On March 11th, 1990, I’m in the kitchen eating Ramen noodles straight out of the package when the phone call from my mother comes at dusk.
“Ijunk televizij?,” she tells me. “Lietuva laisva.”
My whole family has traveled to Washington to rally at the capital for independence, but I’m home alone, stuck in town for the SATs. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev started talking about glasnost, Lithuania’s push for independence has been clipping along at a steady pace. Lithuanians in the US are doing their part by demonstrating and lobbying their senators to recognize Lithuania as an independent country. The Soviet Union is losing ground in the face of the grassroots freedom movement, and you can feel it in that air that something’s about to give.
Many Americans are still unaware of the Baltic countries, and some are confused as to why freedom is theirs to demand. After reading a piece in Time magazine comparing the Baltic quest for independence to the southern confederacy and the secession of the southern states, I am incensed. I write an indignant letter to the editor and read Time religiously for a year, anticipating a response. I launch a school-wide Amnesty International letter writing campaign on behalf of Lithuania and parade through the halls wearing my Freedom For Lithuania T-shirt.
But organizing formal protests in Charlotte, North Carolina is difficult for Lithuanians because there are only ten of us. Seeing photos of my camp friends with their picket signs on the pages of the Lithuanian Worldwide Daily was depressing enough already, but now I’ve missed the moment of a lifetime, the thing that every Lithuanian in the world had been awaiting for half a century, but that no one thought could ever come to pass.
Lithuania has declared itself independent, the first of the Soviet occupied countries to do so. People are dancing in the streets of Vilnius and Washington, and Mama tells me they’ve just finished singing a spontaneous rendition of the Lithuanian national anthem in front of the capital, holding hands.
I see it all in my mind’s eye: the flags, the tears, the lighters burning their arcs of triumph in the darkness. It’s almost as though we freed the country ourselves. After hanging up with Mama, I stand alone in front of a flickering TV set and though I only know Lithuania through her language, songs and lore, I weep for her. In my darkened living room with hand over my heart, I sing her anthem, believing well and truly that my voice will amplify the chorus and help this long awaited victory bear its proper weight. All at once, the people I see on TV singing and dancing in the streets are not Dwaynies, but daring revolutionaries in which I feel enormous pride. I want to claim Lithuania’s victory as my own, though when you lay all the facts out on the table, I’ve had nil to do with it.
The declaration alone is not a guarantee of freedom. The Soviet Union imposes an economic blockade on the country immediately, and Lithuania’s newly elected government’s efforts are thwarted at every pass. In January of the following year, after several days of unrest and warnings from Moscow, the Soviet Army is discharged. Soviet tanks storm the capital, zoning in on the area around the national TV tower where thousands of citizens have gathered in peaceful protest. And with the eyes and cameras of the international media trained on the Gulf War half a world away, the Soviet Army kills fifteen civilians and injures hundreds more in a last ditch attempt to reclaim Lithuania as a Soviet state.
We are incensed at the world’s inaction in the face of such valiant struggle. The only country to officially recognize Lithuania’s declaration of independence is Iceland. But within a year, the entire Soviet Union falls and Lithuania is well and truly free.
Technically, independence means my friends and I can stop switching to Lithuanian whenever an adult is within earshot. But this seems somehow wrong, like lying to a substitute. We wonder if we’re really supposed to hang up our crusade capes, to ball up our Freedom for Lithuania T-shirts and chuck them in the trash? Should we still strive to marry Lithuanians and teach our children to folk dance? Are we expected, after all this time, to actually move back? It’s disconcerting, at the righteous age of sixteen, to be suddenly left without a cause. One guy we know switches almost immediately to freeing Tibet.
Much argument and discussion takes place in our immigrant circles about the best way to proceed. Everyone agrees that the fatherland needs money and religion, so relief organizations step up their efforts. Nuns and priests go over to re-sow the seeds of Catholicism, and some of my peers move to Lithuania to participate in her rebirth. My friend Rita helps launch the first Lithuanian Mc Donald’s and Tommy B. Birch Tree moves to Vilnius to open a Mister Chicken franchise. Some retirees cash in their savings and move back, but most decide to stay. Others add stipulations to their wills that they be buried in Lithuania after their deaths. A few Lithuanians, already dead and buried, are dug up and shipped back.
(This has been a short excerpt from my secret, never-to-be-published book ;)
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