Mickiewicz’s nor Miłosz’s or Romer’s multicultural Lithuania.
Lithuania and Vilnius have lost their positive multiculturalism that was described by Miłosz. But just because I am mercilessly criticizing Tomaševskis it does not mean that I am defending dumb Lithuanian politics. However, the fact that Lithuanian politics is dumb does not mean that Tomaševskis has a right to talk the way he does.
What, in this case, does “dumb Lithuanian politics” refer to?
One of the examples – the barely literate Seimas member Gintaras Songaila’s stopping of the legislation of bill that could have legitimated the transcription of surnames in the original language. It concerned not only Polish, but various other nations descendants’ names. Let’s open the books released in the pre-war Lithuania – the names there were written in the original language. Now, basically, we are preserving not the Lithuanian but the Soviet tradition. It was the Russians who, first by writing in Cyrillic letters, later – by rewriting all names in their alphabet, would phonetically rewrite an Englishman’s or Frenchman’s surname phonetically in their own characters, and usually in such a way that the surname’s owner could not recognize it. And this is the tradition that the representatives of aforementioned dumb politics are now protecting! It is painful and provocative.
In your opinion, if said legislation was passed, would there be more tolerance towards representatives of other nations in Lithuania?
I am sure of it. In the Soviet era, we were traumatised so severely that we still do not realize: creating a political community of our own, a political nation, returning to something that was once characteristic of the GDL, means abandoning the primitive provincial nationalism. We are all citizens of Lithuania, including national minorities. And the first task of the dominating ethnic majority should be the preservation of sensitivity towards the minority. But, after the Soviets, none of the weaker ones receive enough sensitivity, minorities among them. Miłosz’s words are very relevant here as well. He claimed that we all should be equal in the diversity that finds mutual understanding.
Miłosz saw the non-conflict atmosphere of Vilnius, though that lack of conflict was conditional as well, because we know that there was military intervention and the Polish sin of tearing out the Vilnius region from Lithuania, even if the Poles did not call that an occupation. That was how they defended their interests in the region where Poles comprised a certain urban minority.
National coexistence cannot be entirely without conflict – there is no such heaven on earth. It would be better if conflict had sensibly controlled limits, so that the tension would be diffused by jokes or, even better, in parliamentary debates, by providing reasoned arguments in defence of one’s ideas. Meanwhile now in the Polish-dominated Vilnius region there are some little Lithuanian islands that are becoming a minority of a minority. If, in the context of the entire country, the Polish national minority feels wronged, they express their little national revanchism on Lithuanians of the Vilnius region. When you are being degraded, you want to degrade someone weaker than yourself. And then our Ministers of Education one after another are forced to take care of the Lithuanian national minority in the Vilnius region.
But I would agree with the Polish protests regarding one thing – the process of real estate restitution when land became movable. An official could move his land from Rietavas to Nemenčinė and so on, remarking backstage: “We cannot Lithuanianize the Vilnius region in any other way”. It was criminal politicking. There should have been an uprising against such practices, but there wasn’t, as Poland’s policy at the time was different: it was sought for the Polish minorities to be considered not an enemy of the nations they lived in. The hostile to Lithuanians Polish minority is the result of impaired relationship between Lithuania and Poland. In this situation, Lithuanians must admit their part of misdeeds if only because they are the ruling minority of their own country – one should be careful not to hurt a weaker one. But we live in the kind of environment where, if you don’t hurt someone weaker, you yourself are seen as weak. This Soviet era tradition has gained ground in all environments, from schools to the government.
The rising heat in the Lithuanian-Polish relations threatens with the decrease in quality of liberal democracy in the entire Lithuania. In the words of Tomas Venclova, I do not see a threat to Lithuanianism here, I see a threat to humanity. After the provocative sentences uttered by Tomaševskis, society’s elements could arise from the pit that could damage our democracy as a whole. We are a very weak democracy, we find it very difficult to acquire skills for the building of a civil society, accepting a person of another colour or someone who talks Lithuanian with an accent. But it is with diversity that we increase the power and competitiveness of our political community. And all of this faces a very real threat, as our darkness and superstitions are our greatest enemy – greater than Russia.
Therefore, now Lithuania is in dire need of a new Miłosz or a return to his thoughts on compassion towards another person?
Geniuses are born once in a century, while their ideas live longer. But for Miłosz’s ideas to live on, you do not need certain truths from the Soviet era, learnt as if for some exam after which you are free to get it out of your head because you do not intend to live by those truths. Miłosz’s insights provoke to reduce the distance between the parallels of knowledge and way of life. His ideas are very valuable but they’re not mushrooms after rain and do not grow by themselves. Each of them has to be grown by one’s individual efforts.
There is even an official occasion to return to Miłosz’s thoughts: we are celebrating his year. Are the state’s efforts to publicize this luminary and his still relevant ideas sufficient?
Commemoration of various dates in Lithuania reminds of a spectacle in the crossroads. Those who like to control turn one way; those who earn money from such occasions, turn the other. There also are those who can donate for such causes. National celebration of Czesław Miłosz’s year seems completely ironic to me, as the Vilnius – European Capital of Culture program used some LTL 300 million, while the Czesław Miłosz anniversary year’s commission, whose meetings I attended as well, thought that it was possible to do for LTL 200,000. I do not believe in fake state-funded festivals, especially after the program of Vilnius – European Capital of Culture.
In this context, I see only ironic things. It seems typical to tidy up the hometown of some Lithuanian writer while celebrating his anniversary. But, not a single Litas was allocated to tidy up such truly Miłoszian locations as Šeteniai in Kėdainiai district, where Miłosz was born, or the Nevėžis Valley, described in the famous novel The Issa Valley – even though a group of citizens who have founded the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation supported by the funds of private donors, five years ago were already saying at the top-level that Czesław Miłosz’s centennial was approaching.
Marking the anniversary year, as usual, Vilnius’ groups will organize their own festivals. The very same crowd of creators that serve the government’s house will live off this date. Only the dates change, while the little crowd, as well as its bookings, remain year after year. Ironically, if it wasn’t for a private initiative, we would not have some things in Lithuania, including the Issa (which is how Miłosz refers to Nevėžis in his novel) Valley. Currently there is a culture centre sponsored by VMU functioning here, because it could not survive by private initiative.
Still, despite what a clerk from one or another ministry and his minion steal away with on Czesław Miłosz year, this thinker’s name is still sacred. We can only be glad that the government can neither allow nor prohibit the citizens from taking Miłosz’s books, returning to his ideas and perhaps becoming a bit better. And, if we become Miłoszian, we will, after all, have to feel responsibility for the government creating a conflict among people. Because to remember Miłosz means acting the way he saw meaningful. That way we would bow down to that great Lithuanian, Polish, American and world citizen.
Kauno Diena, Vaida Milkova