Simona Merkinaite / Nerija Putinaitė: “In the Soviet era, national elements were used as a substitute for faith”

The phrase “Ringing Clay” from the title of the book by Nerija Putinaitė, (Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius university) is an ambiguous metaphor.  A useable object can be formed with clay, yet it remains largely unstable. This is how N. Putinaitė imagines the ‘Lithuanianness’ coined by the local Lithuanian government and central government in Moscow during the Soviet era – deliberately constructed, simple, crude, but useful for the system. Simona Merkinaitė, an expert of the OSFL program “Rethinking Europe”, interviews Associate Professor Putinaite about this Sovietization and atheization, along with some comment on private and public joy during the Soviet era.

There was a belief in post-Soviet societies that nationality had always been repressed, and that its cultivation was a form of resistance to the Soviet system. Your research is uncommon because it challenges the clarity of this distinction between nationality and Sovietization. Did these studies emerge as an attempt to understand the relationship between these two elements, and why were they chosen as an example for the Song Festival?

In researching the Soviet era, I was constantly confronted with the sheer abundance of different manifestations of nationality, so the question arose as to how nationality was adapted by the regime, how much it conflicted with the regime, and how it changed. The phenomenon of the song festival is important here for several reasons. First of all, it gained mass popularity, whilst its representative status was attained during the Soviet era. In this aspect, Lithuania differs significantly from Latvia and Estonia, where this festival has had a longer tradition: it was being held since as early as the 19th century and played a major role in their national revival.

In Lithuania, however, the Song Festival was not so closely related to our national revival. The first time around, it was organized with a look at the example of Latvia, in 1924, which took place after the creation of the state. The Song festival was given the role of a universal national holiday during the Soviet era. Lithuanians rarely talk about the Song Festival as a Soviet-era product, and there persists a popular assumption that the festival is a long-standing Lithuanian tradition.

Looking at the current period of independence, we see that this celebration seems to have moved from the Soviet era to the present. In 2007, a law “protecting the Song Festival tradition” was adopted at the state level, granting the event special status in relation to other mass events.

It is at the center of the commemoration of the most important anniversaries of the state. In 2009, during the millennium anniversary of the name of Lithuania, for example, the Song festival was the main event. This testifies to the fact that the celebration, as a phenomenon, was formed in the Soviet era and has been carried into the present, where in a democratic state it performs the function of mobilizing the nation. The Song Festival itself raises the question of what role nationalism truly played in the Soviet era: was it the basis of resistance to the Soviet era, or did it remain within a sphere of adaptation to the regime?

Finally, this example shows what researchers have repeatedly stated and need not prove, that the regime used nationality for its own purposes, not simply suppressing it. I wanted to take a deeper look at what sort of content was adapted by the regime, and how, and at which content the regime rejected, and on what basis.

The Soviet era itself is not monolithic; certain forms of nationality can often be described as “warming” of the regime; the term “harmless dictatorship” is also used: people are given space to act, choose and decide for themselves to a certain extent. To what extent was this attempt to seek connections with forms of national culture simply an attempt to keep people obedient to the regime, to simply allow them to coexist with the regime, and to what extent was it a purposeful effort to use certain forms of nationality to adapt them to ideological purposes?

Do you see any emerging criterion in your research on how the regime discovered what to adapt, what to repress, and what to reject? After all, you mention that permission was granted for these non-political practices; so, where and how was the boundary between political and non-political practices defined?

Some national poets, and cultural figures were adapted, integrating them into the Soviet canon. There were clear recommendations as to which of their creations were to be included and which were not. For example, renowned national songwriter Maironis, who was both a poet and a priest, was adapted in this way. All of his non-fiction work and everything related to patriotism or religion, was rejected, leaving only that which more closely related to ethnic culture, poetry that exalts love for the homeland, and the beauty of nature. There was no mention of the fact that he was also a priest. It is no coincidence that I mention Maironis, because the songs written on his poems were sung during the Soviet era.

As for the songs, a huge number of them were rejected, a particularly harsh selection took place during the first decade after the war. War songs with a patriotic undertone were widely rejected. The second Lithuanian anthem “We are born Lithuanians”, created by Georg Sauerwein and Stasys Šimkus, was banned immediately after the war. The Soviet-founded state folk ensemble still tried to perform the anthem after the war, but their leaders were threatened with deportation and imprisonment.

Composers were encouraged to create songs with ideological content after the war. Later, songs reminiscent of folk melodies were written along the lines of Soviet content, but the latter content was not obviously “ideological”, it was non-declarative. The texts talk about love for the fatherland and the admiration of nature, and they detail episodes of Soviet life. For example, perhaps the most famous mass song “On the Bank of the Nemunas River” (by poet Eduardas Mieželaitis and composer Balys Dvarionas) was created during the Soviet era and performed at most Song Festivals. It talks not only about the river Nemunas, but also about “grown collective farms”, happy people and so on. There are a number of other songs in which the Soviet layer is even more deeply intertwined with love for the homeland and the beauty of nature. In this way, national expressions were “hybridized”. National motifs are recognizable, but new content and new meanings are woven into them. Probably the most interesting thing about my research was to see that at the Song Festivals, typical mass songs glorifying Stalin or the party, written according to the Union’s ideological canon, played an insignificant, and certainly “obligatory” role. Most of the performances consisted of lyrical songs expressing love for the fatherland, and at the same time for the existing reality of the time. Eventually, the Song Festival itself expanded in repertoire over time, so that it included Soviet pop, which could hardly be considered ideological. Classical works were also performed.

The study showed something else: during the Brezhnev era, the Song Festival, as well as popular culture, became increasingly diverse. Even after the war, there was a desire not only for new songs to be created, but also for them to be attractive, for people to actually want to perform them, rather than rejecting them or just singing them when forced to.

In the 1970s, when television spread en masse, the creation of our “own” pop culture according to the Western model took place, including aspects such as interweaving jazz motifs, with a return to authentic folklore.

This demonstrated the regime’s increasing flexibility in responding to the needs of society, even if boundaries were drawn between what was and was not acceptable for the Soviets. There was undoubtedly a political element involved in this. An example of this was the presentation of the folklore movement as a nationally important opposition to the “corrupt” culture that spread from the West via foreign radio waves, with rock in mind as a form of rebellion.

Seeing the diversity of forms of Soviet culture, we cannot claim real freedom of choice for people or creative freedom for creators. But at the same time, it is not all just ideologically “top-down” designed content. It is more the result of a certain “contract” between the aims of the regime, the needs of society and the creative expression of the creators.

There are many other interesting aspects related to national symbols and attributes. For example, both vytis (the knight) and the national flag of Lithuania were banned as symbols of statehood, but the nationality industry did remain in some forms. During the Soviet era, the mass production of national costumes took place, and ethnic symbolism was cultivated and exploited in other ways. This was done whilst, at the same time, clear and strict limits on its use were set. These national costumes, for example, belonged to the state and could not be held privately. Although expressions and feelings of nationality were abundant, people could not choose how or where to cultivate them, as it was only possible within strict limits set by the government. National woven bands were also mass-produced and widely distributed.

Analyzing the politics of atheism, I noticed that in the fight against Catholic practices and rituals, efforts were made to replace them with non-religious practices and rituals with abundant national elements. The above-mentioned national bands were used as gifts during anniversaries, and even at weddings or funerals.

Such was the political line – to “reject” Christianity with the help of “national” religion. It was well understood that the authorities could not simply deprive and forbid, it was necessary to offer a strong alternative (which would not be completely foreign to the people), otherwise attempts to control the people would fail.

So, the search was on for something that would affect people’s emotions, in order to form an individual belonging to a particular collective. National elements and the emotions associated with them were used as a substitute for faith.  It could be claimed that nationality had become a kind of bridge between government and society, a way to “tame” society, a kind of re-socialization.

The manipulation of nationality by the regime in Lithuania was also important in ostensibly denying certain people’s fears about the Soviet government. The post-war partisan resistance also perceived themselves as guardians of nationality. In their proclamations the partisans announced that the Soviet government had come to nationalize and that it was a force that sought to turn us into “non-Lithuanians.”

In 1946 the mass Song Festival, organized by the Soviet government, was an attempt to show that the Soviet government were pro-national, and that the Lithuanian leadership were Lithuanian patriots.  Members of the guerrilla movement noticed the government’s manipulation of nationality, at least as far as I discovered, quite late on.

I discovered that at just about the very end of the guerrilla war, around 1952, a proclamation was issued warning that the Soviet regime was manipulating national feelings.  This demonstrates that recognizing that publicly sung folk songs, and publicly performed folk dances were part of the regime’s Sovietizing policies, had not been so easy.  Nationality played an infinitely important role in the regime’s attempts to tame Lithuanian society, to keep it loyal, and to bestow upon it a certain image of “belonging to the regime”.

With the above examples, I sought to portray that the cultivation of nationality cannot be attributed solely to the political warming of the regime. In Stalin’s time, it was no less important as a complement to repressive politics. In addition to deportations, the nationality of other coercive measures in politics acted as a tool of soft power.

The main conclusion of “Ringing Clay” was that ideology was not so much ingrained in society, culture, literature, and public spaces, but that it so intermingled with pre-existing cultural practices, especially nationality, that it would now be difficult to separate these two elements.  It seems that not only in Lithuania, but in all post-Soviet countries there is an overly simplistic conversation about transformation. We ostensibly abandoned the logic of the idea imposed on us and returned to something authentic, what existed underground and in opposition to the regime. 
We cannot talk about the abandonment of the ‘ideological superstructure’ either, because it is no longer entirely clear how to distinguish between these two things, what is inherent and authentic, and what is imposed and foreign, and how much does this scourge affect our political identity?  Do you think it is still important today to try to sift through what is ours and what was “grown” in the Soviet era?

Well, when it comes to the phenomenon of the Song Festival, it is also important to note how it is studied in neighboring Estonia and Latvia, and what sources are used.  When the memories of the participants or organizers are relied upon, an image is formed that the ideological aspects were only occasional, specific inclusions.  It is implied that there had been indeed a long-standing tradition, for which the Soviet era was only a stage, after which the Song Festival tradition discarded those ideological inclusions and continued on.  The case of Lithuania is again peculiar because our Song Festival was not a long-standing tradition.  This in itself provides a basis for looking at the Song Festival phenomenon as a practice strongly shaped by the Soviet-era, a Soviet product.  I am not referring only to the content of the songs, which changed fairly quickly, but to the organizational model of the festival, which is entirely Soviet.

The song festivals were organized as Soviet amateur art Olympiads, based on mandatory, regular multi-stage inspections and competitions to find the best art amateurs.  Initially, county-wide previews were conducted, then regional ones.  The central event took place every five years in the capital of the Republic and was attended by the best art amateurs, after a selection process. The very best of these even had the opportunity to perform in Moscow.  This model of the selection of the best, through several stages of events and previews, was created during the Soviet era and existed throughout the Soviet Union.  In addition, the organizers of amateur art activities and the professional “supervisors” of the groups were responsible for this. In Lithuania, this structure has been maintained, at least in part.  It would be difficult to distinguish what is “real” here.

I am of the opinion that the Soviet era created a certain distinct authenticity.  I would not see a problem if this event, with its elements of nationality, was just one among a series of other events, moreover, if it did not have the exclusive status that was given to it during the Soviet era, and finally if public holidays were not adapted to it.  I would consider this detail, and not just a change of songs, a sign of de-Sovietization.

Both “Ringing Clay” and “Trimmed Pine” invite us to talk more delicately about the very forms of captivity.  Totalitarianism does not present itself as a state of coercion, fear, or sadness.  This is especially seen in “Ringing Clay”, as a story of a dancing and singing nation in which the central element of control is not fear or repression, but joy.  For me, this was one of the most striking examples, which on a practical level in Lithuania speaks of joy as a means of totalitarian control.  The Song Festival and various artistic amateur initiatives created a culture close to the people, permeated with joy and optimism.  Perhaps by talking more about the diversity of forms of control, we can better understand the difference between the modes of freedom and captivity?

This is indeed a very important aspect.  Of course, joy and optimism are important, but the question arises as to whether this joy is left up to an individual, whether they are politically controlled, or whether their expression is linked to politically significant practices?  In the years of repression, during Stalin’s time, and in other totalitarian regimes, huge, joyful parades and mass sports festivals were held.  There were also public trials before the war. Terror and staged mass joy (signifying popular support for the regime) went hand in hand.  This relationship became much more complicated in the late Soviet era.  However, the same motive remained – joy was contained within certain state-controlled frames, where it was stated when and how one could rejoice.  The song festival was also a form of joy.

In its framework a space was given for a certain self-expression, even for those gathered after the festival itself had ended.  No less important is the fact that private joy had been nationalized or socialized, too.  For example, one could not celebrate a birthday without a work team, which also acted as a “soft caretaker” of private life.  Let’s take the example of a wedding party – here not only did the state organize a solemn civil registration ceremony, but there were also recommended instructions on how to organize the celebration further, and a certain scenario was suggested for the “fun part”.  Even where the spontaneity of personal joy was supposed to be expressed, it was not left unattended.  This control of private life remained throughout the Soviet era, despite changes in the regime itself.  Joy, and optimism for the regime were important as an expression of people’s faith in the regime.  It was not purely for political loyalty that this was done.  Man was viewed as a unit of work, and even remotely productive work required a person who had not lost their sense of meaning.  The stimulation of joy was driven by the pragmatic logic of the Soviet regime.  Ideological indoctrination and ideological patriotism alone were not enough.  People’s personal needs for self-realization were perceived and taken into consideration, even if this occurred differently at different times.

Socialist realism in art was, of course, a completely independent industry that created the illusion of joy and prosperity.

An example of this can be found in the film “Cossacks of the Kuban” (1950), which depicts a collective life filled with an abundance of food and constant joy, counterbalancing the reality of post-war deprivation and famine.  In the later film “I walk across Moscow” (1963), one episode depicts a shop loaded with goods, a reality that did not exist at the time.  With the help of such an ideal reality in films, the illusion was created that although it may have been bad for us, somewhere in the Soviet Union people were still living well.  By comparing different regimes, I would draw the difference not between joy and its absence, but where and how that joy was created, and to what extent it was politically controlled.  Joy in various rituals or holidays is generated by any regime, but in democratic societies the “production” of joy is diverse, held not only in the hands of the state, but also produced by corporations and by society itself, and one has the freedom to choose, which was impossible in Soviet times.

As for the complicated relationship between the regime and nationality, how does the relationship of the Song Festival with the regime change the history of the Singing Revolution?

It cannot be denied that the Song Festival in the Soviet era created a certain sense of community.  Another question is: was it enough to cause a political coup to take place in the long run? In my opinion, it was not enough.  The narrative that communities flocked together, their sense of nationality strengthened and grew until it blossomed into independence, that the singing nation erupted from the clutches of the regime through songs, reveals only a small, simplistic part of a broad and complex truth.  It is necessary to look at the broader context, what was happening in the Soviet Union at the time, and how the country’s politics were changing.  At first, the glasnost policy allowed for partial public criticism of the country’s ills, but eventually this evolved into criticism of the regime, which the government was no longer able to control.  Under pressure from the West, in 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev released some political prisoners who joined the ranks of the regime’s critics in Lithuania.

 Take the example of the revolutionary rally held on August 23, 1987 at the monument to poet A. Mickevičius in Vilnius: in commemoration of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Here it was the released political prisoners who took the lead.

The intelligence services did not treat the organizers of the rally as they would have done previously.  Furthermore, the dissident political movement, which consecutively took over power and conducted the activities of the Liberation movement “Sąjūdis”, acted as a kind of counterweight to the goals of the Communists.

The Lithuanian Communist Party dreamed of a different scenario for the future – they sought more autonomy in the Soviet Union, but it was the influence of the dissidents, including the Catholic and the Liberal wings, that strongly outweighed that position.

I believe that is the main reason that we did not become like Belarus. Aspirations of nationality began to work strongly only when they were linked to the idea of an independent state. No less important was the economic collapse of the state.  People’s discontent with the economic situation was enormous, and it was this sense, I think, that played, at least in the beginning, a greater role in anti-Soviet sentiment than nationality.  Thus, there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration together. 

An example of a newer, folklore-based political project was the Naisiai phenomenon in Lithuania.  You described it as a “pseudo utopia” that came together from two things – the Soviet narrative of beautiful life and pagan mythology, that is, the orientation towards nature, and the human connection with it, characteristic of both. The phenomenon of Naisiai, consistently developed as a simulation of an idyllic small community, has become quite a “springboard” to power.  Naisiai established the image of the party leader R. Karbauskis as a representation of an ordinary person, together with a well-organized and orderly community leader, and consequently the new political program started to expand the utopia of Naisiai within Lithuania.  Was this “mix” one of the reasons for the temporary success of this project and what does it tell us about society?

The Naisiai project is interesting primarily as a local phenomenon, but, concerning politics, it matters because it never grew from the local to the national level.  It was presented as ethno-nationalist, based on Soviet and post-Soviet images of a pagan Lithuanian worldview and a prosperous happy settlement, a collective farm.  The question is – why was it unsuccessful?  In 2016, before the election, it seemed that success for the project would be unattainable, but, as they say, you never know.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the understanding of patriotism and identity changed, expanded and developed, filled with new experiences and meanings.  Suddenly a political power emerged, the leader of which returned to ethnocentric myths – to pagan deities, not excluding the cult of the Earth, and its cultivation.  After the elections, these provisions were little developed, due, I think, to a better understanding of public attitudes.  There were also anti-European hints in the party’s electoral program, but this was not developed further after the election, seemingly for the same reason.

This shows that society is not so easy to manipulate and national feelings are not so simply constructed.  An analysis of the Soviet period offers the same conclusion.  The regime would gladly not have integrated national elements into politics, as they are always dangerous.  However; it was understood that if nationalism were completely ruled out, it would be difficult and confusing for the regime to establish itself.  Karbauskis’ phenomenon was similar – he tried to gain popularity by ‘playing the nationality card’, but his attempts to achieve this through the primitivizing of nationality were unsuccessful, nor did he take into account that national images had changed significantly over the past three decades.  Karbauskis tried to revert to Soviet-like images of nationality, for example by emphasizing humanity’s relationship with nature, leaving others aside.  However, during the years of independence, society has steadily changed, and the consolidation of the national community constructed itself based not on images of nature and the earth, but on patriotic stories of sacrifice and struggle.  The main rousing, patriotic image is, of course, the story of the post-war partisans, which occupies a very important place in the nation’s current self-perception.  The story is patriotic in a very different sense to that of the soviets.  This story forms the basis of the Homeland Union – the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party, without neglecting ethnocentric nationality. 

In doing this, their approach is far superior in terms of effective political patriotism.  At the end of his term, Karbauskis tried to present himself as the defender of the erection of the vytis (the knight) sculpture in Lukiškės Square, as if extending the boundaries of the cult of land and paganism, but this was not successful either.  An interesting question is why this nationality-focused project did not work as intended in Lithuania, but may have worked elsewhere.  This would require further studies.  Perhaps, at least in comparison to the Polish, Lithuania is a far more secular society.  In Poland, ethnicity is associated with Catholic self-awareness and even some Catholic messianism.  In Lithuania, it is difficult to imagine that the symbiosis of the nation and the Catholic faith would become an explosive political mixture.

Translated by Irena Alperyte
Photo: N. Putinaite 

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