Leonidas Donskis interviewed by Adam Puchejda
At the end of the 20th century Tomas Venclova was asking Czesław Miłosz how in his opinion our part of Europe – Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and so on – could look like in an ideal form and what would be the best for this part of Europe? How would you answer to this question today?
Keeping in mind what happened in the 20th century, I think that the best thing to do would be to remain open-minded, sensitive, and inclusive. Also I think that one of the most regrettable tendencies – as far as Lithuania’s history is concerned – was the divorce of Lithuanian politics and culture. The nationalistic pattern adopted by many countries in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, which evolve around language and culture in accordance with a model of one language, one culture and one state, damaged the previous pattern of shared culture and common state known as the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. It is easy to understand why Tomas Venclova and Czesław Miłosz touched upon such a sensitive issue. When they tried to rethink the past of Lithuania and Poland, they were both aware that we have turned down a crucial part of our shared literary and cultural legacy. This happened because of the domination of nationalism before the Second World War, and also because of the character of national rebirth movement of Lithuania which was centered on the fairly recently revived language and national culture that revolved around that newly resurrected language. Czeslaw Miłosz once made a witty remark saying that Lithuania was symbolically revived and rebuilt by a bunch of philologists, which was quite an accurate statement. Hence, our sensitivity, openness, and also understanding that only a multicultural, multilingual, and multireligious tradition of Lithuania and Poland would do justice to our past and present. Otherwise, we will be trapped in a sort of partisan and memory politics which would be quite hard to handle to all parties.
But do you really believe that this idealized concept of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania is still a realistic approach today?
No, I don’t think that it is awfully realistic from the political standpoint. I think that what has happened in the past led us very far from this ideal, and it would be quite naïve to try to restore it today. Even the rhetoric itself doesn’t work. But I would like to call upon my fellow politicians and intellectuals to understand the fact that it is impossible to imagine a European pattern of education in Lithuania without a strong Polish or Jewish perspective. I would like to think about a pattern of memory, a sort of consolidated memory – historical, cultural, and political – which would take into account various aspects of sensitivity and experience of Poles and Lithuanians, but I don’t think that we could start daydreaming about an alternative project to the European Union. It could work merely as a naughty joke. But when it comes to the cultural liaison that shapes politics – why not?
Nevertheless it looks like that today’s Europe – and this is also the case of Poland and Lithuania – faces a serious problem of not strengthening relations between different countries but rather weakening these ties in favor of unilateral politics. A few weeks ago we even spoke about shutting up Schengen by France.
Indeed, what is happening in Europe looks like a crisis, but I am not inclined like to dramatize the whole thing. Of course, we face many challenges and many things can happen. First of all, I do not think that the European project is 100% safe and secure. It is enough for Spain to have some serious problems, and the eurozone would be challenged, to say the least. It is also the debate about closing of the Schengen zone – what you have just said – and the rise of populism or far-right extremism even in the countries where it was not possible over the past four or five decades ago, like, for instance, the Netherlands. All this is nothing other than a reaction to global changes – massive migration, uncertainty, economic and social insecurity. The very fact that the nation-state is simply incompetent in many ways, that it can no longer deal with many global issues today, is an obvious tendency in the world.
We will face these challenges in our region as well. But Poland can play here a twofold role. On the one side, as an ambitious and big nation – along with France, Britain, and Germany – Poland can be instrumental in keeping or even reshaping some healthy tensions regarding our European allegiances, loyalties, and sensitivities. I believe that Poland would also keep an eye on Central and Eastern Europe. Poles understand the situation of Lithuania, Hungary, and Slovakia better than any other nation in Europe. Lithuania, for its part, could benefit from it because good and close relations with large Central European nations would allow us to have a voice. By focusing only on our petty problems and small issues, we crumble to the ground, and we can simply find ourselves confined to and abandoned in the Baltic region. So we need to have a larger perspective, and Poland is exactly what allows us, Lithuanians, to have this larger perspective.
But don’t you think that Poland and Lithuania have in fact different interests and it is not so easy to create such a political union or coalition?
Absolutely. When it comes to Realpolitik, many things that I say could sound absolutely naïve and romantic, yet sometimes ideas and romanticism matter in politics. Many things that were discussed by Miłosz and Venclova were simply impossible at that time as a down-to-earth political perspective; they were unthinkable both in Lithuania and in Poland. But then they became reality; moreover, they became institutionalized. I think that it is always an interest of every mature political class to have a friend, and it is valid especially today, in our turbulent world. If we in Lithuania and other Baltic countries somehow come up with a strong and consolidated opinion that Poland is a friend on whom we rely and with whom we have much to say about many things, well, I think it is beneficial to all parties, and I do believe that it is a part of that same realism.
And do you think that Lithuanian elite is ready to engage in such politics? We can doubt that when we think about such small issues like the problem of Polish names in Vilnius district or Polish minority rights in Lithuania.
Absolutely, but you know very well that there are no small things when it comes to dignity and identity. I think that was a great mistake. We started complicating things for no reason. It was quite easy for the Lithuanian parliament to adopt the bill allowing Polish minority to use any kind of Polish characters in their first and last names. Even in interwar Lithuania, which was, in my perception, much more nationalistic than present Lithuania, it was the case. What happened in Lithuania was just a symptom of lack of realism and sensitivity.
But there are thinkers today who say that because many countries do not have any real economic or even legislative powers – they transfer these to the European Union and markets – what is left for them is politics of identity, dignity and honor.
We have to admit one thing. Even people who feel very strongly about the nation-state and national or ethnic identity policies – I understand that this is important because we do not have much power in the world and that is why identity politics is a voice of the one who doesn’t have the final say in global matters – but even people in Lithuania, who feel very strongly about those things, understand that the nation-state is not a paramount instrument in solving global issues. We have to build some other instruments, neighborhood and regional policy, European policies, using our experience, our ability to understand neighbors – which can be much more difficult for France or Britain due to huge differences and deep gaps in our experience. These things should be capitalized, they should be used in a productive way, and this is not only for the sake of education, but for the sake of the future. Politics is about how we build a language of priorities along with communication and understanding. If people miscommunicate their message, they cannot make a civilized policy.
We have to try to talk the language of the 21st century. When people try to talk to Poland, in Lithuania, using the language of the previous century, it is a disaster. We have to use the language of the 21st century, meaning the language of understanding and sensitivity. We need to start using proper codes of our memory and political language. Sometimes we have to work very hard trying to make ourselves seen and heard for Spain or Italy due to those great gaps in experience but we can use some codes – we say a phrase and our neighbor ends the sentence having understood the first word. We have to use this because it affects politics and makes us more emphatic and sympathetic to one another. I am a bit afraid that due to the feeling of hopelessness, even forsakenness, weakness, marginalization, a conviction that Brussels takes it all, we do not have anything to say, and this gives fuel to populists and political clowns who employ a simplistic language and stupid policies, and who always have a chance to distort everything. We shouldn’t let this happen. And that is why when I say that politics must have its resources – liberal education, inclusive culture, and public diplomacy – we should look at figures like Czesław Miłosz and Tomas Venclova. They knew all this.
This interview was originally published in Polish in the “Tygodnik Powszechny”