- -  Day # 19  + +

EU > Lithuania > Kaunas

Independent Lithuania

Kaunas, LT (View on map)

Lithuania has an exciting history and ownership of the territory has shifted in all directions from the 14th century onwards. Many struggles for independence have taken place over the last centuries. Once part of a Polish-Lithuanian Empire, then temporarily independent, subsequently occupied by Russia, then conquered by the Germans, and after World War II, involuntarily included in the Soviet Union. In 1990, it declared independence again and in 2004, it even joined the NATO and the European Union. While Lithuania`s roots go a long way back, it is one of Europe`s youngest nation. Today, I am interviewing young people about how much they remember of the separation from the Soviet Union, and which traces were left behind as the Soviet troops withdrew.

Tadas (26):

`The fact that Lithuanians could barely travel before 1990 motivates me to go explore the world`
After decades of suppression, nationalistic feelings among the Lithuanian population started to revive in the late 1980s. Lithuanians were no longer scared enough to hide their feelings about the occupation. Lithuanian songs became more popular, politicians started to secretly travel to Europe to have discussions with other politicians and change was in the air. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia created the Baltic Road: on a day in August 1989, they installed a chain of no less than 2 million people on the highway from Tallin all the way to Vilnius to protest against the Soviet suppression.

Tadas (26, photo) does not remember a lot of the time before independence: `That memory has faded out like a foggy dream, but I perfectly know that many things have changed.` He tells about how it was impossible for him and his family to visit relatives in the United States. Still today, that is motivating him to travel to the West to discover what is happening there. Ironically enough, Lithuanians now need visa to travel to Russia, whereas before 1990, the Soviet Union was the only place they could travel to without one. For Europe, the same is true in the exact other way around.

Lithuania had declared independence in 1990, but the Red Army preserved its presence in the country. A year of uncertainty had begun, with the economy barely function due to import restrictions by the Soviet Union. According to my respondents, the Soviet soldiers were instructed to provoke riots, but the diplomatic forces in Lithuania proved strong enough to counteract revenge acts from the Lithuanian side.

When the Red army were forced to move out, by the beginning of 1991 - that is when the real trouble started. The Soviets refused to withdraw. Instead, they occupied strategical points throughout Lithuania to keep control of the information streams. One key location in the events was the radio tower in Vilnius, where 13 Lithuanians got killed during the Soviet attack. Tadas remembers the moment of this battle, but not fot the battle itself. It was his 10th birthday and he was eating a three-coloured cake at the moment Lithuanian history would take another turn.

At the climax of these hectic and stressful time, Lithuanians were convoked to help defend strategic locations by a human shield and many responded to this request. Rita (30) remembers how, at the time, she did not exactly know what was going on. During one night, her parents had left to join the demonstrations. Tadas tells me the exact same story and both him and Rita claim that the massive number of people kept the Soviets from beating down the demonstrations. After a few days of high tension, the Red Army withdrew and Lithuania became the first independent former Soviet Republic. Latvia and Estonia soon followed suit.

The Lithuanian road to freedom has been remarkably peaceful, in spite of a death toll of 13 due to the mentioned fightings at the Vilnius Radio Tower.

Mixed feelings
Even nowadays, Russians is still looked at with ambiguous feelings. `You never know what is happening there`, is something I hear more than once when asking about the relation between Lithuania and Russia. Lithuania does not share borders with Russia, but it is commonly believed that Russian spies are present and active on Lithuanian territory. Many Lithuanians, especially those over 30, speak perfect Russian and in this way, Lithuania is an excellent country for Russian intelligence services to collect information about what is going on in the European Union and beyond. Vilius (27) yesterday told me about a recent incident with a Russian MiG, that crashlanded on Lithuanian territory last year. It is generally believed that this was a Russian action to check the NATO protection system. Which in turn proved rather lousy as nothing was done to prevent the fighter jet from even entering Lithuanian airspace.

Despite all this, there is no specific hostility between native Lithuanians and the Russian minority living on their soil. There are no feelings of revenge against the Russians, and Lithuania is at ease with its past. Unlike Poland, where politicians still see ennemies around every corner. Economically and socially speaking, Lithuania is behaving more like Slovenia: it has chosen its own path to growth and has an ambitious outlook on the future.

Enlarge photo | Link to this article