Last weekend I was in Druskininkai, in the South of Lithuania, and of course I wanted to visit nearby Grūtas Park (Grūto parkas in Lithuanian), a sculpture park of Soviet monuments and a museum about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. I decided to walk the 8 km to the park, and despite getting a bit lost a few times, it was a beautiful if strenuous walk through the snow-covered forest, along peaceful frozen lakes.
When I finally reached Grūtas Park, I discovered that it is less of an organized museum and more of a hotchpotch of relics from the Soviet era, from the grand statutes which dominate the park to books and posters. The idea behind surrounding the park with a fence and Gulag-like watchtowers may have been to recreate the feeling of being in a Soviet labour camp, but it doesn’t really work when there are a children’s playground and souvenir shops inside.
On a walk through the park you will encounter all the famous faces of Communism: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin plus several hitherto unknown Lithuanian communists as well as the obligatory pioneers and brigades of proud and strong labourers.
As I was reading the descriptions and summaries in front of the artefacts, I began to notice that without any prior knowledge of 20th century history, I would get the impression as if Lithuania had always been an independent nation which was viciously attacked by the Soviet Union in 1940, then nothing had happened between 1941 and 1944, and in 1944 the Soviet Union had oddly attacked Lithuania again, enslaving all of its people. There were no Communists among Lithuanians. Those who were, were traitors. Or Jews, which apparently is incompatible with being Lithuanian.
The plaque about “Underground Soviet Partisans” for example details how they were controlled by Moscow, how brutal they were, it states that they were made up of “Soviet activists, Red Army men, escaped prisoners of war and some inhabitants of Lithuania (mostly of Jewish nationality)” – as if the Jews in Lithuania were not also Lithuanian citizens, and oddly confusing religion with nationality. The partisans are described as “saboteurs” – but nowhere in the lengthy text does it mention once whom they actually fought. That was of course Nazi Germany, the Wehrmacht and the SS. The few Jews who managed to escape the ghettos and concentration camps alive and then took up arms to fight the Nazis in Eastern Europe are heroes in my eyes, but are turned into menacing monsters by the makers of Grūtas Park. (To anyone more interested in the Soviet partisans, I recommend the book “If Not Now, When?” by Primo Levi.) There was no word on the genuinely Jewish partisan groups like the FPO.
A very strange depiction of history indeed. I found it most curious that the period from 1941 to 1944 was almost always omitted or glossed over, as if nothing important had happened between the two Soviet advances on Lithuania. Yet these years were the height of World War II.
The true course of events was that as everywhere in Europe in the early 20th century, some people in Lithuania identified with the idea of socialism. From 1918 to 1919, Lithuania was even briefly a Socialist Soviet Republic. In 1920, the Soviet Union under Lenin recognized Lithuanian independence. Vilnius was however still contested and fought over between the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Poland. From 1926 on, Lithuania was ruled by an authoritarian, nationalist regime which had come to power in a coup d’état. The Soviet Union and Germany famously agreed to carve up all of Eastern Europe in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and most of Lithuania, except for the coastal region around Klaipeda, fell to the Soviet Union which annexed it militarily in 1940.
In 1941, Germany broke the Pact and attacked the Soviet Union and also occupied Lithuania. They immediately began to carry out the Holocaust there, murdering 90% of the pre-War Jewish community of Lithuania, often with the help of the Lithuanian locals (something which you won’t read anything about at Grūtas Park). The war between Germany and the Soviet Union ensued. When the Red Army advanced towards Lithuanian territory in 1944, it did not attack Lithuania because Lithuania no longer existed as a state. The Soviet Union fought a war against Nazi Germany which had previously attacked it and which was executing a genocide. Judging by the information in the plaque referred to above that “native people didn’t support soviet partisans”, Lithuanians in the 1940s preferred the Nazis over the Soviet Union, which says much more about the Lithuanian population of the time than about the Soviet partisans.
One of the most famous Lithuanian books is “Forest of the Gods” (Dievų miškas in Lithuanian) by Balys Sruoga who spent two years at the Stutthof Concentration Camp when Germany had occupied Lithuania. In the last pages of that book, he is left behind to die from weakness on one of the death marches with which the Nazis evacuated the concentration camps when the Soviet Army was advancing. Balys Sruoga only realizes that he will survive when he hears the advancing tanks. Soviet tanks.
I do not wish to belittle the brutality and oppression of the Soviet Union in any way, but putting things into context goes a long way towards preventing the creation of erroneous national myths. If one has any desire to prevent them, that is. Eastern Europe suffered most terribly during the 20th century from its location between Germany and the Soviet Union. Nobody wants to deny that. But seeing oneself as the victim of Soviet occupation, blaming it entirely on other nationalities and religions and at the same time refusing to accept one’s own nation’s complicity in nationalism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust is not a fruitful way of dealing with history. It is not even the truth.