ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 52, No.1 - Spring 2006
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas



Edvardas Gudaviius, History Professor at Vilnius University. Author of many books and essays on Lithuanian history, most recently Lietuvos istorija nuo seniausi laik iki 1569 met [History of Lithuania from the Earliest Times Until 1569] and Lietuvos europjimo keliais [Lithuania’s Road to Europeanization].

Several years ago, a Lithuanian journal featured a debate on the role that Vytautas the Great (c. 1350–1430) had played in the history of Lithuanian culture. There was agreement on only one point: that the life and work of Vytautas the Great had indeed marked a critical turning point. While this was nothing new, the polemic had touched on what has long been a sore point among Lithuanians, namely, the question of its cultural uniqueness; and the loss of culture is a historically shifting phenomenon, which is to say, its elements and values change. Today, the runic script is unilaterally understood to be one of the most characteristic manifestations of Germanic culture. However, it was formed from one or even several Northern Italian alphabets. In fact, most of the world’s alphabets developed from the so-called Sinaitic inscriptions or alphabet, which appeared in the sixteenth century B.C., thus demonstrating the universal implications of great inventions and their impact on creativity. From an historical point of view, originality is not determined by the source from which a culture derives its values, but rather by the ability of that culture to implement these values in an original way and to use them to produce new ones.

This relationship between the universal and the culturally specific is especially relevant to the history of the Middle Ages. Latin culture can be regarded as the proverbial “peapod” that nurtured the “peas” of national cultures. It was Lithuania’s good fortune to have had the talent of Levas Karsavinas (1882–1952), whose oeuvre reflects European cultural history. Unfortunately, Lithuanians have not yet learned to make use of it. Not that it’s an easy matter. Although we take pleasure in the masterpieces of the Annals of the French school, yet consider the time and effort it took for such works to take shape. To this day, French first-graders begin the school year with the following recitation: “We are descendants of the ancient people of Gaul”; yet they don’t speak Gaulish or Latin. What’s more, even the name of their country is derived from a Germanic tribe, the Franks. On the eve of the French Revolution and in the name of the French majority, Emmanuel Sieyès posed the following question to the nation’s aristocrats: “Just who do you think you are – you immigrants from the German forests?” Numa Fustel de Coulanges passionately engaged in proving the Romanic origins of the French language, yet even the Romanic French language has come from somewhere else.

Such are some of the historical facts in Western Europe. The problem of Central Europe, especially the cultural history of its eastern half, is different: Latin antiquity did not come in contact with ethnic elements at their source in eastern Central Europe. Latin culture arrived second-hand from elsewhere as a more advanced and entirely foreign phenomenon. A significant achievement has been the creation of a Latin culture with local ethnic characteristics. The most important examples of such a model are cultural specificity with respect to church organization, a writing industry, an educational system that uses a Latin script and a vernacular tongue. Down the road it resulted in religious prose written in the vernacular, a political-historical concept as expressed in national chronicles, a system of law that was reinforced by the codification of common law, and artistic expression with unmistakably regional characteristics. The result was the emergence of literature and legal terminology – both in the vernacular – thus laying the groundwork for a genuine national culture. In fact, such results more or less clearly coincided with the emergence of a nation. The nobility began to differentiate between its own ethnic, social and political interests and those of the rulers and the state. All (or, at least, most) of these manifestations were the product of a synthesis between a universal Latin influence and a newly discovered ethnic consciousness. The more creative the synthesis, the greater the benefit to the national culture. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are products of man’s creative genius, but we can’t imagine them other than Spanish.

Generally speaking, Lithuanians followed the same historical route as other eastern Central Europeans. The difference was that Lithuanians experienced the most difficulty in the process because they were last in line. The earlier a country’s encounter with this universal Latin culture, the less severe its cultural shock. Latin culture was to be absorbed slowly and in small doses. What’s more, its transmission would – significantly – be borne by peoples who had themselves not yet created a distinctive set of ethnic markers. They were “Latinizers” rather than, say, “Italianizers” or “Germanizers.” By contrast, Lithuania was forced to absorb everything in a hurry, gulp it down as it were, because its distance from Latin was greater. In Lithuania’s case, the bearers of universal culture were not “Latinizers” but “Polonizers.” Added to that were two particularly unfavorable circumstances. One, Lithuania was a multiethnic state and her written language – Old Church Slavonic served as a natural bridge to the Polish language. Second, the Polish clergy had not yet perceived the need for translating religious texts into Lithuanian (compare that with what the German intellectuals did in Lithuania Minor). Add to that Lithuania’s close political and cultural ties to Poland, which had converted the estates of the Grand Duke and later those of the gentry into centers of Polish language – and the consequences were inevitable.

Still, there was a counterweight (at least up to a point) which prevented the Europeanization of Lithuania from deteriorating into mere Polonization, thanks to Lithuania’s statehood. Despite the fact that the Lithuanian vernacular had not succeeded in acquiring social prestige, as had the Hungarian, Polish and Czech languages, the Lithuanian nobility had, surprisingly, acquired a deep sense of national consciousness. We see this in the legislative assemblies of the mid-sixteenth century that took issue with Polish chroniclers for their lack of respect in references to Lithuanians. Towards the end of that century, Prakapas Baltramiejaius pointed out in his work called “Cenzra” [“Censorship”], that Lithuanians are not “new” Christians but “old” Christians (today we would call them Europeans).

Absorbing a universal culture in large doses can occur only at the most fundamental level. Yet even during the process of absorption, the first signs of cultural originality can already be discerned imposing themselves on certain elements. First and foremost was the Catholic religion (at least among the nobility). Without Catholicism there would have been no Reformation, and however weak it may have been in Lithuania, it played its role. (The fact that the Reformation at the hands of the Lithuanian nobility was intertwined with that of the Polish-speaking nobility is a topic for a separate discussion). Nor was the Reformation directed from the top down, as it was in Norway or Iceland. The first signs of Reformation in Lithuania could be detected a mere century and a half after its conversion to Christianity [1387].  

Class consciousness spread even more rapidly. No other state produced such a complex of national and class privileges for the nobility as did the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. That is particularly apparent in the pace and intensity at which the values were absorbed (as well as in the nature of the values themselves). Among the privileges, we find a number of articles adapted from the Polish legal system, which are a very clear consequence of Lithuanian feudal laws. From a contemporary perspective, however, it is obvious that all three Lithuanian Statutes are the country’s most original legal monuments. They may be the clearest example of the way in which an outside event gives rise to and enriches an original creation. Moreover, the First Statute [1529], in terms of its all-encompassing character and systematization, surpassed the legal system of Lithuania’s neighbors, while the Third Statute [1588] became a masterpiece of legal thinking, a genuine contribution to European culture.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Lithuania had created a viable historical model. By mid-sixteenth century an original political treatise had emerged. By the end of the century, although Lithuania had not produced any literary masterpieces, nevertheless, as an art form, literature had made a professional and satisfactory debut. And during the eighteenth century the Baroque experienced a uniquely Lithuanian transformation. This brings the discussion to two further issues – education and national self-recognition.

Schooling is one of the most difficult cultural institutions to promote. In Lithuania its growing pains were particularly severe. Knowledge of Latin was essential, as was knowledge of the literature in the discipline to be taught. This required some highly capable individuals. As in Church matters, the Poles had both a positive and negative impact. At one point, ragged, besotted, and undereducated Germans were developing Poland’s schools. Now Polish “bread seekers” were duplicating the experience in Lithuania. Nevertheless, these Polish “educators” introduced into Lithuania something enormously valuable, even if it did come at “entry level”—namely, the seven liberal arts. It was on such grounds that the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus were able to prosper. While Lithuania never produced anyone of this caliber, it can claim as its own Abraomas Kulvietis (c.1510–1545), and Stanislovas Rapolionis (died 1545), two of a small group of founders of the University of Königsberg. Their contribution as well as their enlightenment as individuals grew out of an atmosphere that was not Lithuanian. However, they acted in the national interest. They created and distributed a Lithuanian religious literature, which had previously existed only in fragments accessible to a small group of individuals, who cultivated and circulated it only among themselves; and they introduced the issue of the Lithuanian intelligentsia as a social phenomenon. The most culturally advanced of the eastern nations of Central Europe – namely, the Czechs – had established a university 400 years after its conversion. Lithuania did so after 200 (1579). Twice as fast, however, also meant twice as superficially. In Lithuania, the university made its appearance before a good middle school system was established. Before the emergence of “underground schools” during the Prohibition [1864-1904], called “vargo mokykla” [whose teachers were called “daraktors”], the Lithuanian educational system had been dominated by foreign elements. What existed was not a Lithuanian school, but a school in Lithuania.

In the process of acquiring a Lithuanian national consciousness, the indigenous component was naturally the most influential. And when it did appear, it wasn’t so much cultural as social, but its effects on culture were enormously significant.

Even as one includes the Lithuanian model of Latin cultural integration into the Central European one, it’s important to note its characteristically Lithuanian elements. It was the youngest and last of the models in the region. It did not rely on a national language. It did not derive its cultural values from Latin, but Polish – and not even exclusively from Polish; in fact, at a time when the Polish vocabulary was widespread throughout Belarussia (Belarus), Polish itself had not yet become entrenched. Its vocabulary was not even etymologically Polish but often a Polonized derivative of German and Latin words. Such derivatives were inevitable; we need only to remind ourselves how many new words had to be coined by Mikalojus Daukša (c. 1527–1613) and Konstantinas Sirvydas (1580–1631) (and even they could not get by without derivatives). Perhaps, therefore, we shouldn’t rush to blame “Lithuanian feudalists” for “denigrating the Lithuanian tongue,” which, after all, arrived late at the starting gate.

The role played by the Polish language, as the Lithuanian cultural model was evolving, was hardly unilateral. For purposes of analogy, consider what happened to the design of the Belorussian alphabet. Writing in Latin was prestigious, but Belorussian was far more widespread in Lithuania. And in Europe by the end of the fifteenth century, the shape and structure of the Cyrillic alphabet had become increasingly Gothic (its letters were formed out of different elements). Such a change could be seen in Lithuania as well, which developed its own Gothic equivalent of the Cyrillic alphabet. By borrowing and then adapting it, Lithuania was incorporating an element of Byzantine culture into its own Latin model. Nor was its adoption of Polish slavishly imitative. While Konstantinas Jablonskis (1892–1960) did point out some of the characteristics of Polish diction and phraseology that showed up in routine clerical writing, much more important was the way Polish was being integrated into the Lithuanian identity, which was settling ever more deeply into the national consciousness. While Latin culture did arrive in Lithuania via Poland, ironically, the non-Polish-speaking nations actually used language to differentiate Lithuanians from Poles (thus Jonušas Radvila (1579–1620) is reputed to have said, “We’re Lithuanians, but we speak Polish”). Still, Lithuanian did not cease to be of value just because it wasn’t used: it was simply relegated to a lower rung of importance. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish officers wrote in a code that relied on the Swedish runes, while during the war with the Ukraine, Lithuanian officers used Lithuanian for the same purpose.
And then there’s Kazimieras Semenaviius (Siemienowicz), who’s been omitted from the discussion so far. To be sure, his historical research “The Art of Artillery” [1650] has been the greatest contribution feudal Lithuania made to the general culture of Europe and the world. His achievement, however, also serves to illustrate what was and wasn’t indigenous to Lithuania. Yes, Lithuania’s mid- seventeenth century achievements in engineering thought and theory bring to mind the name of Juozapas Naronaviius Naronskis [Jan Józef Naronski]. But Semenaviius is a different matter. Semenaviius, the man, may have been a product of Lithuanian society, but the artillery specialist matured in Western Europe, without which he would probably not have produced the work for which he is famous. The example of Semenaviius is indicative both of the European level of Lithuanian culture as well as the fact that Lithuania occupied the lowest or one of the lowest rungs on the ladder of European national cultures. On her own, without European inspiration, Lithuania was incapable of advanced cultural accomplishments, but did prove capable whenever prompted by outside inspiration. Poland (which geographically also included the Germanic West Prussia) gave the world Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), approximately 500 years after its conversion. Lithuania produced Semenaviius after only 270 years. However, Copernicus did not have to travel to Western Europe; his ideas were born locally.

So what has been foreign and what indigenous in the convulsive process that involved adopting European culture on the one hand, while giving birth to a national identity on the other? Stalin, who, needless to say, was opposed to the development of any kind of national and political consciousness on the part of the Georgians, insisted that blood revenge was a Georgian cultural trait. Stalin’s sophism is obvious, but can’t we be accused of the same thing when we despise everything that Lithuania borrowed from Poland? Granted, Polish language and culture did, generally speaking, play the angry competitor and denigrator in matters of language and national culture. Kulvietis and Mikalojus Daukša sounded that alarm even though Lithuania’s statehood and the national consciousness of its nobility were still undisputedly Lithuanian.

Our national awakening deleted the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from Lithuania’s history. Historians between the First and Second World Wars tried to rectify the omission, but managed only the first step. The Soviet era denounced the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as periods of feudal and Catholic reaction (though one needs to acknowledge at this point the indisputable contribution of the historian Ing Lukšait to the cultural history of seventeenth century Lithuania). Hence the question: what was, in fact, going on during this period? We know that the result of the historical process was “gente lituanus, sed natione polonus” (a Lithuanian people, but a Polish nation). We have the answer, but first there are two points that need explaining.
For one thing, the Polish-speaking Lithuanian nobility did not suddenly become Polish. The wars of the mid-seventeenth century indicate that without the assistance of Poland Lithuania by herself would not have been able to oust the Russians. That’s a theme for political historians, but, clearly, the erosion of Lithuanian statehood and national self-recognition was underway. A four-year effort by parliament to unify both halves of the Republic did not meet with any determined resistance. In fact, the first indications of erosion were already apparent in the mid-seventeenth century. In his memoirs, Albrechtas Stanislovas Radvila (1595–1656) referred to “events” as occurring not in Lithuania, but in Poland (not even in Poland and Lithuania). By the second half of the seventeenth century, the Lithuanian nobility were calling themselves Polish; although in 1673 they won the right to call an alternative to the meeting of the Seimas (Council of Nobles). Apparently, they also thought of themselves as Lithuanians. Still, Lithuania could not compare with Mazovia or “Little Poland.” Lithuania could compare only with Greater Poland. So who, in fact, were they? One could say they were the Poles of Lithuania, while the Poles of Poland were the “Crown” Poles. The so-called “Polish” nation was perceived as a macro nation, somewhat like the Anglo-Saxons, who have been incorporated into English, American, Canadian, and Australian nations. Lithuania was a “second” (not the) Poland; Lithuanians comprised that other Polish nation. [An alternative analogy might compare Lithuania’s relationship to Poland to the relationship of America, Canada, and Australia to England; they’re the “other” English nations. Tr. Note] It’s only when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began to disintegrate and only when the ordinary circumstances for national survival eroded in the “macro nation” itself that a patriotic gentry came up with the idea – fostered by the Age of Enlightenment – of a bourgeois nation that did not differentiate Lithuania from Mazovia. Being a “Second Poland” was no longer acceptable for an evolving nation; however, Lithuania was still an historical entity, even though it was at the bottom of the ladder.

The second point deals with the school of Lithuania (not yet to be called a Lithuanian school). It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Lithuania achieved what Hungary, Poland, and the Czech nation had achieved in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, fifteenth at the latest. Latin was only partially replaced by Polish. Especially significant was the fact that education, even if on a limited basis, became available to the peasants. Their education (along with that of the burghers and the nobility of Samogitia) meant that the Lithuanian language had entered the primary grades. As pointed out by contemporary historian Juozas Jurginis, the Lithuanian language was instrumental to learning Polish. On the flip side, however, was the fact that once the Lithuanian language crossed the school threshold, it never left the classroom. An upper layer of the peasant class emerged; educational activity increased; the number of schools multiplied, as did the number of Lithuanian-speaking students. During the eighteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania witnessed the appearance of a Lithuanian grammar as well as elementary school texts, which turned out to be very important. In 1791 we saw the translation into Lithuanian of the Constitution of May 3, 1791; the Lithuanian sermons of Mykolas Karpaviius [1744-1803]; the call of the local government in 1794 – again in the Lithuanian language – for an uprising against the Russians; and the poems of Antanas Klementas [1756-1823]. None of it by miraculous intervention! The Lithuanian language had gradually begun to make its way into the life of society.

In other words, national self-recognition was spreading among the peasants. But to some extent they were governed by the “second Poland” idea. The songs of the 1794 uprising called Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746–1817) [in Lithuanian Tadas Kosciuška] a Polish gentleman. And Antanas Strazdas (1763–1833) talks of a “Polish land,” though he chastises the gentility for not speaking in Lithuanian. Though deformed, a sense of self-recognition did intrude into the consciousness of the peasant class, fomenting national stirrings. What the Lithuanian nation lost at the top, it reclaimed at the bottom. Though Lithuania finally lost its aristocracy, it had by then succeeded in creating a landowning peasant elite which had begun fostering the first signs of a European culture. The Lithuanian language emerged out of this environment to enter the creative process of nurturing a Lithuanian culture. The European-based Lithuanian cultural model increased in strength, as Simanas Staneviius (c. 1799–1848) pointed out in his significant ode “emaii šlov” (Samogitian Glory). Simonas Daukantas (1793–1864) introduced the concept of a pure national culture. For the first time we encounter the formulation of the antithesis – “native” versus “foreign.” The loss of an upper class within an established culture had to be compensated for by a vision of the past.

The vision may have been unrealistic, but the fact of it was very real. From a scholarly point of view, the romanticism of Daukantas wasn’t much, but it was part of an intellectual movement, even if only marginally. Just as in the fifteenth century, the European cultural model of the peasant class came in at the ground floor. But it grew in strength, because it represented a young bourgeois culture, grounded in its own language and national self-recognition. It survived the test of time: the Lithuanian “underground school” and the illegal book transporters of books printed using Latin alphabet and produced in German East Prussia triumphed over the Russian Empire. That was a genuine victory for indigenous beginnings. But it could not have been achieved had that beginning not had its source in a school which itself had a borrowed source.

It was under particularly difficult circumstances that the Lithuanian nation managed to create a modern culture. What was achieved is perhaps best illustrated in the evaluation of one of its highest cultural achievements. Let us compare two renowned artists – Jan Matejko (1838–1893) and Mikalojus Konstantinas iurlionis (1875–1911). Matejko achieved most of his fame with his huge painting, “The Battle of Tannenberg” [or Grünwald] fought in 1412. A blend of technical virtuosity, historical precision, and patriotic inspiration produced an original artistic expression of battle and victory. Various details might be criticized (Vytautas is holding a tournament axe; his seat on the galloping charger would in actual battle cause him to fall off; and the Polish soldiers, judging by their armament, are depicted as fantastic “Sarmatians” rather than early fifteenth century German knights); still the painting remains unarguably a masterpiece of “battle painting.” Now let us imagine that all this technical virtuosity were used to depict not an historical victory, but an altercation in some minor eighteenth century Polish assembly. It is doubtful whether this painting would have become famous. Matejko’s Polish background undoubtedly helped publicize the artist’s talent, even though, ultimately, of course, it was talent that justified the fame. Matejko was a Pole and not merely in his choice of subject matter. He lived and worked in Kraków (having studied art in Munich and Vienna for only a few years) – that microcosm of nineteenth century Polish politics, culture, ambition and vision. It was here that Polish soldiers, who had served in the Austrian army, guarded the decorated interiors of Vavel Castle. There were individuals in the city council who had begun to think about preserving their cultural inheritance. When they ran out of appeals to preserve the city walls adjacent to the gates of St. Florian, they saved the wall by appealing to “morality” ( if the wall were not there as a protective barrier from the wind, it would lift the skirts of women heading for St. Mary’s Church). Kraków pulsated with Poland’s past. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Grünwald soldiers, inaccurately depicted as they were in Matejko’s painting, had to have been Poles and no one else.

In other words, being Polish contributed to Matejko’s fame. In the case of M.K. iurlionis, it was his increasing fame that helped to spread the reputation of his native land. His own self-discovery came within the nurturing influence of the Polish and Russian art schools, since there really was no professional art that could be considered Lithuanian. However, as a reflective individual, he was influenced by the Lithuanian intelligentsia, whose numbers were few, but they were an “engaged” few. And thus this student of Russian and Polish professional art chose to live in a Lithuanian world. We could ask whether it was this world that made iurlionis great. The fact is that while native values are indeed the foundation of each individual culture, these values have to circulate and bear interest. But each value operates according to its own set of rules, which must be adhered to. Unfortunately, doing so often obscures the distinctions between “native” and “borrowed.” I referred at the beginning of the article regarding the polemic that appeared in in a journal – the reference to the “meat grinder“ effect taking place during the reign of Vytautas Magnus. But this effect, surely, was none other than the credit that had built up as a result of Lithuania’s cultural currency having been out of circulation for a long time. As is often the case, Lithuania had to pay a hefty interest. Nevertheless, the credit to her account made her assets convertible, and they are in circulation to this day. Circulating on the European cultural market is Lithuanian capital that, however modest, is unmistakably indigenous.

Translated by Delija Valiuknas