Before I start my presentation I can’t help but mention that my own personal life history is intimately connected to television and radio: my mum worked for the public broadcaster for more than thirty years. I was literally brought up within the walls of radio and TV studios and spent many hours of my childhood observing behind-the-screen work of studio personnel, hypnotised by the magic of screens, sounds and lights.
As you might know, the most dramatic events before the final collapse of Kremlin’s rule in Lithuania revolved, incidentally, around the Public Broadcaster and related institutions such as the Tele-Centre – the TV tower – in Vilnius.1 In their last-ditch attempt to regain control over situation the Soviets resorted to the old teaching by Lenin about the strategic importance of taking control of telecommunications. So they sent tanks and Special Forces to re-claim the once official TV channel. Many hundreds of people met the tanks, determined to resist the occupation. Fourteen people were killed by soviet troopers that night. Eventually, the building of Public Broadcaster fell into the hands of Special Forces and they retained it for two years, but the Soviets never regained power.
I was there that night, in the building, but fortunately I left, together with my mum, several hours before the Soviet Special Forces started their special – and especially bloody – operation. Just to give you an idea of what I unknowingly escaped that night, here is a YouTube clip about how the events unfolded at the television building and elsewhere that night.2
Ironically, the liberation of the occupied building of Public Television two years later coincided with the start of steady fall of the significance and popularity of the public channel. Still, at least as far as historically-themed programmes are concerned, the two channels of the National Broadcaster have been the main suppliers of such programmes up to now.
I have chosen two films and three excerpts to serve as an introduction to my account of the portrayal of history on Lithuanian television channels.
The first clip represents the early stages of post-soviet documentary film-making dedicated to historical topics. It is an excerpt from A Ballad about Daumantas (Baladė apie Daumantą) (Dir. V. V. Landsbergis, BTV, 1995), a film produced by one of the privately-owned TV channels, BTV. The director of this film happens to be a son of one of the leaders of the Lithuanian version of Velvet Revolution, Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis.
The clip illustrates a then prevalent tactics, practised by many, of juxtaposing the false narratives of soviet propaganda with the then newly de-classified images witnessing bloody repressions of the Soviet occupational regime. Typically, the director lets the images “speak for themselves”, relying on their supposed capacity for evidence as well as the rhetorical power of his juxtaposition method. Curiously, similar images of a fierce conductor presiding over the passive and massive choir at the national song festival, which in this clip conveys, of course, the sense of Stalinist manipulation and exploitation of repressed masses of people, has been recurrent in the representations of Baltic velvet revolutions as well, which are also known as “singing revolutions” because the people of Baltic countries expressed their will for sovereignty by singing a lot.3
So my point is that in the actual fact the images do not speak for themselves, or if they do, they say (or sing) many contradictory things at once: thus, the image of a choir conductor may simultaneously signify both: Stalin(ism) and the people’s sovereign will. I even would go so far as to suggest that it can be read, “anachronistically”, as a nice allegory of the manipulations of democracy that post-soviet countries were going to face.
The second clip is from the same film. Here, contrasting is also used as a means to reveal a personal story behind the impersonal history. A woman, speaking from her home in France, tells the tragic story of her marriage to an anti-Soviet resistance fighter who loved his country as much as, or more than, his wife. The charming photos of a young lady are contrasted with the images of elderly women in a small town, to emphasize the personal sacrifice and patriotic dedication of the film’s main protagonist, the heroic resistance fighter who had to leave his wife immediately after their marriage and was killed on the mission. Again, as in the previous example, this fable of the past can be related to the present and the (then) future as an allegorical comment on the sacrificial ideology of nationalism (or perhaps even on the ascetic discipline of capitalist “growth”).
The third clip represents more recent trends in the audiovisual non-fictional representation of history. It is an excerpt from a film (“The Soviet Hit Men”, Dir. J.Öhman, Lithuania/Sweden, 2008, aired on LTV1 in 2008 and 2009) dealing with the same topic: the armed anti-Soviet resistance; however, this time, and for the first time, an attempt was made to complicate the usual black-and-white portrayal of the historical period at issue. The author of the film is a Swede, not Lithuanian, so he “could afford it”, I mean, he could afford to deal with this topic more freely. He chose to interview witnesses on how the Soviets managed to suppress the armed resistance movement. They did that, it appears, by infiltrating it with their own double agents. The author of the film has been accused of defiling the memory of resistance fighters, who are usually portrayed as spotless heroes, and of giving the floor to criminals, i.e. former special agents.
Interestingly, professional historians soon followed the suit and started to question the idealised image of post-war guerrilla fighters.4 This was a rare case when historical film-making outdid professional historiography in “courage”. Besides, what this example reveals is what I would term structural reasons that compel the public and experts alike to keep returning to this period in country’s history, including the phenomenon of armed anti-Soviet resistance. Infiltration, doubling (of agents), and betrayals, even staging of killings, as practised by Soviet special agencies (and documented in Öhman’s film) – all of this makes the very ground upon which the discourse of political and national “identity” hopes to base itself very shaky indeed.
Television in Lithuania was introduced in 1957.5 The country was then a Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the fifteen subordinate republics of the Soviet Union. Television was a Soviet State monopoly, and the local television “committees” of individual republics were subordinated to the central broadcasting authority in Moscow, itself in charge of the Central Television Channel broadcasting to all fifteen republics.6
The daily broadcast time of the television channel of Soviet Lithuania was much shorter, and its programme less popular, than that of the Central Channel of Soviet Television.
The Lithuanian programme included a large portion of TV production and films in Russian language, with the remainder consisting of locally produced programmes in Lithuanian language, including, for instance, Russian animation for children dubbed into Lithuanian.7
After Lithuania regained independence in 1990, it took quite a while before the first privately-owned television channel, TV 3, came into existence (1993). BTV was launched in 1993, with LNK following the suit in 1995.
Today the Lithuanian television sector is divided up among the channels operated by the state-owned public broadcaster LRT (operating two national public television channels, LTV1 and LTV2) and several private groups.8 The two leading commercial channels are TV3 and LNK. TV3 along with its satellite channels is owned by the Swedish Modern Times Group. LNK and BTV are owned by local business conglomerates.
TV3 has retained the market leader positions for a long time. The state-owned channels’ market share has been steadily shrinking. A number of new channels were launched in 2007. In 2008, the old-timer BTV acquired a strong competitor in the guise of a newcomer, “Lietuvos rytas.TV”, a new project of one of Lithuania’s leading news media publishers, “Lietuvos rytas“.
Viasat (Modern Times Group) operates the only satellite platform available in Lithuania. Lithuania’s first nationwide commercial digital terrestrial television package has been offered by the Swedish-Finnish TEO LT (TeliaSonera). TeliaSonera dominates the IPTV market.
The switchover to all-digital is supposed to begin in Lithuania in 2012.
The high time of historical programming is obviously over on Lithuanian TV channels, considering the fact that presently none of them has special programmes on history. This was not the case during the period from 1990 to 1995 which saw hundreds of films and programmes dealing with history.
For the past 18 years, the national public broadcaster, LRT, has retained the monopoly of producer of historical programmes on the Lithuanian air, whereas the three major commercial channels, LNK, TV3 and BTV, have taken the risk of including historically-themed programmes only occasionally. Still, one of the most ambitious recent audiovisual projects on history was undertaken by the private LNK channel (more on this below).9
During soviet times the only “national” TV channel in Lithuania was a state-controlled television channel that broadcast an assigned portion of programmes in Lithuanian and Russian languages. It enjoyed less popularity than the Central Soviet Television Channel (broadcasting in Russian).
Historical programmes and films during soviet times were supposed to serve propagandist interests of the central authorities in Moscow. The representation of history, especially the events of WWII and subsequent geopolitical divisions, was exploited by soviet propaganda as a means of supporting the legitimising myths and narratives of the Soviet rule. This is one of the reasons why there where so many historical films and programmes on Soviet TV, including local TV channels of individual Soviet republics. Despite their ideological “assignments”, many of the films made during soviet times have retained some documentary and artistic value.10
Naturally, after Lithuania regained independence in 1990, filmmakers and TV producers rushed to denounce soviet propaganda myths in their productions.11 They considered their task to consist in reconstructing the history of the nation distorted by the propaganda. Documentary productions of last 18 years or so focused mainly on interwar and post-war periods in the history of the country.
Subjects given a great deal of attention have included the Stalinist deportations of Lithuanian people to Siberia as well as other repressive measures of Soviet government, the fates of deported people, armed resistance against the Soviet occupation, the cultural and political life of pre-war Lithuania, as well as histories of landed property objects once owned by famous landowners. As the most sensitive topics touched upon in these programmes and films one can list Lithuanian-Polish and Lithuanian-Russian relations. The tragedy of Lithuanian Jews has always been something of a taboo, despite the heroic attempts by several filmmakers and TV producers to approach it in audiovisual terms.12
Very often filmmakers and especially TV producers have resorted to forms of biographical narrative, presumably not for the love of it, but because of the cost-effectiveness of this way of presenting historical materials.13
One historical TV programme in particular, hosted by the channel 1 (LTV1) of the public broadcaster, has enjoyed an exceptional popularity amongst all kinds of audiences, despite criticisms raised by professional historians. It was entitled “Būtovės slėpiniai” (1993-2004), a title difficult to translate because of its use of archaisms; roughly, it means “The hidden record of the past”.
The programme employed two leading academic historians, one supposedly representing the “old school” of historical studies and the older generation of academics, and the other standing for the younger generation of history scholars.14 The whole programme was staged as a dialogue between the two historians. It was devoted almost exclusively to the Middle Ages period of Lithuanian history. Although dominated by “talking heads”, the programme occasionally included visual illustrations or reports about the historians’ visits to the memorial places related to the topics under discussion.
The authors of the programme declared at the outset their intention to debunk the “romantic imagery” of the past, especially myths about the Pagan Lithuania (or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that used to be the largest country in Europe).15 Despite the programme’s success, it was criticised for its narrow range of views and topics presented. Attempts were made to broaden the discussion by involving a bigger number of interlocutors. Eventually, the programmes of this type (and the authors of “Būtovės Slėpiniai” in particular) were relegated to the channel 2 of LRT (LTV2), which specialises in “cultural” programmes (very narrowly defined) and enjoys very low audience ratings, before disappearing from the air altogether.
A more complicated narrative frame is exemplified by such films as the one telling the story of the “amber route” (“Gintaro kelias” [Amber Road], Dir. A.Barysas, 2005). The film traces the movement of amber and its products from the then-territory of Lithuania to the cities of Ancient Rome. It departs from the historical tale about the emperor Nero-led expedition to the Baltic Sea region in a search for amber in the 1st century AC. The authors of the film attempted an ambitious research comprising several countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Italy and Russia. The director of the film explained he was intrigued by the historical tales about Romans’ encounter with “barbarians” (i.e. peoples of the Baltic region).16 Such method of presenting historical data, however, is an exception rather than a trend in the landscape of Lithuanian television and documentary filmmaking.
Speaking of public responses, worth mentioning is the case of a film on the inter-war and post-war armed resistance against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania and the suppression of the resistance movement by Soviet Special Forces, entitled “The Soviet Hit Man” (2008), by a Swedish author, Jonas Öhman. The film stood out from the mass of the production concerning this period of recent history, in that it presented an interpretation of the events by a “foreigner”, who attempted an exploration of the situation of Lithuanian partisans who were caught by the Soviet Special Troops (“hit men”) and forced to collaborate with the Soviet side in chasing the remainder of resistance fighters. This film provoked angry reactions by some viewers and public commentators for its alleged “defiling” of the memory of partisan fighters.17
The very fact that even a modest attempt to complicate or nuance the standardised historical narrative can provoke such negative reactions says a lot not just about the relative poverty of the local scene of history representation, but also about the relationship and expectations of at least some segment of viewers towards historical audiovisual production. In this particular case, it appears that the interpretation by a “foreign” author is perceived as disturbance of the still waters of the national canon.
Although the absolute majority of historical programmes on Lithuanian TV channels are characterised by a degree of nostalgic tone18, a distinct genre of “nostalgist” audiovisual narrative can be identified. It appears to have a firm and loyal constituency amongst audiences because it has retained its positions on the air for a long time and in spite of all the turmoil around. Examples of this genre include a programme on Lithuania’s small towns (“Mūsų miesteliai”, LTV1, since 198919), where the team of authors visit the places they are talking about and interview local inhabitants. Typically, the history told ends with the last partisan fighter killed by the Soviet Special Troops. The more recent soviet past of a particular town is rarely considered part of the history worth telling.
Another example of “nostalgist’’ history telling is the programme entitled “Signs of time” (“Laiko ženklai”, since 1999, previously hosted by LTV1, now on BTV), presented in a mournful tone by a woman in black.20 Typically, the presenter is shown standing or walking against the background of a landscape when evening is coming or, alternatively, sitting in a library with a manuscript in her hand. The programme’s interlocutors very often include right-wing politicians, and the range of topics touched upon rarely oversteps the inter-war period.
Arguably the most ambitious TV project on history in the last 18 years was a fifteen part documentary series entitled “The Secret Archives of 20th Century” (XX amžiaus slaptieji archyvai, LNK, 2004-7), aired on the second most popular private television channel LNK. The series was advertised as the first documentary TV series about the modern history of Lithuania.21 It was simultaneously aired on two smaller channels (TV1 and INFO TV). The series were subsequently released in DVD format, in two sets (amounting to 16 hours). Encouraged by the success of the project, the authors later published a book based on the materials of the TV series.22
The series resulted from collaboration between a TV journalist, G. Sviderskytė, and an academic historian, A. Anušauskas, who in the meantime has established himself as a prominent representative of Lithuanian Conservative Party and was appointed as the Head of Parliamentary Committee for State Security. No wonder that the public presentation of the DVD set of TV series was hosted by the Ministry of National Defence (sic!).
“The Secret Archives of 20th Century” has been praised for its “creative” approach to the subject matter. The authors described their work as a “collection of detective stories”.23 The series employed all the mandatory means of “modern” audiovisual history treatment, including (besides the sensationalist tone) re-enactments of significant historical episodes by actors (including half a hundred real troopers). Filming took place, besides Lithuania, in eight countries, including Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Russia, Germany, Britain, United States and Israel.
With a view to becoming a national best-seller, the authors chose to deal with the “most dramatic” moments of the country’s history in 20th century, such as “the last hours of the Cabinet”, i.e. events leading to the subversion of Lithuanian government and annexation of Lithuania by the Soviets. Many episodes of the series were based on research conducted specially for this project. Newly excavated materials allowed the authors to exploit the obscurities of the past for the sake of “detection” effect.
Despite its ambitions, “The Secret Archives of 20th Century”, although indisputably setting a new standard for Lithuanian audiovisual history-telling, has not achieved much in terms of problem-raising approach that would complicate he very frame of historical narrative. In this respect it did not managed to surpass some more modest previous projects, such as “The Soviet Hit Men” mentioned above. As confirmed by the authors themselves, “The Secret Archives of 20th Century” was to confirm “the patriotic values”, instead of problematising the discourse on which those values depend for their reproduction.
By way of a summary one can say that during the years of regained independence Lithuanian TV producers and filmmakers have tended to avoid potentially controversial topics in (or approaches to) history.24 Even “sensationalist” ways of presenting historical materials have just recently found their way on the Lithuanian air. Authors of TV programmes as well as filmmakers prefer “safe” topics such as biographies or histories of famous families and their “great services to the country”. A natural consequence of such preferences is too personalised a way of presenting historical events, neglecting more complicated socio-political determinations.
Off-screen voice-over is still omnipresent, and rare attempts to introduce a more poly-vocal approach to the national history canon have been met with hostility by the public and “experts” alike. The visual aspect of history programmes is characterised by static illustrations such as portraits, heraldic symbols etc. The most common method of “historical research” remains interview or visiting places under discussion.
As has been argued by those academic historians who have taken interest in audiovisual representation of history by Lithuanian authors, insofar as most films and TV programmes made since the declaration of country’s independence were concerned with promoting and re-affirming the nationalist narrative centred around The Nation as its main protagonist, and around The State as the essential form of the Nation’s self-expression, natural subjects of the focus of such productions have been the historical origins of national self-consciousness, the formation of the State, the loss of sovereignty, and the many Golgothas before the restoration of the independence.25 More problematically, these tales have been told in a linear fashion, supported by a mono-logic voice-over, such that no alternative perspectives and no questioning of the “origins” of the very truth transmitted this way is allowed.
Solomonas Atamukas, “The hard long road toward the truth: On the sixtieth anniversary of the Holocaust in Lithuania”, LITUANUS, Volume 47, No. 4 – Winter 2001, http://www.lituanus.org/2001/01_4_03.htm.
Alfredas Bumblauskas, “Vizualinė istorija: koncepcijos paieškos atnaujintos istorikos ir dramaturgijos kontekstuose” [Visual history: in search for a conception in the contexts of renewed history-writing and dramaturgy], Istoriografija ir atvira visuomenė [Historiography and Open Society], Vilnius, 1998, pp. 306-323.
Auksė Balčytienė; Kristina Juraitė, “Impact of Economic and Cultural Factors on Television Production in Small Nations”, Medij. istraž. (god. 15, br. 2) 2009, pp. 33-47,
Vilma Cingiene; Skaiste Laskiene, “A Revitalized Dream: Basketball and National Identity in Lithuania“, International Journal of the History of Sport, Volume 21, Issue 5, November 2004 , pp. 762-779.
Rasa Čepaitienė, “Sovietmečio atmintis – tarp atmetimo ir nostalgijos” [Remembering the soviet past: Between rejection and nostalgia], Lituanistica, vol. 53 (2007), N 4(72), pp. 36-50.
“Gintaro kelias”, http://arvydasbarysas.wordpress.com/gintaro-kelias/.
“January Events (Lithuania)”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/January_Events_(Lithuania).
Dovid Katz, “On Three Deﬁnitions: Genocide; Holocaust Denial; Holocaust Obfuscation”, www.holocaustinthebaltics.com/2009SeptDovidKatz3Definitions.pdf.
Sergei A. Muratov, “Soviet Television and the Structure of Broadcasting Authority”, Journal of Communication, Vol. 41, Issue 2, 1991, pp. 172-84.
“Ne tik laiko ženklai” [Not only the signs of time], Atgimimas, November 3-9, 2006, N 41 (914), http://www.atgimimas.lt/articles.php?id=1162483555.
“Nijolė Baužytė: Lietuvos miesteliuose nebėra kam gyventi” [N. Baužytė: “There is no one to live in Lithuania’s townships any more”], http://www.bernardinai.lt/straipsnis/2010-02-22-nijole-bauzyte-lietuvos-miesteliuose-nebera-kam-gyventi/40833.
Henry Norr, “National languages and Soviet television: A statistical report”, Nationalities Papers, Volume 13, Issue 1 Spring 1985, pp. 84-105.
“[part 3] January Events (Lithuania) 1991 January 11”, http://youtu.be/vO-RIyHlwv8.
Roma Pauraitė-Puplauskienė, LTV filmai ir jų kūrėjai [Lithuanian Public TV’ s films and their authors], Vilnius: Algimantas, 2009.
Žygintas Pečiulis, Televizija: istorija, teorija, technologija, žurnalistika [Television: History, theory, technology, and journalism], Vilnius: LRT leidybos centras, 1997.
Mindaugas Pocius, Kita mėnulio pusė: Lietuvos partizanų kova su kolaboravimu 1944-1953 metais [The other side of the moon: Anti-Soviet resistance fighters’ fight against collaboration, 1944-53], Vilnius: Lietuvos istorijos institutas [The Institute of Lithuania’s History], 2009.
“Rytas Narvydas. Kita „Smogikų“ interpretacija” [R. Narvydas: A different interpretation of the Hit Men], http://www.bernardinai.lt/straipsnis/2009-05-28-rytas-narvydas-kita-smogiku-interpretacija/3113.
“Per LNK – naujos„XX amžiaus slaptųjų archyvų“ dalys” [LNK presents new parts of the Secret Archives of 20th Century], http://www.lnk.lt/index;news;show,id.3,item.212.
“Slaptieji archyvai”, http://youtu.be/P2nbYCBeyig.
Benjamin Smith, “Getting the Killers’ and Collaborators’ Faces on Film: Lithuanian filmmaker Saulius Berzinis Records Not the Victims for Posterity, but the Ones Who Pulled the Triggers”, Forward, July 20, 2001, http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-79269960.html.
Rūta Šermukšnytė, “Lietuvos istorija dokumentiniame kine ir televizijoje. Diskurso konstravimo ypatybės” [Lithuanian history in cinema and on television: Peculiarities of discourse construction], Lietuvos istorijos studijos, Vol. 14 (2005), pp. 114-129.
Rūta Šermukšnytė, “Nuo reprodukcijos prie revizijos: tautos atminties kūrimo dinamika 1988-2005 metais Lietuvos dokumentiniame kine ir televizijoje” [From reproduction to revision: the dynamics of the production of the nation’s memory in Lithuanian documentary cinema and TV production (1988-2005)], Nacionalinio tapatumo tęstinumas ir savikūra eurointegracijos sąlygomis [Self-construction and the continuity of national identity in the process of Euro-integration], eds. A. Andrijauskas et al., Vilnius: Kronta, 2008, pp. 258-275.
Rūta Šermukšnytė, “Audiovizualinės istoriografijos atvejis Lietuvoje: televizijos laida „Būtovės slėpiniai“ [A case study of audiovisual historiography in Lithuania: Television programme “Būtovės slėpiniai”], Lietuvos istorijos studijos, vol. 20 (2007), pp. 8499.
Rūta Šermukšnytė, “Tautos atminties vaizdai: vizualinis XX amžiaus Lietuvos istorijos stereotipizavimas Lietuvos dokumentikoje” [Views of the nation’s memories: a stereotyped vision of the Lithuanian history of the 20th century in Lithuanian documentary films], Lietuvos istorijos studijos, Vol.15 (2005), pp.81-9.
“The Singing Revolution”, http://youtu.be/CVYqFPq88VU.
“TV market in Lithuania” (MAVISE, Database of TV companies and TV channels in the European Union and candidate countries), http://mavise.obs.coe.int/country?id=19.
Skirmantas Valiulis, “Kinas, istorija ir ideologiniai kontekstai” [Cinema, history and ideological contexts], Lietuvos sovietinė istoriografija: teoriniai ir ideologiniai kontekstai [Lithuanian soviet historiography: theoretical and ideological contexts], eds. A. Bumblauskas, N. Šepetys, Vilnius: Aidai, 1999, pp. 255-71.
“XX amžiaus slaptųjų archyvų komanda švenčia pabaigtuves” [The team of the Secret Archives of 20th Century is celebrating a merry-making”], http://www.vtv.lt/naujienos/filmai/xx-amziaus-slaptuju-archyvu-komanda-svencia-pabaigtuves-v-3.html.
2 “[part 3] January Events (Lithuania) 1991 January 11”, http://youtu.be/vO-RIyHlwv8
6 Cf. Sergei A. Muratov, “Soviet Television and the Structure of Broadcasting Authority“, Journal of Communication, Vol. 41, Issue 2, 1991, pp. 172-84.
23 “Per LNK – naujos„XX amžiaus slaptųjų archyvų“ dalys” [LNK presents new parts of the Secret Archives of 20th Century], http://www.lnk.lt/index;news;show,id.3,item.212
25 Rūta Šermukšnytė, “Tautos atminties vaizdai: vizualinis XX amžiaus Lietuvos istorijos stereotipizavimas Lietuvos dokumentikoje” [Views of the nation’s memories: a stereotyped vision of the Lithuanian history of the 20th century in Lithuanian documentary films], Lietuvos istorijos studijos, Vol.15 (2005), p. 84.