World / Politics

Lithuania seeks to heal Soviet trauma after 30 years of freedom

AFP-JIJI

Seeking justice for victims of the Soviet regime to heal historical trauma has become a top priority for Lithuania as it marks 30 years since it became the first republic to break away from the USSR.

Take Auksute Ramanauskaite Skokauskiene, one of Lithuania’s most prominent victims of historical trauma.

She spent her childhood living under an assumed identity to avoid Soviet authorities tracing her father, who led Lithuania’s armed resistance against Soviet rule in the Baltic state after World War II.

Captured in 1956 and executed the following year, Adolfas Ramanauskas was only given a full state funeral in 2018, after archaeologists identified his body in a mass grave.

“I always felt very disturbed that the Soviets slandered my dad and other freedom fighters,” said Ramanauskaite Skokauskiene, a former MP and retired engineer. “For me, it was very important that now I have a grave where I can come.”

A big advocate of helping others like her to heal, Ramanauskaite Skokauskiene threw her support behind an unprecedented conference on trauma that featured prominent government officials.

But the jury is still out on how much historic trauma hurts the country until this day.

Lithuania left the USSR on March 11, 1990, and has since enjoyed impressive economic growth — notably after joining the European Union and NATO in 2004.

But the Baltic nation of 2.8 million people struggles with some of Europe’s highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and emigration.

Some critics blame persistent poverty and high levels of income inequality for these social ills, but others insist they are also symptoms of intergenerational trauma rooted in the undigested past.

“Can it be that our society is ill, and the name of the disease is not coronavirus?” Laimonas Talat Kelpsa, a senior foreign ministry official, told a recent conference in Vilnius focused on collective trauma, the first of its kind.

“One of the reasons for Lithuanians to be depressed could be our difficult and complicated history,” Kelpsa told psychotherapists, diplomats and victims attending the conference.

Experts suggest that historical injustice and the failure to meet the needs of the victims have a huge impact on societies haunted by history.

Simon Wessely, a professor of psychological medicine at King’s College London, said acknowledging the past is important both individually and collectively.

“A single person can be a perpetrator, a victim and a bystander at different times in their lives. So it is with countries and so it is with culture,” he told delegates at the conference.

“Sometimes (the past) is too painful to acknowledge, but acknowledge it we must,” Wessely said.

Like fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviets during World War II and then deeply scarred by the Stalinist-era deportation of hundreds of thousands of its people to Siberia and Central Asia in the 1940s and 1950s.

The trio remained firmly under Moscow’s thumb for decades.

Cracks first began to show with Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival in the Kremlin in 1985.

Within the space of a few years, his perestroika and glasnost political and economic reforms began to spiral out of control, presenting an opportunity that was not lost on Lithuanians.

On March 11, 1990, Lithuanian lawmakers, including Communist Party rebels, voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Moscow recognized Lithuania’s independence following a failed coup by communist hard-liners in the Soviet capital in August 1991. The USSR was formally dissolved four months later.

The Baltic states have had rocky relations with Moscow ever since, not least because of different perceptions about WWII and the Soviet era.

In 2016, Lithuania declared an ex-KGB official guilty of genocide for his role in arresting partisan leader Ramanauskas. The European Court of Human Rights approved the verdict.

Last year, a Lithuanian court found more than 60 former Soviet officials guilty of war crimes in absentia for their role in a bloody 1991 crackdown against the pro-independence movement that killed 14 civilians and wounded over 700.

Moscow insisted the trial was politically motivated. It refuses to recognize the Soviet takeover of the Baltic states as an occupation. Lithuania has never received an apology or reparations.

Lamberto Zannier, OSCE commissioner on national minorities, warned that 2020 “could potentially be a very critical year” as divisions grow over the interpretation of history.

Without naming countries, he said that “acknowledgement, public apologies and reparations” are key elements in seeking “historical closure.”

Lithuania and other Central European states once dominated by the Soviets recently slammed Russia for downplaying communist-era crimes and rewriting history for political purposes.

President Gitanas Nauseda regards Russia as the “biggest long-term threat” to his country and has pledged to “rebuff any attempts to fabricate history.”

Vilnius is also urging EU counterparts not to attend Russia’s upcoming May 9 Victory Day parade marking 75 years since the end of World War II.

But Lithuania has also come under fire for failing to acknowledge the role of local Nazi collaborators and for drawing comparisons between communist oppression and the Nazi Holocaust.

While recognition of victims and perpetrators is a precondition to putting the past to rest, it is just a first step in healing historical trauma, according to Danute Gailiene, a Vilnius University professor of psychology.

“We cannot say we are a healthy and mature society. There is a long way to go, but we are on it,” she said.

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