Art from Under the Iron Thumb

Under Soviet rule until 1990, the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – lived in fear, hunger and censorship. Books, magazines and rock music from Britain were smuggled across the border. Since the barricade broke, literature has flourished as the end of censorship meant stories from the last 100 years could finally be told. Critically acclaimed authors from each country explore what years of censorship has meant for their work and how this new freedom is helping the states reclaim their identity:

Aušra Kaziliūnaitę is a Lithuanian poet, writer, and a PhD Philosophy candidate at Vilnius University. The first English translation of her poetry, The Moon is a Pill translated by Rimis Uzgiris, is published by Parthian in 2018.‎ ‎



In the Soviet era, free word and free expression in literature were regarded as a real risk. One ‎did not need to use profanities to shock. It was sufficient to write ‎something that challenged propaganda and the official “one opinion”. That way, it was ‎possible to bring upon oneself actual repression.‎

A large proportion of writers avoided open confrontation with the government, choosing to ‎express their thoughts in Aesopian language, through allegory and simile. Others ‎conformed and joined in the propaganda narrative, gaining a privileged status for glorifying ‎the “one truth”. Yet others put themselves at risk writing about subjects that were forbidden ‎to touch. Readers of such poets used to stealthily copy their poems from each other’s ‎notebooks. When the Soviet Union began to crumble, these poets were attracting crowds, full ‎stadiums of audiences. That is how, in Lithuania, ‘poet’ became synonymous with ‘prophet’ ‎and ‘leader of a nation.’‎

Our country has been free from official censorship and repressions for nearly thirty years. ‎However, out of cultural inertia, Lithuanian writers have in large part been avoiding social and ‎political themes all this time, seeing them as either propaganda or as the territory of a leader of the ‎nation because of the unique historical experience and cultural inertia. They considered both ‎approaches as removed from “real” art but did not find other strategies to tackle those themes ‎in their work. Consequently, on the one hand, Lithuania formed a vacuum where there ‎should be interesting literature dealing with social and political issues, but on the other hand, it developed a super-aestheticised literary form that can be curious in its own way. ‎

I think that countries that have lived through a totalitarian regime have a unique possibility to re-evaluate, through their historical experience, power relations that flourish in democratic ‎societies. Seen as hyperbole, the power relations that existed in the Soviet era can ‎help us understand not only the current circulation of power in the cultural sphere of the ‎present-day Democratic Republic of Lithuania but also in other democratic countries. The fact ‎that the literary field in totalitarian states is subject to physical and actual censorship does not ‎mean that literature in democratic societies is entirely censorship-free.  ‎

It exists there too but manifests in a different, subtle and much less obvious form. Every ‎society has cultural ‘intuition’ about what themes are considered acceptable or successful ‎and what subjects are better avoided – the intuition that writers and publishers tend to rely on, the ‎former in self-censoring their work and the latter in deciding what texts are worthy ‎of becoming books.  ‎

Contemporary Lithuanian literature is slowly moving away from relying on censorship that, out of positive motivation, is based on cultural ‘intuition’ in keeping itself in check. It is choosing ‎uncomfortable, un-useful, unprofitable themes. Our book market is small, so we “have nothing ‎to lose.” It offers a unique opportunity not to create new power relations or dedicate ourselves to the existing ones through writing, but to attempt to step towards escaping this ‎binary opposition.  ‎


Rein Raud is an Estonian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, cultural theorist, and philosopher, with an impressive command of foreign languages and a breadth of cultural knowledge. Three of his novels have been translated into English, The Death of the Perfect Sentence (Vagabond Voices, 2017), The Reconstruction (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017) and The Brother (Open Letter Books, 2016).



While in the larger world people are supposed to be connected by six handshakes, in Estonia two are normally sufficient. This also makes it possible for us to unite the incommensurable. Where else would four young poets be able to organise the launch of their collective book (appropriately entitled “A Deck of Cards”) in the biggest casino of the capital city? Or the president of the republic arrive unnoticed to an island full of abandoned Soviet military structures, in order to attend the first night of a production by an avant-garde theatre company of European fame, which takes place in the barn of a local householder, who also happens to be a world-famous conductor of classical music? (I was also present at both events.)

Not unexpectedly, the primary characteristic of post-liberation Estonian literature is its diversity. One of the signature works of the first years of the restored republic was a modernist gay novel, “The Border Country” by Emil Tode, feminine voices have been strong traditionally and continue to be so, with a broad gamma from the exquisite subtlety of Doris Kareva to the rather brutal world of Maarja Kangro, and, especially over the recent decade, many Russian-writing Estonian authors such as Andrei Ivanov have also made it to international fame. So, we can most certainly rejoice not only in the freedom of the nation but also that its polyphony can clearly be heard.

Moments of painful history nonetheless tend to haunt the present, and under the surface, there are still very many untold stories. What I think literature has to do in the present – something I’ve tried to do in my own novels as well – is to ensure no single and simple narrative would be enforced over the complexity of individual destinies interwoven in the past as well as in the present. After all, our country always has been a crossroads, and will forever be.


Inese Zandere is a Latvian poet, editor, publisher and has written more than 20 award-winning books for children including her conceptual book of poems for children Medicine Maddy, Other Hospital Nursery Rhymes and One House for All (Book Island, Oct 2017, translated by Juris Petraskevics).


In the early 90s, when Latvia stopped being Soviet Latvia and became Latvia once more, political censorship was demolished alongside the monuments to Lenin. One of the hands of censorship had been raised in a didactic gesture, akin to that of the granite Lenin, while the other leafed through manuscripts, weeding out, more or less, anything that could seem disloyal to the regime. I say, ‘could seem’ because in many cases editors who received manuscripts used the magnifying glass of their own private fears to uselessly find fault with certain lines or words. It was often not as terrifying as it was funny and absurd. It was impossible to completely weed out the silent, unceasing resistance of literature, because it found shape in the undertones, the vocabulary, the style, the allusions, and even the melody of language, in all its artistic substance that strived towards freedom of speech not exclusively by the means of obvious political declarations.

Now Latvian literature is living in an era of ‘post-censorship’. I would like to say, ‘censorship-less’, but this is wishful thinking. Citing classical Latvian poetry, “coffin can’t stay empty”. By the coffin, I mean the public, whose confusion when it landed in the territory of freedom turned out to be greater than we could have pictured before we actually arrived at this freedom. It was much easier to do the homework given by the European Union rather than to learn to think independently and critically, and there is a lot of hysteria in attitudes towards literature, which reminds one of seeking to regain a crutch that has been taken away, of being afraid to stand on one’s own two feet.

Being deeply involved in children’s literature as an author, as a publisher and as an editor, I have felt more than my share of unbelievably archaic campaigns by “defenders of morals”, directed against literature and the teachers who treat literature as art not a collection of writings that would make one lead a better life. Indeed, one of the flanks of attack is directed not against new literature but Latvian classics (Jānis Poruks, Rainis, Kārlis Skalbe and others) as far as schoolchildren are introduced to it: against its introverted heroes, all kinds of sufferers, “the pale boys”, impractical “third sons” and the Tolstoyan resolve for non-violent struggle. Many think that in a country which wants to be successful, children should be taught to want fortune and well-being, the universal stereotype of the American dream and that literature should be filtered judging by such criteria.

Another vivid way in which the unfulfilled desire for censorship is expressed in a form quite akin to parody is the opposition to the use of vulgar language in literature. If the mayor of the capital becomes involved in the discussion and consideration of a poem by Agnese Krivade, and he thinks it should be banned from municipal schools, it is quite a different beast from a grandmother chiding children for bad manners.

Finally, when the long-awaited literary treatment of 20th-century Latvian history entered the stage in the form of the series of novels titled We. Latvia. The 20th Century, allowing literature to fill the void between specific historic research and the public, it became clear that the third form of the new censorship is unwillingness by professional historians to cede to the writers their exclusive right in their relationship with documented facts. Of course, this “confused censorship” cannot repress writers, because we are living in a democratic country. If all of this seemed quite recognisable to you, it is clear that you, too, are living in a democratic country.

 Discover more about Baltic authors and the works now being translated into English at


You must be logged in to post a comment