After 20 years Lithuanians are more inquisitive and self-confident

  • 2013-02-20
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Raised and educated in the United States, in Washington, DC, Darius Suziedelis, then in his 20s, decided, at the dawning of Lithuanian Independence back in the 1990s, to pack his bags and hopped onto a Baltic-bound plane. Though he had been in Lithuania twice during Soviet times, the 9-hour journey gave him much time to think of possibly making a change, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, in the statehood-rebuilding country of his ancestors. Darius ended up spending the ensuing breath-taking years in the independence restoration, but when the times of the Singing Revolution were over, he, again, packed up and left for the U.S., where he ultimately succeeded in establishing in Florida a successful career in photography. Darius agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions.

I am surprised a Google search has produced very little information on your political activities at the dawn of Lithuanian independence... Does that surprise you?
Considering there was no Google and no Internet then, this doesn’t surprise me at all. We kept in touch with the outside world using a Soviet-era ‘Telex’ machine on the top floor of the parliament (I had to learn how to use a Russian keyboard to type in Lithuanian and English!), and, when the Soviets were cooperative, we also could use fax machines. There were many of us ‘foreign Lithuanians’ then in the parliament – and we weren’t too worried then about recording what we did in the press. There was too much work to be done.

Since we're nearly of the same age, I remember your name from the era of the National Lithuanian Movement, Sajudis. Remind us, please, how did you, being born in the U.S., end up in Lithuania?
I studied Lithuanian at the February 16th Private High School in Huttenfeld, Germany, and traveled to Lithuania twice during the Soviet years. After those brief trips I was determined to go back for a longer period of time, so in 1988 I decided to spend a semester studying the Lithuanian language and literature (and Russian) at Vilnius University. It was during that winter and spring when I first met the Lithuanian dissidents, before there even was a Sajudis. I came back to live in Vilnius in 1990 after Vytautas Landsbergis issued a call to young Lithuanians abroad to help build the new democracy. After a year working for Mr. Landsbergis, I returned to the U.S. and began volunteering for the Lithuanian Embassy under Ambassador Stasys Lozoraitis. He later invited me to become part of the first Lithuanian delegation to the United Nations in 1991, where I worked until 1995.

Didn't you have any fears then that a crazy Russian paratrooper could shoot you somewhere for nothing?
When you’re in your early 20s, I can honestly say you don’t really think about that. There was so much interesting, difficult work to be done, particularly helping the new Lithuanian parliamentarians communicate with European and North American counterparts. I can’t say I never was afraid, but really we were working such crazy hours at the Parliament that we didn’t have time to worry too much. Getting ‘coupons’ for socks, sugar and coffee during the Soviet blockade was sometimes a greater concern.

Do you still believe a threat to our hard-fought freedom could still gather a million people in the Baltic Way? Or have the Baltic States changed too much to make them hold each other's hands today?
From my experience living in the U.S. and other Western countries, I know that people in ‘settled countries’ tend to get focused on personal issues and just enjoying life. We don’t think too much about threats to our country or our way of life. I’d like to think that Lithuania is now a much more ‘normal’ country, in the sense that we (thank God) don’t have to worry now about existential things like whether our country will still be there in the morning. When times are good, people tend to worry about themselves first. I’d like to believe that, if things ever got as bad as they were in the 1980s and early 1990s, Lithuanians would still rally to their country’s cause. I’m very confident they would.

How have Lithuanians changed over the years since independence?
Let’s start with the positive things I’ve noticed (Lithuanians always tend to start with the negative). I find some people in Lithuania are more inquisitive, self-confident (especially the younger generation), better able to see their country’s advantages and faults in a healthy context. We look up to other countries of the European Union, instead of always boasting how ‘far’ we are away from the rest of the former Soviet Union. On the less positive side, I hate to say it, but I feel that many people in Lithuania are less tolerant of ‘others’ than they were before. Perhaps some people (particularly the older generation) feel threatened by all the change that came with independence. Perhaps they are scared by the number of people leaving the country and they are worried that Lithuania will lose its identity. Unfortunately, I also don’t see much change in the average Lithuanian’s perception of happiness. After living in Brazil for three years, I really loved that country’s sense of joy and healthy sensuality. Many Lithuanians still seem so ready to wallow in sadness. Lithuanians live much better lives, on the average, than many other people in the world. I wish we could see that more clearly.

Is there anything that still brings a smile when thinking of those years? Anything that makes you feel sad?
I smile when I remember many things from those times. The unity, of course. The sense of purpose that we all had. The pride we felt from our accomplishments. I remember foreigners visiting Vilnius and being so overwhelmed with the optimism and the sheer miracle of what was happening. I still maintain many friendships from those days, and when we get together (not very often these days), we instantly remember those days and we smile. Those were wonderful days. I am not a naive person, but I still get sad when I see how many people lost friends or close colleagues because of political battles that happened after independence was won. I am sad that Lithuania is not a more tolerant place for people who do not resemble the ‘poster child’ of a perfect, ethnic Lithuanian. Lithuania historically was always a multi-cultural place. Why do some politicians (especially on the right) always state this fact proudly when they want to praise Lithuania’s history, but then so quickly turn against that diversity when they speak of ‘threats’ to Lithuanian national identity? We can’t have it both ways. Either we learn from our multi-cultural past and draw strength from it (there’s a line about that in our national anthem, after all), or we close ourselves off and slowly wither away. It’s our choice.

I assume if you had wanted you'd have gone higher up the ladder of social and political life here…
I could have continued to work in the diplomatic corps after 1995. I enjoyed the work tremendously, and I can say that I was successful at a very young age. Many of my friends and colleagues from those days are now in positions of greater responsibility, so I don’t see why I could not have achieved something similar. But by 1995 I realized that I had to address my own personal issues, including my sexuality, because if I did not I would have been a very unhappy person. I didn’t think then that it would be possible to be openly gay, for example, and continue a career in Lithuanian public office. I still don’t think it is possible, unfortunately, even though we do have one openly gay parliamentarian now. That’s progress, but it’s only one very special case. I still believe there are many, many people in Lithuania – some in very high positions – who have to hide who they really are if they want to succeed in whatever field they work in. That is a terrible thing, having to choose between personal integrity and your career. We should not have to make that choice in a democratic, European Lithuania.

Was there anything in it that exasperated you back then in the 1990s? And now?
I feel that some Lithuanian politicians and leaders are very afraid of opposing or having different points of view. When I was working in the parliament in 1990, certain conservative and very questionable foreign ‘experts’ and politicians were invited to come to Vilnius, and they were given extremely good access to leaders at that time. They influenced policy, and their views were never questioned, nor were their credentials verified. We didn’t have Google back then, so it was harder to research peoples’ backgrounds. All kinds of ‘pretenders’ appeared in the halls of government back then and, unfortunately, they influenced many policies. Their influence can still be felt today. Just look at the discussions over the definition of a family, or social welfare programs, or domestic violence. If you dare to challenge some of the prevailing opinions, some Lithuanian politicians get very defensive. I think this comes from those early days when the foundations of policy were first established. These days there is still a great lack of brave leaders and politicians. Most of them only want to ‘get along’ and save their posts. Hillary Clinton said it best in a speech about gay and lesbian rights: ‘Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for.’ Sometimes being a leader means taking unpopular decisions. There are very few real Lithuanian leaders these days.

How do you explain that the February 16 march slogan "Lithuania is for Lithuanians" didn't drawn anyone's attention 20 years ago, but, for many, is of a major concern today?
I think it would have drawn more attention 20 years ago if it had been repeated as often as it is today by some people. I remember very well that, back then, the political leadership was very careful to ensure that all people in Lithuania – Russians, Poles, Jews – felt included in the national rebirth movement. It was very important to avoid any provocations along ethnic or other lines, because this could easily be exploited by our opponents in Moscow. Lithuania felt more inclusive then, although I’m not sure if that was really the case. But, at least on the surface, we tried to extend a hand to everyone, Lithuanian and non-Lithuanian. I think we should permit the far-right marchers to parade, so long as they don’t threaten anyone’s safety and as long as they don’t encourage violence. Seeing the faces of neo-fascists on the street is the best advertisement against them. If we lock them away or try to hide them, they grow stronger. Once we see them in the light of day for who they really are, they lose their influence.

Is there anything to worry about for Lithuania in the globalization process? How much should we be open to the world? And what dangers, if any, in that regard should Lithuania be aware of?
I am not afraid of globalization. I think that term has been given too much power by people who are afraid of change. Yes, we are a more global world, more inter-connected – and yes, this has some negative impact on smaller countries and cultures. But, at the same time, openness to the world has brought new opportunities to Lithuania – new chances to study, work and travel abroad, to show our culture in other countries, to learn and explore. I don’t see a danger to our language, for example. On the contrary, as a professional translator I see more and more texts (literary, professional, technical) being translated into our language than ever before. Our language has grown stronger and more inclusive, it has become more modern. I think that is a good thing – it will ensure that our language lasts long into the future.

What does real patriotism mean to you?
I am not a flag-waving patriot, in the U.S. or in Lithuania. I don’t believe a flag or a national symbol on your chest makes you a stronger patriot. That said, I love our tricolor flag, and I would be the last person to permit the neo-fascists to monopolize it for their own purposes. I just don’t feel the need to force my patriotism on other people. Patriotism, for me, is working hard – every day – for the community and country you love. Patriotism is being open about the things we must change in our country, and embracing and being proud of those things that make our country a good home. When I was working at the United Nations, about to speak to a group about the economic challenges we faced in Lithuania in the early 1990s, I was told by a Lithuanian diplomat visiting from Vilnius that I was “too negative” and that I shouldn’t “expose all our weaknesses.” Being open about the problems faced by any country is not a bad thing, in my opinion. If we run away from our problems or try to paint over them, they will just get worse. In this regard, I believe that Stasys Lozoraitis was one of the greatest patriots I had the honor to know and work with. He loved Lithuania deeply, and was never afraid to speak his mind about what we needed to change.

Tell me frankly, have you ever been ashamed of being Lithuanian?
I remember one time. I met a Holocaust survivor, a former Jewish resident of Kaunas, in Washington, DC. She was a tiny, lively, funny and very sweet woman. We met at an event at the Holocaust Museum, and I had the chance to talk with her for over an hour over lunch one day. She told me how much she loved Kaunas, how she wished she could go back some day. I asked: “Why can’t you go now?” (this was around 1994) and she answered: “There is no place for me in Lithuania now. You want to forget about us. I would just remind of you something unpleasant.” I was devastated. I had never before thought of my country as intolerant, but here was this woman who had so many fond childhood memories of her own city, Kaunas, but who was now unable to go home. Of course, technically, she could go there – but she felt unwelcome. She never went back. She died a few years ago. We Lithuanians don’t respect our Jewish history enough. We lost an entire part of our civilization in World War II – and we will never get that back. That is something every person from Lithuania (whatever their ethnic background) should remember and feel deep sorrow for. What is lost cannot be recovered, but it can be remembered with dignity, love and respect.

What usually do Americans know of Lithuania?
I think you know the answer to this question. Basketball, amber, cold winters, strange “national” perfumes (thanks to Steven Colbert) and a beautiful Old Town in Vilnius. Whenever I meet someone who has never been to Lithuania before, I always tell them about Nida and Neringa – so few people know how beautiful that coast is. I think I convinced at least 10 Brazilians to visit Nida in the near future (in the summer only, of course!), but that number is increasing every year.

Nowadays you’re known for many as a successful photographer and a staunch gay rights supporter. Why is that so important to you?
You’re being generous with ‘successful photographer.’ Active photographer maybe, but I have so many artists whom I admire who truly deserve the ‘successful’ title more than I do. I still have a lot to learn from them, and I’m still trying to find my own style. I’ve always wanted to explore my creative side, even when I was studying political science and defense policy in university. After working five years in diplomatic work and seven years in international business, I decided it was time to break away and really enjoy creating and art. I worked as an actor in Washington, DC and New York for six years, and I starting exploring photography while living in New York. That city was made for the visual arts. Every block, every street has something wonderful to discover and capture. Since then I’ve tried to expand my photography and learn from others, including the Lithuanian photography greats from the ‘Lithuanian Photography School.’ Their work is really only known to a small circle of professionals and art historians abroad, but that number is increasing every year. As for supporting equal rights for the LGBT community, to me that is a very natural and (unfortunately) still very necessary thing. Gays and lesbians in the U.S. still need strong advocates – so it’s not surprising that Lithuanian LGBT people also need as many friends and supporters as they can get. I was in the ‘closet’ for many years, very unhappy and insecure – so naturally I worry about all the Lithuanian LGBT people, particularly living in small towns or rural areas, who have no one to talk to, no one to defend their right to be themselves. We have a very long way to go in Lithuania before gays and lesbians can feel completely ‘at home.’ Sadly, Lithuania is still a very immature country in sexual education – so any discussion of sexual orientation, or protection against discrimination due to sexual orientation, is still a very sensitive topic.

To stir up a bit of the controversy... should Lithuanian gays be allowed to march in the summer on Gediminas avenue, the main Vilnius promenade, or should they do that somewhere else?
Of course they should be allowed. I don’t understand how the answer could be otherwise. Lithuanian gays and lesbians are guaranteed the same rights under the Lithuanian Constitution, why shouldn’t they be able to walk proudly down Vilnius’ main street? If the City Council or Mayor Zuokas can’t provide public servants to adequately protect them, then maybe these politicians need to be replaced with someone who can? Gedimino Prospektas is Lithuania’s main street – so it belongs to all of us, not just the City Council or the government, or a loud bunch of neo-fascists. The job of the city government is to ensure public access and the free expression of rights. If they are not up to that task, it’s time for them to consider other employment. I had hoped that Mayor Zuokas was a true liberal, but it’s beginning to look a bit different. He will be the mayor of the capital city of the EU Presidency for six months, after all. It’s time he acted the part.

Is there any chance we'll see you in Lithuania any time soon? And what would bring you over here?
As I mentioned, I hope to be able to come to Vilnius this summer to attend Baltic Pride 2013 and implement a photography project about the face of gay and lesbian Lithuania. And then I really want to sit in a quiet forest in Dzukija and drink a glass of wine and catch up with friends.