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Then and now: Comparing the Soviet and Post-Soviet experience in Latvian autobiographies



Social scientists interested in the biographical representation of the Soviet period have predominantly focused on either oral or researcher-initiated written biographical narratives (Bertaux, Thompson, and Rotkirch 2004; Kõresaar 2004; Humphrey, Miller, and Zdravomyslova 2003; Skultans 1998). To a certain extent the privileging of these sources has facilitated avoiding the conventions of public autobiographical discourse (the dominance of elite autobiographers, the conciseness of narratives, autobiographers’ avoidance to speak about their negative identities, etc.). At the same time, it has also downplayed a public dimension of biographical representations; the dimension that is inevitable in the case of written autobiographies and is inherent to modern social representation of the past.

Since the middle of the 1990s, there has been significant increase of published autobiographies in Latvia, which reflect the Soviet period (see Chart 1). This increasing number of autobiographies has exposed the Latvians’ “will to remember” the Soviet era. Will to remember, as Pierre Nora has put it, is a crucial criterion to establish lieux de mémoire – sites of memory; abandoning this criterion, “we would quickly drift into admitting virtually everything as worthy of remembrance” (Nora 1989, 19). For scholars of public discourse, however, it raises questions concerning the nature of these memories. Namely, how the past is represented and what is underrepresented in the autobiographers’ public accounts of the Soviet period, and who are the main autobiographical “voices” willing (or not willing) to remember. As regards the Soviet period, an analysis of autobiographies may reveal the publicly shared practices of demarcating lieux de mémoire.

The aim of my article is to examine just one of the demarcation lines, that is to say I am concerned with how Latvian autobiographers compare the Soviet experience with the post-Soviet one.


Soviet vs. post-Soviet: does it matter?

In the spring of 2009 the Russian TV channel ТВ Центр (TV Center) released a documentary with an ironic title “The Baltic: a story of one’s occupation”. The movie was dedicated to the Soviet period in the Baltic States and in the Latvian public discourse it was interpreted as evidence of Russia’s ongoing attempts to reframe the Soviet Union as a benefactor of the Baltic States’ economies rather than an occupier of its people. Such a reaction was paradigmatic of the official normative orientation towards everything that is connected with the Soviet Union.

The majority of post-communist countries in Eastern Europe have officially condemned communism and, therefore, their reaction to such a documentary might be similar to that of many Latvians, as well as the Latvian state. It would, however, be too reckless to assume that this kind of memory politics has equally influenced all groups of those post-communist societies where the totalitarian regime was at its strongest. This is to say that, although generally speaking the Baltic Sates have been the least nostalgic towards the Soviet past, this does not exclude the possibility that Soviet legacy shapes the habitus of the Baltic peoples (see: Ekman&Linde 2005).

While a rigorous and stark division between the Soviet and post-Soviet experience is often acceptable ideologically in order to carry out various adjudications on Soviet wrongdoers (see: Jakovska&Moran 2006), one should question its sociological and analytical justification. Since the 1990s many students of the transition process in Eastern Europe have pointed to the Soviet legacies that the newly established liberal democracies had to and still have to cope with. In the middle of the 1990s, Beverly Crawford and Arend Lijphart, for example, wrote about six key areas of past legacies for post-Communist regimes: cultural, social, political, national, institutional, and administrative/economic. The influence of such legacies, then, was described in connection with the inner and outer forces:

Indeed the immediate context that determines which legacies are still alive and which have vanished involves the institutions that developed under communism, the proximity to the West, and the vigor with which Western aid and investment into the region are pursued. The confluence of these forces works to determine which norms will become hegemonic and the institutions that will be built on the normative foundations. (1996, 34)

Perhaps, less empirically measurable factor at that time was the idiosyncratic memories of those who grew and developed under the post-Stalinist totalitarian regime as relatively non-repressed citizens. As Ene Kõresaar has shown in the research of Estonian teachers’ memories, the prevailing public discourse and life stories of the 1990s invited to clean post-socialist history of the communist garbage, and that forced the individuals “to avoid evaluation in their life stories” (2004, 131). In fact, many people after the collapse of the Soviet Union were confused about the role of the Soviet experience within their “trajectories of the self” (Giddens 1991). Should it be ignored and forgotten? Which experiences should be highlighted?

Despite the fact that we still lack an overall picture of how people answered these questions and how the Soviet era and communism per se has been retrospectively anchored in contemporary settings, many social scientists have succeeded in showing that the division between Soviet and post-Soviet experiences and orientations is not as clear. In the 1990s, the Soviet normativity remained in discourse as well as in material culture of particular groups, which resulted in the simultaneity of then and now. The anthropologist Sigrid Rausing, who in the early 1990s explored the transformation of the collective farm on an isolated peninsula in post-Soviet Estonia, perceives this normativity as, “certain knowledge of how the things were done, which was rarely transcended, even in the time of transition” (Rausing 2004, 31). Along with the idiosyncratic behavior, the shifts in post-communist social memory also influenced the simultaneity of Soviet and post-Soviet habitus. Maya Nadkarni and Olga Shevchenko (2004) have suggested that during the 1990s the memory of a communist past in post-communist societies obtained its nostalgic dimensions due to the vanishing of the West as a symbol of salvation during the Soviet period and due to the political kitsch that appeared through the commodification of the official symbols of communist ideology (socialist-themed bars and parks in Eastern Europe, popularity of songs from communist period, feature films about communist era, etc.).

With the passing of time, there undoubtedly appears to be a distinction between these habitus. Nevertheless, there are certain groups of people in Latvia and elsewhere who on daily basis continue to blend the Soviet and post-Soviet experience. For example, this blending may manifest through the Soviet-time expressions (inherited either from Soviet everyday life or from Soviet time movies) that are still used in discourse or through a political behavior (indifference to politics, fear of authorities, susceptibility to bribery, etc.). To be more precise, such a blending has been characteristic of those whose formative experience was obtained under the Soviet rule and was subsequently challenged by post-Soviet ideological and social demands; probably, some treasures from the Soviet legacy have been so adaptable that they are approved by next generations. Hence, one may argue that the Möbius strip sociologically is more adequate metaphor than divorce to describe the relationship between the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. This is to say, that both experiences still influence each other, and the discursive or behavioral salience of one of them is contextually dependent.


Some methodological premises and limitations

I define autobiographies as a particular discursive field that takes part in the creation of the social representations of the past, and that are influenced by already created social representations of the past. Social representations theory (SRT) insists that our social behavior is fully influenced by social representations – the system of values, ideas and practices inscribed within the framework of pre-existing thought and always playing,

A triple role of illumination (giving sense of reality), integration (incorporating new ideas or facts into familiar frameworks) and partition (ensuring the common sense through which a given collectivity is recognized) (Moscovici and Vignaux 2000, 157).

Social representations are created through interpersonal and/or inter-group communication and they are subjected to the dynamics of ongoing changes within social groups, therefore the social representation of past are linked by what Jan Assman has called a communicative memory, which can be characterized “by a high degree of non-specialization, reciprocity of roles, thematic instability, and disorganization” (1995, 126).

In the context of SRT, autobiographers become representatives of a certain social group who handle the past as a social object; their autobiographies, consequently, develop into the biographical representation of a shared experience. I believe the researches on biographical representations are the most valuable when they help to understand a retrospective anchoring of the past. As Flick, revising SRT, has proposed, the retrospective anchoring shows in which situational context people remember certain experience, objects and changes or which situational context people construct around their experience – while looking back (1995, 86–87).

When autobiographers evaluate their experience, obtained under various political regimes, it inevitably triggers a dialogical discourse between then and now. For scholars it, then, provides an opportunity to identify the key framing practices towards the temporal structure of autobiographical narratives. The frame is an analytical tool that I shall use to capture the Soviet and post-Soviet experience in the article.

Social scientists have dealt with the framing theory since the 1970s, when it was proposed by the sociologist Erving Goffman in his seminal book “Frame analysis” (1974). Subsequently, as it often happens, different interpretations emerged from this “complex and enigmatic book” (Scheff 2005, 370). As a result, frame analysis has been used in rhetoric, political sciences, cognitive psychology, media studies, etc. Regardless of a vagueness of the frame that has been justly pointed out by critics, this concept, to my mind, has not lost its heuristic value and, therefore, it can be applicable within the analysis of social contexts.

I treat the frame here as a multilevel rhetorical mechanism that facilitates the interpretation of social representations. In short, through a discourse frames enable the salience of social representations. Kimberley Fisher (1997) has argued that there are two types of frames we have to deal with. The first type is discursive structural frame, which organizes the meaning linguistically, but the second is cultural frame, which, I consider to be more intuitive and which corresponds to the concept of social representations, that is – it describes the socially shared context which underlies the manifested discourse. Nevertheless, in terms of SRT the cultural frames should be operationalized as the function of social representation.

In this article I am focusing on the cultural frames, thus my empirical aim is to reveal the cultural contexts in which particular comparison of Soviet and post-Soviet experience is taking place. The cultural frames were extracted inductively –, that is, I identified shared attitudes of the autobiographers towards the past and present experiences. Initially I registered all places in the autobiographical narratives where the coda appears; the coda, as Labov and Waltetsky have defined it, is a functional device within narrative for returning the verbal perspective to the present moment (1967). Having collected the codas, I selected those which contained direct or indirect comparison between the Soviet and post-Soviet experience. Hence, I believe, the excerpts quoted in the analysis that follows, represent dominant framing contexts. As I have explored just codas, any generalizations in the article are made on the basis of this qualitative data set.

Overall, I am analyzing 24 autobiographies which have been published in the period from 1992 to 2008. The sample was created from autobiographies which contained explicit comparisons between the Soviet and post-Soviet experience and the majority such autobiographies are written either by the former Soviet intelligentsia or by the former Soviet public officials (accordingly – 17 and 6). As it can be seen in Chart 1, the increase of autobiographies is particularly characteristic to the last decade, for that reason majority of books represent this period.

Despite the fact that I have researched Latvian autobiographies, it is possible that there might be many similarities with the autobiographical representations of other post-communist societies, especially, it applies to the Baltic nations. However, one must admit that until now there has been a lack of comparative studies that may empirically support such resemblance, particularly regarding the written biographical representations.


Nostalgic frame

A nostalgic frame appears within the analyzed material when the Soviet experience is estimated more positively than the post-Soviet one. Although generally Latvian autobiographers are not very sentimental concerning the Soviet past, there are certain moments when the longing for the Soviet era becomes more salient.

A professional discourse is the most vivid context, through which the various achievements of the Soviet era are revealed. Moreover, these achievements are seen as having been undermined in the post-Soviet period. For example, the actress Erika Ferda considers that in the Soviet time, “we, the actors, criticized each other more often than it is nowadays” (1995, 168), but the scholar Janis Freimanis is convinced that the science, in comparison with the Soviet period, has become more trivial and fragmentized and people are more inactive in terms of environmental protection (2002, 43, 57).

Former officials of the Soviet militia, in turn, admit that the Soviet society was more disciplined and law abiding. They do point out that the state paid more attention to the order on the streets and to prevention of crimes; in their opinion, the Soviet judicial system also was more effective, and, instead of merely making cheap sensations out of crimes, the press attempted to influence readers’ conduct (Blonskis 2000, Zlakomanovs 2000, Kavalieris 2002). A similar hint to the role of media is made by Uldis Lasmanis, the man who worked in the Soviet trade system. Recalling the fires in the Central Supermarket of Riga, he adds:

As it was accepted in the Soviet years, there was never a word about the fire and investigation in the press and TV. In some respect we weren’t tortured by the crowd of correspondents and reporters as it happens today. (2006, 368)

On the one hand, the comparison made on a professional basis underlines the malfunctioning and unpredictability of the post-Soviet Latvia. But, on the other hand, a nostalgic framing does implicitly point to the dissatisfaction with several freedoms of democratic society.

A few nostalgic autobiographers also emphasize the human qualities of the Soviet people that have been lost now. Generally, the people are characterized as more purposeful, heroic, collectivistic and ethical (Artmane 2004, 215; Auziņš, 3rd vol. 2006, 68, Utena 1997, 59; Ferda 1995, 199). These attributes in a way underline a moral superiority of the Soviet man. Furthermore, some of the autobiographers display these traits as at least partly enabled by the Communist regime.

Another aspect, which constantly becomes visible through nostalgic framing, is related to the protection of a past identity. It comes out when the autobiographers contend the false perceptions which characterize contemporary Latvian public discourse about the Soviet past. The self-protectionism seems a common practice across several autobiographies written by the former Soviet intelligentsia, and discursively it manifests as a criticism of the currently prevailing estimations than a strong longing for the Soviet time. Trough this criticism the autobiographers stress a vitality of creative life – so characteristic of the Soviet period and so absent in post-Soviet Latvia. The actor Harijs Liepins sarcastically mentions young “theater scientists” who accuse the Soviet theater of an old-fashioned theatricality:

However, the previous generation, the parents [of “theater scientists”], watched us in their youth and they experienced something so keenly that the contemporary theatre companies [in Latvian the “theatre” is written in diminutive form to stress the author’s sarcastic intentions – M.K.] of “independents”, “furious artists” or “stubborn persons” won’t ever be able to reach. (1997, 55)

The intelligentsia thereby confronts an assumption that there was no real creativity and artistic freedom, that creative and technical intelligentsia performed only in the interests of the Soviet regime. On the contrary, intelligentsia argues: there was a persistent spirit of community and creativity. As the poet Imants Auzins suggests, in fact “people were more sparkling and unrestrained” than they are now, and, comparing writers’ creativity in the 1970s and 1980s with today’s situation, one must acknowledge that presently the creative work is stagnating (Auziņš, vol. 1, 2002, 86). The violinist Gidons Kremers practically also advocates such estimation by saying that,

Only a few young talented contemporary musicians have in their minds the same meaning of playing music as we had it in an unhappy Soviet Union. It was sort of resistance and sacrifice and even - a “reverberant conscience”. (Krēmers 2007, 422)

Another Latvian poet Maris Caklais, in turn, objects to the myth of intelligentsia’s enslavement during the Soviet period:

The legend is currently being cultivated that during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there has been nearly a total silence in society, regarding almost all previous political collisions, persecutions, and deportations. Of course, it wasn’t like someone came up in the street, offering an in-depth and long conversation. These definitely weren’t lectures; these were flashbacks about people, friends and enemies, about fatal and motley adventures, books and their authors–never met, but close and familiar –, about planned activities and impossibilities, about impossible activities. (2001, 113)

As will be shown later, the disagreement with the misinterpretations of the past appears in connection with a continuation frame as well. In this context, however, the refutation of incorrect estimations, display the intentions to position the Soviet intelligentsia as an agent rather than a victim of the social relations. The autobiographers tend to protect the “small freedoms” (see: Galtz 2004) of the Soviet time as the testimonies of a positive social identity and as a unique experience. Namely, apart from the political restrictions there were many intellectual debates and a vital creative life – processes, which they see as missing in the current Latvian society.

Longing for old good time is a characteristic feature of autobiographical memories. Nonetheless, as Svetlana Boym in her exploration of post-Soviet Russian culture has stated, nostalgia should not be perceived just as a desire to return a lost time, but also as a critique of the present. In other words, along with restorative nostalgia, there is also reflective nostalgia, which encompasses irony towards the past and a critical attitude towards the present. Contrary to the former type, which is based on a feeling of continuity and reproduction of the past, the later is tended to reflect the past as crucial and unrepeatable part of one’s identity project:

Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time. (Boym 2001, 41)

This strict classification has been criticized by other scholars of the post-socialism nostalgia who support more integrated approach. That is to say, the reflective and restorative components may be present in any nostalgic practice and the saliences of particular component as well as their mutual relations are determined by generational boundaries and distinct memory politics (Nadkarni & Shevchenko 2004). Considering these two forms of nostalgia in relation to Latvian autobiographies, indeed, it seems that the autobiographical discourse enables both. The restorative nostalgia comes in foreground in professional context. Despite the fact that the autobiographers do not clearly support the renewal of the Soviet Union, they express sort of longing for professionalism, stability, predictability, and social security, which, as they argue, was intrinsic to the Soviet system. The intelligentsia, conversely, highlights the reflective nostalgia, thereby showing the positive aspects of the Soviet experience and it may be perceived as a way of critically examining the current derogatory assumptions about intelligentsia’s former social identity.


Progressive frame

A progressive frame is used by the autobiographer to estimate the present experience more positively than the past one. The superiority of the post-Soviet experience mostly appears when the autobiographers reflect on Soviet time restrictions, inflicted on everyday, as well as professional life; thus they stress a post-Soviet opportunity to talk about the wrongdoers. The experience of these constraints, for example, exposes the oppressive measures towards Soviet academics, cruel treatment of prisoners, etc. The Soviet official of militia Nikolajs Zlakomanovs points out that control from above was realized also in the structures of interior affairs:

The slogan of the Soviet era ‘Personnel decide everything’ also today is very urgent and truthful. Another thing is that it was just declared in those days, but in practice it sometimes meant a campaign-like pursuing and the breaking of personnel. (2000, 137)

Nevertheless, surprisingly, but the reflections on the restrictions, which were present in the daily Soviet life, are not as salient as might be thought in terms of the post-Soviet attainments. One of such rare reflections can be read in the autobiography of the poet Olafs Gutmanis. He acknowledges:

I am still ashamed of that time when we as the customers were humiliated. The exception was those who were purchasing in the specialized shops and who had corresponding certificates [that permitted] purchasing without standing in a queue. When I recall all this experience, these past episodes (...) seem highly absurd, nightmarish, and so far from the present reality.” (2004, 76)

One more aspect of the progressive framing is a self-criticism. It appears when the autobiographers admit that they to some extent and in certain moments had a misleading perception of the situation in the Soviet period. For example, J. Freimanis, an active participant of National Awakening movement, estimating the successes in gaining independency from USSR, says that just today one can understand that a true de iure recognition was reached after 19 August, 1991 and not earlier, as some people used to think in the late Soviet period (2002, 167). The former Soviet officials also demonstrate a moderate self-criticism towards their arbitrariness when carrying out professional duties. As it is recurrently mentioned by the former top-official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs Anrijs Kavalieris, the legality of investigations was quite questionable, and probably, in terms of today’s understanding, many activities would be qualified as illegal. Kavalieris, however, looks for some justification, saying that in the Soviet time “everyone closed their eyes to such deviations” (2002, 41).

The progressive framing, in general, is not as relevant as other framing practices. Nevertheless, it is used by various autobiographers and sometimes it approaches the topics of (self)victimization and heroism (e. g. “I/everyone was humiliated by the regime” or “I fought against the regime”).

The disinclination to show the post-Soviet social accomplishments is an obvious trend within the analyzed autobiographies. The progressive frame is utilized, rather, on a systemic level, revealing some fundamental restrictions, which limited the professional development and basic freedoms of the autobiographers. Why there is such a hesitation towards the post-Soviet socioeconomic progress might be a question for a separate research. I think that one of the hypotheses could be related to the narration models, i. e. the Latvian autobiographers are used to compare the Soviet and post-Soviet experience merely at the systemic level and/or in a quite politicized way therefore they ignore the micro-social comparisons. Likewise, it, perhaps, signalizes that the autobiographers do not think there has been any significant progress in the well-being.


Continuation frame

When the estimation of past and present experience is not separated structurally we have to talk about a certain experiential continuity. To be more precise, one may outline the continuation of a negative, positive or neutral experience. In the empirical material, however, the bulk of cases appear in connection with the negative or neutral experience, leaving aside the positive one, which is too sporadic to be examined here.

The continuation of a neutral experience is most often manifested in professional discourse. For instance, representatives of the Soviet law enforcement institutions emphasize some investigation practices which have not changed from the Soviet time; scholars also draw to the similarities in the organization of research process. In other words, the neutral experience emerges as kind of an objectified process, which persists regardless of political regimes. The essence of this framing aspect is vividly revealed by the former scholar Ivars Godmanis:

You can’t accomplish anything in the science, if you are not fanatic. Zero! [You will reach] nothing. Well, you can do something formally, but to reach the goal in nature sciences you have to work savagely. And it doesn’t matter if it is in the capitalism or socialism. For physics it doesn’t matter. (Utena, 1997, 28)

The continuity of a negative experience, nevertheless, is a dominant subtype of the continuation frame. Usually a negative experience manifests as a cliché-ridden frustration–people expected that the life after the collapse of the Soviet Union will be better, however it did not happen, and many former communists are still in politics and propagate the ideas which they denied in the Soviet era. A comprehensive illustration of this sentiment is made by Uldis Lasmanis who considers that,

Now, in the independence era, the power of money is leading, whereas then, to a certain extent, the party and, of course, the telephone rights of Cheka were ruling. (…) We may judge variously, but in comparison with the telephone rights of the Soviet time, more and more facts prove that there are the rights of money and capital in the free world. Practically it means that the verdict of court depends on one’s capacity to hire a lawyer. (2006, 427, 467)

The criticism of the Soviet legacy is another feature of the negative experience. For example, the former Soviet public official Janis Aboltins sketches that by conclusion that “we are still condemning the ability and desire of a man to be better than others. It comes from our socialism past. It is a philosophy of crowd” (1992, 75). Along with this institutional critics a few autobiographers highlight the continuation of a negative experience at the personality level. Such is the case of G.Kremers who, inspite of a permanent living in the capitalist world, still has problems with the Soviet heritage:

The bacillus of totalitarianism is deep inside me. Even I, being grown up in Latvia, in European German family, from time to time notice a Soviet trait in me. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get rid of this plague quickly. Thus, up to now, I have distrust in people and agreements – obviously I have got used to it very early. (2007, 379)

In some autobiographies, however, the post-Soviet experience is estimated as even worse than the Soviet one. For instance, actor Eduards Pavuls thinks that a harsh control of his publicly expressed opinion on the TV company, where he worked at, was not as strict in “the era of communism” (Īvāns 1999, 135).

Another feature of the continuation frame is self-protection, realized through the criticism of contemporary opinions. Here I have to remind you about the practice when the autobiographers argued against the misinterpretations of a positive experience (see: “Nostalgic frame”). The continuation frame, in turn, appears when a negative experience that has been obtained in the Soviet period is supplemented by the efforts to reverse it in a positive experience. The leading actor in terms of self-protection again is the former Soviet intelligentsia.

The confrontation between opinions is revealed distinctively by several writers. They, in some way, try to dispute with the post-Soviet conventions concerning the Soviet culture and its actors. The derogatory circumstances of living and the low level of well-being, which emerges constantly from many life-stories, spur the autobiographers to challenge an established belief that the intelligentsia lived quite well in the Soviet time. For example, the writer Viktors Livzemnieks argue:

It is bullshit as some dare to express in the press that the generation of young artists of the 1960s and 1970s has gathered in various jerry-shops, and there has been a real, original, and, so to say, the Latvian awakening, instead of fooling about. How could so many rubles emerge from always moneyless poets? (2005, 164)

Equally, the writers focus on the false assumptions that are largely related to criticism of the Soviet literature. According to the writers, the contemporary critics either ignore or are not aware of the peculiar Soviet circumstances everyone had to cope with while writing. As a result the people are defamed, caricatured and concealed like in the Soviet era (Auziņš, vol. 3 2006, 50). A similar idea is advocated by the actress Vija Artmane. Commenting on the ongoing criticism of the Soviet time theatre, she contends that it is unfair to think that the contemporary Latvian theatres have set absolutely new traditions avoiding the legacy, created by the generations of Soviet actors (2004, 12; similar opinion is expressed in Ferda 1995, 201).

Along with the desire to protect intelligentsia’s social identity and merits, the invitation to confess in collaboration with the post-Stalinist totalitarian regime appears as a parallel theme. Some autobiographers consider it is not acceptable that those who openly or–usually–in hidden way cooperated with the repressive system are not punished for the dirty trick they carried out or are still silent about their cooperation. The writer Laimonis Purs regularly and aggressively calls the members of the former Soviet intelligentsia, particularly, writers to confess:

How can I cleanse myself from the past? We, the old men, who have got out of the prominent sewerage of totalitarianism, we all, more or less, are begrimed. Is it better not to handle the stinking past? (…) Being silent, we are pitting our relatives, but the disclosure gives the hope for hundreds and thousands that today’s misdeeds won’t disappear. (2006, 2nd ed., 263)

Paradigmatically the cooperation with the Communist Party is a stigmatized experience in Latvia. Regardless of the motivation, it discredits a social identity, and those autobiographers who luckily avoided the party do not hesitate to stress it and some of them even proudly admit that also nowadays they are not the members of any party (Īvāns 1999, 118; Auziņš 2002, 16; Liepiņš 1997, 98; Freimanis 2002, 34). This shameful experience is disclosed by the poet and playwright Mara Zalite who was one of the icons of the national awakening in the 1980s and who was also a member of the Communist Party:

That [joining the Communist Party of Latvia] lies on my conscience. I was hiding it from my grandmother, because I was ashamed of her and I had dregs. [When I decided to join CPL] it was deadlock, and, in order not to stay outside, I decided to accept the rules of the game. Rationally I can justify it, but deep in the heart I cannot acquiesce with it up to date. (Ikstena 2003, 76)

While a search for a rational justification of the collaboration (‘it was inevitable if you wanted to develop professionally’, ‘thus I could solve many serious problems of intelligentsia’, etc.) is quite common for a certain amount of intelligentsia’s autobiographies, Zalite’s experience, nevertheless, should be perceived as an indirect response to Purs’ categorical call for confession. Namely, a collaboration experience (even a formal one) is sometimes so stigmatizing that, expressing publicly “Mea culpa!” does not guarantee an immediate inner pardon.

On the whole one must say that the negative experience is not as much associated with the fatality as it is with the desire to protect social identity. Thus the autobiographers either try to deconstruct the opinions, which assign negative properties to their identities, or to reveal the negative identity (collaboration, Soviet traits, etc.) hopping that morally it will strengthen their positive identity.



In this article I have dealt with the shared framing practices used by Latvian autobiographers when comparing the Soviet and post-Soviet experience. The analysis has revealed two basic contexts wherein the framing is made: professional and self-protection.

Through a professional discourse the Soviet period obtains a slightly positive estimation. In more specific terms, the autobiographers represent the predictability and efficacy of the Soviet system, especially concerning a particular profession. This framing context is characteristic to the autobiographies of the former Soviet public officials. They seem to be inclined to highlight the post-Soviet situation as more uncertain and out of order.

The self-protection becomes a main context for the former Soviet intelligentsia. Their autobiographies through an explicit dialogical discourse show the aspirations to refute the false interpretations of intelligentsia’s social identity. Rebutting the misinterpretations, the autobiographers create quite paradoxical message about the Soviet era: it was not so bad, as everyone thinks now (nostalgic frame), but it certainly was worse than everyone presently estimates (continuation frame). Such a contradictory attitude might be explained by the SRT’s hypothesis of cognitive poliphasia which highlights the hybrid nature of social knowledge:

This concept implies that different and incompatible cognitive styles and forms of knowledge can coexist within one social group and can be employed by one and the same individual. (Voelklein and Howarth 2005:434)

In the light of cognitive poliphasia we may also explain the usage of different frames within one and the same autobiography. Namely, the shifts in evaluative perspectives of Soviet and post-Soviet experiences are determined by various strategies of maintaining a positive social identity, e. g. from self-protection to self-victimization. Exploring the memory politics of the Soviet period Eva-Clarita Onken has stated that today the paradigm of suffering and heroism “has been established quite successfully as the dominant memory regime in all three Baltic states” (Onken 2007, 31). Nevertheless, one must say that the presence of such a regime within the analyzed material is not as evident, and it might be explained by much broader discursive repertoire (in comparison with the one offered by memory politics) that is used by the autobiographers in creating a positive identity.

Although none of the autobiographies adore the Soviet period systematically, there are many that underline the social and systemic Soviet achievements, however sometimes it is done through the minimization of the post-Soviet acquisitions. Such trend, I believe, should be observed also at a macro level, where this nostalgia becomes ostensible and is explained as a result of the malfunctioning of the current democracy in Latvia. A similar explanation, emphasizing people’s dissatisfaction with the present system, has been proposed by Joakim Ekman and Jonas Linde, researching communist nostalgia in Central and Eastern Europe (2005).

Analyzing the autobiographical representations, one has to take into account the social and generational factor, since it might influence the inter-experiential comparisons. Latvian autobiographers mostly represent the generation whose formative period was after Stalin’s death. This generation (also called “the generation of the 1960s”) experienced the Khruschovian liberalization as well as the improvement in the quality of life and a relative stability during the Brezhnev’s period. Hence, regardless of the injustices and social problems that–no doubt–were experienced in the post-Stalinist totalitarian regime, there is a certain group of the autobiographers who, apart from their social status, estimate the Soviet experience moderately or even positively. Especially it is common to those whose symbolic capital profited a lot in the Soviet regime.

Last but not least, an interesting question is about the Latvian and, perhaps, the post-communist public discourse on the Soviet period. The autobiographies indicate that the biographical domain of public discourse neither promulgate nor support the idea of post-Soviet progress. However, the autobiographers are not tended to criticize the fact that Latvia regained freedom after 1991. It, rather, seems that they simply are not very enthusiastic to evaluate today’s advantages over the Soviet era, because it can threaten to their positive identity. We may even claim that in some respect these autobiographies form the counter-memory to the official interpretations of the post-Soviet flourishing in Latvia.

Likewise, one might argue that the autobiographical representation I have analyzed in this article is characteristic to people who basically represent the former Soviet elite. Such an assumption is supported by the biographical messages of non-elite autobiographical subjects or laymen, who fairly regularly appear in Latvian local newspapers. I have explored eight local newspapers, issued in the period from 1995 to 2005. Browsing the same comparisons between the Soviet and post-Soviet experience, one can find a crucial discrepancy. That is to say, the progressive frame is broadly exploited along with the nostalgic frame by laymen (Kaprāns 2006). Uppermost, such a situation means that there is much to do for additional researches, to explain the relations between different biographical segments of the public discourse on the Soviet experience and how it influences the social representation of the Soviet period. Likewise, it means that a past identity may matter very much when one retrospectively anchors the totalitarian and post-totalitarian experience.



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Mārtiņš Kaprāns, University of Latvia, Department of Communication Studies

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