LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 57, No.3 - Fall 2011
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavenas
Dalia Leinarte, editor and author. Adopting and Remembering Soviet Reality: Life Stories of Lithuanian Women, 1945-1970. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. ISBN: 978-90-420-3062-6.
This work consists of ten interviews with Lithuanian women who recollect the post-Stalinist era, two introductory chapters and a conclusion by the author and editor, Dalia Leinarte. We learn that her purpose in collecting these interviews was to analyze the subjective beliefs of her interviewees. Many of them, she notes, seemed to suffer from “historical amnesia,” i. e., omitting seminal historical events, contradicting themselves and in general altering the past.
Originally, Leinarte had divided the interviewees into three groups. The first remembered this time with nostalgia and contrasted it with the “consumerism and soullessness” of the present; the second group recalled their lives as completely painful and difficult under Soviet occupation. Women from the third group were seen as creating a “new memory of their personal life during the Soviet era.”(15) Insisting they were going to convey “how it really was,” in reality they skipped over that period of time. Leinarte decided not to include these interviews.
Dalia Leinarte is a professor of history and the chair of the Center for Gender Studies at Vilnius University. The author of several books and numerous articles, she is thoroughly versed in Western scholarship, which makes her the foremost historian of Lithuanian women. Basing the sections she authored on the journalism of that era, as well as other materials, Leinarte creates an oral history that shows how the Socialist state transformed Lithuanian women’s values, beliefs, and identities. Even though it may be impossible for the reader to feel what the period was like, Leinarte comes close to recreating “what it was really like.” This is in part due to her open-ended style of interviewing, which allowed the women to tell their stories without the author imposing her own biases. Leinarte concludes that, as Soviet propaganda took hold, the narrative of women became mundane, but it is that very dreariness that makes this book interesting. This scholarly work draws the reader into a voyeuristic world without the sex. The lives of these ten women are simply fascinating.
The author blames Soviet propaganda for the negative changes in women’s lives, although some of the same changes took place in Western societies too. For example, Leinarte attributes the financial necessity of “two working hands” to the effects of Soviet propaganda. But the same attitude also appeared in the West. Without a doubt, mass media influences our lives, whether in the form of commercial advertising or political propaganda. Some of the assertions Leinarte makes are therefore dubious because they are typical of changes seen in any society that urbanizes. Most of the women came from villages and settled in larger cities, where they changed from peasants into Soviet citizens. Additionally, the recollected stories of the postwar era dealt with poverty and the shortages of goods and services, something that cannot be merely attributed to Soviet propaganda. Leinarte seems to disbelieve statements by some women that they did not internalize Soviet values, even when, in fact, those same women perceived themselves as nonparticipating victims of Soviet occupation.
Marija Popova, who came from a small peasant family, said that her father had been badly beaten by the forest brothers. She unapologetically remembers that “…all of my patriotic and nationalistic ideas had already been trampled.” (136) She felt a sense of belonging through the Communist Party. (129) Communism gave her opportunities for advancement. In general, she recounts with pride how she and her second husband, Fedotovas, helped build socialism. Leokadija Diržinskaitė, a Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, the highest ranking woman of those interviewed, also recounts the opportunities the Party gave her. More surprising are the comments of an orphan, Anita Šlegel, who reflects on the humanity of the Soviet system: “My most beautiful memories are from those times.” (177) She names the tutors and principals from the orphanage who were so kind to her and had turned the orphanage into a genuine home for children rather than merely a state-run institution. (180) Leinarte asks: “When did the food improve at the orphanage?” and Šlegel responds, “The food was never bad... We weren’t deprived.” (181) But Šlegel does admit that her orphanage may have been better than others because it was in Vilnius. Aušra Dilienė, whose husband belonged to the upper echelons of the Communist Party, asserted that “everyone tried to help each other in a friendly way, and democracy was widespread in Lithuania.” (169) She further states: “Our life then was a zillion times better than today’s business people’s in independent Lithuania...“ (171) Another woman recounts the difficulties of loving and caring for an alcoholic husband. As pathetic as her story seems, she does not blame the Soviet system for her woes. Nevertheless, Leinarte maintains that Soviet expectations necessitated that a woman stand by her man. In another woman’s story, Leinarte concludes that, because of her occupation as a barmaid, she was “the only woman among all those interviewed who did not depend on others and was in full control of her private and family life.” (107) Later, that same woman makes a snide remark: “There wasn’t as much useless stuff as today, now that we have everything...” (114) Some of the women’s problems seem unavoidable. For instance, one recounts the difficulties of raising a handicapped child during the postwar era and criticizes the lack of state care and support for her and her child. She also admits to heavy drinking before the birth of her special needs child “because life seemed so meaningless.” (77)
None of the women had much knowledge about sex before marriage. They seemed reluctant to discuss it beyond the generalizations that now, under independence, women have become more promiscuous or, conversely, that today, with more information, attitudes about sex have become healthier. Prior to the sexual revolution in the late sixties and early seventies, Western women had, and sometimes still do, many of the same attitudes that Leinarte’s women have. Although Leinarte argues that Soviet propaganda de-emphasized romantic love and changed women-wives into women-workers, none of the interviewees seems to have become a stereotype of a woman shot-putter or bricklayer. None complained of losing their femininity.
Even though many of the women agreed life was better under the Russians, an attitude that is still prevalent in post- Soviet Lithuania, Leinarte seems to disregard this fact and optimistically concludes that “former ‘ordinary Soviet people’ will not pass on their Soviet experiences to future generations.” (200) It “... no longer has a place... in this world.” (16) The interviews, however, tell another story.
The series “On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom, and Moral Imagination in the Baltics” published by Rodopi, of which Adopting and Remembering Soviet Reality is Volume Twenty-Four, is probably the best, most serious, and scholarly body of work ever produced in the English language about the Baltic States. However, because many of the authors in this series are not native English speakers, their works, much like Leinarte’s, are often marred with writing errors and some ambiguity in meaning because of awkward grammar or inappropriate word choices. The original Lithuanian version, Prijaukintos kasdienybės [Adjusting to the Daily Routine: this reviewer’s translation], published in 2007, has none of those flaws. For all of its shortcomings Adopting and Remembering Soviet Realities is an original work of scholarship that one can only hope becomes part of a larger work on Lithuanian women. Dalia Leinarte has prepared herself well to write the grand narrative about Lithuanian women.