Lithuanian authorities set up the Museum of Genocide Victims in a building once occupied by the KGB
The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius is impossible to miss – located almost in the very center of the city, it faces the famous Lukiškės Square, where Konstanty (Kastuś) Kalinowski, the leader of the national liberation uprising of 1863-64, was executed. The massive building immediately catches the eye. The bottom segment of the entire façade is engraved with the names of victims of the KGB: Pranas Benetis (1922-46), Bishop Vincentas Borysavičius (1887-46), Rokas Binhialis-Vaidevutis (the nickname following his last name shows that he was a partisan, 1924-46) and hundreds of others. The dates of execution are mostly in 1945, 1946 and 1947.
The Soviet victory in the Second World War meant the second stage of occupation for Lithuania. The “liberators” who returned from the east followed Moscow’s clear directions and launched reprisals against those who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviets and march with them into the “bright communist future.”
The museum is unique in that it operates in the same building where the KGB Chief Directorate was once located. These walls indeed saw a lot. In 1899, the Vilna gubernia court of the Russian Empire started operating here and heard cases of “disturbers” who smuggled banned Lithuanian periodicals from Eastern Prussia. From 1915 to 1918, the building was used by the German occupation administration and in 1919 the people’s commissars of the “first revolutionary government” headed by Lenin’s puppet activist Vincas Kapsukas met here.
After Poland occupied the area, the building housed a Polish court in 1920-39. Later from 1940 until 1991 it was used entirely by the NKVD-NKGB-MGB-KGB, except of course from 1941-1944 when it was in the hands of the SD and the Gestapo. The KGB always kept an internal prison here which was called a ‘pre-trial detention unit’ after 1959.
The Museum of Genocide was founded by the joint order of the Minister of Culture and Education and the President of the Political Prisoners and Deportees Union and opened its doors to visitors in 1992. It was reorganized five years later – under a government regulation dated March 24, 1997; the rights of its founder were transferred to the Center for the Study of Genocide and the Lithuanian Resistance. Now it is part of the Center’s Memorial Department.
I have been to the museum many times. I remember that my first visit was with a school excursion organized by our history teacher. I entered the building and was immersed in the atmosphere of those times: the fear, despair and irreconcilable reality. You need at least three visits to fully take in the museum. A walk through the dungeon — including a torture chamber and a cell where prisoners were shot — alone takes two hours. This is no arranged exhibit — everything is left as it was when the KGB officers fled in August 1991. After listening to a long, shocking story from the guide I returned to the first floor.
There I found a hall whose walls were hung with photos of KGB victims in profile and en face. The conference hall hosts a huge collection of rare videos about communist crimes, including a film about the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine. The day I was there, they showed a film about how the Soviet army fought against partisans, members of the anti-communist resistance. Interestingly, the KGB produced its training film Find a Guerilla Bunker in 1968 after the underground movement was already completely destroyed. All items on display about the history of the partisan movement were excellent. Books were available for sale without any markups. The artifacts on display included real uniforms worn by underground fighters, a Panzerfaust (grenade launcher), drawings of bunkers, and more. A large part of the exhibition — newspapers, fliers and appeals — presented the accounts of partisan activities.
WIRETAPPING, ARREST AND EXILE
Exhibits on the second floor tell the story of the KGB in Lithuania and reveal its structure. The design in the wiretapping room is creative — telephone wires run under a transparent floor. In Soviet times, all telephone connections went through this building, so any conversation could be listened to from this room. They reconstructed the KGB’s old hall of fame – the so-called “red corner” – complete with handmade wall newspapers. Unfortunately, some of the lamps are not lit (to save money, I was told), but that merely augments the gloomy and mysterious atmosphere. The walls in the first half of a long hallway are hung with photos of repressed families, and an old, cracked mirror at the end reflects visitors’ silhouettes.
The second half of the hallway contains exhibits related to prisons, camps and exile. Coils of barbed wire under the ceiling convey the Zeitgeist. A collection of photos showing the departure and return of the exiles is especially touching.
THE CHURCH, SĄJŪDIS AND INDEPENDENCE
The last of the museum’s rooms to see highlights peaceful resistance against the Soviet regime. Most of the exhibits here are dedicated to this topic, and there are even more available in electronic formats. For visitors’ convenience, a touchscreen monitor has been mounted in the room showing videos secretly recorded by KGB agents: an interrogation of the dissident Nijolė Sadūnaitė, protest rallies and so on. The last exhibit features a huge color panel on the ceiling made up of photos of a Sąjūdis rally under national banners – a bright spot in the gloom of a Soviet prison.
Special attention is paid to the Catholic Church and its operation in Soviet times, particularly its chronicle and distribution network which remained unknown to the KGB. This room, unlike others, has almost no hi-tech equipment – only professionally placed exhibits, photos and texts. I bought a few books and went out into the street, squinting in bright sunlight after so many hours in the museum’s semi-dark. I caught myself thinking: How many of those who were once thrown into the basement of this building never saw the light of day?
Lithuaniarecently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the diplomatic recognition of its independence. During this period, the country joined NATO and the EU; in 2012 it will hold the EU presidency. A new generation has grown up which will know about the KGB, occupation and repressions only from school textbooks and stories told by old men. At one point, young people will come here to see what their country went through in the past to leave convinced it must never happen again.