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1981–1988: Flower Children and Utopia's Collapse
Rimantas Kmita
Vacuous bureaucratism and the monotonous repetition of ideological mantras finally played itself out, leaving very few true believers. Literature at the start of the 1980s began to gradually regain the former illusion of freedom. After attacking modernism, the regime nevertheless relented and recognized the right of modern writers to exist. What’s more, the works of modern authors began to be translated into Russian and other languages and modern writers received various prizes and awards, including the nation’s highest: the Lithuanian SSR State Prize was awarded to Marcelijus Martinaitis in 1984, Sigitas Geda in 1985, Judita Vaičiūnaitė and Kęstutis Nastopka (the literary critic most supportive of the modern authors) in 1986, and Vytautas Kubilius. Modern authors joined the literary canon and were included in the second volume of the History of Lithuanian Literature published in 1982. The circulation of collections of modern poetry by Jonas Juškaitis, Vaičiūnaitė, Geda and other writers surpassed 10,000. By comparison, 1,000 is considered a large circulation of a poetry book today.
The official discourse began to change. The “realism without shores” program that had been the subject of earlier criticism was now actually implemented. Modern writers who were once criticised now became “socialist realists,” and everything they now wrote could somehow be contoured to fit the framework of socialist realism. The much-criticised chaos of poems by Geda and Vytautas P. Bložė, for example, was now called polyphonic harmony. In 1986, Alfonsas Maldonis, president of the LSSR Writers’ Union, commented that “by revealing man’s inner world, lyrical poetry is increasingly effective at employing the principles of musical composition. [Such poetry] is often created as the intertwining of several themes or the counterpoint to several voices, transforming into an internal language in pursuit of a variety and harmony of tones, as in Bložė’s Niekas (Nothing), Girių motina (Mother of the Forests), Groteskai (Grotesques), and Geda’s Mamutų tėvynė (Homeland of the Mammoths)."
Young authors making their debut in the writing world were unable to attract as much attention and they still received their share of ritualistic criticism, but they were no longer subjected to consistent censorship. The new generation of writers (including Donaldas Kajokas, Kornelijus Platelis, Onė Baliukonytė, Vladas Braziūnas, Nijolė Miliauskaitė, Kęstutis Navakas and Aidas Marčėnas) wrote and lived as if the political world existed somewhere else, having little in common with their own lives. Perhaps precisely because of this, the 1980s were portrayed by younger authors as a period of the greatest stagnation and control.
In truth, the Soviet cultural space was neither simple nor serene, and assaults or fits of censorship would occur in the most unlikely places. In 1986, for example, after publishing a series of poetry entiled “The Death of Maironis” for the 125th anniversary of the birth of the famous Lithuanian poet, Sigitas Geda was required to prove to the Cultural Division of the Lithuanian Communist Party Central Committee and to the LCP Central Committee Secretary Lionginas Šepetys himself that his work contained no anti-Soviet content. That same year, books written by Saulius Tomas Kondrotas were removed from libraries after the author emigrated to the West.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union and proclaimed his policy of perestroika, calling for greater democracy and openness. Environmental action movements proliferated and the memoirs of former deportees to Siberia began to emerge in publication. The most important of these was Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s Lietuviai prie Laptevų jūros (Lithuanians by the Laptev Sea), published in 1988 in the literary journal Pergalė. True openness came late to Lithuania, however. In 1986, the editors of the journal Literatūra ir menas (Literature and Art) invited one of the bravest authors, Sigitas Geda, to pen an article about the new reform policies, but the resulting essay was considerably edited due to its openness and critical views, while the issue of the journal appeared with a scathing response to Geda’s piece written by a collective farm chairman.
Reform and democratic processes had been mandated by the government but they still needed to be controlled. Vytautas Kubilius wrote in his journal:
If not everything can be said, then encouraging us to write the truth is nothing but demagoguery and self-aggrandizement. Can we speak about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact? Or about the situation with the nationalities? Vytautas Kubilius, Dienoraščiai 1978–2004, Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2007, p. 36.
A saying from that period put it simply: Perestroika is like the taiga: howling up top, dark and quiet below (перестройка как тайга: в верху шумит, а внизу темно и тихо).
The changes decreed by the party had little impact on cultural life. The stagnation that had dominated the 1970s infected most of the following decade as well. Officially sanctioned literature was completely bogged down in a boring routine. Volumes by Valerija Valsiūnienė or other anachronistic works by socialist realist authors continued to be published. Such a routine helped younger authors to find their footing, as their work was intended to supplement earlier forms of literary work. Many of today’s renowned authors participated in various competitions during this time that were held to commemorate one or another occasion or theme.
The stagnation provoked a rather depressed mood among explorative younger artists. Jurga Ivanauskaitė, debuting in 1985, was perhaps the most effective in expressing the language and attitudes of her generation.
Ivanauskaitė reflected on the time:
When the trial of Vytautas Skuodis started in 1980, I was a student at the Art Institute where his daughter was also studying. I remember how we were all consumed by a nightmare straight from a novel by Kafka or George Orwell… ("my roždeny, čtob Kafku sdelat bylju...") Jurga Ivanauskaitė, „Tarybinę valstybę žeminantys prasimanymai“, in: Atgimimo balsai: Publicistika ir poezija, sudarė Jonas Šlekys, Vilnius: Vyturys : Lietuvos rašytojų sąjunga, 1991, p. 15.
Ivanauskaitė was already recognized as the voice of her generation at the start of her public literary journey. Her short stories and novels conveyed a vivid and emblematic portrait of the younger generation’s mood, as expressed in the following monologue by Vika, a character from her 1988 novel Mėnulio vaikai (Children of the Moon):
I could die from boredom here! What a nightmare! <...> There are no discos, and when there are any they’re only good for pensioners and hicks. Cafes? None. Clubs? None. So they legalized rock music! Go ahead, children - listen to your cute little music. Go deaf and mad - just don’t stick your noses where they don’t belong, and don’t think too much!  They show shitty films, or ones that are completely edited out. You’re lucky if you can get near a video player!  Theatres and museums are full of antediluvian relics. The occasional ballet by someone like Maurice Béjart might visit, so you sneak in through the bathroom window, indulge in that for a bit, but then it’s even worse - like withdrawal for a drug addict. There’s nothing to watch on TV but ‘Goodnight, Kiddies’… <...> If you have connections you might get [Marques, Hesse, Borges] to save yourself by reading something. Otherwise nothing is being written here. But you can’t just spend every day reading around the clock… School was a nightmare - thank God I finished. But there’s no university to attend here - it’s the same ordeal everywhere. If Vaitkus would finally pick a class, it might be worth applying to the conservatory… Otherwise there’s nowhere to go, I tell you!
Only complete idiots, pathetic bachelors and old maids join all of those amateur clubs, choirs and folk dance groups…  And it’s very sad and embarrassing to admit, but I’ve gotten so old that that punk movement — despite all the good things about it that Cactus told you of, and despite all of their carefully torn clothing and attractively coifed little heads — simply annoys me. It makes me so angry I want to vomit!  Listen, how old are you? You’ll see. You’ll get tired of all of that, just like you got tired of Sid… I’m already eighteen… And none of that will pass for me. It won’t! Because I’m not OK! Nothing is OK! We are well-fed, happy, and warmly dressed — but we’re still not OK!  And when you’re not OK, you want to save yourself! When I listen to punk rock or heavy metal music, all thoughts leave my head. All of the sad, bad, horrible thoughts. Only emptiness remains… But emptiness is better than despair. Jurga Ivanauskaitė, Mėnulio vaikai, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2004, p. 227–228.
Ivanauskaitė called her contemporaries the cosmopolitan generation. Young people were longing for culture from the outside world, no longer satisfied with Baltic folklore or the other "legal" cultural pursuits that were a refuge from ideology for previous generations.
According to Elena Bukelienė, the worldview of the young artists of the day was "shaped by Western idealist philosophy from around Immanuel Kant to the desperate manifestos of the existentialists about the absurdity of the world, and then it was adapted to the situation in which Lithuanian artists found themselves, giving meaning to their suffering, despair and anger. The mystical teachings of the East were also attractive, compensating for the Catholicism that had been discredited by Soviet atheism and satisfying the religious impulse, aspiring to fill the spiritual void. <...> Having distanced themselves from traditional culture, the artists of this generation felt their own kind of freedom, unrestrained by the norms of either national or communist world views. For this reason, a relativism of values, nihilism and aggressive individualism became characteristic trademarks of their creative consciousness." Elena Bukelienė, „Vyresniųjų proza laisvės sąlygomis“, in: Naujausioji lietuvių literatūra (1988–2002), sudarė Giedrius Viliūnas, Vilnius: Alma littera, 2003, p. 129.
Works by Ričardas Gavelis, Ivanauskaitė, Jurgis Kunčinas and S.T. Kondrotas formed the core of the era’s new prose. The emerging postmodernist and constructive prose, quite alien to Lithuanian traditional styles, was received rather cautiously.
The most important literary critic of the day, Albertas Zalatorius, wrote:
The core of that literature is made up of irony, sarcasm, the grotesque and the absurd — even masochism and sadism.  In other words, everything that irritates a consciousness that is more accustomed to a balanced image and traditional interpretations. That literature is particularly prone to probing the three areas that the Soviet system considered to be the greatest taboos: the dark maze of the nature of security, eroticism and subjects not recognised by Marxism (religious feeling, parapsychology, magic, so-called ‘parellel’ worlds, etc.). Gavelis speaks of it with the passion of an angry intellectual and the enviable talent of an analyst. Kunčinas puts on his auto-ironic mask and invokes the inexhaustible supply of commentary of a perceptive storyteller. Ivanauskaitė proudly places herself somewhere between a punk and spiritual aristocrat and throws down a challenge to traditional icons. The goal of this literature is to expose all myths and desacralize and demystify the truth. <...>
But the literature contains, in the words of Kunčinas, ‘too much negative and intentional impoverishment.’ The authors immediately take up an excessive note of skepticism and cynicism, and they are in danger of becoming nothing more than a falsetto voice. The themes of security and eroticism are interesting only so long as one senses the taste of forbidden fruit in one’s mouth. But that taste soon dissipates. After all, what could you possibly say that is new after George Orwell, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich, Vladimir Nabokov, and after Western sex films. <...> These types of books, no matter how capably written, are essentially constructs of the mind and erudition. Perhaps only Kunčinas’ Glisono kilpoje (Glison’s Noose) contains more authentic and actual experiences. It’s not surprising, then, that their concepts are usually explained through the words of the protagonists or narrators, rather than emerging from any artistic image. They may be the subject of interesting analysis as original constructs, but the reader has difficulty identifying with their world, and that is why the latter remains somewhere by the wayside, along with all of its domestic and existential questions. Albertas Zalatorius, Literatūra ir laisvė, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998, p. 100.
The literary traditions of "authenticity," feeling and an experiential code run strong in Lithuanian literature. What is "real" is rarely associated with the mind or structure. Even one of the most renowned writers of Lithuanian prose, Juozas Aputis, who made significant contributions to the revival of modern prose in Lithuania, wrote the following unambiguous commentary about the new literary tradition:
I haven’t read Vilniaus pokeris (Vilnius Poker) or Vilniaus džiazas (Vilnius Jazz) to the end. By not doing so I don’t want to suggest some sort of evaluation of these works — they simply didn’t interest me or call out to be read. I am quite fond of Gavelis’ Memoirs of a Young Man. The other novels contain interesting (and enviable!) modeling and ‘conceptualising,’ but I found myself greatly missing… how can I put this? Some sort of spiritual radiance, a humanity, perhaps a longing for something beautiful, aesthetic. I would say the same about Ivanauskaitė’s novel Ragana ir lietus (The Witch and the Rain). <…> Without hesitation, I would call that a model novel. Juozas Aputis, „Atsakymai į Literatūros ir meno anketą“, Literatūra ir menas, 1994-03-26.
Aputis and Zalatorius construct two opposing concepts in their commentary: a prose dominated by structure, concepts, ideas and preconceived designs, and a prose based on authentic experiences, phenomenological descriptions and the posing of existential questions. One seems to be directed more toward social criticism, the other — toward man’s inner world. The first trend is downplayed due to a particular inertia: Lithuania simply lacks such a tradition, as social criticism in the Soviet period was an impossible undertaking, so writers were left with the choice of describing the movements of man’s internal world.
Such literature was in abundance at the time: the minimalism and simplicity found in the prose of Bitė Vilimaitė and Antanas Ramonas and the poetry of Nijolė Miliauskaitė, and the moral engagement of Vaidotas Daunys were their own type of counterweight to the developing postmodernist literature. The strongest counterweight, however, was the emergence of deportee memoirs in which the concepts of social engagement, the political context, and the thirst for historical truth and moral values were intertwined.
The stagnation in official discourse created an atmosphere of the absurd that also permeated literature. The Kabaretas tarp girnų (Cabaret Between the Millstones) crafted postmodernist visions of the dear Soviet homeland, Juozas Erlickas continued working on his absurdist theatre that satirised typically stagnant Soviet characters and rhetoric, while Stasys Jonauskas affirmed ideological dogmas with an affected air of seriousness in his collection of poems entitled Spaliai (Octobers).
In spite of everything, the 1980s was a period of maturation for Lithuanian literature. This decade saw the publication of V.P. Bložė’s Polifonijos (Polyphonies), S.T. Kondrotas’ Žalčio žvilgsnis (A Glance of the Serpant), Mamutų tėvynė (The Homeland of the Mammoths) by Sigitas Geda, and Link debesijos (Towards Debesija) by Bronius Radzevičius, as well as collections by Vladas Šimkus, Marcelijus Martinaitis, Algimantas Mikuta, Antanas A. Jonynas and Aputis. Translations of works by the bogeymen of the Soviet era — Franz Kafka and James Joyce — also appear.
Kubilius wrote in his journal (February 1st, 1980) at the time that Lithuanian literature "is becoming quite serious literature, and we must not look down on it. Even under these circumstances there are individuals out there with profound and original ideas. Perhaps [our] literature’s potential is even greater now than it was before the war. The only problem is that it still has to circumvent fundamental questions and smolder on in the unspoken word, evading the problems of national existence. It is still unable to develop sufficient directness or internal tension." Vytautas Kubilius, Dienoraščiai 1978–2004, Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2007, p. 23.


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Sources and links


Lithuanian Central State Archives
Jurgis Kunčinas Public Library
The Digital Database of Study Sources on Lithuanian Language, Literature (Culture) and History for Teachers and Learners


Sigitas Geda: pasaulinės kultūros lietuvinimas
Serija: Rytai–Vakarai: komparatyvistinės studijos, Vilnius: Lietuvos kultūros tyrimų institutas, 2010
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