Volume 37, No.2 - Summer 1991
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1990 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Dickinson College

My central concern is with how culture is involved in current social processes. This would be easy to analyze in a tightly organized traditional society. In that sort of case, we could describe the structure of the culture, and then ask whether social events can be understood as an interpretive re-enactment of that culture, in the course of which the culture acquires new empirical contents and is changed.1

In the present case, we do not have a firmly organized culture. We have a sense of deforming artificial constraints imposed by the Stalinist system, which by common consent are to be rejected. But there is no general agreement where one stands while creating a new culture. Do we join the pluralistic West, reaffirm half-forgotten (or wholly invented) certitudes of our own past, seek to create a more universal post-totalitarian culture?2 There is a good deal of fluidity, conflict, contradictions between ends and means, improvisation, bluffing, self-assertiveness training, imitativeness.

Yet the ways in which the various nations in Central and Eastern Europe at present assert themselves, while exhibiting many commonalities, are yet different. And this allows us to ask what about these differences can be accounted for by the peculiarities of their current social-structural setting or shifting patterns of leadership and group alliance, and what by elements of their culture, historical memory, collective identity, and similar features of their symbolic heritage that have either resisted Sovietization or are now spontaneously reviving or being consciously reconstructed.

All three Baltic states differ from some other areas of the present-day Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by the moderate or restrained manner in which they pursue their political goals of national independence. Blood does not flow in political transactions; there is considerable attentive-ness (perhaps especially in Latvia) to minority groups; the elected political leaders tend to be moderates; fundamentalist political groupings tend to be unpopular; there are no highly visible anti-Semitic themes, as there are not only in Russia but also in Poland and Hungary.

At least in the case of Lithuania, this moderation in political action is not rooted in a generalized culture of liberality. There is currently a lively debate on liberalism, which has acquired a somewhat artificial attractiveness as the opposite of totalitarianism, but is widely interpreted in nineteenth-century terms and attacked by representatives of the Catholic-nationalist coalition as "cosmopolitan" or "soft" on Communism or on immorality.3 The basic premise of liberalism — that society begins with the individual and has to respect his or her choices — flies in the face of the attitude apparently prevailing in the second Lithuanian revival — that individuals begin as members of a nation and that its leaders are "indistinguishable" from the nation, as the Lithuanian Democratic Party has recently declared about Vytautas Landsbergis.4

Opinion polls commissioned by Tomas Remeikis and conducted late in the summer of 1990 suggest that only about a third of the Lithuanian people could be described as oriented to a liberal democratic point of view. In the degree of the majority preference for social equality over individual freedom they are most similar to West Germany and Spain and far indeed from the Anglo-Saxon peoples, Holland and France. Only 11% disagree with the statement that "in a just society there cannot be any conflicts between the individual and society."5

Illiberal attitudes are frequently expressed in the Lithuanian press and in the Parliament. The editor of the leading literary weekly, Vytautas Rubavičius, writes: "In the political life, there dominates, I would say, the atmosphere of Bolshevik intolerance, relations between the parties are based on the well-known logic of 'enemies of the nation'."6 Yet so far a reasonable amount of restraint has prevailed in the interactions of people in pursuing political or cultural goals. This moderation in the absence of liberalism needs to be explained.

To some, it seems reminiscent of the second half of the sixteenth century, when Lithuania was the center of European religious tolerance (by a Venetian account, there flourished then in Vilnius 70 different sects, whose members — until about 1590 — maintained friendly social relations with each other.)7 This period is in fact mentioned as a time of reference by some of the most thoughtful participants in the present national revival, such as Darius Kuolys, — but the jump from the sixteenth to the twentieth century is too big to convince us of any direct transmission. However, a tendency toward conservative moderation possibly of peasant origin does seem to have been a recurrent feature of Lithuanian history (in the twentieth century more so than among their neighbors), hence there may be some sort of cultural factor here.

The moderating effects of the symbolic leadership coalition of the liberal-nationalist President, the Cardinal, and the head of the independent Communist party may be important.8 But the Latvians and Estonians are moderate without the benefit, apparently, of this kind of coalition. Thus moderation may rest on different kinds of supports in each country.

I would expect that there might be more of a native framework for a liberal political culture in Estonia. I deduce this expectation from the more democratic past of interwar Estonia and from such indicators as the highest rates in Europe of book publishing and of psychiatrists per patient. I am less certain about the sources of Latvian moderation. Historically, Latvia has exhibited stronger tendencies toward leftist or rightist militance than Lithuania, but these do not seem to be important at present.

There are of course good pragmatic reasons to be moderate in the current East Baltic situation — but this has not proved sufficient elsewhere. I would suppose that, to some extent, moderate conduct in one of the Baltic countries reinforces it in the others, although it may be premature to speak of a "Baltic style" as a powerful force in popular consciousness. The best, though still somewhat fragile, assurance of continued moderation is that national self-respect appears to have become contingent on it for all three Baltic nations. This is how we prove we are "Nordics."

If moderation is a characteristic more or less shared by the present-day national movements in all three Baltic republics, in rushing through its declaration of independence on March 11, 1990, Lithuania has revealed a greater disposition toward dangerous, even foolhardy courage. This disposition — which in Lithuania is now designated as "radicalism" — has been contrasted at that time by Estonians cited in the Western press to their own more calculated, gradualist and therefore presumably more rational pursuit of the same goal of national independence.

It might appear surprising that Estonians who had taken the initiative in an earlier stage of the Baltic revival and who were perceived by the Lithuanians, with some envy, as being better prepared, politically and intellectually, to push forward9 did not lead in the final thrust toward independence. Differences in the demographic situation are cited as an explanation, but cultural differences may also play a part.

In particular, "heroic" self-perceptions may continue to be shaped by the Lithuanian collective memory both of the Grand Duchy and of the several nineteenth-century rebellions, of twentieth-century struggles with Poland over Vilnius, and of the more prolonged armed resistance against the Soviet Union, which endured in an organized form until 1953. Distant history appears to be used politically more in Lithuania than in Latvia or Estonia, presumably because there is a more impressive history to be used. Thus Landsbergis, during the crisis with Moscow, cites a fourteenth-century Grand Duke to the effect that sooner will iron melt and stone turn to wax than we shall retreat. Nothing comparable is reported from Latvia or Estonia. These history-injectable self-perceptions may predispose the Lithuanians toward more daring actions in international relations.

So far (October, 1990), the Estonian gradualist way has not proved any more effective than the Lithuanian "radical" rush toward independence. The risk-taking courage of the Lithuanians has, however, attracted the attention of the world and helped to transform Lithuania, in the imagination of the world, from a provincial cause into a universal symbol of the justified struggle of a small people for freedom. Thus it has become possible for The New York Times to describe Tibet as "Deng Xiaoping's Lithuania."10 One keeps coming across references to Asian and African countries where Lithuania is cited as the metaphoric standard.

This acquisition of symbolic visibility, for a few months, on a level with Israel, black South Africa, and the Palestinians is a major achievement, and due not only to Lithuania's being first among the Soviet republics in declaring her independence, and not only to having withstood an economic blockade by the Soviet Union, but also to the style in which the Lithuanians presented themselves in their campaign toward national independence. This style was sometimes interpreted by the Western press early in 1990 as "pagan theatre" or "Lithuanian mysticism" — that is, as something totally incomprehensible in the contemporary West, and which seemed to distinguish Lithuanians not only from the Slavs but from their apparently more pragmatic Baltic neighbors as well.

The second Lithuanian revival reveals a more theatrical or ritualistic cast of mind than the corresponding processes in Latvia or Estonia. There are forms of newly devised Baltic ritual shared by all three contemporary versions of Baltic nationalism: an unbroken human chain holding hands (and singing peaceful folk songs) from Estonia to Lithuania, demonstrations with lighted candles. But only in Lithuania are there processions in the tens of thousands carrying crosses across the country to the Hill of Crosses ("Everyone on that day was filled with faith like precious vessels with aromatic myrrh," wrote the government's official daily),11 and a few men and women lying cross-wise in the cathedral square.

Only in Lithuania can young men in the guise of medieval knights march in to defend the Parliament building against Soviet tanks, defusing the tension of the moment. Only in Lithuania is there a leader who could simultaneously be described in the German press as a priesterlicher Praesident and strike some American ob-servers of his TV interviews as Peter Sellers in The Mouse That Roared: a man obviously of greatly condensed symbolism.

This occurs against the background of almost daily celebrations of all conceivable memorial days, numerous reinaugurations of destroyed monuments, reburials of exhumed bodies of Siberian deportees — expressions of the ancient belief that a person ultimately belongs to his or her native soil. I would guess that a recent celebration in which, with leaders of the government present, the whole nation — Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and atheists included — is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ is inconceivable in Latvia or Estonia, or indeed at present in any European society other than Lithuania (or Poland). There are evident efforts to capture the whole national revival by those who specialize in ritual performances, a power play — but while participation in some of the rituals seems to be declining they obviously strike a widely popular chord.12

The musical accompaniment of these rituals is usually gentle — either religious devotion or national nostalgia — not militant marching songs, as in some other versions of nationalism, and not performed by uniformed bands.13 This musical style may have contributed to maintaining an atmosphere supportive of moderation.

It may be worth noting that while the prime minister of Lithuania is a woman — the only person in a first-rank leadership position in the whole of Eastern and Central Europe — she is a pragmatist, whereas the ritual process is thoroughly dominated by men and may indeed, as in earlier times, serve to reinforce their shaken authority.

A Baroque popular culture, derived perhaps from seventeenth-century Spain, is still alive in contemporary Lithuanian political or politico-religious ritualism. While this proclivity toward ritualism — which sometimes, even in parliamentary debates, simply precludes any recourse to rational calculation — has a great deal to do with the Catholic background of most Lithuanians (although the country is less homogeneous and less devoted to the Church than Poland), it also carries pagan notes (the importance of reburial in the native soil) and echoes of the Grand Duchy (the march of the medieval knights). Specifically Catholic rituals seem immersed in, and not always clearly distinguishable from, a general sea of nationalistic ritualism, which frequently influences not only the style but also the very conception of politics.

The foremost Lithuanian philosopher, Arvydas Šliogeris, wrote at the beginning of 1990: "Over the last eighteen months, Sąjūdis' politics has been ritual and charismatic; the ritual elements of this politics were dominant and stifled its pragmatic elements."14 He goes on to subject the ritualization of politics to a highly critical analysis:

The ritual goal requires from each person striving for it unconditional submission and unwavering adherence to the ritual. Whoever deviates from the ritual is denounced as a heretic... The slave syndrome [produced by the Soviet system] remains unchanged; only the ritual orientation of this syndrome changes... As long as politics continues to be ritualized, it will be dominated from top to bottom by structures of dependence.

While he may be right about many politicians, this is not what ordinary people expect: the pragmatic Prime Minister remains the most popular leader. The majority are people who can keep their liking for ritual in perspective and favor what they perceive as rational courses of action.

A fourth tendency prominent in the second Lithuanian revival — its moralism — has two distinguishable aspects: a belief in collective moral superiority, not only over the Russians, most of whom are thought to have been corrupted by a longer exposure to Stalinism, but (a view less generally held) also over the "pleasure-loving" and "compromising" West; and, on the other hand, frequent, but less appealing demands for individual repentance. In either of its two, mutually inconsistent versions, moralism tends to be linked with the ritualistic tendency. Most of the time the same people seem to be expressing both attitudes, and there are also public pressures for ritualistic enactments of "purity." Sending one's children to religious classes has become de rigueur particularly for opportunistic former Communists. Only an old anti-Communist can afford not to do so.

The emphasis on superior national morality goes back in Lithuanian literature to Donelaitis in the eighteenth century and to the first national revival in the nineteenth century, when pagan Lithuanians of old were first presented as people of superior virtue who had later been corrupted by foreign influences. The Lithuanian national anthem is exceptional in this genre in containing references not only to national themes, but also to "the paths of virtue" in general. But the emotional roots of ritualism extend still further back and seem to be deeper than the rigorosities of moralism.

Fred Martin has noted "our first lesson about current Hungarian — indeed, Central European — politics": that "Moral purity, or the appearance of purity, means every-thing to those who have lived in a system dominated by corruption, compromise and opportunism." He argues from the standpoint of a political consultant that "the main obstacle before Central European reform movements" is "the reformers' morality, their dedication to truth" which "makes them shun the levers of power that heretofore have been reachable only by immoral means."15 This plays into the hands both of the old bureaucracy and new conservative-nationalist elites, both of which tend to be more comfortable with their own power than the more liberal reformers.

While these are probably general tendencies to the north of Rumania and Bulgaria, the degree to which they are systematized in action may vary and the symbolizing of integrity probably has nationally specific characteristics. Lithuanians seem currently to be giving more credit for integrity to some past or even current members of the (independent) Communist party than Poles do. Visible church membership probably counts less as a measure of purity in Lithuania than in Poland — but more than in Latvia or Estonia.16

My description of the cultural differences among the three Baltic national movements may be subject to empirical qualifications. But assume that they have some merit as tentative generalizations. It then becomes possible to point to a peculiar internal tension within the Lithuanian movement: moderation, dangerous courage, and theatrical style do not easily go together. The latter two characteristics may support each other, but they seem to be psychologically antithetical to moderation. How then is it possible for the Lithuanian movement to reconcile theatricality, courage, and moderation?

The reconciliation may be an unstable one. If it disintegrates, a deeper cultural fissure promoting political polarization might open up among Lithuanians than among Latvians and Estonians. One possible axis of such polarization would be between the "ritualistic" nationalists and greens and the "moderate" liberals and socialists, with the Catholics divided between the two camps, making sounds about themselves being the only bridge. There is some evidence that this is in fact happening.

If the present configuration of courage, theatricality, and moderation is sustained, it could serve as a matrix for maintaining (or perhaps generating) a distinctive cultural identity that would both be rooted in authentic tendencies of Lithuanian culture and visible abroad as an attractive alternative to a "homogenizing" modernization. In the current Lithuanian revival, there are some raw materials for collective originality. I recently overheard on an inferior American TV program a character say about his father: "He's very hypnotic. Comes from being Lithuanian or something" (9/27/1990). Perhaps a myth is already being created.

On the other hand, the deeply grounded ritualist component of the Lithuanian movement suggests an "archaic" state of mind, in which nation is not yet distinguished from religion, individuals not differentiated from the whole, ethics, aesthetics and politics are fused into one, critical distance and an analytical perspective prove to be difficult to attain, and the style of performance takes a certain priority over the substance of achievement. This way lies a cultural provincialism which may become attractive as a curiosity but does not take part as an equal in the concert of contemporary cultures.

There are already some signs of an emerging cultural "fortress mentality," such as came to be established in both Poland and Lithuania from the second half of the seventeenth century on. The American Spectator cites the Lithuanian philosopher (and self-styled liberal) Arvydas Juozaitis as arguing:

"This may not seem serious to you," Juozaitis said, but the Roman Catholic Church will be Lithuania's fortress against the Western invasion, as it has been against the Eastern. Whether the nation can retain its distinctive culture once it has been reunited with Europe depends on how well Lithuanian souls are equipped to resist an unexampled wealth of pleasure. We will all melt away without Christianity," Juozaitis warns.

The American-Lithuanian author of the article comments: "Most philosophers who do their philosophizing some-where between, say, Dresden and Berkeley would sooner dissolve into a puddle on the spot than be caught talking like that."17 Is eighteenth-century Spain a model for the future of Lithuania? And if this is what a "liberal" is saying, what can the "conservatives" be imagining?

What some conservatives are for is suggested in Darius Sužiedėlis' description of the program of "the more conservative members" of the recently reconstituted Christian Democratic Party.

The focus of the plan is a Lithuanian state which would "protect the moral rights" of its citizens, and introduce a legal system which, theoretically, would provide "guidance" for those who are "unfamiliar" with the morals to which a Christian society must adhere... The full use of the law is viewed as the only means to reinstate traditional values.18

In trying to anticipate the internal cultural dynamics of the Lithuanian national revival, we may ask: How strong are the tendencies distinguished relative to each other? On what groups can they rely for support, what kinds of resources, material or symbolic, can they draw upon? How grounded are they in the ways of life and in the psychic structures of the young and the old, of intellectuals and of workers of recent peasant origins? How much internal change is possible, as a result of learning from successes and failures (and from other peoples as well) within the half-system, half-congeries of cultural orientations — improvised pragmatism intersected with restrained thunder — which so far has become visible?19

Lacking reliable evidence, one can only play with possibilities and historical analogies, and arrive at one's own decision on which of the currently active tendencies most need to be supported. It seems to me that Lithuania cannot become either a Holland or an Ireland but that, if its national claims are resolved, it might move half-way in the direction of present-day Belgium, oddly misplaced in the Balto-Scandinavian community of the future, more at home (but also less challenged to grow) in an east-central Europe heavily weighted by Poland.

One conclusion seems well-founded. The formation of a distinctive collective style has been the major cultural achievement of the second Lithuanian revival and to possess it has been advantageous in the earlier stages of the process. It may even have helped to keep potentially explosive political emotions in balance.

But a heavy reliance on ritualism may cease to be advantageous in the forthcoming stages of national revival, when the task will be that of sober, reliable work and persistent reality testing. In this stage, one is led to expect that Estonia will set the pace for the Baltics.

1 Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985).
2 Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Beyond Glasnost: The Post-Totalitarian Mind (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989).
3 The intellectual level of this criticism is indicated by a prominent writer citing Paul Eluard as a paradigmatic liberal.
4 Mažoji Lietuva, June 27 - July 4, 1990, p. 3.
5 Cited from Remeikis' report to the Santara-Šviesa convention, Tabor Farm, Sodus, Mich., on September 7, 1990.
6 Literatūra ir menas, September 8, 1990, p. 2.
7 Vytautas Kavolis, "The Devil's Invasion: Cultural Changes in Early Modern Lithuania," Lituanus, 35 (Winter, 1989), pp. 5-26.
8 The Cardinal makes it a point of publicly expressing his joy that the President congratulates him on his anniversary together with the head of the independent Communist party. National unity, in the struggle for independence, above all.
9 In a speech on November 20, 1988, the future President of Lithuania noted that "the political cultivation of the society, the understanding of democratic principles and of one's rights is apparently much weaker in Lithuania than in Estonia. ... And in the whole society there is apparently much less of a mature political intellect than in Estonia." Vytautas Landsbergis, Atgavę viltį. Pertvarkos tekstų knygelė (Vilnius: Sajūdis, 1990), p. 16. Italics mine.
10 The New York Times, September 22, 1990, p. 1.
11 Lietuvos aidas, June 22, 1990, p. 1.
12 The ritualization of politics is much more evident in the second than in the first Lithuanian revival, conventionally dated from the publication of the journal Aušra in 1883. Theatricality was in the nineteenth century far more characteristic of the behavior of the culturally Polonized nobility of Lithuania than in the movement of national reawakening led by such sober personalities as the liberal physician Jonas Basanavičius. On the employment of symbolism in acristocratic dress in the periods of the two nineteenth-century rebellions against Czarist rule, see Rūta Guzevičiutė, "Lietuvių bajorų kostiumas 1830-1863 metais," in Etnografiniai tyrinėjiinai Lletuvoje 1978 ir 1989 metais (Vilnius, 1990), pp. 38-52. Political ritual is not as deeply rooted among Lithuanians of recent peasant origins as among the Irish. An event like the Easter rising of 1916 — a staged effort to create a myth in anticipation of being defeated and turned into Christ-like martyrs — has not been replicated in twentieth-century Lithuanian history. Cf. F.X. Martin, "The Evolution of a Myth — The Easter Rising, Dublin 1916," in Eugene Kamenka, ed., Nationalism: The Nature and Evolution of an Idea (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976), pp. 56-80. At present political ritualism in Lithuania appears to be an aspect of a post-Soviet, anti-modernistic retraditionalization of life, and as such stronger than earlier in the twentieth century. But no general theories of "nationalism in advanced industrial societies" or of "the ritual process" explain why ritualism is stronger in one country than in others, or how it operates not only to dramatize the power of the powerless, but also, in some cases, to contain it within the bounds of moderation.
13 In the emergence of the national movement, in 1988, rock music, together with ecological concerns and national feeling, "mobilized the youth of Lithuania behind Sajūdis." Alfred Erich Senn, Lithuania Awakening (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 94. But then the "stabilizing" music, peculiarly prominent in traditional Lithuanian popular culture, took over, providing an immediately available framing for all public rituals.
14 Arvydas Šliogeris, "From Ritual Politics to Pragmatism," The Lithuanian Review, March 2, 1990, p. 8.
15 "Politics at The Club Tomaj," The New York Times Magazine, May 20, 1990, pp. 41-59.
16 The National Geographic report on "The Baltic Nations" (Vol. 178, No. 5, November, 1990), cites a Lithuanian priest: "If a Lithuanian is an atheist, he is already a collaborator. It's difficult for Americans to understand, but here, if you don't believe, what kind of a Lithuanian are you?" (p. 35) No equivalent views are reported from Latvia or Estonia. The priest in question, widely known by his first name as Father Stanislovas, is regarded as an exceptionally sensitive man, the saviour of the troubled souls of the young intellectuals.
17 Algis Valiunas, "Homage to Lithuania," The American Spectator, July, 1990, p. 24.
18 "Morality in Politics: Lithuania's Christian Democrats," The Lithuanian Review, October 31, 1990, p. 6.
19 Another internal tension has been captured by Saulius Šaltenis: "I want to achieve lofty moral standards. But I also need sensation." "Tales of Northern Athens," Moscow News, November 11, 1990, p. 16.