Lithuania’s window to the outside world

  • 2010-05-20
  • Interview by Rokas M. Tracevskis

Mykolas Drunga, journalist, translator and philosopher, is known to many Lithuanians due to his weekly foreign press digests, which are broadcast by Lithuanian public radio. He also writes for the Lithuanian Catholic Internet Web site Drunga is fluent in Lithuanian, English, French, and German. He was born in Tubingen, Germany, in the family of Lithuanian refugees. His family later moved to the U.S. In 1965-1969, Drunga studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1969-1973, he continued his philosophy studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Drunga worked as a journalist at several Lithuanian-American newspapers. In 1990, he started to work for the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe in Munich, which moved to Prague in 1995. In January, 2004, the Lithuanian-language programs of Radio Free Europe were stopped because the U.S. Congress decided that there was no sense to continue to broadcast to the Baltics, which already became democratic societies with their own free media.

Then Drunga decided to settle in Lithuania. He translated into English Aesthetics, by philosopher Vosylius Sezemanas (also known as Vasily Sesemann and Wilhelm Sesseman), 99 Baltic Stories, by philosopher Leonidas Donskis, and other books. He also translated into Lithuanian Three Dialogs, by Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley. In 2009, Drunga received the prestigious award Tolerance Man of 2008 - the award is given each year to a person who fights against xenophobia and promotes ideas of tolerance in Lithuanian society.

Did you experience some cultural shock when you moved to your historical fatherland?

Not really. Ever since I was born in Germany, in 1948, I was raised as a Lithuanian in a liberal intellectual atmosphere alive to Lithuanian culture as embodied by my cosmopolitanly-oriented parents and as transmitted by hundreds of books published during the first modern independence period and in the emigration. Thus, I never regarded my ‘historical fatherland’ as a strange country; and in the U. S., where I lived for 30 years and where initially it seemed Lithuania would not regain independence in our lifetime, we even fashioned for ourselves a ‘surrogate Lithuania’ with community organizations, newspapers, schools, churches, summer camps, and commercial establishments carrying on vigorous political, social, and cultural activities this side of the Iron Curtain. When the latter began to show cracks in the late 1970s, more information about current conditions in Lithuania became available, and we were able to form a more realistic, up-to-date picture, which those of us who later decided to move to Lithuania for good are still filling in. So no shock now; just sadness that Lithuanians aren’t as conscientious and civic-minded as decades ago we thought they would be when free again. 
What are the main differences between the Western press and the Lithuanian press?

Let’s avoid the temptation to over-generalize, as neither the Western press nor the Lithuanian one is a monolith. There’s good and bad - and everything in-between - in both. When I want to know what’s currently going on in Lithuania, I read the Lithuanian net newspapers. Some are quite decent, but they tell me very little about the rest of the world. It’s a shame there isn’t a single Lithuanian print paper comparable in quality to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Neue Zurcher, or Le Figaro. I’m not even talking about The New York Times. Still, I can list at least half a dozen Lithuanian colleagues whose work would be an asset to many quality publications in the West. Getting back to your question,     perhaps the main difference (this is as far as I’m willing to generalize) is that most Western media show a much greater desire to keep facts and commentary separate, to practice objective reporting, to correct mistakes, and to worry about ethics.
Why did your father decide to change his last name?

In 1944 Jurgis Valiulis, a Lithuanian resistance fighter, was caught by the Nazis and taken to a German prison near Berlin, ready to be hanged for ‘state crimes against Germany.’ The Russians liberated him just in time, but back in Lithuania they gave him a choice: either rat on your old colleagues at the University of Kaunas or spend the rest of your life in Siberia (his health had already been ruined by the Nazis in Germany). He chose a third way: escaping (over the so-called ‘green border’ used by the Lithuanian partisans) through Poland and Czechoslovakia to now Western Allied-occupied and democratic Germany, where he was promptly hospitalized and compensated for the damages the Nazis had inflicted on him. Before his escape from Lithuania in 1945, the partisans had supplied him with a fallen freedom fighter’s identity and passport; in this way Jurgis Valiulis turned into Karolis Drunga; he kept that name (for the Soviets were still after Jurgis Valiulis) for good and passed it on to his children. 
What kind of development do you predict for Russia’s political system?

I think it can’t get any worse; it can, and probably will, get better if only because the overall pressure of globalization, in spite of possible, and even long-term, setbacks, is still toward democratization. Moscow’s reaction to Poland’s Katyn-related tragedy and recent developments in Kyrgyzstan are just two positive signs.

Do you believe in a clash of civilizations?

Not quite. It’s not civilizations that are clashing; it’s two broadly defined political cultures - that of (to a greater or lesser extent) tolerating your political, ideological, religious, and/or social opponents, and that of persecuting and/or annihilating them - that are competing. This competition is evident in all contemporary civilizations.
Could you give the TBT readers your evaluation of the activity of President Dalia Grybauskaite?

She’s a strong-minded, frank, businesslike, no-frills lady with enough mystery in her to keep the political scientists on their toes. At worst, she’s a conscientious accountant. At best, she’ll improve relations with the East and not ruin them with the West, and also (most importantly) help us fully meet the criteria for admission to the eurozone, but once we’ve met them help keep us out of it!
What do you think about the Kubilius government’s job?

They’re not doing a very good job, but unfortunately I can’t think of anyone else who’d do it any better. Or wait a minute - what if Irena Degutiene became prime minister and Andrius Kubilius parliament speaker? That wouldn’t be worse at all, I think. It’s important for the government (especially one with conservative pretensions) not to change its mind too often and for it to explain and justify its actions way ahead of time. 
Which continent do you like more: Europe or America?

Let me exaggerate a bit: Europe, of course. America has many good points. For instance, I don’t think there are any better universities in the world than Chicago, Harvard, or M.I.T. But some of what is good about America has come straight from Europe, where it’s available in unadulterated, pure, concentrated form. If America had only its good features (for example, the inimitable and unparalleled sweep of personal freedom) and none of its bad ones (for example, the absence of a sense of history) I’d clearly prefer it to Europe. But the fact is I was born in Europe and hope to die there, in my fatherland and my motherland.