Since the establishment of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas in 1922, around eighty distinguished people have been awarded Honorary Doctorate or Honorary Professor’s degrees for their merits to Lithuania and VMU. Honorary titles have been granted to the Presidents, the Signatories of the Act of Lithuanian Independence, historians, archaeologists, political scientists, internationally recognised poets, VMU community members, Lithuanian and foreign intellectuals. On May 15, the respectable community was joined by two persons – Mykolas Drunga, an American Lithuanian journalist and lecturer, and Stefano Bianchini, the Professor of East European Politics and History at the School of Political Science at the University of Bologna, Italy.
Among other impressive achievements, he has been honoured for, the professor is the international coordinator of MIREES (Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe - more on it here), the innovative graduate programme taught entirely in English, offered in four universities in Europe including VMU and University of Bologna. There’s a lot to talk about!
First of all, congratulations on becoming VMU Honorary Doctor! What was your reaction to the big news about receiving the title?
This is something I didn’t expect. Surprise caught me! Of course, I perceive it as recognition. It's true that I have developed lots of contacts between the University of Bologna and VMU, we have worked on lots of projects together, but I didn't, in fact, expect such an outcome. For me, it’s a great pleasure and a recognition. I am grateful to all of my Lithuanian friends for the fact that they thought about me in this way.
Is it “friends” rather than “colleagues”?
Yes, definitely. I have been mainly engaged in the internationalisation of my university for the last 30-40 years, and what I also developed is a network of friendships. Being friends, we don’t have barriers. A frank, open discussion in a friendly atmosphere is what’s needed when starting and developing projects.
Do you remember particular events that caused your interest in Lithuania and the Baltic states?
I became more focused on the region thanks to VMU and the friends I have found in Kaunas! I first met professor Ineta Dabašinskienė when she visited Bologna and our campus in Forlì the first time when we just started to speak about a potential joint program. She later involved her friends in this project, professor Egidijus Aleksandravičius, professor Leonidas Donskis. Both of them encouraged and pushed me to focus my attention to the history and political development Baltic countries because my expertise initially was on the Balkans and the Soviet Union. We had a lot of discussions with Leonidas Donskis about politics and the historical dimension of the Baltics. These were the elements that allowed me to become more interested in the Baltics than I had expected.
In Italy, the knowledge of the Baltic countries is insufficient. We have only one expert on the Baltic languages Pietro Umberto Dini. He’s from the University of Pisa, and he speaks fluent Lithuanian. He’s working within the framework of literature and language. So, we lack a lot of knowledge, and it's not so easy to encourage our students to develop the understanding. They consider the Baltic countries too little. Therefore, we had a lengthy discussion with Egidijus Aleksandravičius, where we touched a fact that Lithuania is not only the country within the current territorial space; it's a broader influential state. This encompasses the territory of the Commonwealth and the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. When I encourage students to think in these terms, their perception changes, and, thanks to the cooperation with VMU, we have students that are regularly coming here, studying your language and becoming experts of the regions.
It’s also true that our students are not necessarily Italians. This is another element that allows spreading the knowledge about a particular area of Europe, thanks to the fact that we have international programs.
What about Lithuanian students you have met via MIREES? Have you been following the career paths of at least a couple of them?
Oh, yes, a few of them are working here in VMU! Another one got the PhD here, he was also a tutor in our international program MIREES and is now teaching in Novi Sad, Serbia.
Most of the students I have had the chance to meet in MIREES are doing excellent. I was at a conference in New York two weeks ago, and eight of our former students were presenters there. Most of them are doing PhD or are already with the degree, in universities like Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard. This is the result of our joint project with VMU.
What values do you communicate to your students, not necessarily in the academic sense but in a broader perspective?
One of the critical points is to understand that we are within the European Union. This means that we are within a common framework and we have to work within it. This is why I give great relevance to international programs. They allow our students to work together, to visit each other’s countries, to learn about each other’s lifestyles, habits, even gastronomy. We have Italian students that decided to live in Lithuania, not only to study. They found jobs here, even love, which is not a bad thing, too. All of these elements are parts of the culture. You can’t only focus on what you’re studying in the class! It’s the overall experience that leads you to have transverse skills in addition to the knowledge of the subject you’re. I think this is one of the secrets of the success of the international programs. They offer opportunities to scholars who then are reconsidering their angles through which they see our common developments.
The students should understand that they are the elite of our future and will be responsible for our peaceful future and the integration. This is a tremendous task; not everybody understands this, especially in this period, when we have lots of populism, racism, xenophobia rising in many countries including Italy.
What I am trying to explain to them that it’s relevant to be Europeans. Within this framework, I have to mention Leonidas Donskis again. With him and Ineta Dabašinskienė, we have published a book called “European Memory: A Blessing Or a Curse?”.
We have been instructed for many years that the established nation-based independent countries are the end of history. To what extent are we aware that we share a lot of things? Take, for instance, Duchess Bona Sforza who forged a bridge between Vilnius and Milan in the times of Renaissance. Can we imagine Italian renaissance without Flemish painters? I repeat this to my students in Italy all the time – you would never have had the highest concentration of UNESCO sites in the Italian peninsula without the fact that everybody came to this peninsula, and not necessarily as tourists! All of the people have contributed to the development of culture in this peninsula. This is also firmly connected to civil rights, the gender roles, the development of recognition of equality among the people, the coexistence of indifferent religions and habits. This is something that we are representing in the future of Europe and past as well.
Has your faith in the European Union ever been shaken by specific events or people?
Honestly, when I was teaching about EU enlargement between 1990 and 2000, I was much more enthusiastic regarding seeing the future in a positive way. Now, I am still enthusiastic, but much more concerned. I understand how many problems we have within the EU and globally. We are navigating in a very dissolved world where lots of rules are broken under several aspects. We don’t have the necessary unit and convergence that we should have in such a troubled situation. I am very concerned that the experiment of EU can fail. This would be a significant problem of high impact for the future of all our peoples living in Europe.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all celebrating Centennials this year. The celebrations are slightly different! Which are the most exciting and valuable points of our most recent history for you?
Well, for all the three countries, I would say what is interesting that this Centennial is celebrated within the EU. I think that this element should be emphasised. You have to consider how many troubles this independence has had during the past 100 years. At a certain point, the experiment failed, and then there was an extended period of occupation after which it was achieved again. What is the connection between independence, stability and wealth of the people? This is where Europe is very important because it’s the framework that gives peace and security to everybody.
On the other hand, there’s yet critical issue – the population. It is affecting the economic development of the society. It’s a fact – Europe is becoming older. This means we need new people, and we have to consider how to educate them. Again, the educational framework is fundamental! It’s undermined by politics everywhere, unfortunately, but it’s crucial if we want to include people from outside Europe, and we need to add them to our economic development. We cannot escape from that, and it's a significant challenge. I don’t know to what extent we are culturally prepared for it.
A lot of Lithuanian people are afraid that the openness will diminish our culture, traditions, language and so on, and so forth. How can one cure this fear?
I understand this as self-victimisation. It’s not only the peculiarity of Lithuania. Lots of mainstreams within different countries have this fear. Again, I think the European framework can cure this sense of insecurity. Yes, we are threatened all the time by different contexts, yet a certain point that gives us peace and development in the context of Europe. One of the arguments of sovereigntists is that we have to come back to protect our borders. They take for granted that if you leave the EU, you remain within the boundaries that you had before entering the EU. Brexit can tell us a lot here, take, for example, Scotland. What about Northern Ireland? Guarantees do not exist. Same can be said about Spain and Catalonia.
The cure is the integration, and it does not mean assimilation. We have to construct this difference through discussion. Painful, lengthy, discussion! Dialogue is much better than war and living with fear, right? We need to have the courage to face the cure.
That’s indeed very interesting. As the honorary award ceremony is approaching us, let’s go back to Kaunas. You’ve spent quite a lot of time in our city. Why not share some of your favourite spots with our readers?
Well, there are several places that I try to visit every time I am here! One of them is a little street that takes off the Town Hall Square that leads to the river, by Vytautas church. The small house on the right side, all from bricks, is charming. I also like the Confluence park. The Vilnius street full of coffee shops and young people that are relaxing is also excellent. All of this represents the vividness of Kaunas for me. I also like Laisvės alėja very much! It’s great for walking, full of beautiful trees, and you can enjoy your time here. I love that the buildings on Laisvės alėja are receiving more and more attention – this is very important; the buildings are historical monuments. Some of them are quite similar to the ones in Forlì, where I’m teaching! I'm also fond of the older ones that are built from red bricks. That’s very peculiar.
What about top sights in Bologna?!
First, please visit our university! It’s the oldest in Europe. We have a fascinating museum in which you can see the tools that were used by our professors back in the 15th century. There’s also the anatomic theatre that is wonderful from the artistic point of view; it was also the classroom for the lectures of medicine.
The second suggestion would be to walk around Bologna; one can’t get enough of the arcades; I also recommend to notice the number of towers we have. The third thing is the Santo Stefano square, where you have a group of 7 churches that is called Little Jerusalem.
Interview by Kotryna Lingienė
Photos by Kęstutis Lingys
Article originally published in the online version of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine