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30 March, 2012

Minorities: The Precious Voices of Baltic Multiculturalism

Lithuania was and continues to be unimaginable without its historically formed minorities and its precious voices.

Talking about the Baltic States, it is worth remembering that prior to World War II, Finland was also considered to be a Baltic State. That is to say, there were four Baltic States in prewar Europe. The fact that only three entered the 21st century is an irony of recent history. Yet some similarities and affinities between the Baltic States are too obvious to require emphasis. All three nations stood at the same historic crossroads after the WWI. All were linked to the fate of Russia in terms of (in)dependence and emancipation. All three existed as independent states from 1918 until 1940.

At that time, all three introduced liberal minority policies, granting a kind of personal, non-territorial cultural autonomy to their large minorities, Lithuania to its Jewish, Latvia to its German, and Estonia to its German and Russian minorities. All three sought strength and inspiration in their ancient languages and cultures. All have a strong Romantic element in their historical memory and self-perception.

Lithuaniais a multicultural country and it has always been so, at least as far as the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is concerned. Lithuania was and continues to be unimaginable without its historically formed minorities and its precious voices – Jewish, Karaim, Tatar, Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian minorities (especially a unique community of Old Russian Believers).

Some of them retain the unique status of a stateless culture not throwing itself on the mercy of, but rather relying on, a time-honored tradition of a peaceful and meaningful coexistence with the political nation, whose history, language, and culture became a home for other precious voices of a choir of all these unique cultures.    

After 1918, Lithuania granted cultural autonomy to its large Jewish community. Keeping in mind some of the political traditions of Eastern Europe, this move was nothing short of a miracle. However, the miracle did not last long. After the coup d’Étatin 1926, the Lithuanian Parliament was dismissed and the authoritarian rule of President Antanas Smetona was introduced. Jewish cultural autonomy was abolished, although Lithuanian Jews continued to enjoy quite extensive opportunities to practice their culture and pursue their educational and identity policies.

An interesting and most telling story was told about the first Minister for Jewish Affairs, who was appointed immediately after 1918. The minister without portfolio, Max Soloveichik, who was a Ukrainian-born Lithuanian-Jewish politician, appeared in the Lithuanian Parliament. Unable to conduct a longer address in Lithuanian, he asked if he would be allowed to speak in Russian. Some MPs suggested that he speak in Yiddish instead. Max Soloveichik addressed the Lithuanian Parliament in Yiddish, and more than half of the Lithuanian MPs were able to understand him.

Why and how was this possible? The reason is quite simple: a number of Lithuanians spoke Yiddish and made jokes in this rich and beautiful language, since they had Jewish neighbors in Kaunas and elsewhere in Lithuania. Even after WWII, which wiped the Jewish community of Lithuania off the face of the Earth, this remained an option for some Lithuanians.

I will never forget a moving story I was told by a Lithuanian Jew in Israel, who out of his love and attachment to the town of Palanga, divided his life between Israel and Lithuania: himself a medical doctor, he told me a story about his father, also a medical doctor, who spoke to his friend in Yiddish. The friend was Balys Dvarionas, a renowned Lithuanian composer, an ethnic Lithuanian with no Jewish background, who spent his youth in prewar, Lithuania surrounded by Jewish kids and neighbors in Kaunas.

The same applies to Lithuanians in Vilnius who have always been fluent in Polish, ready to switch to the Polish language at any time when conversing with a Polish-speaking neighbor. In spite of a thoughtless tension between Poland and Lithuania over the current situation of Polish minority education in Lithuania, from which neither of the two sides have benefited and never will, it is impossible to imagine Lithuania without its Polish component, as far as its historical and cultural memory, political sensibility and intellectual culture is concerned.

Actually, the Russian language can hardly be described as a lingua franca of the Baltic region. Instead, it is increasingly becoming a foreign language, rather than part of its political identity and historical-cultural legacy. No matter how hard today’s Russia tries to maintain its linguistic and cultural presence in the region, young Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians prefer switching to English as opposed to Russian, when talking to one another.                 

Yet the following questions arise: What will the Baltic region be like in the 21st century? What will the common denominator be between Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, Kaliningrad, and St. Petersburg in the new epoch? Will the Baltic States become closer to the Nordic states, or will they remain a border region in which the contrasting Eastern and Western European concepts of politics and public life continue to fight it out amongst themselves?

Will we be able to apply the description by which Milan Kundera attempted to identify Central European countries to the Baltic states: a huge variety of culture and thought in a small area? Will the tie that binds us to our neighbors simply be a remembrance of common enslavement and a sense of insecurity, or will we create a new regional Baltic identity, one that is both global and open, and in which we can map our past and present according to completely different criteria? 


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