Eugenijus Peikštenis, director of the Museum of Genocide Victims, speaks about how the taboo history of Soviet repressions came to light
Imagine smiling young men and women looking at you from photos. The inscription below informs you that all of them, the Forest Brothers, were killed within the next several years by the KGB for being involved in the anti-Soviet liberation movement in Lithuania. Here is a yard where KGB prison inmates were taken for a walk. Small squares enclosed by walls and barbed wire. The basement contains cells, more cells and even more cells: for death row inmates, for the “violent” types, for those who refused to obey prison guards and investigators and torture chambers with soundproof lining on the inside. All of this can be seen in the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius. Today it is one of the most visited museums in the Lithuanian capital. The Ukrainian Week spoke about the history of this unique institution with Mr. Peikštenis.
U.W.: Not all counties that went through Soviet repressions set up museums in KGB buildings. In Ukraine, for example, they are used as concert halls or as offices for the special service of what is now an independent country. What led you to your decision?
The decision to set up the Museum of Genocide Victims in the KGB headquarters was passed without reservation. In 1990, there were already lines of people holding placards here and demanding this be done, i.e., it was the people’s decision. But everyone initially thought that the museum would occupy the entire building, surrounded by the four streets between which it stands. But some Vilnius courts lacked space, so eventually the museum was given just a small part of the building. Now we belong to the Memorial Department of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Lithuanian Resistance. The museum, in turn, has other structural units, such as the history department which prepares materials for us. There is also the department of special investigations. They collect materials about Lithuanian residents who participated in Jewish pogroms and in the crackdown on armed resistance against Soviet occupation.
Neither Latvia, nor Estonia has such a specialized museum in a former KGB building. Everyone used to call our museum unique in the former Soviet Union. Now I tell everyone that is no longer true. A similar museum was established in Lviv – the Prison on Lonski Street, a museum and memorial to the victims of occupation. We have cooperated fruitfully with the Ukrainians, particularly with the Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement.
U.W.: You use the term ‘genocide’ which has a purely legal dimension among others. Have there been discussions in your country about the way it should be used?
Back in the early 1990s, there were no such discussions. They have emerged only now. Some of our historians and journalists from other countries initiate them. If the museum could occupy the entire building, there would be also room for an exhibit about the Holocaust and other tragic topics. Ours is the only museum in the country that offers such a detailed picture of the armed partisan resistance, the lives of our compatriots exiled to camps and the peaceful resistance. It covers the period of 1940-1990.
U.W.: What was the attitude of the Russian minority in Lithuania towards your presenting the Soviet regime in your museum as an occupying force?
There have been no arguments. By 1940, around three million people lived in Lithuania. If you count our total human losses under all occupational regimes, it comes to about one million – a third of the entire population. Over 240,000 people died in the Holocaust; Soviet repressions during the first occupation (1940-41) and the second one (1944-90) killed nearly 100,000; about half a million were either repatriated or left the country in the 1940s, realizing what awaited them under Soviet occupation. There were no other thoughts back then. And the Russians who lived in Lithuania until 1940 served in the Lithuanian army, worked as teachers, and many of them were repressed. We tell about these facts in our exhibits.
U.W.: The exhibit in the execution chamber tells the story of Lithuanian officer Jonas Semaško-Lijepa who served in the Nazi army in 1941-45. In 1945, he joined the anti-Soviet armed resistance movement and was shot by the KGB in 1947. Next to his, there are many stories of other Lithuanian officers killed in this torture chamber and not stained by collaboration with the Nazis. But you present the story of this particular man. Is this an attempt to avoid a selective approach?
There were officers who had served in the Nazi troops, but the Nazis were unable to organize SS units in Lithuania. Many of our officers were sent to Stutthof and other camps, because they resisted the Germans. Many Lithuanian men thought they [the Nazis] came as liberators. But we were, as they say, out of the frying pan and into the fire. The Lithuanians wanted to form their own government in June 1941, but nothing of it. Some of those who had joined the Nazi troops quickly quit after they realized who the Nazis really were. There were attempts at the time to form self-defense units to fight against the Nazis. But there were also those who stayed in the German army. Many criminals, including war criminals, and those who worked in Nazi camps were killed in the torture chamber. These include both highly revered people, such as Bishop Vincentas Borysavičius who was charged with anti-Soviet propaganda and executed in 1946, and common criminals. We tell about all of this.
U.W.: Is your museum somehow integrated with the school and university system? Do you have a rule that every Lithuanian school student must visit the museum?
There is no compulsion, of course. But we cooperate very closely with educational institutions, especially with the Ministry of Education. Three years ago, we signed an agreement with the Ministry to organize free tours for school children from all over Lithuania. We produced a package of materials for them with elements of multimedia, an information brochure and dozens of documentaries that can be ordered by schools. We have an education program for school students. An education institution can send a request to receive this program and the accompanying materials, also free of charge. The lessons are thematic: about the partisan armed resistance against the Soviet occupation (1944-53), about Lithuanians in Stalinist camps and in exile (1944-56) and about peaceful resistance (1954-91). Last year, 10,000 school children visited our museum.
U.W.: What is the source of the museum’s funding?
We are financed by the state. We earn some money by selling tickets and offering guided tours and that helps us cover some of our expenses on our own.