Baltic Heritage Network XXII Diaspora Seminar: Connecting Research Fragments

November 20, 2015

On 3 November 2015 the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania hosted the annual international Baltic Heritage Network diaspora seminar. It was the 22nd event in the last six years and the second to be held in Vilnius. It brought together researchers, librarians and archivists from all three Baltic countries working in the field of diaspora studies. In this international forum, eight papers were presented. Topics for three paper sessions ranged from collecting, exploring and digitizing archival data to making field research of diaspora communities, and analysing exile literature.

Diaspora seminars, covering a wide range of interests and topics, are designed to help to exchange information and encourage sustained critical dialogue without dividing attendees into their disciplinary camps. New people and presenters join the BHN seminars every year. This time the event offered a good balance between three Baltic countries and a good distribution of participants from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The small-scale setting of the conference allowed for an intimate exchange of ideas. Opportunity to place one’s own research in a wider cultural context and learn about the skills and techniques used by other scholars was a significant advantage of this seminar.

The first session was centred around topics connected to Lithuanian diaspora research. The presentation “Changing Agenda: Lithuania in Western European Press in 1990” by Valdonė Budreckaitė was devoted to the mentioning of Lithuania in British, French, German, Polish, and Icelandic newspapers, which are now stored in the Martynas Mažvydas National Library. Budreckaitė argued that Lithuania became of prime interest to foreigners after the restoration of independence. Foreign press paid special attention to Lithuanian politicians (e.g. Algirdas Brazauskas) travelling to the West. Regardless of their political views, Poles were especially sensitive to the Lithuanian situation and felt a special responsibility to express their greetings and support to the re-established neighbour state. As Iceland was the first country to recognize the independence of the Baltic countries, reflections in the Icelandic press followed. The excerpts of the newspapers discussed in the presentation are now readily available online in the virtual exhibition “No, my friends, we won’t go slow. The restoration of Lithuanian independence in the pages of the world press in 1990.”

Lithuanian researcher Dalia Cidzikaitė presented an extensive oral history project that began in 1995 and recently resulted in the book We thought that we’ll return soon. According to the presenter, oral history as a genre is gaining momentum in Lithuania; quite a few works have recently been published: Something very genuine (contains 25 stories of people who did not fit into the Soviet regime and interviews with former nomenclature figures including Russian officials who dealt with Soviet Lithuania), Ambiguous situations (based on a project during which more than 60 interviews about the Soviet literary field were recorded), etc.

Being an oral historian herself, Cidzikaitė presented her experience in preparing the questionnaire and recording reminiscences of Lithuanian refugees who fled abroad after the WWII. She argued that a collector becomes a researcher in the process of book preparation, as one has to decide which interviews to select for publishing. Following the rule of authenticity, editors were trying to preserve the dialect and the manner of speech as close to the original as possible. As a huge accomplishment, Cidzikaitė mentioned the fact that they had managed to record interviews with people that are not longer with us. She pointed out that Lithuanian exiles were waiting to tell their experiences, open up their hearts and their doors, and they gave away everything relevant they had to, so that it could be stored in archives, including 13 written memoirs, 5 diaries and collections of newspaper clippings.

Cidzikaitė’s presentation provoked debates as to whether the experiences of post-war émigrés could be discussed in the same thematic field with the current refugee crisis. It followed from the discussions that merging different experiences of (e)migration is not yet very common in the Baltic states, but would presumably be a productive practice.

Laura Laurušaitė presented a paper “Correlations between environment and social characteristics in Baltic émigré literature: Grey & colourful, black & white.” Invoking Lithuanian and Latvian émigré narratives of the last decade (2005–2015) she discussed the complex relationship of the climatic circumstances, outer appearance and inner abilities of the Balts. Imagery of contrasting colours enabled her to characterize Baltic people in racial, social and mental terms. Using examples from literature, she demonstrated how the Baltic people are preconditioned to feel gloomy and unhappy, and how the grey colour becomes the measure of all things. She concluded that Baltic people are often considered “black” not in racial, but rather in social terms. Laurušaitė positioned Baltic gloominess against the cheerfulness of the Southern countries, and the Baltic peasant heritage against the Southern noble history. She suggested that judging by the narratives discussed, it is obvious that there is a strong tendency to aspire to what can be stereotypically characterized as a “Northern” ethos and temperament.

Session II was devoted to the “Research in progress”. Maarja Merivoo-Parro from Estonia discussed her recent trip to Abkhazia in search for Estonian communities. She indicated that Abkhazia was home for thousands of Estonians already more than a century ago. The diaspora began in the second half of the 19th century when peasants came to Abkhazia as colonists and began to lead a very vibrant cultural life. Ever since the last war, which was intimately portrayed in the Estonian Georgian film “Tangerines”, most of the former inhabitants and their offspring have left Abkhazia and reside either in Estonia or Russia. However, there are still some people left in the villages of Salme and Sulev and Merivoo-Parro went to interview them as well as capture their environment visually with her colleagues. She asserted that the Estonian language is still very rich there as well as in everyday use.

Priit Parro’s presentation “Ethnic brought to attention the ways in which American-born children are learning about “Estonianess”, but at the same time they are trained to be open to other cultures and become empathetic to other nationalities.

The third part of the seminar was focused on collecting and consisted of three presentations. Guntis Švītiņš, expert from the Latvian State Archives, shed some light on previously unknown Latvian art collections in the UK. He offered a continuation of Dalia Cidzikaitė’s topic about researchers and/ as collectors. He was looking for collections in Latvian properties rather than museums or galleries.

During his one-week trip to the UK he explored four Latvian centres:

Rowfant house, which holds about 14 pieces of Latvian art presented in purely English setting with 19th century fireplaces and portraits of Shakespeare; 72 Queensborough Latvian guesthouse in London where Latvians can exhibit their works. It has a much richer collection of around 25 art pieces; Straumēni house, which holds archives of Latvians in UK and features 53 pieces of Latvian art; Latvian house of cultural community in Bradford (on the border with Scotland) where 55 art pieces are stored, some of which are brought as gifts by Latvians who visited the house.

Švītiņš has interviewed two Latvian artists from the older generation who left for the UK in 1947 and provided background to Latvian art in London. The speaker argued that Latvian artists, both professionals and amateurs, tend to employ ethnographical motives in their works such as ornaments, national costumes, Riga cityscapes and landscapes of the Latvian countryside.

Latvian archivist Linda Pleša provided an insight into Latvian film records stored in the State Film, Sound and Image Archives of Latvia. She discussed three types of records connected to exile that have been received in the last 25 years: documents created in Latvia before exile; documents concerning Latvian life in exile; documents created outside the country after visiting Latvia. She discussed funds of a few directors, producers and operators (Zane Jekste-Freivalds, Valfrids Lemanis, Ilgars Linde) containing documentaries about cultural events, Latvian writers, film work materials, etc. Pleša pointed out that some records are of poor quality as the archivists were not critical enough when accepting the documents for storage. She also noted that there are not enough financial and human resources to digitize all of them. Some digitized documents are available to the public though.

The last speaker of the seminar was the “founding mother” of the Baltic Heritage Network Piret Noorhani. In her concluding presentation “On the crossroads of VEMU, BaltHerNet and BAAC – transitioning into the future” she described the history of the three diaspora networks and drew upon future perspectives. As Noorhani argued, BAAC (started in 2004 in Riga) and Balthernet (2005 in Tartu) are like twin organizations, brother and sister born almost at the same time. She described her activity in Canada at VEMU (Museum of Estonians Abroad) where she has been working for the past six years. They organize competitions on specific topics (e.g. food or music in Estonian diaspora life) to encourage people to send materials of their Estonian parents; organise seminars and conferences; digitize audio and document collections; hold events targeted for the wider public. In her opinion, fun and interesting activities must come hand in hand with building the archives so that the community would get something back every step of the way.

This year the Baltic Heritage Network will continue to develop its research activities in exciting ways, through discussing methodology of oral history in Tartu, watching diaspora-themed films, cooking diaspora versions of Estonian food and visiting community members in Russia (close to Saint Petersburg) to interview them and work together at the cemetery. Noorhani was glad to inform that they are working on the new version of the website, which will be ready at the end of this year.

There was also much enthusiasm from the participants for international conferences and wider collaborative opportunities. The seminar seems to have laid a solid foundation for planned annual reunions of BaltHerNet members, maintaining a dialogue between different disciplines. It provided a useful framework to think about what course individual researchers might take. Maarja Merivoo-Parro rounded off the seminar with a desire to continue networking. The next international seminar will be held in Riga in spring of 2016.

Laura Laurušaitė