I recently gave a public lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Invited by the Lithuanian society, I had a chance to meet Lithuanians students, bright and intelligent youth eager to change the world around them. What is worth mentioning here is the fact that there are large groups of Lithuanian students in many prestigious British universities. Suffice it to mention that almost seventy Lithuanians study at the University of Cambridge, and even a larger group of Lithuanians study at the University of Warrick. There are fewer of them at Oxford, but almost each major British school of higher education has strong Lithuanian presence – a remarkable fact given the size of Lithuania.
Like their counterparts in other British universities, my young colleagues at Edinburgh tried hard to convince me that they are all dreaming about how to return to Lithuania. What can I say to this? No matter how sympathetic I am to them or how hard I try to get in their shoes, I can hardly believe that there is an easy answer to the existential question of whether or not the best youth should and would return to their country.
What happened to Lithuania after 1990 was something that calls for in-depth exploration and rather sophisticated insight. The first rebellious and breakaway republic in the former Soviet Union, Lithuania blazed the trail for the rest of the collapsed Soviet empire in becoming a member of NATO and joining the EU. This history reads like a success story setting the Baltic States up as an example of a nearly miraculous break with the past. Yet Lithuania got on another track of modernity. Totalitarian modernity died before our eyes. Long live liquid modernity, as Zygmunt Bauman would say.
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The Cold War was marked by a sense of economic, political and moral superiority of the West (itself the concept of the Cold War era) over its totalitarian rivals, first and foremost the Soviet Union. After 2004, almost immediately after the Baltic States joined the EU, the new global crisis began which quickly buried the euphoria of Eastern and Central Europe washing away all Francis Fukuyama’s anticipations of the end of history related to a seemingly global embrace of liberal democracy with the end of ideological politics. That was not to be.
The differences between Western and Eastern-Central Europe in terms of economic might, overall potential, purchasing power, quality of life remained high. The sense of superiority over the rest of the former Soviet Union that the Baltic States shared and enjoyed as “the West of the USSR” began disappearing. Instead of a sense of pride and high hopes to restore social solidarity and belief in a shared project for the future, Lithuania found itself overwhelmed with the sense of bitter disenchantment in its own state, rigid and senseless bureaucracy, lack of respect for ordinary citizens, profound problems with human rights, and the like.
This led to a disturbing move – if we are to believe official statistics (which people say are far from the real picture), nearly half a million people left Lithuania over the past 10 years. For big nations, like Ukraine and Poland, similar figures would hardly pose an existential threat. Yet for tiny Lithuania with less than three million people, it certainly does. No matter how much lip-service we pay to social and academic mobility praising the ambition and brilliance of young Lithuanians up to the skies, the fact remains that we are in a painful process of slowly losing a vital opportunity to reform, renew and refurbish our academia and political life. More than half a million people some of whom are highly educated and creative individuals capable of changing or at least significantly influencing the moral and political climate in the country is no joke. It’s a trajectory of the future.
The brain drain process is a painful challenge to Lithuania, as the country is losing the best of its young people, would-be scholars, artists, business people, probably – even public figures, policy makers and statesmen as well. A sincere wish to spend more time elsewhere before going back to one’s country, no matter how human and natural it is, may turn out a form of self-deception, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to get back, once one has started a new life.
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Lithuania will endure this ordeal. Some young people will return, others will not, but their presence in Lithuania may be felt through their ideas, feelings, affections and silent dedication. As long as they symbolically participate in Lithuania’s life by reading its news and controversial stories, debating its political projects and decisions, getting hurt by its iniquities, etc., Lithuania will grow and benefit from this second voice of its politics and culture. The worst that may happen is total indifference and forgetting. Living in an epoch of organized forgetting makes us immune to the pain of indifference, yet it most hurts those who want to be remembered here and now, while they are still young. Alas, they will be remembered only when they get old. This is how it works.
What is happening is the concealment of our reality through a secondary reality, or simulacrum, as Jean Baudrillard would have had it. For ours is a civilization of the young. Mass culture and mass democracy makes citizens into consumers urging senior consumers to emulate the physique and body language of the young. The pattern of economy as well as the blueprint for global social and political existence is simply unthinkable without appropriating the competences, energies, talents, and creativity of foreign labor force. Their beauty and competitiveness, along with their lack of safety, insecurity, and uncertainty at home, that is, in their respective countries, prepare that same package of global consumption which also includes their pain, nostalgia, and a withering sense of belonging.
Home is a painful problem for an ambitious and creative individual, but not for that tyranny of economy which we euphemistically call the world as a single place.