Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 6

On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops moved in on the Vilnius TV Tower, occupied by dissident Lithuanians bent on independence. Thirteen of the protesters were killed, but the Soviet army lacked the will to continue the crackdown and withdrew. Lithuania had won its independence, and the last of the Soviet troops were gone form the country by September 1993, even before they had pulled out of East Germany.

The bitterness, even hatred, that many Lithuanians feels for Russia is understandable.
After a few years of independence that began in 1918, Poland occupied a large chunk of The Soviet Union annexed the whole country in 1940. From 1941 to 1944, Lithuania was occupied by the Nazis, with whom Lithuania sided, out of disdain for the Soviets.

I have found it difficult to get Lithuanians to talk about World War II. They're not at all proud of their collaboration. Five years ago, I pressed Zigmus Mackievicus, the superintendent of school in Rokiskis, to explain what occurred in his town then. "It's nothing something that we choose to remember here," he said. "What happened was that the Germans came, they gathered all the Jewish people together, took them into the forest at the edge of the town and shot them."

More than 240,000 Jews died in Lithuania during the occupation.

But it is the Soviet Union, more specifically Russia, that is the object of Lithuanian ire. The Soviets built resorts for their communist party faithful here, sucked away its agricultural produce, drafted its boys into its army and forced everyone to learn Russian in school and to use that language in education, business and government.

My friend Julia Machlina is hesitant to visit Lithuania and the other Baltic states, for fear that she will be treated badly as a native Russian and a Russian speaker, even though her father is Jewish and her mother Ukrainian. But all Lithuanians I have met have told me that they feel no animosity toward Russian people, only for their former government.

Being an American abroad these days is no different. I have been in countries where American foreign policy is decried, where our president is considered a villain and a war criminal. Yet I have never been treated anything but cordially; no one has ever blamed me for the actions of my government. Most people can make the distinction between the rulers and the ruled. And we can be thankful for that.

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