Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on February 28th, 2008


The anti-commememoration of the 90th anniversary of V-16 begins with this contextual piece, providing a few paths of inquiry into understanding what the circumstances were that led to the establishment of the Republic of Lithuania. I’m not, importantly, a historian. At best, I’m a literary critic. As such, this context is badly simplified, but it is at least not as simplified as the politically dubious version of Lithuanian history available at Saturday school or summer camp.

As a literary critic, then, I can begin with these lines of a poem:

Tėvyne Lietuva, mielesnė už sveikatą!
Kaip reik tave branginti, vien tik tas pamato,
Kas jau tavęs neteko.

They are the opening lines of a poem published in 1834 by a graduate of Vilnius University and classmate of the father of Lithuanian History, Simonas Daukantas. The lines are majestic in their emotive strength, tied in precisely with the vogue of romantic poetry. The speaker is alone, thinking of his homeland Lithuania, dearer to him than his very health. And this dearness and importance is amplified by the fact that he, and anyone who loves their homeland Lithuania, loves it the more since they know, and have felt, what it is like not to have a homeland to love.

The first line even starts a historical train running, as the solitary speaker in this poem becomes, in 1898, under the pen of Vincas Kudirka, the mass, the nation. Lithuania moves from being “my” homeland to, rather, “our” homeland. But to see this shift in number more clearly, it’s important to see the lines quoted above in their original language, Polish:

Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie;
Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie,
Kto cię stracił.

This is the opening of Pan Tadeusz, the epic poem of Lithuania, written in Polish, by Adam Mickiewicz, a Lithuanian noble born in what is now Belarus, with a Polish education in the Russian Empire, and a knowledge of Lithuanian gained only in adulthood.

How did we move, in 60 years, from “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!” to “Lietuva, tėvynė mūsų”? The story is at the same time familiar and obscure—familiar in its narrative of cultural persistence, rebirth, and nationalism; obscure in its narrative of federalism, politics, and (again) nationalism.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania (LDK), as every student in Saturday school knows, was united with the Kingdom of Poland in 1569. At the time, both states had already shared a head of state for over a century. Similarly, it had been over 50 years since the last head of state of the LDK spoke Lithuanian. All official correspondence was conducted either in Latin, in a variant of Chancellery Slavonic, or in Polish (the exclusive language of the text of the Union of Lublin). Zinkevičius, in his history of Lithuanian, tracks the language’s progress at this time by noting errors in the writing of Slavonic that betray a fluency in Lithuanian—a situation brought on by the paucity of Lithuanian texts. The two primary social structures of the LDK, the government/aristocracy and the (both Roman Catholic and Orthodox) Church, functioned not in Lithuanian. The printed history of Lithuanian, fueled by the efforts of Protestants in Prussia, begins at this time, but on a scale unmatched by the printing in Polish and Ruthenian.

The Lithuanian language was wholly irrelevant in the early modern public sphere. Leading into the 19th Century, we had: a Lithuanian aristocracy (educated either in Polish or Latin) speaking a a dialect of Polish local to the former LDK; a (Jewish) merchant/craftsman middle class speaking Yiddish; and a serf class speaking either Lithuanian or a Slavic vernacular that would later become Belarusian.


Speaking Lithuanian is strictly forbidden.

After the third partition in 1795, Russian became the state language within the former territories of the LDK. Polish was considered by the Russians to be subversive, and the Russian government began a process of depolonizing the lands they had acquired, largely by instituting Russian-language schools (among them the the reopened Imperatorskiy Vilenskiy Universitet, which we now know as Vilniaus Universitetas).

What, then, in 1800, did it mean to be “Lithuanian”? Were the people who lived within the borders of the LDK Lithuanian? If so, then that includes people who were Slavs since time immemorial, who had never spoken a word of Lithuanian. Was it just the people who grew up speaking Lithuanian? If so, then the entirety of Lithuania was serfs. Furthermore, if that is the case, then Vilnius, while historically the capital of Lithuania, was no longer at all a part of Lithuania; the political and academic life was Russian and Polish, the middle class life was Yiddish, and the serfs in the farms around Vilnius spoke Belarusian.

Yet among these various groups, political interest in separating from the Russian (and Eastern Orthodox) stranglehold on cultural life grew. And they all expressed an interest in claiming the legacy of the LDK for themselves. The Polish speaking aristocracy claimed they were the descendants (as, well, they were) of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes. They also, personified by Kościuszko, had the education and political organization to lead revolts against the Russian Empire. They wanted to reconstitute the LDK under the same, early modern, multinational rubric as it had been constituted earlier. The LDK was not, despite the use of the name “Lithuania” made up of “Lithuanians” in the contemporary, ethnocentric, diaspora sense of the term. People like Mickiewicz and his classmates, the Filomaci, were imprisoned and exiled by Russian authorities for agitating for the restoration of an independent Lithuania. Mickiewicz’s poem, Pan Tadeusz, is ultimately printed in Paris, as the Lithuanian dissident had been exiled from Russia.

But the story we learn does not have its origins in Vil’na (save the efforts of Daukantas to bring to light a medieval Lithuanian history). The story of the Lithuanian independence movement that reaches its apogee in 1918 has its roots in Sudovia. The primary state apparatus in play is no longer the Imperial University of Vil’na, but, rather, the Marijampolė secondary school, reestablished by the Russian government in 1867 to dilute the Polish influence in the area with Lithuanian-language classes.

Sudovia—the Suvalskaya Guberniya—benefitted, unlike the rest of the LDK, from having serfdom abolished when Napoleon had occupied the area in 1807. The peasants of the area (including, incidentally, my great grandfather’s family) had, hence, a 50-year head start on the rest of Lithuania in creating a rich, intellectual peasant (future kulak) class. They also made up over two-thirds of the main Lithuanian nationalists in the late 19th Century. In fact, though Sudovia only had 15% of the Lithuanian population, fully half of all the Lithuanian nationalist agitators during this time were at one point students at Mariampolė.

This wealthy peasant class is the class from which arose the second wave of 19th Century Lithuanian patriots—Basanavičius, Kudirka—who reformulated Lithuanian patriotism as a set of beliefs grounded in linguistic nationalism, not historical nationalism. When history played a role, it was cherry-picked to emphasize Lithuanian ethnic superiority. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, instead of treated as a high mark of European multinational sophistication and tolerance, became, the nadir of Lithuanian history. In 1569, the Lithuanian lights went out, only to be relit once newspapers started swimming across the Nemunas in the hidden pouches of the Knygnešiai.

It was, of course, the prerogative of these nationalists to recalibrate the focus of their patriotism. In so doing, however, they changed their fight from a purely political one to one that was both political and cultural. For Mickiewicz and his contemporaries, the enemy was the Russian Empire. For the second wave, the linguistic patriots, however, added to the enemy list were Poles (threats to the cultural livelihood of the Lithuanian ethne) and Jews (also not parts of the ethne who limited cultural growth by controlling capital).

Both were unprecedented moves in Lithuanian history. Mickiewicz probably would not have understood why, for the likes of these nationalists (and their descendants), he had ceased being (truly) Lithuanian. Furthermore, the history of the DLK, which had enjoyed centuries of tolerance to religious minorities—including perhaps the best conditions for Jewish communities to thrive—was rubbished. In the pages of Kudirka’s newspaper Varpas one can find various exhortations to stop buying from Jewish merchants. Lithuanian farmers should, instead, support new Lithuanian businesses. For the first time in history, prejudice against Jews in Lithuania shifted from local (incidental, ignorant, extemporaneous) to structural (systemic, provocative, political).

Once the calendar turns over into the 20th Century, we can begin to see the problems facing these Lithuanian nationalists. They were scattered either in exile or in villages. Their numbers were insignificant in the towns. There was simply no nationalist movement within the towns, or, if there was, it was not the nationalism of Vincas Kudirka—rather it was the nationalism of Theodor Herzl. As mentioned earlier, Jews and Poles made up the largest portion of townspeople at the time, making up, effectively, the entire middle-class themselves. The towns were alien enclaves within rural, agrarian Lithuania. Yiddish, Russian, and primarily the Vilnius dialect of Polish (Wileńszczyna) was heard in the streets, not Lithuanian.

How, then, can a nation-state form with absolutely no industrial base—or middle-class—is a complete mystery, but that is the situation the nationalists faced. So Lietuvos Taryba had two choices: integrate the ethnic groups that lived in the towns, thereby making a multiethnic federation on a model similar to that of the DLK, or engage in a particularly bitter ethnically nationalist campaign to reimagine their population on nationalist ground.

Sadly, they chose door #2.


Lithuanian-Belarusian language areas in mid-19th C.

The Polish speakers believed that they were the cultural (urban and urbane) élite of Lithuania and had been for generations. The high culture of Lithuania had been produced by them and their ancestors, and it was produced in Polish. Where was the Lithuanian-language Mickiewicz? The Jews enjoyed similarly long histories in their towns—Vilne had been a cultural capital of Judaism for centuries.

But an ethnic nation-state of Lithuania cannot have a capital nearly entirely inhabited by Poles and Jews (and a countryside inhabited by Belarusians). For the nationalists, the Jews became a limit case of the Other, fit for isolation. And the Poles became, simply, former Lithuanians, adrift from their “true” cultural histories and seduced by the pretensions of Polish. These true identities begin to involve exercised in genealogy that take on a biological essentialism that very, very quickly begins to reek of racism.

Still, Lietuvos Taryba marched forward, having decided that, in the fight for independence from the Russian Empire / Soviet Union, they would declare themselves (first) a German Protectorate, and consider the Poles to be their primary enemies.

And so the history of the multinational DLK was obliterated, replaced by multinational antagonism.

I asked at the start how Lithuanian nationalists managed to move from “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!” to “Lietuva, tėvynė mūsų” in a mere 60 years. Kudirka’s lines, of course, would form the National Anthem of the Republic of Lithuania declared in 1918, so, in closing, it might be valuable to think about the closing lines of his own poem:

Vardan tos Lietuvos
Vienybė težydi!

The inclusion of the first line of the poem, in which Lithuania is “our” fatherland, is repeated in the call for the blossoming of unity of the final line. But what unity was it in 1918, if it excluded people who were living within the very borders of the nation? What did the Republic of Lithuania have to offer these marginalized people—most notably, the Jews?

I hope to cover that in the next installment.

Bibliography of sorts:

The best—most current, most readable—narrative of this period of Lithuanian nationalist history in English that I know of is Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 (Yale, 2003). Snyder has no nationalist axe to grind, and his attempts at presenting the subject matter dispassionately seem to work pretty well. At points in writing this, I felt like I was just paraphrasing him. In fact, that may have happened—the juxtaposition of Pan Tadeusz and “Tautiška giesmė” comes straight from him, for example.

The overall arc set by Snyder is enhanced with details provided by Miroslav Hroch in his seminal Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe. I used the 2000 Columbia translation. But his chapter on Lithuania is weird because he barely accounts for the role that Jews played in the area during the 19th Century. Luckily, that is a focus of Alfonsas Eidintas’s Jews, Lithuanians, and the Holocaust (Versus Aureus, 2003). The translation often becomes a complete mess, but the wealth of information is still there and great. Details about language use came mostly from Zigmas Zinkevičius’s The History of the Lithuanian Language (MELI, 1998). Zinkevičius is a better linguist than historian, and as his story creeps closer to his own lifetime, it assumes a greater nationalist tone. Still, it is his map that coldly proves that an ethnic Lithuanian nation-state had few legitimate claims on Vilnius or the land surrounding it in 1918.

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