Vytis Ciubrinskas (Vilnius University, Lithuania) “Challenging Assimilation: Reclaiming Heritage and Identity from Local Life-ways of the Descendants of the 19th Century Forced Migrants in Trans-Volga Russia and Kazakhstan”


Forced migration usually is immune, at least partly, to the processes of assimilation, but the politics of assimilation along with discrimination is still marked through all the histories of imperial states, including Czarist Russia, where such politics have been continued throughout the periods of state socialism (Burbank 2007) and left some ‘imperial debris’ (Stoler 2008) in the post-communist period.

A major resource of resistance to assimilation comes from the politics of heritage and identity of the transnational migrants (re)discovering/reclaiming loyalties to ‘common descent’ – shared ethnic backgrounds or ‘common faith’. The ‘past’ appears as the most resourceful reference in the quest for ‘authenticity’ and the essentialization of the cultural distinctiveness.

This presentation is built upon the materials of the research project on collective memory and politics of identity among contemporary third–fourth generation descendants of the mid-nineteenth century Lithuanian deportees to the Trans-Volga borderland of Russia and Kazakhstan.

We employ a category of ‘heritage’ that could be shaped as a culturally embedded ancestry myth or symbolic system (language, religion) but also as socially embedded trauma of home devastated by the imperial/colonial/communist regime. So in this case ‘heritage’ marks an emotional belonging to a particular immediate community of the past (traced by genealogy) and becomes a resource to challenge assimilation.

We will try to answer the question how the imagining, emplacing and enacting of ‘own heritage‘ is shaped by the descendants of the forced migrants who for 150 years were socio-culturally embedded in the local, primarily Russian, and ethnically mixed life-styles and livelihoods of the Trans-Volga steppe area, and seem to be totally assimilated. However, the historical and contemporary enactment of the ethnic Lithuanian heritage and identity reveals patterns of anti-assimilationist.

Set on the border separating the ‘civilized West’ from the wilderness of Kazakh step already from the early 1860s, deportees kept to their endogamous life ways by maintaining their own language, religion and marriage patterns, and not mixing with the locals but the local ethnic institutions – the Lithuanian Catholic church and school were brutally closed down during the communist regime, which brought severe hardships (famine in early 1920s) and repressions, including the second deportation of the descendants to Eastern Kazakhstan and Siberia in the 1930s.

It was only recently, after the end of the communist rule, that ethnic heritage became valorised and enacted again, this time through family reunions and strategies of recognition, i.e. the exhibition of the local Lithuanian village history installed at the local school museum and the Lithuanian Catholic Chapel opened in the early 2000s.

The contemporary processes of heritization also consist of the family histories and the collective memories of the pioneer Lithuanians, traced as among the first to arrive into unpopulated steppes and revealing themselves industrious by starting successful lives here. Such heritage claims its re-inscription and local ‘in-rooted-ness’ in this Eurasian region. Local Lithuanian identity is reclaimed through adhering to the Catholic religion and celebrating ethnic culture festivals through the staged performances at the local fairs of the Kremlin-style multiculturalist “diversity of nationalities”.

Thus the heritization strategies of the descendants of the Lithuanian deportees both encounter the dominant discourse of the channelled assimilationist politics of the post-communist Russia and adhere to a multiculturalist order. The ethnic heritage (what is left after losing the language, endogamy and even the ethnic cuisine among the hyphenated and significantly assimilated descendants) basically consists of the valorisation of the past through a genealogical quest for kinship roots and also through the most important trait of cultural heritage – the Catholic religion. Local Lithuanian identity is enacted as the reclamation of local histories through collective memory and (ethno)cultural projects.