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Lithuanian and Polish People: Traditions and Stereotypes*

Published on January 23, 2012 by: in: Society

Lithuanian and Polish People: Traditions and Stereotypes*

Old standing stereotypes become reinforced in public by both the attitude of politicians and the public words. Such lines show revival of constructs “treacherous, unreliable Polish guy” and “stubborn Lithuanian guy that may be prostrated by force only” that were at place in early 20th century. These constructs come in combination with enslaving nationalist rhetoric that denies a human freedom. In this way the modern Lithuanian society is brought back step by step to the ancient fight between nationalisms. While striving to slow the process down, one should first of all get deep knowledge of the confronting parties and more thoroughly examine the oppugnant narratives.

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About stereotypes

Cognition and perception of the past comes through constructs – symbolic images that are strengthened by research and stories. The constructs that are, in our opinion, too stiff or “tough” and that prevent the community from perceiving the ever-changing reality and understanding each other, usually are called stereotypes. The same thing may be understood as a symbolic form which is necessary in order to understand the history by one person and as a dangerous to society stereotype that must be destroyed by another person. In any event community life is mustered by means of common constructs, thus it may not exist without the stereotypes. Still stereotypes in different cultures may exist in a variety of forms and they may take a variety of roles. Free and polylogical society that enjoys a living historical tradition will not attribute an excessive importance to the stereotypes. It will rather strive to compare and critically assess them and run a detailed questioning. The living tradition may be compared to a swift river – stereotypes that rest on the bottom of the river become polished by the stream and lose their sharp corners and cutting edges. Society that lacks intellectual freedom and has “enslaved mind” usually loses its living tradition, as well. Dehydrated and canonised tradition becomes replaced by one or another single ideology and a mosaic of the past becomes broken and collected anew to be line with it. In such case historical stereotypes are not polished by the stream. Contrary, they become even more sharpened by community “masons” to better suit ideological fights of the particular period.

What relation of the tradition and the historical stereotype do we have today in Lithuania? It seems that this relation is quite controversial. Lithuanian society, by gaining more and more intellectual freedom, is at the beginnings of finding a connection with broad, complex and polylogical tradition of the country. It is at the outset of perceiving its entirety. Such path of retrieving the tradition is not an easy one – it demands intellectual activity and attempts of creative memory. When confronting the broken historical mosaic of the very own country it is much easier to grab one or another more striking piece of glass and press it in the arm to the blood. Such behaviour is frequent in modern Lithuania and neighbouring countries. Today it may even become a definition of relations between Lithuanian and Polish people. Old standing stereotypes become reinforced in public by both the attitude of politicians and the public words. Such lines show revival of constructs “treacherous, unreliable Polish guy” and “stubborn Lithuanian guy that may be prostrated by force only” that were at place in early 20th century. These constructs come in combination with enslaving nationalist rhetoric that denies a human freedom. In this way the modern Lithuanian society is brought back step by step to the ancient fight between nationalisms. While striving to slow the process down, one should first of all get deep knowledge of the confronting parties and more thoroughly examine the oppugnant narratives.

About stories

To make the context clear I would like to present two stories that I heard back in 1988. A meeting of Justas Vincas Paleckis, who was the instructor of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Lithuania, with the soviet intelligentsia that took place at the House of Writers’ Union. The officer, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission in western countries, told he was surprised by instigations “to remove the soviet army” that used to occur in Lithuania and with undisguised patriotic thrill he asked “do you know, what would happen then?” After measuring the silent intelligentsia with his eyes the former soviet diplomat offered an answer himself: “the very next day Polish army would enter Vilnius”. The second story I heard from Marcelijus Martinaitis, the poet and member of the Initiative Group of Sąjūdis (the Reform Movement of Lithuania). Late at night he went to calm down his neighbours in a collective garden. These were Polish-speaking villagers, who “having got warning from a reliable source” shut their door and kept waiting for the pogrom by “people of Lithuanian Sąjūdis”.

A part of Lithuanian political and academic society today keep telling a story about aspirations of Polish people that constitute a threat to the State of Lithuania. Even the NATO membership cannot protect Lithuania from such aspirations, as imperialistic attempts of the Polish people are supported by the USA: In military terms we are disarmed and transferred to Poland


[1]. According to this story, Polish people that reside in Lithuania and demand today more rights, participate in a historic Polish march for Vilnius. Similar to their grandparents and grand-grandparents a hundred years ago, they strive to tear Vilnius region apart from the territory of Lithuania: the general Żeligowski started the enslavement of Vilnius region by sword; modern polonist-man want to finish his quest by word; <…> Requirement to write Polish-adapted Lithuanian surnames of Polish-speaking residents of Vilnius region in Polish letters is indecorous and aimed at polonisation – final denationalization of previously occupied part of Lithuania[2]. The Lithuanian citizens, who share Polish culture and want to write their surnames of Lithuanian origin in Polish letters, may be treated as aliens[3] – a warning comes from Lithuanian politicians. This Lithuanian story contains also a predictable course of surmounting the Polish threat – gradual restoration of Lithuanian spirit in the residents of Vilnius region, who have turned Polish due to historic disasters. This implication of the story is understood by Lithuanian people that share Polish culture, as well. They start considering the government of the state as a threatening force, from which they should protect their Polish identity, and the neighbouring Poland – as a reliable protector of their own self. However, a story offered to them by the Poland is in many aspects enslaving, denying independency of a person and demanding strict ideological obedience, as well.

The narrative full of Polish stereotypes was published in her article No Sign of Brotherhood Left by the Polish journalist Maja Narbutt a year ago. When staying at the Lithuanian Parliament in January of 1991 she admired the Lithuanian fight for freedom. After two decades Maja Narbutt revealed a true face of stubborn Lithuanians: Until today we displayed sentiments in our relations with Lithuania – we spoke of beautiful common history and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But blaze as seen by our people was considered to be a shadow by Lithuanian politicians. It turned out that paradigm of Lithuanian patriotism rested on anti-Polish ideas. And this situation occurred due to the fact that Lithuania is still under the influence of Russian special services. The entire Lithuanian system of education is predetermined against the Polish people – it strives to turn Polish children into Pavlik Morozov type of kids, i.e. traitors of their parents and nation. Example of such Lithuanian actions – an essay “Liberation of Vilnius from Polish Occupation” by a student of Lithuanian gymnasium in Šalčininkai (mother of this girl – a Lithuanian lady who teaches the Lithuanian language). According to Narbutt, the gymnasium student, who has Polish name and surname, became the traitress of her own people, because she did not consent to the match of Lucjan Żeligowski to Vilnius[4]. Thus a man, who has a Polish name and lives in Lithuania of the 21st century, may not question decisions made by Jósef Piłsudski one hundred years ago. Such man becomes a national degenerate, if he publicly expresses opinion common to Oskaras Milašius, Mykolas Römeris or Józef Mackiewicz. One should remember also another idea of the Narbutt’s story – brotherhood of Polish and Lithuanian people is possible only if Lithuanians assess the beautiful common history in the same way as Polish people, when they see the blaze of glory of the history in the same things as the sons and daughters of Poland. If Lithuanians see shadows instead of blaze, it means that Russian secret service has its hand on them, the same attitude was shared in 19th century.

It is obvious that further to the logical sequence made by Narbutt, some earnest expert of the Lithuanian language might remind her of the Lithuanian origin from the Narbutas family and reproach that by such an article “the journalist with the Lithuanian name” betrays her ancestors and Lithuania. Thus the conflicting national stories of Polish and Lithuanian people in a paradoxical way merge into a single circle and demand that modern man makes no attempt to cross this circle, but rather joins the inner or outer crowd. Such composition of the closed circle today is designed by rhetoric of the the top ranking Polish and Lithuanian officials, as well. Dalia Grybauskaitė, the President of Lithuania, speaks loudly about her doubt of loyalty of the local residents who share Polish culture[5]. Bronisław Komorowski, the President of Poland, publicly resents the stubborn “Lithuanian she goat”, which has no intention to approach any cart at her own will[6]. In this way the leader of the neighbouring state recalls an image, which used to be attributed by Polish people to Lithuanians one hundred years ago – back in 1907 Mykolas Römeris, who issued a study on the Lithuanian national revival, faced criticism in the Polish-oriented press of Vilnius. They said that he looks like a tree that leaned himself and allowed every Lithuanian goat to climb it[7].

About recourses

Is there any way to leave this intersection of the conflicting national ideologies? One way was proposed by a group of Lithuanian intellectuals in a public letter before the Easter of 2011. By speaking in favour of the Christian love between Lithuanian and Polish people this group encouraged the fellow citizens to change the attitude towards the past of the country and resign from the “faulty” construction of the history: a chauvinist version of the history, which treats the common history of Lithuania and Poland as “the lost ages”, distorts a vision of the past of the state, denies and libels the common spiritual, political and cultural heritage of both nations[8]. Thus, when striving to restore friendly relations between Lithuania and Poland, to dissipate distrust that Polish people lately shared against their historic allies, Lithuanians, according to authors of the letter, should meet the requirement of Maja Narbutt – begin construe and perceive their past so that they see the blaze in the things, which are seen as such by the historic story, dominating in the Polish society.

One may accept an opinion that negative assessment of common past of Lithuanian and Polish people, which survived in the modern Lithuania, should be analysed and reviewed in critical manner. However, it is difficult to consent to the statement that a reserved or negative approach of a part of Lithuanians towards the history of relations of both nations is chauvinist – based on national hate. Which Lithuanians should be treated “chauvinists”? Is it Vytautas, who sought to become the king of Lithuania against the will of Polish politicians?  Is it Albertas Goštautas, who supported creation of Lithuanian historical story that was favourable to Polish people in the early 16th century? Is it Mikalojus Radvila the Black, who accused Polish politicians of an attempt to involve Lithuania in a non-equitable union? Is it Simonas Daukantas, who questioned a benefit of the Lublin Union to his country? Is it “Lithuanian patriots” Jonas Basanavičius and Vincas Kudirka? Is it Lithuanian peasants-volunteers, who protected with a weapon the restored Republic of Lithuania not only from the Bolsheviks, but from the “brothers from Poland”, as well? Is it Mykolas Römeris, who reprehended Jósef Piłsudski for occupation of Vilnius? Is it the academician Zigmas Zinkevičius, who conducted a research of origin of the surnames of Eastern Lithuanians? Isn’t the way indicated by seven Lithuanian intellectuals a proposal to “correct” the Lithuanian history in line with requirements of another ideology? Isn’t it an invitation to replace one ideological story with another one rather than opening the mind for a tradition of the country? Isn’t it a replacement of Moscow narrative with Warsaw narrative? Isn’t it a selection of pieces of destroyed mosaic of the Lithuanian past, which are pleasing to our neighbours like and which they consider to be shining, and teaching our society to admire them? Attempts of such behaviour are already at place in academic and public life of Lithuania. Isn’t such behaviour conjunctural? Can Lithuanian sincerely rejoice over the blaze of the Lublin Union together with brothers from Poland, when it was Lublin, where Lithuania lost not only half of its territory, but a part of sovereignty, as well? I wonder if Poland celebrated the union of both nations, if it was created by means of attaching Masuria and Pomerania to Lithuania and legalising only those Sejms of the Commonwealth that are formed in Vilnius at behest of the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

It is unlikely that replacement of one selective historical story with another selective one will form a reliable basis for civic coexistence of Lithuanian people speaking diverse languages and amiable concord of Lithuania and Poland. Lithuanian man, who truckles to neighbours and publicly renounces his past, will never become a reliable partner. Why should others trust the national community, which does not trust itself, and while lacking a conscious identity and harder moral backbone, only tries to assume roles that others like?

Thus, an invitation to Lithuanians to refuse a part of their past and independent historic story in the name of friendship with Polish people does not seem to be a solution.

About tradition

One of the most reliable ways to create a free community is to recover a living tradition. Today the necessity for a modern man and community to “take roots in history” and “create a conscious for the history of its dependence” that was stressed by Vytautas Kavolis and Czesław Miłosz remains of importance[9]. Continuation of an independent story of Lithuania – it is not only recognition and perception of what did the people, who considered Lithuania to be their homeland, strive for, what did they protect, what did they discuss and argue about. It is also letting their voices into the debates on current issues of the country and discussion of the future, as well as taking into account the things that are important to them. Continuation of story of Lithuania – is not only an attempt to cover cultural and political diversity of the country’s past, but also an insight into the element, which united this diversity into a complex and multi-voiced entirety – culture of Lithuania, State of Lithuania, as well as noting, which symbolic forms of the past could contribute to massing Lithuanians of different cultures into a single community of today.

Wider modern approach should help one to attribute texts in various languages and religions, as well as their authors to the Lithuanian tradition, historic story of Lithuanian people. While cherishing Simonas Daukantas, who wrote in Lithuanian language, we would alongside have Adomas Mickevičius, who stressed his nationship of Lithuania even in emigration. In 1841 Mickevičius wrote to the brother Francis from Paris: Maybe I’ll become professor without naturalisation, as I regret to cease being Lithuanian in official, state terms [mi jakoś żal przestać być Litwinem urzędownie] and don’t want to turn French[10]. Jonas Basanavičius should come in a company of Mykolas Römeris. Vytautas Kavolis and Marija Gimbutienė – with their acquaintance Czesław Miłosz. Who sees everything with his painful confession: I hate Vilnius. I’ll never come here. Everyone in this city keeps asking, who am I – Lithuanian or Polish. And I am both Lithuanian, and Polish. In fact, I am the last citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania[11]. These words by Miłosz result in a fundamental question: what kind of narrative will Vilnius have. Will it be enslaving, denying the diversity of Lithuanian identities and views, or fostering human freedom, protecting diversity and encouraging a dialogue of different experiences? This is an issue of the Lithuanian tradition and the relation of the present with the tradition, since modern life, if open to the old Lithuanian tradition, hearing the story of the first Republic of Lithuania – the Republic of Grand Duchy of Lithuania – would become more free, conscious and independent. Living feeling of the tradition would help to reduce the lack of self-confidence, lack of trust in its freedom and future, its self-abasement and lack of ability to act upon its own will, which is characteristic to post-colonial country. A link with polylogical story of the past would give more freedom to the present life of polylogicity, as well. Because, according to modern historians, the historic story, which construes the past as a creation of a free human being, as a space for alternatives, strengthens freedom of society. And contrary – the narrative, which depicts the past as a reality that is subject to strict rules, makes a totalitarian impact upon the present and reduces the freedom[12].

The most fundamental support of the old republican story of Lithuania was the Statute – the document, which united people of different cultures into a nation – the Lithuanian nation – for several centuries. It entrenched love and loyalty to the own Republic as the fundamental principles of public life. According to the Statute, a man of an alien nation could become a part of Lithuania and settle here only due to his merits in the particular republic and only after giving an oath to be loyal and benevolent to the State, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania[13]. Thus – benevolence. Every new edition of the Statute always had a foreword by Leonas Sapiega, which created a link between the statute and republican concept of freedom, the ideal of the republic – community of free people – which was defended by Cicero. According to Sapiega, Lithuanians are most free among other nations, because they hold power and freedom in their own hands and are free to create order in the own country by their own laws[14].

Why couldn’t loyalty to freedom and the own Republic today unite different people of Lithuania into the single community? Couldn’t the road, which the tradition of the country reminds of, unite Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Polish people, Russian, Jews and other cultures into a solidary nation of Lithuania? Unite them as the successors of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania? It was back in 1989 when Miłosz wrote in the Culture (Paris): It is difficult to understand, why should people of Lithuania who speak Polish renounce this capital [heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania]. <…> Instead of treating themselves as power brothers, who are separated from the Polish nation and strive to survive in an unfriendly environment, they have the right to claim back the pride of masters, who live in their own land, and even look at those who live near Vistula with certain sense of advantage. However, a precondition exists – they should stop being a conservative group with poor creativity and start bringing up people, who know the heritage, which is not the heritage of Poland, but the heritage of the historic Lithuania[15]. Approximately in 1990 Miłosz translated Tautiška giesmė (the National Hymn) by Vincas Kudirka into the Polish language. Perhaps he expected that citizens, who share Polish culture, will sing the hymn of Lithuania thus proving their loyalty both to the mother tongue and to Lithuania[16]. Most possibly, in this way he intended to contribute to the project of Lithuanian future – the project proposed by him. In 1992 he stated: As the main local inhabitants, rather than immigrants or colonists, the Polish-Lithuanian people [Polako-Litwini](similar to Swedish-Finish people) must create for themselves a program of activity of loyal citizens of the new state[17].

Of course, policy of the state of Lithuania must be favourable to development of such programs by Polish, Byelorussian or Russian people. Lithuanian politicians, who are loyal to the historic traditions of the country, should declare and protect the idea that Polish, Byelorussian, Jewish and other local cultures are a part of Lithuanian heritage, which must be treasured and this heritage will always be cherished. The free Republic may not reject this idea even in situations, where a part of people of one or another culture refuse establish more close link between the fate of their own or or their children with political community of the particular country, where they renounce of the possibility of common story of Lithuania that was proposed by Miłosz. According to the current leaders of the Electoral Action of Polish in Lithuania, identity of the citizen of Lithuanian is not compatible with identity of the Polish man in Lithuania. In reply to the question, why Polish people in Lithuania could not study a few subjects at school in the official language of the state, Waldemaras Tomaszewskis, the head of this party, explained: You are free to choose – if you want, you may study. Your children may study even history of England. Maybe they succeed and enter the Cambridge, become citizen of Great Britain[18]. Thus, common course of the Lithuanian language and literature, history of Lithuania, that are taught to all citizens of the state, would purportedly turn Polish people in Lithuania the informal citizens of Lithuania and create a too tight connection with the state and culture of Lithuania. And this is unacceptable to them. While following Stasys Šalkauskis we have to admit that even such a posture of the person must be respected in a free country[19]. Much more complicated and still unanswered is the question, how should political community of the country act in the event that political coexistence is denied not by solitary persons, but by a party that speaks in the name of the entire cultural community and has no intention to tolerate other opinion or other civic posture within this community? It seems that the Republic, in order not to lose its meaning, should always consistently protect freedom of human consciousness, the right of every person to make decisions without any ideological or political pressure, but alongside remind of the duty of the citizen to follow the laws. The free Republic, in order to survive, will strive in any event to be open to the entirety of its past, will make attempts to continue the independent story of the country that forms the ground for free existence. It will seek that this story would sooner or later create a link of solidarity between the majority of people of Lithuania and foster their roots in common history of the motherland, and that historic stereotypes that exist in the society become polished by the stream of tradition.


* The article is based on the speech given at the scientific-practical conference “Surmounting the Historical Stereotypes as a Measure of Neutralisation of Ethnic Tensions” that was held by the Ministry of Culture on 25 August 2011 in Vilnius.

[1]Rimantas Varanauskas, “Ozolas warns about the threats that Poland represents to Lithuania”, in: www.Alfa.lt, 2011.04.13.

[2] Zigmas Zinkevičius, „About transcription of surnames in Polish letters“, in: www.voruta.lt, 2011.07.24.

[3] V. Landsbergis: if Polish people want Polish surnames in their passports, they may be treated as aliens, www.DELFI.lt, 2011.09.03.

[4] Maja Narbutt, “Po braterstwie nie został ślad”, in: Rzeczpospolita, 2010.10.26.

[5] D. Grybauskaitė: one tries to depart from the principle that minorities must be loyal to the state, www.DELFI.lt, 2011.09.13.

[6] Bronislaw Komorowski: “Lithuanian goat” shall not approach any cart, www.DELFI.lt, 2011.09.08.

[7] “Autobiography of Mykolas Römeris”, in: Lietuvių atgimimo istorijos studijos(Study of the History of Lithuanian Revival), vol. 13, Mykolas Römeris, Vilnius: Saulabrolis, 1996, p. 215.

[8] Intellectuals on the Lithuanian-Polish Relations: We Lived, We Live, We Will Live Together, www.lrytas.lt, 2011.04.11. the open address was signed by Antanas Gailius, Danutė Gailienė, Irena Vaišvilaitė, Alvydas Jokubaitis, Paulius V. Subačius, the priest Julius Sasnauskas, Rimvydas Petrauskas.

[9] Vytautas Kavolis, Nužemintųjų generacija. Egzilio pasaulėjautos eskizai (Generation of the Humbled. Sketches of Exhile Emotional Attitude), Cleveland, 1968, p. 58.

[10] Adam Mickiewicz, Dzieła, vol. XV, Listy, part II, drafted by Stanisław Pigoń, Warszawa, „Czytelnik“, 1955, p. 391.

[11] These words of Cz. Miłosz were said in Vilnius in 2000, in a conversation with Irena Veisaitė, who gave her kind permission to the author to publish them.

[12] Jörn Rüsen, History. Collection of Historic Works, Vilnius, 2007, p. 456-457.

[13] Statut Vjalikaga Knjastva Litouskaga 1588, Minsk, 1989, p. 118-119.

[14] Ibidem, p. 47-48.

[15] Czesław Miłosz, “O konflikcie polsko-litewskim”, in: Kultura, Paryż, 1989, Maj, p. 9.

[16] Viktorija Daujotytė, Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Lietuviškieji Česlovo Milošo kontekstai (Lithuanian contexts of Czesław Miłosz) , Vilnius, 2011, p. 106-111.

[17] “Litwa i Polska. Ankieta ‘Znaku’”, in: Znak, Kraków, 1992, Nr. 442 (3).

[18] W. Tomaszewski: It is you who should integrate in this country, www.lrytas.lt, 2011.04.06.

[19] Stasys Šalkauskis, „Lietuvių tauta ir jos ugdymas“ (“Lithuanian Nation and its Upbringing”), in: Stasys Šalkauskis, Raštai (Collection of Works), Vilnius, 1995, vol. IV, p. 322-323.

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About Darius Kuolys

Minister of Culture and Education in the first independent Lithuanian government, a journalist and well-known intellectual.

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