Professor Tomas Venclova: “Conscience stands above Independence”

  • 2020-08-28
  • Gabija Strumylaitė

A substantial part of Lithuanian society justifies the sins of national heroes who fought and especially of those who died in order to achieve independence. Nevertheless, independence is not, by definition, the highest moral value. The higher one is God – those who consider themselves irreligious can call it conscience or simply humaneness. From this point of view, Tomas Venclova, a poet, writer, dissident, public intellectual whose personal biography reflects the intricate history of the 20th century, frequently criticizes such Lithuanian historical figures as Kazys Škirpa, Jonas Noreika or a postwar partisan leader Vaclovas Voveris-Žaibas.

In 1975, Venclova wrote his attention-grabbing open letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In 1976, he joined the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. In 1977, he went to the United States where he was given asylum and worked in various universities. Later on, he became a tenured Professor at Yale University where he spent the last three decades.

After more than forty years abroad, Venclova came back to Vilnius in 2018. Here, he actively participates in Lithuanian cultural life and boldly expresses his opinion on the most important issues for the country and the world. In this interview with the professor, we discussed about the significance of independence, the principles of liberalism, the US under Donald Trump, dual citizenship and other questions. 

2020 has brought to Lithuania some special anniversaries. One of them is the 30th anniversary of independence. What feelings does it awaken in you?

It truly means a lot. Probably like for every Lithuanian citizen. When I emigrated to the United States, I was convinced that I would never see the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, surprisingly, I saw it. I thought that I would never come back to Lithuania and meet my relatives. But I started visiting Lithuania; I also met my loved ones. I believe there is no need to prove that nowadays the whole situation from any perspective is much better. Better than before the World War II as well. Lithuania now is much safer. We are not surrounded by predatory neighbours any more, while in the past we used to have at least three of them. Perhaps only one such neighbour remains today.

Economically speaking, it is also better. In these times, people are wealthier – even those who live in poverty or consider themselves as such. Take a look at the streets: how many cars you can see; what passers-by are dressed like; how many of them have purchased the newest smartphones and gone for holidays to Turkey or the Canary Islands. During the interwar period, we could only dream about it.

Moreover, things are better culturally. Nowadays, we accept cultural diversity and its principles of coexistence more easily. The value of our contemporary literature, art and music will be gauged after about fifty years, though I think we have quite a few valuable things.

Historical topics often have sharp corners to discuss. One of the most noticeable examples is our current deliberations about the roles of certain Lithuanian national heroes and partisans in collaboration with the Nazi regime and their spread of anti-Semitism. In your opinion, what kind of principles should we follow while solving such conflicts?

I would like to say something about the present cult of partisans. In the army or schools, people are taught that when they face a danger, they should fight like the partisans did. But we must remember that a partisan movement in any country and in any circumstances is a cruel phenomenon. Cruel because it breaks the rule of law and the laws of humaneness. One Irish freedom fighter once said that there are things which mustn’t be done, not even for a nation to survive. For instance, we mustn’t kill children. Although, unfortunately, there were cases of it as well.

Many people in Lithuania have this attitude: if a person advocates for independence, especially if he dies for it, we can forgive him everything. One could kill a pregnant woman or shoot dead an unarmed man. He could propose an anti-Semitic programme, but the fact that he stood for independence remains the most important. No! Independence is not the highest value. There is one value which is higher than it – it is called God. If we are irreligious we can say “conscience” or “humaneness”. Whenever the matter of independence comes into a conflict with the matter of humaneness, I speak in support of the matter of humaneness.

You have a special connection to Kraków, you are an honorary doctor of the Jagiellonian University. Last year, I had an opportunity as well to study there for one semester. And I kept being surprised while (re)discovering how much and how deeply we are linked to Poland. In your opinion, is Lithuanian society sufficiently aware of the historical-cultural communalities? What are some myths that surround our common past, obscuring Polish-Lithuanian relations in the present?

When you go to the Wawel Castle and see the tombstone of Jogaila (Władysław II Jagiełło – the Grand Duke of Lithuania, later King of Poland – G.S.), which is the most beautiful tombstone ever built for any Lithuanian, it makes you think that we really left a significant mark in Polish history. Although it embraces just the times of old Lithuania, we also have some cases like this in our modern history. For instance, there is a house at the main Kraków square where even before Lithuanian independence in 1918 functioned a Lithuanian society, worked Juozapas Albinas Herbačiauskas, Petras Rimša and other remarkable figures. Kraków has lots of Lithuanian heritage; just like we have lots of Polish heritage in Vilnius – it unites us somehow. 

We can also find Lithuanian heritage in Warszawa; not even to mention Sejny, which is almost by half a Lithuanian town – it just happened so that today they pay taxes there to Warszawa instead of Vilnius. That’s the only profound difference because in the era of the European Union nobody hinders you from going to Sejny whenever you want. You can speak Lithuanian there and no one will make your nosebleed for it. At least I speak Lithuanian in Sejny and I have never received any negative reactions. So, it’s not that important whether Sejny belongs to Lithuania or not. Though maybe I would be more satisfied if it did. When I see the beautiful Wigry Lake with the wonderful monastery beside it, I sometimes think to myself: “Oh, what a great land we have lost”. But what is done is done (grins).

To tell the truth, we have lost many lands: Lida, Polatsk, Grodno. So what? So nothing, we continue to live. Poles have lost Vilnius and Lviv. And they live perfectly fine. Germans have lost Danzig, Stettin, Breslau and Strasbourg – and they keep on living as well. In fact, they live better than before the war and they may even have more influence in the world. Then why do we still have problems with Poland? Because the fear of Lucjan Żeligowski is even now present in our subconsciousness. And from time to time it is incited. Let’s take, for example, a headline: “Piłsudski’s Poland terror in Vilnius”. “Terror”, really? Under Józef Piłsudski there existed many Lithuanian schools and kindergartens, and the Lithuanian press was active. We could call a situation when people are killed en masse “terror”. In reality, just one or two were shot dead and only because they were announced to be Lithuanian spies. The same thing was in Lithuania: here Polish spies were also being persecuted. Spying was an absolutely natural practice, especially during a cold war. And we had a kind of a cold war situation between Lithuania and Poland. Poles, in this case, are probably more guilty. But always remembering this and magnifying the danger makes no sense. The new times have come and shouting “we won’t calm down without Vilnius” while we have that Vilnius in our hands, to my mind, is pure idiocy.

You are a person who has two – Lithuanian and American – citizenships. Even in your famous essay “I’m Suffocating” you have written that Lithuania should “rationally solve the issue of Lithuanian citizenship”. Therefore, I ask – what is that rational solution according to you?

Let’s take as an example the same Poland. Polish citizenship cannot be ceased: wherever you go, however you may act, even if you become an enemy of Poland or a criminal, you are still a Polish citizen. All the Polish dissidents who escaped from communist Poland remained Polish citizens. Not even the communist government was able to take away that citizenship. There was no law allowing it. Meanwhile, the Soviets could. They took away my citizenship – and thank God. I didn’t rue it too much; I received interwar Lithuanian citizenship from Stasys Lozoraitis and I was very proud about it. Subsequently, I was given American citizenship. In general, Americans turn a blind eye to these things: in the US you can have a dual citizenship if you want and nobody will bring charges against you. 

I have both citizenships and I’m not planning to give up neither of them. But more precious to me is the Lithuanian one. I’m voting quite actively in Lithuania, while in the US – not always. Though I voted in the US elections when presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were elected. In the first case, I voted for Obama because I thought that it was essentially important for America to finally have a black president. And America had him; I could say he wasn’t bad at all. Meantime, Trump, in my opinion, looked harmful for the US and I voted for Hillary Clinton. Just like when I voted for Obama, I thought that America has to have its first female president. But it didn’t happen. And if Trump runs for election once more, I won’t do that either. 

How has the life of Americans changed under Trump’s presidency? And what are your predictions: will Trump win re-election? 

Unfortunately, I believe he will. If I’m wrong, I will be pleasantly surprised. But the economic situation in the US is for now rather fine, even if harmed by the COVID-19 pandemics; these things are often decided by the economy. In other words, if a man lives a prosperous life, then he will be inclined to vote for the same president. 

In the world politics, Trump hasn’t reached any big achievements. I could say he pulls the US down into a senseless isolationist position.

Here, in Lithuania, we have quite a crowd of Trump fans – I have observed that in the media and elsewhere. I’m not a fan of Trump at all. I think he wasn’t ready for the president’s role and his leadership won’t bring anything good to America.

What kind of reactions towards Trump’s statements or decisions have you noticed in local American communities?

Americans are very different among themselves. Let’s say at Yale University, where I was working, after Trump’s victory there were posters saying “Revolutionary Committee of Yale University calls up for a fight against Trump” pasted on many walls. The part about “Revolutionary Committee” may sound suspicious to us, but those posters were everywhere. Nobody tore them off and no one was punished. By the way, those committees really existed, but they attained nothing.

Certainly, there are lots of Americans – intelligentsia, city dwellers, students – who don’t approve of Trump. But Trump is popular among Americans from the countryside. And those groups are strong – they smother left-wingers from New York and California by uttering their words decisively. But, to my understanding, their words don’t bring anything bright to America.

Others say that there’s no promise left-wingers will bring better days. But left-wingers are very diverse. To me, personally, left-wingers are more comprehensible than right-wingers. There is a good saying: “A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.” There is some truth in this saying, but being extremely afraid of left-wingers is not worthwhile – most of the times it is based on the young people’s desire to follow their hearts.

For many years you have been declaring your liberal views. Are there any politicians in the Lithuanian political field who could represent your beliefs? And could you please tell us about your personal principles of liberalism in general?

My liberal views can be described very easily: “Live and let others live”. Try to restrict somebody’s rights as little as possible.

Negative liberty?


What about our politicians?

I was really hoping that president Gitanas Nausėda’s worldview would correspond to mine. But not everything what he does meets my expectations. Beyond question, the politician who represented my beliefs was President Valdas Adamkus. Partly, that was a reason why I have voted for Nausėda: Adamkus supported him during the campaign. I thought we will have some consistency in the order of our leaders: Kazys Grinius, Valdas Adamkus, Gitanas Nausėda. But it seems that this order is not entirely correct.

Adamkus, in my opinion, was the best president Lithuania has ever had. On the other hand, it is easy to be a good president when your rivals are not that attractive (smiles). Furthermore, my views were in line with Leonidas Donskis. Although I’m not sure if we can call him a politician.

Well, he was a public intellectual, but at the same time he participated in political activities, thus, I guess we can.

Good. So, if we can call him a politician, then I agreed with him almost one hundred percent. If anything, I wasn’t as indignant as him at political correctness, which, to my mind, is firstly a matter of tact. Why is it important to use one word instead of another? To say “black people” or “Afro-Americans” instead of “Negroes”? Because the word “Negro” immediately reminds us of the times of slavery and we must take it into account. It reminds one of contemptuous nicknames for Jews, Poles or Russians, which are still used by less enlightened Lithuanians.

Therefore, I’m not an opponent of political correctness, though we have lots of them in Lithuania. Sometimes, that correctness can be exaggerated, but the latest gossip about how white women are forced to kiss the shoes of the black men, to my mind, is a malicious fiction. Moreover, the rumours of the crimes committed by the black people or Arabs are also grossly excessive. At this point, like it is said in one fable, we should look at ourselves. Very often Lithuanians commit crimes – in their homeland or emigration – which surpass Asians’ or Africans’ wrongdoings.

I’m curious to ask you about the same sex marriages or partnerships and their legalization in Lithuania. What are your thoughts about it? How should Lithuania deal with it?

I always like to quote my friend Adam Michnik: “I don’t have anything against homosexuals, but I don’t understand them; nevertheless, I understand lesbians because I like women too.” I can also say the same – lesbians are closer to me with their views while gays are different from me because I’m not interested in men as partners. But I could be born in a way that I would be interested. As far as I know, about seven percent of the world population have that orientation. And it doesn’t really depend on the nationality or the country. Likewise, there is seven percent of freckled people. If we don’t constrain the rights of the freckled ones, we cannot constrain the rights of homosexuals either. This is not contagious and it is not a defect – though the church considers it a sin.

You have mentioned that it is the most pleasant for you to be introduced as a poet. However, I should say that poetry is quite rarely read in our society. Which authors would you recommend to read for somebody who is just creating his or her relation with poetry? Maybe you have a list of certain poems which must be known to a cultivated person?

A person in his or her life should have read (not necessarily originals; there are great translations) Sappho, troubadours, Dante; English poets, such as Shakespeare, John Donne, Byron (though I’m not a fan of him). Furthermore, great poets from the 19th century: Goethe, Pushkin, Mickiewicz. From the 20th century, the closest to me are Russian modernists: Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva. Thank God they are still known in contemporary Lithuania.

I think every nation has some interesting poets. English have Dylan Thomas, Thomas Stearns Eliot. Americans – the wonderful Robert Frost. After Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, French probably haven’t had any excellent poets: the poetry in France is almost dead. Germans had Rilke, Gottfried Benn, Bertolt Brecht.

One of the last questions which I’m going to ask is about the constant rush and enormous competition in our 21st century society. Sometimes, people experience burnouts, they lose their spark for life; thus, they become depressed. From where should we derive spiritual strength in today’s world?

Depression is an illness which befalls a person and it’s hard to fight with it. But it’s important to emphasize that it is a temporary state. When I was living in the US, I had clinical depression myself and I was being treated for it. There were two things which helped me: doctors and the idea that if I fall into deep depression, it will give too great pleasure to all the nomenclature who are just waiting for me to crack up and cry to let me get back home. I said to myself, “This won’t happen.” And I managed to survive.

There is one very famous legend about King Solomon and how he designed a ring with the inscription saying “This too shall pass”. If you are overwhelmed by sadness, then look at the ring: “This too shall pass”. If you are brimful of happiness – “This too shall pass”. And this is how the wise Solomon could appease himself in moments of joy and despair.

Professor, what would you like to wish to Lithuania and Lithuanians? 

I am used to saying it shortly: “Good luck”. I end every letter that way and I would like to wind up this conversation in the same manner. Good luck.