Anzhelina Kaminskaite. Through the Soviet Mirror

Categories: Talks and IdeasPublished On: 2024 June 07

Anzhelina Kaminskaitė is studying at Vilnius Lithuanian House, in 11th grade. She participated in the “Changing Democracies” event in Visaginas in April 2024 along with 30 other students. The event focused on discussing the Transition Period.

We’ve all heard about the Soviet Union, and most students have read about it in history books. But what would we learn about life in the Soviet Union if we relied on people’s opinions and stories instead of textbooks? While we often hear stories of our parents’ and grandparents’ youth, it’s important to recognize that not everyone’s experience in the Soviet Union was the same. Through the “Changing Democracies” project with the Open Lithuania Foundation, we had the chance to visit Visaginas and gain new perspectives on Soviet life. Meeting people who were born during the Soviet period in Lithuania helped us understand that life was different from what our parents may have told us.

In the beginning, we were introduced to the project and its objectives. However, the action truly started with the Forum Theatre. This theatre involved not only the actors but also the audience itself. When the scene began, it was initially unclear what was going on, and what was expected of the audience. It seemed like a game at first, but as the performance progressed, the situation became clearer. It became apparent that behind the laughter, jokes, and screams of the actors, there was a real problem, and that’s when it stopped being funny.

Ethnic discrimination, religious condemnation, mistrust, aggression, and class inequality – these were the scenes we witnessed. After each scene, we engaged in discussions where the realities of the present and the past converged. Each adult participant shared their own experiences, while the young people expressed what they had learned from their families. I often realized that the stories of these people were very different from those of my own family. For instance, religion was depicted as forbidden, religious individuals were stigmatized, and photographs of schoolchildren were displayed on a board of shame if they were seen in a church. However, in my family in Kazakhstan, particularly on my mother’s side, everyone is deeply religious and has been even during the Soviet era. My mother, when she was young, always accompanied her grandmother to church. Does this imply that, even though religion was not welcomed in the Soviet Union, Orthodox Christians were treated more tolerantly than Catholics?

We later had the opportunity to learn more about Soviet Lithuania from various aspects of life. There were tables set up for five different themes: history, education, military, self-government, and business. At each table, we could ask questions and listen to answers from older people.

There were all sorts of stories: stories I had heard a thousand times from my parents; stories I could not even think of; stories that almost made me cry. We often heard the expression “It was better before,” but given the Soviet regime and its problems, how could anyone miss that time? I asked that question and got an answer I had not even thought of.

It was not only the Soviet era but also the time when those people were healthy, young and beautiful. What else do you need to be happy? As one gets older, their understanding of the situation deepens. Looking back, alongside friends, family, and happy moments, a hidden truth becomes apparent: “Nobody could speak up to the boss if they wanted to keep their jobs”; “the teacher always started her lessons on Mondays by giving bad marks to the children she saw in church on Sunday”; “they called the Lithuanian language “the language of birds”. People shared these stories, reliving them. I only had to look at their faces to see the tears glistening in their eyes. These are the eyes of a person who has finally been given a “word”.

The word is not just a set of letters, but an action, an opportunity, and a freedom. This is what distinguishes our democracy from Soviet totalitarianism. The system is not perfect, and social norms sometimes restrict us from fully expressing ourselves, still democracy is fundamentally about equality. It’s about equal rights and treating everyone equally, regardless of age, gender, social or financial status, skin color, or anything else. However, changing the laws is easier than changing our culture and the mindset. To attain true democracy, we need to enhance tolerance. If I had to sum up the advantages of democracy in one sentence, I would say that they are our rights and responsibilities. We simply need to learn how to use them: to love, not to love, to accept, to refuse, and to vote.