‘1990s was a time of great joy and great trauma’

Syndromes of Mimickry by Anastasia Pirozhenko

What made you interested in the topic of Eastern Europeans trying to imitate the culture of Western Europe?

I think that the entire period between 1990 and 2004, when Lithuania joined the European Union, was very colourful, violent, insecure and uncomfortable, full of fears and uncertainty. At the same time, it was a time of great expectations, a sense of great opportunities. It was a very interesting period. The society, finding itself in the cultural ruins after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was trying to manage the uncertainty and insecurity by copying and mimicking various Western practices.

The key thing, however, that made me do the study was the campaign in 2004, right before Lithuania joined the EU, called “Europe’s Brightest Country”.

The campaign asked people, at a particular moment, to turn on all the lights they could for a satellite photo. Lithuania was to be the brightest country in Europe. I was fascinated by why people were trying to highlight their Europeanness so desperately and pompously. What was the meaning of Lithuania being the brightest country in the EU? What were these symbols referring to?

I also had a sense of doubt, since, as scholars of Postcolonialism say, tigers do not celebrate their tigerness. Why, I wondered, did Lithuanians have to prove their Europeanness with such pompous methods – and could we say that Western and Eastern Europe were the same after Lithuania joined the EU?

There’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand, Lithuania became part of the EU, which could mean that we had successfully completed our transitional period and had returned to where we always wanted to be, to Europe. On the other hand, EU membership ushered in an era of mass emigration from Lithuania. What does that mean and what is hiding behind the façades and the declarations that we are European?

How did you research this topic?

I employed the methods used in cultural studies, describing selected cultural, political and economic practices. Since the period between 1990 and 2004 is quite long – and this wasn’t a large-scale research project – I only described a few characteristic phenomena. For instance, how Lithuania introduced certain legal practices and the resulting inconsistencies between those legal categories and their specific content in Lithuania.

Another good example are musicians in bars and restaurants who would sing in English without knowing the language or understanding what they were singing about. It’s a radical disconnect between form and content, an extreme case of imitation and mimesis – and also an example of utter personal powerlessness. How can a person adapt their body language, facial expressions, emotion to the song they don’t understand? I’ve selected several such grotesque examples from the period between 1990 and 2004.

I think this case is very characteristic, it summarizes well and expresses most clearly this mimetic culture of mimicry and borrowing, a case of desperate desire to be European, to appear as such. When the desire is so big, one imitates practices that one does not know the meaning of. At the same time, instead of speaking about their authentic feeling, what they are going through and care about, people imitate the canon imposed on them. This is the crust of my research.

Before the interview, you quoted Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the mimic man. Can you expand on it?

Bhabha’s idea of the mimic man derives from colonialism and postcolonialist studies. He argues that mimicking and copying man finds himself in an unequal cultural and economic position. A colonial subject is treated as smaller, weaker, less valuable. In order to match others, he has to copy and mimic the language, cultural and social practices of the colonizer.

Those practices are often alien to him. They build an external protective shell, a façade. They also imprison, since that is the only way to strike a dialogue with the colonizer, the colonizing society. The person feels his powerlessness very acutely, since by mimicking he cannot express his authentic experience, he is forced to pretend.

What does this desire to copy says about us? A sense of inadequacy, complexes, a failed cultural transformation, a weak sense of identity?

I think all of these apply. It is both natural and a sign of cultural disparity, an erratic identity and so on. What were we copying during the transitional period? Almost everything in all areas. Anthropologists and sovietologists call it the export of systems. It means that Western societies were exporting all social, economic, political institutions, their cultural language, concepts, projects. As one Baltic ambassador put it during a conference in Washington, our entire legal system was effectively stolen from Germany. I do not entirely agree with it, since the word “stolen” does not fit here.

Europeans themselves were actively involved in the process, exporting their political, economic and cultural institutions to Eastern Europe. It was a natural process. After 1990, Lithuania found itself in a state of insecurity and uncertainty. Imagine that, two generations grew up in the Soviet Union who had a very vague idea of the West. They may not have liked the Soviet world, but it was the only world they knew. Suddenly, this social order collapsed, nothing remained of it but an economic, institutional and political chaos – and a question: what happens next? This way, copying and mimicking the West became a powerful strategy to escape the state of uncertainty and chaos.

What syndromes were most palpable, which features of the Western societies did we try to imitate most desperately?

At first, we were copying political and economic things, it was related to market economy, capitalism, liberal democracy, the consumer culture. But these are superficial things, since fundamental structures are unaffected. Behind the façade, there remain traumas, unarticulated experiences, frustrations, anger. For the time being, these emotions are suspended, since we’ve accomplished the EU integration, a symbolic return to Europe. We rushed to take over practices, mimic them, all the while people’s traumas, authentic experiences and everything that doesn’t fit into the imagined canon get brushed under the carpet.

What is a genuine European? In this context, a true European is someone who is not glancing behind her shoulder at an authority, who is not trying to please anyone, to whom her Europeanness comes naturally, effortlessly, something to be taken for granted. Such a person does not question her Europeanness, it is natural.

In Lithuania, like in other Eastern European countries, the situation was somewhat different in the post-Soviet years. There was a strong feeling that the Soviet occupation had torn those societies out of Europe. The post-Soviet man was marked with a stigma of Soviet experience. Many people who travel to the West, particularly for the first time, tell stories about how their body language, their clothes and appearance give them away as others – almost Europeans, but not quite. That’s the difference.

For Eastern Europeans, their Europeanness is a task, a mission, something to be proven and reconstructed. Interestingly, when, say, a Frenchman or a German is visiting the United States, they will say they come from Europe, whereas a Lithuanian, a Latvian or a Pole will introduce himself – or will be introduced – as someone from Eastern Europe.

Is it possible to reconstruct or to acquire genuine Europeanness?

Europeanness is a social construct based on a power relation – something very concrete and specific within a concrete context. In early post-Soviet years, Europeanness meant a huge cultural, political, economic hegemony of Western Europe. These power relations are very dynamic, they keep changing, because societies develop, they face different challenges, different crises. Today the societies that we understand, historically, as Western Europe are facing a massive immigration crisis, Brexit and other political challenges. The situation is completely different and, I think, there is less of a desire to mimic the West.

Is this mimicry still relevant today?

Where does it come from? From a sense of inequality, a desire to fit in and be a match. This is also true of political and economic development, since in Lithuania standards of both economic and everyday life are changing. The gap between Western and Eastern Europe is narrowing down, people who go to Western countries don’t feel insecure anymore, they’re not struck with great wonder. People’s desire to mimic are predicated on real conditions of economic, political, social life.

What is the cost for a person trying to become Western European?

Two aspects are important here. One is what I call positive gains, these are the achievements and advantages that come from mimicking and copying Western Europe. We put under control the post-Soviet chaos, did away with uncertainty, Lithuania was integrated into the cultural, political and economic space of Western Europe. As I’ve said, people who now go to France, Spain or other countries feel at ease there, they recognize these countries as familiar. In turn, they themselves are recognized as Europeans and not aliens. One can travel, work, study, holiday, shop, etc.

The other, negative, aspect is the fact that post-Soviet transformations were very intense and many people experienced a huge psychological, emotional and cultural shock. True, the society welcomed the changes, but it was a period not only of joy, but of great shock as well. Economically, Eastern Europe was subjected to the shock doctrine. This meant that former economic systems were discarded and, instead of a gradual transition into capitalism, people were thrown into the new system. They were forced to survive as best they could.

Although scholars of transition mostly focus on the economic shock doctrine, I believe people were subjected to equally intense social, psychological and cultural shocks. When people are in a state of shock, they suspend and repress their emotions. There is no time to engage in narrative histories, question one’s own motives, feelings, analyse traumas or psychoanalyse oneself. One has to survive, move forward, build a state, reconstruct institutions, recreate the stability of everyday life. As postcolonialist scholars note, the surfaces and facades are mimicked, but covered behind them is a vast pool of unarticulated experiences, resentments, frustrations.

People often say that they don’t remember the traumas, that their lives have been relatively stable – but they don’t remember because they didn’t know. For instance, because of the universal culture of silence. People often wouldn’t know that someone in their families, a parent or even the spouse had been raised in exile. They’d often see abusive and drunk father, but never saw what was behind it, what experiences and traumas caused it.

I also think that the post-Soviet, transitional period was one of great shock and great joy. The Soviet system, despised by so many, collapses, but the sense of freedom is both joyful and traumatising. Not to mention seeing your life’s savings evaporate and your life’s experience depreciated. People suddenly find themselves in a different world, a different society, culture, one that they barely know, one they struggle to make sense of. That’s why some researchers describe post-Soviet societies as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that, for instance, soldiers who fought in Afghanistan suffer, or women who experienced sexual violence.

This means that because of some external circumstances, a person has lost the basic sense of self-confidence, is frustrated and reacts to every smallest incident as a threat. Moreover, he reacts violently. Some researchers say that this is a general collective symptom in post-Soviet societies – a naturalized collective state which is taken for granted.

The price that mimicking people pay mostly consists of lingering, unidentified and unarticulated grievances, anxiety, anger, disappointment. Today, it finds different expressions: alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse, self-doubt, bullying, suicides. All the things that we need to talk about and we do.

Not just us, but also researchers from Western Europe are interested in our traumas. Your research has become a basis for a film.

I am glad that my study was picked up and this year, Anastasia Pirozhenko from the Dutch Film Academy made a film, “Syndromes of Mimicry”, based on my article. The film depicts things that I talk about. Various situations where people are trying to manage their insecurity in post-Soviet societies by mimicking and copying the West.

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