From Dissidence and the Singing Revolution to Conceptualism and Internationalization

Arūnas Gelūnas
Lithuanian ambassador to UNESCO

Photo credits: Zinas Kazėnas


A notorious Western diplomat once remarked that he finds Vilnius’ cultural scene amazingly rich for a city of little more than half a million inhabitants. It is tempting to assert the same holds true for Lithuania as a whole, a country now of a little less than three million. Thus, the reader of this text is kindly asked to tolerate the fact that covering this rich scene in a one-page essay is only possible at the cost of many nuances and important details. Given these limitations, it is nevertheless interesting to examine how the perception of the role of culture differed in the Lithuania of the Soviet era and what major cultural changes were brought about by the re-establishment of Independence in 1990.

The generation of Lithuanians that graduated from at least secondary school during Soviet times might agree that “culture” in pre-Independence Lithuania and “culture” today are not exactly the same thing. In a one-party political system accompanied by total media censorship and the foreign policy of the Iron Curtain, the only oases for authentic human existence were either private spaces or theatres, jazz festivals and exhibition halls (often accompanying or even replacing the persecuted and censored Catholic Church). Cultural institutions and, even more importantly, cultural personalities, at least some of them, played an important role in providing people with a sense of dignity, resistance against the oppressive political system served by the media, and a hope that someday all this might change. Aesthetic aspects were also important, but the role of culture was by far greater than that of a sense of pleasure.

Every artistic or architectural experiment, every phrase by a thespian that teetered on the verge of offense to the system, every reference in a poem that hinted at forbidden themes was welcomed by the public as a form of resistance and dissidence.

Arūnas Gėlūnas

Thus, it is not surprising that people of culture played a crucial role in the political movement of the late eighties called the Reform Movement of Lithuania (Lietuvos Persitvarkymo Sąjūdis), mainly known as Sąjūdis. At its first meeting on June 3, 1988, the Sąjūdis Initiative Group was formed. The group consisted of 35 members, more than half of them famous artists. It is probably thanks to them that the Lithuanian Independence movement acquired the moniker “The Singing Revolution.” The powerful protest demonstration of 1989, The Baltic Way, a 600-kilometer-long living chain of over two million Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians holding hands could also, in fact, be considered an artistic performance.

What were the important cultural changes brought about by the declaration of independence in 1990?

First of all, there was exposure to the international culture scene that was almost entirely lacking during Soviet times. To some, this meant the beginning of a successful international career, to others, frustration in the face of challenges they were incapable of surmounting. This exposure was very productive for theatre, resulting in massive international success for several Lithuanian directors and actors, namely Eimuntas Nekrošius (b.1952), who became an international star during the two following decades, staging a number of drama and opera performances in prestigious European institutions. Another success story belongs to a director of a much younger generation, Oskaras Koršunovas (b.1969). Koršunovas was a student of the prominent theatre director Jonas Vaitkus (b.1944), who became a welcomed visiting director in Scandinavia and France and an icon for an entire generation of young Lithuanians. Both creators helped attract a number of a first-rank theatre stars to Lithuania, resulting in two important festivals, the revolutionary LIFE festival (1993-2001) and the Sirenos festival launched by the Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre in 2004.

Similar processes could be observed in other areas of cultural life. The visual arts, for instance, had to cope with a radical paradigm shift as the modernist experimentation with form was challenged by contemporary conceptualist strategies which, to the majority of artists from the elder generation, seemed an offense to the very idea of art. However, this did not prevent the creation of the Contemporary Art Centre and a series of successes for Lithuanian pavilions in the prestigious Venice Biennale beginning in 1999.

Political freedom brought with it economic challenges, which especially affected the situation of such expensive art forms as cinema and opera. Commissions and financing from Moscow ceased in 1990, so the Lithuanian Film Studio, the central agency for film production, had to close. The old centralized model was replaced by a number of smaller independent film companies that helped young film directors make their names known not only in Lithuania, but also abroad. Today, three major international film festivals attract thousands of visitors each year. It seems when God closes one door, he opens another.

Among many other Lithuanian cultural successes, one may enumerate a real explosion in book publishing, a number of international music and dance festivals, and even a new circus. However, while foreigners continue to joke about Lithuania being a “best kept secret,” (hinting at the modest character of Lithuanians preventing them from marketing their country’s culture properly), probably the best presentation of Lithuanian culture in the English language was initiated by the Ministry of Culture and developed by a group of authors in the form of a book and website entitled The Lithuanian Culture Guide and, respectively. There is no doubt that the information contained there will compensate for all the shortcomings of my little essay.