46 Years of Communist Rule in Lithuania
The church window on the left is from pre-Soviet Lithuania; the one on the right shows what church windows looked like during the Soviet occupation.
In grade school, my father showed me newspaper photos of Lithuanian women standing in multiple lines to procure enough food to make supper. He told me of farmers who were “given” their own land, then required to give most of it back to the state. The farmer and his family were lucky to have one meal a day. Thousands were sent to gulags in Siberia.
Later I learned that Lithuania, along with its Eastern Bloc neighbors, had been given to the Soviets by the Allies as part of a settlement following WWII. That did not sit well with either my father or grandfather. How fortunate we were that my grandfather immigrated well before the dark clouds of Nazism, fascism and communism shadowed Europe.
When, in 1990, Lithuania was finally freed, I wanted to celebrate with my father, but he had died nine months earlier. What joy it would have given him had he lived to see it. In his memory, I decided to feel the joy of two people.
Still, the possibility of going there was remote. I didn't know the language and most of its people who spoke a second language had been taught Russian. Until recently, tours of Lithuania were scarce.
Then wonder of wonders. Our daughter married a man from Lithuania, Arturas, and before I knew it he and his sister Janina, who still lives Lithuania, arranged the most fabulous personal tour one could imagine. Both are multi-lingual and proficient English speakers.
Janina (pronounced Yah-neen-ah) arranged tours all over the beautiful old cities and wooded countrysides. Most thrilling for me was a tour of my grandfather's home town, Birzai. Before our arrival, Janina had researched and found a second cousin of mine, Algis Yuktonis. He and his family treated us to a lovely lunch, showed us where my grandfather and his siblings were born and where his ancestors were buried.
I learned that my maiden name, Yuktonis, was supposed to be spelled Juktonis. Since the "J" in Lithuanian is pronounced as a "Y," it became a "Y" upon entry into the U.S.
I can only imagine how different my life might have been had I sat in the middle of the classroom with a surname starting with "J" instead of in the last row in the back with a surname starting with "Y." I suspect the error worked in favor of my getting a better education.
Even as a kid I recognized the Soviets were not renowned for their Twentieth Century architecture. Remnants are still scattered all over Lithuania, reminders of the hardships its citizens had and still endure. It will take more than two generations to recover from the damage done by communism.
The cement blocks of apartment buildings (known as “the Khrushchovka design,” named after former Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev) in which people still dwell, are bland, repetitive and have rusted window frames. The people, robbed of any means to earn money, are too poor to upgrade the buildings or move elsewhere. Elevators were considered too costly and time-consuming to build, and according to Soviet safety standards, five stories was the maximum height of a building without an elevator. Thus, almost all Khrushyovkas have five stories. These were intended to be temporary housing (25 years maximum), to be replaced after Soviet Communism took hold and became a success.
An example of the Khrushchovka design, originally intended to be temporary shelter. Fifty years later, people still call these structures home.
During Communist rule, Lithuanians, who were traditionally Catholic, placed crosses on a hill (8 miles north of Siauliai), only to have them bulldozed by the Soviets. This only increased peoples’ desire to quietly and steadily resist the infringement upon their freedom to worship. Whenever they could, they’d sneak back and leave more crosses on the hill. Today it is the pilgrimage site known as The Hill of Crosses.
I look at today’s Lithuania and know that having a purely socialist state does not
work; and I look at the recent Great Recession the United States continues to recover from, and know that pure laissez faire is no panacea either. Neither way works because people tend to think that if a little of this is good, then a lot of the same must be better.
Both Communism and laissez faire serve as cautionary tales.
Nations need to remember the sanity of balance. They need to balance helping those who can’t help themselves and supporting free enterprise. This, our democratic republic, works best when it is moderated and modulated.