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2019.10.23 14:00

Soviet Lithuanian author in the crosshairs of memory politics

LRT.lt2019.10.23 14:00

Petras Cvirka, a prominent Lithuanian author, has become the subject of the latest memory policy debate. Vilnius authorities want to transform a square named after Cvirka and take down a statue that has until now escaped the fate of most Soviet-era monuments.

Critics say that Cvirka's role in spreading pro-Soviet propaganda in Lithuania and denouncing fellow writers makes him an unsuitable figure for public reverence and an affront to victims of the Soviet regime.

Meanwhile others, including Lithuania's minister of culture, advocate for a more nuanced approach to memory policy.

“There are different paths that we are considering,” says Gediminas Jaunius who chairs the Historical Memory Commission at the Municipality of Vilnius. “One is that of deconstruction [...], leaving the statue in place, but reinterpreting it, taking into account both [Cvirka's] merits and controversies. Of course, there are others who demand to take down the statue.”

Cvirka (1909-1947) has been recognised as an important figure in the Lithuanian literary canon, revered for his biting social commentary.

Meanwhile critics point out his pro-Soviet views and the fact that he was a member of a puppet delegation that went to Moscow in 1940 to ask for Lithuania's accession to the Soviet Union, part of an effort to legitimise the country's occupation by the Red Army.

The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre has also compiled a report detailing Cvirka's role in the trial of a fellow writer, Kazys Jakubėnas, for “anti-Soviet activities”. Cvirka's testimony was allegedly instrumental in convicting Jakubėnas, who was sent to a labour camp in Kazakhstan.

Vilnius Vice-Mayor Valdas Benkunskas insists that removing the monument for Cvirka was an electoral pledge to the voters and will be delivered.

“When we were signing the coalition agreement after the local elections, we decided that we must overhaul [Cvirka Square] and adapt it to the Lithuanian capital of the 21st century. Naturally, there is no place for a Cvirka monument,” Benkunskas said.

The Lithuanian Writers Union has opposed the removal of the monument, as has Cvirka's grandson Aidas Pivoriūnas. He has even turned to prosecutors over public statements by some politicians and public figures that Cvirka was responsible for Stalinist repressions and deportations.

Culture Minister Mindaugas Kvietkauskas has also weighed in on the debate, saying that plans to transform the Cvirka Square were questionable from the point of view of architectural heritage protection as well as memory policy.

“I believe that [the square] is a testimony to the present about the history of the Soviet period,” Kvietkauskas told BNS this week. “There could be an information board next to the Cvirka statue about the controversial points in his biography. This space could then be a site of education about the painful Soviet past.”

While Cvirka's pro-Soviet advocacy and “service to the occupying regime can only be viewed negatively,” his literary oeuvre does merit recognition, according to Kvietkauskas, himself a literary scholar.

“If we erase all signs of the Soviet period [...], will we not regret in 30 years not having anything authentic to show in our city to our young people or visitors?” the culture minister noted.

Vice-Mayor Benkunskas has told BNS that the city's authorities will take into account all views and may make a decision about the future of Cvirka Square by the end of this year.

The Historical Memory Commission at the Municipality of Vilnius decided on Wednesday to set up a group to explore the so-called “deconstructive” approach, a way to recontextualise the Cvirka statue without necessarily removing it.

However, Jaunius, the commission's chair, says it does not mean that it will stay in place.