Volume 30, No.4 - Winter 1984
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1984 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Yale University

The history of Lithuania — perhaps more than that of any other nation — brims with paradox, absurdity, and unexpected turns of events. Each of us is accustomed to taking pride in the fact that Lithuanians in the Middle Ages had conquered territories some fifteen or twenty times larger than ethnographic Lithuania. It is indeed not easy to find something similar in the histories of other nations. But old Lithuania's sudden collapse is also unexpected. It demonstrates that in our Medieval history was something accidental, that the military and political expansion of the Lithuanians was not supported by any firmer cultural system. As we look at the days of the Grand Dukes — which have long been a beautiful part of our national myth and which, in large part, are indeed myth — we are inclined to forget another and much more profound miracle in our history. During the past hundred years — from the historian's point of view a short time — in Eastern Europe appeared a modern and strong nation, a modern culture, a modern state; it appeared, if the truth be told, in a nearly empty space. This time it was born for all time. Even today, when Lithuanian national existence has been interrupted, the occupiers themselves do not dare to say that "All Lithuania is now only part of history,' as many of Lithuania's friends said often in the 19th century. We know that those occupiers are the most dangerous force in the world today — and among the most powerful. And if Lithuanians, now in their grasp for more than forty years, have sustained themselves, and in many ways have even become stronger, then we have a foundation on which to base a belief that they will continue to sustain themselves.

This Lithuanian sustenance and rebirth stands in opposition to the historian's fundamental intuition — indeed, it violates the very laws of probability. Its paradoxical and remarkable character is felt even more markedly by foreigners. In the newest English-language history of Poland, we find the following words: "No one would have seriously believed that the Lithuanians could have become a meaningful political factor. But they did." (Norman Davies, Cod's Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. II, p. 69.) I will not deny that those words generated a unique sensation within me: it must be how a new athlete feels when an impartial judge acknowledges that he has indeed won the game in which he had had no substantial chance.

Many European nations lost that game. Norman Davies compares the Lithuanians to the Scots: that today it is inconceivable to imagine that the Scots would establish an independent republic, speaking Celtic, and that they would take back from the English their historical capital, Edinburgh, the way the Lithuanians, after unbelievable peripeteias, took back Vilnius. The Welsh people lost that game, and the Bretons; the Basques are also close to finally losing and, in hopelessness, are becoming terrorists. The Irish won only half the game: through bloody sacrifices they won their independence but lost their language and a large part of their cultural identity (indeed, their territorial problems are still not resolved). And these are all important historical nations, without whose history, folklore, and literature Europe itself would not exist. Maironis, at the end of the 19th century, used as an example for Lithuanians the Wends — a small Slavic nation, which had settled in Germany, not far from Berlin. The Wends then had been better organized and more enlightened than we were (Georg Sauerwein-Gi-rėnas, that kindhearted German, created anthems not just for us but also for them — and, it is said, is one of their first men of letters). But today not many would compare the Wends to the Lithuanians.

We could say that, like us, the Latvians won their game, the Estonians, and the Finns and Czechs. There are also some analogies that can be drawn with the Jews who, through some miracle, revived the nation of Israel after two thousand years. But it was easier for them all to begin.

It might suffice to imagine Lithuania in the year 1880 — and the serious historian or political scientist would have to admit that that nation's situation was hopeless. Lithuania's very name was nearly forgotten and was not officially used. The country was enslaved by a tyrannical empire without a constitution. That empire did not hide its hunger to denationalize its borders. Not long before it had brutally suppressed a Lithuanian uprising — more accurately phrased, a partisan war — and had ordered books to be printed in a foreign alphabet. There were no Lithuanian schools, though here and there secretly wandered some "daraktorius", while in a few places the Lithuanian language was tolerated like a separate school subject. There were no newspapers. Literature was the activity only of separate individuals; and even among them Daukantas and Valančius had already died and only Baranauskas was still living, but he had already given up literature and was growing distant from Lithuanian life itself. Other cultural life was weak: in Vilnius there were a handful of painters, musicians, theater people, but those individuals did not share Lithuanian nationalist aspirations. In all, the higher strata of society had little in common with Lithuania and did not even know the Lithuanian language. The country was divided into three provincial governments, and only in one of them did Lithuanian-speaking people actually prevail: in the former heart of the nation — Vilnius region,— Lithuanian element was present only in its history and in some of its traditions, just as Dublin is Irish or Edinburgh is Scottish only in their historical sense. Slowly but surely the number of Russian colonists increased, and from the West pressed the Germans. There were virtually no Lithuanians in business, manufacturing, or even among the workers; they were residents of villages, often poor and unenlightened, and if they were intellectuals, they were almost without exception priests. To say the truth, priests often (though not always) sustained an elementary national consciousness: but for such work it was easy to suffer, even be sent to Siberia. The Lithuanian prayerbook and calendar were forbidden and a rare enough fruit. The Lithuanian's identity was not very clear to neighboring nations or, indeed, to the Lithuanians themselves. The more active and ambitious youth relentlessly emigrated to America, where many quickly lost their national identity.

It is not difficult to see that this situation was like the present one; but, in many ways, it was even worse. According to Daukantas, "their language alone was like a young brilberry, covered with hard frost, still green to this day"; but the frosts were always harsher, and the bilberry's life was not long.

No Futurologist could have prophesied that a hundred years later the bilberry would have become a strong oak, and, indeed, two oaks — in Lithuania and in the diaspora of emigration; that the Lithuanian language would return to Vilnius and Klaipėda; that Lithuanian-speaking people of many professions would achieve international recognition and status; that all that would have taken place despite world wars, totalitarian regimes, executions and deportations, which Lithuania suffered like few other nations of the world.

The miracle is patent. Historical causes can be found but there is no doubt that this spectacle of ressurection also has a mythical dimension. It inspires more pride and hope than does the age of the Grand Dukes.

We know that it all began with the monthly publication which its publishers appropriately named Aušra. Just as Aušra became the symbol of the unexpected Lithuanian resurrection, we today gather greatest strength from its name and its memory.

History is a process in which separate events and dates are conditional "accounting points." Without a doubt, the Aušrans had predecessors: among them we find the insurrectionists of 1863, and Valančius, and Baranauskas with his cleric colleagues, and a number of activists from Lithuania Minor (and in longer perspective Stanevičius, Donelaitis, Daukša). However, March of 1883, when Aušra began its run, is more than a randomly chosen beginning. Aušra was that stone which began the avalanche. Before Aušra, Lithuanian culture developed, if we can phrase it so, discretely; after Aušra's first issue it became a continuum.

With Aušra, for the first time in Lithuanian culture there appeared not just an individual activist or a small band of activists, but an entire generation, indeed one of the strongest generations Lithuania has ever had. When we speak about Aušra, we usually mention its editors and publishers — Jonas Basanavičius, Jonas Šliūpas, Martynas Jankus, less often Jurgis Miksas and Juozas Andziulaitis-Kal-nėnas. But we should not forget that in Aušra debuted all of our earliest supporters of independence, with the exception of Vaižgantas. In its pages were published the works of Maironis, Vincas Kudirka, Adomas Jakštas. In Aušra's pages others began their work, including Aišbė, Aleksandras Fromas-Gužutis, Mikalojus Katkus, Pranas Mašiotas, Jonas Jablonskis. As if in a collage, in Aušra we find nearly all of our future political and cultural colors. In it were the Catholics (Jakštas, Maironis, Aleksandras Burba), the Lutherans (Stanislovas Dagilis) and the atheists (Šliūpas), nationalist ideologists (Basanavičius), liberals (Kudirka) and socialists (Jonas Mačys-Kėkštas), and even a future communist, who was a rather decent man and suffered much under Stalin (Stasys Matulaitis). Among the members of its board we find Žemaičiai and Aukštaičiai, Didlietuviai and Mažlietuviai, a foreigner (Georg Sauerwein) and a woman (Liuda Malinauskaitė-Eglė). Among the Aušrans are poets, writers of prose, critics, ethnographers, folklorists, and pedagogues, a dramatist and a linguist. There are a few with remarkable biographies, for example Andrius Vištelis, revolutionary, soldier of Garibaldi, eventually an immigrant and creator of fantastic projects somewhere at the world's end — in Argentina; or Juozapas Miliauskas-Miglovara, Czarist policeman and distributor of the illegal press (such paradoxes are plentiful in Lithuania's history); or Mečislovas Davainis-Silvestraitis, who looked as if he had been dropped from the days of the old Žemaičiai barons, famous not only as a compiler of Lithuanian folklore but also of Gypsy lore (specialists in Gypsy ethnography mention him as one of the originators of their branch of study). This entire wonderfully diverse group fit together well into one monthly publication; and thus, because they managed to work together fruitfully, we are left with an eternal lesson, which is unfortunately too often unlearned or else quickly forgotten.

Something else also amazes the observer — just how few of them there are. Real Aušrans — that is, those individuals who published at least a letter in the monthly — are only seventy in number; with all their supporters included, there are only a couple of hundred; with all the subscribers, three hundred. And those three hundred, not unlike salt, flavored the lives of three million.

The Aušrans, we could say, laid the foundations for the modern Lithuanian nation: if Lithuania in the days of the Grand Dukes was in part Russian, and after the Union of Lublin part Polish, then Aušra viewed Lithuania as a separate and independent cultural-political unit, an absolutely equal partner to the Russians, Poles, and all others. Carrying out that new historical task, they more than once draped themselves in the clothes of old. Today Lithuania's pseudo-Marxists deride the Aušrans's "cult of the past"; indeed, even Aušra's contemporaries were hindered by the honoring of the old Grand Dukes and paganism, and it was often naive, exaggerated, a bit ludicrous. But the phrase that Basanavičius chose as Aušra's epigraph — Homines historia-rum ignari semper sunt pueri — is one of the few truths applicable to all times and to all situations. Culture indivisibly unites with historical memory; memory is an absolute necessity for inner freedom and moral independence; and it is not without reason that all totalitarians first try to conquer the past. It is not with reason that they alter and falsify. It is not without reason that one of the most important traits by which we recognize the totalitarian text is cultivated silences: various individuals and various events (and even most individuals and events) are held never to have existed. Aušra's program even today helps to resist this pernicious tendency. If in the Aušrans' historical ponder-ings there were some inaccuracies and improper accents, then their principle was absolutely correct — to embrace the nation's past as part of the whole, to find in it paradigms for the present. They brought forth for us not just the days of the Grand Dukes but also the epoch of Poška and Stanevičius; and Andrius Vištelis and Mikalojus Akelaitis brought to Aušra the echoes of the uprising of 1863. With the Aušrans begins Lithuanian culture's historical memory, in which everything has its place and meaning, past events preparing for and anticipating present. That is why the Aušrans themselves occupy one of the mostly honored places in our historical memory — more honored, perhaps, than the Grand Dukes they mythologized.

But they were not simply the guardians of memory. They were the true children of their age. And the age was filled with worldly, rationalist, liberal ideas. In that epoch pluralism was recognized as a positive thing and the modern idea of human rights began to develop. "We are the same sorts of people as our neighbors, and we want the same rights, belonging to all mankind, the same as our neighbors." (Jonas Basanavičius, Rinktiniai raštai, p. 696). Of all these rights "belonging to all mankind" the Aušrans were first of all concerned with those which had been manifestly denied to Lithuanians — the right to have a free and independent press, the right to use their own language in the schools, in the courts, the administrative bureaus, in church; economic issues were also not forgotten, and the need to disseminate scholarly findings, and the necessity of tolerant discussion. The Aušrans were our first intellectuals. The meaning of that word is rich — that meaning which, in Russia and in other places in the world, formed at the end of the 19th century. Their main characteristic trait was tolerance, which for some of Aušra's successors — for example, Žemaičių ir Lietuvos Apžvalga — and even today, time and again, is lacking in Lithuania's press; a bent toward cultural legalistic work, though the possibilities of more radical activity were not discounted; and, finally, an internationalist outlook, respect for the democratic movements in other nations, which Maironis later expressed in his immortal lines, "The Slavs have uprisen . . ." Those lines have already rung out three times in contemporary Lithuania: in 1956, 1968,1980. And Spring, having begun on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains, each time shined more clearly and each time came closer to us.

Today we do not have to call forth the Lithuanian nation — the Aušrans did that for us for all time. Perhaps the majority will not agree with me, but I believe that the threat to the Lithuanian biological substance and language is not as great today as it was in the days of Aušra. Of course, in a place as dangerous as the Soviet Union one must be prepared for any eventuality, but a sense of things Lithuanian is strong in the land today, and it could be destroyed only through the grossest Stalinist methods, which the present government is not prepared to use; in addition, Stalinist methods would have to be used for more than just a single decade. But there is another danger — perhaps comparatively as insiduous. I think with fear about the Lithuanian, having protected his native language, having formed a purely Lithuanian family, indeed filled with xenophobia, but in the end sovietized — unenlightened, grovelling, and obedient, living for material concerns alone, not considering shameful betrayal or denunciation. I think with fear about the Lithuanian, unable to ponder, notrecognizing elementary tolerance and differences of opinion, satisfied with himself and hating all those not like himself. I know a number of such Lithuanians, and know that they are deplorable slaves. A mass of slaves or serfs does not form a nation: a nation rises out of consciousness, pluralism, dialogue. It is not so much that we have to struggle for linguistic or biological survival today in Lithuania, as much as for memory, conscience, and intelligence. But I believe that we will win here, too. I believe so because, for us as for the Aušrans, the enemy's malicious intentions revive the spirit of resistance; I believe so because the example of the Aušrans still sustains us; and especially because there are today in Lithuania — and in the Gulag — people who, in a hundred years, will be mentioned by history with no less honor than today are mentioned Basanavičius, Šliūpas, and Jankus.