Historian A. Nikžentaitis: “There is a lot of unreasonable euphoria in Lithuania about the collapse of the Soviet Union”

Categories: Talks and IdeasPublished On: 2021 February, 8

Regarding the transition period in Lithuania, a myth has emerged that the activities of the Sąjūdis, as well as “the Baltic Way” were the most important factors in the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Dr. Alvydas Nikžentaitis observes: “when we talk about epoch-making phenomena that are significant for the whole history of Europe, it is often the case that the chronological dates of these phenomena differ.”

However, a process of this magnitude should be looked at much more comprehensively. An isolated approach, detached from the wider political context of the time, is not only historically limited, but also a potential threat to democracy. For example, with Poland emphasizing the merits of the Solidarity Movement and Western Europe still remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall, it becomes difficult to establish a dialogue.

Unrecognized achievements are also disappointing, according to Nikžentaitis, “this allows the conservative elite to turn to nationalism, further promoting the asynchrony of memories.”

In this interview, Simona Merkinaitė, an expert of the OSFL program “Rethinking Europe”, talks to dr. A. Nikžentaitis on the relationship between cultural memory and political processes within Lithuania and neighboring countries. This interview forms part of the “Rethink 1989” project.

Alvydas Nikžentaitis is Director of the Lithuanian Institute of History, Habilitated Doctor of Humanities, Chairman of the Board of the Polish-Lithuanian Dialogue and Cooperation Forum of Jerzy Giedroic. In his new book, the professor analyzes the specificity of the formation of, and the changes in cultural memory across six post-Soviet countries; and the study raises the question of the relationship between cultural memory and social and political change.

In this conversation, we discuss the transformations resulting from the Baltic Way and the memory of January 13th, the evolving meanings of these events, the impact that memory can have on democratization processes, and current events in Belarus.

A decade ago, you hoped that the Baltic Way would become a slightly different pillar of our common memory – that unity and self-confidence would be at the center of this event. These events have the greatest potential to establish themselves in people’s memory as positive rather than negative, reflecting the strong positive feelings that unite us for collective action and direct our emotions to the future; and so they support a positive narrative of memory. A no less important fact, when it comes to the Baltic Way in particular, is that August 23rd, as a day of nation-building, has taken on a new narrative that offsets the unequivocally negative meaning of the day which is associated with the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. How would you envision these events a decade later?

I think that this hypothesis of mine has been proven entirely accurate. Taking the key events of 1989–1991 (and this includes both the Baltic Way and January 13th), we see a transformation in their assessment. Both Sąjūdis (Reform Movement of Lithuania) and revival confirmations began with the illegal occupation of the Baltic States. August 23rd, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the secret protocols were signed, has a symbolic meaning. The early commemorations of this day were mournful.

The Baltic Way itself, i.e. the living chain of people formed from Vilnius to Tallinn, was emphasized as a day of mourning.

We saw the first signs of change a good decade ago, and today we can say for sure that emerging from this sense of mourning, the Baltic Way has taken on the form of a more positive phenomenon.

The moment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as an event of mourning is being pushed aside by the Baltic Way, which carries with it the sense of victory. The same is true of the memory of January 13th, with which a similar transformation has taken place.  A new generation is discovering its own relationship with these events. It is a natural process of transformation that takes place due to generational change, with a sort of distancing from events and the resulting change in relationship towards them. Both the Baltic Way and January 13th have become an integral part of the narrative of freedom, and these events have a positive significance. It is now realized that the victims of this tragedy were not lost in a meaningless and vain way, as the latter event soon led to our independence. In a sense, this change also speaks of a change in the nation‘s emotional state, where we have evolved from a nation of victimhood and disaster into a nation that can achieve victory, and not only on the basketball court.

The Baltic Way connects Lithuania with Europe, with revolutionary movements in other Central and Eastern European countries, and to further west –with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War itself. Does our collective memory possess this dimension of Europeanness?

Undoubtedly, this dimension of Europeanness does exist, though perhaps it has become a little hidden under the veil of national stories at present. Ten years ago, I had to attend an international conference marking the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time many wondered why this date was not being celebrated in the former post-communist bloc. This implies that ten years ago there was a feeling that not enough attention was being paid to the event. I provide this example to highlight that when we talk about epoch-making phenomena that are significant for the whole of European history, it is often the case that the chronological dates of these phenomena differ. As for 1989 and the dimension of Europeanness, it can equally be said that student protests in the former Czechoslovakia, roundtable talks in Poland, the Baltic Way, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany have a common meaning, while their chronological order may differ.

Attempts to synchronize these events, as we can see, often lead to conflicts. For example, one can understand how frustrating it is for Polish intellectuals, for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall, rather than the Solidarity Movement, is a symbol of the collapse of the Soviet system, because, historically, the merits of Solidarity far outweigh the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany. Thus, it allows the conservative elite to turn back to nationalism, and further promote the asynchrony of memories.

With regard to a change in the cultural memory, the question arises as to whether it is possible that the significance of the Baltic Way was reasserted first by the events of Euromaidan, and now even more so by events in Belarus, and the experience of the further disintegration of the Soviet system not only lay the foundations for a degree of solidarity, but at the same time transformed this memory into a living and meaningful pillar of present identity?

We see “two-way traffic”. First of all, when it comes to the Baltic Way, there have been many attempts, some more successful than others, to restore and replicate the events of the Baltic Way in various parts of the world. So, in this sense it has become a kind of symbol that continues to be used. It should also be mentioned that whilst today the protesters in Belarus act in a non-violent way and renounce violence, the opposition seeks to transform the political regime through negotiations, and in this we can see the influence of the Lithuanian and Polish experience.

This is merely one side of the issue, and it would be harder to talk about the other side of this issue in a more global sense. Perhaps important here is that during the Solidarity Campaign with Belarus, several reflections could be observed of our own experience. I think that the success of this campaign is partly owed to the fact that those who took part in the Baltic Way wanted a repeat of that special experience, that is, the experience of surviving such an occurrence. Meanwhile, the post-1989 generation that had been regaled about the significance of this event by their parents wanted to experience such a feeling for themselves. So, finally, we can talk about how we continue to interpret this memory ourselves, including in our relations with other states.

Several schools of thought have emerged regarding the significance of “victorious” peaceful revolutionary movements. The first of these is pragmatic. According to this assessment, people were united by the promise of material benefit (usually the desire to “catch up” with the West in terms of well-being); according to the second, such national sovereignty was sought throughout the entirety of the occupation, and that an adequate historical opportunity was finally reached; and according to the third, the unifying motive was the desire for freedom, which was perceived as a guarantor of the possibility for a dignified human life, and this recurred during the events of Euromaidan – as featured in the motto of the human dignity revolution. How do you think it is possible to sift through these causes and motives in this way, and how can we talk about it without simplifying and falsifying historical reality?

I fully agree with the last part of the statement. It is impossible to distinguish one primary motive. The simple truth of the matter is that people are completely different, some with shared motives and others with differing motives. We must always try to see the totality of things. Therefore, in response, I would begin with the need to look at a certain emotional background. The Baltic Way, as well as the current events in Belarus, are accompanied by a certain feeling of euphoria. In Belarus, for example, various popular groups became involved in the pre-election campaign.

This is important because it allows us to ask, what emotions do these events evoke? There also exists an element of entertainment and adventure that deserves no less attention. Let us remember initiatives such as the Rock March. If we look at it in a strictly political sense, it is certainly the case that some participants had idealistic attitudes, while others had more pragmatic motives. But they were united simply by the desire to listen to music, to get together, and this acted as a kind of trigger to take to the streets and join the action. The same can be said about the campaign “Rock against tanks”. We can consider events rationally, using a variety of arguments and interpretations that, of course, have a place, but alongside which an emotional subject must be included.

At this point, to my mind the example of Poland is also very relevant: I am thinking of the role of John Paul II in the Solidarity movement. One can think idealistically, say, that people’s religious feelings, and an opportunity to meet the pope, gave them the urge to take to the streets, and it was only when they gathered that they saw how many they really were, and that they were not alone, and that dissatisfaction with the situation at the time was massive. But we must not forget such a simple thing, that the Round Table negotiations were already taking place at a time when the economic situation was simply catastrophic. These economic, material factors certainly remain important.

There is often a bit of unreasonable euphoria about that era, as if Lithuanians had destroyed the Soviet Union themselves. But here it is important to consider the context – the economic situation, the Chernobyl disaster and simply the fact that the lives of ordinary people had deteriorated by then. By no means do I mean to discredit any perspective, but rather I offer the suggestion to look at events as a multi-layered cake. After all, a cake made from only one ingredient will never end up a success, nor will there ever be an explanation that singles out one factor at the expense of others.

You are completing a study of contemporary cultural memory across six countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What can you tell us about this study for now?

This study shows very clearly that there is a fundamental difference between methods in the formation of cultural memory. This difference exists on the basis of regimes, the difference between ways in which different regimes, either authoritarian or democratic, can shape the culture of memory. In authoritarian states, there are no qualitatively new elements introduced into the cultural memory of regimes. They tend to get by on “old baggage”, without updating the cultural content of their memory. One might ask, what does this preservation of cultures mean? Well, it means the deterrence and repression of the naturally maturing changes in a society. Such preservation may hinder new generations from “rebellion” against the established forms of culture, and reaction to the changes taking place in a society, and this may later result in various revolutions.

Attempts to retain certain aspects of identity can lead to a retrograde mentality. The identity of a person, and a nation as a community of people remain viable even while they are constantly changing. Culture itself retains its social impact only if it takes into account change and opportunity, as tensions eventually form between culture and society, and especially in the face of generational change, when it can simply be thrown away, because conservation, in such a case, means rejection.

In a democratic society, the relationship with cultural memory is more liberal and, looking at memory, we can observe its transformations. We have just started the conversation on the Baltic Way, and the 13th of January, and the transformation of the memory of these dates, which shows a fundamentally positive impetus and the democratization of society itself. One indicator of this transformation is the opening of society towards topics previously seen as taboo, when new topics emerge that were previously silenced. For example, the memory of partisan resistance, which was completely inviolable as far back as fifteen years ago.

In democracies, we can observe the process itself, which transforms images of the past. A very positive sign is when certain episodes enter the field of public debate, include new perspectives, and various groups in society try to establish their perspectives as being legitimate among others.

Another important thing for me, as a person trying to grasp the past with all its contexts, is the dominant radical and strict approach to the Soviet legacy. For example, sculptures on the Green Bridge were simply taken and removed. I am a proponent of public involvement. Ideally, a culture of memory is formed through public debate. This path, of course, requires the intervention of politicians, but in this case, they are observers, and when a new consensus is formed, by monitoring public sentiment, they should take decisions to implement changes based on the views of the public. This would be an ideal and self-contained path for the formation and transformation of a culture of memory.

You argue that often the way Europe, especially the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, talk about the history of the 20th century, depends on the relationship with and appreciation of communism, so how do we stand out from other countries in the region in this regard? To what extent can this difference affect the way we view not only the transition and its success, but also the democratic order?

On the one hand, the answer to this question is simple. And this answer would be this: in countries that have embarked on a process of decommissioning, the transformation has been successful. Where it was delayed, the transformation failed. It is not necessary to look far here, it is enough to compare Lithuania with Ukraine and Belarus. In Ukraine, decommissioning was long delayed and only really began after the Revolution of Dignity.

On the one hand, unbelievable things are happening in Belarus now: we are watching the people of Belarus fight for their dignity, they think and talk about democracy. But when it comes to democracy, quite a few want to maintain good relations with Russia, where democratic values are void. There is often spoken of as an idealistic process of democratization, but the importance of fundamental geopolitical choice is left out. When we analyze different processes, we must always distinguish between goals and means. What I see in present-day Belarus, is that, perhaps for tactical reasons, and perhaps realistically, the goal is associated to means. People want free elections, but elections are a precondition for the democratization of society itself, and it is impossible to pursue democracy by engaging with authoritarian regimes that are also enemies of democracy and of all the colored revolutions, which are the extreme and effective means of human transformation.

Democratization itself can be viewed as a period of transition. However, from a historical point of view, it is impossible to create a new order without completely denying the previous political system. And since that old order involved violations of fundamental human rights, coercion, it is impossible to fully renew it without emphasizing or publicizing these things.

And for how long did the vision of democratization exist in Lithuania three decades ago?

These things were also shrouded in fog at the time. But the difference with Belarus is that we had a certain model of public life. For example, the aspiration of the Poles or Hungarians was to return to Europe. This is a slogan common to all countries, and especially during the transition period it was orienting, directing and mobilizing.  Certainly, material motives also played a significant role here, seeing the difference between the West and the East. Thus, it is possible to lay out a mosaic of reasons, but still the liberation movements were united by the desire to be involved the world we want to be a part of. This aspiration forced us to transform the very concept of democracy. The desire to return to Europe has led to the transformation of post-communist societies into both society itself and the concept of democracy. Undoubtedly, during the period of independence, the integration of the post-communist countries into the European Community had a major impact, in accordance with the established democratic criteria of the political system, in accordance with the Copenhagen provisions, which gave impetus to democracy.

But when it comes to the regime, if we go back 30 years, there was a very lively debate at the time about the choice between restoring the nation-state, and democracy. It was often repeated that it was necessary to restore national sovereignty first, and then to think about the form of the system and to look for a common model of life. This discussion began immediately after March 11, 1990. I do not want to idealize A. Juozaitis, but at that time he was the one whose article appeared, which considered the question, which was more important – statehood or democracy? He presented his arguments in favor of the latter, but at that moment he found himself in an unpopular position, where his opinion did not reflect the aspirations of the majority. This Lithuanian discussion confirms that the concept of our democracy was primordial and underdeveloped.

So Lithuanians seem to be in a win-win situation, having chosen a good model of life. And I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, but the question remains in society, will reforms lead our neighbors toward democracy? The inability of a society to focus on certain priorities is dangerous. This shortcoming puts society in a precarious situation that will be felt particularly strongly when the strict boundaries of the current authoritarian regime are gone.

Dr. Alvydas Nikžentaitis. Photo of the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman.
Translated by Irena Alperyte