Self-Immolation in Soviet Lithuania

A review of A Death Transformed: The Political and Social Consequences of Romas Kalanta’s Self Immolation, Soviet Lithuania, 1972, by Amanda Jeanne Swain. 

Why did nineteen-year-old Romas Kalanta commit suicide by burning himself in a public square on May 14, 1972 in Kaunas, Lithuania? This event touched many lives:  some joined demonstrations and protests, others were interrogated by the KGB, some read and copied a poem heroicizing Kalanta and rewrote his death as a sacrifice for freedom against the Soviet authorities. Still others have pondered his death after Lithuania’s independence, when the government instituted Civil Resistance Day to commemorate Kalanta’s death and the events of 1972. The meanings of the events are not settled and, having provided a history of the interpretations of Kalanta’s self-immolation, Amanda Swain finishes her dissertation with an open-ended question: “what will the narrative of Kalanta’s self-immolation and the ensuing street demonstrations be on the fiftieth anniversary?” (p. 195). Various interpretations, as Amanda Swain shows, provide a history of the state and society in the official and private crafting of social life and political milieu in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. This work engages many themes, from self-sacrifice and Soviet youth culture to nation-building and nationalism, freedom, resistance, Europeanization, memory, and commemoration.

The dissertation includes an introduction, six chapters, and conclusion. Chapter 1 explores the post-Stalinist modern lifestyle of youth through consumption, leisure activities, and the rising expectations of individual freedom, which were reinforced by the post-Stalin milieu and at the same time conflicted with authorities’ expectations of proper Soviet behavior and communist goals. Chapter 2 engages the question of why hundreds of young people gathered at both at the Kalanta home and at the place where Kalanta committed suicide on the day of his funeral. The KGB’s and the Communist Party of Lithuania’s responses to the popular unrest that followed Kalanta’s self-immolation are the subject of chapter 3. Chapter 4 presents a poem about Romas Kalanta that was disseminated throughout Lithuania after Kalanta’s suicide. Amanda Swain shows that Kalanta’s suicide was reinterpreted as a case of nationalist resistance; Kalanta himself was “constructed as a national martyr in popular memory in Soviet Lithuania rather than representative of post-war social processes and youth identity,” as argued by the author. Chapter 5 moves to post-Soviet Lithuania and explores attempts to institutionalize Kalanta as a national hero and addresses diverse official interpretations of the 1972 events. The interpretations of post-Soviet Lithuanian popular media, which present the 1972 events as Sixties youth counterculture and youth protest, are analyzed in chapter 6.

In the first part (chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4) of the dissertation, Amanda Swain explores the competing narratives of the KGB (the Soviet Secret Police), the Communist Party, as well as young people in Soviet times. Many young people admitted to the KGB that they joined protest movements out of curiosity; this way downplaying their intentional involvement in the events. The Communist Party also emphasized the insufficient work it had done in educating Soviet Lithuanian youth. All parties – the KGB, the Communist Party, and the youth – did not address discontent with the Soviet system and Soviet everyday life. Amanda Swain is careful to point out that nationalist interpretations of the event were not unanimously shared and provides a careful analysis of what could count as a “nationalist” resistance during the 1972 events. She finds that youth fascination with modern lifestyles and Western goods, accessible through Soviet state-sponsored official youth culture and private (and not necessarily illegal) channels contributed to growing dissatisfaction with their everyday life. The 1972 demonstrations united young workers, high school and college students, and Komsomol (Communist Youth) members in their wish for individual freedom and for variously imagined change and a better life, which matured in the post-Stalin era.

In chapters 5 and 6, which focus on post-Soviet Lithuania, the author explores commemoration strategies advanced by the state and interpretations provided by Kalanta’s contemporaries, intellectuals, and scholars. Amanda Swain revisits the competing explanations on Kalanta’s death and state’s reframing of the events as civil resistance. In chapter 6 Amanda Swain argues attempts by scholars, intellectuals, musicians, and filmmakers to redefine the 1972 events within the Western framework of the “Sixties” and the “hippie movement” is another way to nationalize and Europeanize everyday history.

The primary basis of the study includes archives, periodicals, and interviews. Amanda Swain has done extensive research in the Lithuanian Special Archives, the Kaunas Regional Archives, the Lithuanian National Library, and the Kaunas Public Library. She has interviewed a variety of people during her research from former hippies to historians. Her research also strongly benefits from the analysis of a variety of other sources, such as parliamentary session documents, media sites, participation in commemoration events, and literary works.

Amanda Swain’s dissertation insightfully shows how various competing interpretations of an important event are subordinated to circulating state ideologies and interests, later becoming renegotiated at various levels; how protest action may unite multiple voices; and how state ideology of innocent youth and self-criticism might be an obstacle to identifying prevalent discontent. Theoretically, the dissertation contributes to explorations of late socialism, including studies by Kristin Roth-Ey, Sergei I. Zhuk, Alexei Yurchak, and others on youth culture and popular opposition. It also revisits post-Soviet scholarship on nationalism, more specifically, Rogers Brubaker’s argument that post-Communist “nationalizing states” in Eastern Europe will choose a civic identity under external pressure (p. 27). Amanda Swain shows that “civic identity can be used to override competing internal narratives of identity, thereby expanding the options that post-Soviet elites have to create a unified national rather than nationalist narrative” (p. 171). This dissertation is also a significant contribution to Lithuanian historiography and its emerging scholarship on late socialism and Soviet-era nationalism.

Neringa Klumbytė
Department of Anthropology
Miami University
klumbyn@miamioh.edu

Primary Sources

Lithuanian Special Archives
Kaunas Regional Archives
Lithuanian National Library
Kaunas Public Library

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2013. 208 pp. Primary Advisors: Glennys Young, James Felak, and Guntis Smidchens.

Image: Photograph of street demonstration in Kaunas, Soviet Lithuania, on May 14, 1972 with individuals numbered for identification by KGB. Photographer unknown. Baudžiamoji byla 09-2-013-72 [Criminal Case 09-2-013-72], Kauno Miesto VK VRV (Vidaus Reikalū Vadybos) Tardymo Skyrius [Investigative Section of Kaunas Internal Affairs Department], Lietuvos TSR Prokuratūra (Ypatingai Svarbių Bylų Tardytojas) [LiSSR Prosecutor (Investigator of high priority cases)]; May-July 1972. Fondas K-1, Ap. 58a, By. 47644/3 vol. 1. KGB Skyrius, Lietuvos Ypatingas Archyvas [KGB Division, Special Archives of Lithuania], Kaunas. (Accessed January 2009).

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