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Is non-patriotic art a crime in Lithuania?

We sang a feminist version of the national anthem as part of a show. A far right nationalist politician complained. Now the police are investigating us.

Aira Leonidovna
28 October 2013

This video is an extract from the performance, containing our feminist version of the Lithuanian national anthem. 

Lithuania's criminal police commissioners have opened an inquiry into a piece of performance art. Three of us created a show, which took place last year: poet and student Ramune Brundzaite, artist and social activist Fiokla Kiure, and myself, a book editor and social activist.

Now Ramune and I are being investigated by the police.

Why did the police summon us? Simply because our performance included the singing of a slightly reworked version of the Lithuanian national anthem.The complaint against us was lodged by Marius Jonaitis, a member of the ultra-right nationalist movement “Tautininku Sajunga” (Lithuanian Nationalist Union). Some might think that the police need to reconsider their priorities.

The year is 2013, but it is clear that in some countries there is growing conflict between modern free speech rights and a dangerous form of ultra-patriotism. Two members of feminist punk rock band “Pussy Riot” are currently incarcerated in Russia – one in a prison she describes as routinely perpetrating human rights abuses - for their critical political protest in a church. It may be too early to draw a direct analogy, but it is pertinent that the laws in our country allow for the same two year prison sentence as in Russia for “incorrect” art.

Our performance looked at what the national patriarchs of Lithuania and pioneers of Lithuanian culture have written about women’s role in society. We mixed quotes taken from the press at the end of 19th century and the first half of 20th century with folk proverbs. This included phrases like: “Everything that woman cannot give to their children is not a woman’s need; belief in god is enough”, “Woman should not have menstruation. Menstruation can be treated as abortion because woman wasted her ovum instead of reproducing a child” and the incredible: “What the woman does even demons could not do”. And there were more.

Through our performance we learned that an outdated masculine-patriotic discourse which arose in the 19th century still reigns in 2013. But we wanted to honour the feminist women who were also pioneers of Lithuanian culture, derided in public discourse of the time as “bluestockings”. The last part of our show featured the singing of a song similar to the Lithuanian national anthem, with some changed words. Instead of “son” we used “daughter”, “fatherland” became “motherland”, and so on. Created in 1898, the Lithuanian anthem only names masculine features (sons, men-heroes, fatherland). From a contemporary perspective it might be considered discriminatory.

As it turns out, this artistic performance may be viewed as a desecration of state symbols, an act which may be interpreted to be illegal according to Lithuanian law. We still have laws that say that symbols of the state must be respected. Though the complaint has so far led to police summons for Ramune and myself, more of us may yet be investigated.

So if a Lithuanian citizen or a visitor to the country treats an official symbol, such as the state flag, coat of arms or state anthem, unpatriotically, she or he can be indicted with reference to the criminal code clause no. 127– desecration of state symbols. The worst sentence carries two years of imprisonment.

Despite massive emigration and a huge number of suicides, which often are related to socio-economic problems, Lithuanian public discourse is highly patriotic. The annual ultra-right demonstration during Independence day (March 11th), which always contains a significant neo-nazi element, was recently praised by the President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite as a demonstration of “national youth”.

At the same time that the police cater to the complaints of ultra-nationalists, violent crime is on the increase. Lithuania has the honor of having the highest homicide rate in the whole European Union. One particularly gruesome crime reveals the inadequacy of the current system.

At the end of September a 17-year old girl was raped and burned to death in the boot of a car in a Lithuanian provincial town. She called the police three times, but they somehow could not find her location. The system which should prevent vicious crimes clearly is not working when women are still treated as objects which can be used and thrown away afterwards. Meanwhile, the police are busy working on “a case” to make sure feminist art is treated as a crime.

In the centre of capital city Vilnius there is a government-built monument to Vincas Kudirka, the creator of the Lithuanian national anthem. Many people have forgotten or choose to ignore that he was also an anti-Semite. During the Second World War, Vilnius was the centre of the Jewish holocaust in Lithuania, and it witnessed the murder of approximately 133 thousand  Jews even before the Wannsee Conference. Pogroms were also carried out by Lithuanians. We cannot forget these historical facts when we pay our dues to national heroes. Kudirka is a case in point. Uncompromising patriotism means a lack of critical thinking when we talk about history and state symbols.

The uproar over the feminist performance reveals a divide between two ways of thinking. The first, which is maintained by conservatives, is based on upholding tradition regardless of whether this tradition is discriminatory. This paradigm is useful when the government wants to spread ultra-patriotism instead of paying attention to the real problems of here and now. The other way of thinking is rooted in human rights and equality. This paradigm allows us to look at both past and present critically.

Lithuania currently holds the EU presidency. In a so called 'free democratic country', court practices which create the atmosphere of a police state deserve wider publicity. We hope this starts a debate within Lithuania and in the international community: what is more concerning, a feminist art show or violent crime and the rise of ultra-nationalism?

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