Soviet Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, was widely known as part of the USSR’s “Western gate”, “Socialist façades” or simply “our abroad”. For an ordinary Soviet holidaymaker, a trip to what was then called in Russian “Sovetskaia Pribaltika” [the Soviet Baltic] was presumably similar to taking a glimpse at “Western” life.
Nevertheless, it is fairly challenging to get a comprehensive grasp of what such “Westernness” really meant for Soviet citizens. For some, as the scarce sources on the topic would indicate, this was the instantly obvious cultural “non-Sovietness” of the republics. Gothic, baroque, and art-nouveau architecture of Baltic Old Towns, Latin alphabets of local languages, and the “foreign” accent of Balts – all this was strikingly different from what one could observe in a typical Soviet Russian town. The fame of customer service, allegedly comparable to that of the “West”, especially in Tallinn and Jūrmala, also quickly spread throughout the whole USSR. Finally, arguably better access (until the 1980s) to selected commodities in comparison with other Soviet regions facilitated the rise of the myth of the Baltic consumer paradise, evoked frequently today by admirers of the USSR. According to this myth, just like in the “real West” the Balts did not experience any problems with access to deficit products, let alone to essential commodities, while people in other Soviet republics could not imagine their daily life without consumer deficits and long lines in shops.1
Being deprived of the ability to go abroad, ordinary Soviet citizens actively imagined what the “real West” would look like. Popular geographic imaginations are constructed based on multiple kinds of cultural and political influence: the media, feature films and fiction stories, personal anecdotes, ethnic jokes, and immediate contact with others. Following a prolonged circulation time such imaginations become highly internalised and difficult to get rid of. Therefore, in the Soviet Union a somewhat nebulous and stereotypical depiction of the West, imagined as a world of consumer abundance, high fashion and prosperity, was also readily applied to the visually and culturally “non-Soviet” Baltic states by the population which never left the borders of the USSR, or sometimes even of their own national republic.2
In this article I will focus on popular Soviet cinema filmed in the Baltic as one of the crucial components helping the nebulous “our West” image of this region to be successfully assimilated in the minds of Soviet and post-Soviet individuals. The first example is a 1979 Soviet Ukrainian production, Elektronik’s Adventures; the second, a 1986 Soviet Lithuanian adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Chameleon’s Game.
Elektronik’s Adventures is a three-episode children’s science fiction film shot in Odesa in Ukraine and Vilnius in Lithuania. This mini-serial became hugely popular in the USSR and is still a favourite film among Russian-speakers. The script presents the story of a human-like bio robot called Elektronik, who becomes a friend of school students but is then kidnapped by criminals from an unnamed capitalist country. The gangsters intend to rob a museum using Elektronik’s unique abilities. According to the well-established Soviet practice of filming the “West” in the Baltic with its “Western” historical architecture, Vilnius and the streets of its Old Town, became the setting for a foreign city (3:01:53 in the video).3
One of the “Western” places demonstrated in the film was quite an unusual building to have been found in the USSR. This was a multi-level car park with a serpentine access ramp leading to different floors (2:32 in the video). In a country where a car was a scarce commodity, and a citizen could often expect to spend several years waiting before their turn to buy approached, this view of Western-made Pontiacs, Buicks and Fords being driven along narrow cobblestone “non-Soviet” streets immediately created a perception that the action onscreen was taking place in a foreign environment.4
If, however, an ordinary viewer were especially attentive to the small details that were occasionally exposed in the film, they would have registered the “patchwork” nature of the “West” presented. In the car park, for example, one can sometimes see Soviet “Volga” (GAZ-24) cabs flashing in the background (2:48:16), revealing the true place: a state-run multi-storey taxi park in Vilnius, which, except for its unique internal serpentine access ramp, would most likely not have been selected as a setting to project any kind of “Westernness”. The bleak eight-storey taxi park building still towers over one of Vilnius’ dreariest Soviet-built residential districts, Naujininkai.
While the “foreign” city was filmed exclusively at night, the unnamed Soviet town where the robot and the children lived was shot in the Vilnius residential district of Lazdynai (3:18:46) – the district’s authors had received the prestigious Lenin Prize for their architectural project in 1974. The district was considered to be a unique and innovative urban area in the Soviet Union: high-rises of improved design, shopping centres, schools and kindergartens were concentrated together, skilfully combined with the hilly natural landscape, while the main roads were moved to the periphery. Well-known to be a “West-inspired” creation – Soviet Lithuanian architects travelled to Finland and Sweden searching for fresh architectural solutions5 – Lazdynai was possibly selected as a setting because, as a uniquely designed district, it could symbolically reflect the very near future of the Soviet project, with Communism allegedly being “just right around the corner”.6 The events in the children’s book, on which the film’s script was based, were indeed set in the near future. The “progressiveness” of the Lithuanian residential area, was thus possibly meant to indicate that this kind of architecture would with time be observed in every Soviet city. Nowadays, however, Lazdynai is mostly perceived by Lithuanians and tourists as a typical Soviet-planned neighbourhood, with bleak monotonous high-rises built with construction materials of inferior quality.7
Another well-known Soviet film where Lithuanian cities “played” Western Europe was the 1986 Lithuanian Film Studio production Chameleon’s Game, directed by Arūnas Žebriūnas. Based on a 1955 Jean-Paul Sartre play, the film was supposed to depict Paris; however, Soviet film authorities did not allow Žebriūnas to go to France for shooting.8 For this reason, static slides of Paris are only displayed during the opening credits of the film. All the actual acting scenes were filmed in Vilnius and Kaunas, utilising these cities’ historical architecture, which was quite unusual for the USSR. As with Elektronik’s Adventures, many scenes were also filmed at night to minimise the possibility of the camera capturing the realities of Soviet Lithuania. However, even with thorough selection of settings and careful composition, the film failed to mask entirely the many explicitly “Soviet” attributes of Kaunas and Vilnius onscreen.
In the scene when the protagonist George De Valéra is walking at night along a bridge, only the most attentive viewers would notice that the action was being filmed in Vilnius. The Neris successfully substitutes for the Seine, a vintage foreign car is seen moving along the road, and only the triangular lamps in the background disclose the real location: Žvėrynas Bridge near today’s Lithuanian Parliament.
In the next scene, George is preparing to jump into the river. The camera captures the party boat on the other bank, and then identifies the vessel more clearly by focusing on its deck and people dancing there. However, viewers familiar with Soviet reality would swiftly recognise the vessel: a typical Soviet light cruising boat of the Moskvich series, utilised widely in the USSR.
Evidently, Soviet Baltic studios often had to improvise and employ resources immediately available to them, including “foreign” architecture found locally; an exotic-looking serpentine ramp in an otherwise bleak service building, or Soviet-manufactured vessels “posing” as boats used in capitalist countries.9
The film’s footage created during the day reveals even more details. When a journalist, Sibilo, played by Juozas Budraitis approaches George’s apartments in a roadster, the car passes willow trees and one of the three Soviet stelae (representing the revolution, peace and labour) beside today’s Lithuanian War Museum building in Unity Square in Kaunas.
Finally, when the protagonist, George, is drifting along the banks of the “Seine”, the reflection of the Vilnius TV tower (also present in Elektronik’s Adventures) is visible in the water, immediately identifying the river as the Neris. While the camera carefully avoids including the tower in the frame, the reflection of the highest building in Lithuania unmistakably exposes the true setting.
How does cinema influence popular attitudes?
As Žebriūnas acknowledged in an interview, surprisingly, no bureaucrat from the Soviet television and radio agency, which had commissioned the production, had any disagreements about the manner in which “Paris” was depicted in the film.10 The “magic” of cinematic techniques appears to be a strong factor in the perception of “truth” onscreen. By carefully combining existing settings with those constructed in studios, filming at night, selecting appropriate costumes and accessories, and then editing the footage to achieve a coherent visual narrative, Baltic directors were able to generate a “bricolage of Westernness” – a persuasive picture of the “West” for non-Baltic Soviet viewers. While locals could easily have identified the places shown onscreen as Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga or Tallinn, for an ordinary Soviet citizen such abilities were rare.
However, as we have seen, this image of the West was largely imaginary. And this was not only reflected in the frequent inability to hide artefacts of Soviet reality. “Our abroad”, in spite of its easily identifiable cultural and visible differences, had already been sufficiently Sovietised to experience problems similar to those existing in the USSR as a whole. For a Soviet holidaymaker staying in the Baltic for a short time, and never getting to know the peculiarities of local quotidian life, these issues might have been undetectable. But travellers from the “real” West, such as Finnish tourists arriving in Soviet Estonia, registered straightaway that the Baltic republics, in common with the other twelve Soviet republics, also had to tolerate low-quality and scarce housing, product deficits, lines in shops, power cuts, food shortages, and poor customer service. Questions from non-Baltic Soviet citizens about “whether the Baltic republics indeed used Soviet roubles as currency” or statements that “Soviet Lithuanians live like they do in America” often provoked genuine surprise or laughter from the local population.11
This brings us to the present. The Russian myth representing the Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a land of consumer paradise and “Western” prosperity seems to sustain a firm control over imaginations of the Soviet and – increasingly – even the post-Soviet population cohorts. Blog posts, videos and social network groups, uniting Russian-speaking users who feel nostalgia for and an interest in the USSR, lavishly support this myth, while putting forward accusations of Baltic “treachery” and those republics’ supposedly prominent role in the breakup of the Communist empire.
A particular complaint of such “citizen historians”12 has been about the alleged “suffering” of the Russian population in their own republic, which presumably had to redistribute financial streams to the “Soviet West” rather than attend to their local needs. In the comments section under the Elektronik’s Adventures YouTube video, for example, one can find remarks such as “the Balts were driving top-class foreign cars, while we [Russians] worked from morning till night” – a reference to gangsters’ Pontiacs and Buicks shown in the film. As if thinking that the film reflected genuine Soviet reality, another commentator complained that “they built the best schools for those traitor Balts”, pointing to the unusually “progressive” interior of the Lazdynai school with large open-space classrooms, wide flights of stairs, and concert halls pictured in the film. The fact that in Soviet Lithuania, as elsewhere, a Soviet-manufactured car, let alone a foreign-made one was a highly scarce item, and the foreign cars in the film had usually been rented from auto enthusiasts or celebrities, did not seem to be known by the person sharing a comment. Similarly, a modern “progressive” interior was constructed at the Odesa Film Studio for Elektronik’s school in Lazdynai – only the exterior view of the state school number 36 in Vilnius was demonstrated in the film. Unfortunately, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has done a lot in recent years to reinforce the myth of “ungrateful Balts” “abusing” Soviet Russia’s resources, and then “betraying” Russians by facilitating the breakup of the USSR and turning to Russia’s main geopolitical foe: the West.13
The “magic” of cinema, among other significant factors, therefore, continues to reinforce this view of uninformed Russian “citizen historians”. In the context of the current confrontation between the West and Putin’s increasingly aggressive Russia, this exacerbates the already existing problem of traditionally negative popular attitudes towards the Baltic nations among Russians.
1. For details on the image of “our abroad” see Karsten Brüggemann, “An Enemy’s ‘Outpost’ or ‘Our West’? Some Remarks about the Discourse of Russian Pribaltika in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union,” in Ethnic Images and Stereotypes – Where is the Border Line? (Russian-Baltic Cross-Cultural Relations), ed. J. Nõmm (Narva: Tartu Ülikooli Narva Kolledž, 2007);
Romuald J. Misiunas and Rein Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence 1940-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993);
Galina Iuzefovich, “Stydlivyĭ konsiumerizm” [Embarrassing Consumerism], NLO 1 (2017), http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2017/1/stydlivyj-konsyumerizm.html;
Pavel Klubkov, “‘Pribalt’: slovo i predstavlenie” [‘Pribalt’: the word and representation], Acta Slavica (2001), http://www.grammatik.narod.ru/pribalt.html;
Stanley V. Vardys, “The Role of the Baltic Republics in Soviet Society,” in The Influence of East Europe and the Soviet West on the USSR, ed. Roman Szporluk (New York: Praeger, 1975);
Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013);
For an example of how Estonian artists “represented” the West in the USSR see Aimar Ventsel, “Estonian Invasion as Western Ersatz-pop,” in Popular Music in Eastern Europe, ed. Eva Mazierska (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016);
3. For a more detailed account of how Baltic cities were presented as Western Europe and the USA in Soviet popular films and serials see Irina Novikova, “Baltics – Images of City and Europeanness in Soviet Cinema,” in Cities in Film: Architecture, Urban Space and the Moving Image, ed. Julia Hallam, Robert Kronenburg, Richard Koeck and Les Roberts (Liverpool: University of Liverpool, 2006);
4. See an interview with historian of architecture Anna Bronovitskaia. Nikolai Erofeev and Gleb Napreenko, “Mechty o Zapade i kommunizme” [Dreams about the West and Communism]. January 24, 2014. http://openleft.ru/?p=1525.
7. Stated in the lecture D_MARIJA DRĖMAITĖ AND VAIDAS PETRULIS. MODERNISM IN SOVIET LITHUANIA: THE RISE AND FALL OF UTOPIA, http://leidiniu.archfondas.lt/en/alf-02/dmarija-dremaite-and-vaidas-petrulis-modernism-soviet-lithuania-rise-and-fall-utopia;
8. Related by the director in “Nikto ne hotel zabyvat”. Budraĭtis, Banionis i drugie | Telekanal ‘Istoriia’ [No one wanted to forget. Budraitis, Banionis and others | TV channel ‘History’],” YouTube video, 45:28, posted by “Istoriia,” October 31, 2016, https://youtu.be/mTAA9RbWZ_I;
Andrius Šiuša. Senas geras kinas (III). Kino režisierius Arūnas Žebriūnas (1930– 2013). http://literaturairmenas.lt/kinas/andrius-siusa-senas-geras-kinas-iii-kino-rezisierius-aru-nas-zebriunas-1930-2013;
“Western” environments see Assa Novikova, “Sovetskie filmy pro Ameriku” [Soviet films about America], May 18, 2018. https://knife.media/anti-american-films/.
11. Kirsi Laurén, “Facing the Otherness: Crossing the Finnish-Soviet Estonian Border as Narrated by Finnish Tourists,” Culture Unbound 6 (2014): 1133-1137, accessed August 9, 2016, http://www.cultureunbound.ep.liu.se/v6/a62/cu14v6a62.pdf;
A question about Soviet roubles in the Baltic is cited, for instance, in Regimantas Dima’s memoirs “Gyvenimo stebėtojo memuarai [Memoirs of life’s observer]” (Naujas Vardas, 2013); this is also confirmed by the former Lithuanian Member of Parliament Nijolė Oželytė, “Nijolė Oželytė apie sausio 13-osios politinius aspektus (2016 m.) [Nijolė Oželytė speaking about January 13’s political aspects (2016)],” YouTube video, 51:43, posted by “Dziordzio Armani”, May 1, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1nselOFpMA&list=WL&index=44&t=2617s.
A remark on alleged similarity between life in the USA and Soviet Lithuania is made by a Russian woman in a documentary “Žodžiai – Lietuva 1989 // Paroles – Lituanie 1989 [Words – Lithuania 1989],” YouTube video, 1:15:31, posted by “Laisves Kovu Videoteka”, January 15, 2013, https://youtu.be/Cj1Iezlod08;
12. Morozov identifies “citizen historians” as online users engaged in “therapeutic story-telling”. They significantly oversimplify history and facts while relying not on quality but quantity of sources justifying a certain stance. In case of Russians grieving for the Soviet empire Putin’s state propaganda is particularly successful in its attempts to mobilise such nostalgia against existing alternative narratives being non-convenient for the state. See Evgeny Morozov. Russia: ideology becomes a mash-up. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/russia-ideology-becomes-a-mash-up/.
13. This myth in particular is prominent in a Russian documentary discussed by Eglė Digrytė, “Naujas rusų filmas apie sovietų okupaciją: klestėjimas tada ir griuvėsiai dabar [New Russian Film about Soviet Occupation: Prosperity Then and Ruins Now],” Delfi, March 27, 2009, https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/naujas-rusu-filmas-apie-sovietu-okupacija-klestejimas-tada-ir-griuvesiai-dabar.d?id=21195500;
More occasions of the spread of this myth can be found in a plethora of Russian state-owned propagandistic media. See for example Nadezhda Vredina, “V sovetskom ‘plenu’. Kakoe nasledstvo SSSR ostavil Latvii? [‘Captured’ by the Soviets. What heritage did the USSR leave for Latvia?],” AIF.RU, June 3, 2019, https://aif.ru/money/economy/v_sovetskom_plenu_kakoe_nasledstvo_sssr_ostavil_latvii; Alexandr Nosovich, “Pribaltika priznala – ehat’ na rossiiskoi shee ne poluchitsya [The Baltic admitted – to ride on Russia’s back will not be possible],” RUBALTIC.RU, October 29, 2018, https://www.rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/29102018-pribaltika-priznala-ekhat-na-rossiyskoy-shee-ne-poluchitsya/.
Among some credible research endeavours debunking this and other Kremlin-propagated myths about the Baltic States are, for instance: Jukka Rislakki. “The Case for Latvia: Disinformation Campaigns Against a Small Nation” (Rodopi, 2014); Gatis Krumiņš, “Soviet Economic Gaslighting of Latvia and the Baltic States,” Defence Strategic Communications 4 (2018).
Header image – the district of Lazdynai, Vilnius [Image: Dzmitry Pravatorau]
Dzmitry Pravatorau is a postgraduate student and a tutor of International Relations at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests include popular geopolitical imaginations of the Baltic States among Russian speakers, and Lithuanian studies in general.
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