Running Away From Communism

16 January 2012, 16:05

Lithuaniawas the first Soviet republic to announce its withdrawal from the USSR. Ronaldas Racinskas, head of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, told The Ukrainian Week about what has been accomplished in the 20 years of its independence.

U.W.: The commission you are heading is charged with evaluating totalitarian regimes at the same time. What is the attitude of Lithuanian society to this combination?

One of the goals for setting up the commission was actually to encourage interest in history, especially among young people. We have conducted polls, asking which crimes had to be studied above all others – Nazi, communist or both. The majority said both. People are also in favor of history being represented without any “polish”.

U.W.: There is a stereotypical notion in Ukraine that Lithuanian communists were more patriotic than their Ukrainian counterparts. They were viewed as the “smallest Russian minority” in the Baltic states.

This myth was popular in the late 1980s. There was even an explanation of sorts: if Lithuanians did not join the party, then the Russians would come. Rank-and-file communists would tell me: “I thought that it would be easier to fight this evil from inside.” However, there is indeed a reason why there are few Russians in Lithuania. Resistance against the Soviets continued for quite a while in our country after the war. This created an atmosphere of tension and instability, so those who came here did not stay for long and instead moved on to Kaliningrad or Riga. On top of that, agricultural policy suffered a major fiasco in Lithuania in the 1950s, and the republic was on the brink of famine.

Communists also came in different varieties. For example, there were those who held on to the CPSU platform prior to the 1991 coup. On the other hand, there were “national communists” headed by Algirdas Brazauskas who wanted to separate.

U.W.: There is a Museum of Genocide Victims in Lithuania. Is it an accepted norm to use the term genocide to refer to the deaths of Lithuanians in the 20th century?

The museum was given the name it by politicians. However, the concept of genocide which was introduced in a UN convention in 1948 is fairly artificial. In its original form, as proposed by Raphael Lemkin, it included not only national and racial criteria, but also social and political groups. They were also mentioned in the early draft resolutions. But then the USSR and its satellites applied pressure, and the latter two groups were excluded, because what was happening in the Soviet Union would have been automatically categorized as genocide. So I believe that it is incorrect to assess human tragedy exclusively in terms of nationality. When people are murdered, criteria cannot be more and less important. Conventionally, the Lithuanian example does not fall under the classic definition of genocide. However, you can also find cases when repressions were aimed not only against social groups, but also directly against Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians as such. Even in GULAG camps they had special status and were treated with more suspicion.

The main problem – the distorted nature of the genocide concept – automatically relegates discussions about communist crimes to a less significant category.

U.W.: Ukrainian Avhust Virlych, who himself suffered from repressions, said that Nazism destroyed people without distinction, while communism eliminated a people's best. Does this comparison apply to Lithuania?

You can draw comparisons, and the existing methodology permits doing so. I would want us to compare rather than contrast. These are two totalitarian regimes based on different utopian ideologies. What they have in common is social engineering for the purpose of building an ideal society not only in isolated countries but on a global scale. The Nazis put a pseudo-scientific racial theory at the foundation, and the communists were guided by Karl Marx’s theory, but things turned out to be different in practice. The civilized world has fully learned its lesson on Nazism, and any attempt to advance political ideas similar to those of Hitler immediately meets public resistance. The situation with the Soviet regime is different: the USSR is no longer around, but we are still dealing with the likes of it in the world. The ideology itself and its crimes have not been condemned universally, as was the case with Nazism. I for one am against having questions like “Who suffered more: a Jewish child murdered in a gas chamber, a Ukrainian child who died in the famine or a Lithuanian one who froze to death in Siberia?”

We know one thing: these regimes cooperated with each other. If you were to ask ordinary Kyiv residents about when the Second World War began, 90% of them would say in 1941. This is a pro-Soviet, and now pro-Russian, argument aimed at creating the impression that there was one center of evil – fascism. By this approach, the USSR with its Western alleys liberated Europe. But the liberation of Western Europe was different from that of Eastern Europe, where people were often taken out of a German concentration camp and put into a Soviet camp! Both regimes destroyed their political opponents. The Soviets eliminated the elite, i.e., intellectuals who stood in the way of crafting an obedient and timid society. These people made up to 10% of the population, and they were removed, first, to prevent them from procreating and, second, to scare the rest. It was a purely criminal approach.

U.W.: Could you describe Lithuania’s experience with lustration?

We had lustration, but it was not as efficient as it should have been. It targeted only former KGB staff who were offered an opportunity to come clean – their confessions would be kept secret and would not lead to any repressions. This information would be made public only if these people decided to apply for an office in a government body. If the commission obtains information from archives that any certain person was in the KGB but failed to admit it, he will be banned from working in government agencies or education institutions. A tiny number confessed on their own, and even fewer were identified as former KGB men. Most of them were small fry. One of the reasons for this is that the bigger part of documents (about 5,000 cases of possible agents) were taken out of the country. An important thing was missed: de-Sovietization should have targeted party leaders and the party itself as an organization. We should have banned party bosses up to a certain rank and council heads on certain levels from politics for at least 10 years.

That former communist party functionaries were not removed from government structures has had an impact on Lithuania’s social problems. A bigger part of industry went into the hands of people who were active back then. I am against a revanche, but look at this example: when information was leaked in 2005 that two high-ranking Lithuanian officials – Foreign Affairs Minister Antanas Valenis and Security Department Chief Arvidas Potsius – were former KGB agents, some people immediately spoke in their support, pointing out how many good things they had done for their country. But in fact, they wanted to make a career, and that’s what they are still doing now.

U.W.: How widespread was conformism in certain population groups under communism?

When we studied documents dated 1940-41 and then from 1944, we saw that some people were inclined to collaborate with any criminal regime. They adjusted instantaneously and had no moral restraint. This was pure conformism, and I would not want our young society to be built without a moral core.

Now such values are on shaky ground. Pseudo-faith in the bright future has been replaced by a different foundation – consumerism. A society that is not a carrier of universal values is in danger of suffering continuous social maladies.

U.W.: Do you mean to say that nostalgia for cheap Soviet sausage will never pass?

This myth is being supported naturally: people who still remember this cheap sausage left their youth and good health in that period. At the same time, this slice of society has not adjusted to living in a liberal, capitalist world based on competition. It is accustomed to living in a state that must give you everything. They feel bad not because their living standard is objectively worse, but because they are doing worse than their neighbors. So they perceived injustice in everything that is happening, because Soviet newspapers convinced them that it was “good to live in a Soviet country.”

The cancerous tumor of totalitarianism was excised, but its metastases are with us and need to be cured. However, if you ask an average Lithuanian today whether he or she links the current social political problems to events that happened in the past 50 years, the answer will be: “No, we have been independent for 20 years now. Forget about communism!” But in order to get rid of a malady, you have to recognize it to begin with. Overcoming totalitarianism is like running a marathon: we are a little bit ahead of Ukraine, but both countries are still not halfway there.


Ronaldas Racinskas, born in 1968, is the executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. He graduated from Vilnius University in 1993. He has been deputy head of a department in the Lithuanian Defense Ministry and Deputy Chancellor of the Lithuanian government.

This is Articte sidebar