Lithuanians uncover their grim Stalinist past
New York — THE single-page form is titled ``Questionnaire of the Oppressed.'' When Soviet-Lithuanian sociologist Arvydas Matulionis came to the United States in mid-October, he brought a stack of the forms with him - ``about this thick,'' he said, indicating two centimeters of space between his thumb and forefinger. By the time he left Oct. 22, they were all gone. The questionnaire marks the start of an effort to document the extent of Stalinist repression of Lithuanians. Until a year ago, this repression was categorically denied by Soviet authorities. Even now it has not been wholly acknowledged.
In Lithuania - as in Estonia and Latvia - Stalinism is coupled with the loss of independence. It was Joseph Stalin who forcibly annexed all three Baltic republics to the Soviet Union during World War II. (Between 1918 and August 1940, the three were independent republics.)
Throughout the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev's call for glasnost (openness) has brought many ugly truths about Stalin's rule to light. Soviets are now openly discussing previously suppressed facts about Stalin's purges and labor camps. But in the Baltic states, the reassessment of his rule goes one step further: It implicitly questions Soviet sovereignty over the republics.
One catalyst for uncovering this aspect of Stalin's rule is the independent, yet officially tolerated, Lithuanian Reform Movement, known as Sajudis. Formed in early June, Sajudis has gained between 180,000 and 200,000 supporters. Its 35-member executive committee includes leading writers, artists, scientists, and professors.
The personal histories of many Sajudis leaders reflect the complex, mostly tragic, events that overwhelmed Lithuanian society 50 years ago amid invasions by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II: Some hail from families who fell victim to Stalinist repression; others, from those targeted by fascists. Some are Communist Party members seeking to build a bridge between the authorities and the movement; others are a step shy of outright dissent.
Four executive committee members were in the US this past September: poet Sigitas Geda, newspaper editor Algimantas Cekuolis, environmental expert Ceslovas Kudaba, and theater actor Regimantas Adomaitis. In Monitor interviews, they offered reminiscences that illuminated Lithuania's secret history.
That very secrecy has impeded the process of establishing hard statistics. According to Western scholars and Lithuanian emigr'ee sources, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported between 1940 - when the three Baltic republics were annexed - and 1953, when Stalin died.
To consolidate control over all three countries, Stalin ordered massive deportations of target groups. Among these were non-communist leftist leaders, wealthy capitalists, clergy, farmers (Lithuania had a primarily agricultural economy), and political and cultural leaders from the pre-war societies. The deportation policy went into effect on June 14, 1941; over four nights, 35,000 people were taken away from Lithuania alone. A week later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Lithuania was occupied in a matter of days.
By 1945, Lithuania had lost an estimated 15 percent of its pre-war population of 2.9 million people, including almost all Lithuanian Jews. Yet, with the return of the Red Army in late 1944, the deaths did not stop. The deportations resumed - this time coupled with a guerrilla war against Soviet forces that dragged on until 1953, at a cost of about 50,000 lives.
Poet Sigitas Geda, now 45, was a child when the guerrilla war and deportations were at their peak in the late 1940s. With his broad face, unruly mane of black hair and bushy beard streaked with grey, Geda resembles a lion, and in Lithuania he is considered to be a literary one: He has 15 books of poetry, translations, and other works to his credit.
Mr. Geda told a hushed audience of about 270 Lithuanian-Americans at a conference in Michigan that his childhood was peopled with the images of a vanquished Lithuania. The son of a peasant farmer, he witnessed the deportations of farmers to Siberia. He saw the war's physical remnants of the war, as the fleeing Germans abandoned caches of weapons that children later played with. The countryside, recalled Geda, ``was filled with invalids who got too close to [live] ammunition.''
Geda also recalled the Lithuanian guerrilla war. Both guerrilla and Soviet soldiers banged on his family's door, demanding food, shelter, and threatening to kill family members if they helped the other side.
Geda dubbed this time ``postwar surrealism.'' He says it all found a way into his poetry eventually. ``On the one hand, there was this wild nature, with its lakes and forests, in which we could immerse ourselves,'' Geda explains, ``and on the other hand, there were these maimed people ... and collectivization, which finally broke Lithuania.''
His thoughts were echoed by actor Regimantas Adomaitis, a tall, lanky man whose sonorous voice has been heard in three dozen films and two dozen plays, including ``King Lear'' and ``Of Mice and Men.'' Born in 1937, Mr. Adomaitis has distinct memories of the war and the deportations that followed.
``We lived in a village,'' Adomaitis recalls. ``The war years went by, the front went by, all these monstrosities of war went by, and in the post-war years, such hardship. ... You saw that this one was taken away, that one was taken away.'' His mother, he says, began to dry bread ``to prepare ourselves for that one fine day when we, too, would be taken away.''
Algimantas Cekuolis, the silver-haired editor-in-chief of the weekly Soviet-Lithuanian newspaper Native Land, has a different story. Sporting a tan and aviator glasses, the dapper Mr. Ce-kuolis started pushing for pere-stroika in his newspaper over two years ago, long before other Soviet Lithuanian publications did so. In the past year, Native Land has become a major forum for articles critical of the deportations and Stalinist repression.
But during the 1940s, things were different. By 1948, Cekuolis - who was born in 1932 and had served as an altar boy in his village church - was in Moscow at the Gorky Institute of Literature. There, he admits, ``I became a sort of Stalinist.''
Cekuolis refers to his homeland sometimes as ``Lithuania'' and sometimes as ``the Soviet Union.'' After joining the Communist Party, his career, spanning nearly 30 years, often required that he be representative of the latter. As a Soviet news agency bureau chief in Portugal in the late 1970s and in Spain between 1981 and 1986, Cekuolis's duties included generating positive articles about his country in the local press. In essence, he explains ``my job was public relations for the Soviet Union.'' Yet it was in his first assignment, to Cuba in the early 1960s, that Cekuolis saw a connection to Lithuania. In Cuba, where he claims to have been a translator for Che Guevara, he saw a ``surrogate of the Lithuanian revolution which never happened - which is happening now.''
In Lithuania, since the lid lifted on the secret deportations, floodgates to memory have been opened. Sociologist Matulionis says that between 150-200 letters are received daily at the Institute for Philosophy, Sociology and Justice in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. There, some 20 to 30 Sajudis members are involved in the documentation.
Time is set aside, Matulionis explains, for people to make statements in person; there are always long queues, mostly of old people. For some, the process is cathartic, ``but for others, there is still a mechanism of fear - especially those who were deported twice.'' Only two of the commission's workers know where the documents are kept, although Matulionis speculated that the KGB could probably find out if it wanted to.
The KGB has not been silent about the Stalinist past. When some of Sajudis's leaders had a 2-hour interview with KGB Gen. Edvardas Eismuntas in late August, the past was the first topic of discussion.
General Eismuntas concedes that the first wave of deportations in 1941 was ``bad [sloppy] professionalism.'' But he disputed the total number of people deported. He said it was 120,000, while the Sajudis commission claims the true figure was closer to 300,000.
Matulionis casts a wide net over who are considered victims of Stalinism. He includes Lithuanian communists from the late 1930s who vanished in Stalin's purges before World War II as well as many Lithuanian emi-gr'es in the US. ``They didn't leave their homeland willingly, but because they were frightened,'' explains Mautlionis.
Documentation isn't the only goal. ``You can write everything off to Stalin,'' he says. ``But concrete people did this. They could have done it because they had no other choice, because they themselves would have been shot. But there were also those people who showed real initiative, who were really sadists.''
A list of such people, says Matulionis, should be made public. Many of the guilty are now old; such a list would be a heavy punishment, he says, causing them to be shunned by their neighbors. ``That ... would be much worse than sitting in jail.''
Matulionis' own family members, known for their communist leanings, did not remain untouched by tragedy. His father - who later became Soviet Lithuanian Minister for Forestry, Agriculture and Industry - and uncle retreated east during the Nazi onslaught in 1941. It was then that ``my grandparents were shot,'' he explains, ``by their neighbors.'' Their crime: ``being the parents of Bolsheviks.''
``I will never forget this. But there are so few Lithuanians and we cannot begin such a blood revenge. ... We have to research the whole of history, research what happened on one side, what happened on the other. You cannot keep changing history like a glove.''