Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on February 21st, 2007
Fascists during a Jan. 13 commemoration.

Fascists during a Jan. 13 commemoration.

Nothing sets off an identity crisis like a millennial jubilee! Lithuania continues to play the role of jittery bride in the run up to the celebrations of 2009.

First, we’ve had the problems over the question of why citizens of the Republic Lithuania must be citizens of the Republic of Lithuania alone (the propagandized diaspora version of this you may have heard is: “why should ethnic Lithuanians not be allowed to get Lithuanian citizenship”—which they are still, of course, allowed to get…), and now a new dilemma arises, sparked for me by a rather emotional email I was forwarded:

Subject: Our Lithuanian Flag: Endangered?!?

Can you imagine our Lithuanian Flag without its yellow, green and red?!?

There are some in Lithuania who are interested in changing the design of the Lithuanian flag.

Danute Bindokiene in her Feb. 3rd editorial in Draugas explains the info on the Jan. 8th “TV Forumas” related to changing the Lithuanian Flag from the national (yellow, green and red) to the state flag (knight on a red background). Danute gives historical background and her reasons why the tricolor flag should be retained and asks everyone to participate in a survey to Draugas with a simple yes or no or by writing more in your response.

Of course I can imagine a Lithuanian Flag without the tricolor (“trispalvė”). In fact, for the large majority of the time that there has been a Lithuanian state, it has used as a flag the very state flag mentioned above. That flag incorporates historical symbols of the Lithuanian state that date back to the 14th century. The tricolor, on the other hand, is a phantasmatic representation of a Lithuanian nation (not state)—being nothing more than an ethnic/nationalist symbol and not, importantly, a symbol of the apparatus of the state.

In fact, I’m glad that the people of Lithuania are acknowledging the difference between the Lithuanian state and the Lithuanian nation by engaging in this debate, as it points to a future Lithuania which is more in touch with the contemporary European situation and with the tolerant tradition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which I discuss further below.

Conveniently, Lietuvos rytas published today an article about the tricolor. In it, author Agnė Litvinaitė rehashes the (astonishingly short) history of the tricolor, which I’ll return to later. But now, it’s important to discuss the history of the state flag, the Vytis on the red background that has been used since the 15th century in state ceremonies for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Now let’s recall what the Grand Duchy of Lithuania looked like in the 15th century:

Lithuania in the 15th century. Wikipedia

Lithuania in the 15th century. Wikipedia

Those borders contain parts of contemporary Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. No one would ever imagine that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was made up solely of ethnic Lithuanians. There were obviously Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and other ethnic groups who were subjects of the Grand Duke of Lithuania (or, to oversimplify and modernize: citizens of the Grand Duchy). Importantly, there were also many, many Jews who were subjects of the Lithuanian Grand Duke. Any visit to Vilnius will reward the attentive tourist with the rich Jewish history of the capital, a city that did not even boast an ethnically Lithuanian majority population until the 20th century.

In short, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a multi-national state. Within it, it had populations of several different nations. And though it is historically inaccurate to call the Grand Duchy that, since, effectively the concept of “nation” did not exist in the 15th century, our imagination of a historically good and just Grand Duchy can provide for such space.

Contemporary State Flag of Lithuania.

Contemporary State Flag of Lithuania.

This Lithuania, the political entity pictured above, was, again, ruled under the red flag with the white Vytis. The multi-ethnic Grand Duchy, which accepted Jews and protestants fleeing eastward, used as its state emblems the Vytis, the double cross, and the Columns of Gediminas. Never, and I repeat never, did the Lithuanian tricolor fly over any state function during the history of the Grand Duchy. Gediminas, Kęstutis, Vytautas the Great, Žygimantas Senasis, Steponas Batoras—no ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania ever used the tricolor. At Žalgirio mūšis, the most important historical moment of bravery in Lithuanian history before the 20th century, the Lithuanians fought under red flags adorned with either the Vytis or the Columns of Gediminas.

The reason for the absence of the tricolor is simple: it simply did not yet exist. It was not invented until, after over a century of Russian rule, Lithuanian nationalists (also a new invention) decided to reassert a Lithuanian state in 1918, but this time the state would not be a multi-national entity like the Lithuania of the past, but, rather, an ethnic homeland for the ethnically Lithuanian people.

But before I get into the specific history of the tricolor, I have to underscore the differences between a state and a nation:

The state (valstybė) is the political entity. A state has fixed borders, agreed upon by treaties. The state has a government. The state is sovereign. The state confers citizenship. The state has the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, as Max Weber noted.

The nation (tauta), on the other hand, is (and has) none of these things. The nation can be a group that shares a language, a history, or a certain way of eating dumplings. The nation is dispersed, blurry, interwoven, intangible. The nation has arbitrary effects that can be felt in a bar on 69th St. and in a camp in the hills of São Paulo.

The nation, like the state, has a history. But unlike the history of the Lithuanian state, which begins, effectively, in 1236, the history of the Lithuanian nation begins, at earliest, with the work of Simonas Daukantas in the first half of the 19th century, and more forcefully with the group of Suvalkiečiai peasant intellectuals who developed the idea of a Lithuanian nation (and with it the idea of a Lithuanian language) in the latter part of that century.

One could say that the history of the long 20th century is the history of how nation and state were interchangeable concepts. This was certainly the case for our Lithuanian great grandparents who proclaimed an independent Lithuania in 1918, declaring Vilnius as its capital, even though the city was never to be within the borders of the actual Lithuanian state for its existence during the interwar period (in a bit of historical irony, it was the Soviets who brought Vilnius back to the Lithuanians). The modest borders of the Lithuanian state carved out in the 20th century and the nationalist language of the Act of Independence prove that the state had been reimagined as a nation-state. Absent are claims on Smolensk and Vitebsk, for example.

And in diaspora after WWII, the Lithuanian community profited heavily from maintaining no distinction between nation and state. We used our national heritage (as cultural Lithuanians) to try and effect a political goal (an independent state of Lithuania), even though it was entirely possible that the Lithuanian nation was unhurt by the lack of a Lithuanian state. And this continues even today, when we assert, based on our cultural/national history, a right to citizenship of the State of Lithuania, only then to whine like brats when we’re told that we can be citizens of only one state (though, of course, we can be members of an infinite number of nations, should we so choose). We celebrate state holidays (February 16) and national holidays (kūčios) with little or no regard to the difference—both meant yet another trip to the hall in the basement of St. Peter’s in Southie in my youth.

But the problem with maintaining the 1:1 correspondence between nation and state is clear from the photo (from this article in Lietuvos rytas) of two representatives of the LNDP at the top of this essay: it breeds nationalism, which breeds violence done by the nation in the name of the state. If the State of Lithuania is synonymous with the Nation of Lithuania, then Jews, Russians, Poles, and the rest who currently reside in the State can have their rights (their citizenship) revoked.

Fascist and antifa graffiti in Vilnius in 2002.

Fascist and antifa graffiti in Vilnius in 2002.

If the Republic of Lithuania is fundamentally a nationalist project, then that justifies if not genocide, then at least relocation, expulsion, isolation, and ostracization of these ethnic minorities. This is already done in some subtle ways: by insisting on Lithuanian as the only official language and by tying petitions for citizenship to pre-war status, for example. But it gets reflected in stronger colors on the margins, like in the fascist graffito from Vilnius in 2002 I photographed, where the nationalist has written “Tebunie švara. Lietuva — lietuviams [sic]” (Let there be purity. Lithuania for Lithuanians) atop a sun cross. An antifa artist responds by crossing out the sun cross and slogan, then adding, “naciai lauk!!” (Nazis begone!)

Now back to 1918: following the self-deterministic fever of the time, the Lithuanian nation felt entitled to its own state. As such, the Lithuanian Council turned not to the Lithuanian state of the past for a flag—even though the Vytis on red was readily available—but, rather, invented one based on cultural traditions overdeterministically culled from the Lithuanian nation. Leading up to 1918, there had been several ad hoc national flags, including the white-blue flag seen in some emblems at the Balzėkas Museum and at Jaunimo Centras in Chicago that date from the dawn of the 20th century. It took, however, the declaration of independence to standardize the yellow-green-red flag.

Litvinaitė rewrites in her article much of the history of the tricolor already available in English from Flags of the World, which quotes from The Heraldry of Lithuania, published in Vilnius less than a decade ago:

Discussions in Lithuania re the national flag began at the 1905 Lithuanian Congress in Vilnius. J. Basanavicius thought that the flag of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – the white knight on red – was the most fitting. But the majority of Congress participants did not agree, because for them the colour red evoked unwelcome associations of revolution. Discussion vis-à-vis the national flag was renewed again in 1917, with the opening up of prospects for the restoration of sovereignty. At a meeting J. Basanavicius and Lithuanian public activists decided that the flag’s colours might be found in ethnic weavings. A. Zmuidzinavicius took on the task, and subsequently decorated the hall of the Vilnius City Theatre, which hosted a Lithuanian Conference in September 1917, with small green-red flags. The conference delegates did not like the two-colour flag A. Zmuidzinavicius had created; they found it far too gloomy. A special commission made up of J. Basanavicius, A. Zmuidzinavicius and T. Daugirdas was formed to create a flag. They decided to supplement the two colours with yellow. In the beginning T. Daugirdas suggested inserting a narrow yellow band between the red and green, claiming that such a combination would symbolize the dawn very well. After long argument, on April 19, 1918, the commission finally decided that the Lithuanian national flag had to be made up of three horizontal bands of equal width: yellow-green-red. Yellow meant the sun, light, and goodness, green symbolized the beauty of nature, freedom, and hope, and red stood for the land, courage, and the blood which had been spilled for the Homeland.

We get a brief moment of the historical hilarity of invented tradition in Litvinaitė’s account:

Baltas raitelis raudoname fone buvo siūlytas ir kuriant tautinę vėliavą. Toks J.Basanavičiaus projektas 1917 metų lietuvių visuomenės veikėjų pasitarime nebuvo patvirtintas, nes reikėjo paprastesnės, lengvai pasiuvamos vėliavos. Čia ir prasidėjo komiškas trispalvės kelias iki „Geltona – tai mūsų saulė, žalia – tai…“, žymintis lietuvišką apsukrumą.

In short, the tricolor was invented. It followed the fad of tricolored national flags, begun—surprise—by the French Revolution. But instead of choosing colors from Lithuania’s heraldic tradition, the commission chose something that was, you know, sort of, kind of, culturally based, but, also, aesthetically pleasing (“šiltos ir lietuviškai smagios,” in Litvinaitė’s estimation). This new flag would symbolize the new nation-state of Lithuania.

Of course, just because the tricolor is not even 90 years old and was somewhat arbitrarily designed does not mean that it does not have deeply important sentimental value for Lithuanians around the world. It most certainly does. But in the discussion over whether the government of Lithuania should use the state flag or the national flag in its jubilee celebrations in two years, the question of what kind of state Lithuania wishes to be in the future becomes vitally important.

The national tricolor traces its history to le drapeau tricolore, so it’s valuable to go to France to see what a post nation-state might look like. When thinking of the French tricolor, I always think of both Délacroix’s Liberty and Barthes’s anecdote from “Le Mythe aujourd’hui”:

[J]e suis chez le coiffeur, on me tend un numéro de Paris-Match. Sur la couverture, un jeune nègre vêtu d’un uniforme français fait le salut militaire, les yeux levés, fixés sans doute sur un pli du drapeau tricolore.

One of the Mariannes d'aujourd'hui.

One of the Mariannes d'aujourd'hui.

The image of the young black man in the French uniform saluting (without doubt!) the French flag is both imperialist propaganda and a prediction of what France would become in the 21st century: a multi-ethnic, multi-racial state that has forced a reinterpretation of the symbology of Marianne from a (racialized) embodiment of a France to a deracialized (yet still feminized) body that avoids a limiting racial marking.

This is the future that will fall upon, I suspect, nearly all European states over the next few decades: the grip on a national identity will loosen, as marginal national groups see their voices slowly grow in volume. We see throughout Western Europe the various ways imperial powers are reimagining their national selves as political selves.

At one point in a discussion over the summer, a person complaining to me about the massive exodus of Lithuanian youth from Lithuania asserted with horror that the empty spots left behind in Lithuania are now being filled by Ukrainians. I did not fully understand the problem. What does the Republic of Lithuania care if its citizens are ethnically Lithuanian or Ukrainian? Does the Republic of Lithuania even have a desire? Does the state have an end?

The only reason this influx of Ukrainians should pose a threat to the ethnic Lithuanian is if the ethnic Lithuanian believes, still, that the nation cannot survive without a state. Soon the folly of this fear will be readily obvious, as it already is in England, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and so on (and has been the case in Spain for two centuries, except during the rule of Franco). The borders of the State of Lithuania may be smaller than they were in the 15th century, but it is again/still a very multi-ethnic state.

To deny that is to engage in a destructive, racist project, only steps removed from the nazis up top, flying the Lithuanian tricolor along with a fascist party flag while trying to commemorate martyrs to Lithuania’s independence from the USSR. It denies and tarnishes the multi-ethnic past of the State of Lithuania, in favor of a gruesome vision of the violent state best left in the dustbin of history next to red armbands adorned with swastikas.

As such, when I’m asked in emails to go to the Seimas website’s guestbook

to voice your opinions about why we should be able to retain our Lithuanian flag as it stands today and how we all grew up to know it, sang about its colors, wrote and read poetry about the significance of its colors and anything you wish someone to read, written from your heart,

I must decline. In my heart is a desire for liberty, equality, and fraternity for all humankind, not just Lithuanians. That is why this website is not colored in yellow, green, and red. That is why I don’t even own a trispalvė. That is why I support any project of stripping the Lithuanian tricolor of any official status in the Republic of Lithuania. The project of a better world will not be achieved through celebration of delineation of difference, but rather through a far simpler humanistic means of understanding the other.

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9 Responses to “Trashing the trispalvė”

  1. You made your point very well… I’m still now sure how it really affects me. I fully understand how it can alienate non Lietuviai living in lietuva but for me it is all about nationalism at this point. Asside from visiting Lietuva thats all I have as an American-Lithuanian is my tautybe.

    That said, if they changed their flag I would be all for it, however I wouldn’t toss the trispalve asside.

    I would also like to wonder how long Lietuvybe has to live. It is a small enough country that if enough people immigrate and the young leave, you can lose it all, even the language. Lietuva will become a tiny “melting pot” of Ukranians, Pols, and who knows who else with its old language and inhabitants only known in history books. Mind you it will take a few hundred years but you’re all ok with that? Its kind of sad

  2. Aukse Grigaliunaite
    February 22nd, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    The concept of lietuvybe dying out seems to be a “fear” that has been expressed by a number of people… especially recently. the question of “what is lietuvybe” has been debated at many kongresai, and we never really are able to come up with an answer. what are people afraid of??

    are people afraid that the traditions of kucios are going to die off? highly unlikely. holiday and family traditions exist in spite of national or political identification. to put it very simply.

    are people afraid that the kalba will die off? i would also posit that this is highly unlikely. as long as lietuva remains a political state (especially asserting its stubbornness and lugan being the primary and only language spoken there), and diaspora lietuviai (not just post wwii but the current third wavers) continue to send their kids to lugan school, etc. i think the language is pretty safe.

    are people afraid that there will be no more stovyklos, skautai or tautiniai sokiai? not to mention, god forbid, turkey dance?? what are all those things but methods of getting people together who have something in common. we are all of lugan descent. for me, my commonality with a lot of others who participate in those groups ends there. if it wasnt for “lietuvybe” and the fact that you grew up with these kids, are they really so similar to you that you would be friends if you met them today, say at school or work?

    it seems like what people are afraid of is losing that commonality and “friendship”. lietuvybe is just a means to that end. its great that i have close friends because of “lietuvybe”. but i dont think most people think about it that way. they glorify lietuvybe as some sort of elite trait that brings those of us who are elite enough to BE lietuviai together. being proud of your heritage is great. but glorifying it to the detriment or exclusion of others is distressing.

    i think a lot of people who have expressed that lietuvybe may die out are those people who are afraid that they, themselves may not be able, or not have the stamina, to teach their kids lugan, to send them to lugan school instead of soccer practice, etc. this is a sentiment heard, i think, mostly from post wwii immigrants and their kids. i dont think ive ever heard this fear from third wavers or from people in lietuva. perhaps we are no longer the “keepers of lithuanian culture” that we once claimed we were during the cold war. perhaps this pedestal that we put ourselves on back then is no longer valid, and we aren’t comfortable with the fact that we are no longer in such an elite position so we make excuses?

    all i know is that if people really cared about it, i think there would be a hell of a lot more people posting on lithchat about these issues besides moacir. lietuvybe may die out in individual families, or people’s hearts, or whatever, but i highly doubt that it will ever be gone for good!

  3. I think part of the issue is (and I’ve caught myself thinking this)that we have this idealized image of Lietuva being this land of dunes, trispalves and dancing. Though part of its culture, it’s a small aspect of the state. Through emi- and imigration, foreign investement, etc, Lithuania’s state identity is changing (for the better we hope!). And the state will survive regardless of who is living there (if the Ukes are doing the work and keeping the workfoce going, how can you say that they shouldn’t be there? Without them, generally speaking, the economy would crumble). And despite it being hard to accept (god knows I would be somewhat disappointed when english is a major language in the streets of lietuva, like it becomes a major language in other countries), we have to change the way we visualize Lietuvybe. What we really want is for Lietuva to strive, have a strong economy, be a player on the world stage. We keep the nationalistic aspects of Lietuvybe alive amongst us. Yes it’s hard work, but if you don’t step up to be a vadovas, a dance teacher etc. then you don’t have anyone else to blame for an absence of stovyklas for your kids or dance groups but yourself.

  4. great article by the way moacir! I appreciate the background info.

  5. Great discussions Moacir and everyone.
    I’ve been reading this discussion and reading the different points of view.
    Alot of my feeling on the survival of the Lithuanian state and nation depends on very much on the decisions people make now and how they change perhaps some of their
    perceptions,beliefs and opinions based on
    their traditional backgrounds.
    Lithuania is now an independent country obviously and is slowly moving out of the
    old soviet system and life it had before so
    I find it perplexing living here in America
    why there is still so much emphasis on preserving the culture,institutions and language here,when clearly more and more of
    the community appears to be dying out.People
    for at least 10 years or so have had the opportunity to move back and integrate into the country or at least actively participate
    in rebuilding the country.Yet I see a large
    percentage of Lithuanian-Americans still here in America trying harder than ever to hold onto an idea of preservation that is fading.Also for native Lithuanians they speak so much for their pride and love of their country and yet are leaving for better
    opportunities elsewhere?At some point people
    have to get active in the idea that the survival of the country and it’s people are
    important.The discussion of a flag and state
    and nationhood but in some ways does it distract the main issues.

  6. Natalija Skvirblyte
    March 13th, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    There are different theories of nationalism, but they all share the basic understanding of the importance of independence. Among the Eastern European Nations, nationalism shares three commonalties: a memory of a common past, a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group beyond it, and a conception of equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society. These issues of memory, equality and language are vital issues. Memory is orientated with the past but serves as an introgression for the present and the future. Language, of the majority nation with-in a state, is a vital ethnic marker. However, the conflict I have come to notice with this aspect is that in some person(s) view of nationalism it can contain boundaries within these similarities. These boundaries can promote such biases in which I am not in support of. Let me put it this way, ones memory can be selective. One can choose to only remember certain events from the past and their own certain interpretations from these past events. Language is most frequently defined in relation to the language of the “other(s)”. And last but not least Equality relates to respecting an individual as a member of a given community or communities, but on the contrary this community can choose to only recognize a certain “degree” of an individual, basically, it can define itself on its own ethnic terms, which too me is ludicrous. If these commitments to nationalism were viewed from a distorted perspective as I noted above, then it only would serve as a contradicting belief and open up doors to disrespect towards different types of groups including national minorities.

    Approximately one-fourth of the total Lithuanian population emigrated to the US. As we all know during the 1920’s there were more Lithuanian’s living in Chicago then Lietuva’s then capital, Kaunas, alone. America basically became the second birthplace to modern Lithuanian nationalism. It was at the end of the 19th century that Lietuvybe had developed here in America, faster than in Lietuva itself. Retaining Lietuvybe was crucial for Lithuanian-Americans then, and especially during the occupation of the Soviet Union, so I cant for the life of me understand how or why people seem to think that our traditions or prominence and enthusiasm will be lost. Granite, the confusion is legit considering many are moving here from Lietuva in hopes of better opportunities, eventhough their pride and confidence in the strength of Lietuva show otherwise while they are here. And some still question why maybe some of our parents or friends that have emigrated here from Lietuva have yet to go back, especially since it is now its own nation and free. Well, here’s the deal, many have assimilated here in America, to a level of comfort that is feasible if not preferable, and the truth is soooo many of us are here, and have now become aquainted with each-other, why bother going back to live there if you have your own small Lietuva here and you can share in close proximity with the others you love so dearly. Now, that is not to say that many of us don’t have family in Lietuva still of whom we miss and love, I know I do. But when it comes down to the disappearance of our culture here and now, that will never happen. We are Lietuviai! We are fighters! And no amount of assimilation or growth or time will ever take that away from any of us.

  7. Natalija Skvirblyte
    March 13th, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    As for the flag, in which this whole discussion is supposed to tie into before I got carried away, I say, I’m neutral. I have to say though that the Trispalve is something I grew up singing about in lugan school, not to mention its what I learned and came to understand so much that in some ways its apart of me, even if it is because it was drilled into my little noggin by my parents and teachers. Either way, the Vytis is hugely symbolic to me and equally important. The only thing that would make it a bigger debacle in my eyes is if the flag was change to exclude the diversity Lietuva has to offer. If the flag was changed to be exclusive and biased, then I’m not in agreement. Otherwise, whatever the flag may be, be it the national Trispalve or the Vytis, ill love it, because its who I am.

  8. virginija ruta udriene-ruzgaite
    July 3rd, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Leave the beautiful contemporary tricolor and add the beloved ancient symbol of the Vytis over it, bringing it all up to the fads of THESE times, as Spain adds or removes her symbol upon her red and gold flags.


  1. The decline

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