The Strategies of Escapism in the Homo Sovieticus Reality: Art in Cultural and Geographical Periphery of Soviet Latvia


This article is focused on the question of cultural practices and artistic strategies that
were implemented by artists in Latvia in the late socialist period. In order to seek for
more autonomy and alternative forms of creativity in the atheist and ideologically
permeated state and social structures, artists in Latvia explored the opportunities to
engage in art and cultural practices that differed from the dogmatic canon of Socialist
Realism. In this way, they created a parallel reality where they could distance
themselves from the absurd Homo Sovieticus world and remain immune against
indoctrination and internalisation of Soviet values. However, it is also problematic to
draw the boundaries between the official and the non-official art. The task of
contemporary art historians is thus to revise history and contextualise deviations from
Socialist Realism, which despite the control and censorship, did manage to co-exist in
parallel with the official domain.

Keywords: non-official art, Homo Sovieticus, performance art, escapism, late
socialist period, Latvia

Research challenges

The late socialist period is challenging in terms of research, since it is a rather recent
past and historiography still has many gaps. Moreover, several researchers have
noticed many problematic assumptions in discussing the late socialist period. For
example, Alexei Yurchak, professor in anthropology at the University of California,
Berkeley, points out that these assumptions include the following: socialism was ‘bad’
and ‘immoral’ and binary categories are used to describe Soviet reality as “oppression
and resistance, repression and freedom, the state and the people, official economy and second economy, official culture and counterculture, totalitarian language and
counterlanguage, public self and private self, truth and lie, reality and dissimulation,
morality and corruption” (Yurchak 2005, 5). Some researchers, such as Irina Uvarova and Kirill Rogov, have suggested that the
Soviet culture can be divided into censored and uncensored (Yurchak 2005, 6).

According to Yurchak, this terminology highlights the ambivalence of cultural
production in the Soviet Union; however “it still reduces Soviet reality to a binary
division between the state (censored) and the society beyond it (uncensored), failing
to account for the fact that many of the cultural phenomena in socialism that were
allowed, tolerated, or even promoted within the realm of the officially censored were
nevertheless quite distinct from the ideological texts of the Party” (Yurchak 2005, 5).
It can be argued that these binary categories originated under the conditions of the
Cold War, “when the entity of ‘the Soviet bloc’ had been articulated in opposition to
‘the West’” (Yurchak 2005, 7) resulting in “many metaphors that set a sort of
dichotomy between ‘us-them’, according to the dominance of the two empires: the
USA and the USSR” (Banaszkiewicz et al 2016, 110).


If Western Europe was separated from the Soviet sphere of influence with the ‘Iron
Curtain’, Latvia, along with the other two Baltic States – Lithuania and Estonia –, as
well as today’s Ukraine and Belarus were in the area of the Soviet Union
infrastructure, where Moscow’s sphere of influence in terms of ideology, politics,
economy and culture was the most evident. The so-called Satellite States – Poland,
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany – were further to the
West and enjoyed greater political or economic freedom (Banaszkiewicz et al 2016,
110). Therefore, when carrying out research of the historical and political context in
the previous Soviet bloc (also called ‘Eastern bloc’) countries, the heterogeneity and
diversity of the region must be acknowledged to avoid superficial simplifications.
Moreover, as stated by Magdalena Banaszkiewicz, associate professor in intercultural
studies at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, and Nelson Graburn, professor in
sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, “it is very
insofar significant that for many years mainly Western researchers wrote about the
events happening behind the Iron Curtain. There was actually no account ‘from the
inside’, which would reach wider reception” (Banaszkiewicz et al 2016, 110). Local
researchers coming from East-Central Europe “constitute an interesting and important counterpoint to the research from the Anglo-Saxon perspective” (Banaszkiewicz et al
2016, 110), and such heteroglossia is crucial to achieve more objective research
results examining the very complex historical and political context in the socialist

It must be noted, though, the socialist period has not been thoroughly examined in the
art discourse locally. According to Latvian art critic Vilnis Vējš, this period “was
characterised by massive control of society and personal life in which every form of
expression, including creativity, had a set place” (Vējš 2010, 25), whereas Elita
Ansone writes that “the Soviet era conjures up negative emotions. That is why we
have done little work in relation to Socialist Realism since the restoration of Latvia’s
independence in 1991” (Ansone 2009, 66). These a priori negative emotions also
cause a problem in the research of art history: “In general terms, the art of Socialist
Realism has been seen as something that was bad, political, commissioned, literary,
natural, not really artistic – something, in short, which has nothing to do with ‘good
art’” (Ansone 2009, 66). In the neighbouring country Estonia a book entitled Lost
Eighties was published in 2010 by the Center of Contemporary Arts. In the foreword
art historian Sirje Helme writes that “the eighties have been dealt with the least. It has
been a popular notion that the eighties were a time when nothing happened;
everything was stamped upon by the strict heel of stagnation and if anything was
happening, it was probably a clone of the ideas and achievements of the previous
decades” (Helme 2010, 5). This approach is not productive in terms of analyzing the
diversity, versatility and plurality of heterogeneous genres, movements and directions,
which developed in this period beyond the dogmas of Socialist Realism – the
dominant aesthetic theory and practice in the Soviet Union, which “in itself [is]
increasingly hard to define” (Bužinska 2010, 26).

It cannot be denied that “the Soviet system produced tremendous suffering,
repression, fear and lack of freedom” (Yurchak 2005, 8), but “what tends to get lost in
the binary accounts is the crucial and seemingly paradoxical fact that, for great
numbers of Soviet citizens, many of fundamental values, ideals, and realities of
socialist life (such as equality, community, selflessness, altruism, friendship, ethical
relations, safety, education, work, creativity, and concern for the future) were of
genuine importance” (Yurchak 2005, 8). Neringa Klumbyte, professor in
anthropology at the Miami University, USA, points out that “this period is also different because of gradual societal changes, such as liberalization of the social order
and moves away from the revolutionary values of asceticism, collectivism, and
proletarianism, that prepared people for the coming state-initiated shift toward regime
liberalization in the mid- and late-1980s” (Klumbyte 2013, 3). Therefore, modern-day
researchers have the challenging task to reconstruct the ethical and aesthetic
complexities of socialist life, and “the challenge of such a task is to avoid a priori
negative accounts of socialism without falling into the opposite extreme of
romanticizing it” (Yurchak 2005, 9-10).

As regards this period in the historiography of Latvia, it is an important task for the
modern-day researchers to analyze the 1960s–1980s period, because after the
independence of Latvia was restored in the 1990s the research of this historical period
nearly stopped and it could be explained with the hierarchy of priorities (Ivanovs
2007, 30). The historians mostly paid attention to the painful and tragic events in the
history of Latvia – the occupation of Latvia, repressive politics implemented by the
German and Soviet Union occupation regimes, and sovietization of Latvia; however,
the 1960s-1980s period was not a research priority (Ivanovs 2007: 31). Scholars who
included late socialism in their works usually associated this period with ‘stagnation’
– a time when there was relatively no change in the economy, society, or politics,
whereas the revolutionary and the Stalinist periods seemed more captivating than the
era of relative stability (also explained by the opening of Soviet archives and new
opportunities to revisit the Soviet past) (Klumbyte 2013, 2). The situation has slightly
changed since 2014, when a special Government Commission for the KGB Research
was established in Latvia. In the period from 2015 to 2018 the Commission published
five volumes of 13 scholarly articles and reports dedicated to the research of the
totalitarian regime and its chief government agency – the Committee for State
Security (the KGB) – based on the available archive documents.

Latvian historian Daina Bleiere explains that the subject of repressions and the
manifestations of political power exercised by Moscow – the totalitarian model – is
popular in Latvian post-Soviet historiography because in Latvia, as well as in Estonia
and Lithuania, “the Soviet regime was forced from outside, so the anti-Communist
and anti-Soviet perspective reflects not only a purely normative attitude – the Soviet
regime was brutal and bad – but also a view on the Soviet regime as an outside force
that had no roots in Latvia and that had failed to conquer Latvian affection. Relations between the centre (Moscow) and the periphery (Riga), as well as the relations
between society and power structures are perceived as distinctly vertical, forced and
asymmetric” (Bleiere 2012, 33).

In this context, it is also very problematic to use the sources written in the 1960s-
1980s period, because they were ideologically biased and apologetic of the Soviet
regime, since the meaning and content of the Soviet politics were interpreted as the
increase of welfare, development of economics and culture, etc. When examining the
history and historiography of the late Soviet period, a critically new research approach
is needed, asking new questions and providing new perspectives. It can be questioned
whether the late Soviet socialism can only be understood and explained in “orientalist
idioms, namely, as backward, oppressive, irrational and immoral” (Klumbyte 2013,
2), or the change of paradigm is needed in order to obtain a more detailed image of
this sociocultural phenomena (opposed to the cliché of a Cold War dichotomy). Since
the overlooked or misunderstood phenomena need to be re-addressed and the
established views must be questioned and, if possible, re-interpreted, legitimate
historical revisionism must be carried out. 

The borderline between the official and non-official art

The ‘official’ art of many socialist countries was Socialist Realism: “Socialist
Realism replaced the heterogeneous artistic endeavours of the Russian avant-garde
and became the dominant aesthetic theory and practice in the Soviet Union. Social
realist art proclaimed an antiformalist politics of representation that propagated the
building of socialism and the performative creation of reality not yet existent but in
the making” (Cseh-Varga, Czirak 2018, 2). In essence, Socialist Realism tried to
“represent the Communist future with the means of traditional academic painting,
combined with photographically or cinematographically inspired imagery” (Groys
2003, 59). Although Socialist Realism had become the official doctrine in the early
1930s, in Latvia, for example, it became the official style only in the late 1940s after
Latvia’s annexation to the USSR. Those artists who conformed to the doctrine, were
supported by the state through the Artists’ Union and regularly received offers to
carry out commissioned works. In the first decades of the Soviet period, the
exhibitions were Sovietized and “collections on display at the state museum were censored, and works found objectionable were banished to the storerooms, replaced
by either Socialist Realist exemplars or the traditional realist works freshly
confiscated from private collections of Riga’s bourgeoisie” (Svede 2002, 191).

The art of the late socialist period in Latvia appears to be creative and experimental as
proved by the heterogeneous artistic practices, media, events, etc. However, even if
these activities were more or less tolerated by the state authorities, the political and
economic control of artistic activity under the Soviet system can still be noticed. For
example, those artists, who could be defined as pursuing ‘unofficial’ art, for example,
performance art, were subjected to the mechanisms of oppression imposed by the art
system, since the artists had to survive on the margins of the Soviet system: “Since no
art market, no private galleries, no independent curators, and no revues existed that
were not state funded, it was impossible to enter the usual channels of promotion”
(Erjavec 2003, 21). However, the peripheral position both culturally and
geographically was often preferred by the artists: “The freedom of interpretation, the
plurality of perspectives and the independence from directives of artistic ideology
were the most important motivating factors for underground artists to refuse to
participate in centrally managed art production and instead support themselves and
their art by taking up private jobs” (Cseh-Varga, Czirak 2018, 7).

Therefore, although, at least in Latvia, there were no instances of openly dissident or
political art, the dichotomy between the official and the unofficial art definitely
existed (although with certain fluidity). For example, experiments with photography
and performance art practices stood further away from the official discourse. These
creative practices were not supported by the state cultural institutions and often took
place in the cultural and territorial periphery. Due to this outsider’s or art brut
position, there was no possibility for the performance discourse to establish itself – no
systematic knowledge was accumulated or produced and the information from the
West was obtained sporadically and inconsistently. Consequently, it can be argued
that performance art belonged to ‘subculture’ or ‘alternative culture’, where even the
artists and participants themselves were unsure about the definitions of their activities,
often referring to it as ‘partying’, ‘socializing’ and in the best case ‘non-art’. These
tendencies and processes must be viewed in parallel with the emergence of youth
culture during the 1960s and the alternative developments of the 1970s
(Hyperrealism, sporadic outbursts of Conceptualism, experiments in visual arts). 

To discuss the period of late socialism in the context of art history, of course, one
must take into account the terminology that has been applied to discuss the official art
versus the non-official. The usual terms to describe the underground scene are:
“Oppositional, dissident, alternative, differently minded, parallel, non-conformist,
autonomous or independent” (Eichwede 2011, 20). In the context of Russian art
history it is possible to discuss ‘dissident art’ as a form of political opposition.
However, in the context of Latvian art history the juxtaposition of conformism and
non-conformism (or even semi-non-conformism as proposed by several Baltic art
historians) has been used to explain the deviant manifestations of art, which were not
in accordance of the requirements of the Socialist Realism, but paradoxically
managed to exist, as, for example, the so-called Harsh Style, as well as Hyperrealism
in painting. These deviances have been explained as mutations of Socialist Realism,
as, for example, proposed by Latvian art historian Eduards Kļaviņš. He defines these
mutations as the ‘Socialist Modernism’ and ‘Socialist Post-Modernism’ (Kļaviņš
2009, 103) and proposes that there are certain artworks created during the late
Socialist Realism period, which possess a double code, when “the subject matter
chosen by the artist may have been in line with the iconographic typology which was
forced onto artists by Socialist Realism [..] at the same time being in line with the
artist’s subjective orientation toward a world of democratic images” (Kļaviņš 2009,
106). According to Kļaviņš, “the relevant historical and political context helps us to
explain this double code, but it does not allow us to differentiate with full certainty
between works of art that are clearly in line with political demands and those which
are not. This means that the boundaries of ‘Socialist Modernism’ are frequently
indistinct” (Kļaviņš 2009, 106). This double code was often difficult to decipher,
because artists tended to use visual metaphors and the so-called Aesopian language.
Overall, Socialist Realism as a period in the art discourse in Latvia cannot be regarded
as strictly consistent and homogeneous and should rather be viewed as “a
simultaneously existing, multi-layered body of stylistic trends” (Bužinska 2010, 26).

The synthetic construction of Homo Sovieticus

As indicated by Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, “the concept ‘New Man’ or ‘Soviet
Man’ appeared in the 1920s and 1930s as a postromantic version of the subject of historical changes” (Gudkov 2008, 13). The socialist society had to be built as an
optimistic, classless society by the new human species – Homo Sovieticus. This new
man was a significant model for mass orientations and identities. He was the carrier of
certain values, qualities, and properties, and, accordingly, of a better future. The
Soviet ideologues postulated that the man of the future should place the social and
public interest first, and should share the aims and principles of the communist
ideology by demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of ‘the
future of the country’, ‘the Motherland’, ‘the Party’, and the ‘people’.


In 1932, Maxim Gorky wrote:
“A new type of person is being created in the Soviet Union, his character traits
can be determined with no doubt … He feels himself as the creator of the new
world, his goals depend on his mind and willpower, and therefore he has no
reason for pessimism. He is young not only in terms of his biological age, but
also historically. He is a power that has just realized his path [of life], his
historical significance. He … is led by a simple and clear doctrine” (Gorky
1953, 289).


In Latvia, too, this ideological plan was implemented, first, from 1940 to 1941 and,
later, from the end of World War II until the years of the Soviet occupation until
1991, when state independence was restored. As noted by Latvian art historian Elita
Ansone, socialism and communism were dogmatic systems with their own mythology
based on the hierarchy of signs and symbols, for which, similarly to religion, it was
very difficult to find affirmation in real life, therefore literature, cinematography and
fine arts were regarded as ideal tools to make the Soviet myths, among them the one
on a new type of individual, seem believable, fascinating and inspirational (Ansone
2008, 6-8). The new human type, the positive hero, that the Soviet system was
supposed to produce as a result of indoctrination, collectivization, repression and
social control had to be healthy, athletic, heterosexual, optimistic, selfless, diligent
and patriotic (having a Soviet, rather than a national identity). An article entitled The
New Soviet Man published in the daily newspaper in Latvia in 1940 praised the New
Soviet Man stating that “conscientiousness, cordiality, excitement and modesty are
the main traits that characterize the young Soviet patriots. From their perspective,
domesticity, work and heroism are firmly and clearly defined. Each person is included
in the collective of all Soviet nations” (Anonymous 1940, 4). The positive hero was

also propagandized by Socialist Realism in fine arts, leaving behind numerous
portraits of cultural workers, excellent labourers, war veterans, athletes, militiamen
and representatives of other professions in public service (Ansone 2009, 74).
The positive hero of the Soviet ideology was expected to demonstrate obedience, trust
in the superior authorities, discipline, and responsiveness to the commands of the
regime. These values were needed to ensure the continuity of the totalitarian regime:

“The qualities of the positive hero could be best explained in terms of the
requirements of a totalitarian society, which desires to maximize control over its
citizens. Patriotism and Party-mindedness, anti-individualism, [..] acceptance of
subordination, unquestioning loyalty to leaders, lack of genuine initiative,
obedience, adaptability, susceptibility to shame – all these are qualities, which
facilitate control over the individual” (Hollander 1983, 49).

Control was also manifested through theatrical and performative means in the public
sphere. The public life had to be organized as a constant reminder of the ubiquitous
presence of the state and its power. The concept of state was defined through the
metaphors of family – ‘fatherland’, ‘motherland’, ‘brotherhood’, ‘sisterhood’;
however, it was exercised as a panoptic mechanism of control. The reminders were
implemented in a ceremonial and ritualised form, introducing the new Soviet calendar
with secularised traditions and building the new Soviet identity on a newly
constructed collective memory, whereby military victories and heroes were
commemorated and the narrative of ‘friendly occupation’ was built. After all, it was
crucial that the state maintained the rituals, since the rituals maintained the state. The
duty of the new Soviet man was to express his/her solidarity and passion for
collectivism and to participate in mass demonstrations accompanied by the speeches
of political leaders, applause and demonstrations of military capacity. The
carnivalesque demonstrations were built in the aesthetics of Gesamtkuntswerk or the
total work of art (mass spectacles); there were colonnades of gymnasts, flower
arrangements, posters, flags, etc. Often, the Soviet space programme and the image of
a cosmonaut – the explorer of the Space and a role model of Homo Sovieticus – were
integrated in the visuals of demonstrations. It was important that the youngest
generations participated in the demonstrations, too, in order to reassure society of the
continuity of the ideology and political system. The urban environment became a
stage for the manifestation of power symbols:

“Symbolic dimension of space is both a power issue and a power instrument:
the person who manipulates symbols can also manipulate processes of
identification, and thus have influence over the constitution of the group that
legitimises the exercise of power” (Monnet 2011).

However, it must be noted that the synthetic construction of Homo Sovieticus has not
remained constant from the 1920s until today. Moreover, each Socialist Republic
must be assessed individually. Gudkov writes that the first attempts to provide
evidence of the empirical – rather than the ideological – existence of the individual of
a fundamentally different type than the ideologues postulated appeared at the end of
the 1950s in Russia (Gudkov 2008: 14). Other interpretations followed in the 1970s
and the 1980s offering parodies or transfigurations of the idea of Soviet Man.
Important studies on the existence of the Soviet Man as a sociological phenomenon
were carried out in the late 1980s under the supervision of Russian sociologist and
political scientist Iurii Levada (2003). This contemporary perspective provides a more
critical approach to examine the (de)construction of Homo Sovieticus.
According to Gudkov, Levada and other contemporary Russian researchers, the
Soviet system did shape a new category of human being, but this new human type was
not a strong and convincing role model. On the contrary, it possessed the following
features: he was a mass, very average type, someone who had passively adapted to the
existing social order by lowering the threshold or his level of needs and demands;
Homo Sovieticus was the “ordinary” man with (intellectual, ethical and symbolic)
limitations, who knew no other models and ways of life, because he had to live under
conditions of an isolated and repressed society (Gudkov 2010, 61). Homo Sovieticus
was not allowed to differ, show initiative or strive for innovation – he was morally
and intellectually paralyzed. According to Gudkov, he did not exercise any control
over ruling authority or his own leadership, he was a “supervised man” – supervised
by the ruling authorities on all levels of life (Gudkov 2010, 52).

The counterculture of Homo Sovieticus

Riga in the late socialist period was “a mecca for the Soviet youth counterculture”
(Svede 2004, 232), which included poets, writers, artists, theatre and film enthusiasts,
hippies, etc. They were a “colourful and freethinking generation, who was in search of new artistic language” (Traumane 2010, 34). To escape the dullness of the regulated
and politicised Soviet everyday life, the creative youth gathered in cafes (Kaza or
Goat being the most famous one), where they could socialize, exchange ideas and
discuss the films that they had seen, the music they had listened to and the books that
they had read: “Reading saved us from the dull reality behind the door of Kaza,
[from] the Soviet everyday life – fight for peace, meetings of trade unions, festive
demonstrations of 1 May and the October Revolution” (Zvirgzdiņš 2004). Overall, the
countercultural youth wanted “distance – spatial, mental, and ideological – from the
regime under which they lived” (Fűrst 2017, 3).

For the Soviet counterculture, it was essential to confront the homogenous masses of
proletariat, even if it was merely manifested through fashion and provocative looks.
For example, Maija Tabaka was a young, emerging artist, who was also known as a
free-thinking individual preferring eccentric looks. According to Jānis Borgs, “she
could not go unnoticed” (Borgs 2014: 114) in the dull societal and environmental
background. Borgs refers to Tabaka as an “exotic flower” – an exceptionally beautiful
and elegant woman wearing “silk dresses and shawls, large hats, expressive make-up
and bright red-coloured lips, contrasting with black hair” (Borgs 2014: 114). In the
Soviet period, this kind of a dandy-like attitude was a form of a silent protest and
identity expressed in an aristocratic lifestyle and appearance to provoke the
conservative society (Borgs 2014: 115).

Tabaka herself refers to such performative manifestations as the ‘theatre of life’:

“The dullness of the life in the 1960s was unbelievable. The streets of Riga
were dominated by the insanity of standardization. I wanted to stand out. [..]
Once I wanted to provoke the people on the streets, I put on my Redington
coat and a bowler hat from the 1920s [..] and walked down the former Lenin
Street [..]. Everyone looked back at me, and that was the friendliest attitude.
The reaction of many people was shockingly hostile: I was verbally abused,
men whistled, others run after me, some spat on me. [..] The normal society
could not stand those, who were different. [..] They allegedly embodied
something Western, thus threatening the homogenously faultless society. [..] It
can be said that it was the theatre of life” (Blaua 2010, 49).

Due to the extravagant non-Soviet looks and a free-thinking mindset, as well as overly
Western features in her artwork, Tabaka was excluded from the State Art Academy of
the Latvian SSR in 1961. According to Lancmanis, “her work Pineapple Eaters had
annoyed instructors not just by the subject and unusually bright colouring but, first of
all, by the mood created by the bizarre characters” (Lancmanis 2004, 107). This style
echoed with the Surrealists and was not acceptable to the Soviet ideologues and

Another artist Andris Grinbergs, who was the pioneer of performance art in Latvia,
championed individualism and eccentricity, for example, by strolling on the most
central street in Riga dressed in the clothes that he had designed. As Grinbergs notes:
“Brīvības Street used to be a promenade – people would go there to show themselves
and observe others. In the evenings, I would go by tram to the marketplace on Matīsa
Street, walk down to the Laima clock, stroll around for some time and return home,
because there was nothing else to do” (Grinbergs 2011, 250). This assertion also
speaks of the paralysed creative agency in the Soviet political and economic system.
Unable to express innovation and creativity within the dogmatic canon of Socialist
Realism, the creative youth sought ways to express themselves further away from the
official domain. Moreover, “there was nothing else to do” echoes with the futility of
Soviet life, the sense of uselessness when whatever one does has no practical result.

If such provocative everyday manifestations might seem trivial and unimportant from
today’s point of view, in Riga in the period of late socialism it required a certain
degree of courage to exhibit these manifestations of Western culture and to differ
from the mainstream proletarian population (alas Homo Sovieticus) due to the
involved risk of being arrested: “The strolls along Brīvības Street looked like this: you
would get to the city centre, change clothes in the getaway, stride for a while and off
you would go. It wasn’t like you could loiter all day long – the militia could arrest
you, someone might not have liked your long hair” (Grinbergs 2011, 251). As
indicated by Latvian art historian Māra Traumane, “these poetic games of dressing,
undressing, [and] strolling [..] acquire importance because through them the body and
clothing transformed into a ‘battlefield’ between individual freedoms and social
norms” (Traumane 2010, 35). Moreover, such a ‘masquerade’ was a sign of immunity
against Soviet values and indoctrination of such values, so this everyday performance
can be seen as a political gesture.


However, creativity and improvisation later became the trademarks of Grinbergs’s art.
At the end of the 1960s, when the hippie movement started to emerge in Latvia,
Grinbergs became the flagman of this socially quite bullied subculture, which was
often viewed – especially in Soviet press – with hostility as “a crowd of backsliders
and parasites, infecting our crystal-clear society with a foreign ideology” (Borgs
1989, 9-10). Though Grinbergs is often cited as the leader of the hippie group in Riga,
he denies it, saying that he was “just a visual rendition” and what mattered more to
him than, for example, the hippie ideology, was the excitement about clothes and an
opportunity to dress his friends (Grinbergs 2011, 254). The motto ‘life is a fashion
show’ remained crucial to Grinbergs as a performance artist, too: “I dressed my
models and created an environment, where they could express themselves and which
could to some degree ‘rip’ them out of their masks, turn them into live human beings,
containing more than you see on an everyday basis” (Grinbergs 1992, 2). By “masks”
Grinbergs refers to the double life phenomenon in the Soviet period, which was based
on pretence and artificially constructed identities of Homo Sovieticus. These masks
had to be worn on an everyday basis in the official domain – whether at one’s
workplace, university, school or other institutionalised spaces. With the help of
alternative counterculture there was an opportunity to lead a more authentic lifestyle,
unbiased and non-regulated by ideology.

The hippie movement in Latvia existed – at least in the beginning – without any
canons or ideology, and as it is stated by the former members of this subculture:
“There was curiosity and joy about this opportunity – to live one’s life differently. An
opportunity to wear flamboyant clothes, walk barefoot in the streets of the city, gather
at the Dome Square, sing All you need is love” (Borgs 1989, 9-10). The ideas that
were interwoven in the hippie subculture in the West and mainly in the USA, such as
sexual liberation and opposition to nuclear weapons, resonated with the hippie
movement in Soviet Latvia, too. For example, Grinbergs in one of the interviews in
1992 admits that “at that time there were all those instabilities with the atomic bomb,
and it seemed that you lived for one day, perhaps there was no tomorrow and you had
to live to the maximum” (Grinbergs 1992, 2). Whereas in regard to sexual revolution
Grinbergs states that nudity was a form of protest against the prevailing puritanical
attitudes: “Sexual revolution wasn’t only self-gratification. Its essence was manifested
in the protest against the system, when you didn’t belong to yourself, all your thoughts were regulated, and the only [thing] that you had was your body – you could
do with it anything that you wanted” (Grinbergs 1999, 22-23). When one experiences
a situation of “controlled thoughts”, it means that through constant indoctrination and
other Sovietisation instruments a person has internalised Soviet values and is
disconnected from his/her authentic self. In psychotherapy, such a disconnection is
often seen as trauma. To a certain degree, Soviet experience was traumatic at many
levels, but especially in terms of leading a fake, untrue, and unauthentic life based on
lies, pretence and manipulation.

Performance art as alternative and non-official art

It can be stated that performance art in Latvia developed through the anthropocentric
Hippie movement. First of all, because Grinbergs was a participant of the Hippie
movement, and, second, because the Hippie aesthetics celebrated through nudity and
awareness of non-suppressed sexuality, liberalisation and harmony of nature was
manifested in several performance pieces of Grinbergs. Of course, performance art
was not in any way institutionalised or officially acknowledged discipline. It could
not be studied at the Art Academy or any other educational establishment, and it
lacked any visibility, since it was only implemented in small networks and
microenvironments of friends, acquaintances and family members. There was no
knowledge or understanding of this discipline gained through studying or contributing
to a discourse, and it was practiced rather intuitively – as a form of ‘being’ or
‘lifestyle’. Performance artists and practitioners did not object to their marginal
position in the cultural and geographical periphery, since it allowed them more
freedom in experimentation and an opportunity to create depoliticised and uncensored
art. To draw some parallels, it is intriguing that, for example, pantomime, which was
very close to performance art as a performative art based on non-verbal
communication, was supported by the state ideologues as a form of “Soviet
Esperanto” (Iliev 2014, 219).

One of the performances where the Hippie aesthetics can be noticed in Grinbergs’s
oeuvre is The Green Wedding (1973; with the alternative title Summertime). It was not
the first performance piece by Grinbergs, yet it is a useful example to examine artistic
strategies applied by artists in the cultural and geographical periphery to reflect – even if intuitively – on the (dis)balance between the private and public domains. The
performance piece was entitled The Green Wedding, since the green colour was the
leading motif: there were green clothes for Grinbergs and his wife, and a green cab
that took them from the Old Riga to the greenery in the countryside. This performance
piece started as a post-nuptial procession through the streets of Old Riga following the
official wedding ceremony of the Grinbergs couple at the State Registry Office and
ended in the countryside were the panoptic sight of the KGB could be avoided. As
Grinbergs states, the setting of this happening was “very romantic and hippie – the
horses, swings, grass wreaths, naked bodies” (Grinbergs 2011: 255). Nudity, a self-
evident norm and a form of liberation was a prominent element of creation, too, since
the totalitarian body of Homo Sovieticus needed to be freed from all the restrictions
and ideological burdens. To Grinbergs, the body was “the only zone of freedom”
(Grinbergs 2011: 257).

However, not only the Hippie aesthetics and philosophy were manifested in this
performance piece, but also blurred boundaries between art and life, as well as the
official and non-official. By integrating an event of private life – a wedding ceremony
– in the work of art, Grinbergs artistically deformed Soviet reality, because wedding
ceremonies in Soviet social life could only be implemented in the state-controlled
sphere and institutions. Also, by improvising the celebration and carrying it out as a
performance piece, as well as expanding the boundaries of the private event to the
realm of art, Grinbergs raised the question of ‘doubleness’, which can be interpreted
as dichotomy of the public versus the real or the authentic. In Grinbergs’s case, it
could be the role of an obedient and conformist Soviet citizen – Homo Sovieticus, on
the one hand, and the role of a non-conformist artist expressing himself in
performance art, on the other. In one of the interviews Grinbergs also mentions this
dramatic aspect of doubleness in his life and art: “Of course, I have often thought that
the entire life is a theatre and all that we get depends on how good we play our roles.
Where is that place where one can be real? This double life continues endlessly”
(Grinbergs 1992, 2).

It can be suggested that for Grinbergs the cultural and geographical periphery
provided a certain asylum, which allowed him to avoid the distortion of his
personality and identity, or even suffer legal consequences for not meeting the ideals
of Homo Sovieticus. Performance art provided time and space, where Grinbergs could feel ‘authentic’ and ‘autonomous’ as an artist. He has repeatedly emphasised that he
has always preferred the life of an outsider as opposed to being part of the Soviet art
system, creating commissioned and conformist artwork and exhibiting it in the official
museum or gallery space. This strategy also helped him to avoid the internalization of
Soviet values, which were epitomised by the ideological construction of Homo


The existence of countercultures and art disciplines that did not correspond to the
Soviet ideals or instruments of Sovietisation signifies that there was an opportunity to
create an alternative reality – a microenvironment, where it was possible to exercise
more democratic and horizontal forms of collectivism. Indeed, members of
countercultures and alternative art disciplines could create small islands of freedom –
networks – not permeated by ideology and censorship. These efforts can be seen as
attempts to create depoliticised and participatory art, free of ideological dogmas or
political counter-arguments. In this microenvironment democratic principles of
freedom of expression, participation, initiative and non-hierarchical work
relationships were implemented, thus demonstrating how community and selfhood
could be exercised under the restrictions of a totalitarian regime.
Consequently, it can be concluded that the totalitarian regime was unsuccessful in
creating fully obedient human beings with a paralysed creative and intellectual agency
– Homo Sovieticus. On the contrary, the political regime was even stimulating the
creativity of artists, since they had to find innovative artistic strategies to be able to
coexist along the official culture. Undeniably, these strategies were partly subjected to
the mechanism of fear (and survival) imposed by the totalitarian regime and, thus, are
historically, socially and politically specific. Yet, paradoxically, it also shows that the
regime was unable to silence the creative expression, individualism and initiative.

This research is funded by the Latvian Council of Science, project Soviet
Spirituality’ in Latvia: Development, Features and Models of Influence (SovCreRes),
project No. lzp-2020/2-0058.


Laine Kristberga


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