Fictional and real descriptions of a national character

Having won two major battles, those of leaving the Soviet empire and joining the EU, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe face a new and somewhat more delicate challenge, to become known as modern nations.

The Czechs complain that they are considered a nation of simple and melancholic villagers, who have no ambition or initiative and live in a rural backwater. A government-sponsored survey of how foreigners see the Czech Republic revealed that only four in ten Frenchmen could place the country on the map. The Czech government is now planning a major marketing initiative before the end of this year.

Poland caused a scandal by embarking on one. A portrait of a sexy plumber inviting visitors to Warsaw was perceived as a symbol of hungry Easterners invading the EU and taking jobs, benefits and everything else.

It seems that Lithuania has an even bigger task: to erase the negative image of a place inhabited by stubborn, bellicose and bizarre people.

Cinema buffs will remember the 2001 Ridley Scott film Hannibal, and the craving for the flesh of other humans.
Bookworms will still recall Thomas Harris’ 1999 bestseller for its exploration of the mind of a killer and for creating a chilling portrait of insidious evil. But Lithuanians will remember best the fictional Lithuanian origin of Dr Lecter, the cannibal.

Many were upset by this. The national hero and basketball star Ðarûnas Marèiulionis, who played in the NBA from 1989 to 1997 and turned to business after his retirement from sport, wrote a letter of indignation to all the accomplices in this anti-PR crime, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ridley Scott and Thomas Harris, inviting them to visit Lithuania at his expense to see that the local people are not like Dr Lecter.

A real man without a real face

In fact, there has been a cannibal here, at least one who has been identified, who was tried and sentenced to life in prison in the early Nineties. However, unlike Lecter, he was an unsophisticated peasant, who killed and partially ate his wife and his female neighbour. The police arrested him while he was boiling the breast of one of them. There was no build-up, no investigation, no puzzle, just a shock once the story splashed into the media.

Spectators of thrillers not only refer to the crimes when discussing the monsters and their monstrosity, they also put a face to the monster, that of Hopkins, thus turning the monster from a faceless subhuman entity into someone they can connect with. Hellas, the real Lithuanian cannibal, looked like an ordinary old man. He did not become a celebrity, and nowadays nobody would recognise his face on the cover of a magazine. It is hardly likely that he was chosen as the prototype.

Another Hollywood reference remains deeply engraved in the Lithuanian psyche. This time the culprit was Mel Gibson, and his infamous words: “Sharp-toothed Lithuanians armed with baseball bats are crawling across the beach into your house. What should we do with them? We have to fight back.”
The Lithuanian embassy intervened and requested an apology.

But the epithet stuck. The Google search engine produces over 20 references to “sharp-toothed Lithuanians” in the media, e-forums and portals. The phrase has become accepted.

The mighty bite

A 19th-century allusion to sharp teeth, a natural or fictional phenomenon, has even made it to the stage in Vilnius. Bronius Kutavièius’ opera Lokys (The Bear), based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1852 short story, was the most eagerly awaited première of the 2000 season.

The opera revolves around a story of love and fate, the collision between the real and the other world, and has more mysterious characters than were scripted by Mérimée. The French writer, inevitably influenced by the fashion for comparative linguistics and the closeness between Lithuanian and Sanskrit, produced the story of a count who was born as the result of an encounter between a woman and a bear.

The text is full of geographic, linguistic and factual mistakes, indicating that he used secondary sources, and the overall attitude is “out there anything might happen”, but the plot is intriguing. After a passionate courtship, this semi-bear count marries a nobleman’s daughter, eats her on their first night together, and vanishes into the forest.

“When I first read the story I was perplexed,” the composer is recorded as saying. “I couldn’t work it out, maybe because I had never come across such a story before. Later, as the work got under way, I got used to it and began to find it interesting.”

Other musicians point out that another, and no less dramatic, story about a femme fatale, love and murder by Mérimée, that of Carmen, has become an icon of the opera, and that Spaniards do not get upset over its popularity.
However, love, passion and death are more traditional, more human, and therefore more acceptable. Possibly by mere coincidence, another Frenchman, Alfred Jarry, in his play Ubu Roi ou les Polonais (Ubu the King or the Poles), which was banned from the Paris stage after its première in 1896 for its linguistic, dramatic and ideological liberties, and after the Second World War was banned in Poland for being anti-Polish, follows the human-bear line, but in the opposite way.

This tale of the greedy bourgeois Ubu, who murders the Polish king and usurps the throne to personally collect taxes, takes us to Lithuania, where nothing much happens, except that it snows. But, all of a sudden, a bear enters the stage and is soon killed in an explosion. A courtier then eats half the bear raw, disappointing the king, because after the bear’s death its flesh cooled, thus preventing Ubu from a warm dinner.

This play, a precursor of the “theatre of the absurd”, is compared to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Jarry himself explained his choice of location for this tale of ambition, greed, murder and jokes as “Poland, the nowhere-land”. Lithuania was somewhere even further afield. The play, however, used to be popular at Vilnius University in the Eighties. It seems the Poles forgave it too, as it ended up as an opera, Ubu Rex, by the famous composer Krzystof Penderecki in 1991.

The non-human race

“Some of the blame for this strange reputation rests on us. For a long time we have been excited by a particular branch of ‘poetic’ history that idealises our pagan past, our pagan warriors, conquerors of vast Russian territories, conveniently omitting the fact that Russia had been weakened by the Tartar invasion and that the territories we gained were depopulated.”

This is what Dr Alfredas Bumblauskas, a professor of history at Vilnius University and the author of the “non-poetic” 500-page History of Old Lithuania 1009–1795, writes.

According to him, legendary stories of pagan Lithuanian dukes marauding across vast territories (at the peak of its might, the country stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea), are not supported by Lithuanian folklore, where a keynote of old songs is the lament of a woman whose father, brothers and beloved did not return from war.

“The dukes and the cruel statesmen are products of late nineteenth-century fiction,” says Bumblauskas.
Nevertheless, in an excerpt from the 13th-century Livonian Chronicle in his book, we read: “Lithuanians sought to rule all the tribes who lived in these areas [Russian, Livonian and Estonian], Christians as well as pagans, and none of them dared to live in their own homes, the Latvians in particular. They left their homes and hid in the dark hideouts of the forest. But even there they could not be saved [from the Lithuanians] … Some were killed, others enslaved and taken to their country, and everything was taken from them.” No wonder the chapter is called “Lithuanians, Vikings on Land”.

The truth of the chronicles is complicated, as the vast territories of the last pagan state in Europe, at least in the eyes of medieval Christian scribes, were inhabited by people who did not belong to their faith, and, therefore, were not regarded as human.

According to Bumblauskas, the pagan period in Lithuania was a time of cruel struggles against forceful conversion to Christianity. All neighbouring lands had succumbed to the Crusades, while the Lithuanians managed to defend themselves and decided on monotheism of their own accord.

“It would be false to call these times a Golden Age, as the isolation of being on the periphery of Western civilisation was a misfortune.”

The problem was finally solved at the end of the 14th century by the Lithuanian-Polish royal marriage and the conversion of the country of landed Vikings to Catholicism.
Legend has it, however, that prior to this historic marriage, the Polish princess Jadvyga, who was beatified after her death for virtues beyond her matrimonial ones, sent spies to Lithuania to see the prospective bridegroom-duke bathing and to report on whether he had human or animal skin. Official historiography does not record their discovery, but the marriage did eventually take place, thus bringing the vast Lithuanian territories into the map of monotheistic mankind.

Stubborn but tolerant?

“We are people of a particular imperialism. We are a nation that was formed out of barbarians, nomads and peasants. And our mixed genes are the reason for Lithuanian nostalgia and individualism.”

Thus states Gintaras Beresnevièius, another historian, a Vilnius University professor at the Ethnology and Folklore Department, in “Creation of the Empire. The Blueprint for Lithuanian Ideology”, put on the web and acclaimed as “intellectual provocation”. He also maintains that another distinguishing feature of the national character is tolerance.

“Tolerance is a suitable form of administration for the management of very different tribes, nations and religions. The best way, of course, is to change nothing. A slogan of the Lithuanian rulers was ‘we do not touch [reform] the old, we do not introduce anything new’.”

This was about more than just idleness and conformism. The painstaking road taken by Lithuania to the “true religion” might have contributed.

“The Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth also demonstrated an enviable tolerance,” maintains Beresnevièius. “By the end of the sixteenth century, Protestant and Catholic Europe was lit by the fires of the Inquisition and religious wars, and when the rebellions by religious sects were being cruelly suppressed, the Lithuanian Seimas introduced a law on equality for all religions. This was an act unseen in Europe, which surpassed European times by several centuries.”

It seems that Lithuanians “surpassed” history again, some four centuries later, when another feature of the national character, that of retentiveness and stubbornness, revealed itself in the opposition to Soviet rule.

“To me, a Lithuanian is not Dr Lecter, but Red October, says John J. Scally, a member of the law firm LRF Judiska Byran, and the Irish owner of 500 hectares of land in Lithuania, where he manages a wheat farm by remote control.
Today, Scally also adds that he is the happy prospective father of a half-Lithuanian child. He met his wife Ernesta in Tokyo, and is glad that he made the decision to move to Lithuania instead of going to his property in Thailand, which was later devastated by the tsunami.

“The reason I am alive now is that Ernesta got a job at Christmas and had to stay.”

After finding that this place was a bit more than an Ubuesque snowland inhabited by bears, he decided to acquire a sizeable chunk of it.

Explore more Lithuanian literary works on Lithuania in The World.

Shipping news

But let’s go back to the national character. Captain Marko Ramius, in the Tom Clancy novel The Hunt for Red October, is half-Lithuanian. The son of a Russian father, and a committed Bolshevik, he avenges the Soviet system by passing a high-tech submarine to the Americans, despite operating under the careful scrutiny of the political officer Ivan Yuryevich Putin.

For reasons unexplained in the novel or the film, Ramius’ paternal grandmother, who raised him and even his mother, have Russian names. This might be due to the thickness of the Iron Curtain, or to the modern concept of citizenship superseding ethnicity. But let’s not get picky. The book is blessed with a cutting-edge plot and dripping with suspense. Attention to detail in the times of the Cold War did not matter that much.

When the Soviets first occupied Lithuania, his father had been instrumental in rounding up political dissidents, shop owners, priests, and anyone else who might have been troublesome to the new regime. Marko’s father was a true Soviet hero, and Marko was deeply ashamed to be his son. He planned to get his revenge on the Soviet Union to satisfy the thousands of his countrymen who had died before he was even born.

Ramius, once he is in command of the newest and most technologically advanced submarine in the Soviet fleet, the Red October, orders his crew to do the unthinkable, to defect to the United States. Diverting the submarine from its usual course, he delivers a shock to the entire Soviet military establishment.

The hero, the avenging angel in the 1990 film, played by Sean Connery, was a stubborn, cunning, calculating character, never cracking under pressure, and carrying out his duty professionally.

Also cunning were the real defectors. One was the radio operator Simas Kudirka, who in 1970 jumped to the deck of a US coastguard ship, the Vigilant, from a Soviet fishing trawler, and requested political asylum. Standing by the rail of the Sovetskaya Litva, he made his intentions known to the coastguards, and leapt to the cutter’s deck across the 12 feet separating the two ships.

Some ten hours later, Kudirka was forcibly removed and returned to the Soviet ship. Six Soviet sailors were allowed to board the Vigilant. They beat him unconscious, bundled him in a blanket and ropes, and carried him back. On his return to Lithuania, he was tried for treason and sentenced to ten years in the Gulag.

After almost four years in Soviet labour camps, real life outsmarted fiction. It turned out that his mother had been born in Brooklyn, but had later returned to Lithuania. The State Department, therefore, ruled that Kudirka had a valid claim to US citizenship. He was released from the Gulag and granted permission to go to the US in 1974.

Another defector, who, according to local lore, served as a prototype for Marko Ramius, was a predecessor of Kudirka, the captain of a Soviet military barge, Jonas Pleðkys, who in 1961 sailed to the Swedish island of Gotland, instead of Liepâja in Latvia.

In Sweden, Pleðkys applied for political asylum. The ship remained without its captain off the Swedish coast until the arrival of the Soviet military attaché, while the captain himself was sentenced in absentia to death by a military tribunal. After 30 years of being on the run, he visited Lithuania in the spring of 1992, while his death sentence was still in force and Soviet troops were still stationed in Lithuania. The next year he died.

It is no wonder then that, having heard thousands of similar stories, and even lived through some of them, Lithuanians would prefer to be portrayed as characters with true virtue and bravery, with determination and integrity.
Therefore, they get a shock after receiving platitudinous applause for sharp teeth only. Some say that this is not the worst kind of national stereotype, but we will not elaborate on this, at least for political discretion.

The borders of the New Europe are penetrable

The new era offers a chance for a new image of Lithuanians in the image minting machine of European Union newcomers. Tourists are pouring into the country. Some are still surprised to see no bears on the streets. Visitors of the younger generation do not even expect them.

It remains to be seen which element will contribute to the meltdown of the psychological borders of modern, and not medieval, Europe: cheap and palatable local beer, the fair looks of local women, the beautiful countryside, or the steady growth in the country’s GDP.

“I did not know what to expect when I was invited by a friend in Amsterdam to spend a holiday in Lithuania,” says Ash Bloomberg, 30, a financial analyst.

“I refused to read all the stuff that was sent to me in advance, as in guidebooks all countries are beautiful. Now I know that the place and the people are nice.”

“It is all made of two things: of the unknown, and a natural human effort to stereotype reluctance to the unfamiliar,” says Inga Cholmogorova, an expat Lithuanian art student.

“For a long time anything that was horrible to me was associated with Romania and Count Dracula.”

To back up her statement, we could recall a quote from a Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in Lithuania and then exiled by the tsarist authorities for his nationalist aspirations. One of his poems, “Pan Tadeusz”, which recounts the story of two feuding noble families and has been acclaimed as one of “the last great epic poems of European literature”, opens like this:

Litva! My country, like art thou to health,
For how to prize thee alone can tell
Who has lost thee.
I behold thy beauty now
In full adornment, and I sing of it
Because I long for thee.

Although suffused with the romantic style of his times, Mickiewicz built up the simple and solid argument that knowing a place and its people changes one’s view.