In the summer of 1965, the the world-famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his equally famous partner, the writer Simone de Beauvoir arrived in Lithuania, then under occupation by the Soviet Union. It was not the first time that the two, who were well-known for their left-wing sympathies, had visited the USSR – nor would it be the last. But it did leave a huge impact on the republic, which rarely saw such internationally known visitors.
The Lithuanian literary scholar Solveiga Daugirdaitė has recently completed a book on the visit of the two authors to Lithuania, and in this article she summarises her discoveries, considering the unequal reception received by de Beauvoir and Sartre, the pair’s impressions of the country, and the way their visit has been (often creatively) reflected in Lithuanian literature.
A passage about the trip to Lithuania in de Beauvoir’s book Tout compte fait (1972, English translation as “All Said and Done“, 1974) reveals to some extent what the guests thought of their trip to Lithuania.
This visit, while being of no major relevance (if any) to Beauvoir and Sartre, was significant to Lithuanian society: the country, occupied by the USSR in 1940 and closed to foreigners, was receiving a visit from world-famous intellectuals. The Lithuanian artists, mainly writers, who took part in hosting the two guests, interpreted this visit as a sign that Lithuanian culture was unique and interesting, and that despite their isolation from the West they were capable of taking part in European-level intellectual discourse. Almost half a century later, I interviewed still living witnesses of this visit who were able to add scarce but significant details to their previously published recollections. Although I have tried to collect as many testimonies of the visit as possible, my intention was not to reconstruct events to as precise a degree as possible but rather to discover how the visit was reflected in the press, photography and memoirs.
Sartre and Beauvoir arrived in Vilnius in the evening of July 26th and left on August 3rd, 1965. The date of arrival is based on information taken from media coverage. According to Lithuanian newspapers at the time, “the guests visited Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Palanga, Nida, Pirčiupiai, Trakai and other places in the republic.” At the airport they were greeted with a bouquet of white marguerites.
During their visit they were accompanied by their interpreter from Moscow, Lena Zonina; the chairman of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union, the poet Eduardas Mieželaitis, who in 1962 had been awarded a Lenin Prize, the most prestigious award in the Soviet Union, for his poem “Žmogus” (Man); the prose writer Mykolas Sluckis and the young (just 26 years old) photographer Antanas Sutkus. Mykolas Sluckis kept notes of the conversation during the visit, and forty years later published a summary in Lithuanian, as well as in French (published by Cahiers Lituaniens).
His recollections most comprehensively reflect the content of conversations with the guests, especially those with Sartre. The title of this study is derived from a phrase taken from Sluckis’s memoirs about Sartre and de Beauvoir’s week-long visit: “It flew by like a shooting star that was talked about for a long time afterwards, everybody wondering what it could have been.”
However, it was the photographer Sutkus who achieved the greatest recognition during that visit: with time, his pictures increased in value; they were published numerous times and collected into a separate book in France (Sartre & Beauvoir: Cinq jours en Lituanie, 2005). During the trip, a meeting was organized at the premises of the Writers’ Union, where the guests met with a small group of writers, and then some other writers had the good fortune to have dinner with the guests in Kaunas and Palanga.
I state that the newspapers and memoirs show that it was Sartre who impressed his contemporaries the most, not de Beauvoir, who was not interviewed to the same extent as Sartre and so did not speak much. Consequently, she came and left without really being discovered. Sartre, who less than a year before had declined the Nobel Prize, was a celebrity of the moment. The Soviet system proclaimed women as equal – although this was only on paper; in reality, women’s second-class status was very obvious and this also affected de Beauvoir. It is plausible that de Beauvoir’s reserved behavior contributed to that perception. In his notes, the writer Mykolas Sluckis mentioned a couple of times that, “she passionately supports her husband’s [Sartre’s – S.D.] beliefs”.
The press reports give the impression that de Beauvoir was viewed primarily as Sartre’s companion, his wife. The publications that described the visit in 1965 were well-informed – the relationship between the two visitors was not named (except for in one publication). However, stereotypical thinking affected the memoirs, in which she was very often referred to as Sartre’s wife. Since information was rationed in Soviet society, the visit was covered in brief snippets, among them a brief piece along with a photo in the official newspapers Tiesa and Komjaunimo tiesa; the Vilnius newspaper Vakarinės naujienos; and the Kaunas newspaper Kauno tiesa.
A few short interviews with Sartre and de Beauvoir (with both present) were published during the visit and immediately after. The August 4th, 1965 issue of the daily Tiesa, which came out immediately after the visit, contained one such interview, which was illustrated by the drawings of the artist Erikas Varnas. The same year, the artist made a terracotta head of Sartre and drew a portrait of him in ink; both are still held by the artist’s family. During their stay in Vilnius, the couple were taken to the studio of the artist Augustinas Savickas, and right after that visit the weekly Literatūra ir menas published Savickas’s portraits of the two visitors. Those drawings, as well the portrait drawn on the same day (July 27th, 1965) are currently held in private collections.
Although Sartre’s first publication in Lithuanian had appeared back in 1939 (Le mur – “The Wall” in English), he had not been translated afterwards. Consequently, in 1965 Sartre was known mostly from a few publications in Russian or Polish. Obviously, de Beauvoir had not been translated either. Since their works were quite unfamiliar to the Lithuanian public, conversations focused more on French culture than on their works (“What are the favorite authors of French readers?”; “Is Mauriac popular in France?”).
I draw the conclusion that Soviet people, who were painfully aware of their isolation, used every visiting Westerner to find out more about “the everyday life of people there”, and thus Sartre and de Beauvoir were no exception. To a question from the daily Tiesa about what had impressed her the most, de Beauvoir stated that she “was touched by your country’s landscape and especially by its wonderful town of Trakai, its lakes and architecture, as well as by the inner unity and harmony of everything your gifted people and nature have created together.” To a question from the same newspaper regarding what she, as a woman, would like to say to Lithuanian women as her farewell, de Beauvoir said that she “hoped they will be able to preserve the equality with men provided by the state system, and of course I wish them happiness in their lives and work.”
In the issue dated July 31st, the cultural weekly Literatūra ir menas published an interview entitled “With Warmest Wishes”, with a picture taken in one of Vilnius’s main downtown streets. The way the visitors were introduced demonstrates the uneven treatment the two received: the weekly wrote that “last Sunday, the famous French philosopher, playwright, novelist and short story writer” Sartre and “the renowned writer” de Beauvoir (four and one epithets, respectively) had arrived in Vilnius. In the interview de Beauvoir had the chance to respond to only one question, which referred to women’s status in French culture. De Beauvoir claimed that, “France has a long-established tradition of women writers. Recently many women have joined the ranks of artists and cinematographers, as well as film directors. In general, women continue enjoying an increasingly growing influence in social as well as cultural life. However, there are still many issues that need to be resolved in the attempt to alleviate women’s situation and work.”
I stress that Lithuanian readers in the ’60s could not really assess these ideas adequately because they were unaware of de Beauvoir’s input in revealing the status of women in a patriarchal society. Without the background of Le Deuxième Sexe (“The Second Sex” in English), observations of this kind by de Beauvoir did not differ at all from the general declarations about women’s achievements and equality that were published in the press on various occasions.
The Soviet government tried to use Sartre’s visits to the Soviet Union for their own propagandistic purposes, in particular to demonstrate that, despite the context of the Cold War, the country was friendly and supported by intellectuals. It was for this purpose that the Moscow-based peace movement was established, in whose events Sartre took part. The way a reporter from a daily newspaper posed a question to Sartre already suggests an answer (“in Western countries, the reactionary bourgeois state that the Soviet Lithuanian nation has no independence, that Lithuania’s people are oppressed and even enslaved. What do you think about that […]?”) Sartre responded diplomatically, by saying that, “All the Lithuanians I have met are free people.” He also added “During my visit I also encountered some Lithuanians from the USA who came to visit their ancestors’ land. It is doubtful whether they would come to an enslaved country.” Such responses prove that Sartre knew how to flirt with the Soviet regime; if he hadn’t, he would not have been able to keep coming back to the USSR. It is worth noting, however, that the same year he became persona non grata because he was spotted at a demonstration wearing a Mao badge. In 1968 after they condemned the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, Sartre and de Beauvoir finally became “enemies of the Soviet Union”.
Although at that time the press described the visit in short reports and interviews, there were more numerous responses to the visit in later years. I examine some of these responses, exposing the expectations that Lithuanians had and their partial disappointment at not seeing them come true. The best-known impressions of the visit are those by the poet and playwright Justinas Marcinkevičius, which were published in his book of essays Dienoraštis be datų (“Diary without Dates”) in 1981. When Marcinkevičius met Sartre and de Beauvoir in Paris in 1967, he had hoped for their support in publishing translated literary works from small nations. In response to a question about the future of the literature of such nations, Sartre started talking about Joyce. For a while Marcinkevičius was under the impression that Sartre had not understood his question. But finally he grasped that Sartre was using Joyce as a visual aid: he wanted to say, “Young man, start writing in English, French or Russian…” Marcinkevičius refused the suggestion, finishing this episode by reiterating his determination: “I choose the Lithuanian language. I chose it a long time ago. I cannot comprehend how one could choose to exit his people’s destiny.”
Forty years later, in an interview (in Literatūra ir menas, March 11th, 2005) Marcinkevičius brought up Sartre’s indirect advice again, and told the rest of the story: upon his return to Lithuania, Marcinkevičius wrote the play Mindaugas. It was about the ruler in the Middle Ages who united the lands of various tribes and established a Lithuanian state. This example shows how Sartre was used in the creation of one’s own personal myth. Sluckis expressed a similar observation in his memoirs that, “Sartre, by the way, regarded the literatures of small nations written in the national languages with slight skepticism. This reflects the dominating tradition of France being the art center of the world.” It is plausible that Sartre was asked this question during his visit to Lithuania as well and that he expressed his skepticism, which caused major disappointment to Lithuanians. Their disappointment reveals the hope that Lithuanians had that Sartre, whose speeches in support of Algerian independence were reprinted in the Soviet press, would support the idea of cultural and even political autonomy for the smaller nations of the USSR.
A much more vivid image of the visit emerges from memoirs, especially from those that have surfaced in recent years. These memoirs show Lithuanians’ surprise at the simplicity of their guests’ attire and their unpretentious behavior (“If the gathered people were expecting to see “celebrities”, these two modest people were not “it”. It was the accompanying translator L. Zonina who was the most impressive of the three”, as Sluckis noted). Because the guests were important, every remark they made was seen as special and worthy of remembering, and their compliments were taken not as formal politeness but more like validation of the significance of Lithuania. Marija Macijauskienė, a journalist from Kaunas, quotes conversations that occurred during meals in her memoirs (Po aukštus kalnus vaikščiojau: Memuarai, 2002):
[Simone de Beauvoir:] Trakai Castle is like no other: small, intimate, narrow and yet of such tremendous suggestive power! Its location was chosen especially well.
[Jean-Paul Sartre:] And now, after we have met M.K. Čiurlionis, and seen Trakai and Vilnius, we are under the impression that the Lithuanian nation and its people are very special; Lithuania’s unique genius shines in the bouquet of European cultures like a precious stone.
At the end of dinner, J. P. Sartre added:
– It would be nice to have Lithuanian cuisine in Paris!
It is not clear whether the guests really used such lofty phrases, or if they acquired this tone during their translation from French into Russian (Zonina was the one who did the interpreting; Lithuanian was not used at all during the conversations). In my opinion, the two sides did not converse as equals, and what the French saw as a polite and non-obligating conversation, the Lithuanians took as an acknowledgement of their unique culture; ambitious artists (such as Mieželaitis and Sluckis) who were at the peak of their career took it even further and saw it as the validation of their own importance. The author of this study poses the question of why Lithuanians considered this visit so important. The answer to this question is that Lithuania was visited by very few foreigners – mostly just emigrants and tourists from Socialist countries.
That summer Lithuania, along with the other Baltic countries, was pompously celebrating the 25th anniversary of its incorporation into the USSR. Lithuania, together with the other Baltic countries, had adapted to the occupation by then and started enjoying the relative peace and improving welfare. This visit increased the pride of Lithuanians. As Sluckis put it “Lithuania is not a provincial country, as it may seem, if intellectual people of such caliber come for a visit.” Sluckis proudly continued that journalists kept asking him and Mieželaitis why Sartre and Beauvoir had come to Lithuania rather than, say, to Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan. And he provided the answer himself: that it was partly due to the fact that Lithuania was famous at that time for its black-and-white drawings, poetry, cinema, architecture and photography.
According to Sluckis, Lithuania had preserved its artistic freedom, which was different from that of the other Soviet republics. This comment of Sluckis reflects the way Lithuanians used to see themselves: the belief that, along with the other Baltic nations, Lithuania was the West of the USSR and therefore different from Russia and other Asian republics. However, I argue that, from today’s perspective it is obvious that the art and other forms of culture that Lithuanians used to take such pride in was modern only in the isolated context of the USSR, and that it could hardly have competed in the open European community. In other words, Lithuanian intellectuals took Sartre and Beauvoir’s visit as a mirror that confirmed the fact that “you are the fairest of them all”. Lithuanians, by taking the visit as a sign of exceptional respect, ignored the fact that Sartre and Beauvoir had visited the USSR many times before; a year prior to visiting Lithuania they had been to Estonia, and they had been to Crimea in 1963, as well as to Georgia and Armenia – not to mention Moscow and Leningrad. The book, based on documentary texts, discusses how the Lithuanian writers perceived their place in the hierarchy according to whether (or to what extent) they got to interact with Sartre.
I discuss the memoirs of the photographer Antanas Sutkus and his subsequent interviews focusing attention onto the history of his famous photo of Sartre in the dunes at Nida: the still had both Sartre and de Beauvoir in it, but the photographer cut Beauvoir out, saying that he did not like compositions with two visible figures, since “it makes the picture very mundane. The mood changes completely. A lonely Sartre is a metaphor for philosophy.” Can this mechanical separation of de Beauvoir from Sartre be interpreted as a metaphor for the way their work was perceived?
Although Sartre wrote in his Les Mots that he had been indifferent to nature since his childhood, Sutkus mentioned the philosopher’s unexpected reaction to the magnificence of the dunes at the Curonian Spit [where the town of Nida is located] – “I feel as if I am standing at the entryway to heaven” – despite the wind blowing sand directly into his eyes.” Through his account of the event, as well as through his photographs, Sutkus reveals Sartre in unusual circumstances. However, if we go back to the different ways the guests were treated, then Sutkus’s pictures not only complement but also distort the perception of the visit in the eyes of many Lithuanians. In the memoirs, de Beauvoir always plays a secondary role, she does not seem as important or interesting as Sartre, but in the pictures both visitors almost always appear together and their unequal treatment is not apparent.
The phrase of Sartre’s that Sutkus overheard about standing at the entryway to heaven gave the title to a radio play by Herkus Kunčius (At the Entryway to Heaven, 2009). The Lithuanian-American writer and Communist Party member Philippe Bonosky also met with Sartre and de Beauvoir during his visit to Vilnius. He described his encounter in his book Beyond the Borders of Myth: From Vilnius to Hanoi (1967) and used it as proof that Lithuania was thriving in the Soviet Union. However, the most interesting reflection of the visit of Sartre and de Beauvoir in Lithuanian literature can be found in a story by Jurgis Kunčinas (1949-2004), “The Waiter who Waited on Sartre: Jokūbas Švarcas Tells his Story” (1989).
In his prose, Kunčinas skilfully mixes real facts and fictional and real characters, turning everything upside-down in a carnival fashion. In this particular story, Kunčinas looks at the visit of the famous philosopher and his wife through the eyes of “an insignificant person”. The waiter who took care of the famous guests was also asked by the secret service to observe the behavior not only of the guests but also of the accompanying Lithuanians. The waiter describes his side of the story with humor: his encounter with Sartre occurred when the philosopher asked him, using internationally understood gestures, where the bathroom was, and on his way back from the bathroom he patted the waiter on his shoulder. Sartre’s wife (her surname is not mentioned at all in the story) is mentioned only as an episodic character. The waiter’s encounter with the celebrities in Kunčinas’ story had a sorrowful ending: since he did not report to the secret service on anybody, he lost his job at the prestigious hotel; later on, when working at a less glamorous pub, he used to brag after a drink or two about his encounter with Sartre.
In his story, Kunčinas uses the visit of the famous couple to reveal the atmosphere that prevailed in Soviet Lithuania; the other characters in the story are fictional. The detail that the waiter had Sartre’s book in Lithuanian and that Sartre actually signed it (“to the kind gentleman who helped me with my dinner in Lithuania!”) also belongs to fiction.
In reality, Sartre’s first book in Lithuanian was published a year after Sartre’s visit (Les mots – “The Words” in English, 1966), his Les Séquestrés d’Altona (“The Condemned of Altona” in English) was staged at the State Drama Theatre in 1969; and his plays were included in various collections. And although the visit definitely prompted translations of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s works into Lithuanian, her works reached Lithuania considerably later. It was only after 1990 that de Beauvoir’s more prominent works, such as Le Deuxième Sexe (1996), the novels Les belles images (together with Une mort très douce – “A Very Easy Death” in English, 1994) and Tous les hommes sont mortels (“All Men Are Mortal” in English, 1999) were translated. It is also known that Beauvior’s Les belles images was supposed to come out in 1971, but its publication was stopped due to “the events in Czechoslovakia”. In other words, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s position against the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia prevented de Beauvoir’s book from being published in Lithuanian.
De Beauvoir in her All Said and Done provides an alternative description of the trip. She complains that the hosts’ solicitude for them was excessive (“They never left us alone for a minute: once we timidly suggested that we should be allowed to stroll about the city by ourselves.”). In a museum in Kaunas, she was impressed by the “fine wooden figure of Christ”: “It is a sitting figure, crowned with thorns, and it leans upon its cheeks with its hand: it is the very picture of isolation.” It is worth adding that Lithuanians have a specific word for this wooden Christ – Rūpintojėlis (The Worrier); these sculptures were built in the cemeteries and along the roadsides; they were kept at home to provide protection. In 1970, Mieželaitis, who accompanied the guests to the museum, published a series of poems, Medžio grimasos (“Grimaces of Wood”). The first poem is a conversation between Sartre and Rūpintojėlis, in which the poet juxtaposes French sophistication against the authentic natural wisdom of Rūpintojėlis.
However, it was Nida that made the biggest impression on Beauvoir even though she never mentions it by name: “Some way from Palanka we saw a house where Thomas Mann stayed. (…) The position is very beautiful; but even more beautiful are the tall white dunes a few miles away”.) Beauvoir comments on her surroundings (the collective farmer workers who came to meet their American relatives; the customs of Palanga beach; fishing for amber) in a sensitive way, and is quite well-informed about the situation (“Currently, it does not appear the Russians are much loved in Lithuania (…)” despite a few historical and linguistic inconsistencies. Beauvoir finishes the travel episode by admiring the country’s nature, thus further developing the image of Lithuania in French literature as a land where wild nature still prevails (the best known work of this genre is Prosper Mérimée’s gothic short story “Lokis”, published in 1869).
Although the Lithuanians showed Sartre and Beauvoir the most beautiful parts of their country, what they really hoped for was to draw the guests’ attention to its cultural achievements. This visit provided a sense of pride for the intellectuals of Lithuania, a small country under Soviet occupation; it gave them hope that they could be interesting to other cultures. From the perspective of the past fifty years, this hope seems to be the most significant consequence of the French intellectuals’ visit to Lithuania in 1965.
Solveiga Daugirdaitė (PhD) is a literary scholar from the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Foklore, Vilnius.
This text originally appeared in Solveiga Daugirdaitė’s book Švystelėjo kaip meteoras. Translated from Lithuanian by Vilma Kurapkaitė-Berg.
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