- October 24, 2012
Kolankowski: I am leaving Lithuania after three years
I have left Lithuania. After three years of living and working there, of being interested in the life of the country and of being irritated by whatever can be irritating, I am leaving the place. I feel that in these three years I became more connected with the Lithuanian life than I was connected with the German one after ten years of living in Germany in the past.
In Lithuania, it is difficult to close oneself in a ghetto of strangers, to create a parallel community of foreigners, not to be interested in what interests the Lithuanians. It is difficult to isolate oneself.
No, the result of the election is not the reason. But actually my departure took place on the day before the election, and the reason is that I have gotten a job in different place, in different conditions. I left Lithuania with great sadness caused by the fact that I am leaving. But the departure itself is a good occasion to sum up everything I have experienced there, to compare the thing that I came to with my earlier imaginations.
Even before I came there in 2009 I was considered a person who knows Lithuania and Lithuanians, who knows a lot about what is going on in the country and how Lithuanians perceive various matters. The very fact that I created an on-line Lithuanian-Polish dictionary made me become— maybe a bit self-appointed— “Lithuanian expert” who, for sure, at least has more knowledge about contemporary Lithuania than an average Polish person.
Why am I writing about it? Until 2009 I was sure, and I expressed in in my old article on www.geopolitika.lt, that in the process of creating contemporary Lithuanian-Polish relations, Lithuania shows more good will than Poland. Indeed, in that time, when on the Lithuanian side a strategic partnership was frequently mentioned, well-known Poles were often guests in Lithuanian media, on the Polish side we had something completely different: economic matter were being mixed with minority matters (Russia usually does the same thing), in Polish media Lithuania was being mentioned basically only in the context of national minorities, Vilnius region was being called “borderland”, without paying attention to how using such a terminology might be perceived on the other side of the border.
It was in 2009, just when I started to live in Vilnius, that something broke. It was the year when, as we remember, the Lithuanians living in Poland with mixed feelings hung bilingual notices in Punskas commune. The feelings were mixed, because Polish Lithuanians became divided then- into those from Punskas and the remaining ones, for instance from Seinai, who did not have such notices. And there was the fact that bilingual notices in Poland “can be detrimental for Lithuania and can be inconsistent with Lithuania’s interest”. It was then that the other side lost its “the pot calling the kettle black” argument.
Poland started to enjoy the status of the “green island” and bilingual notices were only adding it some “europeanness”, whereas Lithuania sank into the crisis. Every economic collapse causes irritability and makes one want to find an enemy quickly. In the most popular Lithuanian media— at that time writing about Poland in a reserved way, though with a dose of curiosity— a new wave began. Let’s call in “the wave of unveiling hostile Polish actions”. Unfortunately, people whom I happen to know privately and I respect them for their scientific achievements rather than for what they have written on popular Lithuanian news sites and later, as it turned out, in their electoral materials, also participated in it. Others started to convince people that the Poles in Vilnius region are not Poles, but Polonised Lithuanians or Belarusians. Then something broke, this time inside me.
Of course, more than once I witnessed Poles in Vilnius region behaving less than decently. I saw a scene when a lady in a café, on discovering that a waitress does not know Polish language, expressed her disappointment by spitting on the waitress. Another incident: an elderly person in Užupis neighbourhood was complaining that “they force us to speak dogs’ language”, meaning Lithuanian language. A man from one of the villages near Šalčininkai told me that for 20 years “he has not and will not accept Lithuanian authority.”
I thought a lot about it 10 years ago, and as soon as I mastered Lithuanian language only in some extent I set myself a goal— to go towards Lithuanian-Polish reconciliation. I thought then than it is enough to remove the only obstacle, that is ignorance and lack of feelings for what the neighbour says, thinks and feels, and everything would be fine. But now I have met many people in Lithuania, from both sides of the fence, who do not want the peace. Obviously, those who have a respectable social position will deny it, will say that they want a “real” reconciliation, “based on truth” etc. But the truth is they do not want any reconciliation! Of course we will not force anyone to like their neighbourhood—simply, these people who see the sense of their existence in intensifying conflicts and problems, will surely use any possible method to stop the act of reconciliation from happening. Any version of reconciliation is probably a treachery.
But let’s notice that— the king is naked. In this election, the coalition “For Lithuania in Lithuania” (Už Lietuvą Lietuvoje) had weak results. Probably it was the only group declaring firm attitude towards minorities, openly propagating that the rights of a unit are subordinate to the rights of a nation, which means very firm approach to the spelling of last names and the possibility (or lack of it) of using in public life a language other than the national one. As we can see, voters did not follow them— probably they recognised other values as more important.
So there is the other side— vast majority of people whom I met in Lithuania has neutral of even friendly attitude to Poles and Poland. I think it is similarly with the attitude of Poles towards Lithuania. In my previous job I had the contact with Lithuanian and Polish local authorities every day, and they were realising common trans-border projects— it must be said that the exchange flourished independently from the atmosphere in Vilnius or Warsaw. It all gave hope that “normal” people will not allow the media to fool them, that they have their own opinions and they do not draw conclusions too quickly.
I have come to the conclusion that to achieve reconciliation, we must first answer the question: whom do we want to reconcile? Those, who are uncompromising because provoking is the sense of whatever they do? Those, who do not need any reconciliation because they have already found a common language with Poles and Lithuanians? No, we can reconcile only those who still do not know much about themselves— we can keep encouraging them to visit Lithuania or go shopping to Poland. But that is not easy and it is a long process.
I do hope that when Lithuania gest out of the crisis, or maybe when some of the emigrants come back, then, maybe, there will be a broader understanding for the fact that the country will not be richer or more mature through keeping its minorities locked, considering this “its own, internal business.” I also hope that in Poland, one day, the knowledge about contemporary Lithuania will become more popular, instead of the image of Lithuania from Mickiewicz’s works or from pre-war times, because that Lithuania does not exist anymore.
Leaving Lithuania I have left the dream about a spectacular Lithuanian-Polish reconciliation. Reconciliation will be happening, but it will not happen, because it is a process, not a result. There will be nothing spectacular about it— just as the Polish-Latvian and Polish-Slovakian relationships are not spectacular.
What awaits us is probably not an amazing friendship and not hostility, but an ordinary peaceful coexistence, as we are two members of the EU. And meanwhile— let the road and railroad connections develop, let the border trade flourish. Let there be more people in Poland who will like to know the beautiful Lithuanian language, let them associate it with something more than just an alphabet to write down names, let them associate it with the language of a beautiful old book, accidentally found in an attic. Let more Lithuanians learn Polish, and let it help them to understand their past better.
Lithuania has in a sense become my country (though not my state) — a country whose destiny interests me and whose future I care about. Lithuania is a country to which one day I will probably go back or at least I will keep watching from a distance how it develops. During the previous years I have been watching with sadness— empty streets and villages, without any lights at nights. People keep leaving, and so I am leaving. But I wish Lithuania to become a place about which people living there— independently on language, beliefs and sexual orientation— could say “This is my home!” I keep my fingers crossed!
Tłumaczenie Emilia Zawieracz w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Emilia Zawieracz the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.