ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 56, No.4 - Winter 2010
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas

Book Review:

Balkelis, Tomas. The Making of Modern Lithuania.
New York: Routledge, 2009. ISBN: 9780415 454704.

Reviewed by Virgil Krapauskas

In this monograph, Tomas Balkelis deals with the formation and development of the Lithuanian national intelligentsia from 1883 to the outbreak of World War I, a period usually labeled the Lithuanian National Rebirth. Although he does not present the reader with new facts or concepts, his book’s value lies in synthesizing what has already been written and adapting western sociological methodologies to his subject. 

Structurally, this revised dissertation focuses on three historical developments that he considers critical in shaping and determining the social, political, and cultural condition and character of the intelligentsia as well as Lithuanian nationalism in general. They are: 1. the birth of the first press communities of the Lithuanian patriotic elite throughout the 1880s and1890s; 2. the 1905 revolution; and 3. the period of “national cultural work” from 1906 to 1914. 

The Making of Modern Lithuania provides a social and cultural history of how, in different ways, a small group of educated youth, having returned from their educational pilgrimages to the metropolitan universities of Russia, came to define and articulate themselves as a national elite. It examines the social and institutional origins of the Lithuanian intelligentsia, its demographic, generational and occupational features, its transformation into a semiurban elite, political mobilization, and nation-building strategies and practices. Thematically, it concentrates on the exploration of the private lives of leading members of the patriotic elite, but instead of using a traditional prosopographical approach, Balkelis portrays the Lithuanian intelligentsia as the foundational social group in the nationbuilding project. Balkelis has scrutinized not only the patriotic press but also private diaries, letters, and literary works of the intelligentsia in order to understand how nationalism shaped their individual lives, identities, and values. 

One may criticize Balkelis for treading over the same ground as Alfred Erich Senn, Edward Thaden, Linas Eriksonas, Leonas Sabaliūnas, and others, but his presentation is more comprehensive: he has successfully integrated the social, cultural, and political elements of the Lithuanian National Revival. Although Balkelis does not dismiss political or intellectual matters, he emphasizes the changes in society as the driving force in Lithuania’s push towards independence. In this respect, he has more in common with the generation of Soviet Lithuanian historians like Rimantas Vėbra, or Antanas Tyla, neither of whom were Communist hacks. In fact, the complete arc of Balkelis’s work might be considered a neo-Marxist interpretation. 

Balkelis’s greatest contribution to the concept of nation building lies in his chapters on groups that traditionally have been seen as nondominant. He includes women in a separate chapter called “The intelligentsia and the Women’s Issue.” Here he presents “The ‘women’s question’ [sic]... as an integral part of the nation building project.”(69) For all the promise of a small group of women, such as Žemaitė, Šatrijos Ragana, Petkevičaitė-Bitė, or Lazdynų Pelėda, who penned some of the classics of Lithuanian literature, Balkelis admits that the agenda for patriotic Lithuanian women was still in the hands of males. Women were to remain mothers, raising and educating patriotic children. Men would accept women into the “world of nation-making politics only as junior partners of male patriots.” (84) In other words, Balkelis presents a failed or nonexistent women’s movement as a dimension in nation building.

Balkelis puts to good use Miroslav Hroch’s paradigm of when a national movement gains mass support. Balkelis asserts that from 1915 to1918 as many as a quarter of a million Lithuanian refugees became the last and possibly most important group to support Lithuania’s claim for independence: “It was in Russia that the idea of sovereign statehood won the support of a large number of Lithuanians... the completion of independence became possible when hundreds of thousands of refugees took to their hearts the cause of a sovereign state.” (105) Instead of focusing on the Lithuanian elites living in the West, Balkelis concentrates on places like Voronezh, “a hotbed of Lithuanian communal life in Russia.” (112) By the end of World War I, ethnic Lithuanian refugees scattered across the Russian Empire wanted to return to a homeland. Balkelis contends that the repatriation of Lithuanians to their perceived fatherland created a bridge between the elites in charge of creating a Lithuanian state and the masses, which could profit by returning to a better livelihood and safety from the chaos and deprivations of the Russian Revolution. The screening of refugees could also be used as a means of ensuring the loyalty of the returnees. Jews, Poles, or other “undesirables” could be denied entry to Lithuania, thereby limiting repatriation to those loyal to the idea of an independent state populated by ethnic Lithuanians. Balkelis also sees the returnees as an essential group in state building, providing much needed military, administrative, and political expertise. Indeed, Lithuanian soldiers in the Russian army created the nucleus of the Lithuanian military. (117) 

One of Balkelis’s aims is to examine those features of the Lithuanian national movement that point to its modern, constitutive, and socially constructed character. He presents the Lithuanian intelligentsia as a new and dynamic sociocultural group, with rapidly shifting identities, often in conflict with its own native peasant milieu or other ethnic groups, and in need of new codes and practices of social behavior that would strengthen its newly acquired status as a national elite. This work ably synthesizes these practices in the context of the development of patriotic elites. 

Balkelis has mastered Western theories of nationalism. However, like many Lithuanian expatriate scholars, he has not mastered the style and language expected in an academic publication of this type. Moreover, he does not adhere to any consistent spelling convention. This book is important enough to deserve a thorough revision in writing style. 

Virgil Krapauskas