What Ukraine Means for Lithuanians Haunted by Soviet Past

In Vilnius, Putin's invasion has sparked efforts to arm and aid Kyiv by a nation that has experienced Russian atrocities firsthand

What Ukraine Means for Lithuanians Haunted by Soviet Past
People honor the fallen in Ukraine on Ukrainian Independence Day on Aug. 24 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. (Vasily Maximov, Getty Images)

I had never thought of myself as Eastern European. Instead, I preferred to be called Baltic or Northern European. Or simply Lithuanian. But now, with the war in Ukraine, I call myself Eastern European, and it is without irony, without shame.

Many people from this part of the world know the weight of the stereotypes attached to this label. It used to refer to something backward, something not quite cool, stubbornly lagging behind progressive Europe. All my life, I was embarrassed by what made me and my country not-quite-Western-enough, from its prevalent homophobia to the clothes people wear, which can look out of place on the streets of Western capitals.

As we quickly developed our economies since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, we have also chased approval. Lithuanian society moved mountains to be admitted to the Western club, taking decades to catch up, even though it is no utopia by any measure. At no point in our history have we been more “Western” than we are now, yet at the same time I have never felt more distinctly Eastern European. Russia’s vicious attack on Ukraine has dislodged and rearranged pieces of my identity. It has taken me over 40 years to realize that being Eastern European is what connects me to the suffering of my neighbors.

Born in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in 1978, I grew up fearing I would face exactly what is now happening to Ukrainians. Russia’s menacing presence was impossible to avoid. There has not been one moment since our independence at the end of the last century when Moscow did not threaten, bully or sow chaos in my small country. (For perspective, Lithuania is about the size of West Virginia. Physically, Russia is the largest country in the world.)

Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence, and the Kremlin wanted us to pay. I still remember the sound of a column of Russian tanks driving past my house in January 1991 on their way to the television tower in Vilnius, where thousands of people had gathered to protect it from being shut down by Soviet troops. The Soviet soldiers responded by attacking unarmed civilians, shooting, beating and crushing them with tanks, killing 14 and injuring almost 1,000. Armed soldiers breached the national broadcaster before entering and forcing the television off air. Small radio stations then took over, relaying the news to the country, and we sat up listening to the rising death toll.

Half a million people lined the streets of Vilnius to say goodbye to our heroes at their funeral days later. They lay in state in a large convention center. One particular detail has been lodged in my brain since: Loreta Asanaviciute, one of the victims, dressed in a white dress like a bride. People filed by paying their respects. Every year since, I cry watching images of those days, stark and profoundly beautiful in their show of dignity. I cannot imagine what it must feel like for Ukrainians, our tragedy magnified many times over.

The military attack in 1991 was followed by an economic blockade that brought shortages beyond what even we, accustomed to empty shop shelves in the Soviet Union, had seen before. As a teenager in the early 1990s, I remember the stoicism with which they were met. People were not afraid to die, and they were certainly not afraid of shortages of goods or hot water or heating. My mother told me that her visiting German colleagues took photos of what passed for meat (hooves, she said) in shops that were essentially empty. Once, she waited in line for hours as there were bananas for sale — a miracle! My mom brought the bananas home for me to try and I said they tasted like soap. My mother wept, but I couldn’t understand why. There was lots of talk of “tightening our belts” and not giving up. I don’t remember anyone saying that maybe we should say sorry and go back. Fighting for freedom and survival is no abstract notion for us; we lived it.

One Monday morning in March of this year, 10 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, sobbing. Nothing in the world made sense anymore, and I knew nothing would ever be all right again. It seemed pointless to go on with everyday tasks while waiting for Russia’s war to come to the Baltics. This is truly how we felt. Many people I spoke to felt guilty for being able to go about their lives as usual. “How can I watch TV when Ukrainians are dying? How can I go out when Ukrainians are suffering?” And so on. People at my office would spontaneously burst into tears. A friend’s 6-year-old was inconsolable, thinking Putin would come and kill his dog.

I struggled to explain to my English husband why it all felt so personal. I felt guilty and melodramatic, imagining it was self-indulgent to feel so broken. After all, the war was somewhere else, and people there were actually suffering — their homes were being destroyed and their lives shattered.

I became briefly obsessed with the concept of collective trauma, and the idea that we have inherited the pain inflicted on our grandparents by Russia and its people. I came across an article by the contemporary Lithuanian writer Vaiva Rykstaite, who spoke of the “pain of blood” she felt. It made so much sense to me: It felt like your entire being is in pain. It feels like sadness and empathy for Ukrainians, anger, hatred, helplessness, a sense of injustice and hopelessness mixed into one, consuming you. I cannot explain it.

Lithuania was forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union in July 1940, when the Red Army was on its soil, following secret agreements between the USSR and Germany that divided Europe. Death, rape, arrests and mass deportations followed. It is estimated that from 1940 to 1990, about 1 million people, or around a third of Lithuania’s population, were deported, imprisoned, killed or forced to emigrate. More than 20,000 Lithuanian fighters and their supporters were killed in an armed resistance that continued long after the war.

It has been eerie and depressing to watch Russia commit the same repertoire of atrocities in Ukraine. The deportations of Ukrainians to Russia make me think of the cattle trains that took an estimated quarter of a million Lithuanians in the 1940s to the frozen wastelands and gulags in Siberia. Tens of thousands perished along the way.

Lithuanian partisans carried out armed resistance well into the 1950s. My grandfather was arrested in 1947 and spent two years in a Lithuanian prison for helping them, leaving his wife alone with their newborn daughter, my aunt. My grandfather spoke sometimes of severe beatings during interrogation and sleep deprivation that lasted for days. I only recently learned the last name of his most enthusiastic tormentor. This name, Kiselev, has now been passed through three generations of my family, just one of the many villains in the mayhem of post-war Lithuania. My grandpa’s two sisters and their families were deported to Siberia. We have no idea what happened to them.

My family is not special. Many Lithuanians were murdered, deported, imprisoned, robbed and replaced in our own land. Out of almost 300,000 people that were imprisoned or deported from Lithuania, 32,000 were children. More than 20,000 of those fighting for or supporting anti-Soviet resistance were killed. Looting, murder and mass rape are well-documented by the Soviet authorities themselves. Official reports about a 6-year-old shot by drunk officers firing at one another in a Vilnius square, a girl attacked by a dog as part of a rape attempt, taking over people’s homes and soldiers shooting cattle for fun or killing random passersby to boost their numbers of eliminated partisans all paint a picture of hell that lasted for almost a decade past the end of World War II. All the moral, social and economic structures were broken. The Soviet regime tried to remake the Lithuanian people themselves by targeting our history, values, spirituality, esthetics and language. The Lithuanian identity was to be replaced by a Soviet one. Our society is still healing today. Learning to trust again is the most difficult of all.

The other morning, I spoke to a Ukrainian girl, a young adolescent who lives next door. She and her family escaped the war and are now living in Vilnius. While we walked our dogs together, she told me about her school (“it’s fine”) and made me say “palyanytsya,” a type of Ukrainian bread. Pronouncing this word correctly is an unofficial test Ukrainians use to distinguish themselves from Russians. Like Russians, I mispronounced it, which amused her. She then told me she did not want to live anymore; carrying on was too much to bear. I was stunned and devastated and muttered about therapists and the importance of getting help. I wanted to hug her and lie to her that everything would magically fix itself. It won’t. When the fighting is over, the ravaged cities and villages will be populated by broken hearts; some may not see people return at all.

I would never claim to understand how the endless-seeming horror Russia is inflicting on Ukrainians feels. But I do know that even its distant echo has changed me. I know I will never feel safe. I know I will never forget the poisonous feeling of hating those who are responsible. I know the war in Ukraine broke down the mental structures of who I was, what was important and who was “us” and who was “them.”

When I visited the U.K. in April, I was shocked that people were not talking about the war. It had been weeks since I had heard anyone back home broach another subject. How strange, I thought, that children in England were not preparing “war backpacks” as Lithuanian children were, containing food, water, portable chargers and warm clothes in case they were caught at school when bombing began and needed to stay in the shelter.

At that time in Lithuania, people were busy with preparations, getting cash out and everyday supplies ready. When out at our local bar with friends, we asked each other, “Will you stay or will you run?” Most of my friends said they would stay, and I thought I would as well. When we celebrated my dad’s birthday dinner on March 3, in his apartment in Vilnius, we debated the best nearby places to hide from bombings. I grew to resent the fact that the parking garage of my building has a courtyard right above it and bombs would go straight through. We were readying ourselves for an attack that didn’t come — not this time.

On the streets of Vilnius, Ukrainian flags outnumbered Lithuanian ones. You could order the blue-and-yellow flag from local seamstresses, who quickly identified a market niche. From fundraising for Ukrainian refugees and armed forces to art installations, Lithuania lived and breathed Ukraine. Fundraising for a Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drone, initiated by the Lithuanian journalist and activist Andrius Tapinas, exceeded every expectation, raising over $5 million in three days. Organizers held an online vote to name the drone, and it was called Vanagas, meaning “hawk,” after one of the leaders of the Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance, Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas. It is as if the Lithuanian resistance spirit is fighting the Russians in the skies of Ukraine more than 60 years after they lost their battle on Lithuanian soil. As Ukrainian refugees started arriving, at a rate of about 1,000 a day, people offered up their homes for them to share. Stickers in the shape of a heart in Ukrainian colors on staff uniforms of a supermarket chain let people know that an employee was from Ukraine and did not speak Lithuanian.

Around the world, there have been calls — from the leaders of France and Germany to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — to appease Vladimir Putin. There have been delays in Western support for Ukraine. For many in our region, this has met with disbelief, frustration and anger. We have had to redraw the mental map of Europe. We spent decades telling all who would listen that lumping all these different countries under the label of “Eastern Europe” was not productive or informative in a meaningful way. The war divided us between those who understood and those who didn’t.

The Lithuanian independence movement that arose in the late 1980s culminated with the declaration of independence on March 11, 1990. Since then, Lithuania has joined the EU and NATO, a validation of our European identity and a security guarantee marking a decisive break with the past. They are essential for our survival.

While Lithuanians tried to carve out a space in the new post-Soviet Europe, we had to balance our needs with Russia’s interests as well as the West’s ideas of what Russia is and could become. There was a deep disconnect between those ideas and our lived experience of Russia. We were the ones who did not understand Russia, many in the West seemed to believe. We were told that we could not see Russia clearly, that the cataract of our trauma had blurred our vision. “Westsplaining” Russia to Baltic countries became routine in many political corridors in European capitals.

Most people in the West do not understand the fear of losing their lives, their freedom, their country, their identity and their dignity — lucky them. They have not been threatened by an outside force in a very long time. Such fears have become theoretical and meaningless, so empathy can go only so deep until it hits the foundation of self-interest.

But for us, those fears are real. The horror and indignities committed by Russians in Ukraine reverberate through Eastern Europe, to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, where people are recounting how the same atrocities happened on their land decades ago. For those who do understand, there can be no space for economic calculations or mental gymnastics. Standing up to a bully does not make you irrational, even if you fear you may lose.

Unarmed people in Vilnius in January 1991 flocked to protect our Parliament from the Soviet army as a living, singing shield not because they thought they were bulletproof. They did it because some things matter more than being warm, fed and safe while you obey your master.

More than 30 years later, Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom and their right to exist. Lithuanians celebrate their wins and cry for their losses. We admire Ukrainians for their bravery and dignity in their battle for survival. Our part of Europe understands the stakes and knows the enemy. Ukrainians are also fighting for our future.

Eastern Europe shares a past, linked by our trauma and loss. In the future, there is no safety or prosperity for us if Russia wins. The war in Ukraine showed how closely linked we all are. It also showed how imprinted our historical memory is on our identity.

Sometimes I cannot find the right words to speak about this war. I struggle to explain and instead lapse into emotions. But then I hear or come across somebody else’s words that seem to get it just right. For me, it is that ability to understand that marks the boundaries of a natural community. Ironically, with few exceptions, that community is made up of Eastern Europeans. Never mind the labels and stereotypes: Eastern Europeans have something fundamental that unites us. We are survivors.

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