22nd European Meeting of Cultural Journals held in Vilnius

29 May 2009

The 22nd European Meeting of Cultural Journals from 8 to 11 May 2009 was a resounding success, with over eighty representatives of cultural journals from Iceland to Bosnia, Ireland to Belarus meeting in Vilnius to discuss the topic of “European Histories”. It is not often that one hears from participants of such events that it caused them to re-adjust their world-view, yet this is what some have claimed of this year’s meeting: what they are referring to is Timothy Snyder’s genuinely original keynote speech, which may well cause a revolution in how Europe’s wartime and post-war history is understood (more of which below). Eurozine network meetings are always friendly and stimulating occasions, yet Vilnius was exceptional both for the quality of the panels, the hospitality of our hosts and the atmosphere of the location.

In his inaugural speech at the Presidential Palace, Valdas Adamkus, the outgoing president of the Republic of Lithuania, reminded his audience that for eastern Europeans it is not just the defeat of Nazi Germany that comes to mind on 8 May 1945. “We have gathered here on an historic day, May 8, which marks the end of World War II in Europe and the continent’s return to building a civilized and cultured life,” he said. “Unfortunately, this date is also a reminder of a forcefully disunited and divided Europe. For Lithuania, like many other eastern European nations, May 8 of 1945 did not bring victory over violence, but simply change of oppressor. Once again, history was turned into the handmaiden of politics and ideology and thrust upon Lithuania and its people to cover up injustice and crime, distort facts, slander independence and freedom-fighters. Today, after more than six decades, it is evident that victory without the foundations of trust and morality is no victory, while history based on falsification is no history.” Adamkus went on to make a heartfelt appeal for an abandonment of Cold War ethical categories: “All of us are members of a single family with the name of Europe. Having discarded the front-lines in everyday life, we must also eliminate them in books, journals, academia and public discourse.” A free and open discussion, he continued, “is an essential precondition for a concept of history that recognizes the different experiences of different countries as an integral part of our common Europe”.

Eurozine editor-in-chief Carl Henrik Fredriksson struck another controversial note by drawing attention to the absence of the representatives of the Turkish magazine Varlik, whose visa application to Lithuania had been obstructed by an insurmountable barrier of red tape. The incident, Fredriksson implied, begged the question whether, twenty years since the collapse of communism, there have been any significant changes in states’ attitudes towards basic human freedoms. Almantas Samalavicius, editor of Kulturos barai, the conference co-organizer and Eurozine partner journal , and Rolandas Kvietkauskas, head of the European Capital of Culture office, also made welcoming statements.

The floor then went to Antonin Liehm, the founder of Lettre Internationale and former editor of the Czechoslovak literary magazine LitŽrarn’ noviny, who spoke about the ever-widening gulf between what he described as “cultivated culture” and “mass culture”. The former, he argued, has never been able to support itself commercially and is even less likely to be able to do so now. The disadvantage of culture’s dependency relation, argued Liehm, is that it tends to serve the narcissism of its patrons. The challenge for a younger generation of cultural workers, said the 85-year-old publishing legend, was to form an international body that would unite all fields of artistic activity, from music to theatre to publishing. “When that monster opens its mouth”, he said, “politicians will have to take note.”

The conference then moved to the venerable, wood-panelled theatre hall of Vilnius University, founded in 1579 and one of the historically most important universities in eastern Europe. Yale historian Timothy Snyder gave Saturday’s keynote speech, based on a chapter from his forthcoming book Bloodlands. Participants familiar with Snyder’s pioneering work were expecting something interesting: what they received was no less than a re-interpretation of the European 20th-century experience of mass killing, one that in key respects threw into question the established historical consensus. Snyder argued that to reduce the dual memory of wartime and post-war Europe to “Auschwitz” and “the Gulag” distorts the geographical focus of the two historical experiences. “Auschwitz” – as symbol of the Holocaust – obscures the fact that the majority of the killings were inflicted on the eastern European Jews, primarily by bullet and starvation rather than with gas. The fact also tends to be forgotten that the Jewish Holocaust was part of a larger Nazi plan to colonize eastern Europe at the expense of its Slavic and Jewish inhabitants.

But if “Auschwitz'” places the experience of suffering under the Nazis “too far “West”, so the “Gulag” places the crimes of the Soviet regime “too far East”. It was the national minorities caught inside the Soviet Union’s newly expanded western borders, suspected of “bourgeois nationalist” insurgency, that bore the brunt of the Stalinist repressions. Yet, unlike Nazi death camps, prisoners of the penal camps of Siberia by and large returned. Rearranging the historical focus, argued Snyder, would probably cause us to realize that while the Gulag was probably as bad as we thought the Holocaust was, the Holocaust was even worse. Moreover, neat distinctions between victims and perpetrators are confounded by the fact that both regimes calculatedly inverted these categories, either forcing enemy prisoners “do their dirty work” (the Nazis) or purging their own ranks (the Soviets).

Dina Khapaeva, historian at St Petersburg University, while welcoming Snyder’s perspective in the context of a Russian politics of memory entrenched in the myths of the Great Patriotic War, took issue with the view that the Gulag was not truly representative of the Soviet experience. Its logic of the “Zone”, with its criminal hierarchies, she argued, defines Russian society to this day. Leonidas Donskis, philosopher and political scientist at Kaunas University, responded to the question of equivalence between the Soviet and Nazi regimes by pointing out that while the ideology of National Socialism was irrational, the communist system was founded on a rational Utopian principle that included structures for the welfare of its citizens. This difference has had consequences for the perception of the difference between the two totalitarian regimes.

Introducing the second panel, entitled “Dilemma ’89”, Thorsten Schilling, former East German dissident and head of multi-media at the German Federal Bureau for Civic Education, recalled how immediately after ’89 the attitude of his western colleagues towards the GDR past was one of disinterest. Now that the Wall was down, they argued, history had been dealt with; it was time to move forward. Schilling described his efforts to ensure that the legacy of dictatorship remained in the public consciousness. Particularly when making the contents of the Stasi files public, he argued, it is necessary to involve as large a public as possible, rather than allowing the process of “disclosure” to become the sole preserve of professional historians.

Speaking on the Czech and Slovak experience of the post ’89 era, Martin Simecka, journalist and former editor of the Slovak newspaper SME and the Czech magazine Respekt, began by commenting on the strictly pragmatic nature of reforms undertaken in eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, which were aimed primarily at convergence with the western economic system. “Lustrations” during the early stages of transformation were carried out primarily in the interests of this convergence, rather than from a genuine need to understand the totalitarian past. It soon became clear, commented Simecka, that central and eastern Europe collectively failed to convey to the rest of Europe its insight into the value of freedom. Nevertheless, a renewed battle is underway for interpretive legitimacy, which rightly belongs to a younger generation working “from the uncompromising vantage point of democratic freedom”.

Romania has been described as being among those post-communist countries in which indifference or apathy towards the communist past is most pronounced. This view was substantiated by Mircea Vasilescu, editor of Dilema Veche, who described how in Romania, a public debate on the communist past has never fully got off the ground. Political intervention has rendered the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives toothless, prompting Andrei Plesu and Horia-Roman Patapievici, who both opposed the Ceausescu regime, to resign in protest. Only the poet Mircea Dinescu remains to lend the Council the moral authority it otherwise lacks. Meanwhile, former communist functionaries, in new democratic guise, still purport to be protecting “national interest”. However post-’89 generations have little sense of how the legacy of the Ceausescu regime affects them.

Two workshops took place simultaneously on Saturday afternoon. A panel on “Aesthetics post-’89”, chaired by Wojciech Przybylski (Res Publica Nowa, Poland) with Walter Famler (Wespennest, Austria), Marek Seckar (Host, Czech Republic) and Samuel Abraham (Kritika & Kontext, Slovakia) discussed the situation of cultural journals in eastern and central Europe today. In the second workshop, Irina Sherbakova of the Russian NGO Memorial outlined the organization’s campaign for an approach to history that is sensitive to varying national experiences and memories. Such an approach is particularly necessary at a time when the official history in Russia brooks no alternative to the neo-Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War. The language of the dissident generation of the 1970s and 1980s is becoming increasingly alien to a younger generation schooled in Putinist verities. The current regime in Russia, Sherbakova argued, is more than just nostalgic for the Stalinist regime: rather, it is a continuation of it.

Opening Sunday’s panel entitled “Jewish life and thought in eastern Europe”, Yale historian Marci Shore discussed the often underestimated range of Jewish politics in eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The conflict primarily between the socialist, pro-Israeli Zionists and the socialist, anti-assimilationist Bund, but also Soviet Bolshevism, was of defining importance in the fate of eastern European Jews. Conflicts borne out of these differing allegiances continue today: Israeli tourists, the descendants of the original settlers but also of the Jews who escaped Nazism, berate eastern European Jews for remaining in “the land of the perpetrators”.

Irena Veisaite, the Jewish-Lithuanian theatre critic and prominent advocate of ethnic-national reconciliation, described how as a young child she was saved by Lithuanians from the Nazis. In the collective Lithuanian memory, she went on, the Holocaust has been subordinated to the Soviet repressions. Lithuanians and Jews, clinging to myths and stereotypes rather than historical facts, have failed to communicate. Nevertheless, a younger generation of historians, teachers and journalists are becoming involved in the process of developing a nuanced version of Jewish history in Lithuania that condemns expressions of residual anti-Semitism while rejecting the wholesale condemnation of Lithuanians as Nazi “henchmen”. “It takes a few to kill many, but many to save a few”, as Veisaite strikingly phrased it.

Concluding the panel, the Russian-British novelist Zinovy Zinik talked of his own biography as a thoroughly secular Russian-Jew who only became “Jewish” when he emigrated to Israel in the 1970s and learned Hebrew. Zinik described how an unheimliche experience in Berlin led him to investigate the double identity of his Moscow-born grandfather, who, while ostensibly practicing as a doctor in Lithuania, compiled reports for the NKVD. Thus Zinik brought his meditation on “assumed identity” in full circle, suggesting that it is central to 20th-century Jewish experience.

The second round of workshops included a showing of the film Ghetto, a Lithuanian-German co-production dramatizing the story of the Vilnius ghetto through the tribulations of its theatre troupe and the ambiguous heroism of the ghetto police chief Jacob Gens. In a parallel workshop on “The impossible community”, Roman Schmidt, author of a recent study of Maurice Blanchot’s failed attempt in the 1960s to establish a trans-national avant-garde magazine, was joined by Emmanuel Alloa to provide a unique materialist and philosophical insight into the potential – and the potential pitfalls – of multilingual publishing ventures.

The closing ceremony was held in the 18th-century neo-classical Verkiu palace on the outskirts of Vilnius. After a welcoming address by the Lithuanian Minister of Culture, Remigijus Vilkaitis, the floor was given to Kornelijus Platelis, poet, president of the Lithuanian Artists Association and editor-in-chief of the Lithuanian cultural weekly Literatura ir menas (Literature & Art). In times of censorship, noted Platelis, metaphoric poetic language is sometimes the only way to speak about history, philosophy and religion. However after communism, Lithuanians found themselves cut off from the common European culture of rationality, tolerance and self-irony. Lithuanian writers thought that their “vague messages” and “witty metaphors” could be understood. They were proved wrong: a failure to speak rationally, as well as an irrational distrust of the state, became a disadvantage. “The aesopic public discourse so familiar to our audience switched to the allusive, aesopic discourse of political PR companies.” Nevertheless, as the Eurozine conference showed, a rational and non-dogmatic discourse on history and culture is possible and must be pursued by cultural journals despite adverse market conditions.