ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.1 - Spring 2011
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

The Idea of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Works of Gintaras Beresnevičius


VIRGINIJUS SAVUKYNAS has a master’s degree in cultural anthropolgy from Vilnius University. He is currently a research associate at the Lithuanian Institute of Culture, Philosophy, and Art and editor-in-chief of the online daily “Omni Laikas.”


Gintaras Beresnevičius’s writings on the revival of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania have been greeted by accusations of charlatanism from some in the academic world, while finding acceptance among other readers. The author examines Beresnevičius’s writings in light of mythology, pointing out mythology’s significance in creating identity, and drawing comparisons between the nineteenth-century writers who popularized the idea of Lithuania as a nation-state and Beresnevičius’s attempts to sow the seeds of a new mythology for the future, of a multi-cultural region encompassing the former Grand Duchy.

One of the most original and least expected ideas to emerge recently is that advanced by Gintaras Beresnevičius of reviving the Lithuanian empire and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 

The germ of this idea appeared in his book of journalistic essays, On the Blades of Time, and it reached full development in his booklet The Making of Empire. A Sketch of Lithuanian Ideology. Later on, he developed his thoughts in various journalistic writings. 

Naturally, these ideas were not received with unanimous cheers of “Bravo.“ In narrow intellectual circles, especially academic ones, these books were frequently labeled charlatanism. However, among broader groups of readers – journalists and public relations, marketing, and advertising professionals – these ideas became hugely popular. This alone is good reason to take a closer look at what Beresnevičius wanted to communicate and managed to communicate in these writings. Ultimately an answer needs to be provided to the question of why there was such a radical divergence of opinion between academic and – for lack of a better term – general readers. This article will show that, as with myths, there are two ways to go about reading Beresnevičius’s journalistic texts: a casual perusal reveals an illogical and chaotic narrative, but an examination of their deeper structures allows us to grasp their principal message. And it is here that the hostility of academic circles probably lurks. This, however, also explains the texts’ popularity with a broader audience. The same is true of myths, which one must know how to decipher if one wants to understand them and extrapolate their meanings. However, at the level of intuitive understanding, the trappings of academic discourse aren’t required in order to grasp those meanings.

Mythologies in the Modern World

First and foremost, Beresnevičius was a scholar of religion and mythology. His basic theoretical approach was based on Rudolf Otto's conception of holiness as well as Mircea Eliade's later researches into mythology. Incidentally, Eliade not only studied the various mythologies of the ancient world, but also examined the extent and the manner in which the remnants of that mythological world influence our thought and culture today (contemporary popular culture abounds with mythologies).

This vein can be recognized in the works of Beresnevičius. In an effort to explain the present, he very frequently casts his gaze on mythology. In explaining the Soviet cliché of the “stagnant West,” he makes use of mythological imagery, according to which, in both the Slavic and Baltic mythologies, the west was connected to waters, swamps, and hell. (In old Lithuanian writings, the Christian hell was known as the flood.) One could provide many such examples.

But there is another aspect worth looking at. Modern mythologies were a topic of discussion with Roland Barthes – that is to say, myths that operate in our own time, but without a sacral dimension. To gain a better understanding of contemporary reality, the concept of mythology is used today in political as well as in marketing research.

Beresnevičius also addressed these modern mythologies. “History itself is capable of influencing the present when it is mythologized and ideologized, when it is presented as a set of worthy precedents (history as a teacher of life)”, he wrote.

Myths serve many purposes, but they are most needed in nation building. After all, a nation is one big myth about the ties that bind a community of people together. Why should I feel a sense of commonality with another individual living somewhere else, such as Raseiniai? Only because we are Lithuanians? And who are Lithuanians? The speakers of the Lithuanian language? But before Jonas Jablonskis’s standardized form of Lithuanian based on the Suvalkian (Sudovian) dialect became the normative language, the dialects of the Žemaičiai (Samogitians) and, let's say, the Dzūkai (Dainavians) were fairly different. And this partly artificial construct – the Standard Lithuanian language that we use today – has significantly weakened these other dialects.

During the nineteenth century, the great heralds of our revival were essentially involved in creating such myths. They created narratives about the praiseworthy Lithuanian nation; narratives which made us Lithuanians.

And these were powerful myths. It was under their sway that the Lithuanian state was founded in 1918, and then built up over the ensuing two decades of independence. According to Beresnevičius:

From 1918 until 1940, Lithuania’s historical precedence was clearly oriented towards the era of the Grand Dukes that had been accentuated by Simonas Daukantas. And many Lithuanians at the end of World War II took to the forests and became partisan fighters under the influence of those myths. It was they – Daukantas, Basanavičius, Kudirka and others – who created the powerful narratives that have governed our society for over one hundred years. And it is utterly unimportant that these figures were viewed as eccentrics and social misfits in their own day: Jonas Basanavičius suffered from psychiatric illnesses; Kudirka was an odd provincial doctor. To their contemporaries they were not charismatic personalities. They only became so later on – in memoirs, in the works of writers, and in school textbooks. They were somewhat deified by the nation they created.

Ultimately, the Sąjūdis movement as well as the drive to secede from the Soviet empire were based on the myths created by those same nineteenth-century figures. Beresnevičius specified that interwar Lithuania appealed to Sąjūdis-era Lithuania. But after independence was achieved that myth collapsed, and this was why an unexpected political force took the 1992 elections, the Democratic Labor Party of Lithuania, a new incarnation of the former Lithuanian Communist Party. Further on in his work, Gintaras Beresnevičius refers to the mythology of cells – that is, to the way social groups maintain their own mythologies, which collide with one another: “So, contemporary Lithuanian mythology is fleshed out in a very interesting way: programmed into it is a total and constant misunderstanding between tribes and other mythological groups, an ideological ‘war of all against all’ with the elimination of individual freedom.”

So, in a certain sense, we can say that we have been visited by a crisis in national mythology. Do we have myths that we believe in today? It would seem none remain.

Does the myth of “Lithuania the land of forests,” so beautifully described in song and verse by Daukantas, Maironis, and Baranauskas, have all that much to say to us? Nothing, because a forest is now a commodity that sells well in the West. And if it fronts onto a lake, then it’s a good idea to privatize it. True, there’s always the myth of Vytautas Magnus, but we’re not quite sure where to put it now. After all, we aren’t going to drive our horses all the way to the Black Sea for watering. Furthermore, this myth is hardly suitable for a nation that seeks greater integration into Europe. The vector of this myth actually points in the opposite direction – to the East.

We don't believe in the figure of the Rūpintojėlis or Worried Christ that’s been foisted upon us as the best representation of our character. As the poet Jonas Aistis once said, that’s just how it is – we are worriers, lamenters, and sufferers. Suffering is something that the nineteenth-century Romantics would probably have rendered sublime and used to enhance creativity. In its day, this myth was perhaps viable (even if sacriligious – a symbol of Christianity was nationalised and declared to fit the Lithuanian character. Poets have never lacked for insolence). Now this myth hinders us – it cramps our actions, constrains us, and prevents us from forging ahead.

Incidentally, forty years ago, Algirdas Julius Greimas also spoke about myths and ideologies:

If we accept the thesis that no truth can ever be uttered, that it is impossible to shake off myths, that ideology is stuck to us, that it is something that is imperative for our being human, then this leaves open only one path – as much for the individual as for the social person – the problematic of consciously created myths and ideologies. We can and must seek out ways to demystify ideologies, but only on the condition that we can and must come up with new ideologies that permit people and nations to get on with the task of living.

And it is precisely in this context that Beresnevičius's contribution is unfurled: he not only employs mythological material in explaining the archetypes that govern contemporary Lithuanian consciousness, and he not only speaks of modern mythologies and the crisis they have encountered, but he creates a mythology, or one might say a myth, that might confer some sense on the existence of today's Lithuanian nation.

The Bricolage Effect

In his analysis of mythologies, Claude Lévi-Strauss advanced the term bricolage. He explained the differences between so-called mythical thought and “our own” rational thought. According to this French anthropologist, rational thought proceeds from one structure to another. Mythical thought, meanwhile, creates structures from the “things” at hand: a river, a road, a rabbit, and so forth. In other words, mythical thought joins them together by exploiting differences in various taxonomies. This is how myths are born. And this manner of thought is no worse than any other – it readily finds solutions for the challenges placed before it. However, it is still a different type of thought.

Lévi-Strauss explains as follows:

In addition, there still exists in our midst a type of activity thanks to which at a technical level we can quite clearly imagine that which might have become science at the speculative level, which I would tend to refer to as ‘primordial’ more than primitive. In France, this activity is called bricolage. Earlier, the word ‘bricoler’ was used in speaking of a game with a ball or billiards, about hunting or horseback riding, but it always signified an unanticipated movement, for example, a rebounding ball, a lost dog or hors ethat strays from the straight path to avoid an obstacle. In our day, a bricoleur is a person who uses their hands to do things themselves and, differently from tradespeople (specialists), who employs an array of frequently arbitrary techniques. It is common for mythical thought to express itself in manners that are heteroclite – the numbers of these, as large as they are, are nonetheless limited.

Beresnevičius is precisely this type of bricoleur. He uses terminology that was long ago dismissed by scholars in the fields of social and humanitarian studies. He writes about the ”character of a nation” (What is that? It was still within the bounds of propriety to use such language at the beginning of the twentieth century, but after Nazism it became politically incorrect.) And he writes about some sorts of in-born qualities of Lithuanians. No serious scholar would ever use such concepts. And Beresnevičius knows this, yet he still dissects our past using these concepts, and afterwards boldly sketches his visions for the future.

Paradoxically, Beresnevičius intertwines ancient myths about our glorious past with new visions for the future. We’re used to this – those who look to the past want to take refuge in it, scaring everyone with the dangers of denationalization and the loss of spirituality. But here everything gets turned on its head. Beresnevičius delves ever deeper into the past to sketch the widest possible vistas for the future. And so he essentially uses the bricolage effect (incidentally, he may have done so consciously because, beyond any doubt, he was very well acquainted with this idea of Lévi-Strauss's). He created myths, but rather than using the figures of the bear, the forest, and the rabbit, he used what the intellectual has at hand – psychoanalysis, religious scholarship, concepts drawn from political science – and he weaves them together like a bricoleur, and by doing so he provokes horror among some tradespeople. However, recalling the words of Lévi-Strauss, this manner is no better and no worse than any other – it is simply different.

Beresnevičius’s journalistic texts are also different in the same way: he takes various theories and facts and uses them to create a structure, a new myth that outlines the trajectory of our nation. Beresnevičius breaks down our understanding of longheld stereotypes. He doesn’t demystify them; he replaces them with new ones. In the weekly Panorama, Antanas Kulakauskas writes:

For the time being, it is perhaps still difficult to believe that the legacy of Gintaras Beresnevičius for Lithuania’s historical development within Europe and the world could end up carrying no less weight, perhaps even more, than the work of Simonas Daukantas in the nineteenth century.

Why is this so hard to believe?

Essentially, Beresnevičius did what Simonas Daukantas did at the end of the nineteenth century. Daukantas the historian also turned then-current stereotypes on their head. By his time, the stereotype of Lithuania the land of forests was already in play. And for Europeans it carried associations with barbarity.

Daukantas turned the forest into a symbol of Lithuania's greatness. This inversion proved quite convincing, because the metaphor was later taken up by Baranauskas, Maironis, and many other cultural figures. From days of old, the Poles' preferred nickname for Lithuanians was Batviniai (beets or beet-leaves). This widely used nickname was explained by Daukantas as follows: during military campaigns, Lithuanians ate fermented beet soup, and it sufficed for them because they were strong men.

New interpretations along the same lines laid the foundations for the Lithuanian nation that was being constructed at the time. Beresnevičius takes a similar approach. He too advances new conceptions and new models for national practices.

Greimas once wrote that we Lithuanians need new myths. Demythologizing is a very important undertaking. It would be, however, very cruel to leave people with no myths. The myths of nineteenth century nationalism – Vytautas Magnus, the ancient pedigree and beauty of the Lithuanian language, gold40 plaited Lithuanian girls – were demythologized long ago. In other words, we need new sources of identity and new myths to undergird them. But no one put forward any new myths. The first to do so was Gintaras Beresnevičius.

The idea of reviving the region of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in my view, would help resolve many issues of Lithuanian identity. Lithuanians would be able to think about and contextualize themselves and their identity not in countryless Europe, which we will never be able to get a hold of no matter how hard we try, but in a smaller and historically cozier region. Second, the GDL epoch could become the “golden age” for contemporary Lithuanians, replacing the Soviet “paradise lost.”

Without a doubt, at the present time this vision comes across as utopian. But let's think more carefully: at least a part of society (let it be a segment of the elite) is fired up by these ideas.

Historians long ago started writing and saying that the legacy of the Grand Duchy was not written in the Lithuanian language only. We are beginning to accept as part of our own legacy works that were written in other languages, and the creative output of other nations that lived under the Grand Duchy has appeared in our line of sight.

This desire to break out of the cultural frame delineated by the Lithuanian language can be observed beyond the workshops of historians. In his books and articles, Beresnevičius referred to the Grand Duchy as a potential space for action for Lithuania. And the popularity of his works demonstrates that people like his ideas.

Therefore, Lithuanians are longing for other identities and spaces, different from the ones set out by the nineteenth century builders of Lithuanian identity. And it’s natural that we balance ourselves against the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – after all, what else is there for us to balance ourselves against?

And this nostalgia is not a mere coincidence. It is bound up with the expansion of the European Union.

Obviously, Europe is too big and too diverse for it to be everyone's ”own element” in an identical way. (Let’s not count the Cold War period, when the EU was conceived as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.)

However, we cannot bolt ourselves inside the confines of a national state. The world is globalizing and the horizons of our lives have been broadening for some time now. This is why the old multicultural state constructs in which several nations got along together are becoming relevant again. We are not saying that the Grand Duchy needs to be restored. We are speaking about reviving and about acting within a certain region.

Such regions can make sense of our present endeavours and confer a meaningful direction on them. And so, just as the course of action in the nineteenth and at the start of the twentieth centuries was outlined against the backdrop of the achievements of Lithuania’s pagan dukes, today a no less effective compass bearing could be the multicultural Grand Duchy of Lithuania of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is very probable that an expanding and unifying Europe will be very grateful for such regional revivals based on historical traditions. And this will appeal to more and more people, because those historical constructs in which different peoples and cultures got along with each other fit perfectly with the migration patterns of a world that is becoming ever more speckled. Also, as the walls come down, there is little attraction in living under the worn-out models proffered by nationalism. And so, old historical constructs confer a sense of historicity on new forms. Therefore, it is very possible that we are currently living through the reinvention and construction of a new region. Typologically similar processes occurred in the nineteenth century when “imagined communities” – nations – were constructed. To repeat, in this case we are speaking only of the construction of a new region; this process will not conclude with the emergence of a new state (because we know that the result of nationalism is the emergence of nation-states.) However, in this case what is important is the way meaning is conferred upon spaces under cultural formation, ones which become “our own element” and which for others are “not their own element.”

Of course, this is quite possibly a utopian project. But all projects seem utopian at the outset. After all, who at the beginning of the nineteenth century could have imagined a Lithuanian state? The educated ”elites” of that time scoffed at individuals who expressed an interest in Lithuanian antiquity. And for most people, the “Lithuano-maniacs” came across as odd ducks out on the fringes. Yet it was precisely these “marginals” who created the modern Lithuanian nation and the contemporary Lithuanian state.

A reading of Gintaras Beresnevičius’s essays against this context doesn't make his writings appear as “an anthology of nonsense”– just the opposite: they are an effort to mold a modern Lithuanian mythology that responds to the challenges of our global world. This is why it is not surprising that his ideas have captured the imagination of so many. 

Translated by Darius James Ross