Legacy of the Soviet Era in Lithuania: the Culture of Taking Advantage of Connections, Non-compliance with Formal Rules and the Crisis of Masculinity

Legacy of the Soviet Era in Lithuania: the Culture of Taking Advantage of Connections, Non-compliance with Formal Rules and the Crisis of Masculinity

Sukurta: 28 October 2021

Vaiseta FBFor more than thirty years of independence, Lithuania and its neighbouring countries have been accompanied by a trail of "post-Soviet society" label. Hopefully, this not-so-pleasant label is slowly getting detached from us, but even as generations change, certain habits and forms of thinking remain. To what extent does the Soviet legacy affect our decisions today and the values we are guided by? How has the past changed the role of women and men in the family? How long will it take us to break free from the grip of the Soviet mentality? Tomas Vaiseta, Associate Professor of the Faculty of History of Vilnius University, talks about it on the Vilnius University (VU) website "Science without Sermons".

Are the rules designed to circumvent them?

According to the historian, in late Soviet society we can see many stagnant, low-moving forms of life. This stagnation affected everyday life, the feeling of the kind of world and reality everyone was living in. On the other hand, it was inevitably accompanied by very important, even dynamic, social and cultural changes – the society developed in spite of the political regime.

From the surviving patterns of human characteristics and behaviour, the scholar distinguishes the underestimation of formal rules that prevailed during the Soviet era.

"People in the society at the time realised that formal rules were designed so they could be circumvented. Basically, the system itself forced people to disregard and underestimate the rules, because it failed to meet even the basic needs of the people, says the Soviet-era researcher. "At that time, formal rules existed only for the sake of the eyes, and in everyday life everyone did everything in the best way they could – from getting better food to finding a place for a child in kindergarten."

According to the interlocutor, such a system allowed for a better life for those who tended to break the rules and, from a moral point of view, commit crimes. Those who tried to follow the rules were considered losers, freaks and righteous – those who did not understand that it was possible to live better. The underestimation of the formal rules of the time instilled a misunderstanding that the rules existed so that we, as a society, could function and build a better state of our own.

Change is not that fast

Vaiseta, speaking of generational change, reminds us that this topic has been raised since the first years of the restoration of independence, but change is not as simple as we imagine.

"We see that the generation that was born before the 1990s, but started going to school during the times of independence, still has the same habits and forms of thinking as in the Soviet era – they have been taken over from their parents, family, society. "Each generation is different from the previous one, but the change is not as fast as we would like it to be," says the historian.

However, the interlocutor points out that what is similar to the behaviour of a person from a Soviet era may be affected by completely different reasons, motives, and events.

"I have probably been considering for five or seven years now whether we should really call ourselves a post-Soviet state," says Vaiseta. “Do we really have more of what we brought from the Soviet era than what has formed during those thirty years? At this point, I would like to be optimistic – perhaps it is time to abandon that notion of "post-Soviet society"? "

LGBT in Soviet times – a disease or a crime?

Speaking about the LGBT+ community and its relationship with the Soviet era, Vaiseta draws attention to the lack of research in this area – it can be considered only in general terms. Perhaps the most important fact from that period is that homosexual men were persecuted, tried, and imprisoned for their sexual orientation under the criminal code in force at the time.

"More than 200 men were convicted between 1961 and 1989," the historian said. “It is terrible when someone is convicted for their sexual orientation, on the other hand, this number is very small. This shows two things – the Soviet system itself clearly did not tolerate homosexuals, but it was not a very active, purposeful action. Such figures also show that society itself probably did not view homosexuals as criminals who needed to be reported to law enforcement. People did not treat it as a criminal activity."

However, society saw homosexuality as a disease that needed to be treated. "Such an attitude is not unique to Soviet society – it was also typical of the West. In England, for example, a number of homosexuals were treated in psychiatric hospitals in the second half of the twentieth century. "Homophobia has persisted to this day – even in the same western countries," he notes.

Emancipation of women and its consequences for masculinity

Soviet ideology claimed to support the emancipation of women, but in practice, with rapid industrialization, this meant the need to mobilize women economically and increase the labour force because they were in short supply. Women who went to work gradually became more independent and financially stable.

According to Vaiseta, in addition to the dimension of economic emancipation, there was also a cultural one – more and more women chose higher education, which helped them to accept themselves as independent, autonomous, self-sufficient and less dependent on others. This has led to an increase in the number of divorces initiated by women, who have eventually got tired of poor living conditions and men who did not live up to their expectations.

Over time, the role of a man in the family diminished and became secondary. There, women took care of the family, took a dominant position, and became decision-makers, which posed a number of challenges for men who did not want to adapt to the changing role of women and the establishment of equality.

"The crisis of masculinity continues to this day. This is a problem not only of Lithuanian historiography, but of the whole of Western historiography. It is undoubtedly important that there was a great deal of focus on women in the 1970s, but it was forgotten that the role of the woman is inseparable from the role of the man. Talks about it started only during the second wave of feminism,” says the historian.

He is convinced that the part of society in which modern family roles are taken over is happier. “These are more symmetrical families, where men take responsibility for their children, make them food to eat, and share roles equally in other areas of the household. That part of society where symmetry prevails is happy in other areas, both financially, culturally and socially.”