Future-Past Infrastructures of Poland and Lithuania
Poet Tomas Venclova in his article “I am suffocating” describes the lack of skepticism, free thinking, and cosmopolitanism in contemporary Lithuanian society.1 Dull patriotism, based on a careless comprehension of Lithuania’s history as the history of the Lithuanian nation merges with a critique against the few immigrants who actually physically live there. In the provocative words of Leonidas Donskis, left societal critique, based on such values as equality, social justice, or solidarity, is absent in Lithuanian public discourse: “do leftist values exist in Lithuania? Frankly, it is a rhetorical question. Of course, they don’t.”2 Ignorance has created the perfect soil for the further growth of inequality and the rise of populist right-wing parties in Lithuania – similarly these trends have both taken root both directions, which, unfortunately, seem to have been taken in Poland.
The Left in Poland, although visible among intellectuals, is internally fragmented and is not represented in the Polish Parliament. Although there is nothing even close to the Polish party of Razem or a branch of the DiEM25 in the Lithuanian political scene, both countries are currently guided by right-wingers. It is disconcerting that in Poland the idea of the welfare state has been adapted by the ruling populist right-wing party Law and Justice. It has dangerously essentialized the Polish identity by establishing a myth of a morally highbrow, provincial, religiously fanatic political subject.
With neo-liberal politics ostracizing significant segments of populations in Lithuania and Poland, who did not manage to succeed in the newly founded capitalist regimes, and right-wing populists taking over the governments with promises of a better life and higher morals, in this article we ask what future is there for Poland and Lithuania, which would take into account the Left’s values, build on existing infrastructural practices, and would not be perceived as pro-Putinist.
One of the most current prominent speculations about the Left’s future comes from leftist accelerationism, which is to be taken very cautiously. The coiner of the term, Benjamin Noys, argues that the defining feature of accelerationism is its interest in the future: “Accelerationism, briefly stated, is the attempt to punch through the limits of capitalism by accelerating forces of abstraction and technology embedded within contemporary capitalism.”3 The future task of this new anti-capitalist leftist subject is to nurture a sensitivity towards justice for the global working class, and fight against global exploitative capitalism. Noys himself rightfully critiques the leftist accelerationism as being out of touch with reality: “this metaphysical vision is a vision of tendencies, not concerned with actualities but with virtual possibilities.”4 For instance, the current inequality in the European Union is visible not only among the working classes of each member state, but also among the nation states themselves. However, this geopolitical inequality is grounded in a complex history, and the idea of a multi-speed Europe is often forgotten in the universal discourse of European unity (or exploitation).
We, instead, build our notion of the future on Walter Benjamin and Sami Khatib, where “‘no future’ is the watchword of the anti-utopian historical consciousness of the present, the ultimate gesture of affirming the lack of historical completeness.”5 Here, the present is not a neutral a-historical playground upon which different futures could be modeled, but a condition where many fragments from the past still exist in the present and can radically shape it. The future does not emerge from a void; unless, it is a marketing term used to convince potential customers to invest in yet another disruption.
The task is to move forward, and acknowledge the past-futures; be aware of past failed idealism, but support a materialist one: build new infrastructures which, in turn, redistributes. If, as McKenzie Wark argues, “the problem of organization is at once one of resources, techniques, human and inhuman forces, affect and information,”6 then the future task is not only to nurture the global working class subjectivity, but to actually – physically – build and maintain necessary infrastructures, which secure housing, pensions, income distribution as well as fostering difference and mental health among the European Union member states and beyond.
Throughout history there have been different cultural models of what the future of Lithuania and Poland should look like. In this article, we look at some ideas about the colonial, post-colonial, and anti-colonial futures in this region. We explore what we call the DIY infrastructures – those, which take into account the question of social justice. Short recourse into these historical ideas should not be perceived as nostalgia; rather, it is a discussion about the future of Poland and Lithuania which aims to resist the past by acknowledging some of its ghosts.
The Future Pasts of War
Something about the word combination State Future rings the bell marked – “War”. Especially for Poland and Lithuania the territories of which are packed tight between the interests of Russia (Imperial, Soviet, or, now, Federal) and the West. The prospect of falling prey to the outside interests of larger states puts the military imagination above all else, as if it is deemed to ensure the basis of our future – the existence of the state, and through it – our existence.
At the onset of WWII, Lithuanian geographer Kazys Pakštas dreamed up the idea of “Extra Lithuania.” It could have been an overseas territory acting as a back-up state. According to him, Lithuanians should plan their emigration routes and, in this way, colonize new territories. These new places, densely inhabited by Lithuanians, could become national autonomic provinces. Living together abroad could help Lithuanians avoid losing national identity; such a territory could also serve as a Plan B, should a war break out in Europe.7 Another alternative idea of his – symptomatic of the dominant militaristic imagination of the times – was Lithuania acting as “a buffer state in a conflict of great nations, where often the opposite interests of Slavs and Germans intersect.” He proposed that borders of small states should be identified by international tribunals so that small states would be relieved of the burden of participating in ideological conflicts.8 One could argue that Pakštas’ ideas were fueled by the common sense of the times – pre-war geopolitical angst – but even if that is so, don’t they strike us as both outlandish and utopian? What could have been Extra Lithuania/Poland/Syria/Jamaica/Pakistan – territories populated by immigrants only – in a contemporary metropolis we would call an “urban ghetto.” And what could have been buffer states safeguarded from the so-called “ideological interests of the great nations,” today are precisely the platforms for NATO military exercises and Russia’s hybrid influence. Not only destabilization is real,9 it is amplified by populist politicians carrying the “proud nationalist” torch and further inciting anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-minority sentiments.
After WWI, Polish politician and general Józef Piłsudski put forward the idea of Intermarium or Międzymorze. It would have been a multinational federation stretching across Europe, including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Piłsudski thought that Intermarium, being a strong union, would strip the Russian Empire of its territorial claims. At the time Intermarium was rejected as a form of imperialism and the idea was suppressed throughout the Soviet period. During his Presidency Lech Kaczyński brought the idea back onto Polish agenda.10 Branded as “Three Seas Initiative” during Andrzej Duda’s term, the initiative topped the military concern with economic issues. The future of the “Three Seas Initiative” is based on promises of a stronger position for the post-Soviet countries in the European market and energy independence from Russia.11 However, some EU officials see this initiative as disruptive to European unity, because, it could provide the Eastern partners more leverage in negotiating, for example, migrant quotas12 and gender policies – the very things that can help populist right governments to keep their seats at home.
Instrumentalizing small states for the gain of big players is so habitual in foreign policy – we rarely stop to think about it. For example, some ideologues from the early onset of the 20th century believed that the Baltic countries, Poland, and Finland could serve as a “sanitary cordon” – a barrier against the spread of Bolshevik ideology.13]A similar but reversed idea has been reiterated today by Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, who claims that NATO and the US seek to create a sanitary cordon between Russia and Europe, and Russia should do everything in its power to prevent this from happening.14 If Poland and Lithuania truly are Cordon sanitaire states, falling between the ill and the healthy, what does the future of the region looks like, for example, from one of six military watchtowers, recently erected on the Polish-Russian border? What kind of future is envisioned inside the quarters of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Lithuania, which recently pushed the return of conscription? And, who are the ill and the healthy?
Compared with 1939 and the early 1990s, today’s life in Poland and Lithuania is past the struggle of national and state survival. Yet the question “are you with us or against us”15 is raised at every instance where anybody tries to discuss military spending. The future built on conflicting binaries, seems chaotic, not bright.
Against Assimilation, Against Nationalism: Left Future Pasts
The leftist visions from the past, or the leftist future pasts, in Poland and Lithuania criticize flat ethnic nationalism, because this region has been everything other than a territory comprised of one or two ethnic groups. The multiplicity of queer identities that existed in this part of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) throughout the centuries is often deliberately forgotten; complexity creates difficulties for the conservative, militarized identity construction of transitioned nation states.
The leftist future pasts from CEE drew upon two main issues: fostering the existing cultural diversity and reduction of economic inequality. Double and triple identities, such as Polish-Lithuanian-Belorussian were common. The murderous dictatorship of the Soviet Union also tackled the question of inequality not only by allowing everyone to be poor, but also by supporting universal health care and free education, but probably here the focus should be laid on the “murderous dictatorship.”
The Left in CEE was, of course, composed not only of Stalin, Lenin, or Trotsky and their derivatives. For instance, one of the leaders of the The General Jewish Labor Bund, Vladimir Davidovich Medem, was famous in promoting his idea of “neutralism.” The Bund, a Jewish Socialist movement, was founded in 1897 in Tsarist Russia and Poland.16 It demanded full civil rights and cultural autonomy for the Jews, and support for the economic needs of all of the workers.17
“Neutralism” is an important leftist future past which invested in and struggled with the national question. Medem’s idea of neutralism rested upon the wish to stop the most powerful national group of suppressing the weakest minorities and pushing them to assimilate to the mainstream culture.18 Medem supported the idea of granting the same rights for multiple nationalities, and their protection by the state through “national-cultural autonomy” (this concept and focus upon nationalities was highly despised and perceived as destructive by both Lenin and Stalin).19 However, Medem scorned traditional nationalism and assimilationism; his envisioned neutralism denied the fixed and stable identities of nations. Rather, neutralism was concerned with the distribution of power to “defend weaker nations from majority oppression.”20 The meaning of national groups thus corresponds to a “more subtle, a shade or color that modified other, more concrete bodies: states, classes, institutions, and so on.”21 The future of Poland and Lithuania could have been built upon the celebration of a multitude of differences and economic justice at the same time. Instead, the Bund was destroyed in Poland by the Nazis, and abolished in Russia after the communists closed down all other political parties.22
Nevertheless, today its weak power is still perceptible as a fragment from the past. Joanna Mazurska writes about Czesław Miłosz, Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, Josef Škvorecký, György Konrád, and Tomas Venclova, who have since raised their voices in CEE to support multiculturalism, universal politics of social justice and spoken against narrow-minded ethnic nationalism.23 But most of these people are poets, and all of them are male. Working-class women speak in silence.
These leftist future pasts in Poland and Lithuania in a way stood for inter-sectional justice, anti-assimilationism, and distribution of power and wealth among classes, diverse in their queer nationalities. Today, these visions from the past present a romantic narrative, which is currently buried among the corpses of their authors. At school, Lithuanians usually need to read Kazys Boruta’s book Baltaragio malūnas (Whitehorn’s Windmill) – the masterpiece of Lithuanian literature – but who is interested in Boruta’s anarchistic activism? Not many. The contemporary postcolonial futures of Poland and Lithuania instead focus their energy on the promises of an exhausted modernizing progress. Such futures of now build their narratives upon the colonial visions of Poland and Lithuania; the Bund or Miłosz are usually left to yearly literature festivals.
Post-colonial Futures of Now
In 2017, social networking websites in Lithuania were caught in the ecstatic joy sharing the news that the UN changed the status of the Baltic countries from Eastern to Northern Europe. Bearing in mind that the UN enacted such a classification in 1992, the joy was symptomatic. It exposed the future that Lithuanians would wish upon themselves – finally becoming a part of the progressive European North and not peripheral East.
The larger problem with being part of Eastern Europe is lack of ownership over its own story. In the Futures of Now, Poland and Lithuania are enfolding in the eyes of others. These Futures never belonged to them, but – as Post Pravda’s Patrick Doodle judges – is “something to be projected upon them.”24
A meta-narrative of the New East – promoted by Calvert 22 Foundation and the Calvert journal, and ignorantly taken in by the UK’s Guardian – draws the regional lines in the “post-colonial” fashion. Calvert is associated with Kremlin through its strategic partnership with VTB Capital. A subsidiary of VTB Bank led by close allies of Russia’s president: an internationally recognized representative face of Russia’s banking sector, Andrey Kostin, and Anton Siluanov, currently acting Minister of Finance of Russia and First Deputy Prime Minister.
According to Calvert, the New East is “Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia.” The ever-so-trendy objectifying gaze peculiarizes soviet Brutalism in architecture, exoticizes tracksuits, and Khrushchev-era housing, bemuses in wild feminine standards and mystifies the post-kolkhozian village life abundant with poverty and alcoholism.
While the post-colonial gaze from Russia enrages virtually every good Pole and Lithuanian, self-colonization to serve the needs of the global market is eagerly welcomed, even if it comes at a price of reducing social guarantees for workers and the further decline of the welfare state, which merely existed before.
Follow a local boy carrying a skateboard. Enter Warsaw’s Business District from Mirów, enter Vilnius Business District from Šnipiškės. Leave the collapsing buildings behind. Business districts in Poland and Lithuania are the new type of cities, built entirely for investment. Keller Easterling calls it “the Zone.” Thanks to low rents and labor costs, a number of corporations have moved their operations to the Region. With average net salaries of 722 euro in Lithuania and 793 euro in Poland,25 they are attractive destinations for migrating service economy and call centers, software testing and IT divisions. The future vision of the region here is built on straight lines, concrete and clean glass profiles producing upright sun reflections. Between the manicured lawns, locals look like set decorations.
And it’s not only about the looks. While children’s health, public morals, and family values are in the tightening grip of the populist governments, the other hand “liberalizes” labor law to attract and sustain foreign investment. “Expects maximum, gives minimum” – this is the name of the piece on work ethics at Amazon, Uber, and Ryanair by Adriana Rozwadowska. The same article that enraged Amazon in Poland so much that it threatened Rozwadowska with legal persecution for slander. “Mega-corporations through the pressure they exert on our states determine our future” – writes Rozwadowska.26 She was not the first journalist in Poland to receive a letter from the Amazon corporation. Karolina Lewestam and Patrycja Otto from “Dziennik Gazeta Prawna” after their not so favorable articles on Amazon labor conditions received emails as well.27
“It’s only natural that corporations seek profit” – apologetically exclaims the private liberal soldier. But how “natural” is it to give up your labor rights and freedoms for the sake of that profit? Have you ever heard of the concept “understaffed” – that is so often reiterated now in cultural institutions in Western Europe – in Poland and Lithuania? Neither had we. Here this condition simply does not exist. It seems like we now are situated and destined – to do more maximum for lesser minimum.
When Western models on how post-soviet democracies should develop take unexpected turns, we act surprised and a bit disappointed. So long the dream of progress! But to a larger extent the societies in Poland and Lithuania tend to understand the conditions that lead to low election turnouts, “EU grant sucking,” widening disparities in pay gap, nepotism, and the dark side of privatization. Market, military, and populisms are fast, reflection is slow, and we are not sure if anybody wants to listen.
The future strength of CEE lies in its ability to perceive itself as queer. In addition to the destructive boredom, naive orientalization, or supportive power politics of “the East” by “the West,” however, CEE countries have been sabotaging themselves for decades.
Queering the identity of CEE means supporting the organizations, which strengthen the equality of difference. It also means starting to literally train one’s brain every morning and think of Poland and Lithuania as places which are made up of multiple shades of identities. Poland, today an ethnically extremely homogeneous country, has managed to comfortably forget its pre-war cultural diversity.28 Refugees are not only not welcome in Poland – their relocation is refused.29 The majority of those who manage to get asylum status are coming from Ukraine.30
Made poor by the war, the Ukrainian worker is turned into a cheap laborer in Poland and Lithuania. But Lithuania is not well known on the global map of immigration, simply because few want to come here.31 Actually, Lithuania is currently undergoing a massive emigration itself: in 2017, almost 48,000 people emigrated and only 20,000 came in. In 28 years of independence, Lithuania has lost 24% of its population.32 To depart from the spin about deceitful national minorities we need to stop thinking in minority and majority terms, recognize plurality and therefore possibilities for different citizen subjectivities, that may or may not include being Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, German, or other. Being identified does not presuppose political position.
The infamous debilitating corruption of the 1990s resulted in wild privatization of property and land. It also made a few of the citizens of Poland and Lithuania very rich. The biggest landowner in Lithuania, the leader of the “Peasant Party” Ramunas Karbauskis is one tragicomic example, but many keep out of sight. Such people, this wannabe elite of today, are educated in using the power of essentialization and division. They support and maintain one possible “Baltic identity” or “Polish identity” to gloss over the mysterious ways they have purchased 22,000 hectares of land.
The statistical growth of the EU economy should not prevent us from supporting ideas on a currently unimaginable perspective of the EU-wide equalization of wages, pensions, and healthcare. International discussions can help to widely acknowledge massive differences in EU living conditions and strive to better them for all. When Western Europeans hear that the average pension in Lithuania is lower than 300 euros today (to scare some Lithuanians: in Bulgaria it is often less than 100 euro), they gasp in surprise.
One could say the national euphoria of the 90s was a lost opportunity to rethink the historical legacy of interwar nationalisms in Poland and Lithuania, and the post-WWII forced resettlements led by the Soviet Union with the support of the Allies. By failing to reflect on past crimes and settle them, we contributed to the creation of memory institutions which today continue to project the “innocent victim” image and cover up the holocaust and antisemitism.33 If we could practice recognizing our role in the past – surely, it would be painful and embarrassing – but maybe it would allow us to break the silence standing between us and the fading generation, the one that can still remember and tell us what happened during and after the war.
There is a way to recognize painful memory (instead of the current handpicked celebratory moments) and still move forward.
The region is stable today, but individual lives are not. American futurists, Heidi and Alvin Tofflers, predicted the death of permanence and the emergence of transience – “the new “temporariness” in everyday life.34 Although Toffler’s generalized transience as an all pertaining trend, today we can be more specific. With global investments occupying empty buildings in every city, millions are homeless or struggling to pay the rent. Although many Polish and Lithuanians take pride in owning where they live, privatization and real estate developers with a wave of gentrification can push out residents and collect revenues for what communities have been creating for decades. We need new forms of ownership to sustain what is beyond public and private. The further development of commons to include cultural and communal production could assist locals in keeping the fruits of their immaterial labor. Similarly, as the quality of air or water is evaluated, and the polluters are being fined, the quality of being in particular places in the city could be evaluated too. The status of the commons could be given not only to air, water, complex habitats, which we surely want to sustain, but also, to places which were created by decades of being together. Maybe this could also serve as an instrument to slow down the skyrocketing rents.
Current economy requires us to be efficient, enthusiastic and think innovative. Bonus points for that occasional #lovemyjob selfie! In return it often pays us back with uncertainty and precarious working conditions.
While some of the people take retreat in individual self-care practices, others disdain, for instance yoga, due to its complicity in neoliberal ideology of discrete self-improvement and competitive success. As Laurie Penny claims, while a fetishization of hopelessness on the Left and individual care of the self on the Right are stuck in extremities, “gentle support can be tools of resistance, too.”35 On the one hand, if you are a leftist, feeling-sharing can be perceived as not being an action that is systemic enough. Vanity. On the other hand, the rhetoric of mutual support has a tendency to ignore feelings of the silent part of the group while working for the “common good.” Power dynamics are inherent in every group. In other words, it is difficult to build up one’s energy in order to care for others without being abusive in a system that is abusive.
But in Poland and Lithuania conversations about stress have not yet become a part of a public debate.36 Fetishizing work is a legacy from the past, a current tool for survival, and overdoing based on desire to live in dignity.
Although self-care will not dissolve economic inequality, some type of chill out mode in Poland and Lithuania could not cause harm. It could be the beginning of developing individual and communal creative and physical capabilities. Support for each other in the non-competitive USSR was not only rhetoric, as our experience tells us, but it has been slowly dissolving. One of the infrastructures for communal action that remains is mushroom picking.
In Germany, public officials have been issuing leaflets for refugees explaining the dangers of mushroom picking in Germany: it can lead to death. If you were seen with a basket of mushrooms in Berlin, people would look at you with fear. However, not in Vilnius or Warsaw: it is a sport, a tradition, a practice of relaxation and resilience building, which always involves a moment of risk. Mushroom picking could be fostered and used in education, because it is an inclusive, but disappearing past-time. It relaxes, excites, feeds, and is freely available for everyone. Mushroom picking is not a sectarian solution for a problem that is global, but it has the strength to develop the existing infrastructure of relaxation commons which can help us to stay sane.
Miglė Bareikytė is a PhD researcher at the DFG-funded research training group “Cultures of Critique“ at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. She holds degrees in Communication studies, Media studies and Political theory from Vilnius University, Vytautas Magnus University and Free University of Berlin.
Her current research focuses on the ramifications of actors and practices that have produced the Internet as infrastructure in post-socialist Lithuania, with the special attention given to telecom geopolitics and media anthropology in the Baltic states. Her general interests comprise issues of transformation, migration and distribution of power in Europe.
In the last couple of years, Bareikytė conducted ethnographically inspired research on Lithuania’s Internet, co-organized international workshops on media politics and research (“Post-X Politics“ and “Field of Critiques” at Leuphana University), gave a seminar on Digital Media Economies at Hamburg Media School, among other things. Miglė currently resides in Berlin.
Viktorija Rusinaitė, PhD, is a researcher, activist and consultant interested in regimes’s transition in former Eastern Bloc. She is a co-founder of research unit ‘Balticada’ combining academic, journalistic and artistic know-how to explore and analyze socio-political developments in the post-soviet sphere.
She is one of the organizers of Congress on Public Spaces in Vilnius and and co-creator of location based demilitarization games in Šančiai, Kaunas and Karoliniškės, Vilnius. Her recently defended PhD thesis on Belarusian Political Nomadism explores situations of inbetweeness experienced by traveling activists and organizations.
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 Noys, Benjamin. Futures of Accelerationism. Talk: FASTER/SLOWER/FUTURE The Road to Post-Capitalism, Kaaitheater, Brussels, Belgium, October 22–23, 2016. In: Academia.edu. Online: https://www.academia.edu/29295882/Futures_of_Accelerationism, p. 1.
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 Gechtman, Roni. National-Cultural Autonomy and ‘Neutralism’: Vladimir Medem’s Marxist Analysis of the National Question, 1903–1920. In: Socialist Studies. Online; http://dx.doi.org/10.18740/S4Z01X. p. 69, p. 67–68.
 Ibid. p. 73.
 Ibid. p. 70.
 Ibid. p. 75.
 Ibid. p. 79.
 Ibid. p. 66.
 Mazurska, Joanna. Making Sense of Czeslaw Milosz: A Poet's Formative Dialogue with His Transnational Audiences. Dissertation. Submitted August, 2013, Vanderbilt University. Online: https://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/available/etd-07192013-111040/unrestricted/Mazurska.pdf, p. 210.
 Doodley, Patrick. What is the 'New' in the 'New East'?. The New East and the Western Gaze. In: Postpravda. Online: http://www.postpravdamagazine.com/what-is-new-in-new-east/.
 Wikipedia interactive map listing average wages as reported by various data providers. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_average_wage, accessed 15 October 2018.
 Rozwadowska, Adriana. Oczekują maksimum, dają minimum. Dlaczego mam obsesję na punkcie Amazona, Ubera, Ryanaira?. In: Wyborcza. Online: http://wyborcza.pl/7,155287,23770306,oczekuja-maksimum-daja-minimum-dlaczego-mam-obsesje-na-punkcie.html.
 Autorki tekstów o Amazonie czują się zastraszane. In: Onet Wiadomosci. Online: https://wiadomosci.onet.pl/kraj/adriana-rozwadowska-otrzymala-pismo-od-amazona-po-jej-tekscie-o-firmie/ecg0q4q.
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 Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. Bantam Books. 1990. p. 44.
 Penny, Laurie. Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless. In: The Baffler. Online: https://thebaffler.com/war-of-nerves/laurie-penny-self-care.
 Eurofound. Work related stress. Report. Online: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_files/docs/ewco/tn1004059s/tn1004059s.pdf.