ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 54, No 2 - Summer 2008
Editor of this issue: M. G. Salvėnas

Book Review

Baltic Postcolonialism: On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom and Moral Imagination in the Baltics. Edited by Violeta Kelertas. Rodopi: Amsterdam and New York, 2006. $118.00.

Baltic Postcolonialism: On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom and Moral Imagination in the Baltics. Edited by Violeta Kelertas. Rodopi: Amsterdam and New York, 2006. $118.00. Baltic Postcolonialism, edited by Violeta Kelertas and released by Rodopi publishers, is a collection of some twenty articles about the Soviet colonization of the Baltic States and their postcolonial reality. The book presents fifteen postcolonial theorists and critics. Such a large number of contributors might give the impression that Baltic postcolonial studies have a strong intellectual tradition. On the contrary, discussions about Soviet colonization of the Baltic States and the resulting cultural and social impact upon these cultures are like trains which still have not left the station. 

Therefore, a number of authors included in Baltic Postcolonialism pay particular attention to the theory’s difficulties in making inroads into discussions about the Baltic States’ Soviet and post-Soviet cultural life. Postcolonial studies is a multidisciplinary theory of cultural interactions or, more accurately, a theory of sociopolitical and cultural domination. Since Baltic countries were occupied and dominated by the Soviets for almost fifty years, one would exspect that the theory should attract the attention of researchers studying the problems of post-Soviet countries and their transition to the European Union. That interest has as yet failed to materialize. Although individual theoretical articles have been published in Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, as well as in English periodicals, including such prestigious journals as Publications of the Modern Language Association and World Literature Today, they have not achieved the resonance one would expect in the Baltic countries themselves. The efforts of a handful of scholars to analyze the cultural texts published in the post-Communist space in terms of how the experience of occupation shaped the mentality of the occupied were scattered across different publications. This book is the first attempt to bring the authors and their ideas together in a substantial way. 

As David Chioni Moore, Karl E. Jirgens, Kārlis Račevskis and others point out, readers in the West, and particularly theorists of postcolonial studies, continue to view any attempt to discuss the Soviet Union as an empire with a colonial past with much skepticism. A number of world-class postcolonial authors base their work on the premise that Marxism, the foundation of Soviet ideology, offers an ideal critique of Western colonization. To criticize the aggression of the Soviet empire or to examine post-Soviet and Soviet culture from the perspective of postcolonial studies thus causes discomfort, since the Soviet Union was viewed as the only alternative to the capitalist system. The discipline of postcolonial studies, which originated in the West, was seen as a discourse developed solely for the purpose of studying the formation of the capitalist world and Western domination. It was not intended to be used for the criticism of the communist Soviet Union. Therefore, the attempts to apply this theory to the analysis of the Soviet occupation were often looked at with suspicion. This is indirectly confirmed by Violeta Kelertas. As she notes in her introductory article, when Westerners attempt to analyze the politics of Russian colonialism from the viewpoint of postcolonial studies, they somehow avoid talking about Soviet Russia. As she suggests, tsarist or post-Soviet Russia attracts more attention, even though Russia had far more international influence during its Soviet years, and especially after Hitler and Stalin redrew the map of Eastern Europe on the brink of World War II. 

In view of the fact that Putin’s Russia goes to great lengths to deny the occupation of the Baltic States, the tendency of left-leaning intellectuals to ignore the impacts of the Soviet colonization does not come as a great surprise. Neither should Kārlis Račevskis’s excessive efforts be surprising in his article “Towards a Postcolonial Perspective” to prove that the Soviet colonization of the Baltic States really happened. One could ironically add: only if the fact of such colonization is proven, can postcolonial studies provide the welcome opportunity to examine this colonization. 

And even when such an argument is made, there is a widespread belief that postcolonial methodologies were developed based on political experiences of completely different countries (Western domination over the so called Third World), making it very difficult to apply them to the post-Soviet region. Consequently, the articles in this collection often seem to ask one and the same question: does the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries differ in some essential way from the model of Western colonization? 

Yet, the question of the Soviet colonization of the Baltics is not the most important one to ask. One should go a step further and ask an equally important question: is it possible to look at the colonial politics of the entire USSR as a continuation of Russia’s colonial history, even if its colonial interests were “hidden” under the cover of a “universal” Marxist ideology of equality and justice during the Soviet period? What role did the globalizing ideology of the international proletariat play in disarming any possible criticism of Soviet foreign interests, of occupation and oppression? Did Marxist vocabulary hide Russia’s colonial outreaches? Such questions would be central in understanding the dynamics of Russian foreign policy: as an inheritor of the military might of the Soviet Union and its foreign policies, contemporary Russia hints that the former interests of the Soviet Union often coincide with Russian ambitions of domination today. 

There remains a long list of more general questions which the individual articles in this collection cannot answer exhaustively; to do this, full-length monographs are needed. Foremost among these questions would be: how does colonization differ from occupation, in what respects do the colonizer’s social and cultural relationship with the colonized culture differ from that of the occupier’s, how does decolonization differ from the restoration of independence, and what are the differences among ideological, political and economic colonization, between the capitalist and socialist justifications of their foreign policies? A number of authors in this collection attempt to point out parallels and to offer convincing arguments for why the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States can be labeled colonization (i.e. dislocation of the original inhabitants, territories claimed by the colonizers, adjustments of educational systems, industrialization devoted to the empire’s requirements), but each article does this individually, so repetitions occur. Moreover, developing a broader dialogue with postcolonial theorists outside of the Baltic region would require a more conceptual presentation of problems based on historical and sociopolitical analysis and comparison. Yet, such international cooperation seems to be hard to achieve. 

Interestingly, the basis for such a comparison could have existed decades ago. As Kelertas notes in her introduction, Lithuanian émigrés have been using the term “colonization” for quite some time to characterize the occupation of Lithuania. This was, in all likelihood, an indirect consequence of the decolonization processes in Africa, India and the Caribbean. The postcolonial critique of the West was adopted for the purpose of creating a similar discourse analyzing the Lithuanian experience in the context of Soviet occupation. Kelertas mentions Jonas Aistis, although one could argue that the poet Algimantas Mackus was far more interesting in this respect, creating the concepts of “the humiliated”, “the dispossessed,” and “the foster children” as terms for the émigrés, and especially for criticizing nationalism and colonization. Author Antanas Škema was influenced by similar discourses of decolonization and frequently discussed the resulting postcolonial “hell” created around the world. Unfortunately, the texts of these Lithuanian American authors have not yet been read in the context of postcolonial theory, even though they absorbed these influences as early as the 1940s and 1950s. 

East European intellectuals have conversed on the topics brought up by the anti-colonial intellectual tradition. Well-known texts like Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind confirm that it wasn’t only the Baltic refugees who, after escaping from the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, created theories of cultural interaction and colonization. The problem was that the Balts who ended up in exile were not ready to seek an academic dialogue with black and other diaspora intellectuals who were already involved in the decolonization process. Yet, as of now, this intellectual effort to take the terminology of cultural discussions from other cultures and apply it to the Baltic sociopolitical situation has always been perceived as a part of internal Baltic politics and was not directed towards broader political alliances. This book is the first effort to create a dialogue of that nature in an international, or, as it is now fashionable to say, a transnational space. An obvious question arises: what are the chances of transferring this transnational discussion to the Baltics as well? 

As Moore asserts, the attention devoted to postcolonial studies by scholars in the Baltic States might have been restricted by their racist self-elevation above “third world” countries – for surely the absolute majority of Western colonies were expansions into the living space of other races. It is doubtful that the Baltic scholars’ identification with the West arose from racism (Baltic identification with the West is part of anti-Soviet identity); however, the question of whether we’re prepared for a dialogue with other, non-Western, non-white cultures remains an incredibly important one. 

Western postcolonial theoreticians avoided touching on the pain of Soviet occupation for their own ideological reasons. At the same time critics in the Baltic States paid little attention to postcolonial studies in part because of their reborn nationalist identity. When the Baltic States regained their independence, the ideologies and values of the Soviet years were quickly dismissed in the mad rush to identify with the West. How can you objectively describe and analyze your homeland, impoverished by the Soviet occupation, when everyone wants to appear good, handsome and Western? 

It appears that this nationalist attitude towards sovietization is dominant in the present collection too. A majority of the authors present the colonization process of the Baltic States as an attempt to fit these cultures into a foreign framework. Consequently, such a framework must be rejected and opposed. For example, Jūra Avižienytė, in her article “Learning to Curse in Russian,” notices that the language of the colonizer is internalized in Grinkevičiūtė’s memoirs. Yet, she claims that in essence these memoirs reflect an attempt to create a connection with the “others” who ended up in the labor camps. This way, memoirs become a part of the anti-Soviet discourse. They are valued because they are part of Lithuanian anti-Soviet identity. However, the question arises: haven’t we simplified colonization to the level of mere ideological repression and rejection? After all, the Baltics felt Russia’s cultural, political and economic power not just during the Soviet years but during tsarist times as well. If Lithuanian interwar culture did not start on a blank slate, with Antanas Maceina, Stasys Šalkauskis and other intellectuals constantly considering Lithuania’s role between East and West, then in all likelihood post-Soviet Lithuanian culture isn’t starting with a blank slate either. 

Violeta Kelertas’s article “Perception of the Self and the Other in Lithuanian Postcolonial Fiction” discusses the interaction between Russian and Lithuanian culture. Professor Kelertas, herself a comparativist, presents the now-classic interpretation of Gavelis’s text, asserting that the writer’s texts turn into a veritable treasure-trove. Its contents reveal the sovietized consciousness to the Western reader. Kelertas offers what is one of the most interesting interpretations of Gavelis’s text. By examining the mechanisms of power and identification in the writer’s prose, she brilliantly reveals the constant tension lingering under the surface of the text between those who dominate and those who are dominated and demonstrates the impact of that tension on the sense of self in different characters. 

The book presents basic postcolonial terminology and demonstrates certain basic tools for postcolonial studies. Yet, one will soon notice that there often is a moral evaluation attached to the analysis since the Soviet way of life is often condemned. As a consequence, postcolonial studies are frequently understood as a panacea, as a “cure” for all the evils of the Soviet era, part of the process of recovery. Such analysis often negatively evaluates Soviet mechanisms of thought as if trying to clean the post-Soviet culture from this long lasting impact and even finds itself desperate when realizing that such a post-Soviet “residue” persists and even dominates. The analogy with the Red Army soldier‘s monument “The Liberator,” demolished by the Estonians, is striking. One idealistically imagines that colonization can be as easily erased, devalued, and thereby eliminated. Take Almantas Samalavičius who, in his article “Lithuanian Prose and Decolonization,” openly admits that the post-Soviet sense of self frequently remains “pathological” and that attempts to renew the understanding of cultural markers by new methodologies, to reread texts using other sociopolitical codes is still frequently met with silent opposition. Samalavičius clearly demonstrates that postcolonial studies provide a key to unlocking the Soviet influence on Baltic consciousness. However, the unscholarly emotions directed towards the Soviet period persist. 

Only a small number of the authors discuss the remnants of the colonization mechanism. Perhaps Piret Pieker, basing her argument on Homi K. Bhabha, formulates this problem best: “Postcolonial fragmentation opens cracks and gaps, interstices, in-between spaces, where constantly changing and transforming new cultural identities ... are being translated and negotiated.” In other words, the individual loses purity, his sense of integrity, suffers permutations of identity – permutations which have already attracted a great deal of attention from postcolonial critics – and his identity becomes splintered, assembled from multiple identifications and experiences. Using Bhabha’s terminology, I would encourage giving less thought to mimicry and more to hybridity, which essentially complicates the discussion of the postcolonial individual’s identity with oversimplified terms of nationalism, patriotism and cultural ”purity.” 

It has been many years since postcolonial theory became one of the most dominant literary methodologies in the West. Why did the first collection of articles on Baltic postcolonialism take so long to appear? As already mentioned, spreading the concepts of colonization and postcolonial studies has been delayed. Discussing the conditions of the post-Soviet economy was easiest: everyone was affected by the collapse of the Soviet system, by the Russian economic crisis, and the transition towards a free market economy. Discussing cultural issues such as the educational system with its endless failures to institute reforms of higher education proved to be more difficult. It turned out that a good deal of time was required before one could look in the mirror and see that the Soviet empire had left its imprint on our faces. So it’s natural that the first book examining postcolonialism in the Baltic States should appear outside the Baltics and published in English, as if demanding a linguistic, geographic and ideological distance from the location and its analysis. After all, traditional postcolonial studies are a Western product, a tool which scholars from former Western colonies, finding themselves in the West, use to grapple with the effects of colonization in forming the identity of a colonized human being. It’s symptomatic that the collection Baltic Postcolonialism was put together by scholars breathing the atmosphere of American academic life. Postcolonial studies were born and matured in the U.S. mostly thanks to the Indian and African scholars who, traveling to foreign lands, were able to look at their native culture with fresh eyes and sense the interaction of cultures more clearly. Therefore, this book also addresses its reader in English. It’s ironic that the price tag of this title (even though the editors or publishers skimped by leaving out an index) would burn a good-sized hole in the pocket of any postcolonial scholar in Eastern Europe. One so wishes that scholars living in the Baltic States could obtain this book without financial hardship. Hopefully, they will have access to it in libraries. 

One wants to believe that this book will become a fundamental link in the direction of a renewal of the methodological analysis of literature in the Baltic States. In all likelihood, a renewal of this sort wouldn’t come too late – the distance between the Soviet years and life in the EU is slowly growing; more people who find that distance interesting as a matter of scholarly pursuit should appear. It’s fitting to admit that Violeta Kelertas has made a sizable contribution to the study of 77 the culture of the Baltic States with her collection. One must believe that this collection won’t turn into a Trojan horse on the shelves of European scholars and universities but will fulfill its true mission – to consolidate intellectual strength for mature comparative work in the post-Soviet space and contribute to the worldwide dialog on colonization, cultural domination, the formation of the colonized self-consciousness and its expression in the imagination of the colonized people’s art. As Jirgens observes, postcolonial studies in the Baltic States must be comparative, taking the uniqueness of many cultures and political systems into account. In other words, the culture of the Soviet years and the post-Soviet period should foster an international dialogue and comparative studies that are possible only through a thorough knowledge of both the history of the Baltic States and of Western colonization. This book opens the door to such comparative work and facilitates it considerably. 

Baltic Postcolonialism demonstrates that this type of discussion about the culture of the Baltic States in a worldwide context is not artificial. While intellectuals put distance between themselves and the period of Soviet occupation and avoided discussing the influence of Soviet colonization on their mentality and orientation of values, cultural texts present the readers with evidence of colonization. They serve as a chronicle of self-awareness, awaiting its audience, an audience which for a time avoided facing political problems in fictional work and was distracted by often meaningless postmodern theoretical play. I believe this collection proves that, with the proper tools, these texts aren’t difficult to unlock. So postcolonial methodologies could slowly form a theoretical basis for the comparative study of literature in the post-Soviet space. In this context, the very appearance of a book of this type is an event for authors based in the West as much as it is for scholars of the Baltic States. It creates a premise for the so desperately needed international academic duscussions. The foundation for such conversation has been laid out. We await a long and fruitful discussion. 

Reviewd by Rimas Žilinskas
Translated from the Lithuanian by E. Novickas