So I’m back home now, but I’ve still got few posts brewing from my brief Lithuania trip. Something I’m always interested in is the history of the country or city I’m visiting, and I like to get a feel for this by talking to locals, and if there’s a good museum I might go there too – if nothing else it can be a good source of questions and conversation starters. One place Lina insists all her guests visit is the Lithuanian KGB museum for the remembrance of the victims of genocide. Having been to the Terror House in Budapest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go (assuming a similar catalogue of atrocities against humanity and a traumatic time courtesy of my graphic imagination), but Lina assured me that it was worth seeing the story from the Lithuanian point of view. So after a morning walking round Vilnius old town, I felt the need for a reference point and took myself off to the museum.
The museum is housed in the old KGB headquarters, and sure enough there are records of disappearances, executions, political prisoners and enemies of the state, people discriminated against and erased for no logical reason. But the main part of the museum focuses on two additional parts of the Soviet Lithuanian story (I didn’t visit the basement execution chambers, which I’m sure focuses more on the story of the political dissidents).
The first part of the story focuses on the random mass deportations of Lithuanian citizens to remote parts of Russia, not because they were deemed traitors or undesirable (the fate of these were labour camp sentences or worse) but the Soviets apparently simply wanted a certain type of people in certain places and decided to move others to other places, dragged from their beds in nighttime raids and transported crammed into cattle trucks for days or weeks until they reached their destination. Unsurprisingly many never even made it to their new “home” and died during the journey. The new villages were usually poor and ramshackle, the displaced Lithuanians left to fend for themselves and assimilate into the Russian culture and way of life.
This baffling population reshuffle seems bizarre for so many reasons, not least because it doesn’t seem to be achieving anything. The regime hated its opponents so sent them to labour camps for “rehabilitation”, which makes sense in its twisted, unethical way. But I can’t work out why the deportees were deported into Russia – if they weren’t wanted in the new Soviet territory of Lithuania, why would they be wanted in the heart of the Soviet Russia motherland? Perhaps the remote poverty stricken villages they were sent to were despised as much as the deportees were. But either way, they were still left to live their lives deeper inside the country that hated them, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out what twisted logic may have been behind this policy.
What I found interesting was that these people were left reasonably well alone, although in poor conditions, without permission to travel (especially not back home to Lithuania) and were expected to integrate into Russian society and schools at the expense of their own culture and language. But these pockets of deported Lithuanians fought hard to keep their culture alive (as did those sent to labour camps), and taught their children the Lithuanian language, culture & customs for nearly 50 years, despite being surrounded by thousands of miles of Russian language and culture, and Soviet oppression. Even after the death of Stalin, some had permission to travel, but Soviet Lithuania refused them permission to return home to live, and they were forced to return to their Russian homes.
While these deportees were desperately keeping the Lithuanian flag flying (literally it seems), rebels back home in Lithuania formed an army of Partisans, forced to live in the forests and relying on sympathisers to act as messengers and for supplies – fiercely trying to keep Lithuanian heritage alive throughout the Soviet occupation. They swore oaths of allegiance to their cause and kept their resistance up against all odds.
All of this gives a really powerful insight into Lithuanian national pride, and explains why nearly every building, in the old town at least, flies the national flag. As a westerner it’s hard to imagine the intolerable conditions the deportees had to endure, and equally how hard it was to keep the culture alive for so long in a country they had no choice about living in, through 50 years’ worth of generations. But if the Lithuanian culture was all the deportees, and the partisan fighters, and the labour camp prisoners, had to cling onto to get them through the Soviet occupation and maintain their identity, it becomes reassuringly clear why there is such a sense of patriotism here.