30 Dec 2016

This week I’ve been thinking about diversity, xenophobia, empire, nationalism, genealogy, and family history.

How can we embrace each other even though we are different? How can we all be Americans and work together to make a better world for the future? How can we embrace our pasts, live with love in the present, and plan for a colorful, diverse, and peaceful future?

Do you know about the Singing Revolution in the Baltic countries?

Millions of people in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia sang traditional ethnic folk songs, rock music, and anything else they could. Many singing groups wore traditional regional clothing that their grandparents would have worn in daily life and for holidays. I talk about this in my knitting classes when we are making Lithuanian beaded wrist warmers. It’s something we in the USA need to learn about as we try to keep our democracy from being squelched in the next few years.

Anything can be used for protest:
knitting, singing, art… be creative.

During the Soviet period (1944-1991), there were very few ways to express patriotism for one’s homeland without putting oneself and one’s family in danger. In Stalinist times—both before (1940) and after (1944-53) the second World War—many thousands of patriotic, intellectual, and politically active Lithuanians were deported, or “disappeared,” to Siberia. Packed into cattle cars, much as the Jews were by the Nazis, and transported thousands of miles away from their homes, they were either imprisoned, or set to work in labor camps and on collective farms. Those sent to the most distant outposts in Siberia, were dropped in the middle of nowhere and left to build whatever shelter they could before winter came, using only materials they could find in the landscape. Every family I met on my travels through Lithuania had either been in Siberia or had family members who were sent there. Although the situation improved after Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet citizens were far from free.

Folk singing groups began performing in Soviet Lithuania in 1968, but it is probably not a coincidence that Irena and others started to reproduce traditional costumes for performances in 1986, just two years after Mikhail Gorbachev came into power and one year after Glasnost and Perestroika were initiated. Even with the increased amount of freedom, singing was used as a form of nonviolent protest against the Soviet regime, only allowed because it ostensibly had nothing to do with politics. Folk singing groups kept young people occupied. “They aren’t doing anything dangerous,” the thinking went. “What harm could there be in singing?” Ironically, the peaceful revolution that eventually led to Lithuania’s renewed independence in 1991 is now known as “the singing revoluion.”

Today, national song and dance troupes—as well as many textile artists and researchers—continue to spin, weave, sew, and knit to create the garments and accessories of the Lithuanian national costume. Not only made and worn by performers, beaded wrist warmers are among most popular knitted items in Vilnius. Walking through the streets, you spy them for sale by women selling their wares on street corners, at booths in the tourist market, and in upscale folk-art galleries.

Here’s an article and a free pattern for Lithuanian beaded wrist warmers that I did for Knitty a few years ago. (The pattern is for simpler wristers than this antique pair!)

Antique Lithuanian Wrist Warmers

6 Responses to Singing (and Knitting) as a Political Act
  1. Understand this story well. Grandparents left the Voga River area of Russia in early 1900’s. Area known as German Russia-another tale to tell. Those who didn’t leave then were rounded up snd sent to Siberia during Stalin’s time. Making doing family heritage research very difficult as little evidence of these German communities was left to exist. Peace.

    • Chryl, my family were also Volga Germans. I was raised on stories of how they were discriminated against, rounded up in police raids, etc., until my grandfather finally was able to leave. The remaining family was, I presume, exterminated during the Stalinist purges. I teach my child to make the dishes my grandfather made for me, and tell the stories. Sharing and teaching our crafts keep them alive. Peace to you.

      Donna, thank you for the reminder of the Singing Revolution. Things like this will keep us sane under the incoming regime. Love your work.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing. I had to look up Volga Germans. They were so far away, into the Russian Empire! I must learn more about this. There were a lot of Germans in Latvia and Estonia but that’s a different story.

  2. There is a documentary out called “the Singing Revolution” which is done just beautifully. I watched it 3-4 years ago and now in these times it seems even more relevant for us here in the US. That documentary keyed on Estonia, but after hearing your report and the comments of the others…I see that it was perhaps Latvians and Lithuanians as well. The documentary has stayed in my heart over the years as a fountain of hope and I have referred to it many times… You can get it through Netflix still I believe. My mother’s people were from Denmark, but assimilated without leaving us song or craft. I have approached my knitting in a searching for roots and rootedness … Following you Donna and following what I can through the Piecework magazine and articles on the net.
    I am excited you continue to head us down this road, and I thank you for passing on the things you know in this area to those of us thirsty for the knowledge.
    Sincerely, Nancy Becklley – Bend, Oregon

    • Thanks. I have heard of that but I have never seen it. I will check it out. I heard about the singing revolution from friends when I was in Lithuania. I want to learn and talk more about it, and feature more knitted wrist warmers with protest messages on them throughout the year.

      My family passed down recipes, but no songs. My knitting came to me from my grandmothers but it wasn’t traditional patterns from “the old country.”

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