Oliver Aas, Marija Norkunaite, Liisi Veski, and Laima Vincė to Receive 2021–2022 Dissertation Grants

Apr 16, 2021

The Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies is pleased to announce that Oliver Aas, Marija Norkunaite, Liisi Veski, and Laima Vincė have been awarded the 2021–2022 Dissertation Grants for Graduate Students.

The Dissertations Grants of up to $4,000 support doctoral dissertation research and write-up in any field of Baltic Studies. Funds may be used for travel to research site, equipment, duplication or other needs as specified.

The 2021 applications were evaluated by the AABS 2021-2022 Grants and Awards Committee consisting of AABS VP for Professional Development Dr. Ineta Dabašinskienė, AABS President Dr. Daunis Auers, and AABS Director-at-Large Dr. Andres Kasekamp.

The Baltics in the Arctic

Oliver Aas, Cornell University

The Baltic and/or Estonian histories of the Arctic caught me by surprise. I had already started thinking and writing about the Arctic well before I came to realize that the Baltics had been an integral part of the Arctic exploration complex. Going through historical records of great (and indeed less great) Arctic travels, I started to notice names that had a decidedly “Baltic resonance.” Only then did I come to see just how big of a part these explorers had played, particularly when it came to sharing their maritime knowledge.

I started thinking about the way objects and ideas “travel.” What would it mean for knowledge about the Arctic—coming from Estonia, for instance—to assume a place in the history of great explorations? Alongside these considerations, I also began to think through the complicated relationship between Empire and the so-called periphery. We always tend to assume that things get sent to us from the center, however the way things travel suggests that the relationship between knowledge is much more nuanced. “Peripheral” knowledge can be well used to advance the imperial project without giving it any due.

One could argue that this is a recuperative project – one that aims to imagine a history that has not yet found its place in the grand narrative of History proper. How does one, however, prove the “influence” of something? The legacy, after all, goes well beyond “real” explorations. In the Russian geologist Vladimir Obruchev’s highly popular but also highly ideological novel, “Sannikov’s Land” (1922), we find a re-telling of the Baltic-German geologist Barron Toll’s voyage to find the Sannikov’s land. This book itself follows on the heels of Karel Hloucha’s “Zakletá země” (“Enchanted land”) (1910) who also mentions the Baltic explorer and his team. These Baltic figures have placed themselves not only in history as it really happened but also in the world of literature and film. This calls for a rethinking of the influence that Baltic exploration had on the global, European, as well as (Post)-Soviet imagination of the Arctic. This project modestly hopes to fill a tiny gap in history with the hopes that many studies will follow.

I am very happy to receive the support of AABS at this exploratory stage of my project. Such support will enable me to test out my preliminary theses through archival research. While one can never know in advance, I am certain that there is still very much to discover in the history of what we might call the “Baltic Arctic.”

Oliver Aas, recipient of the AABS 2021–2022 Dissertation Grant

Born and raised in Estonia, Oliver Aas is a PhD student at the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. He holds an undergraduate degree from University College Maastricht as well as a master’s degree from Central European University.

An inter-disciplinarian and something of a generalist, he has interests across genres, fields, and periods. His ongoing project analyses the afterlife of Arctic explorations from a comparative perspective (American, Scandinavian, Baltic, and Russian) through an examination of literature, correspondences between maritime explorers, historical records, as well as visual examples. He is particularly interested in thinking about history “from below.”

“Where did I do wrong?”: Imagining the “state” in a former socialist (mono-)town in the Baltics

Marija Norkunaite, University of Oxford

My doctoral research project looks at changing understandings and relations between people and the state in the Baltics after 1990. I focus on the former socialist industrial regions and compare three cities in particular: Visaginas in Lithuania, Daugavpils in Latvia, and Sillamӓe in Estonia. Basing the analysis on the case of the Baltic States, this thesis aims to shed light on broader processes of changing forms of statehood and state-society relations in the context of postsocialist transformation and neoliberal globalization.

Because of their specific socialist past and the resulting demographic composition, the predominatly Russian-speaking towns of Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe often appear as alien and threatening to the national state in popular Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian imaginations. The loyalty of the Russian-speaking residents of these towns to the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian states is continuously called into doubt. However, little research has been done as to how the “state” is understood among the people there and how these understandings emerge. This thesis aims to ascertain what falls behind the concept of the “state” in the minds of its Russian-speaking subjects in Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe. Without fully understanding how these meanings arise, it is difficult to either reaffirm or challenge them.

This thesis is a comparative ethnographic study. Focusing on the everyday encounters with different state institutions and practices such as citizenship or taxation, the thesis chapters look at how the Russian-speaking residents of Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe come to relate with their respective national states and define their own position within them. Particular attention is paid to emotions accompanying day-to-day interactions with the state. The chapters try to deconstruct the residents of Sillamӓe, Daugavpils, and Visaginas’ ideas of what the “state” is and does as compared to what it should be and do. More precisely, I look at how my Russian-speaking interlocutors claim their membership and equity within their respective national communities. The chapters also look at the expectations the residents hold towards the state. Thereby, this thesis examines the ideas of social contract and concerns over statecraft prevalent in Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe.

I am now in the final stages of my doctoral studies. At the beginning of this year, I have successfully passed the midway – Confirmation of Status – examination. With my initial funding having run out, the AABS Dissertation Grant will help me to cover the expenses of my final year. More importantly, the AABS support is an endorsement of my research and myself as a young scholar coming from and focusing on the Baltic region that I am immensely grateful for.

Marija Norkunaite, recipient of the AABS 2021–2022 Dissertation Grant

I am a doctoral student in Area Studies (Russia and East Europe) at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. My doctoral research looks at changing understandings and relationships between people and the state in former socialist industrial regions in the Baltics. My broader research interests include statehood, statecraft, (neo)liberalism, citizenship, claims-making, governance, and ethnographic methods.

Prior to starting my doctoral studies, I was awarded an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Oxford (2016-2018, Distinction) and a BA in Political Science from Vilnius University (2012-2016, Cum Laude). I study at Oxford as an ESRC ‘Grand Union’ Doctoral Training Partnership scholar.

The conservative-statist thought and the rhetoric of national unity during the authoritarian period in Estonia (1934–1940)

Liisi Veski, University of Glasgow

My dissertation focuses on the rhetoric of national unity in the 1930s Estonian conservative-statist thought, particularly during the authoritarian era of 1934–1940, popularly known as the “Era of Silence”. I am analysing how Estonian conservative politicians and intellectuals simultaneously rejected liberal democracy that was believed to be ‘atomising’ the society, and the extreme totalitarian models of fascism. The new alternative system had to remain democratic, but it also had to reinforce the national community.

The Chairman of the first Chamber of the Estonian National Assembly, Jüri Uluots, ceremoniously handing over the finished Constitution to the State Elder Konstantin Päts in summer 1937. Source: The National Archives of Estonia, EAA.2111.1.12489.17

I am interested in the concepts referring to national unity and national community as a key to these discussions. By looking into certain core cases (particularly discussions revolving around the new constitution ratified in 1937), I am analysing how these concepts were used as arguments for legitimising the new authoritarian system and restrictions on civil liberties.

Analogous ideological challenges were faced by politicians and intellectuals all over Europe. Although focusing on the Estonian case, I am also analysing how the local ideas and concepts were informed by nationalist and statist ideas elsewhere in interwar Europe, especially in the immediate region. For instance, how conservative theorists, such as Carl Schmitt, Othmar Spann, and Rudolf Kjellén were read and adapted to the Estonian political discourse and its specific problems. Or how the constitution implemented in Poland in 1935 inspired discussions on illiberal forms of democracy and national unity in Estonia in the second half of the 1930s.

The thesis can be situated in the framework of intellectual and conceptual history. I have found the theories dealing with transfers and translations of ideas and the complexities of centre-periphery dynamics particularly applicable. I am also drawing from elements of sociological approaches to national identity constructions and the critical discourse analysis.

While exploring the shift to statism and illiberalism in the 1930s is crucial for understanding the interwar political climate, the thesis also has contemporary relevance. Studying the interwar trends helps us to gain a better understanding of the promotion of illiberal forms of democracy and the rise of populism today.

The triumvirate of the “Era of Silence”, the State Elder Konstantin Päts, the Commander‑in‑Chief of the Armed Forces, Johan Laidoner, and the Minister of Internal Affairs, Kaarel Eenpalu in February 1938. Source: The National Archives of Estonia, EFA.2.0.27792

Liisi Veski, recipient of the AABS 2021–2022 Dissertation Grant

Liisi Veski is a 4th year PhD student of Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow. She is co-supervised by Prof David Smith (University of Glasgow) and Prof Pärtel Piirimäe (University of Tartu). She has a multidisciplinary background, having previously studied Estonian history, intellectual history, European studies, and Estonian and Finno-Ugric linguistics at the University of Tartu, KU Leuven, and the University of Vienna.

Her doctoral thesis deals with the intellectual and conceptual history of interwar Estonian nationalism. The thesis focuses on the conservative-statist thought and the rhetoric of national unity during the authoritarian period in Estonia (1934–1940).

Liisi also serves as an Editorial Assistant for the Journal of Baltic Studies and for the Estonian Historical Journal (Ajalooline Ajakiri).

Memory and Postmemory in the Writing of North American Writers of Lithuanian Descent

Laima Vincė, Vilnius University

Since the 1980s, a body of literary work written in English, intended for a North American audience, and published in the United States and Canada, has emerged that is thematically concerned with the cultural and historical trauma that has affected Lithuania from events such as the 19th Century efforts of tsarist authorities to Russify the Lithuanian population, the first and second Soviet occupations (1940 – 1941 and 1944 – 1991), and related violence, deportations, and resistance, the plight of the displaced persons, and the Nazi occupation and Holocaust in Lithuania (1941 – 1944).

These works of literature thematically reflect collective, public, shared cultural memory events, such as, for example, the reinstatement of Lithuania’s independence in 1990, immigration, the culture of the North American Lithuanian diaspora communities, and rite of return journeys to Soviet and post-Soviet Lithuania. The essays, memoirs, historical novels, autobiographical novels, literary fiction, short stories, and drama produced by North American writers of Lithuanian descent (people who have ancestral roots and heritage in Lithuania, whether their religious faith is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Pagan, or agnostic) mostly engage with memory and postmemory narratives. Their writing explores familial and individual trauma, silence, secrets, rite of return, collective memory, haunt memory.

Written mostly by American- and Canadian-born writers descended from Lithuanian World War II displaced persons (DPs), but also by writers descended from the first wave of immigrants from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or writers of Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) heritage, my dissertation explores this group’s collective body of work as postmemory writing as defined by Marianne Hirsch, Eva Hoffman, and others, but also argues that these memoirs, rite of return narratives, postmemory fiction and nonfiction, and drama, lends itself to analysis through the lens of trauma theory. This dissertation considers this body of literary work as a collective body of writing, unified by shared topics and themes.

These works of literature may be read as Life writing and as a form of writing back. To better understand collective, public, and shared memory experiences as they are reflected in the writing, and to gain a deeper understanding of how cultural memory, heritage, stories and silence, function in the Lithuanian community in North America, this grant will enable me to continue interviewing writers of Lithuanian heritage. Each of the writers will be invited to reflect on his or her family history, lost histories, fragmented stories, and rite of return journeys to Lithuania, seeking insights about family, identity, culture, and history.

Discussions with writers are an invitation into the mind of the writer. Statements made by writers provide insights into literary strategies, worldviews, opinions, personal histories, family narratives. The AABS dissertation grant will enable me to deepen my research and to conduct further rounds of interviews with North American writers of Lithuanian descent and open the dialogue to further reflection on memory, postmemory insights, shared cultural experience.

Laima Vincė, recipient of the AABS 2021–2022 Dissertation Grant

Laima Vincė is currently writing her dissertation, Memory and Postmemory in the Writing of North American Writers of Lithuanian Descent, at Vilnius University. Two chapters from the dissertation are scheduled to be published in the Journal of Baltic Studies in 2022. Laima Vincė earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Columbia University and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She teaches Creative Writing and Literature online as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Maine. Twice Laima Vincė was awarded a Fulbright grant in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant in Literature, an Academy of American Poets Award, and a PEN Translation Award.

Laima Vincė’s novel, This Is Not My Sky has been translated into Lithuanian and published as Tai ne mano dangus (Alma Littera, 2018). She has published five works of literary nonfiction, including Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart, which was translated into Lithuanian as Mūsų nepalaužė (Alma Littera, 2019). She researched and wrote several articles and a performance piece about the life and creative work of the Litvak poet, Matilda Olkinaitė, who was murdered in the Holocaust in Lithuania in 1941 at the age of 19. She translated Matilda Olkinaitė’s collected body of poetry and her diary. Together with Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, she published, The Unlocked Diary: The Collected Works of Matilda Olkinaitė (The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, 2021). Laima Vincė has translated the literary work of some of Lithuania’s most renowned poets and writers into English, including Marcelijus Martinaitis, Justinas Marcinkevičius, Sigitas Geda, Tomas Venclova, Vytautas Bložė, Nijolė Miliauskaitė, Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė, Matilda Olkinaitė, and others. She is the translator into English of Forest Brothers (Central European University Press, 2009), the memoir of the leader of the anti-Soviet resistance, Juozas Lukša. Laima Vincė lives in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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