The title of this writing is a paraphrase of the title of a famous novel. As we know, The Winter of Our Discontent is the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel, published in 1961. The title is a reference to the first two lines of William Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
In fact, this is the springtime of our discontent, which follows the winter of our discontent, although the latter gave us hope that the world may change for the better. The EuroMaidan Revolution in Kiev appears to have been a genuine anti-criminal revolution which dealt a blow to the Kremlin and scared its Master. Criminalization of politics and, conversely, politicization of the criminal world was and continues to be the sword and the shield of the political system created by Vladimir Putin and his clique. Wherever they go, leaving a frozen conflict and an ethnic conflict that they manufacture, we see criminal gangs in power. This was the case in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, and this is the case in Crimea now.
It is too obvious to need emphasis that Russian ambitions in Ukraine went beyond Crimea, but here in Kaunas there is a strong sense of how history tends to repeat itself. A feeling of being back in time with such code names as Munich, the Sudetenland, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain is much stronger than it would have been any time earlier after the fall of the Berlin wall. We bid farewell to the holy naivete of Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history, as if to say: “Welcome back to the twentieth century!” We are parting with Fukuyama just to be on the way to Putiyama, as Andrei Piontkovsky, a brilliant Russian political analyst and essayist, once put it with his wit and elegance.
It must have been five years ago when I came up, in a seminar with high-ranking EU and American officials, diplomats, politicians, and academics, with a comparison of Putin’s Russia and post-Weimar Germany. I insisted on the rise of a revisionist state in Russia with a strong sense of injustice seemingly done by the West to the USSR and with the resulting wave of chauvinism, neo-imperialism, and fascism. Some colleagues took this remark quite seriously, yet others (especially Germans) thought that it was overstretched and overblown. I leave it to my gracious readership to decide who was right and who was wrong at that time.
Kaunas is a city deeply embedded in the twentieth century with its cult of power and cruelty, violence, criminal regimes, and politics of forgetting, as Milan Kundera would have it. Kaunas was the provisional capital of Lithuania before the Second World War. In this city, the history of prewar Lithuania ended with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1940. Kaunas was much hated and feared by Soviet authorities throughout the Soviet period – first and foremost as a symbol of independent Lithuania and as the stronghold of Lithuania nationalism. Kaunas is a city with several planes of identity and historical memory, yet most important is its sensitivity to the vulnerability of small Eastern and Central European nations. It is a city where the Republic of Lithuania stopped existing.
However, one thing makes a crucial difference here. For now, Kaunas is an academic town where Vytautas Magnus University, closed down by the Soviets after WWII and then reestablished by Lithuanian emigres from the USA, became a symbol of present Lithuania. Two presidents of this university were American scholars of Lithuanian background, and the university itself is a bilingual institution where English is the second language of instruction. Since this liberal arts university, reestablished in 1989, was an anticipation of Lithuania’s independence which came one year later, we have a good reason to regard its American component as deeply symbolic for both Kaunas and Lithuania. (Incidentally, Vytautas Magnus University has recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of its resurrection – the event took place on April 25, 2014).
Back in those tragic days in 1940, Lithuania was a fragile state with no loyal and committed friends in Europe. The Baltic States were not “a European necessity,” as one British diplomat put it once. Present Lithuania, like the two other Baltic States, finds itself in a different world. The country’s accession to NATO and the EU in 2004 seems to have been the pivotal event in its modern history. Even now when Russia threatens the world order challenging the system of international relations, Kaunas and Lithuania are as safe and secure as they have never been before.
Yet we know that “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” The spark of genius and sensitivity shared by John Donne and Ernest Hemingway is as relevant for humanity today as never before. The same applies to William Shakespeare and John Steinbeck, whose words and pronouncements of wisdom can best serve as the reminder that our yesterday will be tomorrow, and our tomorrow was already yesterday.
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