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1955–1965: Freedom in the Years of the "Thaw"
Rimantas Kmita
What did freedom mean after Stalin's death?
The fifty years of Soviet occupation were hardly a uniform, monolithic period during which Lithuanian culture was suppressed. It appears there are slightly more differences than similarities between the years under Stalin's rule and the end of the Soviet epoch as it moved toward decadence and liberalism.
With Stalin's death in 1953, organized partisan resistance also came to an end, and as the Soviet system was finally firmly established, a relatively peaceful existence began (deportations to Siberia subsided, for instance). People began to think about how to live under the new circumstances rather than to change them. Lithuanians began joining the Communist Party, and the 20th Communist Party Conference in 1956 that denounced the "cult of personality" fostered hopes, however fragile, for a more liberal government (the events of 1956 in Hungary were a signal to many in the literary world that the regime would not essentially change for a long time). Controls over culture did not decrease, but they took on new forms. The official literary history of the day stated that "antagonistic contradictions", i.e. cultural alternatives, no longer existed in that period. Indeed, this was a time when literature learned to live with new circumstances, rather than protest, contradict or experiment.
Literary and artistic autonomy is not created in a day or in a year. It requires several generations. What was understood as a gradual loosening of control and liberalization in the late 1950s might today be seen as the twilight of a totalitarian system. 
How should we perceive those processes of cultural liberalization today? Every artist experiences the sense of freedom and the limits of his own possibilities differently, measuring courage and weighing risk factors in an equally different fashion. It is no wonder, then, that the recollections of different writers of the cultural atmosphere of this period are contradictory. Poet Marcelijus Martinaitis always reminded readers that he had lived in a censored cultural space:
We shouldn't forget that, with the exception of works by Salomėja Neris, we had virtually no knowledge of any other example of more humane lyricism—we, the children of villages and small towns, and especially those from poor families, where libraries—and books themselves—were a rarity. It is no coincidence, then, that as soon as the so-called 'thaw' began, books were swept up and voraciously consumed almost as soon as they emerged in print, including those by P. Širvys (Žygio draugai – Friends of the March), Justinas Marcinkevičius (Prašau žodžio – I Ask to Speak), A. Baltakis (Lietučiui dulkiant – In the Misting Drizzle), and, somewhat later, J. Degutytė (Ugnies lašai – Drops of Fire). Marcelijus Martinaitis, „Eduardas Mieželaitis, bet ne tas“, in: Eduardas Mieželaitis: post scriptum, sudarė Vladas Braziūnas, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2008, p. 32.
Looking only at the official cultural realm, libraries were cleared out, books and newspapers appeared heavily edited, and the works of modern authors could only possibly be found in Russian language journals. But many cultural activists used their network of acquaintances (a resource that would be impossible to recreate today) and would receive "samizdat" (self-published) books in Russian, while academics could gain access to "special archives" to read Lithuanian émigré publications.  Those that spoke Polish visited the foreign literature book store "Draugystė" (Friendship) that was further away from the wandering eye of the censors, and those speaking other Western tongues would receive books in those languages, while a few publications were also available on the black market (as books or manuscripts).
Closer ties to the Lithuanian émigré community developed around the mid-1960s. Contact with the diaspora broadened cultural horizons and more books by émigré Lithuanian and Western authors began to reach Lithuania. Before this, the greatest source of more serious literature was comprised of Russian and world classics.
Equally different and difficult to comprehend from today's perspective was the experience of the art world of the period and its reaction to change and innovation. The greater part of literary works written between 1956 and 1964 is an interesting example of how the concept of literature changes with the cultural and political context. Many memoirs of this period cite the considerable influence of poets, but today that impression appears difficult to explain.
Lines written by Eduardas Mieželaitis, for example—"even in a book, a gray nightingale has the right to live"—became a kind of manifesto, in which somewhat younger poets could find solace as they sought to speak in verse with a more intimate voice, shaking off formality, propagandist posterism, and Soviet greatness. The title of Algimantas Baltakis' first book, Lietučiui dulkiant (In the Misting Drizzle), published in 1955, was like a breath of fresh air; the poetic works of Janina Degutytė and other poets were copied by hand like the most precious of texts that spoke to the inner human condition, while Vytautas Rimkevičius' novel Studentai (The Students) (1957) sparked discussions in youth circles. The first collection of poems by Justinas Marcinkevičius, Prašau žodžio (I Ask to Speak) (1955) was sold out, but the poet did not include any poems from this collection in any later publications, and it would be difficult today to find poems or texts from that first publication that we would consider poetry.
So, although it may be difficult to understand today what made an aesthetic impression—and, most importantly, why it did so—we should not forget that these small books, both before publication or afterward, continued to be constantly reviewed by the literary bureaucracy. It is difficult to imagine that a harmless image from nature could provoke such governmental displeasure. In the words of Kornelijus Platelis: "Even the poetic enjoyment of natural scenery or the celebration of feelings of human love, friendship, or motherhood was called 'escaping from reality' and was considered a crime." Kornelijus Platelis, „Apie moderniąją lietuvių poeziją“, in: Poezijos pavasaris, Vilnius: Vaga, 1991, p. 258.
Where did it begin?
Could anyone in the post-war period have been concerned with high modernism? Could many have been able to aspire to modernist language when modernism was considered a synonym for decadence and the greatest offense?  In terms of modernizing and freeing literature, it was only possible at that time to aspire to a discussion about how to return literature to some semblance of normalcy and infuse it with aesthetic functions.
There was a return to traditional forms in both narrative and lyric texts. Folk songs were the greatest source of poetry's renewal. Through them, there was a return to a more intimate discussion, a neo-romantic tradition, and an attempt to create an atmosphere of sincerity that was contrary to the correct "lyrical subject" shouting out party slogans.
In terms of the socialist realism program, folklore was justified because of its national character, and it also satisfied the expectations of most readers. It was used as a foundation by more conservative poets (Paulius Širvys, Eduardas Mieželaitis, Justinas Marcinkevičius, Alfonsas Maldonis, Algimantas Baltakis), and, later, its motifs were incorporated by avantgarde poets (Sigitas Geda, Vytautas P. Bložė, Marcelijus Martinaitis).
After Stalin's death, literature was allowed to portray life in a more realistic manner, although still strictly adhering to the party line. The party needed a new hero, new art, and a new concept of socialist man. This purpose was met most effectively by J. Marcinkevičius' Dvidešimtas pavasaris (Twentieth Spring) (1956), Kraujas ir pelenai (Blood and Ashes) (1960), and Eduardas Mieželaitis' poem Žmogus (Man), recognized with the highest award in the Soviet Union, the Lenin Prize. First to establish itself in the literary field was the generation of Mieželaitis and Marcinkevičius (Baltakis, Maldonis, Sluckis, among others), creating works that adhered to the Soviet discourse and occupying leadership positions in literary institutions. Theirs was the generation that rose to prominence simultaneously with the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev's "thaw" policies. Forced to pen odes to Stalin in the immediate post-war years, more senior writers then found themselves the target of criticism in the years of the "thaw". Meanwhile, rather than directly opposing Communist Party politics, the generation of Mieželaitis, Marcinkevičius, and Baltakis succeeded in exploiting the changes promoted by the Party, allowing them to begin creating a new worldview for "Soviet man".  This generational difference is aptly described by Valdas Kukulas:
V. Grybas and A. Jonynas were the first Soviet poets who didn't have to contort and cripple their own natural poetic voice, because they sincerely believed in the ideals of socialism, while Baltakis and Marcinkevičius were the first Soviet Lithuanian poets who dared to be humans first, and citizens second. The return of a humane, understanding, and compassionate human voice to poetry was comparable at that time to the most courageous act of dissent because it threatened the new political doctrine's core value: the absolute socialization and ideologization of man. Valdemaras Kukulas, Pauliaus Širvio gyvenimas ir kūryba: ženklai ir pražvalgos, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2013, p. 254.
Using the word "revolutionary" to describe such a change may be excessive, since speaking about Lenin, albeit with a humane voice, and creating narratives that correspond to the Party's interest is a step forward, but it does not shake the foundations of the system.
To be sure, readers were clearly impressed by the new humane language, as they were the ones most in need of a feeling language that could liberate suppressed emotions. Thus they were moved by the words of the lonely poet Paulius Širvys, whose poetry never seemed to have returned from the war, and who sang with a full voice about failed love, spiritual pain and the experiences of soldiers. It was difficult for readers to get a copy of Janina Degutytė's Ugnies lašai (Drops of Fire) (1959), so they copied her poetry by hand and would write letters to the author asking her to send new poems to them. It seems that readers believed the poet's words that "Everything is bought with one's life."  It was precisely life, not ideological declarations, that the public longed for.
And what about prose?
When the rebirth of literature in this period is usually discussed, the contribution of the "1930s generation" is emphasized first and foremost. There is a prevailing opinion that poetry was less politicized, more flexible, and more delicate, and for this reason it slipped more easily through the net of censorship and was a genre that resisted ideological muster. But the works that today mark the rebirth of poetry (the first collections by Justinas Marcinkevičius, Algimantas Baltakis, Alfonsas Maldonis and Janina Degutytė) nevertheless now belong to history, and reading them as works of art possessing a residual value is almost impossible.
The two main "legal" traditions in Lithuanian poetry were rooted in the works of Žemaitė and Jonas Biliūnas. The first tradition, realistic prose, predominated, embraced by Juozas Baltušis, Ieva Simonaitytė, Juozas Grušas, and Jonas Avyžius. The second, riskier, trend came from Biliūnas: lyrical prose with a subjective, intimate perspective characterized the works of Mykolas Sluckis, Romualdas Lankauskas, and Jonas Mikelinskas. Though under Khrushchev's "thaw" the government supported "innovation" (not to be confused with modernism), it was still extremely protective of the limits to any artistic innovation. Official speeches usually commended artists for their "explorations", but immediately followed with comments about how inaccessible such explorations might be for the common people. Ideologists who criticized post-war literary practices nevertheless prohibited any depiction of man devoid of correct ideology. In one KGB report to Antanas Sniečkus, for example, the attention of the First Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party is directed toward the fact that "in the writer Lankauskas' novel Vidury didelio lauko (In the Middle of a Large Field) [...] Soviet and fascist soldiers confront each other not as proponents of different ideologies, but as people suffering from the horrors of war." LSSR KGB pažyma LKP CK pirmajam sekretoriui A. Sniečkui apie kūrybinės inteligentijos nuotaikas, Vilnius, 1963 m. balandžio 3 d., in: Lietuvos kultūra sovietinės ideologijos nelaisvėje, 1940–1990: Dokumentų rinkinys, sudarė Juozapas Romualdas Bagušauskas, Arūnas Streikus, Vilnius: Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos tyrimo centras, 2005, p. 320.
Some works of prose, however, do escape from their historical context; for example, the novels of Vytautas Sirijos Gira, first among them Voratinkliai draikėsi be vėjo (Spiderwebs Scattered Without Wind) (first published in the journal Pergalė in 1960), and some short stories by Romualdas Lankauskas and Jonas Mikelinskas as well as, of course, the works of Icchokas Meras, which can be appreciated regardless of the political circumstances and without making any concessions due to the prevailing complex historical and cultural context. Once translated into several foreign languages, Meras' novel Lygiosios trunka akimirką (Stalemate) (1963) was called a masterpiece by critics.
Other important poets debuted their works in the first half of the 1960s, including Vytautas P. Bložė, Jonas Juškaitis, Leonardas Gutauskas, Albinas Bernotas, Judita Vaičiūnaitė, Vladas Šimkus, and prose writer Juozas Aputis, but all would create their most mature works somewhat later. Texts by Juozas Aputis that debuted in a 1963 collection of stories that included pieces by V. Sirijos Gira and Icchokas Meras, entitled Žydi bičių duona (Bread of the Bees), were even in the day distinguished by the universality of their issues, the spirit of urban prose, and a detachment from folkish and rural Lithuanian prose. Kazys Boruta plunged into the frenzied world of folklore; Jonas Mikelinskas sought to create psychologically nuanced characters rather than the usual personages and masked figures beholden to Soviet ideological clichés. Literature gradually won back a minimal amount of breathing space.


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Sources and links

LSSR KGB pažyma LKP CK pirmajam sekretoriui A. Sniečkui apie kūrybinės inteligentijos nuotaikas, Vilnius, 1963 m. balandžio 3 d.
Lietuvos kultūra sovietinės ideologijos nelaisvėje, 1940–1990: Dokumentų rinkinys, sudarė Juozapas Romualdas Bagušau
Valdemaras Kukulas
Pauliaus Širvio gyvenimas ir kūryba: ženklai ir pražvalgos
Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2013
Marcelijus Martinaitis
„Eduardas Mieželaitis, bet ne tas“
Eduardas Mieželaitis: post scriptum, sudarė Vladas Braziūnas, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2008
Kornelijus Platelis
„Apie moderniąją lietuvių poeziją“
Poezijos pavasaris, Vilnius: Vaga, 1991, p. 257–262
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