Archive for October 8th, 2014

Tomas Venclova: the future of the Balts and a “cowardly Leningrad hooligan”

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

An optimist … but a particular kind of optimist…

My friend Ramūnas Katilius, who died on Sunday, is still much on my mind. Last March, the physicist and Soviet-era dissident had written to me of his concern about Russian incursions into Ukraine, but added, “Here in Lithuania, however, we feel rather secure, as we are in NATO and our borders are patrolled by international NATO forces, and NATO jet fighters controlling the air space – actually at this time its USA F15s that are doing the job, with six more fighters arriving to Shiauliai air base just today.”

That was some months ago, and I’m a pessimist. I’m on my way today to the Hoover Institution, where I will be live-tweeting a talk by the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who will be giving a keynote address, “Against All Odds: The Path of the Baltic States to the EU and NATO,” in conjunction with the 3-day conference “War, Revolution, and Freedom: The Baltic Countries in the Twentieth Century.”

I’m a pessimist, but the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who is also a prominent Soviet-era dissident and human rights activist, is not. He was in the Russian press a few days ago here, and earlier in the Gazeta Wyborcza here. (Please make allowances for your humble and inadequate translator.)

“Putin has demonstrated that he is willing to do anything to intimidate others, but in fact he is more rational dictator than many others, and carefully calculates what he actually does, depending on the costs and benefits,” he said.

Can we expect bombs on Vilnius? Tomas thinks not. “I believe that Putin, in the depths of spirit, is a  cowardly Leningrad hooligan who won’t do that, because he knows that then he would die, and lose his children, his money, along with the rest of that nice life that he leads.”

“He goes crazy, and the world fears him, thinking he is a gentleman in the spirit of Hitler. But Putin is a more rational dictator. I do not like spreading defeatist sentiment – that the West is powerless and venal, and that Putin is doing what he pleases, and that here we have a third or fourth world war, which Putin, who is wiser and stronger, will win. This is stupid and facilitates Putin in his game.”


An F15 … if, like me, you hadn’t a clue…

The journalist asked if the Russian regime finally gave up its “vegetarian diet,” using the poet Anna Akhmatova term to describe the Soviet Union’s less warlike moments. Said Tomas: “I wrote a poem about it. A little style in the style of Cavafy or Milosz … Yes, the monster is putting out his tentacles again, although I’m called a historical optimist – I think that everything will end well. Mr. Putin appears to be unpredictable, but he only uses this to enhance his alleged unpredictability.”

Tomas elucidated his philosophy to me in an email a few months ago, as I was fretting about the state of the world, as I am wont: “I’m a so-called historical optimist and do not think jihadists, Mr. Putin or whoever of that kind would prevail in the final account.” Then he defined his terms:  “Historical optimist can be defined as a person who says: ‘All will end well, but I will not see it.’ One Ukrainian writer defined himself as an apocalyptic optimist – a person who says: ‘All will end well, but nobody in the world will see it.'”