- February 2, 2013
Sikora and Vabalis: About multiculturalism, language and identity
Our initial aim was to have one, long conversation with a representative of the local community. After a few hours of conducting our research we noticed that the task was going to be really difficult. The short time of our project was the main problem.
As a consequence, we were not able to take our time to find a person who would be able to share the story of his or her life. On the other hand, during the first few hours we managed to have a few interesting conversations which were not long, but full of information, which was important for us. We have decided to use many different stories in the article instead of chosing only one.
Finding common denominator
There was still the problem of a common theme, which would connect all our conversations. For a longer while, after the end of the research, we were not able to spot a common denominator, connecting all the topics discussed. We were thinking about what was making people willing to respond to our questions. It is not a secret that some conversations ended after the first or the second question. Such a situation has never taken place at a table. Therefore, we have made a table the common theme for all the conversations.
It is easy to guess that we are not going to focus on the structure of history of one precise table. The piece of furniture is treated like the object, which made the conversations with people from the local community open and honest. During our research we have noticed that conversations held at a table have completely different character from those taking place elsewhere. An invitation to a table, made by a host, was associated with trusting us. We think that because of this intimacy, we have managed to look at many problems from various perspectives, instead of studying only one, dominant discourse.
Vilnius identity – category difficult to define
In the article we pay attention to the diversity of the area which we described, seen from the perspective of the people who live there. We are not trying to describe the general character of the Vilnius region. Furthermore, we believe that doing so is impossible in so short a text. This is why we present only a few elements, which, from our point of view, are the essential parts that create the category of the Vilnius Region identity – the category which is very difficult to define in a straightforward way. Our main objective is to signal that the area we deal with is a truly multicultural one. We focus on relations between Poles and Lithuanians in the Vilnius Region. We mention the issues of the simple language, which is a characteristic feature of the region. Towards the end, we consider the category of the identity of people living in the area.
During our conversations with the local people, the first of the second question usually was: How does the life with the Poles/Lithuanians look like here? An answer, more or less elaborate, was usually indicating an absolute lack of conflicts. It was said so not only about the Poles and the Lithuanians, but also about the people of all the remaining nationalities who live in a given town or village. There would be nothing unusual about it, if, immediately after such a remark or somewhere later in the conversation, matters which did not fully support these statements about friendly relations between representatives of both nationalities would not follow. During the conversations we could notice that the Poles do not enter into close relationships with the Lithuanians. The contacts seem to be very limited. There were also voices expressing an open aversion towards people who have other nationality. An example of this can be the fact that it is difficult for a father who is not a Pole to accept a Polish son-in-law. We can see a kind of paradox. On one hand, the people declare lack of any conflicts based on nationalities. On the other hand, during a conversation we can see neutral or even hostile attitudes to other nations. We can draw a conclusion that in some situations national issues do not appear and in other cases disagreements are common.
Friendship between nations
As our own input, we would like to point out an additional possible interpretation of such occurrences. We have in mind the situation in which there is a division of people into “our people” and “strangers”. As Ludwik Stomma notices:
A familiar, one’s own group is (…) the environment in which nothing is striking, nothing stands in contrast and nothing forces one to go beyond his or her routine, beyond the set of “reflexes that go without saying or explaining.”
In situations like this, there appear positive but also negative emotions. Surely, there is no neutral attitude. The stranger is to serve the purpose of integrating one’s own group. He or she enables identification in the given environment. However, there is a conflict between the two groups. It is not a close one, though. Examples of such phenomenon are the situations when Poles enter into conflicts with Lithuanians during everyday situations. There are no overt national antagonisms. But there are no close relations between the two groups. Many Poles with whom we had the chance to talk declared having many acquaintances among Lithuanians. At the same time, cases of close friendship between representatives of the two national groups were really rare.
The circumstances described above point to the diverse character of conflicts, appearing between the Poles and the Lithuanians who live in the Vilnius Region. The abovementioned examples describe only a handful of various relations that occur between people in this area. Therefore, we do not try to determine whether there is a conflict or a close friendship between the Poles and the Lithuanians. Very often, it is difficult to create an ideal model, which could fully illustrate the relation between the two groups. In many cases, it is the parentage that matters, and not the person. An example of this can be the relation between the neighbours from a small village, Jovariškės. Mr Jan – one of the oldest people in the whole village – told us about his initial dislike for a Lithuanian, who moved in to a nearby house several years ago. – Ah, another Lithuanian person. Unfortunately, it is impossible to associate with him. Too bad he is not a Pole.
After several weeks of observing the new tenant, Mr Jan noticed how his new neighbour was working. –I understood that he was a very hardworking man and immediately I became sure we were going to be friends.
The acquaintance of the gentlemen has lasted for more than fifteen years. Maybe it is not a great friendship, but surely they have a lot of respect for each other. In this case, problems associated with nationality, which were initially important for the relation between the neighbours, with time disappeared under the influence of life priorities.
Many times during the conversations with the people from the local community, our attention was drawn not only to the matters described to us but also to the manner, in which these descriptions were delivered. To be precise, we mean the language, used by people of the Vilnius region. It is a simple language. Its character was precisely described by Michał Romer many years ago:
Finally, the very speech of the members of the local community, who see themselves as Polish, even too openly shows its character, not imported from the regions near the Vistula River or the Warta River, but coming from the lands near the Nemunas River and the Neris River; the forms are similar in their construction to Lithuanian and Belarusian forms, they are like twin structures. The statement that using the Polish –“local” speech of the villagers, who often do not understand even a word in Lithuanian, it is possible to study the strict rules of the Lithuanian grammar is not an exaggeration. […] There are many commonly known facts, such as this that parents and grandparents in a village can talk or even do talk between one another in Lithuanian, when the younger generations of their children of grandchildren do not and cannot speak Lithuanian.
This dialect connects languages such as Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian and Polish. Thanks to its existence, it is possible for various national groups, who have different mother tongues, to communicate. It is so for instance in the abovementioned Mr Jan’s marriage. His wife is Lithuanian and he himself has never wanted to learn the Lithuanian language, as he has said. The simple language is enough for them.
Our interlocutors were often very smoothly switching between languages during conversations. If a question was posed in the Lithuanian language, we could expect a response given in Lithuanian as well. But a few seconds later the interlocutors were addressing me in the Polish language or the simple one. Ms Aldona, who was one of our first interlocutors, did not even notice the fact that in one conversation she was using both, Lithuanian and Polish. Sitting at a common table, the elderly woman told us a story, which well illustrates the thesis about great linguistic diversity in the Vilnius region. In Trakai there are four bands performing folk songs. There is a Lithuanian band, called Rodasta, and Ms Aldona is its member, there are also Russian, Polish and Tatar bands. The very number of the bands performing their local folk music can illustrate the diversity of the region. It happens very often that the above-mentioned bands perform on one stage during a concert. As our interlocutor has said – there [in Trakai] are no conflicts. We are all from the same place. Our culture and our traditions are almost the same. We are all familiar people.
As a proof, she indicated common situations when some members of a band sing in the other folk bands – in mine [the Lithuanian one] there are Russian ladies and Tatar and Polish ones. It is nothing strange because, similarly as in Trakai, it is not the language or the nationality that is important. What is important is the people, the community with which you sing and form friendships.
Pole in Lithuania or Lithuanian Pole
In the next part of the article we will consider the national category of those who live in the Vilnius region. Who are the people living there and knowing the Polish language? Such a question is a very complicated one. In our opinion, in the Vilnius region, apart from the matters associated with the Polish identity and the Lithuanian identity, a particular attention should be paid to the category of “Lithuanian Poles”.
From time to time in Lithuania there appear statements proving that the Polish speaking inhabitants of the Vilnius region would have to be Lithuanians, who, through many ages, acquired Polish identity and this is why they use the Polish language now. Referring to arguments like this, we are obliged to present a short historical background of the Vilnius region.
Up until the 18th century, the local community in the Vilnius Region was using the Lithuanian language. In later times the community started to use Polish more and more commonly, and it was mainly caused by the process of Polonisation, encouraged by the Lithuanian nobility and the Church. Additionally, the inhabitants of the region were acquiring the Polish culture. As the result, the people living there were becoming more and more Polonised. In the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, as a consequence of the appearance of nationalistic movements in both, Poland and Lithuania, the Lithuanian nobility had to decide whether they wanted to join Lithuanians or Poles. The majority of the nobility chose the second option. As a result, Lithuania lost the greater part of its nobility. Some people of the Vilnius Region followed the nobility, and they began to identify themselves with the Polish nation.
Elites and people
According to the historian Rimantas Miknys, during the revival movement and democratisation of the people of the region, the elite was integrating itself with the common people, creating a new, modern nation. If the Lithuanian nobility had chosen Lithuania, instead of Poland, it would have chosen to belong to the rural culture. Social degradation would follow such a choice. The elite would have to accept the responsibility of working with the villagers, in order to recreate the Lithuanian culture, whose revival movement would be based entirely on the Lithuanian language. There would be no place for Polish identity there. For members of the elite, such a choice would mean rejection of their identity.
During conversations with the Polish-speaking representatives of the local community from Trakai we noticed that some of them, when asked “What is your nationality?” or “How do you see yourself?” did not know any precise answer. When we were trying to make our question a more concrete one by suggesting some possible options like “A Lithuanian, a Pole, a Belarusian, a Russian? etc.” our interlocutors, without too much consideration, were answering that they see themselves as Poles. Similar situations take place in the whole Vilnius Region. The most recent national census can be an example of this. Some people did not know the answer to the question about their national identity. They were asking for a few options to choose from and only when they were provided with these, they were pointing out the nationality.
The fact that someone identifies himself or herself as a Pole only partially solves the problems associated with the identity that appear in the Vilnius Region. This point can be exemplified by one of the conversations held during out research:
–Why do you see yourself as a Pole? – Well, because I speak Polish, I have graduated from a Polish school. My father was a Pole too. – What connects you with Poland? – Well… I guess nothing… Maybe the common language. – And what connects you with Lithuania? – Here is my land, my homeland. – So you can be called a Lithuanian who speaks Polish? – No, I am not a Lithuanian.
The integration of one group, standing in opposition to the other, is visible. It is very difficult to precisely describe the identity of many people living in the Vilnius Region, the theme and feeling of community of one’s group on the background of another nation.
The majority of our interlocutors claimed that they are not Lithuanians. They saw themselves as Poles. In the course of further conversation it turned out that their connections with Poland are not obvious. What cultural continuum do the inhabitants of the Vilnius Region identify themselves with? What happens in a situation, when they identify themselves as Poles but they see Lithuania as their homeland? Is it possible that there is another national category that would fit here? One that would not force people to declare their attitude in such a way, to stand on either one side or the other?
Adam Mickiewicz’s skin
In this section of the article we would like to focus on the notion of a “Lithuanian Pole”. It is a national category and to identify with it does not mean that a person belongs to the Polish or the Lithuanian nation. This idea was highly promoted by many well-known people, living in the Vilnius Region. Michał Romer, the founding father of the Lithuanian constitution, the rector of the Kaunas University, and later of the university in Vilnius, was one of them. In his autobiography he admits that he cannot call himself only a Pole or a Lithuanian:
My skin is twofold – it is not Polish only or Lithuanian only, but it is an amazingly complex one, which contains Adam Mickiewicz’s skin. […] […] Our – Lithuanian Poles’ – tragedy is that we have no name of our own, that our souls are conceptions of two nations. […] that we use the name [of Poles], which does not correspond to the core and the deepest levels of the psyche, which has its roots in the character of the local Lithuanian and Belarusian people. […] They – “Lithuanian Poles” – are children of Lithuania, not Poland. So far, even Lithuanians do not understand their souls, and look at them as they look at Poles – a strange nation.
During our research we were meeting people, who could be described as “Lithuanian Poles”, in the form that was proposed by M. Romer. The reflection of Edward, a young boy, can be a good example of this. From the very beginning of our conversation he was indicating, that he feels like a Pole. As if to confirm his words he said that he would never marry a Lithuanian woman. A few minutes later it turned out that during football matches between Poland and Lithuania, Edward always supports Lithuania, because Lithuania is his homeland.
A similar situation took place a few hours later, at Mr Jan’s table in his kitchen. The man sees himself as a Pole, and he claims that Poland is his homeland. When we asked him why he considers Poland his homeland he said that it is the commonly adopted way of thinking. If I am a Pole, then Poland is my homeland. A moment later, the man told us that after the Second World War he had the possibility to leave Lithuania and move to Poland. He did not do it because, as he said, it is difficult to abandon one’s homeland and go to a strange place. Here, we encounter a certain type of a paradox. On one hand, Mr Jan considers Poland to be his homeland. On the other hand, Poland is not a good place for him, because the real homeland is Lithuania.
Yet another issue, pointing to the unique character of the identity of people living in the Vilnius Region is the way in which they describe the place of their habitation. In the conversations, we could often hear phrases such as “there, in Lithuania” or “there, in Poland”. This suggests that the Vilnius region is some kind of a separate territorial subject. With relation of this matter to the category of Lithuanian Poles such differentiation – also geographical one – may be a proof of the fact that the people living in the Vilnius Region see themselves as neither Poles, not Lithuanians.
The phrase “Lithuanian Poles” is an imprecise one. It is difficult to point out which elements of one’s identity are closer to Poland, and which are more associated with Lithuania. It is worth to emphasise that the term “Lithuanian Pole” is different from the term “Pole in Lithuania.” As early as in the 1930s M. Romer, in his article, negated the possibility of treating “Lithuanian Poles” as members of the Polish community living in Lithuania.
“If you can speak about membership in any community in our case, Lithuanian Poles, […] then the historical precision would require claiming that we did not “separate” ourselves from the Polish nation and came to the Lithuanian land, but we constitute “a part of the indigenous national society” [of Lithuania] which today is Polish. […].”
Juliusz Branach, a researcher who examines the Polish national identity of the regions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, reflects on the topic in a very similar way. In his opinion “Lithuanian Poles” were not newcomers, but rather representatives of the local people – Lithuanians and Belarusians.
At the end of our considerations about identity in the Vilnius Region it would be worth to mention Czesław Miłosz’s words:
Everyone is asking me who am I – a Pole or a Lithuanian. And I am both, a Pole and a Lithuanian. And in truth, I am the last citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.”
Those words relate to an important issue – whether people living in the Vilnius Region should choose from the two options only, Poland and Lithuania. Undoubtedly it is a limitation. Or maybe one should become open to the multicultural tradition of the country and its diversity? After all, one can be a Lithuanian Pole and take care of his or her Polish identity by saying, in Polish, “Lithuania! my fatherland”.
The text comes from The Vilnius Region: subjects – stories – reflections. Section titles were added by the editors.
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.