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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Changes in the weather amid reminders of how times have changed (for the better)

Gediminas Castle seen from the Neris River boat tour

What's happened to the run-up to summer? After a nice stretch of sunny skies and pleasant temperatures in the high teens/low twenties Celsius, the weather here has taken a cool turn, dropping into the low teens during the day (and even lower once the sun has gone down), and with raindrops starting to fall more frequently. I've been told that this is what the weather is usually like in June in Lithuania, while being assured that once summer is here, it'll be warm and sunny...and short, before the long, dark winter begins to set in.

Saturday was particularly chilly and drizzly, but the three of us still took part in a one-hour boat tour along the Neris River in Vilnius (organized by the embassy's Community Liaison Officer):


Some of the bridges spanning the river had large objets d'art hanging beneath them. The one pictured below I first thought was some sort of cantilever to reinforce the steel span, which goes to show how little I know about both art and engineering:


The northern bank of the river features a lot of modern buildings with some striking designs, though most of them could not be seen from the boat (architects appear to have been given a relatively free reign as part of an effort to develop a cultural zone of sorts). This more conservative-looking building in the foreground is the National Gallery of Art:


Some older structures can also be seen, however: 


On the southern bank sits Gediminas Hill, with the remains of its castle looming over Old Town: 


As the boat neared the dock at the end of the tour, we passed by the Energy and Technology Museum, housed in the former Vilnius Power Plant (1903):


Truth be told, while it might seem like a pleasant ride on a warm, sunny afternoon (preferably with an alcoholic beverage in hand while relaxing on a deck chair), there wasn't that much to see from the river. Vilnius is a city best explored on foot, which we did on Sunday, though what we saw this afternoon could certainly not be described as pleasant. A few weekends ago we visited the forests of Paneriai, where 100,000 people (70% of whom were Jews) were executed by the Nazis and their local collaborators. Today we stopped in at the Museum of Genocide Victims, appropriately housed in the former headquarters of the KGB (and also of the Gestapo, as well as the Polish and Tsarist Russian occupiers before them), and dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians deported, imprisoned or murdered by the Soviet Union from 1940 to the 1960's:



The first and second floors of the museum house exhibits explaining the history of Lithuania's experience as a Soviet Socialist Republic, beginning with the annexation of the country following the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the first round of deportations of Lithuanians from their homeland that followed in its wake: 



A great deal of attention is given to the Forest Brothers, a group of partisans who took up resistance against the Red Army after the Nazis had been driven out in 1944. Their heroic but ultimately futile fight for independence lasted until 1953, with over 20,000 of them dying in the struggle:





The forced deportations of Lithuanian civilians to remote parts of the Soviet Union resumed following the end of World War II in 1945 and lasted until Josef Stalin's death in 1953. In all, 130,000 people (70% of them women and children) were put on cattle cars and transported from Lithuania. 28,000 died from poor living conditions, and only 60,000 ever succeeded in eventually returning home:





Amber reads about how children were not spared from the ordeal:


The worst excesses of the Soviet occupation were largely over by the start of the 1960's, but the KGB worked hard to ensure that Lithuanian identity remained suppressed:


In this room KGB agents listened in on private conversations:


My daughter poses in front of some KGB uniforms:


The aspirations for an end to Soviet dominance and occupation were always there, however. Romas Kalanta was a high-school student how immolated himself in 1972 in protest against Soviet rule, which led to disturbances in the city of Kaunas:


The USSR stagnated during the Brezhnev years, which eventually led to the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, and with him glasnost гла́сность and perestroika перестро́йка. These, in turn, had the unforeseen effect of unleashing nationalist feelings among the various republics of the Soviet Union, and nowhere was this more evident than in the Baltic republics:


Lithuania first declared its independence in 1990, which in turn led to the January Events of 1991, Soviet military actions that resulted in the deaths of 14 people: 



With the failed coup attempt in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania's independence was finally restored, and the Lenin statues quickly came down:


Just on the basis of the exhibits on the first and second floors alone, the Museum of Genocide Victims would be worth a visit. What makes it a must-see for anyone trying to understand Lithuania today is what lies in the basement. Here are located the cramped, gloomy cells where political prisoners were housed for questioning by the KGB:



The hallways are surprisingly long, coming as a surprise after the relatively compact display areas on the upper floors:



One of the offices for the guards. Note the portrait on the wall of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky Фе́ликс Эдму́ндович Дзержи́нский, a figure reviled throughout the former Soviet bloc:


Adolfas Ramanauskas, one of the more prominent leaders of the postwar Lithuanian partisans, was one of many who met a gruesome end in the basement:


This padded cell was not designed for the mentally unstable (though political prisoners were often officially classified as being "insane" by Soviet authorities). The padding was used to muffle the screams of the prisoners who were being tortured within its confines:


In the room pictured below, prisoners were forced to balance on a small platform surrounded by ice-cold water (or in winter, ice). Each time they dozed off, they would fall into the water:


During the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, these same rooms were used by the Gestapo and there is a small exhibit on the horrors suffered by the Jews (including graffiti scratched onto the walls by the prisoners):






The focus of the museum, is on the abuses at the hands of the KGB (presumably because there are other monuments to Lithuania's Jewish victims, and perhaps because of the unpleasant truth that many of them died at the hands of Lithuanian collaborators working under the direction of the Nazis):


The final exhibit is the most wrenching. Past the exercise courtyard outdoors...:


...is a set of stairs that leads down to an execution chamber. It was in here that between 1944 and the early 1960's, more than a thousand prisoners were executed, most of them by a bullet to the skull. Visitors walk on glass floors, under which lie items such as glasses and shoes that belong to the victims:


In the last room of the execution chamber, a video playing on a continuous loop shows the coldly efficient manner in which the prisoners were dispensed with:


As I wrote earlier, the Museum of Genocide Victims goes a long way toward giving visitors an understanding of why Lithuanians today are so wary of their Russian neighbors, and why the country places so much importance on its membership in the European Union and NATO (not to mention its relationship with the United States):


Amber enjoys a much-needed dessert break in a cafe on Gedimino prospektas following our visit to the museum. Just as she did in Paneriai, my daughter handled herself well when coming face-to-face with the darker side of humanity. My hope is that she will take from visits to places like these the necessity to make sure history never repeats itself:


I'm not sure what my wife took away from the museum. Halfway through our exploration of the basement (but before venturing down into the execution chamber), Shu-E announced she was going home due to a bout of gastrointestinal difficulty. I suspect the real reasons were more uncomfortable for her than a trip to the toilet. What the KGB did to the citizens of Lithuania (the arrests, tortures and executions of thousands) was strikingly similar to what the secret police of the Kuomintang 國民黨 did to the people of Taiwan during the White Terror era. Like many Taiwanese, she's largely ignorant of history as it pertains to the world outside of Greater China, but she knows what was going on in her homeland during her school years and on into early adulthood. Her father was a police officer with the KMT during the period of martial law, and to be frank I have no idea if he was ever involved in the arrest of anyone for political offenses, or whether he was just an ordinary cop on the beat. And most likely I'll never find out. Shu-E is the product of a waishengren 外省人 father and a benshengren 本省人 mother, fluent in both Mandarin and Taiwanese, but conflicted about her identity. She's a diehard supporter of the Chinese Nationalist Party and believes in "One China", but at the same time a proud Taiwanese, who speaks Taiwanese Mandarin and misses Taiwanese food. I'm afraid to ask her about the torture cells and execution chambers of her homeland, or if she thinks that Taiwan needs its own Museum of Genocide Victims, because I haven't a clue as to what her answers would be. Amber, eventually, will make the obvious connections, and I hope I'll be able at least to answer whatever questions she may have.









































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