The past 5 posts describe the first of the 5 days staying at the Hotel Lithuania (not to be confused with the Hotel California). In Vilnius, Soviet occupied Lithuania during May 1985. Intermingled in the details were other anecdotes about my stay in Moscow the prior week.
My view out the window of the Hotel Lietuva. The Neris River is in the foreground and the Old Town behind.
For the sake of repetition, my primary purpose in going to Lithuania was to meet my Father’s family, his uncle and cousins. Our roots in this small, little-known country in Eastern Europe was something we shared. Plain and simple.
The author with Eugenija’s son (and my cousin) Vytas. At least I figured out where my curly hair came from!
When I got there, I discovered insights into what exactly constitutes oppression. Some of it boomeranged to hit me in strange ways.
For example, in my posts “IN SEARCH OF… MY FATHER’S MOTHER” and “HANGING PORK,” I recounted a story about a traffic stop. It wasn’t very iron-fisted because my driver told the traffic cop to go away. Sometimes persecution is easily dispensed with.
On the other hand, as described by my post “(SOUR) LESSON OF HISTORY,” I was confronted with a brutal case from World War II, the Ponary Massacre, as committed by the Nazis against the Jewish residents of Vilnius. I concluded that story by reproducing my entry in the visitor’s log which made an oblique reference to “oppressors.” It was meant as an ironic dart thrown at the keepers of the Ponary Memorial, the government of the Soviet Union. Please see the text of the secret speech given by the head of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 for further details.
Oppression swirls around us. At times, it can result in minor inconveniences, like a traffic jam. At other times much less benign, just ask the Jewish residents of Vilnius in 1941. Or Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
I found oppression in my own life from a very unexpected source and this forms very much a part of the greater story.
Altogether, I spent a total of 16 days in the USSR, including 5 days in the little-known nation of Lithuania. I write “little-known” as most Americans, I suspect, would be hard pressed to find it on a map. The same was apparently true among Soviet citizens. Even though it was one of the 15 states or, technically speaking, “republics” of the Soviet Union, my Father’s cousin Eugenija assured me that, outside the Baltics, most Russians or Uyghurs or Armenians or Kazakhs or whatever Soviet nationality have you, would likewise have no idea where or what Lithuania was.
In the map of the 15 republics, Lithuania is number 8. See, it’s pretty small. Map courtesy of Wikipedia.
The USSR was an odd fish. One of the 15 republics, Russia pretty much ran the show. The capital was in Russia, Russian was the primary language, and Russia was 75% of the entire territory. The other 14 “republics” like the three Baltic States, the Ukraine (of which the Crimea used to be a part), Belarus, Kazakhstan, etc. were understood to be under Russian hegemony. Even today, though all of these are independent states, these countries are considered to be the “near abroad” by Russia and important buffers against the West – whom Russia accuses of an aggressive policy of surrounding and strangling the Motherland.
Whether “near abroad” or actually within the USSR, each republic has documented deportations, executions, mass resettlements, gulags, and so on at the hands of the federal government.
And you thought our federal government was bad?
While in Moscow the previous week, I had often turned on the clunky television in my hotel room. The broadcast of the celebration of Victory in Europe Day on May 9, 1985 was easy enough to understand. (The Russians observe the surrender of Nazi Germany one day later than the rest of Europe as it was signed past midnight Moscow time.) I remember watching the military parade of thousands of uniformed officers marching in goose steps. The Soviet versions of Willard Scott and Katie Couric praised the lock-step troops endlessly as indefatigable, polished troops, ready to defend the Soviet Union in their shiny uniforms against all foes large and small. I learned easily how to say “Glory to the Soviet Union” in Russian, it was repeated so often.
At other times, Soviet TV was — well, how should I put this — more unexpected. At times like these, it resembled an ersatz NET (National Educational Television).
The Boob Tube in my room at the Hotel Krasnoprenenskaya.
One time I came back to my room, flipped on the idiot box, and watched an English language television program called “People Talking.” That day’s episode featured a man and a woman seated together in an Aeroflot flight to Central Asia holding the most vapid conversation imaginable. The kind that would drive most people to drink, smoke, or today, plug into an iPhone to listen to AC/DC, full volume.
“Hello, where you going?”
“Oh, I am flying to Alma-Ata” (Today known as Almaty).
“Are you flying on business?”
“Yes, I am. Are you?”
“No, I am flying to Alma-Ata to visit my mother. She has a sore ankle and I am worried about her.” (I think this is when I would have opened the emergency door and jumped out.)
You have to admit that, despite the banality, it was admirable content for a national TV broadcast. It actually gave people a chance to practice a foreign language. Can you imagine a similar program on our PBS network to teach Russian to ‘mercans?
My hotel in Moscow featured a real Hyatt-style atrium with that mechanical rooster crowing every hour on the hour. Soviet Generals and their families from Central Asia would walk around this lobby, mouths opened wide in astonishment. Photo courtesy of the Crowne Plaza.
Oppression also took the form of haggard families returning home late at night on the Moscow metro. Invariably I would sit across from 5 or 6 such members. The focus of attention was the patriarch, typically in uniform, and completely pie-eyed. Surrounded by his wife and children, the drunk would periodically lunge off the bench and the poor family would do their best to restrain the beast and get his ass home, pronto! Only in that way could they keep him off the streets where he could get into some real trouble.
Moscow Metro courtesy of Florence Foster, Moscow Metro Memo, https://www.moveoneinc.com/blog/videos/enmoscow-metro.