2022.08.31 08:00

Waiting for war and ‘Lithuania’s last summer’ – interview

Benas Gerdžiūnas, 2022.08.31 08:00

The invasion was just a few weeks away. Despite the gathering storm, people were blinded by the everyday – a fuel crisis was raging and food prices were soaring. Then, the Russian troops crossed the border.

This wasn’t Ukraine in early 2022. This was Lithuania in 1940.

“And you think – you have to prepare, the war is about to come, why aren’t you doing anything? But you realise that this is human nature,” says Norbertas Černiauskas, author of Lithuania’s Last Summer.

In the bestselling 2021 book, Černiauskas uses historical archives to capture the mood in the summer of 1940, weeks before the Soviet invasion – from the plans and dreams of poets and students to the housing insulation boom sweeping the country.

People then seemed largely oblivious to the impending tragedy.

“Every time when they’d that the war didn’t come, people would return to doing what they’d been doing before,” says Černiauskas.

Similar thoughts come to mind when looking at Russia’s large-scale war today – why were we panic-buying salt in February and March, but today we rarely pay attention to yet another tragic news from Ukraine?

“The lesson to be learnt now is that the problems caused by the war at that time – the price rises, the fuel crisis, the closure of some markets – have to some extent spilled over into domestic affairs,” says Černiauskas. “Everybody started to talk about why prices were going up, but not about the war.”

What would you say was the mood of people in Lithuania, both in 1940 and after February 24, 2022?

Until June 15, 1940, Lithuania had been living close to three wars – in Poland, Finland [and Scandinavia], and finally in May, the German offensive on the western front.

At first it was an obvious shock, people were wondering what was going to happen in the future. But every time you saw that when the war didn’t come, people started to do what they had done before, [the war] was overshadowed by other problems.

Just like in 1940, also in 2022?

What I fear about next winter is that we will start discussing the problems directly caused by the war [eg rising prices], but disconnecting them from the war and linking them to the [political] position, to the opposition, to who has not done what in the last 10 years. We are only thinking about that, not about the deeper problem.

Is that what you saw in the 1940 sources?

Yes. It’s not so obvious because at that time, in general, the space for debate itself was much narrower, because our authoritarian government tried to keep the debate to a minimum during the war to avoid polarising the public. But you can see that it is happening anyway, that people are discussing things.

That waiting for the war is so double-sided. On the one hand, it seems to us sitting here that [people were] just waiting for it to start, but on the other hand, everybody is always thinking that maybe it won’t happen.

In 1940, from a realistic sober point of view, the war was bound to happen, but people pushed the idea away from them anyway. With Ukraine, it is hard to say, and apparently many people also thought that the follow-up from 2014 would be bigger. There is always that duplicity in human beings and it is natural.

Of course, it is easy to say that after 2014 you [in Ukraine] should have armed yourselves and done nothing but arm yourselves, arm yourselves. That kind of advice is a bit naive.

You wrote the book in 2021, when a full-scale war in Ukraine was already brewing. Looking at sources from 1940 at that time, did you feel there were similarities with the situation before the invasion of February 24?

No, I did not. Only now are a lot of things that I didn’t think about [when writing the book] starting to come out – the fuel crisis, the price rises in 1939–40, which also give some answers.

There are similarities, [...] but the situation is completely different. It was incomparably more difficult in 1940. Now we have all the chances, opportunities to turn things around and to help things to turn out well.

I was thinking about how I can convey the atmosphere that was then at the time. And I was totally relying not even on the reports of a potential of a renewed war in Ukraine, but on the Covid situation – the anxiety and uncertainty about the future, certain constraints, a kind of collective thing that involves everybody.

And after the book came out [in 2021] and the migration crisis, the plane hijacking, I thought it was even closer to that feeling [as in 1940].

Maybe the anticipation of war in Lithuania this year did not start before February 24, as in Ukraine, but after the Russian invasion?

It is interesting to me that when the war started at the end of February, we saw both panic and panic-buying. I wonder what experience is pushing people to act this way.

Where does this way of responding to war come from – by buying salt, etc.? It probably comes from some [experiences of] wars, but I don’t think it comes from 1940, but maybe from 1991.

Maybe it is some kind of reflection of collective trauma? That knowledge of what will happen if we are not prepared – famine, deportations, etc.

Obviously, a subconscious knowledge of how things can go is somewhere within us. Those terrible experiences of the 20th century, which are now partly being repeated in Ukraine, are inside us. Maybe they protect us, not just frighten us.

Does this explain why Lithuania feels Ukraine’s pain, its struggle?

There are several things here. It’s a bit of a romanticised relationship with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that we used to be in a common state [and now] we go to Ukraine for tours, to see castles. There is that closeness that we are from the same historical period.

On the other hand, these recent events have brought Lithuania and Ukraine very close together, I would say since the Orange Revolution [of 2004]. There is a very great rapprochement there, and one can feel that what is happening there is similar to what happened in Lithuania during the times of the Sąjūdis and January 13 [1991]. And then Maidan, when we felt that something similar to what happened here was happening there.

Sometimes we even feel, it seems, a greater sense of togetherness with Ukraine than with Latvia or Estonia.

But, also, the 20th century brought us very close, especially all those tragedies.

Admittedly, Ukraine has suffered many more of them. We already sometimes exaggerate our suffering, let’s say it that way, but if you look at Ukraine – Lenin’s terror, the 1921 [occupation], then the Holodomor, about which we are still learning a lot of horrible things, and the post-war [partisan movement], just like in Lithuania.

These are at least three huge waves of losses. All that knowledge of the 20th century experience weighs on us. Never again, but there you go, it happened.

Until 1921 you can say that there was some hope [for Ukraine to retain statehood], which is also the reason for our success and Ukraine’s failure.

We had a period of twenty years when we generally learned statehood, learned more about the relationships between the state and the citizens.

When we look at March 11 [independence restoration] in 1990, most of the people who were rebuilding the state were born in the former [interwar Lithuania], or started going to school then. They knew what a state was.

Whereas in Ukraine they did not. In the twenty years that we were free, they experienced huge, incomprehensible waves of genocide. They have that experience instead of the twenty years of our growth and consolidation.

Is it fair to say that the time after the Maidan is for Ukraine what the interwar years were for Lithuania?

I think it’s a good angle to say that [the Maidan revolution] to a certain extent consolidated the relationship between the citizens and the state, the understanding of the state, the identity of the Ukrainian has been reconsidered. It is this period that is very important, maybe even decisive – or maybe it had already been decisive – in this war.

What did Lithuania lose in 1940 and what will Ukraine lose after this invasion?

Lithuania has lost enormous numbers of people, statehood and, more broadly, the status of a Central European state. We are now on a very difficult path towards it.

Now we have been for a long time just this grey, post-Soviet state. Now we are Eastern Europeans.

We have slowly shaken that off, but we are still thinking about how we can move closer to Central Europe. [...] So I think there would not even be such talk.

As for Ukraine, what it has lost, we see the figures here every day, of course. On the other hand, there is a lot of hope. Despite six months of war, Ukraine is certainly stronger than it has been at any time in 30 years – in terms of focus, in terms of knowing where to go and who the enemy is, in terms of not being as hesitant as it was before. […]

We can only reflect now on what could have been created, planned, built in Lithuania after 1940.

Many lives and projects have been interrupted in Ukraine, but on the other hand, there is every chance to do it after the war is won or after it is over – namely to realise the dreams, the reforms with a different outlook, because the war has opened up many eyes. It has shown problems that I think the public still sees differently, like corruption, etc.

Here again, when you say that, you start thinking about Mariupol, the bombing of civilians. How can you talk about that, as thousands of lives have already been lost and then of thousands of tragedies are taking place.

Your book is full of nostalgia, leaving you with thoughts of what could have been. Why did you want to transmit these emotions?

Despite the desperate situation in which Lithuania found itself in the 1940s, it’s hard to even imagine a worse one, I could see bright prospects if it wasn’t for the war. You can see it in the first generation that graduated from schools, in the creative and economic projects and in the signs of a healthy or natural society.

As I was writing, I would feel pity for how things could have turned out.

Then, you start thinking how you can use this feeling, because feeling sorry for what didn’t happen is useless.

My idea was that when someone reads the book, they would [...] feel greater love for present-day Lithuania [...] and understand that everything is in their hands, that they should pay more attention to present-day Lithuania.

I realised from some of the readers’ feedback that maybe I have succeeded, that people convert that feeling into questions – what more can I do for my community, society, my country?

That was one of my secret goals.

Going back to Ukraine, how will we look at this waiting period in 20 or 30 years? Will we analyse it again and again as we do when looking at Lithuania in the 1940s?

I think that for a long time to come, at least in Lithuania or Eastern Europe, some Western politicians will be accused of naivety.

When I was asked at the beginning of the war whether this was a turning point, it reminded me of events like 9/11. But now I am beginning to think that February 24 will be even more significant for Europe.

Both because of the war itself, but also because of the energy crisis, the changing perception of Russia and the rethinking of what has been done.

It seems to me that February 24 will be a turning point in Europe.

This interview, originally conducted in Lithuanian, was edited and condensed.