I am still reflecting on the Soviet Bunker program — both personally and professionally.   The whole experience raises interesting questions about how people (and I myself) respond to social pressure and how we as individuals and society remember and understand the past.

My friend, who is a writer, and I took different approaches to the program.  She decided to fully engage in the experience.  I, the academic, immediately put myself in the position of observing and analyzing the various elements of the program and how the participants responded.  Of course, I still had to do everything with the group so I wasn’t standing on the sidelines.

The first challenge was switching to Russian.  While I have been reading Russian-language reports in the archives, my speaking and oral comprehension skills are rusty.  I was able to adjust fairly quickly and understood most of what was going on.  And when I didn’t, I just watched what others were doing since most of the participants in my group spoke Russian.  It helped that my Russian-language vocabulary is heavily weighted towards the Soviet-era given my research!

There was a range of reponses by the participants in my group.  They were primarily young Lithuanians in their 20s and 30s.  Some seemed to treat the whole experience as a game; they were the same ones who actively participated in the program.  Others responded only when directly engaged by the actors.  Two young women who didn’t speak Russian appeared confused and intimidated most of the time.

Although I followed all the instructions, I didn’t do anything to draw attention to myself.  I was trying to focus on taking mental notes about how the rooms were set up, what kinds of experiences were being emphasized, how the participants reacted and what all of this might mean about how people remember the Soviet years.  However, I had to dive into the experience during the KGB interrogation.  The interrogator asked me a question that I didn’t immediately understand.  When I said in Russian that I didn’t understand, he asked what language I spoke.  Upon hearing that I spoke English and was from America, he immediately asked what I thought of the glorious USSR.  I decided to play along and said that it was so much better here than in the capitalist countries.  As a “reward,” I had to drink a full glass of kvass (a fermented beverage made from black bread).  I really hate that stuff!  My friend, on the other hand, was sent to the isolation chamber during her group’s KGB interrogation for refusing to become an informer.

During the meal at the end of the program, I was sitting next to a man in his 50s who had come with his wife and son.  He said that he and his wife wanted their son to understand what life was like during the Soviet years.  I asked if he thought the program was successful in doing that and he responded, “yes.”  I was a bit surprised because I wasn’t so sure.  Of course, I never lived in the Soviet Union so my opinion is that of an outsider.  While the program perhaps accurately presents the more intense aspects of Soviet life, it seems to me that much of the pressure of Soviet life was in the day-to-day difficulties that wore people down — constant shortages, closed social circles because of lack of trust, incessant propaganda, and general lack of freedom.  Could a two hour program really show what that was like?  Leaving the Soviet bunker that evening, I mostly felt depressed.

In part I was depressed because I chose the “easy” path when confronted during the KGB interrogation section.  I could have said, truthfully, that I thought the Soviet system was horrible — and ended up in isolation like my friend did.  At the time, I didn’t want to be sent out of the room because I wanted to make sure I saw all parts of the program.  In order to analyze the program, I needed to see all of the segments, what they included and how participants reacted.  While I don’t necessarily think my response is an indicator of my moral fortitude, it did make me realize how easy it is to justify one’s actions and choose to protect oneself instead of standing up for moral values.  And that experience did give me a greater understanding of the difficult choices Lithuanians faced during the Soviet years.  I can say that in 1986, when confronted by real Soviet border guards with large guns as I was smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union, I stood my ground and didn’t cave in.  Maybe I’m indulging in more self-justification, but it was a lot more threatening than the Soviet Bunker program.

As I watched the young people leave the bunker, laughing about the experience as they got into their German and Japanese-made cars, I wondered if they had a better understanding of what was life was like for their fellow Lithuanians only 25 years ago.  That also made me feel a bit depressed.  However, as I was describing the experience to another American friend, I realized that, instead of being depressed, I should be glad if these young people didn’t understand what it was like to live in the Soviet Union.  After all, this was the whole goal of the independence movement in the late 1980s — to be independent and democratic so that future generations of Lithuanians wouldn’t have to live in the Soviet system.  While Lithuania has a number of problems, these young people do have a better life and more opportunities than the generations who came of age during the Soviet years.  At the same time, it is important to understand Lithuania’s Soviet past because it continues to have an effect on the present.  Perhaps the Soviet Bunker does is one way to do that.

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