• January 5, 2015
  • 372

Vilnius identity: This is something more, it is scientifically inexplicable

Vilnius as a culturally-diverse area attracts the attention of many scientists interested in issues of identity, ethnic minorities, and life on the cultural border.

Among the Polish researchers who contributed to the analysis of these phenomena are sociologist Zbigniew Kurcz and ethnologists Iwona Kabzińska and Grzegorz Dąbrowski, as well as many teachers, political scientists and linguists.

In the Polish media information concerning Lithuania frequently appears in the context of the Polish minority that lives there. Statistics are published and number forecasts are formulated. To know the specifics of this group, in addition to using quantitative data analysis, it is worth looking at this topic from a qualitative research point of view. It is also worth noting what the Poles living in the Vilnius region say about their identity; how do they define their identity in such a culturally-diverse area (referred to as a patchwork or a cultural mosaic – author’s note, D. Demski, Pogranicze jako patchwork. Refleksje z Białorusi, „Etnografia Polska”, t. XLVII: 2003, z.1-2, s. 134.)? And can we only talk about one type of Polish identity?

This article is based on the results of ethnological research conducted in Lithuania in the framework of field practice related to research for a MA thesis. In-depth interviews conducted with residents of the Šalčininkai and Vilnius regions concerned a wide category of identity – of how it formed and what its determinants are. This article is an attempt to describe these identities on the basis of statements from Vilnius residents.

On the cultural border, which is the area of research, elements of different cultures co-exist. For those from “outside”  it is difficult to define Polish identity on the border and asking additional questions is required. These questions need to go beyond the schematic identity of a Pole living in Poland, and they need to go beyond considering the specificity of the place.

So what factors affect the sense of identity in the Vilnius region?

During the interview with the survey population, one of the most frequently mentioned elements of building identity was origin, also referred to as “having Polish roots” or “upbringing in a Polish family.” When respondents were asked about what they think is the root of their declared Polish identity, they invoked the memory of the family home: Identity is your mother and father. And you come back to this. And the older you are, the more you come back. Those roots draw you back, whatever they are. There are people who can settle everywhere. And that’s good. But it doesn’t matter – they still think about their home (Man, 53 years old, Šalčininkai reg.). The interviewed people pointed to the fact that thanks to their family they have acquired competencies such as: the use of the Polish language, knowledge of prayers, and knowledge of Polish traditions. Family, upbringing and transmission of values were elements which were attributed a great importance: To cherish it [Polish identity], the most important factors are specific things – family, upbringing. It means transmission of family traditions from one generation to another, mostly Christian ones. Faith and rites traditions (Man, 53 years old, Šalčininkai reg.).

The second important factor in creating identity was knowledge of Polish. It should be noted that the language is different from the literary one. It contains many borrowings from other languages (Russian and Belarusian) and the appropriate accent for this area – of which the respondents were aware: Yes, we were and we are Poles. Only our talk is different. You speak developed language, you know, beautiful. And we speak simply. We all speak simply. (Woman, 70 years old, Vilnius reg.). The people pointed to language differences, however, this matter was not related to any complexes. Many people mentioned ‘simple’ language that they use at home with their friends and family. The notion ‘simple’ means folk variety, the ungrammatical and non-literary aspect. The simple language is used only to talk, and it is sometimes even called a “talk” rather than a language. There is no written form, it is used for communication, so it has to be useful (author’s note: J. Straczuk, Język a tożsamość człowieka w warunkach społecznej dwujęzyczności. Pogranicze litewsko-białoruskie, Warszawa 1999, s. 55-56.). The “simple” language is sometimes also referred to as the “local” language, and it consists of several languages: the language of the family is not what I am talking now, it’s so … hybrid, you might say ( Man, 27 years old, Šalčininkai reg.).

Taking into account cultural factors of the Vilnius region, it is difficult to determine whether Poles living in the Vilnius region more often speak Polish or the “simple” language in their daily life. What’s more, it is difficult to establish where exactly the boundary is between those languages.

Next to family roots and language, other elements mentioned in connection with identity were: attendance to a Polish school, knowledge of Polish traditions and celebrations, and issues related to faith (prayers in Polish). These are spheres of life in which members of a minority co-participate in events important to them, where they can feel that they are united, that they are together.

An important aspect of the study was awareness of the differences that exist between the inhabitants of the Vilnius region and Poles from the mother country (Poland). This kind of cultural autonomy was noticed by the interviewees: I am a Pole, but my speech is a bit different and I live here. And there, in Poland, they call us those behind the Bug (woman, 70 years old, Vilnius reg.).

For me it’s just cool to be a Pole, and I don’t spend time thinking why, or why not, it’s worth it to be one. I feel like a Pole, I am a Pole. And here, in Lithuania, Poles have some specificity (Man, 27 years old, Šalčininkai reg.). That “specificity” therefore includes all the cultural specificity of the Vilnius region, both the already mentioned sphere of language, as well as the complex issue of the identity of the Poles who live here.

What’s more, the cultural reality of respondents also revealed areas of an identity category referred to as being “the local”. Some admitted that they are just “from here” and that it is the place inhabited by them that says much more about who they are: He says – and I’m local, I do not need anything, other than these names … I’m from here, here I get along, that’s all (man, 24 years old, Vilnius reg.). The “Locality” as a form of identity is an attachment to the place, which has given  personal meaning. This may be a personal attitude to the place where they were raised and spent most of their lives (author’s note:.S. Ossowski, O ojczyźnie i narodzie, Warszawa 1984, s. 27-28.). For those describing themselves as the “local”, identity determined the space in which they live. Being the “local” coincided with declarations of Polish identity, it was its complement. Therefore, it included an emotional character of identification with the place and the community.

Speaking about the Polish identity in the Vilnius region, we should pay attention to the cultural context of the inhabited border area. Being a Pole in the Vilnius region is associated with both a local place of residence, a degree of bonding with your family and its dominant declarations of identity, as well as personal experiences. In the Vilnius region an identity has many shades, and its elements overlap and form a configuration consisting of subjectively-selected features and experiences. Therefore, it is difficult to form a general truth and ascribe a homogeneous nature to this group. The Polish identity in the Vilnius region is undoubtedly a phenomenon due to the cultural environment in which it  exists and due to its intergenerational representation. Identity is something more, it is scientifically inexplicable. It just is. I do feel that it cannot just be eliminated, it is in the genes (man, 53 years old, Šalčininkai reg.).

About the author: Rita Bandyga, born in 1988, is an Ethnology and Psychology graduate of the University of Wroclaw. She completed her studies at the Department of Lithuanian Language and Culture at the  University of Wroclaw. She was a participant of projects in Lithuania and Moldova, where she conducted research on the Polish ethnological minority.

Translated by Alicja Kępińska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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