Photo credit: Ivan Milovidov
NER international correspondent Ellen Hinsey talks with Lithuanian poet and writer Tomas Venclova about democratic ethics, increasing our humanity, and his life in letters.
Ellen Hinsey: In Magnetic North you recounted your personal experience of the Russian invasions of Lithuania in 1940 and 1944, as well as the postwar imposition of Soviet rule. While the two countries have been at war since 2014, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine represents one of the most significant conflicts in the region since 1991. To begin, what has this evoked in you personally? Did you think that you would see such a level of violence in the region again in your lifetime?
Tomas Venclova: The first Soviet invasion of Lithuania (I would not call it Russian, since all the republics of the USSR took part in it) occurred in 1940 when I was three; therefore, I do not remember it, nor the 1941 Soviet deportations. One of my earliest memories concerns the Nazi invasion in 1941 (several German planes downed a Soviet plane before my eyes and shot the parachutists—it was the first time that I understood the grammar of modern war). The return of the Soviets in 1944 was complex: they defeated the Nazis, who were a murderous regime, and if they had subsequently left Lithuania, they might have been considered liberators; instead, they reinstated their rule that, in many respects, was as cruel and unacceptable as that of the Nazis. Thus, my conscious life starts with the spectacle of war, and it will probably end in the same way—not an enviable fate, to put it mildly, yet rather typical for an East European. After the collapse of the USSR, I believed for some time in the happy “end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama once put it. Well, I was wrong.
EH: After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall there was a hope that there would be ongoing European democratic consolidation, and that certain autocratic movements or tendencies would remain marginal or prove to be transient. Instead, we are witnessing a period of growing autocratic nationalism. What are your thoughts about why we have seen a steady process of democratic regression and support for autocratic or illiberal governance?
TV: I was pretty sure that all the countries liberated from totalitarian rule would develop democratic systems in a relatively short time, despite flaws or limitations due to their checkered histories. Russia, in my opinion, was no exception. I have never believed in the innate autocratic or imperialist tendencies of any country or ethnic group. Great Britain or Germany had their periods of nationalism and imperialism, but now these nations look enlightened and liberal enough. Still, illiberal attitudes could be observed in many places after 1989, including my native Lithuania, to say nothing of France, Italy, or even the US. In some East European countries—e.g., Hungary and Poland—these attitudes currently prevail. The causes are multifaceted: one might mention problems brought about by globalization, growing inequality, the influence of old toxic ideologies considered “dormant” for decades, etc., as well as the “historic time-lag” experienced in some regions, especially in our part of Europe. Yet I do not think we are observing “a steady process of democratic regression” everywhere: the tide of autocratic nationalism seems to be receding in more than one country. Unfortunately, Russia proved to be the very worst case. Today, the system there is virtually identical with fascism, and almost as dangerous for civilization as fascism and Nazism were in their time.
EH: Some intellectuals, such as the late Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller, remarked with regret—referring to the pre-WWII period—that “Bonapartism in all its forms is as European a tradition as democracy.” In your opinion, should we understand the last thirty years as a period of grace, or can we hope that Europe can continue to uphold its mission of post-1989 democracy?
TV: No, I do not think autocracy is the norm. It cannot win, if only for the fact that, in general, it thwarts economic growth and adaptability. One should also not proclaim the imminent decline of liberal values; history goes in the opposite direction, notwithstanding its numerous stops, loops and reversals. Many have the habit of stating that Russia’s case is incurable (there are dozens of influential public figures in Lithuania who ascribe to this view). I still disagree with them and think that Russia’s problems may be solved in the long run, if the democratic powers are resolute enough. Luckily, Vladimir Putin’s behavior seems to strengthen the unity and determination of the civilized world, and to encourage democratic values there instead of eroding them.
EH: The war in Ukraine has had a great impact, first of all—and most concretely and tragically—on people’s lives, with destroyed cities and lives lost. But it has also affected our understanding of what we can hope for going forward. What do we risk losing because of this conflict?
TV: The worst loss would be the loss of empathy. We should not adopt the attitude of our adversaries and we should not go in the direction of dehumanization. That, and primarily that, would be Putin’s victory. I understand my Ukrainian friends who face the destruction of their land and the deaths of their children, which may result in an indiscriminate rejection of all. I am not in the position to judge them since they are facing brazen aggression. And with very few exceptions—which are condemned by their government and domestic public opinion—Ukrainians have not answered crimes against humanity with similar crimes. That said, I do not accept the total “cancelling” of Russian culture, although it is proposed by some people, also in today’s Lithuania. I am not a fan of Tchaikovsky (my musical tastes are opposite to Romanticism—I prefer Bach, Händel, or, for that matter, Webern). Still, I consider it absurd to forbid Tchaikovsky during the present war because of Putin’s crimes—just as it would have been absurd to forbid Bach during World War II because of Hitler’s crimes. A principled stance against aggression should never turn into blind hatred. Such hatred does not help anyone to win, since victory for us means increasing—and not diminishing—our humanity.
EH: Turning to literature, in recent years your oeuvre has included a number of poems that address contemporary events, including “Caligula at the Gates,” written after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as, more recently, “Azovstal,” which speaks to the April 2022 siege of Mariupol as well as, more generally, to the tragedy of war—
TV: Yes, there are some poems related to these recent events (there is even one on the retreat from Kherson, told from the point of view of a Russian soldier). I do not belong to the category of poets who avoid social and current topics, though I am not unsympathetic to poets who opt for a different standpoint. All this depends on many factors, including, first and foremost, the psychological make-up of the person, and then the conventions of their culture, of the period, etc. Needless to say, poetry should not be confused with journalism; and, of course, a poem loses everything if it descends to the level of propaganda. Propaganda may have some value, but propaganda pretending to be a poem never does.
EH: In your work poetry is not only—as certain readers of poetry assume it to be—exclusively lyrical recollection. Rather, from the start your poetry has incorporated the creative and the critical—interweaving historical dimensions, philosophical reflections, personal experience, and reflections on one’s epoch. Can you speak a bit about your creative and intellectual process and this interweaving in your work? And during the creative act of poetry?
TV: This is a difficult question. All I can say is that this takes place mainly on an unconscious level: there must first be a strong impression or experience which needs time to “mature” (this may take several months); then some rhythmic and semantic units start to coalesce and interpenetrate, enabling one to come to terms with that impression, in a sense, to free oneself of it. Much is dictated by language, which guides one’s hand; much also depends on cultural tradition (as Northrop Frye puts it, a newborn baby is conditioned by a society which already exists, and any new poem has a similar relation to its poetic society). I feel there is also a dimension of “nothingness or highest power” (here, I quote one of my early poems), which lends the final touch to a work. Personal and extra-personal (let us say, generational) experiences are, as a rule, also indistinguishably interwoven here.
EH: To continue with this a bit further, in English-language poetry and certain European languages, there is often a strict line drawn between so-called political and nonpolitical poetry, but such demarcations are not so firmly drawn in East European poetry. In his Norton Lectures at Harvard, Czesław Miłosz speaks rather about the “Witness of Poetry.” Could you say a few words about this dimension?
TV: We, Eastern Europeans, are marked by history which, in our part of the continent, either reached apocalyptic dimensions or was replaced by a long period of stasis and a veritable absence of time. Perhaps for that reason we feel it more intimately than most Western poets. For this reason the boundary between political (or extra-personal) and nonpolitical (or personal) may be somewhat blurred in our work. As I once said, Miłosz, the very epitome of an East European poet, strove to influence (extra-personal) reality by his (very personal) verse but refused to become a servant of his era: he was its witness and, by the same token, its conscience. Every one of us should follow his example—toutes proportions gardées.
EH: We are including here in NER’s Democracy and Literature column two of your recent poems: “Extra Urbem,” which addresses the dangers of global warming, and “To Master Radovan,” which is a meditation on “eternal” subjects, behind which there is the tremor of recent history—
TV: In “To Master Radovan” I speak about a work of art (Trogir Cathedral’s Romanesque portal in Croatia). The poem, as well as the portal, treats two themes, both of which transcend historical time: one is the life of Jesus and the other is the natural cycle of the seasons and the year’s labors (related to the archetype of a dying and rising deity). The portal bestows (limited and relative) immortality to its artist, but also reflects a certain fragility due to an absurdity of history: the war criminal, Karadžić, by an ironic coincidence, shares the sculptor’s first name: Radovan. The twofold meaning in the poem is built around that paradox.
EH: You were one of the founding members of the 1976 Lithuanian Helsinki Group, which worked closely with the Moscow Helsinki Group, two of the earliest human rights groups in the region. Over the last decade, civil society, especially in Russia, has come under severe and sustained attack. Important groups such as “Memorial” have been outlawed and repressed. Your generation in Lithuania knew very well that human rights and accountability are fundamental to a democratic society—
TV: Our Lithuanian Helsinki Group followed the precepts of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which still exists today but is under attack by Putin’s authorities and threatened by repression just like “Memorial” and the Sakharov Center. At present, the Group’s fate remains unknown, though it is not hard to predict that it will be banned.  That said, the ban cannot alter the Group’s enduring significance. Like the nineteenth-century Decembrists, “Helsinkians” have a permanent place in Russian history. As for the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, it no longer exists—in a democratic country, which Lithuania undoubtedly is, human rights can be defended by other means. All attempts to revive the Lithuanian Helsinki Group in the post-Soviet period came to naught. I felt it right to use my credentials as a Helsinki Group member only once in independent Lithuania when I reminded the judicial authorities of the human rights of a certain imprisoned left-leaning extremist, whose views and methods, incidentally, I did not share. In my opinion, upholding the importance of human rights remains a fundamental duty of any citizen who wants their state to remain democratic.
EH: Your generation, which set an example for many human rights groups that followed, prioritized a recovery of history and truth in order to rebuild society after Soviet totalitarianism. Poetry also played a critical role in this process. Can you say a few words about the contribution of poetry in keeping the democratic spirit alive? Do you have a message for the next generation that is now facing a return of authoritarianism?
TV: Poetry is neither a reflection of history nor an expression of truth, yet is undoubtedly—albeit inexplicably—related to both. The creative spirit of humankind is embodied in poetry as well as in democracy: consequently, these tend to fortify one another, even if that is only a probability and not a certainty. But our world is built on probabilities; there is no way of escaping that.
 On January 25, 2023, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Tomas Venclova was born in Klaipėda, Lithuania, in 1937. From 1956 on he took part in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements and was one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. His circle included writers such as Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky, and Miłosz, among others. He has written more than twenty-five books in Lithuanian, Russian, and English. His volumes include poetry, criticism, literary biography, interviews, and works on Vilnius. His two-volume history of Lithuania was published in 2018 and 2019. Venclova has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes including the Lithuanian National Prize, the Prize of Two Nations, which he received jointly with Czesław Miłosz, the New Culture of New Europe Prize, the Qinhai International Poetry Prize, the Vilenica International Literary Prize, and the Petrarca Prize. His works in English include Magnetic North Conversations with Tomas Venclova, The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova, Vilnius: A Personal History, Forms of Hope, Winter Dialogue, and Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast.
Ellen Hinsey is the International Correspondent for New England Review. She is the author of nine books of poetry, essay, dialogue and translation. Her most recent book, The Illegal Age, explores the rise of authoritarianism. Hinsey’s essays are collected in Mastering the Past: Reports from Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. Hinsey’s other poetry collections include Update on the Descent, The White Fire of Time and Cities of Memory (Yale University Series Award). Hinsey has also edited and co-translated The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Irish Times, Poetry and New England Review. A former fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, she has most recently been a visiting professor at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.