I Was Born in the U.S.S.R.

15. 3. 2017

Geography

I like to look at maps. I like to plan trips that, for the most part, I never take. Because I’ve made so many plans, the map of the world is seared into my brain and there is no longer any need for me to physically look at it. And this is what I have discovered: That Europe is surrounded by America. Or, something quite the opposite. If we turn the European East towards the West, it will almost perfectly resemble the American political map. London, Brussels, and Paris will be the same thing as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Florida is comparable to Spain. Scandinavia is comparable to Canada. And Chicago, the gateway to America’s Wild West, is our Berlin. Beyond Berlin our Wild East begins. In other words, we are mirror reflections of each other. It is likely that we will grow even more similar. I hear more and more voices discussing a new European project—the creation of a United States of Europe. In principle, I am not opposed to this idea. Only, I’d like some clarity. Will those United States happen or not? In other words, should I begin developing a new sense of identity for myself? That of an European?

I won’t hide the fact that I would enjoy being called a European. When a friend from Saudi Arabia, a doctor, writes to me with a sigh: “Marius, are you happy that you live in Europe?” I am inclined to correct her, just like so many of us do. I write back: “We are not exactly in Europe—we are in Eastern Europe.” Although this tendency to divide Europe into the East and the West is relevant only to Europeans, it is a hard habit to shake. I want to, but I cannot. At the same time, when I utter the words: “I am a European,” something deep inside of me trembles. I feel as though I were behaving in a sacriligous manner, as though I were invading someone else’s holy name and space.

Perhaps I feel this way because I arrived in this space as an adult together with my entire region? I detached myself from one region and attached myself to another. I believed that the inner European had been born inside of me. As it turned out, it had not. I still had to acquire it.

I was born in the former Soviet Union. It is a place that is disappearing. Because one of the most important conditions of a person’s identity is a connection to the place where he belongs, my original identity is disappearing along with the former USSR. An emptiness opens up, which must be filled with something.

It is very easy for the English. Their borders since time immemorial have been demarcated by the surrounding ocean. Their space extends to the shore, and beyond the shore is the ocean. Although they once were an empire, that empire was so scattered throughout the word that it did not make up one unified land. There was a central island and everything else was considered a colony.

Our situation was not that simple. I will leave history alone. Our history is that our territory was as sticky as chewing gum—our borders would expand, retract, seep into the West, and then leap back deep into the East. I am 39 and in my lifetime that space has changed three times already.

History

I was born in the western corner of my space. One could say, I was born along the very edge. For that reason the distance to the opposite edge was an extremely long one—roughly 12,000 kilometers. It was a wide expanse of space that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Behring Sea.

Now we Lithuanians can get up on our soap boxes and shout about how we were not Soviets, about how we were not loyal to the Soviet Union, about how we resisted, and so on. Just like these days Europe has an eastern part that is less European than the western part, in those days the western part of the Soviet Union was less Soviet. But today those differences seem insignificant. As children, we played war in our neighborhood backyards. We were not Lithuanian soldiers—or even Russian soldiers. We were the good guys who shot at the Germans. Or we fought against Evil. We were afraid of America—a country that we perceived threatened our space with nuclear war. All of that constitutes belonging to a certain space. Granted, we belonged to that space by force, by coincidence, but we belonged in it nonetheless. Our childhoods were Soviet childhoods. We belonged to the largest country in the world and the center of that country was in Moscow. Vilnius was merely the center of the edge. It was were we lived. It was nothing more than that.

After 1990 we changed over to another space, one that was many times smaller. It was one of the best things that every happened to me in my life. The Soviet identity fell away from us easily and comparatively painlessly. Our space shrank into one that we had been born into and one that we could understand. It was a space that was three hundred kilometers long and about two hundred kilometers wide. Such were the measurements of our new space, that of an independent Lithuania.

Certainly, this did not take place in just one day. It was necessary to lay down and press your ear to the ground along the edges and to listen to how the tin empire was creaking and coming apart at the seams. And then we could start taking it apart from the inside.

It was not necessary to create the Lithuanian identity from scratch. It had always been there— only it lacked the status of statehood. As our Soviet skins peeled away, our Lithuanian selves came out.

Immediately afterwards, the process of integrating ourselves into Europe began. At the time it seemed like a formal, factual recognition of that which we actually already were. And this is where we faced an unexpected shock—the factual process took place, but integration did not. In a factual sense, we became Europeans, but in reality, we felt that we were not in fact Europeans.

Perhaps the reason for this lay in Europe itself? All of a sudden Europe was flooded with millions of people who carried the flag of a unified Europe, but who were clearly different from the old Europeans. Europe had long ago grown accustomed to our dissidents, our intellectual exiles, our intelligent and courageous better selves. But now, Europe had to cope with everyone and all at once—all the peoples who had been devastasted and crippled by communism… And Europe began to rethink its own identity. What is Europe? What should Europe really be? And what actually belonged to Europe?

Then these differences and economic inequality led to a decision that had to be made: Should we separate ourselves or unite for all times?

Cultural Studies

It is unpleasant but pleasant all at once. You are placed alongside the very people you worship. That certainly strokes the ego. You know that you are of their calibre and that you now have a title. Although, you are shy about that title.

Like I said earlier, I am all for being united. When I am referred to as a European, I feel the way I did when I was very young and others referred to me as a writer. It was pleasant in an unpleasant sort of way.

At the same time, being European draws you into the same realm with Goethe and Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Mozart, Kant and Hegel. In other words, such a rich depth of culture and intellectualism opens up before you that you are overcome with euphoria, and your head spins just from the thought that all this belongs to you now, and that you have evolved out of this.

And then you fall into a conflict deep inside of yourself—because you know you are fooling yourself. Contemporary Lithuania’s borders in those days did not reach the realm of those geniuses. You are surrounded with names and surnames of artists whose work says nothing to other Europeans. You grab at straws and search for the most miniscule traces in your realm of the great artists and thinkers of Europe. Like Kant’s Germanized Lithuanian university friends with whom he played billiards in Koenigsburg. A house in Vilnius where Stendhal spent the night while traveling East with Napoleon’s army. Or a train station in Western Lithuania from which Balzac, on a trip home, stopped to mail a letter to a Polish woman he was in love with. But these footsteps left behind in Lithuania by geniuses are merely episodic and as a result ineffectual. And that is when you must come to terms with yourself and admit that the Europe that you have dreamed about was never here. We have only just arrived in Europe. Or, there was another Europe here, one unrecognizable to the other Europe.

The Fantastic

And then I ask myself: What could unite those two or more Europes today and force more than thirty nations to give up their independence? It is a paradox, as is the need to be independent. The need to be independent from America, Russia, and all the other superpowers of the future. This is what the United States did over two hundred years ago. They broke away from us. Today we run from them.

I understand that a second separation—that of a total collapse of Europe—is also possible. But I’d rather not think about that. I think about the possibility of a natural disaster, a political disaster, one that there is no escape from if it chose to attack in the fullest sense. I do not want to consciously prepare for such a scenario. It is destruction, even natural destruction, like the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth. Well, it is all too much to contemplate… The possibility of the unification of Europe has many creative elements to it and it is much more interesting to think about.

What would happen if unification took place? We would watch the United States of Europe’s declaration of independence on television and lie down in bed at night as Hungarians, Spanish, Germans. But would we be Europeans? I believe not. We will be what we always have been and go off to work as usual, unless it is a weekend. If it is a weekend, we will sleep in. Maybe they would declare the day a national holiday. Then we will celebrate the greatest number of medals, more than in any summer Olympics.

There probably would not be any soccer championship. Just like today, if we no longer have Britain, we would lose soccer. A European“Dream Team” would be created out of Spanish, Lithuanian, French and other nationalities. We would hand hockey over to the Czechs and Scandinavians. They might as well represent Europe. All of these common choices would slowly raise European self-respect.

I do not know what the history of the USE would be. Would everything that took place leading up to the declaration remain as European tribal history? Or would it be somehow integrated into a larger picture? For example, the history of the country I used to live in, had a history that began in the year 1917 with the inclusion of a few earlier dates that led to its emergence. But that country had to put a lot of effort into expressing its ideological foundations. Europe does not have that problem and, thank God, never will.

I’m not sure about the name either. I do not like the name USE. The word “use” means to use in a concrete utilitarian sort of way. To use, in its sixth definition, means to use a person. But, this is something that is being worked on as we speak. The people who come up with secret names have received orders to come up with a subtitle that sounds good, something that we can all latch on to.

Whatever happens, I know one thing for certain—it will be interesting. I am curious to experience one more change of space within my lifetime. I would crawl into one more identity in order to understand that not only Dante and Schiller, but also Hitler and Mussolini, were my own. They were our evil geniuses. It would not be easy, but it would be interesting.

Geneaology

I admit it. I come from that category of naive European idealist. I want Europe. I want to nurture an European identity in myself. I search for evidence (justifications) for my nation and for myself to prove why we belong to Europe. Because the word “use” has many meanings, such as “the right to use” or “usefulness” or “habit to use” they all sound satisfactory to us. Because I need Europe, I have this habit of identifying myself with Europe. Because of this right to use there can be some difficulties. To overcome these difficulties I bought myself a Wizzair ticket to Italy. I want to go to Monte cassino, where my two uncles, my grandmather’s brothers, Bolekas and Vynekas, participated in 1944 in the greatest battle of their lives—the battle for Rome. One of them was a tank driver and the other was a foot soldier. They both survived. They arrived there from exile in Kazakhstan with the Polish Anders‘ Army. They traveled through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. In a word, it was an opportunity for two village boys from Belarus to save themselves from the Gulag. But that did not make the War any easier for them.

I want to climb that mountain, the one with the incredible fort-monastary of Saint Benedict. It was bombed during the battle and rebuilt after the war… I would like to climb up there and take a look at Europe with new eyes. With respect. There is a certain justification for this—two men from my family fought for Europe there and took Rome.

Not just any old city, but Rome.

When I visited Uncle Bolekas in California a few years ago, in a retirement home between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, he talked about Rome. Bolekas’s wife, Olia, visited Rome about ten years prior, during Easter. She complained that the city was very crowded and that exhausted her. My uncle then sighed and said without the slightest hint of irony in his voice: “We had no problems. We drove in with our tanks. Rome was empty. We were able to see the sights in peace and quiet.”

I know that this is only an illusion. I will not become more of an European after I climb to the peak of Monte cassino. Just like my two uncles. After the War they moved to Great Britain, where they were allowed to live with a partial refugee status. They did not have the freedom to leave the small village in southern England where they were registered. Vynekas remained there. Bolekas left. He made America his home.

Zoology

There was a man named Wojtek in that army. He was a bear and a fighter. They bought him for some canned goods in Iran and he remained with this army throughout the entire war. He was a hero, worthy of a novel or a film. He would load shells from the transport trucks and feed them to the tanks. He also ended up in Great Britain after the War, working in the Edinburgh zoo. They say that it was very sad for him there. He was constantly sick and only felt better when his old Polish warrior friends visited him. The old fighters would climb over the fence and sit and smoke with him. What image could be more alive than that of those old East European warrior-veterans, sitting inside a cage in the zoo smoking with their own bear. It is the most accurate visual metaphor I can think of that reflects their reality and status in postwar Europe. Or perhaps it was the attitude towards our Europe that was formed in the last century and which is still alive—the Wild European East. But here, I am lost in my pain. And that pain only pushes integration further away. It is necessary to think positively.

Physics

For example, my new acquaintance Marco from Calabria, who has been living in Vilnius for the last few years, said something strange: He said that he feels very safe in Lithuania. He did not feel safe traveling through Poland. He only felt safe when he crossed the border to Lithuania. He felt as though he had come home. At first, I thought that this Italian was merely being polite, that he wanted to belong. But he repeated this sentence on a few occasions, not searching for arguments, but convincing me that it was a purely psychological feeling that could not be rationally explained. I began to think about his words and to remember my travels. It is true that once I crossed the border with Poland, I would feel that I had found myself in a bee hive that continued across all of Europe. And when you return, you feel some sort of inexplicable calm, a stability. But that feeling belongs to me because this is my home. Why did Marco feel this way? Then I understood why. He also came from the edges of Europe. We were people from the edges of Europe, which would never be like the center. We will always feel a little inferior to that center, like second class citizens, but at the same time we will protect that center’s peace, and its stability, its quality of changing standards more slowly, holding onto what is old and testing what is new very carefully. One could name it more simply as the provinces, but the provinces are in the center and the edges have a different flavor altogether.

Then I began to remember other edges of Europe that I have visited: Finland’s Lapland, Norway’s north, Crete and Lisbon… Everywhere the feeling is the same: it is that same feeling of mesmerizing slowness. Temperaments differ, but the feeling is the same— a sense of stability, conservatism, and a careful listening to what is happening in the Center. All the people of the edges talk about Europe not like they were talking about something under their feet, but about something far away, although not so far away as to be difficult to reach. And here, in this moment, I feel as though I have found the answer to my long musings. I am separated from Europe by the past, by the mentality, or by someone else’s attitude, but only by the distance from the center. That distance will need to be conquered by Europe itself, if Europe wants to turn from a continent into an identity. Always and everywhere, beginning with the Big Bang, movement begins from the center and move out to the edges, and not the other way around. And we the people of the edges can only sit and wait until those European waves reach our foot soles. Europe will not be complete until they have reached us.

I have decided not to travel to Monte cassino. Maybe there is no point. Genealogical tourism is not the worst tourism in the world. From there I would travel to Apulia, Italy’s heel—the other edge of Europe.

I will visit the people who live there.

Marius Ivaškevičius

Marius Ivaškevičius is a Lithuanian playwright, screenwriter and director; he lives in Vilnius.

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