The Epistle of Baltic Hippies
Story by Oleksii Dubrov
Illustrated by Andrii Yermolenko
May 1972 turned out to be surprisingly sunny and warm in Kaunas. The city, once the capital of the Lithuanian Republic, had not suffered much damage during WWII, as opposed to many other European cities such as Rotterdam or Warsaw. The city centre had been preserved and attracted tourists from all over the USSR, hoping to catch a glimpse of “Europe” and breathe the air of relative freedom.
The city’s main street – Laisves Aleya or Liberty Avenue – was distinctive in its charm and serenity. Much of the avenue (whose total length stretches 1.6 km) consisted of two parallel lanes divided by rows of ancient linden trees, carefully placed benches and flowerbeds. The street had retained its original name, although chances had been high it would be renamed “Lenin” or “Soviet” Avenue. In 1972 cars were still allowed to drive on the street, passing by the fronts of two- and three-story pre-revolutionary buildings alongside more modern ones, with little regard. After the war the “competent” city managers commissioned several new drab Soviet structures that didn’t fit in at all with the look of the 600 year old historical city centre.
The right side of the avenue, which was drowning in green and red tulips freshly planted for the upcoming May Day celebrations, was brimming with the aroma of freshly baked bread from the “Konditerija” (meaning the Confectionary). The pleasant fragrance, although diluted by exhaust fumes from brand-new Zhyhuli cars, still tempted hungry students from the faculty of engineering economics at the Kaunas Polytechnical University who were waiting in line. People from all over a country which comprised 1/6 of the land mass of the world traveled here for work, to serve in the army or to visit friends. Visitors were mesmerized by signage using the Latin alphabet, and easily deceived themselves into thinking they had crossed a border. The Baltic people (or the Prebaltic as they were called back then), were considered “different” than the rest of the Soviets. Although they had been forced to join the Soviet Union in 1940, their behavior was quite distinct from the other peoples in the USSR. In the 1970’s women freely wore pants here, when, for example in Kyiv, women adhered to Soviet fashion of the time. For many people, they were some sort of “Soviet Germans.”
Another peculiarity here was the hippie movement. Young people in torn jeans, loose shirts, with long hair, playing guitars. They often gathered around the fountain in Minsk Park near the Musical Theatre and played Luxembourg Rock Radio on their portable tape recorders and radios. The rock station was banned, but the music became an expression of the yearning for freedom. Occasionally, the militsiya (militarized police) or special detachments of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (also known as the Komsomol), would come around, beat them up and chase them away, making a show out of cutting the hippies’ hair. Some of them were arrested and imprisoned for up to 15 days for “petty hooliganism.” In 1971 hippies protested in Grodno (Belarus), Vilnius and Moscow with slogans like “Hands off long hair!”, “Freedom for rock-n-roll!”, “Stop the militsiya terror tactics!” and “All you need is love.” Ukrainian hippies from Lviv actively participated in the protests.
Generally speaking though, most of the city continued to lead its routine Brezhnevite existence.
On Sunday May 14, 1972, clouds darkened the sky. The Kaunas hippies had planned to get together and put on an underground performance of the musical “Hair.” But at 12:30 PM everything changed. A young man with long hair, a mustache and a beard walked up to the fountain. He pulled a three liter can out of his woven mesh bag, poured the contents of the can over himself, yelled out “Freedom for Lithuania!” and lit himself on fire. The park and surrounding area were soon covered by the potent smell of seared flesh with a hint of gasoline. Several people rushed up to the scene, attempting to douse the flames, but the gasoline had done its job. Nearby they found a note that read, “The system alone is responsible for my death.”
The youth died the next day in the hospital from extensive burns. The 19 year old’s name was Romas Kalanta.
Romas Kalanta was born in the city of Alytus in southern Lithuania in February 1953, a few days before Stalin died. His father was a veteran of the most recent war with the Germans and a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). His mother worked in trade. When Romas was ten years old his family moved to Kaunas. His father was given a position as a lecturer in the Polytechnical Institute. Their son was enrolled in School №18. There is evidence that every year the family secretly celebrated Lithuanian Independence Day on February 16th. Apparently, this didn’t interfere with his father’s willingness to cooperate with the occupation government, working as their lackey, or as it is called in Western literature, a “fellow traveler.”
Kalanta was kicked out of the Komsomol in high school after vocalizing anti-government views during a meeting of the History Club. At age 17 Romas was eager to get his high school diploma so that he could attend the seminary (his mother was a devout Catholic). However, he was unable to pass the final exams, so he took a job and attended night school, planning to complete his studies the following year. Several of his friends were in the hippie movement and refused to live the lives of “typical Soviet citizens.” Romas was a poet, played guitar, participated in sports, and occasionally met up with his hippie buddies at Minsk Park on Liberty Avenue. Communists did not approve of people like Romas, their distrust based on the words of Lenin, who said “One cannot live in society and be free from society.” Romas realized that the only way to take control of his life was to commit suicide, determining his own fate through this act of protest.
On May 18 and 19, four days after Kalanta’s death, 3000 schoolchildren and young people came to protest on Liberty Avenue. They chanted anti-Soviet slogans: “Freedom for Lithuania!” and “Russians go home!” The occupation administration arrested over 400 protesters, eight of which were sentenced to several years in prison for “hooliganism.” But that did not stop the Lithuanians from further acts of protest – in 1972 alone, according to official documents, thirteen people followed in the footsteps of Romas Kalanta and self-immolated. The events of May 1972 went down in history as the “Kaunas Spring.” And the city itself was known for some time as Kalantagrad. The hippie movement, already despised by the regime, was repressed, despite the fact that Romas was never an official member. The KGB would never waste such an opportunity.
No matter how hard the communists tried to conceal Kalanta’s act of protest, the Lithuanian diaspora found out about it. And started to speak about it openly. The Lithuanian writer Alantas Vitautas, who was living in the USA at the time, wrote a study in 1976 on Romas Kalanta, and later published three poems about him. More and more Lithuanians heard about Romas and his act of protest while listening to foreign radio broadcasts. Even without the Internet.
Self-immolation is a desperate act, one used when all other forms of protest have been exhausted or there is simply no other way to bring attention to a problem. The first notable act of self-immolation was the suicide of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon (then South Vietnam) on June 11, 1963. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was Catholic. By the next morning, the photograph of the self-immolation had circled the globe, and American President John Kennedy commented that “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” The monk’s act sparked protests, and President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated several months later. The photographer Malcolm Browne won the Pulitzer prize for his photo.
Interestingly, even the Chinese media published the photo of Thich Quang Duc, while the major Soviet newspapers “Pravda” and “Izvestia” completely ignored the event. It may have been because of the religious motivation for the self-immolation, or more likely, because at that time the first female Soviet astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, currently a member of the Russian Duma and rabid supporter of Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, was about to go to space. Her flight and the great victory for “Soviet women and the Party” dominated the headlines for a week. Even when the South Vietnamese president was assassinated in November 1963, there was no mention of the Buddhist monk – the Soviet government did not want to see a repetition of the monk’s protest in the USSR. But when a totalitarian regime prohibits all other means of protest, it can’t be avoided. The self-immolation of Jan Palach, a student in Prague in 1969 became the symbol of the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe. His act was in protest against the use of force to crush the “Prague Spring,” and his funeral turned into a massive political demonstration.
These kinds of protests were not uncommon in Ukraine either. In 1968, a veteran of UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) Vasyl Makukh cried out “Occupiers, get out!” and “Long live a free Ukraine!”, drenched himself with three liters of gasoline and set it on fire. The event took place on Khreshchatyk Street in the center of the capital Kyiv on November 5, just before the annual celebration of the anniversary of the “October Revolution.” The militsiya quickly cordoned off the area of protest, not allowing anyone to see what had happened there.
Around 3:00 AM January 21, 1978, one day before the 60th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Ukrainian National Republic, the dissident Oleksa Hirnyk self-immolated on the deserted Chernecha Hora, or Taras Hill, in Kaniv. He had scattered about a thousand anti-Soviet flyers on the hill before he died, and the next morning most of the flyers were gathered up by the militsiya. The KGB took great lengths to keep his protest quiet.
In October 2020, a veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian War, Mykola Mykytenko, lit himself on fire on Khreshchatyk Street to protest the withdrawal of troops from the line of contact that resulted in the strengthening of the Russian occupation of Donbas. Sadly, even today, there are instances when the government and society stubbornly refuse to listen to their citizens. Neither the incident with Mykytenko, nor those of Makukh and Hirnyk, led to protests or resonated at all in Ukrainian society, as the same kinds of acts did for the Vietnamese, the Czechs and the Lithuanians.
Romas Kalanta never lived in a free Lithuania. The Soviet Union sought to occupy the country for 20 years after the fall of the Russian Empire. They only succeeded in 1940, and the absolute majority of Kalanta’s older peers remembered this. The same happened with Lithuania’s neighbors Latvia and Estonia. After the Soviet army invaded, thousands of their citizens emigrated to the West and established formidable Baltic diaspora communities. They never accepted the occupation and kept contact with their families in their homeland. It was thanks to the diaspora that the residents of the republics wore jeans and listened to forbidden western music.
The Baltic diaspora regularly raised the question of independence with western elites. As a result of their activism, the United States and the NATO member states never recognized the occupation of the Baltic countries. In 1960 and 1983, resolutions were adopted condemning the annexation of the Baltic states and kept the Baltic question on the world’s daily agenda, if only theoretically.
At the end of the 1980’s, the Soviet Union was living out its last years. Ever more frequently the subject of the secret pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany was being discussed publicly – the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in 1939. According to its Secret Protocol, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were awarded to Stalin. The Baltic peoples realized that they were not simply treacherously occupied, but that they had been pawns in the cynical bartering of two totalitarian regimes. They had been treated like slaves. The anger that had been silenced for decades roared onto the streets. On August 23, 1987, the anniversary of the signing of the Pact, the first protests broke out. Exactly one year later, the anti-Soviet demonstration in Vilnius was attended by 250,000 protesters. In 1989 a massive undertaking named the “Baltic Way” united the three countries with a 600 km long human chain. Several months later, Ukrainians followed the Baltic countries’ lead, forming a human chain uniting all of Ukraine.
In the spring of 1990, Latvia and Lithuania made the decision to “re-establish independence.” The choice of words played a decisive role – for fifty years the people had not forgotten who was the enemy and the occupier. Moreover, those who were born and lived in free states were still alive.
The Soviets tried to “restore constitutional order” in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia with the use of force. In January 1991 the Soviet military began occupying administrative buildings in Vilnius. Hundreds of thousands of people came out to protest against them – people surrounded military vehicles, trying to convince the soldiers not to suppress the movement for independence. The worst tragedy happened when the military tried to seize the Vilnius television tower – 14 people were shot and killed by the soldiers. Over the next few days, five more people lost their lives in Latvia. After this loss of life, Moscow essentially retreated, not wanting to risk any more confrontations. The Soviet Union recognized the independence of the three republics on September 9, 1991, just a few months before its official dissolution. This step was supposed to have shown the world that the USSR still had a modicum of control over the situation, but in reality, was the last agonal breath before its final demise.
From the first moments of their renewed independence, the Baltic countries had a clear goal in mind – “to return to Europe.” Concretely, that meant an uncompromising course to join the European Union and NATO. Membership in these organizations was meant to guarantee that the small countries would be secure from any new aggressive actions by Russia – they never forgot how in 1940 they were left to fend for themselves.
Even the one-time “fellow travelers,” who came to power in the first years of re-established independence embraced this goal. Although in Ukraine the communists and members of the Komsomol stayed in leadership positions until the mid 2000’s, in the Baltic countries they hastily ceded their positions to the social-democrats, liberals and right-centre politicians. The first president of Estonia (from 1992 to 2001) was the writer Lennart Meri, who had lived in Europe since 1970. The Baltic diaspora was quick to join the process of transformation in their homelands, came in as consultants, members of government and even heads of state: Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (1999 – 2007) was a Canadian citizen, the President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus (2004 – 2009) and the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Llves (2006 – 2016) were American citizens. Their backgrounds and western values markedly sped up the reform process and the incorporation of the Baltic countries into the European Union and NATO. The question of whether people from the diaspora were “one of us” or “foreigners” never came up: not too long ago these same people were sending contraband jeans to their families.
Deregulation of the economy, lowering taxes, massive privatization, the break-up of outdated business affiliations at first led to hyperinflation and a sharp decline in the economy. This is the reason why reformers who are first are traditionally reviled. However, allowing the reforms to reach their logical conclusions, permitted Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to see stable economic growth several times the magnitude of other European countries in the 2000’s and 2010’s. That tendency has continued today – and has earned the countries the nickname “Baltic Tigers.” In 2020 the Estonian and Latvian tax systems were awarded first and second place, respectively, in the ratings of OECD countries.
Indeed, the support of western countries played a key role. In the 1990’s, the United States and the United Kingdom kept putting pressure on Russia to pull their troops out from the Baltic countries. The Russian Federation was weakened at the time and could not retain its influence in the region. This was the ideal time for reforms and to move towards Europe.
Estonia acted boldly and took the most radical steps. The reform of the civil service deserves both respect for its decisiveness and condemnation for its “anti-democratic” methods (Europe was disturbed by those methods). In 1992 the Estonian government fired all of its civil servants. After reforming its government institutions, they announced a hiring of new employees. In one fell swoop they were able to fill the civil service with new faces, motivated to make changes. This reform ended up being the most effective instrument to fight corruption in the country. And there was no collapse of the system.
When outmoded norms are ineffective, clenching on to them because of a fear that “the whole system will collapse” is not a reason to keep them around. In 2016 the Ministry of Health of Ukraine did away with Order 33, which designated typical employee rosters for medical facilities. The political and trade union cronies literally panicked wailing: “physicians are all going to quit,” “the system is going to collapse,” “salaries will plummet” and so on. There was no catastrophe – the hospitals didn’t close down, and medical staff were not kicked out into the streets. What happened was the exact opposite of what had been feared – the facilities gained the ability to form their own organizational structure that best fit their needs. Deputy Minister of Health Pavlo Kovtoniuk (2016 – 2019) characterized the abolition of Order 33 as a step toward free market principles for the facilities:
The National Academies of Sciences of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia could not escape the cuts of the Baltic “knife.” Their rigid hierarchical structure consisting of a Presidia, an exorbitant amount of staff and unnecessary real estate holdings were irrational and in total contradiction to the spirit of the transformation underway. Many of the research staff were transferred to universities, and thousands of administrative personnel were dismissed. Unneeded real estate was sold. The organizational structure was changed to resemble that of European scientific associations and the majority of funding was converted to financing via grants. Scientific research gradually reoriented its focus from Russia to the West, and the number of articles published rapidly increased. The workforce at research facilities in Latvia dropped almost threefold over a two year period of time – from 18,000 in 1990 to 7,000 in 1992. By 2001 there were no more than 6,000 personnel. But in the same time period, the number of published articles doubled. Lithuania and Estonia went through similar transformations, and their publications increased by a factor of four.
The publications improved in quality as well as increasing in quantity. Today, articles published by Baltic researchers appear high up in the rankings of most cited articles, and their impact factor increases every year. Tellingly, starting in the late 1980’s, the impact factor has had an inverse relationship with the progressive refusal of publication in Russian journals – the lower the number of articles published in Russian journals, the higher the impact factor of Baltic research papers.
In Ukraine however, Boris Paton who was head of the National Academy of Sciences for 58 years until his death at the age of 101, is praised for the fact that he “saved the National Science Academy of Ukraine from falling apart and being ransacked.” But is it truly an achievement to save decrepit, old, needless, and redundant buildings that don’t even have heat, and that cannot be financially maintained? In fact, the surplus of unnecessary real estate breeds corruption: in March 2021 a deputy director of one of the Academy’s institutes, a doctor of technical studies, was caught taking a bribe from a private business owner. The deputy director was being paid off to (illegally) rent an unused Academy building to the businessman. The exact same story was repeated three months later at another of the Academy’s institutes.
In 1991 we “declared” independence from scratch. Our historical memory of the Ukrainian National Republic was basically destroyed – after an occupation that lasted 20 years longer than that of the Baltic states, and narrowly survived the Holodomor and Stalin’s purges. In the Proclamation of Independence of Ukraine, the accent was on external circumstances and some abstract notion of “a thousand-year tradition of state-building”:
Were the 1990’s an ideal time for reforms in Ukraine as they were in the Baltic countries? It is naïve to believe they were. At the time there was an enormous societal demand for change, and Russia was busy with countless internal issues of its own. However, we couldn’t count on the same amount of support from the West and the Ukrainian elites were more inclined to choose “stability” over real reform. As opposed to the Baltic states, we were unable to set clearly defined goals. Legend has it that when assuming his position as Prime Minister of Ukraine in 1992, Leonid Kuchma offered the members of Parliament a proposition: “Tell me what we are building here, and I will build it for you.” There was no concrete response. And so, the director of a factory built a factory.
The diaspora was never made to feel welcome in the new Ukrainian state. Many reforms were initiated, but never completed, despite the modest nature of the changes proposed. The reform of land sales and decentralization have only just begun in the thirtieth year of independence, while the Baltic states completed these reforms in the first years of their renewed statehood. There is no point in comparing the progress or lack thereof made in law enforcement, the court system and internal security. The road we have chosen to travel has proven to be longer, but in the end was the right one.
A massive quantity of Russian nationals flooded into the Baltic states (and into Ukraine) during Soviet times. It got so bad that in 1989 Russians in Latvia and Estonia made up one-third of the population, and in Lithuania – 10%. Understanding that Russia will manipulate the ethnic question for its own political gain, Latvia and Estonia awarded citizenship only to those who had been citizens of those countries before World War II and to their progeny. They adopted the principle of ethnic and not territorial ancestry. This principle also helped the diaspora to quickly return and take part in the transformation of their ancestral homeland. Russians were required to “naturalize” – that is, prove that they know the national language, history and laws. To this day, at least a third of Russians have not taken advantage of the process and have not applied for citizenship. And Russia exploits this fact, declaring to the world that they are being discriminated against. Unfortunately, the European Union fans the flame, complaining about “violations of human rights.” Ukraine, on the other hand, adopted a “wipe the slate clean” policy and awarded Ukrainian citizenship to anyone who was living on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR, with no other requirements. The results of this policy can be seen in Crimea and heard in the sound of gunfire in Eastern Ukraine today.
Swift and decisive reforms, a clear-cut path in their foreign policy, and consistent support from the West earned the Baltic states a place at the table with the European club of nations. In 2004, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were granted membership in the European Union and NATO. However, it turned out that their problems didn’t end there.
After Russia occupied a portion of Georgia in 2008 and the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and then started an ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, the Baltic countries have seriously confronted the task of strengthening their defences. The aggression of their northern neighbor, clearly displaying its imperialistic ambitions, is a good reason to safeguard against a new annexation. The invasion could come from the west as easily as from the east since the Kaliningrad region is the most militarized area in Europe. The only physical connection between the Baltic countries and their NATO allies is a thin 104 km long sliver of land on the border of Lithuania and Poland, sandwiched between the Russian Federation and Belarus, known as the Suwalki Gap. If the Gap is captured by the Russians, the defense of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will become extremely complicated.
NATO has increased its deployment in the region and the United States has decided not to pull its troops out of Poland. These steps are only symbolic for now, but theoretically should prevent Russia from making any ill-advised moves. Lithuania recently broadened their criteria for those who apply for government jobs to decrease the likelihood of espionage. If the applicant has family in Russia, they may very well not be hired for the position. Only time will tell if this will be enough.
Regardless of the inherent risks, the Baltic states continue to demonstrate to the world their rejection of communist ideology – they are well aware of what it represents. In February 2021, China organized another one of its “17 + 1” summits, inviting countries from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. The meeting’s objective was to lobby the economic, political and cultural interests of China on the European continent, including advancing the “New Silk Road” initiative. Poland’s President personally attended the summit, while Estonia and Latvia only sent their Ministers of Foreign Affairs. The most notable slap in the face of Beijing came from Lithuania – they sent their Minister of Transportation, and since then Lithuania has left the “17 + 1” group. In July 2021 the Lithuanian government gave the go-ahead for Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius. Lithuania and China have already withdrawn their respective ambassadors since communist China unconditionally regards Taiwan as part of their territory.
Ukraine has not yet adopted such a principled stand. The sale of “Motor Sich” to the Chinese has become a political scandal. The first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, has remained a communist in theory and in practice – since 2006 he is the Honorary President of the “Ukraine-China” Society founded by the oligarch Hryhoriy Surkis. In his role as the honorary president, Kravchuk traveled to China at the invitation of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. A year later he “highly praised” the strategy of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Davyd Arakhamia, the leader of the Servant of the People faction in the Ukrainian Parliament, was so taken with the wisdom of Xi Jinping, that he personally assisted in the translation into Ukrainian and publication of the Chinese leader’s book on governance. One of the chapters of the book is titled “Carry on the Enduring Spirit of Mao Zedong Thought.” Just one expression of Mao’s enduring spirit, the Cultural Revolution, cost the Chinese people 20 million lives.
To better understand how China regards Ukraine, simply look at the official website of the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine – no Ukrainian language version of the site exists. There are a few news items written in Ukrainian, the rest of the site is in Chinese and Russian. But that has not stopped Sergey Shefir, one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s top aides, from signing a contract to sell the rights to broadcast a cartoon series “Gulliver’s Return” produced by “Kvartal 95” on Chinese television. The official signing ceremony in September 2021 was attended by the Chinese Ambassador to Ukraine Fan Xianrong. It’s hard to imagine something similar happening in Lithuania, Ukraine’s fellow victim of communist occupation.
A clear position on debatable issues is a trait of a mature society. Ukraine did not have such clear positions for centuries, let alone for the last thirty years. And, we certainly lacked the fortitude to make complex and unpopular decisions. These weaknesses were adroitly manipulated by Russia. Although not as successfully as they would have hoped – in the end, the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity triumphed in Ukraine. The more time goes by, the more the following axiom is solidified: when you strike out at one Ukrainian, five more will greet the aggressor. Today this new cultural phenomenon is our collective response putting to rest the myth: “my house is on the outskirts, I don’t know anything.” And this is by no means a concept inherited from the 1990’s. In this we have become more like our Baltic friends. We are moving forward, albeit with obstacles in our path, but at least we are moving in the right direction.
The full-out invasion of Russia into Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022, did not surprise too many people. But none of the “experts” believed there would arise a massive resistance against the world’s second largest army led by a mailman from the Ukrainian Postal Service, an ex-bartender and even an old lady armed with only a jar of pickles. That strength demonstrated by Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Mykolayiv, Berdyansk, Melitopol, Mariupol and many other cities, small towns and residential areas, has already nullified the false narrative about “two Ukraines” created by Russian political consultants. There is no East or West Ukraine. There are no cities that have “russian” or “halytsky” culture. There is only one Ukraine. The one that has its own place on the map. The one that has the chance to end the struggle against the “Russkiy mir” (Russian World) that has been slithering its way into Ukraine for centuries. The one Ukraine that is fighting a real war for independence right now, incinerating the Russians like nobody has ever been able to do until now, with righteous fire.
“History is written by the victors” is a quote attributed to Napoleon. And it is fair in itself. Ukrainian history textbooks were composed in Moscow for a very long time. Regardless of what they fabricated there, the nation’s collective memory is more powerful. It is what drives our actions in the war today. On March 8, 2022, Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, never abandoning his beloved home town of Kharkiv, wrote on Twitter: “History is not only being rewritten today – it is being rewritten in the Ukrainian language,” by the Victorious.
Liberty Avenue (or Laisves Aleya) in Kaunas has not changed much with the passage of time. Although their facades have been well-groomed and freshly painted, the same two to three story cozy buildings that the student Romas Kalanta would have passed by remain. Today, dozens of cafes and restaurants serving local and international cuisine have replaced the “Konditerija.” The aroma of coffee, pizza and perfume are now mixed in with the smell of baking bread. The exhaust fumes from Zhyhuli have disappeared.
An eyewitness to Kalanta’s death, Romualdas Balchis, in an interview with the Lithuanian media “15 Min” could not confirm that Romas yelled out “Glory to Lithuania” right before he lit himself on fire. Whether it is true or a historical myth, the 19-year-old student continues to symbolize the fight of the Baltic states for the reestablishment of their independence. It was not mere coincidence that he chose the location of his act of protest on an avenue not far from the Musical Theater, where in 1940 the “People’s Council” was forced to vote, under the barrel of a gun, to approve the incorporation of Lithuania into the USSR.
Since 2002, May 14th, the day Kalanta self-immolated, has been commemorated in Lithuania as a national holiday. That was the year a memorial, the “Field of Victims” by sculptors Robertas Antinis and Saulus Juskis, was dedicated on the site of Kalanta’s act of protest. The cast iron sheets of metal embedded in the ground represent the pages of history damaged by the flames. They are complemented by nineteen stones commemorating each year in Kalanta’s life. Every year schoolchildren in the once again independent Lithuania place flowers at the memorial. They pay tribute to their fellow student with a moment of silence, and sing songs by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and others.
“There must be some kind of way outta here…” are the first words of Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower,” which came out five years before Romas Kalanta’s protest. It is very likely that Romas heard that song. And wrestled with the same question. Ukrainians, it seems, have discovered the answer.
Other stories written by Oleksii Dubrov
Other stories illustrated by Andrii Yermolenko