Donskis Prize Winner Linas Vildžiūnas’s Acceptance Speech

Donskis Prize Winner Linas Vildžiūnas’s Acceptance Speech

The Leonidas Donskis prize was awarded this year to Linas Vildžiūnas, the director of the “7 meno dienos” [Seven Days of Art] weekly newspaper, by the board of directors of the Sugihara Foundation/Diplomats for Life and Jolanta Donskienė.

On February 2 the Sugihara Foundation/Diplomats for Life announced their annual award for Tolerant Person of the Year at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. This year that person was Eugenijus Bunka. They also awarded the Donskis prize to Linas Vildžiūnas. Leonidas Donskis was a philosopher, professor, the author of numerous books, a television personality, an advisor to the Lithuanian president and an important voice in the modern Republic of Lithuania.

Vildžiūnas was awarded the distinction “for his meaningful presence on the cultural scene which was unaffected by regime changes and fashion, and for his continuous reminder culture is a fundamental value whose quality is enriched by supporting dialogue and discussion. [And] for his long-time battle against forgetfulness, reminding us that only the maintenance of memory, however uncomfortable it might be, strengthens dialogue and empathy, that the memories of our grandparents and great-grandparents is of value for the younger generation rather than a fading memory. [And] for his belief and the example he set, showing that a strong civic attitude is able to withstand tendentious attacks, manipulations and efforts to ‘nationalize’ it.”

This is the speech Linas Vildžiūnas gave on acceptance of the Donskis prize:


Dear Mrs. Jolanta Donskienė, honored members of the board of directors of the Sugihara Foundation/Diplomats for Life, ladies and gentlemen,

In accepting from your hands this honorable award in recognition of my humble efforts, I am deeply moved and at the same time disturbed. The Leonidas Donskis prize set a very high standard, bearing in mind his irreplaceable role in our public life and academic discourse and his novel insights which have added to our lexicon of philosophy and sociology (take just for example his and Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of “liquid evil” in the final book coauthored by both thinkers). We all feel that void which appeared in public life on the loss of Leonidas Donskis, who was the most remarkable and sometimes the only voice of our intellectual elite.

His voice is extraordinarily missed at the present time especially, bearing in mind–according to the insights of the book “Takusis blogis” [Liquid Evil]–confused and contradictory, rapidly changing, unpredictable and intangible modernity and its disoriented, atomized and fragmented society and politics, in which no politics remain. In this sort of society the powerlessness and abandonment of the individual, conditioned by neo-liberalism and state bureaucratism, with the state denying responsibility for culture and learning, the citizen turned consumer becomes ambivalent to values and withdraws.

It seems to me that we are now also witnesses to the withdrawal of the citizen, and in a larger sense the withdrawal of civic society. And not just because citizens have become apathetic concerning values–many who have been disappointed simply no longer see the sense of it and, as in Soviet times, withdraw into internal exile. That’s why today, finding myself in a similar situation, I feel disturbed. I can at least, as the character Vershinin said in Chekov’s “Three Sisters,” philosophize to some extent. Of course, all of the characters in Chekov’s pieces philosophized, and as the philosophized, the Bolshevik overthrow which destroyed Russia took place.

I think many of us are concerned by the changes which have taken place over recent years in the social climate. I will cite my own experience. When in 2000 the Atminties namai [House of Memory, an organization founded by Linas Vildžiūnas] Holocaust and Jewish Studies Center together with the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania (it is difficult now to even imagine that this kind of cooperation was possible) held a discussion of the document collection “1941 m. Birželio sukilimas” [June Uprising of 1941] compiled by Valentinas Brandišauskas, we invited participants in the uprising along with historians and public figures to that discussion. The documents clearly showed the anti-Semitic attitudes of the organizers of the uprising, which infected the general mass of insurgents as well, illuminated the rhetoric equating Jews and Bolsheviks and witnessed to the terror carried out against the Jews, and even though the points of view of participants in the dicussion varied widely, the conversation took place and was meaningful.

And then several years ago when Darius Kuolys, who was then a member of the Vilnius city council, invited historians to the first public discussion of the historic “contributions” made by Kazys Škirpa, an organized group of right-wing patriots arrived and basically ruined the discussion. I think radicalism always tests the limits of what’s allowed and correspondingly takes this into account in planning future actions. The impunity which had been checked and found solid allowed for the wanton replacement of the memorial plaque to Jonas Noreika and the renaming of the alley back to Kazys Škirpa alley. Neither the Vrublevskiai library nor the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences have any opinion regarding the Noreika plaque, in other words, out intellectual elite have no opinion, and the president who by definition is the moral authority of the country said the decision by the mayor of Vilnius to take down the plaque without thinking of the consequences had pitted society against itself. I would say the opposite: it defined the lines on the relief map of society, demonstrating who is who and what they’re worth.

The discussion which is taking place on the internet is also defining the difference in positions, but that’s not enough. It isn’t demonstrating just the relative mobilization of civic society, but also its weak comparative weight. These are simply lone voices without any broader support. We can conceive of protests against the cutting down of forests and the desecration of parks, but no “sardines” type movement against right-wing extremism. Especially since there is no single political force in Lithuania which might oppose the waxing of tendencies towards nationalism.

Here I would like to employ Donskis and Bauman’s concept of the atrophy of memory. The attitude towards recent history, especially towards the year 1941, has been the greatest challenge to Lithuanian politics throughout the period of independence, an exam which Lithuania also hasn’t passed at all. The desire to see one’s history as clean, heroic and beyond reproach was, in the initial period of independence, that of politicians and the society they represented which had just freed itself, or to put more precisely, this was their subconscious aspiration. The official narrative of Lithuanian history, developed in no way based on the discipline of history, remained bound to this goal. Why this political position didn’t change for decades is a different question which I will leave unanswered here.

I’ll just recall here an article by émigré publicist Zenonas V. Rekašius from 1999 in the newspaper Akiračiai entitled “Kodėl Lietuva 1941 m. netapo Trečiojo reicho satelitu” [Why Lithuania Didn’t Become a Satellite of the Third Reich in 1941] which followed the idea by the Lithuanian parliament to legitimize the Lithuanian Provisional Government [of 1941] as the legal successor of the country’s statehood. Reaching the conclusion the Provisional Government formed by the Lithuanian Activist Front was illegitimate and illegal, and that it in its appeals to the nation called for becoming a satellite of Germany, Rekašius then examines the attitudes of the Lithuanian émigré population towards the Provisional Government after the war, something I think is important and little known.

Efforts to reconstitute the activity of the Provisional Government, Rekašius says, began in the first postwar refugee days. There were proposals to assign government-in-exile functions to the VLIK (Vyriausiasis Lietuvos Išlaisvinimo Komitetas) for a Provisional Government all of whose members at that time lived in DP camps in Germany. Four out of eight VLIK constituent groups, however, issued an ultimatum containing conditions which, if unmet, would result in those four political groups quitting VLIK. The four groups were the Lietuvos laisvės kovotojų sąjunga (Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters, led by Stasys Žymantas), the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (led by Juozas Kaminskas, the forged name under which Steponas Kairys, signatory to the Lithuanian declaration of independence and first chairman of VLIK, lived and left Lithuania using counterfeit documents), the Lithuanian Peasants People’s Party (led by ANdrius Valuckas) and the Farmers’ Party (headed by Vaclovas Sidzikauskas). One of the conditions went like this: “Any and all claims by the so-called Provisional Government constituted in June of 1941 to continue to participate in one way or another in the organization of the state life of independent Lithuania must be rejected.”

A VLIK meeting on July 3, 1945, adopted a resolution satisfying these demands: the democratic nature of the future Lithuanian state and democratic processes for its restoration were emphasized, while the Provisional Government went unmentioned. “So in 1945,” Zenonas Rekašius summarizes, “when the events of 1941 were still fresh in people’s memory (except for mine–Linas Vildžiūnas), the leaders of political action in exile saw the necessity of completely separating themselves from the Provisional Government of June of 1941.”

As Lithuania was restoring independence in 1990, the events of 1941, it seems, had already faded from the living memory of the majority of politicians, overshadowed by the agonies of the Soviet period, and the narrative of the émigré “frontininkai” (in other words, the successors of the political tradition of the LAF) achieved dominance in judging those events. This is the fundamental paradox of the democracy of the Republic of Lithuania, expressing itself systematically in repeated and repeating mistakes. The latest example is a draft resolution proposed by Arūnas Gumuliauskas, the chairman of the parliament’s Battles for Freedom and State Historical Memory Commission (the very name of the commission sounds Orwellian), claiming the Lithuanian state and the Lithuanian people did not participate in the Holocaust because it/they were occupied at that time. This is not new reasoning in the avoidance of responsibility. It was used by the “frontininkai,” who got it from the “classic” anti-Semite Jonas Mikelinskas, who stated the Holocaust was only pushed on the Lithuanians by the occupation and that the Jews had brought the catastrophe upon themselves. One won’t find that last statement in the proposed resolution, of course, but adoption would mean avoidance of responsibility at the state level.

Even if the resolution is planned as a response to a libel campaign being carried out by Russian information warfare, it obeys the rules of the game being foisted, and in turn also distorts history. The obvious task of this war is to strengthen the ideology of nationalism in all public spheres–in the schools, the military and the media. And I wouldn’t concede that this is a small but necessary defensive response by the state to an insecure international situation. On the contrary, the ideology of nationalism weakens society from within, it marginalizes critical thinking, it retrenches the atrophy of memory and in the end it opens the floodgates to radicalism. Neo-Nazis and skinheads could soon replace the strategists and philosophers of Sąjūdis [the Lithuanian movement to break away from the Soviet Union], and this is much more dangerous.

The independent Lithuanian state wasn’t created in 1990, but restored, rebuilt, and this strategy for political battle has fully justified itself. A foundation for the state based on values, however, also hasn’t been created up to the present, but rather was restored, in other words, drawing upon resources from the past selectively and uncritically. The official story of national history tends to avoid unpleasant topics and is becoming an empty shell without real content, it is vaccinating the upcoming generation with tired clichés and rites and rituals, while historical memory is rapidly growing short and is becoming intolerant of other kinds of activity and opinion. In this way, making use of the appropriate occasion which arose and employing the cult of the partisans, the great significance of Rūta Vanagaitė’s book “Mūsiškiai” [Our People] so important to the public discourse, even if controversial, was whittled down to zero. They didn’t fare as well with Marius Ivaškevičius. These attacks, although they did cost the writer his health, served more to unmask the paranoia of history politics. Even so, the politics of history does give rise to a view of the past and it is effective in that. In recent years cheap historical propaganda films have flooded television and cinema screens which have, it seems, performed their “educational” function, if Šarūnas Bartas’s film “Sutemose” with its unadorned portrayal of the postwar reality is now perceived as some sort of distortion of history intended to serve the Kremlin.

As Zygmunt Bauman says in “Liquid Evil,” every shift in collective memory is selective and cannot be otherwise, but current or rising politicians of history direct this selection. He says political success means the ability to rework historical memory, initially by changing street and square names, rewriting textbooks and replacing statues in public spaces, and that this in turn brings political success, or at least that is what is believed to be the case.

Nonetheless I want to believe this is illusory success. The unusually active public discussion on the internet over the past several weeks is encouraging and appears to be the beginning of a change. And with time even stagnation may die.

Full speech in Lithuanian here.