The Ambiguity of Lithuania’s Western Identity: Interview with Director Anastasija Piroženko

 

With increasing frequency, the conversation regarding post-Soviet identity and Lithuania, along with its Baltic cousins, has diminished. With their membership of the European Union and NATO, full embracement of capitalism, and a stable democracy, Lithuania is no longer associated with their former countrymen, like Ukraine and Russia. In fact, according to the United Nations, in January they are no longer categorized as being part of the insulting column of ‘Eastern European’ countries. The state is now fully European with their status as a ‘Northern European’ country.

Although this transition has largely been dealt with in terms of an apolitical characterization of progress, questions arose regarding the problematic nature of it. Most notably in Rasa Balockaite’s essay “Between mimesis and non-existence” which utilized Homi Bhabha to reflect upon Lithuania’s position in Europe as being “almost a European but not quite”. Speaking about the post-Soviet circumstances in Lithuania, Balockaite states

“After the collapse of the Soviet system, Lithuania emerged as a partial subject; as unfinished, inferior, and marked by backwardness. Dominated by the hegemonic West, it sought to consolidate its status as a subject and win recognition. How could that be achieved? Basically, by means of voluntary Westernization.”

In the vacuum of a truth regime to rely upon, Westernization filled the void, and became something to mimic and to aspire to.

Questioning the foundations of Lithuania’s European identity is the subject of inquiry in Anastasija Piroženko’s recently released film Syndromes of Mimicry. It sets itself during the eve of Lithuania’s accession to the European Union, and deals with the sheer absurdity of the moment. Embracing grotesque imagery and a visible dissidence, the film describes the contradiction and shallowness of Lithuanian European identity. We spoke to Anastasija about her film and her ideas regarding Lithuanian identity vis-à-vis the European Union.

According to a particular vision, upon the surface level Lithuania has progressed – with its successful integration into the European Union and NATO, and largely transitioning into a neoliberal democracy. Vilnius has emerged as a cultural hotspot, and the country has become a favourite destination for tourism. Your film is posing fundamental questions to this imagination. Can you elaborate of this concept of “mimicry”?

In 2015, Lithuania celebrated 25 years of independence. In the same year, 4 statues to the heroic Soviet archetypes (soldiers, workers, farmers, and students) were removed from one of the main bridges in Vilnius. I found it alarming that the cultural sensitivity is present in contemporary Lithuania. In a way, not many things have changed since 2004: our political strategy is still driven towards EU & NATO, and against Russia. 25 years is too short a time to forget such a traumatic experience and get rid of compensatory behaviour. On the other hand, 25 years marks the maturity of the first post-Soviet generation, which will soon be in a position to influence social and political environment.

Mimicry derives from the realization of a lack of authenticity. To properly understand the subject matter, some historical context is required: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania found itself in a complex new position, which was marked by uncertainty and confusion. Social structures were undefined, institutions became dysfunctional, and moral norms unreliable and outdated. In response to this, Lithuania began to orient itself towards Western political and social models. To cope with it, ‘Western’ modes of life were implemented in political forms and global mass culture, against the backdrop of the rejection of the values of the previous social orders. Mimicry is derived from the desire to be equal, accepted, and recognized. Although mimicry can be viewed as a negative aspect of development, my take on mimicry is slightly different. I introduce the concept of the ‘aesthetics of mimicry’ as a possible coping mechanism in the search for authenticity. That means that the aesthetics of mimicry are not merely a facsimile or simulacrum of an entity, but rather a means to create a distinct identity. In order to be effective, such mimicry must continually and consciously deviate from the original in order to develop its own authenticity. If we approach mimicry as the new aesthetics, or our own aesthetics, it might become a method for creating a national identity.

Within our magazine, we have received criticism for including Lithuania within the grouping of a post-Soviet country, because to be viewed as ‘post-Soviet’ is understood to be underdeveloped and culturally backwards. However, Lithuania’s relationship with the former Soviet Union is far more complex than a mere ‘historical mistake’. Throughout your film, you make great usage of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture and aesthetics to reference that relationship. Do you believe that Lithuania has properly reconciled itself with its relationship with the Soviet Union?

Indeed, to be called ‘post-Soviet’ is a sore spot for Baltic states. In my opinion, there are two main strategies that such states apply: actively trying to forget their socialist past, and imitation of the West. In the beginning of this year the UN officially changed the status of the Baltic states from Eastern Europe to Northern Europe, because of the negative connotation that is attached to ‘post-Soviet’ or ‘Eastern Europe’ image. Also, the EU sees it as a strategy of making the European economy more homogeneous. I can only hope that the strategy “First say, and then it will grow on you” will be beneficial for Lithuania and its Baltic neighbours.

My film treats architecture as a part of the mundane aesthetics that surround us, a symbol for historical heritage and traces of the past. At the moment, Lithuania lacks a clear vision of how to deal with this unwanted legacy, and as a result, mimicry comes as a solution.

The influx of Lithuanian immigration to Britain since 2004, particularly since Brexit, has been met with both incredible xenophobic violence and racist political rhetoric. Do you think this hints to the failure of the political project of mimicry in Lithuania?

Though we are independent, we are not politically autonomous. I would like to believe that the recent events were a wake-up call for the Baltics to rethink their heavily orientated political strategies towards the West. However, what I have been observing is an emerging state of fear in the country.

Since 1991, there has been an entire generation that only knows Lithuania as an independent country. Although they have existed only in a milieu that sustains what you referred to as “the hollowness of Lithuanian Eurocentrism”, there has been the emergence of an incredibly productive creative scene in terms of Lithuanian music and art. Do you see a counter-narrative to challenge this Western-centric narrative?

As you mentioned before, since 2004 there was an influx of Lithuanian immigrants to the West. The small number of those people who decided to return would bring better understanding of the West. Due to the constant rotation, this new generation is able to turn their experience into a new creative outcome.

In the past few years, in major Lithuanian cities such as Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda, some alternative art spaces emerged, which started to question the outdated institutional narratives.

I hope that that the critical discussion of Lithuanian identity will keep on growing without taking it as an insult, but as a healthy re-establishment of the self.