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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Gabriele ZAIDYTE: The most bohemian literary cafe in Lithuania is at the Writers’ Union

1 March, 2011 - 00:00

Gabriele Zaidyte is the attache for culture in the Lithuanian embassies in Ukraine and Georgia. She regularly participates in the organization of the international literature and other art events. Besides, Gabriele is also an art historian and a musician.

How would you characterize Lithuania’s cultural policy: how does governmental support relate to private initiative?

“This question is very complicated yet simple. In art the initiative of writers, artists and musicians is more important. Of course, the government sets certain limits. It doesn’t really matter what we’re talking about: the cultural industry in the country or international festivals — without the artists’ will and understanding the support would be less efficient. For example, in Vilnius there’s a very interesting phenomenon, the cultural community of one district. It’s called Uzupis, and it’s situated on the other side of the river. Probably, it owes its creation to both historical aspects, as Uzupis is a beautiful ancient district that was built during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Art Academy, which attracted creative types. It’s an artistic district, a ‘Vilnius Montmartre,’ where artists have created their own republic. They found money for their projects and opened bookshops and art galleries themselves. They even have their own holidays. For example, if you walk in the street and the street is blocked, it means that the artists might have some holiday — Wind Day or Sauna Day. They have their own ambassadors, for example, the ambassador of the river or the ambassador of the wind, the Dalai Lama is their representative as well; they have their own passports and constitution, and on one of the bridges there’s even a sign informing that you are entering the Uzupis Republic. Certainly, not only artists live there, a lot of ordinary people live there as well, and this district is great for tourists. However, it wasn’t created by the government or local authorities, it was a private initiative. We should recall that in the 1980s Uzupis was quite dangerous, especially at night. But now everything has changed, all the republic ‘founders’ are legalized, they are legal entities and they can be more involved into the organization of various presentations and poetry festivals. At the beginning there was an easy and ‘private’ bohemian atmosphere, which is very attractive now, as you go there and you know that in this yard the first independent fashion shows or art exhibitions were held. Those yards are neglected, as the Art Academy students were looking for something ‘nearby’ and not something luxurious. That was their style, and, what is more important, their meaning of life. I don’t know if this comparison is relevant, but it reminds me of Podil in Kyiv. It’s a certain conglomerate of the creative people.”

Do you have a formal Writers’ Union and, if so, what are its functions? For example, in Ukraine they sometimes discuss whether it’s needed at all…

“Certainly, we have formal unions. They are almost the same as the Ukrainian ones. However, their official status doesn’t prevent them from being really modern. At the beginning of the 1990s all our unions were ‘revolutionary’; they have been the intellectual vanguard since then. The most bohemian Lithuanian literary cafe is at the Writers’ Union. It also has its publishing house and when you open their books you know that you will enjoy genuine literary language. Many writers of the younger generation are Union members, but they also form their independent groups… Suffice it to recall the Lithuanian-Ukrainian project of 2008 called Synestesia: some of the participants from both countries were the union members, and the Vilnius part of the project was held in the main hall of the Writers’ Union. So, this Lithuanian organization is open to modern projects, it isn’t conservative or monopolistic and it pays a lot of attention to literature.”

Do you like working in Ukraine and Georgia?

“I will start with Ukraine as we have some common history which has to be discussed. Ukraine is a very interesting country, and a lot of my friends come here again and again. There’s ‘something’ which is difficult to verbalize, probably the mentality, the perception of the world, and we’re always in touch, which is why it’s easy to work. We have published the book called Lithuanian Age in Ukraine, but the book Ukrainian Age in Lithuania can be published as well, as there are many Ukrainians in Lithuania. I was surprised that our languages share a lot of words: skrynia (a chest), hruden (December) and lots of others. When I talk to Lithuanian and Ukrainian dissidents, most of them say: ‘we’ve been together and we support each other.’ There are lots of similar parallels. For example, this year we are going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mikalojus Ciurlionis’ death. Back in 2008 my colleagues and I held an exhibition called ‘Ciurlionis and his Contemporaries’ in Odesa, as Ciurlionis went to the Caucasus through Ukraine and the port of Odesa. The first group of his followers gathered in Odesa, in the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. So, there are some parallels show and they acquire special significance, let alone more important events. For example, in 2012 there will be the 650th anniversary of the battle at Syni Vody. This brings to mind Kamianets-Podilsky, Medzybizh, Ostroh — moments of our common history. In 2008 there was a week of Lithuanian culture in Lviv and we held a great exhibition on Ukrainian and Lithuanian gentry from the Lviv Gallery archives. The portraits were exhibited together with photocopies of Lithuanian baroque paintings. I couldn’t even think then that the cultural and historical dialogue between the paintings and photographs would be so successful. It would never have been possible if we hadn’t belonged to one and the same world.

“Unlike Ukraine, Georgia is very remote, which is why we can even joke that the Georgians are Lithuanians, and everybody will really take it as a joke. Georgian cinema and theater are close to us — the Lithuanian Young Theater staged a play about Pirosmani, and even the mentalities are similar. It should be noted that for a long time after the revolution Ukraine and Georgia have been important countries for us. Not without reason did the Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Polish presidents support Georgia in 2008.”

How does Lithuania promote its literature in the world?

“We have the Lithuanian Book literary center, which is responsible for translations and grants, organizes book fairs and deals with the participation of Lithuanian publishers in international exhibitions, lobbies for publications. It’s also very important that Lithuania is part of the Halma Network of literary centers and in Vilnius there are residences for foreign writers and translators who can work there on their translations from Lithuanian. This everyday communication between writers from different countries is sometimes more efficient than formal receptions. We also have the Vilnius Review in English, where we try to show the newest and the most interesting things happening in Lithuanian culture.”

Which of these ideas could Ukraine pick up from you now? And which areas do you think might be problematic?

“The number of Russian books in Ukrai-nian bookshops makes me worry. It’s especially noticeable when many publishers get together, for example, at the Publishers’ Forum in Lviv. This is dangerous. I realize that Ukrainian books are not that numerous, and it’s impossible to create a powerful dumping-center, but what I saw was so unexpected, I couldn’t imagine a similar problem before

I came to Ukraine. Being the attache for culture, I understand that culture comprises variety and dialog, but your situation gives me food for serious thought.

“I wish the young Ukrainian writers to participate in international events as much as possible. For many years the Lithuanian Embassy in Ukraine has been holding a festival called ‘Magnus Ducatus Poesis’ (The Grand Duchy of Poetry), a festival for poets from Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Latvia. The fact that Serhii Zhadan, Halyna Kruk, Oleh Kotsarev, Dmytro Lazutkin and other interesting authors have already attended this ‘duchy of culture and creativity’ is very positive. If the government supported not only Ukrainian artists, but was also ready to welcome other Europeans it would give the possibility to open Ukrainian literature, art, traditions and values to the world.”

Which modern Ukrainian books did you like?

“The book by Tamara Hundorova The Literature and the Kitsch is interesting; I think it’s quite a fresh study. Urbis and orbis is interesting, too… I also read quite a few Ukrai-nian guide-books. I have recently visited the Ivan Honchar Ukrainian Art Museum and I was impressed by its collection — in that place I could feel your identity and I especially liked the photo portraits of Ukrainians, which make up the large collection of retro photos from different regions of your country. So, the photo album Ukraine and Ukrainians is also on my shelf.”

We know that you’re not only a diplomat, but also a cello player. For example, at the Meridian Czernowitz poetry festival you played in a duo with the German attache for culture. Could you please tell us about this event?

“Yes, I played with Harold Herman. We first played at the Modern Music festival in Odesa; it was Harold’s birthday and we had to play at 1 a.m. The Lithuanian composer Arvidas Malcius wrote Traces on the Sand especially for the concert in Odesa. In Chernivtsi we played modern German electronic music. Certainly, both of us are diplomats and we don’t have much time for musical projects, but we’re still planning to record a CD together. It brings to mind that the best dreams are the ones that are not realized (laughing)…”

Interviewed by Yulia STAKHIVSKA