Tomas Venclova reading his poetry in the memorial library in the museum of the Venclova Family in Vilnius

Tomas Venclova reading his poetry in the memorial library in the museum of the Venclova Family in Vilnius

Interviews “One must do one’s best to undermine the system”

Tomas Venclova in a conversation with Stefan Ingvarsson on literature, Lithuania, and being a historical optimist in Europe today.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 28-38
Published on on November 21, 2019

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Tomas Venclova (born September 11, 1937, Klaipėda) is a Lithuanian poet, prose writer, scholar, philologist and translator of literature. He is one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. In 1977, following his dissident activities, he was forced to emigrate and was deprived of his Soviet citizenship. Since 1980 he has taught Russian and Polish literature at Yale University. Considered a major figure in world literature, he has received many awards, including the Prize of Two Nations (received jointly with Czesław Miłosz), and The Person of Tolerance of the Year Award from the Sugihara Foundation, among other honors.

STEFAN INGVARSSON: It is an acknowledged fact that you, Tomas Venclova, a poet and a scholar, represent a way of being European that can be called global Europeanism. You were born in Lithuania, studied in Russia, and have been working a considerable part of your life in the US. But I want to return to the very beginning of your life, since global Europeanism has to start somewhere. In your case, it starts in Klaipeda and in Vilnius. And I would therefore also like to start with Klaipeda. Is it a town that you visit often today?

TOMAS VENCLOVA: “Oh, yes, very often. I was born in Klaipeda, which was called Memel in German, and this is the historical name of the city. It is not very big: a harbor city on the shores of the Baltic Sea. I was born there but we had to leave Klaipeda when I was two years old. I was born in 1937. When Hitler took it in 1941, virtually all Lithuanians left, but later Klaipeda was returned to Lithuania, this time to Soviet Lithuania, in 1945. But throughout those years, it remained a Lithuanian city, and is still a Lithuanian-speaking city. Before the war it was a German-speaking city. In its history it is like a miniature Gdansk, or Danzig, with a very similar fate even though much less known and much smaller. People around Klaipeda were mostly Lithuanian speakers, just like people around Gdansk spoke mostly Polish or Kashubian. Klaipeda was an interesting amalgam of languages and cultures. It reminds me of the amalgam described by Günter Grass in his Danzig novels.”

Do you have any emotional or nostalgic attachments to Klaipeda?

“I definitely have a very strong emotional attachment to Klaipeda. I once wrote a poem about the city, A Poem about Memory. That is an old poem; in Lithuanian it rhymes and has a song-like quality, which was lost in translation, although the translation is good but still.

So, this is about Klaipeda, the city that had been almost totally destroyed by 1945. But some parts survived, including the house where I spent the first two years of my life; even the hospital where I was born is still there. I have a very strong emotional attachment to Klaipeda, just as I do to Vilnius, too. And I often mention it in my essays and in my poems.”

Your first journey was quite short because after Klaipeda your parents lived in the suburbs, or a village outside Kaunas, but it was Vilnius that became a formative city for you, where you moved after your father returned [from Russia in 1944]; what kind of city was the Vilnius you came to?

“That is a long story. My father was a leftist writer — a fellow traveler, as they said then. During the Soviet occupation he became Soviet Lithuania’s minister of culture. In 1943 he retired and became just a freelance writer, but he was still a member of the so-called nomenklatura. That is a long and complicated story, that I described in my last book Magnetic Nord, which is sort of a memoir or a very long interview. Those who know Polish literature might be reminded of Renata Gorczyńska’s Milosz par Milosz — my book is of the same kind. Or let us say, of the same genre as Solomon Volkov’s Conversations with Joseph Brodsky. I described my father’s story and my own.

Speaking about Vilnius: I came to Vilnius when I was ten years old and spent thirty years of my life in the city. Somebody said that Rome is a strange city — one must either visit it for three days or live there for thirty years. Anything in between is pointless. The same can be said about Vilnius. Vilnius is a city you can visit and understand a bit of in three days or in thirty years. I was lucky to spend thirty very important years of my life mainly in Vilnius, although I also spent part of the time in Moscow and St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, which I believe were also formative cities in my life. But Vilnius was most important. First of all, it was and still is a multicultural city, probably the most multicultural city in Europe, with the possible exception of Trieste or Prague. But I think it is even more multicultural, and more complicated. For several hundred years it was mostly a Polish speaking city. Those Poles who lived there considered themselves to be Lithuanians, and at the same time Poles and Polish patriots. There were also ethnic Lithuanians, speaking Lithuanian, who considered themselves Lithuanian patriots, but they were not so numerous in Vilnius.

If I were looking for a comparison here in Sweden to explain Polish-Lithuanian relations, then, in this part of Europe they remind me a bit of Finnish-Swedish relations in Helsinki or Helsingfors, Turku or Åbo, Tampere or Tammerfors, and so on. There is a similarity here. Swedes represented the aristocratic part of the population while Finns were peasants living not in the cities but around them. Such was also the case in Lithuania: Poles were the educated class, landowners and the nobility, living mainly in the cities, while the Lithuanians were peasants living around the cities. From the Lithuanian point of view, it was even worse in Vilnius since villages around Vilnius were also Polish speaking. I believe the authorities succeeded in resolving that situation rather wisely in Finland, but not in Lithuania, and therefore, some enmity between Poles and Lithuanians, though dwindling, is still perceptible there.

On top of this complicated situation there was also a Jewish population, and a very numerous one. Half of the city’s population were Jews with their own cultural milieu, great synagogues, great libraries and so on, speaking mainly Yiddish but also Russian. They knew Polish; some of them, but not all, even knew Lithuanian, but their preferred second language after Yiddish was Russian. Then, there was also Hebrew, the language of the synagogue, the language of scholarship, to a large degree, a language of literature. In addition, there were also Russians who came to live in Vilnius during the tsarist period from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 20th; and there was a more ancient group of Russians — the old believers — who had left Russia for religious reasons; and the very first Russian, even before the old believers, was Prince Andrei Kurbsky whom we could consider the first Russian dissident. Kurbsky left Russia under Ivan the Terrible’s rule [as a political opponent] and corresponded with Ivan in a famous exchange of letters. Recently this correspondence was declared to be fake, but I do not believe it; I even wrote an essay about it insisting that it was authentic and important as the very first historical monument of Russian dissent. Kurbsky is the patron saint of Russian dissent of all times. Going back to Vilnius, there were also Tatars living there, there were Karaites; there were Belorussians — and by the way for Belorussians, the city was a kind of Jerusalem, as it was for Lithuanians and Poles. The Jews also called it “the Jerusalem of the North”. The relationships between Lithuanians and Poles at certain periods also remind me, unfortunately, of the relations between Jews and Arabs in the real Jerusalem. As for Belorussians, Vilnius was their Jerusalem, while Minsk was something like Tel Aviv for them; their real Jerusalem was Vilnius. So you can see what an incredibly complex city it was.”

When you came to Vilnius, it was also a literary environment. We know what it was like then: the Jews have perished, the Poles are leaving, Soviet Russians and Lithuanians are moving in, and the university has been reopened as a Lithuanian university when you start studying there. Very soon, you also became a part of the literary milieu which was trying to create a literary Vilnius in Lithuania. Can you tell us about this environment?

“Yes, we were not very well acquainted with the literary history of Vilnius. First of all, it was part of Polish literary history. The best Polish poet of the 19th century and probably of all time, Adam Mickiewicz, was a student in Vilnius. His most famous Polish narrative epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, starts with the famous apostrophe, ‘Lithuania, my fatherland!’ This is paradoxical enough, for the best Polish poem of all times to start with ‘Lithuania, my fatherland’, but there is also a second level to the paradox, because the Lithuania he speaks about is not the Lithuania of today but Belarus. When I try to explain this to the Western public I usually say: imagine a German-speaking poet born in Transylvania that now belongs to Romania but then constituted a part of Hungary; a German-speaking poet who never visited Vienna or Berlin, was educated in Budapest, and started a beautiful German narrative poem with the words ‘Hungary, my fatherland!’ — while this fatherland is now in fact not Hungary, but Romania. This is a very, very complicated story. Also, the best Polish poet of the 20th century, Czesław Miłosz, graduated from Vilnius University that was Polish at that time, as it was in Mickiewicz’s time.

When I became a student at Vilnius University, I even wrote a paper about Mickiewicz in Vilnius and thus gained some knowledge of this, as well as of the Polish language, because when writing about Mickiewicz one has to understand some Polish. It was easy for me because my mother spoke Polish. She came from a mixed Polish-Lithuanian family and spoke both languages fluently. My father was a Lithuanian speaker, but he also knew some Polish, so for me it was rather easy since I learnt Polish early in my life, and especially because after 1956, Polish literature, periodicals, and Polish magazines all became extremely interesting, much more interesting than either Lithuanian or Russian newspapers.”

But this was also a specific period when Lithuania had become a Soviet republic; there was not really a lot of hope that this would change. People had to find a way of creating a Lithuanian environment for literature and the humanities inside the Soviet Union. How did you feel about this task at this time?

“Everybody in Lithuania felt extremely threatened by the prospect of Russification, since this was the practice of the tsarist period: all schools and all the press were Russian, and the university was closed. However, this time it turned out differently. Russians came to live in Vilnius in rather large numbers, but Lithuanians still prevailed. Nowadays, Vilnius is a Lithuanian-speaking city with a Russian community that is not very large; I would even say it is quite marginal. In my opinion, what really happened was not Russification but a different problem: Sovietization, that used the Lithuanian language for its own purposes. The university still taught in Lithuanian, most of the schools remained Lithuanian, the press was mostly in the Lithuanian language — but all of that was absolutely Soviet. In Polish there is an expression, ‘dębowy język, la langue de bois’ that means the ‘wooden’ Soviet language. There was Lithuanian television and Lithuanian theatre, but until the year 1956 or even a bit later, it was all totally Soviet. One was thus being transformed into a homo sovieticus, so to speak. First of all, it was somewhat boring. But secondly, all that was pure lies, for I saw life around me and it was difficult and dangerous, while in literature, in the newspapers, in the radio, and on TV (though TV started later) life appeared beautiful and perfect: life was entirely Soviet which meant the best in the world. One could develop a cognitive dissonance, I would say. But the city itself with its architecture and its multiculturalism was so interesting because it was beautiful.”

But you said that it took you several years to learn to appreciate it.

“Yes, because, as you see, on the shores of the Baltic Sea there are three Baltic capitals: Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. Riga is a beautiful European city very much like Stockholm, I would say, smaller but still similar. Tallinn is another beautiful European city looking like the towns on the so-called German Romantic road, like Rothenburg for instance. Vilnius, however, is totally different: strange, chaotic, and in some parts definitely ugly. But it has some magic that Riga and Tallinn do not have. A magic city, Vilnius: not even Paris possesses such magic. Paris is probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it still lacks a bit of magic. But Vilnius has it.”

It is probably the same kind of magic that Akhmatova would find in a good poet.

“Probably, probably. Miłosz also used to say that Vilnius is a magic city and that nothing is to be done about it. A charming and a very strange city. Maybe there is a similar kind of magic in Prague, but still Vilnius is better than Prague, for me. I often quote a story about a Lithuanian student who visited Europe in the early 1930s and wrote a book where he made the famous statement about Florence: ‘The city is nice, very similar to Vilnius, although worse.’ I almost agree with him. It definitely reminds one of Florence, but I like it better than Florence, and many people who have seen both like it better.”

So would you say that for you this poetry, history, and beauty became an antidote to Sovietization?

“Definitely, and very much so. And then things started to change. Stalin died, and in 1956 things started changing very seriously in that part of the world: first of all, in Poland. I was a Komsomol member at that time, part of the communist youth movement, and also one of the very small number who were called true believers. Partly because of my family, I definitely believed that communism indeed promised a happy future for the entire world.

Then, all members of the Komsomol in Vilnius University were informed about Khrushchev’s secret speech that said clearly and simply that Stalin was a killer, a murderer on the mass scale. While he was still alive, we had to learn a poem in school about Stalin by the best Lithuanian poet of that period, Salomėja Nėris. That was a terrible poem. It reminds me of one poem by Miłosz where he quotes the poem by Lucjan Szenwald, a Stalinist poem, one of the most beautiful Polish poems. From a technical point of view, it was on a quite acceptable level. I actually grew up with that poem about Stalin by Salomėja Nėris; I learned it at school. It so happened that I knew Salomėja because she was a close friend of my father. And then, in 1956, I found out that Stalin was a mass murderer of the same kind as Hitler. As for Hitler, I was pretty sure that he was, but I was not so sure about Stalin. It came as a shock. But just like some other Soviet people at that time, I decided that it was terrible and must be corrected.

Then something started happening in Poland: October 1956, known as the Gomułka thaw. I was nineteen years old and I said to myself that Poles were nice guys; they were starting to get things right. And then, also in 1956, something started happening in Hungary. And I said to myself that Hungarians were even nicer than Poles: they were correcting things very seriously, we still had a happy future before us. But then, the Soviets invaded Hungary and crushed the Hungarian uprising in the cruelest and I would say most absurd way imaginable. And for me that was like a Zen Buddhist exercise when the teacher taps you on the head with a bamboo stick. In a fraction of a second, you do become a real Zen Buddhist, you understand everything: who is Buddha, what is karma, what is nirvana — just everything. November 4, 1956 was for me that bamboo stick; on that day I understood. I understood that the system was incorrigible, that it could not be set right but could only fall. It would probably never happen during my lifetime, but still one has to do one’s best digging tunnels to undermine the system.”

One has to undermine it.

“Yes, yes, to undermine that system. One must do one’s best to undermine the system. And that was my life from the age of nineteen onwards for probably at least twenty years.”

But of course in order to be able to write full time in the Soviet Union, or translate full time, you had to be a member of the Writers’ Union.


And you applied to become a member of the Writers’ Union, both as a translator and as a poet.

“Yes, that was the story. When a person makes a decision to dedicate their life to undermining the Soviet system, then a very pragmatic question comes up: How to get an income. The best idea was to be a translator because you can translate Shakespeare, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky — perhaps not so much Dostoevsky, because he was not very much encouraged — but you can translate Tolstoy, Dickens, Adam Mickiewicz, why not? Probably not Wyspiański, but Mickiewicz was possible: definitely not Miłosz, because he was the enemy of the people, but Mickiewicz was ok. More than one person made their living as a translator. They were not necessarily unhappy. One was expected to translate in a politically correct manner, in the Soviet meaning of the word. But I avoided this and practically never did it. I translated neutral things: some fiction, from Russian but also from Polish because at that time I already knew Polish well; I also translated from English, and that was how I made a living. It was a modest living but it was acceptable, a way of living without any compromise with my conscience. But I was still expected to do some sort of office work. Everyone had to serve but that sort of work was compromising because in the office you were always required to do something strictly Soviet, so to speak. That was when I tried to join the Writers’ Union because when one was formally a member one could live on royalties only, without needing to take an office job. But my application to the Writers’ Union was rejected.

That was a simple story. The best known and most influential writer of that period, Eduardas Mieželaitis, said, ‘This candidate cannot be accepted because he does not correspond to Paragraph One of the rules of the Writers’ Union.’ I was not even aware of the existence of Paragraph One. But Paragraph One declared that the candidate must contribute to the strengthening of Soviet power by his or her work. Then, somebody explained to Mieželaitis that Venclova was applying as a translator. To which Mieželaitis retorted that as a translator I failed again to meet the requirements of Paragraph One because being accepted by the Writers’ Union as a translator was like an honorary degree, while I translated T. S. Eliot, Pasternak, and Akhmatova, but I never translated communist poets. In this sense Mieželaitis was perfectly right. Still, since they rejected me as a member my life became somewhat precarious.”

There was also that famous debate organized by the Writers’ Union in Vilnius between you and another young poet, or, according to another story, you were supposed to read in front of an audience, and the idea was to denounce you as a bourgeois poet, which they actually tried to do. How did you respond to this situation?

“It was like this. At that time Boris Pasternak had published his famous novel Doctor Zhivago, which I was not exactly fond of, to be honest. And I am still not a big fan of his novel, but I am a big fan of Pasternak’s poetry. When I met Pasternak, the only time in my life, a meeting that lasted only half an hour, I was introduced to him as a young fellow who was trying to translate his poetry. Pasternak said, ‘Do not do that; my poetry is pretentious, stupid, it is simply bad. If I wrote anything worth mentioning it is my novel.’ I did not agree with him; I rated his poetry then, as I do now, much higher than his novel. I even told him that I liked his poetry better, but I could not convince him. But then Pasternak, as probably everyone knows, was awarded the Nobel prize. He could not go to Stockholm, and was forced to reject the award. There is part of Doctor Zhivago that I definitely like. The novel is not bad, but it is more interesting intellectually than artistically. But there is one part of it that is really interesting from the artistic point of view. It is the poems in the novel that are supposed to be by Zhivago, but it is certain that Pasternak wrote them himself. Those are good, like every poem Pasternak wrote; those are really good.

One more story in this connection. These poems from the novel were circulated in the form of small typewritten booklets in Moscow, and not only in Moscow. I had one such typewritten booklet that I always kept with me, but once I forgot it in the student canteen. Ten minutes later I realized that I had left it on the table there, came back to the canteen, and said, ‘My goodness, I left the booklet with my own poems here’. The women who served the food brought me the booklet and said, ‘You write such beautiful poems!’

When my application to the Writers’ Union was being considered, there was another applicant there, a young poet of my age — a very talented man, by the way, very talented. He died some ten or fifteen years later, after he became a heavy drinker. Some of his poetry really makes sense and is still popular in Lithuania. But at that meeting the committee was trying to represent each of us as two different kinds of poet — one who was acceptable and another, in my humble person, who was unacceptable. One young critic said ‘Tomas Venclova’s poems could even have been written by Doctor Zhivago’, by which he meant that someone writing such poetry should be imprisoned, or maybe even shot, because Doctor Zhivago was definitely an enemy of the people, and so was Pasternak himself. They asked me what I thought about that. I said I could not discuss Doctor Zhivago because nobody there had read it, including myself. At that time, I really had not read Doctor Zhivago. And, I concluded, I was not prepared to discuss books I have never read. That was an insulting comment because a Soviet person was supposed to be able to discuss books he or she had never read and know everything about them — everything that was printed in the newspapers: For instance, that Pasternak’s book was inimical to the Soviet power, an artistic failure, and especially an ideological failure — but it had to be an artistic failure, too. Everybody was repeating these words about Doctor Zhivago all the time. So, at that meeting I said, ‘No, we will not discuss Zhivago, but I like Pasternak’s poetry. Pasternak is one of my poetic teachers; not only Pasternak, but also Mandelstam, and Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva.’ That was like a bomb, an explosion; the meeting ended, and I was not accepted by the Writers’ Union. I left the room together with one of my very close friends and talked about what happened, and I said, ‘Today’s meeting was like learning life’s meaning, the meaning itself of life.’ And that was true.”

What gave you courage in this situation? You were very young.

“Young people are sometimes courageous. On the other hand, there was the problem of my father. My father was an official person.”

He was the member of the highest Soviet elite?

“Yes, we can compare him to Kruczkowski in Poland, whom he knew, maybe also Broniewski with whom he was also acquainted. Nowadays, people in Lithuania often say how easy it was for ‘that one’, that is me, to be a dissident because his father always helped him. That is not true. For my father, my activities were a major problem, but he never lifted a finger to help me, though the family name probably helped. For that reason, I was probably more courageous than others. But that does not mean that I think the others were right to sit quietly. If I had a chance to say something out loud that other people were afraid to say I would say it. That was my position. That is the story.”

We started in Vilnius just after the war. You found yourself inside the reborn Lithuanian language university, inside the Lithuanian literature into which you were practically born and of which you became a part. However, quite early you also started reading Russian and Polish authors and promoting translation as a window onto other literatures. Could you please tell us about these relationships? On the one hand, you were a passionate part of the Lithuanian language and culture, a culture that was struggling to survive and remain under Soviet rule, while on the other hand, you were a young writer looking out into the world and trying to reach things that were not available in Vilnius or Lithuania. You went to Moscow very early. When I read your descriptions of Moscow, especially in your poetry, they produce an impression of grimness, cold, chaos, and oppressiveness. But at the same time, you said that the luck of finding the right people is associated with Moscow. They helped you on your journey to world literature, into the world of intellectual discussions.

“In pre-war Lithuania, during the interwar period, you could easily become acquainted with world literature if you wanted to, the most recent world literature, including Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Rilke, and Pasternak. All these were available in translation. Besides, people knew languages; English was not very popular at that time in Eastern Europe, but many people knew French and German, as well as Russian and Polish. One of the most popular poets in Lithuania was Oscar Miłosz, a distant relative of Czesław Miłosz. Czesław Miłosz used to say that Oscar Miłosz was
‘a better poet than myself and deserved the Nobel prize more than I did.’ Oscar Miłosz opted for Lithuanian citizenship and became a Lithuanian diplomat, although he never learnt the Lithuanian language; his native language was Polish, and his adopted language was French. He wrote in French, and was quite an adequate poet in that language.

In the Soviet period, all those possibilities were blocked. But I learned Polish and started buying books by Polish authors, such as Lem, Mrożek, Szymborska, and Różewicz. I also had a large collection of Western authors in Polish translations. That was a window into the world: you could read Proust and Kafka in Polish. It was a special situation with Kafka when someone brought seven copies of ‘The Castle’ to a Vilnius book shop. Proust was sold openly, as were Faulkner and of course Hemingway , but not Kafka. Kafka was burned, but those seven copies survived, and I got one of them. I used to say that Lithuania was the only country in the world that carried out Kafka’s last wish, because in his will, Kafka said that his books should be destroyed.

Most of those books were considered as acceptable and I gained some knowledge of Polish literature and poetry, including Miłosz. Books by Miłosz were never sold openly although one still could get isolated texts. His famous book Native Realm (Rodzinna Europa, or My Europe) arrived in Lithuania in an extremely complicated way: It was sent in separate pages in letters, or sometimes the pages were used to wrap chocolate or cigarettes. The process of transmitting the book took one and a half year. But finally, the entire text was in Lithuania and was made into a book. I got hold of it in its entirety.

Later, I went to Moscow, and there I found the right people. One of these was my first wife. She was the first love of my life, a very serious and important relationship for me, and she knew everyone. She introduced me to very interesting people. Of course I had read absolutely stunning Russian poetry of the Silver Age. For example, Mandelstam’s book Tristia: I still believe that this is the best poetic book of all times, including Horace or Petrarch. Mandelstam’s Tristia is the best lyrical book of all ages. I read it and I was not only stunned but also overwhelmed by it — there is a famous term invented by Harold Bloom, ‘the anxiety of influence’. I was influenced by Pasternak, and Mandelstam, definitely, but I think that anxiety of influence belongs to the poets who write in the same language. If you imitate poets who write in a different language, for example Russian, or Polish, or English for that matter, you do not feel, or at least do not feel that strongly, the anxiety of influence because the difference in language changes everything; the language creates the necessary distance.

I was also lucky enough to meet some survivors of that period, including Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda and Anna Akhmatova herself.”

Because I feel anxiety when I am under pressure, your story about Akhmatova in her last year gave me an excruciating feeling. You were taking her to visit a young poet living in a Moscow suburb. It was dark, his apartment was on the sixth floor, and as we know those khrushchyovki apartment blocks have no elevators …

“Thank god, it was on the second floor.”

Yes, but you took Akhmatova to the second floor without realizing that it was the wrong khrushchyovka.

“They looked extremely similar, yes. Akhmatova did forgive me but not immediately. If you are still not bored by my long talk, I will tell you a funny story about Akhmatova. Akhmatova was really a great poet and a great survivor. I was introduced to her and was absolutely paralyzed because it felt like being introduced to Pushkin, or Mickiewicz or even to Shakespeare. A university classmate of mine, Judita Vaičiūnaitė, now unfortunately deceased, and I, produced a book of Akhmatova’s poems translated into Lithuanian. Vaičiūnaitė only rarely left her apartment in Vilnius but I was a globetrotter: I went to St. Petersburg and presented the book to Akhmatova. I was told then that hundreds of hack writers used to approach Akhmatova but she was a kind lady and always found a way to deal with them. If she said, ‘Your rhymes are astonishing’ or ‘You are a master of the metaphor’, that meant ‘Just go away and never return’. But if she was genuinely interested in your work, she would say, ‘There is some magic in your work’. She said that to Joseph Brodsky, and Natasha Gorbanevskaia, but she only said it very rarely and just to a few people. To me she said, ‘Oh, Lithuanian, that is a very interesting language, a very unusual language, and I know for sure that it is the oldest surviving Indo-European language. Please read some of your translations.’ I read one translation for her, then another, and she said, ‘The intonation is OK’. That meant, ‘Go away and never return’. I was on the verge of suicide, but I was very lucky because immediately after my visit, Viacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov came to see Akhmatova. Ivanov is now also deceased, but he was a great scholar, a great linguist, and knew at least 50 languages including Hittite and Ainu; well, including everything. His Lithuanian was as good as mine. He was a very good friend of Akhmatova, and quite young, only ten years my senior, and I was still young at that time. He visited Akhmatova, and asked, ‘What is this? Oh, your poems in Lithuanian translations!’ He took a look at them and said, ‘You know, these are adequate translations’. Then, Akhmatova called me on the phone and said, ‘Now I know that there is some magic in your translations, so please come and see me; we can talk about different things.’ Which we did, and I am happy to have seen Akhmatova more than once in my life.

But our last meeting was that time when I brought her to the house of the young poet in Moscow and mixed up the buildings. Akhmatova was very sick; she had heart problems, and climbing even to the second floor was a problem for her. So that was the greatest mistake of my life, but later a female friend of hers called me and told me, ‘Anna Andreevna forgives you; you can visit her once more,’ — but it was too late, because very soon afterwards she died.”

How did you meet Brodsky?

“Brodsky came to Vilnius. As many of you know, Brodsky was arrested by the Soviets as tuneiadets, a social parasite, because he did nothing except write poetry. He also had some contracts for translations, but the court did not take that into account and decided that he was a social parasite and was to be sent to do manual work in Northern Russia for five years. The whole world reacted so trongly with protest, including Russia, by the way, so strongly that he only served two years of his term.”

It was one of the first times when international protests made a difference.

“Probably the very first time. They were not only international protests, because Akhmatova also did her best; she asked Tvardovsky, Marshak, and Shostakovich to speak on Brodsky’s behalf, and they all did. Brodsky was released and returned to St. Petersburg. But during his time in exile he had become a really great poet. In that village of Norinskaia he wrote about a hundred poems that are among the best Russian poems ever written. He wrote quite well even before his exile but after he came back it was absolutely clear to everybody that he was a poet of the same as stature as Pasternak or Akhmatova. When he came back, he was unhappy for various reasons, including strictly personal ones. His friend, Andrei Sergeev, the same person who I was trying to visit when I took Akhmatova to the wrong building, told Brodsky, ‘Joseph, go to Vilnius; you have never been there. There are nice people there; you will forget your troubles because you will meet the right kind of people.’ In Vilnius, like Moscow, you have to find the right people. One of those that Sergeev recommended was Ramūnas Katilius who was my classmate and a very close friend, a physicist who knew literature better than many literary persons. Ramūnas Katilius is unfortunately no longer with us, but back then, Brodsky went to his flat and it was there I met him. After some time we became not just acquaintances but even friends.”

How would you describe Brodsky?

“When I met Brodsky, I knew for sure that he was a genius: I had read his poetry. But as a person he did not make any special impression. A famous art critic and historian, Aleksandr Gabrichevskii, an old man, once said after meeting Brodsky, ‘This is the most talented man I have ever met in my life.’ And people would say, ‘Well, Mr. Gabrichevskii, shame on you! You have met Stravinsky, Kandinsky, and Tolstoy; how you can say such a thing?’ But Gabrichevskii repeated again and again, ‘This is the most talented man I have ever met’. And that was true. But in general, Brodsky was a difficult person. He could be arrogant, and he was also very vulnerable. He had incredible intuition. He was very happy in Vilnius; he fell under the spell of Vilnius’ magic. He wrote a cycle of poems about Vilnius, one of the best cycles ever written about the city. He also went to the Lithuanian seashore, to Palanga, where he made at least a dozen close Lithuanian friends, an important experience for him. In one of his poems he speaks about the Roman Empire and says that if you happen to be born in an empire, the best thing is to find a province by the sea to live in. For him, Lithuania was that province. Lithuania was also his substitute for Poland, because Poland and Lithuania are very similar, although the languages are very different. But generally, it is the same Catholic Baroque milieu, the same architecture. It also became a substitute for Italy, because Vilnius is an Italian city to a great degree, since it was originally mainly built by Italian architects and reminds one of smaller Northern Italian cities such as Bergamo, Vicenza, or Padua. Thus, Vilnius was really very important to Brodsky.”

And both of you ended up in exile. We must open up this chapter now. What brought you to this final decision, emigration? I know it was not easy.

“Brodsky was a bit afraid to go abroad because he was not sure that he would be able to write such good poetry there as in Russia. But he was forced to emigrate. Technically it was easy. He was Jewish and at that time, Jewish people could move to Israel even if there were some problems. But they did not necessarily go to Israel when they left the Soviet Union; they went to Britain, the United States, or elsewhere. So did Brodsky, even though he hesitated very much about leaving the Soviet Union. The first letter he received when he came to the United State was from Czesław Miłosz, who wrote, ‘Well, Joseph, I understand you are afraid that you will not be able to write in exile. This sometimes happens, but it is up to you. It is a measure of your work. Some people can work in exile; it is possible.’ Miłosz, for example, was one such person — but not the only one; Tsvetaeva also wrote her best work in exile, as did Mickiewicz. Cyprian Norwid wrote his entire work in exile. So it is not impossible. Brodsky said many times that that was the most important letter he ever got in his life. As for me, I was not that afraid about writing in exile, first of all, because I do not consider myself a genius. If a poet like myself disappears … well … At the same time, I had an inner feeling that I would continue writing and nothing bad would happen to me.

When Brodsky left, many people close to me had also left for the West and I found myself in a sort of vacuum, a total emptiness. That was difficult experience. I wrote an open letter to the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist party saying that I had never agreed with them during all of my conscious life, that this fact was no secret to anybody including the Central Committee, but that earlier I could contribute to Lithuanian culture. However, now I could not do that anymore. They simply stopped publishing me, even my translations, to say nothing of my original work. In this situation, I said, I feel that my staying here is meaningless. I appealed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the existing law, asking for permission to go and live abroad. What I was doing was absolutely crazy. I was not Jewish; I could not be allowed to leave for Israel. Such things were simply unimaginable. But I got some help; Brodsky, Miłosz, and Arthur Miller made my case famous. A play by Arthur Miller was staged in Vilnius and the theatre was full every night, but for some strange reason it was taken off the stage. Nobody understood why, not even the actors, not even the stage director could understand why. But I understood. That must have been because Miller had spoken on my behalf. Later I met Arthur Miller and asked him, ‘Did you speak on my behalf at that time?’ He said, ‘Yes, because Brodsky and Miłosz asked me to, and I signed a petition for you, and that is about it.’ So my guess was correct. My case became a cause célèbre, and finally they let me go. In contrast to Brodsky I was rather optimistic about leaving and this feeling proved to be correct. I was pretty sure that I would never get a job in my field, thinking that maybe I would become a truck driver in the Bronx. Why not? In many respects, it is better than life in the Soviet Union. But I was lucky. Thanks to Brodsky, Miłosz, and other people, I got a job in academia, and worked for thirty years in Yale, which is a good place, teaching Russian poetry to American students. That was good experience. And I never ceased to write poetry. I am not a very prolific poet. I write two or three poems a year. But still, during my life I have written about 250 poems; they have their audience, not only in Lithuania, but also in other countries. Speaking about Sweden, I now also have two books of poetry and a book of essays in Swedish.”

You have said that in the West poetry survives at university, while in the East poetry survives in prison. That was a view from the time of the Cold War, but how do you think this relationship looks today?

“First of all, I would say, that sentence is well known: in the West poetry survives on the campuses, in the East it survives in the camps. Now it is definitely different. Even in Russia, poets now rarely end up in camps; it still happens but it cannot be compared with the situation in Soviet times. It is different.”

Now it’s not writers but filmmakers, and theatre directors…

“Filmmakers, and sometimes even writers, but it is not as widespread as it used to be. If we are now talking of politics, I will dare, too. I am usually asked what I think about Vladimir Putin. Usually, people say, Putin is Stalin Number Two. To this I usually answer, ‘Well, you are young people, you have only seen Putin, but I have seen both of them. There is a difference between Stalin and Putin even though it is not as large as one would like it to be.’ But the difficult new situation for poetry is that interest in poetry is definitely diminishing. Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said that in any country, be it Sweden, Iceland, China, Russia, the United States, or Lithuania, there is always the same number of poetry readers, always a constant number, ± 1345, except that in small countries this means a greater percentage of the population reads poetry, and in large countries it means a much smaller percentage in relation to the population, but the absolute number, ±1345, is always the same. This is good joke, but in the Soviet period we made an exception to this rule of the Enzensbergian Constant, because there were hundreds of thousands who read poetry. Nowadays we are back to the constant, but this is not bad for poetry. I think in Mickiewicz’ time it was the same; there were probably ±1345 persons who read Mickiewicz. Maybe there were more, because of the political situation then that was like in the Soviet Union, but not many more. In the time of Norwid, there were definitely even fewer, even though Norwid is as good a poet as Mickiewicz. Brodsky considered him to be even better than Mickiewicz, but Miłosz did not agree.”

You have always been curious about the world and have tried to remain Lithuanian while at the same time be a world citizen. Coming from cities that were torn by nationalism, by ethnic cleansing and war, how do you see the present-day situation in Europe with its recurrence of nationalism?

“Well, first of all it is not so difficult to be a world citizen and Lithuanian at the same time. It is easy, a natural thing. I do not think there are many Swedes who consider this a dichotomy. A Swede is by definition a world citizen, as are English people, French people, or Italians, and so on. The same is true of Lithuanians nowadays. That dichotomy has become anachronistic and senseless. You do not lose your Lithuanian identity by becoming a citizen of the world. I do not feel like I lost mine. My Lithuanian language is probably better nowadays than when I lived in Lithuania. I am still contributing to the Lithuanian culture, not to any other culture. Some of my translations may be known in other countries, but these are only translations. I would say that of course, it was Vladimir Putin who started this anachronistic wave of populism in Poland, in Hungary, in the United States if you will.”

Or maybe Berlusconi.

“Maybe. I am not a specialist in Italian affairs, but I consider myself a bit of a specialist in Russian affairs. In our part of the world it started with Putin. Kaczyński in Poland is extremely anti-Putin and anti-Russian, because Polish nationalists are both anti-German and anti-Russian by definition, but at the same time Kaczyński promotes the same values as Putin — if they can be called values. I am happy that this has still not happened, and probably will not happen, to Lithuania. But of course such political trends do exist, and I am strongly against them, because it could bring Europe back to the situation which it was in during the 1930s. Everybody remembers how that ended for Poland, for Lithuania, and for Russia, by the way, and, finally even for Germany; it ended very, very badly. I do not want that situation to be repeated, and I argue against it strongly in my essays.



Identity is often connected to historical victimhood. I think that victimization should not be overstated, even though it is a real phenomenon. It definitely happens and it is a very bad thing, but it should not be overstated. Virtually every ethnic group, every nation was victimized at some period of its existence or another. But identity does not consist of that feeling of being a victim. Identity is an issue of free choice. One can choose Lithuanian identity without being a Lithuanian. For me, it was less of a free choice because I was born in that country, in that language, and I decided early enough that I should work for that country, for that language, for that ethnic group. But it is not necessary. Identities are fluid; they are interwoven, they are complicated. They are much more interesting than simply a product of victimization. Some people in Lithuania, lots of journalists, even writers, built their Lithuanian identity on this feeling of victimization but in my opinion, that is the wrong way to build an identity. Alexander Ginzburg, a famous Russian dissident, once said, ‘You Lithuanians have a stylistic problem. When you write for the underground press you always write ‘bloody communists’, but why don’t you write just ‘communists’ — that would make a stronger impression’.”

So when you look at this part of the world, that this center here is studying, are you an optimist?

“I will repeat something that I often say. There are various kinds of optimists. There are optimists as such and historical optimists. Optimists as such say, ‘Everything will end well’; historical optimists (to whom I belong) say, ‘Everything will end well, but I will not live to see it.’But when I said this to a group of Russian dissidents, one rather famous political figure of the Russian opposition said, ‘I am a strategic optimist, which means everything will end well, but I do not know when and how’. There was also a Ukrainian there who made the very best remark: ‘And I am an apocalyptic optimist: everything will end well but nobody will live to see it’. Still, I remain a historical optimist.” ≈

Note: This conversation was an open event taking place on November 28, 2018. It was organized by the
Centre for Baltic and East European Studies at Södertörn University together with the Institute for Lithuanian
Culture, and the Embassy of Lithuania in Sweden. This is an edited version. Transcription by Anna Kharkina.


  1. English translation: Poetry, September 1978, 344—345
  2. Antanas Venclova was a Lithuanian and Soviet politician, poet, journalist and translator. Following the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940, he was briefly appointed Minister of Education of the Lithuanian SSR. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, he retreated with the Red Army and remained in Soviet Russia during the Nazi occupation, returning to Lithuania in 1944. Between 1954 and 1959, Venclova was Chairman of the Lithuanian Writer’s Union. He died in Vilnius in 1971.
  3. Leon Kruczkowski (1900—1962) was a Polish writer and publicist, and a prominent figure of Polish theatre in the post-World War II period. 1945—1948, he was a Deputy Minister of Culture and Art. Leon Kruczkowski also held the following positions: Deputy to the Polish parliament (Sejm) from 1946 to 1956 and member of the Polish Council of State from 1957. He is recognized as having had a significant influence on post-war Polish cultural policy.
  4. Władysław Broniewski (1887—1962) was a Polish poet, born into the intelligentsia. Broniewski was closely associated with the political left. Upon the outbreak of World War II he was in eastern Poland, then under Soviet occupation, and was promptly imprisoned for his independent views.
  • Bjorn Ingvoldstad

    I’m in the USA (south of Boston) and my physical copy of the new issue arrived yesterday… As my son does his Lithuanian Saturday school, I got to have a coffee with Tomas Venclova… Thanks for the interview, and on the whole for globally circulating (for free!) such a thoughtful magazine… Trying not to be an “apocalyptic optimist” here stateside in 2019…

  • by Stefan Ingvarsson

    He was cultural attaché in 2015 at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. Various previous assignments as a writer, translator, moderator and also director of the Stockholm Literature Festival.

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