In the wake of Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius’s feeble and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to take down a public monument honoring Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika (a.k.a., “General Storm”), Vilnius City Council is set to take up the question of another monument – this one dedicated to pro-Soviet Lithuanian writer and public official Petras Cvirka. A monumental statue of Cvirka looms over one of the capital’s main public squares – a tribute to another collaborator from a bygone era that the city’s conservative politicians have long been keen on removing.
There can be little doubt Cvirka was immortalized by Lithuania’s Soviet government as much for his enthusiastic praise for communism and service in various Soviet structures as for his literary works. Cvirka served as secretary of the presidium of the sham parliament convened at the start of the first Soviet occupation that was supposed to legitimize Soviet rule in Lithuania. He was even part of the infamous delegation “sent” to Moscow to request Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. He was known for speaking eloquently about the marvels of the Soviet system and its “great leader Stalin”.
After the end of the Second World War and the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania, Cvirka became president of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union where, just like during the first occupation, Cvirka put himself at the forefront of the ideological and literary defense of the Soviet regime and its actions, which included mass deportations to Siberia, vicious persecution of religious groups and other atrocities. As head of the Writers’ Union, he suppressed critical views and reported “disloyal” colleagues to authorities. For example, writer Kazys Jakubėnas was brutally interrogated and sentenced to five years of forced labor for the “anti-Soviet activities” reported by Cvirka.
Why the City of Vilnius and a democratic Lithuania would want to rid itself of a monument to such a man is clear, though, like Noreika, Cvirka is also not without his defenders, most of whom emphasize his literary merits as reason enough to maintain the monument. What is curious, however, is how quickly and unflinchingly Lithuania’s Genocide and Resistance Research Centre, asked by the City Council to analyze Cvirka’s case, declared him an “active collaborator” whose activities caused “large scale and harmful consequences to the Lithuanian state and its citizenry”. Remember now: this is the same Genocide Centre that excuses and minimizes the role played by Nazi collaborators like Jonas Noreika, whose actions could just as readily be described by the exact same quote.
Like the communist Cvirka, Noreika was an ideological fellow traveler and servant of an occupying regime. There was his anti-Semitic pamphlet “Raise Your Head, Lithuanian”, published before the war that referred to Lithuania’s Jews, who had been living in the country for centuries, as “foreigners”, blamed them for “living it up” while “designing new ways to suck money out of Lithuanians”, and urged a boycott of all Jewish businesses. According to historian Bernardas Gailius, who does not seem to share the Genocide Centre’s compunctions about calling Noreika what he truly was, even before the war, Noreika and his ideological brethren were busy “drawing up enemies lists and plotting coups” to take Lithuania down the road to fascism. During the Nazi occupation, Noreika was head of Siauliai district and signed orders to put the district’s Jews into a ghetto (the first step to their ultimate annihilation) and nationalize their property. How this is in any significant way less “harmful to the Lithuanian state and its citizens” than what Cvirka did beggars the imagination.
But, apparently, for the Centre and its sponsor, the Lithuanian government, which has done exactly nothing to distance itself from the Centre’s hypocritical assessments, some collaborators, to borrow George Orwell’s phrase, “are more equal than others”. An analysis of Noreika’s wartime activities published by the Centre goes to extraordinary lengths to excuse and confuse, basically casting Noreika not as the willing and conscientious collaborator that he was, but as almost a victim that the Nazis somehow “succeeded in involving” in “matters related to the isolation of Jews” (a more bureaucratically-worded exculpatory description of his role in the Holocaust could hardly be imagined).
In Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm, the animals chase away their oppressive human masters only to find themselves re-enslaved by the pigs they placed in charge. The pigs become just like the former masters. Slogans of liberation become excuses for oppression. Both Cvirka and Noreika oppressed others in the name of fighting oppression. Both claimed to be fighting for some sort of liberation. And, yet, for both, some fellow citizens were “more equal than others”.
What a shame that, in treating Lithuania’s Soviet collaborators as the villains they were while excusing and minimizing the crimes of Lithuania’s Nazi collaborators, Lithuania’s government simply continues down the tragic path Orwell warned us against. How else to describe the Lithuanian government’s double standard? If you praised communism and had colleagues locked up and sent to forced labor camps, clearly you are a villain. But if you were an anti-Semite who locked up and looted your Jewish neighbors so they could be exterminated? “Well, it was complicated”.