Vilius, you did your BA here at the Institute, before studying in Czech Republic and the UK. Where did you enjoy studying the most and why?
If you‘re asking about the impression or effect I have to say that it was studies at the Institute which left the biggest impact simply because it was such a different experience from anything I had done before and these experiences shaped my future choices including the decision to study in all those other institutions you mentioned. As a young adult just after high school graduation I was overwhelmed by the academic atmosphere of the university in general and by the people teaching and studying at the IIRPS in particular. Of course the four years of studies was not an even process, as with all the experiences it had good and better parts, not all of the subjects were interesting (which it probably shouldn’t be in a first place), not all of the courses were equally well organised and not all of my grades were good, but IIRPS has something very peculiar about the experience it provided and the atmosphere it created and I think it can be distilled into the concept of growth. There’s a constant striving to make things (courses, readings, discussions, teaching methods and so on) better than they were before and a huge part of that growth comes from feedback provided by the students. So you can imagine a young me coming after school and experiencing that you can be part of making everything better, that your opinion matters, that you have to think for yourself and think critically and that your answers and opinions are weighed by your arguments and interpretations and imagine that everyone around you is doing exactly that – arguing and interpreting. With all these intelligent people around me “smartness” was leaking everywhere – from classes to everyday talks and discussions with fellow coursemates. Some of these fellows made an enormous impact on what I think and what I value, and some of them are still my best friends (and I regret that I do not make enough time to see them more often). So this spur of personal growth combined with the constant growth of the institution was a unique period in my life, which is hard to compare with anything else. I know that part of that experience can be understood as me-as-a-person and explained by my young age, but I can definitely say that IIRPS taught me the value of the good scholarship. The search of good scholarship fueled my decision to try studies in other universities, to see what they offer, what they teach and what they argue about. It was a very good experience, which was not in itself better than what I had at the institute, but it was different and I am strong believer in experiencing and accepting differences as part of the complex world we live in.
You teach various subject at the IIRPS VU at both bachelor’s and master’s level. Which of the subjects you teach is the most interesting for you? Why?
Isn’t that the truth about the majority of lecturers at IIRPS? I am glad you are asking about interest and not quality. I am pretty sure that a good course is a taught course (because each of them has something good even if you do not realise it at the particular moment of your study, why else would it be taught in a first place?) and a great course is taught on a subject lecturer loves, while the perfect course is neither 🙂 So the course I love is “Inventing Eastern Europe” and though it is rather unsystematic due to variety of topics covered, it works as an open space for every student to bring their own Eastern European experiences in various forms and guises, thus the outcome of the course always depends on who is participating and their personal worldviews. It is the course based on my personal interest on how and why Eastern Europe is perceived (though not always) as negative and backward. It’s interesting because it analyses from different perspectives the idea of Europe and how its Eastern counterpart is perceived as not fitting with that particular idea during the various stages of its historical development. As with all our thinking and understanding one has always to look for power and political agenda behind it and this is what we try to deconstruct during the course. This corresponds with my broader interest in intellectual history, so you would not be surprised if I’ve told you that Enlightenment got me there.
It’s not the only subject you teach in the Eastern European and Russian Studies programme. What makes this programme special for you?
Well I think the specialty of the programme is that it combines on-hand experience and local research. There’s no better way to understand Eastern Europe than to experience it through spending time in the area and analysing that experience with knowledge gained in classes. As with all area studies there’s a large field of topics it deals with and the one thing they all have in common is area itself. So as with Dirk Gently’s (Douglas Adams reference here) “everything is connected”, in area studies everything is not just connected, everything is enmeshed, but still in a discernible and comparable way specific to area itself. It can be security or geopolitics, Soviet oppression or independence movements, they all have distinct Eastern European flavour and if one is interested in understanding the region, Eastern European and Russian Studies programme can become a tool to do exactly that.
You’re also the Head of the Research and Public Affairs Department, Council Member of the IIRPS VU Alumni Organisation. It seems that your life revolves around the Institute?
The reason the Institute has become such a big part of my life stems from what I mentioned previously about it being a unique experience. While studying I was involved with student organisations and I enjoyed not only the classes, but also the time spent with my peers. So the Institute became more than an education institution for us, I felt (as all of us did) responsible for it and when Vytis Jurkonis offered me to help out with administrative tasks I was happy to become part of the team. This decision gave me an opportunity to see academic processes from within and I was amazed by how much work everybody put in in order for the Institute to grow, what resourceful and intelligent people were (and still are!) surrounding me and how much they achieved with limited resources. It was an inspiring environment and so when later I was offered (thanks to Dovilė, Margarita, Deividas) to help out with teaching I did not hesitate, because it gave me an opportunity to prolong my stay in this environment. My involvement with the recently established Alumni society is an attempt to capitalise on those experiences all of the former students had. They all want to sustain that growth I’ve mentioned before.
How did you get into academia? Why did you decide to study for a PhD?
I guess I am lazy, but inquisitive 🙂 There’s no better way to learn more than to become an academic. As I mentioned before I am impressed and fascinated by fellow academics. To be surrounded by smart and knowledgeable people is a gift (and a bane sometimes) and I enjoy gifts 🙂
To be honest I’ve never thought I will choose this “academic path” you’re asking about, but I became hooked while writing my master’s thesis (and yes it had Enlightenment involved) and started to wonder (well, wonder more than usual) about how we know things, how the concepts we operate with came into our understanding and how much of that is based on fact and research and how much is an outcome of power and politics. I think and believe that education is a salvation and that we should search for truth with the help of science and not power. Behind my decision to enter academia is exactly that sentiment of searching for truth in order to understand and explain, evaluate and learn from the past. That is why academia and proper research is of utmost value. Good scholarship starts with good research based on facts and arguments and it should not falter against beliefs and opinions. In today’s post-truth era science and good scholarship are essential as they deal with truth, and if we cannot uphold good scholarship we will no longer have truth and will be unable to have neither justice nor any of the democratic ideals everybody’s so passionate about (even those “post-truthers”).