The Dictator Within

15. 3. 2017

If you’ve ever lived in a post-Soviet country, then you know that in an instant an ordinary day can metamorphose into a nightmare—a piece of lacking information, straying off your beaten path, getting lost, getting accosted, taking a wrong turn, running into the wrong person, uttering the wrong word, a misplaced cell phone—and you fall down the rabbit hole.

And in the same way you reemerge.

When I am not in Eastern Europe, it is impossible for me to fathom that a place like Eastern Europe exists. When I am in the reality of the West, there is no possible way to talk aloud about Eastern Europe. And I mean the real West, not the pop TV/mega-mall version we have here in Vilnius, and not the take-a-Ryanair-flight-to-London-or-Dublin-to-do-menial-labor-and-sleep-on-a-couch-for-a-few-years-West.

Living in Vilnius, you live with an undercurrent—an invisible, underground river that flows beneath the catacombs, under the cobblestone streets, through the many mass graves yet to be uncovered. We all feel it and then we don’t feel it. Or we don’t want to feel it or if we’re too close to it we lose the ability to understand what it is that we are feeling. It’s an animal thing. A matter of instinct, beyond words, beyond conscious thought. But you know it is there, always, in the back of your mind, as though you were walking past a ticking bomb hidden in a dumpster, waiting for it to pop. And yet there is no bomb and there is no apparent danger. There is no war. There are no terrorists, just that feeling of danger.

These are the relics of genocide—several genocides—overlapping periods of planned and carefully calculated mass murders. These are the long-reaching shadows of occupation, of exile, of partisan warfare, of betrayal, of the Holocaust, of all the last vestiges of a totalitarian regime— that regime that lives inside all of us. We are all its dictators and we are all its victims. It is the regime inside of us that we pass onto our children: Children who are born into a free and independent Lithuania, but numb to their own history.

The clutch of the past creeps into the present on any given day and whatever was meant to be your routine can be whisked away in a moment and replaced with an energy that is entirely different. One day when I brought my daughter to her piano lesson at the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of the Arts, I opened the door to her classroom and her piano teacher, a gifted pianist in her forties with whom I am on friendly terms, lashed out at me: “This is a nation of hangmen!”

She paused for dramatic effect to let the weight of her words sink in. I quietly closed the door behind me, but did not proceed towards the piano. I waited as she continued her tirade.

“After the war all the good and decent people were murdered and exiled and only the traitors and the scum were left. They bred and they have formed the basis of the nation we have today—a nation of traitors and hangmen!”

I waited for her to get to her point.

“Can you believe, the director will not turn on the heat in our school until after the November vacation! He is trying to save money! And so, my hands are freezing and stiff. I cannot teach properly; the children are coughing and freezing. I sit here in this damp room all day shivering and the worst is that no one dares complain! I don’t dare complain because he’ll cut my hours and I won’t have enough money to get by. I have two sons to feed at home. My colleague went to complain and guess what? She just found out that her hours for next year have been cut to a third. But you parents, why don’t you complain?”

I nodded in empathy. I had made my daughter wear a warm sweater under her uniform dress. When I left the lesson that day, I did not go to the director’s office to complain. Perhaps it is because of our history that we would rather dress our children in layers than demand the heat be turned on in school when outdoors ice is forming on the streets?

During the reign of Stalinist terror, as tens of thousands of resistance fighters and the farmers who supported them were having their eyes and their genitals gouged out and were being shot or tortured in the bowels of KGB prisons, there were people who danced all over Lithuania. They danced to Russian accordions or to gramophones in the collective farm community centers. They marched carrying red flags to Russian military music blaring through scratchy megaphones. Granted, they were forced to march, but they marched nonetheless.

I’ve heard stories in Lithuania that resistance fighters—or quite possibly Soviet security agents dressed in the uniforms of the resistance—would storm into dance halls where local collective farm workers were dancing under portraits of Stalin and demand at gun-point that everyone undress and continue dancing. “Lithuania is occupied,” they would cry out, “people are dying in the forests, and you are dancing?” And so I have to ask myself now: Lithuania, why are you dancing?

Perhaps it is because of our history that our university’s Philosophy department students dance half-naked on Vilnius’s bars, hoping to catch the eye of a foreign visitor and be delivered to a comfortable life in the West. Or perhaps they dance to forget? Or perhaps the generation dancing on the bars lives already beyond the clutches of history? Perhaps they’ve never remembered their own history in the first place and therefore they are truly free? Perhaps they are the first generation of Lithuanians to live without the noose of history wrapped around their necks like one long poisonous umbilical cord? Let them dance, then.

* * *

Some people fall in love with Italy. Some people fall in love with France. But falling in love with Eastern Europe is like falling in love with a drunk. Only the person in love sees that in those rare moments of clarity all drunks are bound to have, that Eastern Europe is capable of poetry, an existentialist poetry that you would be hard pressed to find on the Mediterranean‘s glitzy beaches or on top of the Eiffel Tower.

It is a tough love. Like any relationship, my relationship with my family’s country of origin, Lithuania, is complicated, rife with passion and betrayal, hurt and joy. I grew up in the patriotic émigré community in the United States during the Cold War era. The elders in our community had been the idealistic intellectual youth of an independent interwar Lithuania. They were the generation that worked to rebuild Lithuania from a country of serfs under Czarist Russia to a European country with western standards. When the Red Army occupied Lithuania for a second time in 1944, they were the ones who chose to flee across the border rather than to risk being conscripted and sent to the front with the Red Army or deported to Siberia.

The émigrés raised their children and grandchildren in the spirit of idealism, goodwill, and love of nationhood. Across four continents, they set up an international closely linked network of Lithuanian language schools, summer camps, scouting organizations, social clubs, religious and political organizations, publishing houses, trust funds, and newspapers. Like many Lithuanian Americans of my generation, I was socialized to make it my life’s goal to return to live and work in a free and independent Lithuania. We were told that we were in America only for a temporary stay. Miraculously, in our lifetimes, Lithuania did become independent. So why not go back to Lithuania? Why not do what my grandparents’ generation had done and help rebuild the country?

The summer after a difficult divorce with my husband of fifteen years, I packed the contents of my house on a small island in Maine into my mudroom and rented my house to a hippie family who did not believe in using diapers on their baby and who promised to take care of my backyard flock of chickens. Together with my three kids, I took off to spend a year in Vilnius. That year stretched into four.

* * * Pilies Street (Castle Street) runs through the center of the Old Town of Vilnius. The cobblestone pedestrian street is lined with cafes, art galleries, museums, and boutiques. Street musicians perform on everything from zithers to cellos. Young couples push babies in strollers, students meander through the crowd, heading for lectures at Vilnius University. In the warm weather the cafes that line both sides of the street spill out onto the cobblestone with outdoor seating. In summer it is quite the thing to park oneself at one of the cafes and sip a coffee or a beer and people watch. The waiters are notoriously slow and it was an unwritten rule never to rush anyone out of a coveted sidewalk table seat. One can sit for hours and spend only three litas on a coffee or beer. And most people do, especially beautiful young single women who usually occupied the tables closest to the streets and who have been known to sit there patiently waiting for hours.

I walked out through my cobblestone courtyard, glanced up at the tower of Saint John’s Church across the street, walked a few dozen meters down Saint John’s Street and entered into the slow steady flow of pedestrians on Pilies Street. I loved my new apartment for its location. My apartment was a three-floor, 200 square meter, apartment with tall ceilings, floor to ceiling windows, wooden parquet, situated in a building that dated back to the sixteenth century. When I opened the windows I’d hear my neighbor, a classical violinist, practicing or I’d hear church bells ringing or stray notes from a classical music concert or early in the morning, birdsong. As close as I was to the main pedestrian thoroughfare, I never heard the sound of traffic or noise from Pilies Street. If anyone ever asked me where we lived, I’d pull out a 100 litas bill, show them the etching of the Old Town on the front of the bill, point out the tower of Saint John’s church, and then point to my building directly across the street. It was marked on the bill with a circle and an “X.”

Of course, the apartment came with its own price: A seventy- year-old alcoholic landlady who bragged to me that Communist Party secretary Brazaukas gave her the apartment (newly renovated) in 1988 just before the fall of the Soviet Union, before those “thieving revolutionaries took over the country.” My friends suspected that the apartment was given in return for services rendered to the KGB, but who knew? Lithuanians fed on such rumors. The day I moved in my landlady parked herself in the kitchen, chain-smoking, chugging beer, tossing out rude comments at my friends and me as we hauled boxes of books and furniture inside, struggling up the three flights. She left late in the evening and only after many polite requests. At one point she sobbed on my shoulder: “This is my family home. You will live here like a queen and all I can afford is a dingy room at the far end of Antakalnis Street.”

I’d not made it far down Pilies Street when I ran into Jurate , who had been my Creative Writing student when I was a Fulbright lecturer in 1995 and who since then has become a friend. Jurate was sitting at an outdoor table with Ray, an Australian who came to Lithuania a decade ago because he wanted to see snow and never left. They invited me to sit down with them.

Immediately one of Pilies Street’s beggars approached us for a hand-out. This man only had one arm, but we knew that he was using the hand-outs for drugs. Ray and Jurate both lived on Pilies Street and had windows facing the street.

The beggar had just managed to hit up the next table, when the Hari Krishnas came down the street, beating tambourines, twirling and singing in their flowing orange and white robes.

“Where is the Grand Duke these days?” I asked. “I haven’t seen him for ages.”

“He must be sober,” Jurate said.

The Grand Duke was in his fifties and known for his rasping voice with operatic range. He would wander up and down Pilies Street drunk singing the first two words of the song, “America the Beau- tiful.”Those two words, of course, were: “America, America.” He could not remember the text beyond that point. On rare occasions, when in a raucous mood, he’d tack on in heavily accented English, “But I love Lithuania. I won’t never go!” [sic].

He was called the Grand Duke because he claimed lineage to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Grand Duke even had his own Facebook Page, complete with video clips of his star performances— he liked to interrupt the repertoires of street musicians. He was a nightmare to the street musicians. He’d sidle up to them in the middle of their performance and chime in “America, America” in a raspy bellow. Once, National Lithuanian Television had blocked off all of Pilies Street to film several hundred teenagers dancing “hands high” for a Eurovision clip. The Grand Duke dove into the middle of the dancers and believe it or not, his voice carried over the loud music blaring over loudspeakers, ruining the filming. The crowd of dancers gently propelled him down to the end of the street. But even from Saint John’s Street we could still hear his raspy voice: “America, America” coming from the far end of Pilies Street. There were times when his obnoxious, rasping, “America, America,” drifted into my apartment through the open windows.

The Grand Duke was a bona fide signatory of the 1990.

Declaration of Independence. His story was a sad one. He had a degree in Lithuanian litera- ture and he had been a husband, father, teacher, and public spokesperson. During the years of the singing revolution he had made many television appearances on talk shows, debating on a variety of intellectual and political topics. The story goes that the KGB tried to coerce him into working for them as an informant. His nerves couldn’t take the pressure and he began to drink. It has been a downhill slide for him ever since.

One time I was walking down the street when I fell in step behind the Grand Duke and an intellectual- looking man. The Grand Duke seemed sober that day. I did not intend to eavesdrop, but the Grand Duke’s voice carried. He was describing an interrogation session he’d endured. I was struck at how this man, who was the neighborhood clown, in a moment of sobriety could lucidly describe the torments he’d suffered under the Soviet system.

The Grand Duke is a sad symbol of contemporary Lithuania. He is a man who had been broken under the Soviet system and had not bounced back. He had not found his place in the new Lithuania. The Grand Duke, a man whose signature was on the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence, had become a stumbling drunk in independent Lithuania.

Then there was the trolleybus lady—an older ill-tempered woman who rode the trolleybus routes all day long and never getting off. When the recording announced the name of a stop, she corrected it, shouting out the Soviet-era name the stop used to have before independence. As the trolleybus rumbled between stops, she let loose a tirade against the Lithuanian government, against Lithuanian society, against Vytautas Landsbergis, leader of the Lithuanian independence movement, or any stray passenger who got in the way of her sharp elbows. My sons often had to ride with the crazy trolleybus lady to school. They thought she was either intensely nostalgic or utterly insane. Later, I heard another version from my colleagues at the university: The Russian secret services, the FSB, paid her a salary to disturb the peace.

As evening drew close and the air became chilly, I said good-bye to Ray and Jurate and walked back to my apartment. My kids were away on a short trip. Peace and quiet reigned. I would use the evening to write. As I walked, I thought about the familiar bums of Vilnius. These ones were the good ones, the ones who added local color. They were nothing compared to those who lurked in dark corners preying on foreigners or people dressed well and who were heading to a cafe or restaurant or concert. Under the Soviet system all people were required by law to hold down a job and to live somewhere. Independence brought with it a new freedom—the freedom of being homeless and roaming the streets begging. When trash containers were introduced in Vilnius, a society of trash-pickers emerged, people who lived from what they could dig out of the rubbish, a society of scavengers.

* * *

Lithuania joined the European Union on May 1, 2004. After the dust settled from the overdone public celebrations, involving hot air balloons, outdoor East European-style pop music concerts starring scantily dressed dancers in stilettos, and an arsenal of fireworks more impressive than any Fourth of July showcase, roughly a third of the country vanished. In the provinces entire villages were left empty. Meanwhile, in Ireland entire villages filled up with Lithuanian laborers. The summer of 2004 flights to London and Dublin were booked solid. The airline of choice was the Irish discount carrier, Ryanair. Tourist buses to England were stampeded by Lithuanians traveling one way, who were not interested in the sights or the tour guide’s narration.

The irony is that having fought so hard to regain their independence, in the decades since independence, Lithuanians have been leaving their country in unprecedented numbers. The higher economic growth in stronger eurozone economies, together with border fluidity allowed by the Schengen Agreement, allows Lithuanians to emigrate abroad easily. Young professionals are emigrating abroad at an alarming rate. The population decreased to 3.05 million in 2005, a decrease of 350,000 over the previous decade and a loss of almost 700,000 since Lithuania regained its independence two decades ago.

Just as everybody was leaving, I showed up in Lithuania with my three children, at the time ages 15, 12, and 8. As I headed from the relative economic security of the United States into a politically and economically unstable post- Soviet Lithuania, my choice made me seem, to most heading in the opposite direction, like that of a woman running from something, God only knows what? People would ask me: what could I possibly be looking for in Lithuania?

But I was not the only Lithuanian making an about face. So were a number of Lithuanian professionals who had gone abroad to work and study in the early nineties. They formed a support group, a club, called the “Homecomers’ Club.” One evening, not long after my arrival in Vilnius, I was invited to their meeting.

When I walked into the Route 66 restaurant where the club’s monthly meetings are held, I felt as though I’d stepped into a truck stop off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The décor was, well, American—or rather how one would imagine a diner in America to look having watched lots of American movies. There were pinball machines, pool tables, shuffleboard, and a purely American menu—buffalo wings, Sloppy Joes, ribs. The owner of the restaurant looked more like a truck driver on the Pennsylvania Turnpike than a local Lithuanian. He was a tall, chunky man wearing a long white apron, and as it turns out, he wasn’t a local Lithuanian. He was a third-generation Lithuanian- American from Pennsylvania who had relocated to Vilnius and had built the American-style diner from nothing. I was told by the “Homecomers” that this man’s dream had been to come to Lithuania and open up a restaurant that would have the spirit of an American side-of-the-highway diner transported in corpurum across the Atlantic. During the meeting, the owner stood behind the very American looking bar serving, of all things, in this land of delectable beers, Budweiser.

A man in his late thirties, whom I shall call S., was the founder and leader of the club. He greeted me just as I stepped in the door. S. was intelligent and chatty and warm—the perfect person to coordinate a club of disparate people from a variety of generations and professions whose only tie to each other is that each had gone abroad under the influence of the “Homo-Sovieticus” culture and had returned to Lithuania as Lithuanian-Americans. “Homo-Sovieticus” was a term that was coined in the press during the years of the singing revolution. The “Homo-Sovieticus” was a product of the Soviet State. He had no civic responsibility, no work ethic, no morals, no ambitions. He lived to fulfill his most basic needs and grab and run with whatever he could get his paws on.

I’d met S. at a children’s birthday party. My daughter had immediately formed a friendship with his daughter, who had grown up in America until the age of nine and then had come to Lithuania. S. had gone to Penn State in 1990 where he earned a PhD in Chemistry and then secured a position as a chemist at an American company in Chicago.

“Life is so much more interesting in Lithuania than in America,” S. said as we sat down at the large round table where the meeting was taking place. “We were just discussing all the events going on in Vilnius.”

S. introduced me to the people at the table— all of them had been successful in America and all of them had chosen to come back for patriotic or family reasons. They had all left Lithuania during the independence movement or just afterwards. They’d gone abroad in that spirit of euphoria that had prevailed at the time. Now they’d come back to a Lithuania that was struggling in all senses— economically, morally, ethically. They complained during our round table discussion that they found that their countrymen did not welcome them with open arms as they had anticipated. They were often discriminated against at work; they were not given the opportunities they craved to share their Western educations and professional expertise with Lithuanians who’d never left. They complained that they were now considered, “Americans” or outsiders. These monthly meetings basically functioned as a support group, in which members of the group could vent, share their difficulties, give each other advice, leads on employment opportunities, tips on how to handle their children’s adjustment to Lithuanian schools, and so on…

The group asked me why I had come to Lithuania with my children. I explained that I was a Fulbright scholar, but that I too wanted my children to form a connection with their family heritage. I learned as the evening progressed that the club was more than just a social club. Some members of the club felt they ought to accomplish something more concrete, something of lasting value.

“I think we ought to collect funds to have a statue built,” one woman suggested.

“What would the statue commemorate?” I asked.

“Us,” the woman answered simply, “the people who chose to come back.”

A statue? Who did she think she was? But then I thought about it a moment longer. From these people’s perspective, they had sacrificed a lot. They had come back to a place that for many of them had been living hell. Many of them had rough childhoods under the Soviets. In America they had a good life, but they came back here where they earned less money and lived in more humble circumstances because they wanted to preserve their and their children’s cultural identity.

After the discussion over collecting funds to construct a statue finished and practical matters had been settled, the conversations turned to chitchat. One man began reminiscing about American food and that triggered a nostalgia fest for all things American.

“You are reverse displaced persons,” I blurted out, a sudden realization hitting me.“ When I was growing up my father would take us to Lithuanian bars in Brooklyn or Newark and would order Lithuanian food and drink Lithuanian beer and reminisce over Lithuania. Now you are sitting in an American-style diner in Lithuania reminiscing about your lives in America.”

“Ah, the power of nostalgia,” S. said dreamily and ordered another Budweiser.

Laima Vince

Laima Vince has published three works of literary nonfiction and a novel. Her play, The Interpreter, is currently in the repertoire of the Vilnius Chamber Theatre in Vilnius, Lithuania. Currently she is the Head of the English Department at the American International School in Hong Kong.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.