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The Soviet Union and where to find it: social discourses about Soviet symbols in Lithuania

Eglė Kesylytė-Alliks

On the 11 March 2017 Lithuania will be counting 27 years since the declaration of its independence from the Soviet Union. This period produced a generation of citizens who were socialized within the newly re-established state. How then does this generation relate to the Soviet Union? Is it still at the ‘centre’ or is it already relocated to the ‘periphery’ of their political imagination?


Demonstration for Lithuanian independence, 1990

In line with studies exploring symbolic nation-building, I argue that political symbols play a significant role in the development and expression of national awareness.1 I also agree with the claim of Rudolf de Cillia, Martin Reisigl and Ruth Wodak that national identities are discursively constructed.2 Building on these ideas, I suggest that the analysis of social discourses surrounding them offers an intriguing perspective for answering this question.

In order to gather data on this topic, I conducted three focus group discussions in Lithuania in March 2015. Participants of the discussions have spent their formative years in already independent Lithuania and identified themselves with the three largest ethnic groups in Lithuania – Lithuanians, Poles and Russians. 3

Here, I would like to discuss some of my findings regarding perceptions of Soviet political symbols (flags, badges, military medals, etc.) and evaluations of the current state legal regulations regarding their use within focus groups. In Lithuania, Article 188(18) of the Code of Administrative Offences stipulates a fine for distributing or demonstrating Soviet or Nazi symbolism (and the confiscation of such items), except in connection with ‘museum activities, public awareness of the historical and current events, totalitarian regimes, education, science, art, collectibles, antiques or flea- market purposes’ or the person who uses them also ‘uses the existing official state symbols’, or the person is the ‘Second World War participant, wearing his uniform’. Focus group participants were not provided with any prior information about specific details of these legal regulations, as I wanted to see what opinions and knowledge they already had.


Celebration of independence, 11 March 2015, Vilnius

All three groups felt that a certain display of Soviet and Nazi symbolism can cause administrative and criminal liabilities in Lithuania, though none of the participants seemed familiar with the particulars of these regulations. In all three groups, these purported regulations of the state were not challenged. However, they were viewed with slight sarcasm or even deemed unnecessary in connection with Soviet symbolism (Nazi symbolism attracted little attention) when the Soviet Union was perceived in a ‘passive’ mode – as a relic of the past and its symbols as touristic commodities sold in flea markets. This temporal distance was created by connecting Soviet period with ‘old age’ (for example, the use of gendered and ageist idiom of ‘grandmothers’ or nostalgia for the Soviet Union described as an expression of senile dementia) and locative deixes like flea-markets. The perception of Soviet symbols as commodities used in commerce as souvenirs in the tourist industry constructs an image of the Soviet Union as a state that had lost its political meaning and acquired a commercial one.

However, a contrary perspective towards the Soviet Union and its symbols appeared in two contexts. First, when Lithuania was discussed as a victim of the Soviet Union, Soviet symbols were depicted as still capable of inflicting ethnic as well as political divisions and unrest within Lithuanian society (a view mostly expressed in the Polish group, to some extent in the Russian group). The state (referred to either as politicians or political institutions) was perceived as sustaining Lithuania as a ‘calm’ and ‘independent’ country through its regulations on Soviet symbols. The state prohibition of using Soviet symbolism is thus approved. Second, in the discourses in the Lithuanian focus group, the main factor that appeared to disentangle Soviet Union from its representation as a relic of the past was the Ukraine crisis and perceived threat that Russia posed to Lithuania. In this context, the political meanings of the Soviet Union became ‘activated’.

The fluctuating image of the Soviet Union and its location in-between past and present, centre and periphery within the statements of the focus group discussants exemplifies the existence of multiple discourses on the USSR in Lithuania. It highlights their contradictions and similarities. Finally, this diversity of discourses demonstrates the contingent nature of their assumptions as well as their dependency on power dynamics.

Eglė Kesylytė-Alliks is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, Norway. She received her Master’s degree in European Studies from Aarhus University in Denmark and Bachelor’s degree in Political Sciences from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University in Lithuania. Egle’s doctoral dissertation focuses on the symbolic national identity building in Lithuania after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Among her academic interests are nationalism, political symbolism, legitimacy and identity of political actors, European and post-Soviet regions. Her recent article 'Discursive construction of Lithuania’s “others:” the case of Belarus' (2016) analyses discursive representations of Lithuania and of Belarus as Lithuania’s 'Other' in the context of the recent political crisis in Ukraine. You can read her publications here.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825 __________________________________________________________________________________

1 See e.g., Cummings 2009, Elgenius 2011, Eriksen and Jenkins 2007, Guibernau 2007, Kolstø 2014, Thiesse 2001

2 See e.g., De Cillia, Reisigl, and Wodak 1999, 153

3 For the analysis of the empirical material I used certain elements of Discourse-Historical Approach within Critical Discourse Analysis (see De Cillia, Reisigl, and Wodak 1999, Krzyżanowski 2010, Reisigl and Wodak 2001, Wodak et al. 2009). I focused on three discursive strategies: referential/nomination, predicational, argumentation. While referential and predicational strategies allow investigating how one ‘constructs’ and ‘qualifies’ ‘social actors, objects/phenomena/events and processes/actions’ (Reisigl and Wodak 2009, 95, see also Reisigl and Wodak 2001, 45); argumentation strategies provide insights into how those nominations and predications made by the speaker are justified (Reisigl and Wodak 2001, 45).

References Cummings, Sally N. 2009. “Inscapes, Landscapes and Greyscapes: The Politics of Signification in Central Asia.” Europe-Asia Studies 61 (7):1083–93. De Cillia, Rudolf, Martin Reisigl, and Ruth Wodak. 1999. “The discursive Construction of National Identities.” Discourse and Society 10 (2):149–73. Elgenius, Gabriella. 2011. Symbols of Nations and Nationalism: Celebrating Nationhood. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, and Richard Jenkins, eds. 2007. Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and America.London: Routledge. Guibernau, Montserrat. 2007. The Identity of Nations. Cambridge: Polity Press. Kolstø, Pål, ed. 2014. Strategies of Symbolic Nation-building in South Eastern Europe. Farnham: Ashgate. Krzyżanowski, Michał. 2010. The Discursive Construction of European Identities: A Multi-level Approach to Discourse and Identity in the Transforming European Union. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. Reisigl, Martin, and Ruth Wodak. 2001. Discourse and Discrimination: Rhetorics of Racism and Antisemitism. London: Routledge. Thiesse, Anne-Marie. 2001. La création des identités nationales: Europe, XVIIIe–XXe siècle. Paris: Seuil. Wodak, Ruth, Rudolf de Cillia, Martin Reisigl, and Karin Liebhart. 2009. The Discursive Construction of National Identity. 2nd ed. Edinburgh University Press.



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