Friday, July 3, 2009

Professors and Politicians in Vilnius

Apparently, it is one thing for a Yale University Professor of History to explore parallels between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and quite another for politicians to acknowledge that professor's work. The professor in question is Timothy Snyder. The work is the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which is not scheduled for publication until October 2010. However, this past May 9 Snyder delivered a lecture in Vilnius on material that will be included in the book; and a text based on that lecture has appeared in the latest issue of The New York Review. I found that lecture sufficiently fascinating that it inspired a post I wrote this morning.

That post concerned using Snyder's material as a new lens for critiquing the evangelism of globalization and economic growth, particularly from evangelists such as Tom Friedman. However, according to a BBC NEWS report, there are Russian diplomats not interested in reflecting on Snyder's position:

Russian delegates have walked out of an OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] session in Vilnius after it voted for a remembrance day for the victims of both Nazism and Stalinism.

The pan-European security and democracy body passed a resolution equating the roles of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in starting World War II.

Moscow's delegation boycotted the vote after failing to have it withdrawn.

I suppose it is possible that neither Snyder's lecture nor the OSCE meeting would have taken place had Vilnius not been named European Capital of Culture of 2009; but it is a prime example of the sort of "bloodland" that Snyder is examining in his book. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Vilnius was seized by the Soviet Union on September 19, 1939, two days after it had invaded Poland from the east. When Hitler abrogated this Pact in June of 1941 and launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, Vilnius quickly fell to the Nazis. After the Second World War Lithuania became a Soviet Socialist Republic, with Vilnius remaining as its capital. The city thus had the experience of "both German and Soviet armies passing through … twice, in attack and retreat" (as Snyder put it in describing Belarus and Ukraine). As its Wikipedia entry cites, Vilnius also played a major role in the history of Judaism:

A major scholar of Judaism and Kabbalah centered in Vilnius was the famous Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, also known as the Vilna Gaon. His students have significant influence among Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the globe.

One of Snyder's points, however, is that there were both Christians and Jews in Vilnius who managed to survive the horrors of both Hitler and Stalin; and, perhaps in recognition of its "Capital of Culture" status, the OSCE saw fit to memorialize those who did not survive. Unfortunately, this did not play well with the representatives of a country that has been experiencing recent revivals of Stalin nostalgia as he becomes a more and more distant historical figure. I suspect that the irony of this situation will please the ghost of another controversial historical figure (this one from music history), who (again according to the Wikipedia entry) was honored by Vilnius back in 1995:

In 1995, the world's first bronze cast of Frank Zappa was installed in the Užupis district with the permission of the government.

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