LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 23, No.3 - Fall 1977
Editor of this issue: Saulius Kuprys
Copyright © 1977 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
OLD HOPES AND NEW CURRENTS IN PRESENT-DAY LITHUANIA
The first impression that a person from another Soviet republic gets when he comes to Lithuania is that it is of a little corner of heaven*. The highways and roads are well maintained The cities and towns of Lithuania, unlike its Russian counterparts, are clean and orderly. Intercity and intercity transportation systems are comparatively well developed and coordinated, as is the telephone communications system.
Vilnius, the capital, is attractive. Lithuanian architects and urban planners have taken great care to maintain its original beauty. They were partially successful. During the Stalinist period, when the two acceptable architectural styles were the "barrack" style and the "epic monument" style, very little construction was done in Lithuania. By the time Lithuania's development accelerated to the point of greater endeavors, a new generation of architects had grown up, eager to experiment with new concepts of urban development. Lithuanian architects have been especially successful in "etching" new buildings into ensembles of old buildings, without injuring their original complexion.
However, the most surprising facet of Lithuanian cities, in the eyes of the newcomer, is the development of their new residential areas. The Soviet citizen's concept of a residential area is always haunted by sights of unpaved roads and a total lack of transportation facilities, telephone communication, and stores. The opposite is true in Vilnius. The new residential areas of Lazdynai, Karoliniđkiai, Virđuliđkiai and others are well planned and integrated into the area's topography. From the very beginning, roads were graded and paved, and the telephone system was set up. The stores, restaurants and coffee houses of the area are very similar to those in the central city. In truth, the floor plans and furnishings of apartments are no different from those in any other Soviet city because wish though they might, Lithuanian builders cannot depart from universal Soviet standards and specifications.
Recently a number of public buildings have been built in Vilnius: the Opera and Ballet Theatre, a Sports Arena and the new "Matrimonial Palace." The general opinion about the Opera is that it is too pompous, and about the Sports Arena that it is top "standardized." On the whole, however, Lithuanian builders do their best to build with an eye toward quality, beauty, and speed. Their operating principle is that governments come and go, but what is built in Lithuania will have to serve the people for many years to come.
The physical aspect of Lithuanian cities is not the only striking thing noticed by the newcomer. Stores have a noticeably larger supply of better-quality goods. But even here, many Lithuanians complain about the continuous deterioration in the quantity and quality of available goods. Some commodities have altogether disappeared. But even so, products available only in special outlets in other republics are available to the general public in Lithuania.
The intra-city transportation system is well developed. This is also augmented by the large number of privately owned automobiles—a noticeably larger number than in Russian or Ukrainian cities. People on the streets wear noticeably more modern clothing than can be seen in Moscow and Leningrad.
The visibly greater number of restaurants, coffee houses, and wine cellars is conspicuous. In the evenings lines form outside these establishments—to spend an evening over a cup of coffee is a favorite pastime of the younger generation. A totally foreign experience to the newcomer are the nightclubs of Vilnius. Although the shows are short and sometimes of poor quality, the performers looking tired since this is a second job for many of them, the clubs still make a stunning impression on the newcomer and convince him that he is in "the West."
It is true that the most noticeable thing about Lithuania is its singular "Western" lifestyle. Comments such as: ". . . the government in Lithuania is not Soviet;" ", . . the people are lazy," and ". . . there is no discipline," are often heard from other Soviet citizens. There is also a widespread belief that the higher standard of living enjoyed by the Lithuanians is achieved at the expense of other republics. The contention is made that Lithuania receives all its industrial machinery, raw materials, and energy resources from the "superior" republics, but what they receive in return becomes meaningless to them because of the incomparable standard for comparison.
Lithuanians are, however, of a different opinion. Although they do not deny the fact that the standard of living is higher now than ever before during the postwar years, they also contend that the same or a higher standard of living would have been achieved had Lithuania been independent. As evidence, they cite the facts that Lithuania is forced to accept totally unnecessary sectors of industrial production (which always seem to have their base of operations somewhere other than in Lithuania), that the central government is always attempting to make Lithuania's agriculture dependent on that of the other republics, and that shortages of workers are always met by colonists from other republics. They further contend that the central government is only destroying Lithuania's agricultural sector, as evidenced by the failure of the "greet corn experiment" during Khrushchev's reign and the unreasonably high production quotas imposed on collective farms.
The truth of it is that the central government has done nothing to raise the standard of living in Lithuania at the expense of other republics, just the opposite is true: efforts to equalize the present differential in living standards are continuous.
Primarily, the high standard of living in Lithuania is maintained by its productive agricultural sector, especially by the produce of the citizens' private plots. A large percentage of a typical Soviet family's income is spent on food. In Lithuania, however, the percentage is much smaller because many of the city dwellers still maintain ties with the countryside.
Another factor explaining the existence of the high standard of living is the comparatively high productivity of the Lithuanian worker and the lingering concept of private property.
One should not overlook assistance received from the West. Food parcels and direct cash transfers from relatives living in the United States, Canada, Israel, and other countries are also very important for the maintenance of the standard of living. Traditional ties with Poland facilitate certain trade. Food products are privately traded with Polish tourists, who in turn bring clothes and other widely used products. The central government is unable to control this, and, therefore, this practice is labeled "speculation" and proscribed by law.
The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the high standard of living enjoyed by Lithuanians is not achieved at the expense of neighboring republics, but is a result of its essentially independent nature, Lithuania's historically established agricultural productivity, and a traditional high work ethic.
It is these reasons, and the tenacity of Lithuanians to keep what they have, which most irritate the central government in Moscow. Moscow, in return, is continually waging a war against the very characteristics that have helped maintain that high standard of living in Lithuania. Although the conflict is not characterized by guerilla warfare and deportations to Siberia, it is just as hot as it was just after the War. The conflict affects everything, from the physical appearance of the cities to something as innocent as sporting events.
Present-day Lithuanian Society
Who makes up today's Lithuanian society? What are its basic tendencies in its development?
A very important characteristic of contemporary Lithuania is the fact that a large part of the available governmental positions are filled by Lithuanians. They also hold high positions in the administrative apparatus, in industry, agriculture, and education. It is not the same as it was during the Stalinist period, when Lithuanians were not trusted merely because they were Lithuanians. During the last twenty years, Lithuanians have had enough time to develop their own "national" governmental and administrative personnel. For the most part, unfortunately, these are people without principles, who have learned the fine art of mass manipulation and have developed an uncanny ability to please those in power. With these abilities, they have been able to compete very successfully against non-Lithuanians, especially Jews, and eventually take over their positions. Therefore, looking at the picture objectively, one would have to say that the leadership in Lithuania is in Lithuanian hands. But indeed, the real power of these "nationals" is very limited. This is true even though they do enjoy all the privileges of high rank in the Soviet Union.
Although the number of this privileged elite is very small, its destructive influence is out of proportion to its size. This influence is most readily felt in cultural life and education; but probably the most destructive influence of this privileged elite is that by the fact that they occupy many governmental and administrative positions, the rest of the Lithuanians get a false sense of security that their country is governed by Lithuanians themselves.
Diametrically opposed to the privileged elite is the Roman Catholic Church in Lithuania, a part of the intelligentsia, and the younger generation.
The most bitter and uncompromising conflict within Lithuania is that led by the Catholic Church. The goals of this opposition are not only to protect the positions of those in authority within the Church, but also to preserve and nurture the influence of the Church on the population as a whole. It is because of this opposition that the Soviet government cannot subvert the Catholic clergy, as it was able to subvert the Orthodox clergy throughout the Soviet Union. In its attempts to weaken the Church, the government does not refrain from using repression and physical sanctions against the clergy, religious activists, and parents who provide their children with a religious upbringing.
The Catholic Church, however, has put up a brave defense. The Chronicles of the Catholic Church in Lithuania give detailed accounts of persecutions of the Catholic community in Lithuania. Finding their way to the West, The Chronicles are able to affect public opinion on the international level; this in turn influences the Soviet government to lessen its attacks on the Church and Lithuania.
The Chronicles do not deal exclusively with Church and Church-related matters. They also deal with urgent national issues. On the whole, it is obvious what a large influence The Chronicles have on the population of Lithuania. It should also be mentioned that the Church has been able to muster support from a sizeable sector of the atheist dissidents, who view the Church not only as a religious institution, but also as a persecuted institution that is vital to the Lithuanians as a nationality.
Not only do The Chronicles deal with issues in Lithuania, but they also take an active part in helping Catholics living in other republics, especially the Germans living in central Asia.
The position of the intelligentsia in present-day Lithuania is very different from the position of the intelligentsia in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cultural centers. This is because the intelligentsia was able to capitalize more effectively on the effects of de-Stalinization than their Russian or Ukrainian counterparts. De-Stalinization permitted Lithuanians to create in the Lithuanian language, using national ethnic themes. It allowed the academic community, to turn its attention to problems of national history and culture. Generally, it allowed the intelligentsia to do things that were, a few years earlier, forbidden or frowned upon as bourgeois nationalism. An unheard of event such as this, brought some of the intelligentsia to a state of euphoria, especially when the thaw of de-Stalinization was accompanied by a marked growth of cultural and educational centers in Lithuania, which were staffed predominantly by Lithuanians.
During this same time period when creativity was finding new avenues of expression, Lithuania was going through a similar growth in the fields of architecture, book publishing, and applied art. During the first decade of de-Stalinization, there appeared bold new works in graphics and painting, original theatrical productions, elegant films, talented poetry and promising prose.
However, with the end of active de-Stalinization came the end of the creative outburst in Lithuania. Little remains now of all the talented and creative beginnings, and that which remains has become stagnant and conformist. The once original graphics and theatre productions are repeating themselves; old "modern" films can be seen on the screen.
At this same time, the younger generation of intellectuals is becoming less and less satisfied with merely the ability to create in one's own language. They are looking for new forms of expression for their creativity, refusing to conform, and are eventually banging their heads against a wall. The same is happening in Russia. Each seems to find his own alternatives, Theater director Jurađas emigrated to the West, and just recently a very talented artist, Ţilius, has left the Soviet Union. A very able poet and translator, Venclova has recently asked to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union and is now in the United States.
Others, who do not want to conform, create "for the desk drawer," disseminating their work in a close circle of friends. For both groups, the problem is the same—a lack of creative freedom and the impossibility of creative interaction.
It should be mentioned, however, that in Lithuania there is an absence of the same active resistance on the part of the intellectuals as there is in Moscow or Leningrad. A large part of the creative Lithuanian intellectuals is still suffering from the illusion of freedom of national expression. Another part, bought off by privileges, is consciously striving to conform.
The Younger Generation
When one speaks of the younger generation, one must say that its resistance and protests against the status quo is sporadic and unorganized. The central government, generally, is well informed of the attitudes of the young and takes great pains to nip any public protests in the bud. In primary and secondary schools, pupils are spied upon and followed. Pupils are encouraged to inform on their classmates. An ill-chosen word to a boyfriend or girlfriend is often reported to the authorities. Once this happens, special attention is paid to the "transgressor" to see if a given incident repeats itself. If such reports again reach the authorities, the pupil will most likely be expelled from school and live the rest of his or her life branded as a troublemaker.
The same occurs in lounges and coffee-houses, where students like to spend their evenings. During sports matches or concerts, a large number of conspicuous military police is always present. All this is not coincidence—the central government fears demonstrations as the plague.
Although the government does take active precautions against such demonstrations and the younger generation is comparatively poorly organized, dissent sometimes erupts in public demonstrations, which do shake up the people. An example is the events of 1972—Vilnius and Kaunas were sights of mass demonstrations. Acts of self-immolation and subsequent mass demonstrations were signs of the true sentiments of a generation born and raised in the Soviet system.
The general population looked on those demonstrations sympathetically but did not agree with them. Most believe that such open demonstrations lack the perspective of the situation and are wasteful in human terms. Also, the general population values stability the most. After three occupations, war, guerilla warfare, and mass deportations to Siberia and the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives, the population of Lithuania is finally living in comparative peace for the first time since 1940.
National Spirit of Lithuania
During the last twenty years, the population of Lithuania has put its hopes on an ever-increasing Lithuanian consciousness. That process can be divided into three areas: the entry of Lithuanians into high positions of the government and the administration, the development of the national culture, and education of the younger generation in the spirit of national consciousness. Objectively speaking, achievements in all three areas have been impressive.
Until now, this process has gone on with the blessing of the central government and under its control. Behind each Lithuanian government official stands his assistant—a Russian, no matter how trusted the Lithuanian may be. In culture and education, the only element of national identity allowed to linger has been the language. Otherwise, the cultural activities and education present in Lithuania are no different from those found in other republics of the Soviet Union. The only sphere of influence untouched by the government is education in the home.
Preschool education, generally accomplished in the home, is done in such a way as to nurture and develop a national consciousness in the children: to teach the language, the customs, and the national character. It goes without saying that the language used in the home is Lithuanian.
The Lithuanian language has become the primary weapon in the fight for national independence. Realizing that the language is their most effective weapon, Lithuanians try to make use of it as effectively as possible. During the last ten-fifteen years, the Lithuanian language has become dominant in all areas of life. Lithuanian is the official language of government and administrative agencies, the Lithuanian Academy of Science, the high schools, and many of the factories.
The use of the language helps distinguish the native from the "foreigner" on the street, in the stores, and elsewhere.
Attempts to use Lithuanian everywhere has its comic side-effects. Russian operas performed in Lithuania are performed in Lithuanian, although all the performers and the audience understand Russian perfectly. When any Lithuanian speaks to a Russian, he makes it perfectly obvious that Russian is not his native language. All this is done for one reason—to stress national identity.
The government, of course, is quick to notice something this dangerous. During the last congress of the Lithuanian Communist Party, it was decided that it is necessary to bolster the teaching of the Russian language in Lithuania. Translated into practical terms, this means that Party officials are unhappy with the possibility that the Lithuanian language has gained such influence and can be used as a "nationalist" tool.
On the other hand, they cannot openly attack the use of any native language.
There is a clear impression that the Party officials themselves have become frightened of the successes of the Lithuanians in maintaining their national consciousness through their language, which was intended to be used as a tool to achieve just the opposite result. It is for this reason that the central government is reverting to a tried-and-true method—the colonization of Lithuania by peoples from other republics. Although a small number of colonists has always existed in Lithuania, the threat of mass colonization hangs like the sword of Damocles over the hopes of national rebirth and independence.
Action and Disappointment
It is obvious that the majority of Lithuanians are doing everything possible to maintain as much autonomy as they can; but at the same time they realize that without any basic changes in world politics, and especially in Moscow, it is impossible for Lithuania to ever attain true independence.
Events in Czechoslovakia (1968) made that perfectly clear. It was clear to everyone that the Russian tanks rolling down the streets of Prague were not only crushing the "Czechoslovakian spring" ("socialism with a human face"), but were also destroying any hopes that they had for independence from, the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the Jewish émigré movement in 1970-1977 made it obvious that certain areas of the Soviet regime were sensitive to pressure and that certain goals could be achieved. That fact played a major role in achieving a favorable attitude among many Lithuanians with regard to the permission given to Jews to emigrate. Generally, the government refrained from actively condemning the émigrés, as was done in Russia and the Ukraine. They were afraid that public censure would only touch off demonstrations of solidarity. At the same time, many Lithuanians showed their support for the movement by arranging office parties to wish emigrants bon voyage, and maintained further contacts after the émigrés left the Soviet Union.
It should be noted that the alternative of emigration has become an important aspect of life in Lithuania. A number of Lithuanians who wanted to emigrate have used Israeli vizas.
Several hundred families have applied for permission to leave for the United States and Canada. However, it should not be expected that any significant percentage of the Lithuanian population will seek to leave without the right to return. A great majority of the population wants a return to the pre-1940 status, when there were no restrictions on international travel; when it was possible to leave Lithuania for whatever reason and to return.
It is this type of contact with the Western world that the Soviet Union wants to prevent at all "costs. In this sense, the population of Lithuania is affected as much as citizens in other republics are. Although there are minor differences. Vilnius, the capital, is the only area of Lithuania that is open to foreign visitors. It is not coincidental that Vilnius has the smallest percentage of Lithuanian inhabitants of all Lithuanian cities. Diplomats and correspondents do not have the right to travel to Lithuania by automobile. Lithuania is never allowed to host any significant conferences or expositions if any significant number of Western participants is expected. As an example of the isolation of Lithuania, some time ago there was an exposition of United States housing and apartment technology in Minsk, Byelorussia. A large number of Lithuanians had hoped to attend, and a large number of busses were routed especially to accommodate the crowds. There was nothing extraordinary about the fact that these types of excursions were being planned; however, on the days when the main body of Americans were to be in Minsk, the trips were halted on the grounds that there was an epidemic in Minsk. Many similar examples can be cited.
Recently, the trial of Sergei Kovalev gained a high degree of notoriety in Lithuania. The fact that a Russian dissident had openly supported the Catholic Church of Lithuania and had paid for his actions with the loss of freedom made a big impression on the population of Lithuania. The government was pressed to halt demonstrations in support of Kovalev. Throughout Lithuania, hundreds were taken into custody. The police were issuing threats and demanding that people stay away from the trial. Even so, some fifty people were constantly present at the court house, demonstrating their support for Kovalev throughout the trial. News on the progress of the trial was passed by word of mouth. Of course, such a mode of communication is vulnerable to rumors, but no matter how many rumors there were, everyone agreed that the trial was a dirty business; a shame on all Lithuania. "Don't think that it is the Lithuanians who have put Kovalev on trial!" shouted a person present at the trial to some of Kovalev's friends. And to think, the courtroom was supposedly filled with "trustworthy" people!
The presence of Andrei Sacharov in Vilnius at the time of the trial attracted an equal amount of notoriety. Lithuanians learned of his visit from foreign radio broadcasts. Many thought that the appearance of Sacharov at the trial would prevent a summary trial for Kovalev. Although this did not happen, the support of Lithuanians given to Kovalev and Sacharov is evidence of a widespread disappointment with the ruling hierarchy, much of which is Lithuanian, Nothing has essentially changed. The same policies are promulgated by the Lithuanians in power as were promulgated by their non-Lithuanian predecessors. Administrators are just as worried about their own good life as were their predecessors. The bureaucracy and the bribery are the same; the only thing that has changed is that demagogy and hypocrisy are more widespread.
It is obvious to all today that "Lithuanianization" of the government and administration did not help the development of national independence.
So today, just as twenty years ago, or, for that matter, throughout its history, Lithuania primarily wants to be Lithuanian. But today, like never before, it has become clear that the goal of independence can only be achieved with true democracy and the guarantees of human rights.
* EDITORIAL NOTE. Eitan Finkelshtein was born in 1942, in Sverdlovsk, Russia. He holds a doctorate in physics and was involved in the Soviet space program. In 1970, his request to emigrate to Israel was refused on the grounds that he allegedly had knowledge of "military secrets." Thereafter, he became actively involved with the Soviet Jewish dissident movement, participating in numerous demonstrations and unofficial scientific conferences. He assisted many in their efforts to emigrate from the Soviet Union. His previous position in the scientific community of the Soviet Union had allowed him to make friends with the most vocal of Soviet dissidents, among them Andrei Sakharov, When Sakharov was in Vilnius, Lithuania, to testify at the trial of their fellow dissident Kovalev, he stayed at Finkelshtein's apartment. Eitan Finkelshtein is well acquainted with the problems of human rights in Lithuania—on November 25, 1976, he joined the Lithuanian Group to Promote Observance of the Helsinki Accords, where he represent Lithuania's ethnic minorities.