May You Live in Interesting Times

Transitioning Boredom in Lithuania‘s (Post-)Soviet Image Cultures

Martyna Ratnik
 The essay aims to explore the transition of boredom in (post-)Soviet Lithuania as reflected in image cultures produced by Lithuania’s last Soviet generation in regard to its decolonial potential. By using textual analysis, boredom is positioned as a by-product of modernity that, due to the Soviet Union’s over-reliance on a single grand narrative to manufacture meaning, played a pivotal – if ambiguous – role in Soviet society. The text goes on to explore how boredom was viewed as an anti-social(ist) practice, while also being partly caused by the state itself, contributing to its eventual downfall. The movement of Lithuanian social landscape photography is then read as one such example of cultural production, which used the aesthetics of boredom in order to critique the prevailing grand narrative, in turn, revealing both the state’s as well as the traditional photography’s production of meaning as a production of meaninglessness. Through close readings of Tomas Andrijauskas’ films and conversations with the filmmaker, the paper further theorises the transition of Soviet boredom into post-Soviet nihilism in 1990s Lithuania. By focusing on the production and consumption of Andrijauskas’ short films Gamyklos ir mes / Factories and Us (1992, Lithuania) and SO (1996, Lithuania), nihilism is defined as an attempt to dismantle the idea of a grand narrative itself, transcending the critique of a particular way of constructing meaning. Within Andrijauskas’ films, nihilism is then understood as a device that enables the filmmaker to deconstruct both the idea of ‘meaningful’ time in terms of its future-oriented utopian dimension, as well as ‘meaningful’ space, by disrupting the perceived power divide between the centre and the periphery. In addition to this, the paper also includes notes about the author’s artistic research that led to the making of an experimental found footage short May You Live in Interesting Times (2022), which re-contextualises Tomas Andrijauskas’ moving-image work and is based on a manifesto written by the filmmaker’s father, Ugnius Ratnikas, and his two friends at the time of the failed 1991 August coup in Moscow.
Tomas Andrijauskas, Antanas Sutkus, Aleksandras Ostašenkovas, Julio Garcia Espinosa, Lithuania, aesthetics of boredom, the 1990s, nihilism, the Lithuanian School of Photography, social landscape photography, the Soviet everyday, ruins, decay.


Bored in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic

Bored in the Republic of Lithuania

May You Live in Interesting Times





Suggested Citation


“A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom” – in 1989, Nobel prize-winning Russian poet and essayist Josef Brodsky opened his address to the graduates of Dartmouth College (Brodsky 2016: 104). His speech, titled “In Praise of Boredom”, delivered on the brink of the collapse of the post-Second World War world order, is no less than a warning. In it, Brodsky prophesizes that soon enough, his young listeners will be bored with their work, friends, spouses, lovers, the view from their window, the wallpaper in their room, their thoughts, and even themselves. And, no matter if they one day wake up in a bedroom with a new family and a new wallpaper, “the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through” the window will follow them wherever they go (Brodsky 2016: 108).

Boredom is inescapable – and so “the only way out is always through” (Frost 1914). On the other side, Brodsky remarks, one finds boredom that “speaks the language of time” and can therefore teach “the most valuable lesson in your life – the one you didn’t get here, on these green lawns – the lesson of your utter insignificance” (Brodsky 2016: 109). It is an insignificance that makes one look at the present with “all the tenderness” one can muster – since, by looking at the present, one is already looking at the past (Brodsky 2016: 113). Apart from reminding Dartmouth graduates of their mortality (and possibly triggering an existential crisis), Brodsky’s speech is also a reminder of a different kind. As a Soviet émigré who settled in the States in the 1970s, he too prompts us to remember boredom’s peculiar fluidity. This is a quality that allows it to transgress both literal and metaphorical borders without the risk of, like the Eastern Bloc’s citizens fleeing to the West, never making it out alive or, like the radio waves travelling in the opposite direction, being distorted beyond recognition.

Yet, unlike Brodsky, those left on the other side of the Iron Curtain and therefore condemned to live in the ‘interesting’ times of historical transition encountered its transformations solely by moving through time, from stagnation to perestroika, from early independence to late-stage capitalism. This paper looks at cultural artefacts tied to two distinct periods in Lithuanian history – the 1980s movement of social landscape photography and the 1990s short films created by post-independence avant-garde cinema pioneer Tomas Andrijauskas. In so doing, it explores the ways in which Lithuania’s last Soviet generation experienced the relationship of boredom and ambivalence to the changing times. It also examines how ambivalence was reflected in the images that this generation produced. The aforementioned reflections form the basis of the last section of the essay, which chronicles the artistic research behind the archival short film May You Live in Interesting Times (2022). The film reuses and re-contextualises Andrijauskas’ moving-image work while trying to assess its relevance in shaping the representation of the 1990s in the present day.

As Russian imperialism continues to haunt both the material and political landscapes of the region, decolonial discourse acquires new levels of urgency and highlights the need for the emancipation of artistic and/or intellectual practices. Hence, the essay frames boredom as a subversive visual regime that holds radical potential to both expose and disrupt the (post-)Soviet status quo, in turn, questioning the imperialist power dynamics upon which it was based, as well as the legacy it has left behind. Moving beyond the perceived passivity and neutrality of boredom, the focus is instead placed on the political dimension of boredom in addition to its possible use as a form of active resistance against (Soviet) ideological oppression. Boredom here is seen as a tool that enables artists to dismantle the idea of ‘meaningful’ time in terms of its future-oriented utopian dimension. Boredom is also shown to disrupt the notion of ‘meaningful’ space by challenging the perceived power divide between the centre and the periphery. While the essay is informed by a particular context of (post-)Soviet Lithuania, the rather spacious definitions of both boredom and decoloniality can hopefully yet again undergo a transition in order to include and account for other – ‘interesting’ – times and places.

Bored in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic

If a substantial part of what still lies ahead of us is indeed going to be claimed by boredom, then perhaps we ought to better acquaint ourselves with the inevitable. According to Patricia M. Spacks, boredom was culturally constructed at the end of the eighteenth century because“even if people […] felt bored before, they didn’t know it” (Narušytė 2010: 56). The birth of boredom thus coincides with the birth of modernity and is influenced by the emergence of such concepts as leisure, human rights, and individualism, as well as the introduction of standardised and rationalised time. While boredom is known by many different names, from ennui to depression, and can take many different forms, ranging from overstimulation to a total lack of activity, what is constant is its ability to infiltrate all modern societies no matter where one would place them on the political spectrum. At the core of its shape-shifting nature, however, boredom signifies a relationship with ourselves and our environment marked by a lack of meaning. Perhaps not incidentally, as noted by art historian Agnė Narušytė, the Lithuanian word for boredom – “nuobodulys” – is derived from the word “badas”, meaning hunger (2010: 37).

While it is true that boredom was present on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it might be equally true that during Brezhnev’s rule, Soviet citizens were exceptionally good at being bored – so good, in fact, that Soviet society in its entirety could be understood as a society of boredom.1 The idea of stagnation was introduced retrospectively during perestroika to rebrand what was previously known as an era of stability; however, both these eras could potentially share the same definition. Narušytė argues that the period constituted “a world dominated by the experience of anonymous time, with an environment that seems to be given a priori, and that cannot be changed by the subject, as everything is planned in advance and seems to unfold on its own" (Narušytė 2010: 113). This dynamic was not merely linked to the state apparatus’s active involvement in the production of what is traditionally coded as boredom – from standardised housing to socialist realist art that were always meant to follow a strict set of rules – but even more so to its monopoly on the production of meaning. In the Soviet Union, life could only be explained by a single grand narrative, as one’s actions were meaningful only insofar as they adhered to the constantly postponed construction of a communist ‘afterlife’. However, under Brezhnev, this notion was becoming increasingly performative and reliant on rhetorical clichés, in turn, making people’s engagement with the officially promoted line of meaning equally meaningless (Vaiseta 2014).

Yet should we then presuppose that all Soviet citizens lead meaningless lives? Brodsky here once again serves as an example, in an anecdotal story told by Sergei Dovlatov, of how “he lived not in a proletariat state, but in a monastery of his own spirit. He did not struggle with the regime. He simply did not notice it […] When the facade of the building where he lived was decorated with a six-meter portrait of [politburo member] Mzhavanadze, Brodksy asked: ‘Who is this? He looks like William Blake’.” (Yurchak 2005: 127). Not incidentally, Brodsky was persecuted as a “social parasite” [tuneiadstvo], linking a lack of engagement with the state-imposed meaning to anti-social(ist) behaviour. However, Alexei Yurchak continues, “Brodsky’s way of being became increasingly widespread among urbanites a decade younger than him – the last Soviet generation” (Yurchak 2005: 127), which was described by a Soviet newspaper published in the 1970s as “bored, apathetic, state club avoiding teenagers” who “throughout the entire country are breaking the laws, making their parent and adults worried by drinking wine, smoking, and following Western fashion in their after-school get-togethers” (Narušytė 2010: 102). Therein, however, lies a paradox, since the widespread anti-social(ist) behaviour was enabled by the state itself: if the “oppressive burden” of direct belief can be offloaded “by the practice of a ritual” (Žižek 2007: 31), then one must “enact the symbolic registration” for the Big Other precisely in order to transgress it (ibid.: 25). In this context, Viktor Tsoi could be viewed as the archetype of an entire generation: in order to be a rock musician, the Kino frontman followed the mandate of mandatory labour and became a worker in a boiler room; its heat pipes reaching “like arteries into thousands of apartments in the district, embedding […] [them] inside the very entrails of the system, simultaneously providing utopian amounts of time, space, and intellectual freedom from its constraints” (Yurchak 2005: 154). So, at the heart of the society of boredom, one finds a flourishing society of non-sanctioned meaning, making the seemingly eternal system erode from within. While the state of stability unintentionally enabled networks of “social parasites”, it could not fully control the discourses they produced: the songs Tsoi wrote in-between loading coal were deeply immersed in the ambiguous themes of boredom, meaninglessness and the everyday – and then started their journey as the anthems of dissent with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Lithuania, perhaps the most notable example of an engagement with boredom can be found in the movement of social landscape photography that came to prominence in the 1980s (Fig. 1). According to Narušytė, these photographs deployed the aesthetics of boredom – characterised by monotony, emptiness, banality, coincidental compositions, depictions of the everyday spaces, as well as the slowing of time – and came into stark opposition with the leading photographic movement of previous generations (under Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s) known as the Lithuanian School of Photography (LSP) (Fig. 2). While the LSP was associated with professionalism and the Cartier-Bresson-inspired idea of a decisive moment, tied to idealisation and dramatisation of life, the last Soviet generation instead presented intentionally amateur-looking works – faulty prints of hardly legible and compositionally ‘incorrect’ images – detached from their social and ideological environment. Or, in other words, while traditional photographic narratives acted as an anaesthetic by offering an escape to some artificially constructed ‘there’, depictions of the boring ‘here’ instead attempted to awaken the “spectator’s intentionality and awareness of existence”. (Narušytė 2010: 64). In this context, the aesthetics of boredom can be viewed as a form of representation that holds radical potential since, as argued by Slavoj Žižek in relation to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “when we inadvertently disturb the appearance, the thing itself behind the appearance also falls apart” (2007: 25).

Aleksandras Ostašenkovas’ Einu iš kapinių per vaikų darželį / I Cross a Kindergarten on My Way From the Cemetery (Fig. 1) taken in 1989, and Antanas Sutkus’ 1970 Žaidžia mokyklą / Playing School (Fig. 2) can be viewed as typical photographic examples of their respective decades. While both pictures are monochrome landscapes set in socialist modernist urban spaces that explore the theme of childhood, a closer look at their aesthetics makes their starkly different approaches visible. The latter is a crisp black-and-white image that, in terms of its composition, follows the traditional rule of thirds in order to show a group of children playing school in a yet-to-be-constructed neighbourhood. Here, the children’s game transforms the everyday space from a construction site into an imaginative playground filled with endless possibilities out of which new worlds may emerge. In the same vein, it links the future of children – with its promises of growth and vitality – to that of the neighbourhood and, in turn, of the entire country, visually marked by an expansive landscape behind them and in practice exemplified by the government policies of free education and social housing. After all, for these children, just like Soviet citizens, more generally, the future is sure to be bright. As suggested by its title, Ostašenkovas comes across a playground on the way from the cemetery, superimposing stasis and decay onto the childless – post-Chornobyl – kindergarten. This time, instead of implying some great beyond, the social housing blocks our view, creating a sense of claustrophobia, while the visually filthy image looks as if it was taken by accident. Its central object – a shining rocket that has seemingly crashed into the Earth together with its dreams of space exploration – is here to remind us that in the Soviet Union, there is no future – bright or otherwise – in sight.2

Ostašenkovas, Aleksandras. “Einu Iš Kapinių per Vaikų Darželį,” 15 Min, 1989, savimi-1220. Accessed 22 May 2022.