Usually silenced. Changing world in the apolitical life story

Baiba Bela-Krûminja

I would like to start with bringing out two essential aspects concerning oral history. These also relate to the present article. First, oral history gives a voice to the so-called common people, to social groups or ethnicities usually silenced by the dominating version of official history (Thompson 1988), which means that different ways of perceiving and creating history exist side by side in a society.

Second, oral history enables us to observe what is the position of each individual story in the common culture and what life stories tell us about symbolic categories through which reality is perceived and interpreted. Life stories reflect changes in the conditions of life and through them it is possible to indicate changes in the culture - in language, traditions, habits, social behaviour, etc.

I will use life stories of apolitical women of the older generation in Latvia to present one of the many different possibilities to perceive and create history, and to show how life story in its dynamics and mechanisms can throw light on social change and emerging cultural differences. One of the outlooks that oral history research has to offer is to explore these changes on individual level in the groups other than dominant.

I chose life stories of apolitical women, because these women are still seen as members of a big social group, that from the viewpoint of history do not have any important role. Already in 1924 Latvian publicist Ernests Blanks expressed his regret over the fact that a great part of Latvian nation has lost both political intuition and interest in politics. It is possible that namely this high percentage of passive commonalty advanced history of Latvia in the 20th century in the direction so familiar to people in the Baltic States.

In the following article I will concentrate on one particular life story, the main themes and structure of which are typical to the stories of many Latvian countrywomen of the 20th century. I will call this teller Aina. Unfortunately I find the translation of the life story from Latvian to English so difficult that I will try to make do without the most powerful tool of oral history - quotations.


Different possibilities to perceive and create history

Telling stories about past events seems to be a universal human activity; one of the first forms of discourse acquired in childhood, that people from different social backgrounds use in different occasions throughout their lives (Riessman 1993). Life story told to an oral historian differs from stories told in everyday life situations. Most personal or family-related tales are told in everyday life in episodes and life story as a full and coherent oral narrative cannot usually be encountered outside the research context (Portelli 1998). In creating their life story, tellers usually seek assistance from traditions and existing genres (Skultans 1998). In oral history interview we can find all recognised genres of oral discourse, from proverbs to an epic poem, but life story nevertheless differs from them with its internal structure and peculiar cultural position.

History - private as well as academic, is composed of only a few events from the flow of life. The creation of history - private as well as academic - depends on the aims of the teller or the historian and on the conventions of a selected genre. And text is created by means of existing patterns of a language. Therefore the creation of an apolitical life story is only one possibility among many others. I would like to concentrate on some aspects that form one particular apolitical life story and within this frame start the discussion with giving reasons for choosing this perspective.

The construction of apolitical life stories differs from these of political. The life story is presented through personal events and actions that usually take place in the close surroundings of the narrator. The flow of time is segmented practically without any recourse to dates, or to the conventional points of reference that would make the individual life story compatible with the general history. The historical time is irrelevant and often the teller even does not give her or his attitude to certain political events. For example, Aina was born in 1910 and when telling about her life in the 1920s and 1930s she did not mention political events of this time - establishing of the Republic of Latvia in 1918, the elections, the government, not even the authoritarian regime of Kârlis Ulmanis, that most Latvians often admire. Aina tells about her family, her childhood, about relationships between people, about work and the way everyday life and rest was organised. Important events of history and personal life break violently into her life - via wars or deformation of the country life under the Soviet regime. Breakdown of habitual patterns of life by events to come - in this particular case, marriage in the early 1930s, World War II and the following communist occupation, caused the recession of the cultural grammar in the narrative.

I agree that in most cases Latvian narrators use cultural grammar as a response to terror and absurdity (cf. Skultans 1998). In a given case the story is presented as an ordered sequence of events, but the voice and language patterns of the narrator change. When family and life in the 1920s is under discussion, the language of the presented story is intertwined with folk tales and songs that form certain patterns. This is not so common in Latvian narratives, although certain literary intentions can be noticed. As it is argued by the Latvian anthropologist Vieda Skultans, who works now in Great Britain, the reason for this is the fact that the development of national literature influenced largely the shaping of a national identity and literature played an important role in the educational system of the 1920s and 1930s. In Aina's narrative (like in the majority of tales from the older Latvian generation) the farmstead is seen as the embodiment of happiness and virtue.

The story about marriage (that later turned to be unhappy) marks the breakpoint in the narrative. Aina does not wish to speak about her life during the marriage and the story continues with the description of the events in 1943, when the common history starts to intrude on the life of every individual. Maybe the sudden publicity of a refugee's life and the breakdown of a peaceful yet dissatisfactory personal life make her continue the story. Her voice becomes sad and the figurative expressions and metaphors characteristic to the stories about her parents' family, her childhood and her youth disappear from the narrative. The story about the wartime and especially that about the life after 1949 seems to be mainly giving pictures about the hard conditions of life and senseless, or even absurd events. The sharp distinction in the language patterns divide her narrative into two parts, where the second part represents the breakdown of both the habitual ways of life and the expectations and inability to find the meaning and safety in the new order of life.

Another explanation is possible - episodes and stories about her parents' childhood and her youth are part of the personal narrative that has been often told and heard before, while the episodes about the life after marriage and under the Soviet regime had been never told before and therefore it was more difficult to find words for this uneasy experience.

Aina's life story, like many similar stories, shows that the organisation of a personal story by using dates and events from the history of the state as points of reference is only one conventional way of perceiving and interpreting history. The events of a personal life - like childbirth, marriage, work, retirement, and relations among these events have a basic and important meaning to the narrator and the story, but their place in the historical time is only indirect. The perception of the nature of events and their interrelations by the teller determines the use of appropriate terms of language and guides the plot of the story. The general political history enters the life of apolitical women only when it breaks violently down the habitual life patterns - like the war or the Soviet occupation. Aina's life story begins and ends outside the great politics - neither the establishing of the independent Latvia in 1918, or the re-establishing of its freedom in 1990 are mentioned. We cannot say, however, that these events are completely unimportant to the teller just because she has not mentioned these in her story. It can be so due to the apolitical genre of her life story. Private life story is not an academic study of history and follows the logic of its own. As a piece of oral art and a peculiar genre, the apolitical life story has its special structure achieved by connecting the events of personal life.


Life story as reflector of the process and the mechanisms of social change and emerging cultural differences

Political events change life and we can perceive these changes in the description of events. In apolitical life stories the most common conflict is between two discourses: the discourse of Latvian national culture, which started to be actively shaped in the end of the 19th century, and the Soviet discourse through which we can see, how after 1940 there was an attempt to change social life on the ideological as well as on the political level and to redefine the perceiving and interpretation of earlier world events.

In the books on the history the Soviet occupation the described change is usually presented as an immediate rearrangement. In many life stories, especially in the stories of apolitical countrywomen, we can see that it is not completely true. For example, in Aina's life story, the Soviet occupation is mentioned only indirectly. For the first time, it appears in the story about a strange dream during the night of May 8, 1945 - three airplanes with flags of the three Baltic States fly towards east. The dream is interpreted as an omen. For the second time, it appears, when in 1949 very high taxes were imposed upon private farms. Aina feels tired of doing all the farm jobs alone and of looking after her four children; therefore she decides to join the kolkhoz. Actually she perceives changes only in the economical and social level, and not in the political level. This means that during the first five years after the war people tried to arrange their life as it used to be before the wartime and the Soviet regime did not affect all lives so, that it would have been significantly perceivable. The Soviet regime forced the Latvian population to join the imposed order in 1949 with its violence (deportations and enormous taxes).

Further Anna's story shows, how the Soviet regime altered all the country life. The absurdity of the work during the first years of collective farming was something unbelievable to me. Expropriated stock mostly died of starvation, yet planted grain was often left to the fields. Aina wonders - was it so because of the lack of motivation or just out of stupidity? The arrangement of collective work was very poor and an individual's opportunity to take initiative was equal to zero. Most of the houses were abandoned by their previous owners and new inhabitants, like Aina, were often unable to take appropriate care for the buildings. We can see, how owing to collectivisation the previously moderate welfare of the countryside was seriously damaged in a relatively short time. At the same time Aina talks about her work in the kolkhoz - whenever possible she worked as she had used to work for herself.

From the described events and conditions of life we can see, that it took approximately ten years to establish more or less satisfactory life. Only then it was possible to get one's monthly salary in cash, and one was allowed to leave the kolkhoz. During the first years of collective farming salary was paid once a year and in grain. Leaving the kolkhoz was possible only with the permission of the plenum. As if being a slave, Aina noted. The teller stresses the necessity to learn to work collectively, especially to organise the collective work in a short time.

Private work was still an important source of income. Especially the older generation remained faithful to the values and traditions that they had been used to consider the most important. Private cattle breeding was still what helped to survive in the countryside. And traditions were more or less maintained. For example, in Aina's life story concerning the Soviet period the episode of confirmation of one of her daughters plays important role - Aina tells that this was the only happy day in her life at that period. All neighbours took part in preparing and celebrating the event.

The Soviet regime destroyed the welfare of the country regions and changed the courses of lives, but in several cases it could not alter the symbolic categories through which the reality was perceived and interpreted. Maybe for many people maintaining the established world outlook and values was the only way to cope with the new situation.



The focus on life stories of apolitical women of the older generation allowed me to speak about the reflection of social changes in the life story, but not about the changes in cultural patterns and values. This confirms the earlier notions of culture researchers that in spite of the change in the social space, the values for one generation remain the same (Thorsen 2001). (1)

The temporal-spatial background of apolitical life stories seems to be rather independent from the temporal-spatial arrangement of political history. The plot of a life story is organised according to human and not political points of reference and through the relationships between deeply personal events.

Through the domain of art we have traditionally encountered life stories, where the story connects with the culture of the society mainly through the dilemmas of individual life and interpersonal relationships. The apolitical construction of these life stories can remind us of some basic aspects of every individual's life and also it inspires to look for an answer to traditional questions of oral history - how historical is private life? How private is history?



Portelli, Alessandro 1998. Oral history as genre. - Chamberlain, Mary (ed.). Narrative and genre. London, Routledge.

Riessman, C. K. 1993. Narrative analysis. Sage Publications.

Skultans, Vieda 1998. The Testimony of Lives. London, Routledge.

Thompson, Paul 1988. The Voice of the Past. Oral History. New York, Oxford.

Thorsen, Liv Emma 2001 = Torsena, Lîva Emma 2001. Biogrâfiskâ metode Norvegijas lauku sieviesu dzîves interpretâcijâ. - Zirnîte, Mâra (sast.). Spogulis. Latvijas mutvârdu vesture. Rîga, lpp. 70-74.


Reference from text:

(1) The lectures by Liv Emma Thorsen during the seminar on the research of oral history organised by the Scientific Academy in Riga in 1995 (see also Torsena = Thorsen 2001). Back