The Secret of Kaunas
A young man's anguished protest brings a city to tears and students onto the streets chanting anti-Soviet slogans. Budapest '56? Prague '69? Guess again. by Rokas M. Tracevskis 23 May 2003
On 14 May 1972, 19-year-old student Romas Kalanta went to a popular gathering spot for young people near the fountain at the Musical Theater on Laisves Aleja, the main street of Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. There he poured gasoline over his body from a three-liter glass jar and struck a match.
Nearby, he left his notebook with the message, "The political system alone is guilty of my death."
Kalanta died the next day. His protest against Soviet occupation inspired a brief uprising on 18 and 19 May. Though much of what happened in Kaunas that May never filtered through to the West, in the Soviet Union word spread quickly. Some Russians half-jokingly nicknamed Kaunas "Kalantagrad."
But unlike the World War II battleground of Stalingrad, Kaunas escaped with little physical damage. But those few days in May had a lasting effect on the city’s young people, its cultural life, and its identity.
The "Kaunas Spring" was a revolt of students and hippies who made the streets of Kaunas resemble those of the Latin Quarter during the student unrest in Paris four springs earlier. The Soviet media had reported the unrest in Paris in a positive light. But four years later in Kaunas, the slogans were different.
Thousands of young men and women, most of them still teenagers, demonstrated in the center of Kaunas chanting, "Freedom for Lithuania! Russians go home!"
"It was a revolutionary time for hippie students around the entire world. You must see the events in Kaunas in this cultural context," said Vytenis Andriukaitis, a leader of the Social Democratic Party. In 1972, Andriukaitis lived near the Kalanta family, demonstrated, and got a beating from the militia. He is the only active member of the Lithuanian political elite who took part in the anti-Soviet manifestations that spring.
Soviet authorities lost control of the city for two days. They announced the closure of the city; no one was allowed to enter Kaunas. As the first army and militia units appeared on Laisves Aleja, young people began erecting barricades from benches and chunks of reinforced concrete.
Army and militia troops beat young protestors, who responded in kind, vainly. Hundreds of arrested demonstrators ended up in KGB headquarters in Kaunas. Many were persecuted by the KGB for years, lost their jobs, or were kicked out of school and left to find jobs in cemeteries or as street cleaners. Some succumbed to alcohol or disappeared into psychiatric hospitals.
The short-lived rebellion was an extraordinary episode for the settled and sleepy Soviet Union then ruled over by General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.
Lithuanian Communist Party First Secretary Antanas Snieckus and the Kaunas KGB portrayed the uprising to Moscow as nothing more than an outburst of hooliganism, rather than an expression of general dislike of the Soviet presence.
Their damage-limitation ploy succeeded in one sense: Only a handful of demonstrators stood trial for the events of May. In October 1972, seven people were sentenced for the crime of hooliganism to prison terms of up to three years.
The Genocide and Resistance Center conducts research on the Nazi German and Soviet occupations of Lithuania. The center's general director, Dalia Kuodyte, thinks that although the uprising in Kaunas was a unique event, Kalanta's "heroism" did not change the thinking of Lithuanians.
"Our mentality was the same [throughout] the Soviet occupation--we wanted liberation. … Kalanta's act was just an expression of this nation's desire to return to the West. It was a protest against the damned Soviet system."
In 1969, a student named Jan Palach immolated himself in the center of Prague, an act widely seen as a desperate cry of resistance to the Soviet troops that had occupied Czechoslovakia the previous summer. Palach's suicide
moved other young Czech men to end their lives in similarly horrifying fashion.
The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and Palach's suicide were known to every Lithuanian from the Voice of America. Kuodyte believes Palach's melodramatic statement inspired Kalanta. And as in the Czech case, "Several other young Lithuanian men in 1972 and later set themselves on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation," she said.
"However, the KGB managed to keep these events secret. Anti-Soviet rebellion exploded only in Kaunas. The events in Kaunas were unique for the entire Soviet empire. It was a signal to the world that Lithuania wanted to be an independent country," she said.
THE KAUNAS PHENOMENON
When Lithuania achieved independence following World War I, Vilnius, ancient capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was under Polish control, so Kaunas became the interim capital and the intellectual center of the country. Many intellectuals moved West to escape the Soviet regime after World War II, but Kaunas preserved the spirit of Lithuanian patriotism.
"It was hard to find a big city in the Soviet Union whose main street was not named after Lenin or some other Communist. But even in Brezhnev's times, the main street in Kaunas was officially called Laisves Aleja [Avenue of Freedom]--the same name as before the Soviet occupation," said Arturas Dubonis, a historian at the Lithuanian History Institute.
"The spirit of being a temporary capital was still alive in Kaunas in the 1970s. A high percentage of people in Kaunas had relatives in the United States," the historian said. "Young people got jeans and records through the mail from relatives. This had some ideological impact."
Kaunas received relatively few Russian immigrants. They made up only about 9 percent of the population, Dubonis said, and "these Russian-speakers were Lithuanized by the local community in a short time."
Kaunas of 1972 was the most easterly stronghold of Western hippie culture, Iron Curtain or no. Young people with long hair and torn jeans liked to gather near the fountain on Laisves Aleja. They listened to Radio Luxembourg's rock music broadcasts on small portable radios.
Kalanta, a long-haired student at an evening school for young workers, sometimes joined them.
There were hazards: From time to time the militia would swoop in, beat the young people, and cut off their long hair.
On 14 May 1972, the hippies of Kaunas were planning to stage an underground performance of the musical Hair
. Everything changed at 12:30 in the afternoon when Kalanta set himself on fire.
The youth demonstrations on 18-19 May led to severe repression, particularly against the city's cultural figures, whom the government blamed for fostering an anti-Soviet atmosphere. The authorities banned performances of Barbora Radvilaite,
a popular patriotic play. Jonas Jurasas, director of the Kaunas Drama Theater, was forced out of his post. He later emigrated to the West. The director of the Pantomime Theater, Modris Tenisons, also lost his job and had to return to his native Riga. The city's cultural life was closely monitored by the KGB.
Some in Kaunas believe the crackdown contributed to the city's decline to the status of a provincial town, from which it is now starting to recover. Among scholars, Egidijus Aleksandravicius (author of last year's The Sacrifice of Romas Kalanta: Kaunas Spring 1972
) and fellow Kaunas University historian Antanas Kulakauskas see May 1972 as a seminal event.
REST IN PEACE?
"In 1991, 1992, or 1993, Lithuanian political leaders were concentrating on the facts in their own biographies, and especially those of their political rivals. They felt uneasy faced with the events of 1972, because people could ask what they had been doing then. In fact, many of them managed to live quite comfortably in 1972," said the Genocide and Resistance Center’s Kuodyte.
On the political scene of newly independent Lithuania, some players were veterans of the communist nomenclature. Others were intellectuals who kept silent in 1972. The Lithuanian dissident movement got under way only after 1972, so most political dissidents and underground Roman Catholic activists could not boast of having taken to the streets that May.
And by now, Kuodyte believes, the question of where one stood in 1972 and after is fading away.
"Both leftists and rightists have had time to enjoy power in independent Lithuania. Political passions are not boiling over," she said. Those whose pasts might at one time have been liabilities can now say, " 'Look, I was in the Soviet nomenclature, I was a conformist and did not fight against the Soviets. But [later] I did a lot to strengthen Lithuania's statehood. Lithuania is going to be a member of the European Union and NATO.' These people don't suffer from feelings of inferiority anymore."
Not until 2002 did the Lithuanian parliament decide to honor the date of Kalanta's fatal act. By unanimous vote, 14 May was declared a day of commemoration, though not a holiday from work.
It took a decade for state institutions to find money to finance a modest monument on Laisves Aleja in front of the Musical Theater.
On 14 May 2002, the monument by sculptors Robertas Antinis and Saulius Juskys, called Field of Sacrifice
, was unveiled on the spot where Romas Kalanta set himself on fire. The composition is made up of cast-iron sheets, laid flat on a lawn to suggest fire-damaged pages of history, and of 19 stones, one for each year of Kalanta's life.
Songs by the Beatles played throughout last year's unveiling. This year, the uprising was recalled through photo exhibitions and conferences of intellectuals, and local musicians played songs by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix at a concert at the Combo music club.
In the year since the unveiling, city life has shaped some modifications to the monument. Little by little, pedestrians have tramped down a narrow path across the lawn toward a nearby public toilet. This doesn't much worry Antinis, who was one of those arrested during the 1972 demonstrations.
During this year's commemoration of 14 May, he said, "I didn't create this monument as a fetish. I wanted this to be a democratic place, to change with the seasons and become part of modern life."