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When I arrived in Kaunas in mid-September 1993, every Lithuanian I met asked me “where is your winter coat?”  I would point to the wool coat I’d brought from Seattle and say, “This is my winter coat.”  They all shook their heads and said, “This is not a winter coat.”  Two weeks later, when the first sub-zero cold front descended on Kaunas, I realized that they were right.  So I went to Merkurijus, the only department store in town, and bought a down coat, lined boots, and heavy gloves.  The coat served me well during that long cold, winter.

On my first trip back to Kaunas in February, I saw that Merkurijus had closed.  When I walked by the building last week, it was in the process of being torn down.  I guess now that Akropolis stands where my apartment once was, they don’t need the old department store anymore.

On the street in Kaunas, winter 1993-1994, in the coat I bought at Merkurijus.

On the street in Kaunas, winter 1993-1994, in the coat I bought at Merkurijus.

A crane takes a bite of the Merkurijus building last week.

A crane takes a bite of the Merkurijus building last week.

Several times while I have been in Kaunas, I have attempted to find the building where I lived in 1993-1994.  I remember that I turned right at the Cathedral, walked a few blocks and turned right again.  I’ve turned right on every street between the Cathedral and the point at which I know I have gone too far but none of the buildings look familiar.  I think that I have finally figured out why.  When I turn at the street that seems like it should be the right one, I see this…

akropolis

…the Akropolis mall.  You can’t tell from this photo but I’ve been told this is the biggest mall in Lithuania.  The white building on the left goes down a long block and when you walk in this entrance, the mall extends for a couple of blocks in front of you.  I am pretty sure that the building in which I lived was torn down to building the white building on the left.  I even asked my friend at the university and she too thinks that my apartment was on this street.  I can’t begrudge Kaunas its shopping extravaganza but I am feeling a bit sad that my little flat in the old 1920s building is gone.

sculpture1Laisvės Alėja is a pedestrian street through the center of Kaunas, lined with cafes and shops and parks.  I often walk along Laisvės Alėja when I am in Kaunas on my way to a meeting or just to take a stroll and people-watch.  Now that the weather is warm, I like to sit on a bench in the shade and eat an ice cream cone.  I also like to look at the public art placed along the street.  Here are a couple of my favorite pieces in the Laisvės Alėja Sculpture Gallery.

This gentleman is always carrying flowers.

This gentleman is always carrying flowers.

As part of my research, I am putting together a time line of events on May 18, 1972 — the day of Romas Kalanta’s funeral and the first day of the mass protest in Kaunas — based on the interrogation statements in the KGB files.  While I was in Kaunas a few weeks ago, I took photographs of various sites where the protests occurred.  Here’s a visual narrative of the events of that day.

A crowd of several hundred young people gathered in front of the Kalanta house, spilling out into the street and stopping traffic.

4:00 p.m. A crowd of several hundred young people gathered in front of the Kalanta house, spilling out into the street and stopping traffic.

When the crowd learned that Kalanta’s parents had been forced to bury him two hours before the planned time for the funeral, they decided to go to the park when Kalanta had immolated himself and hold their own memorial.

The crowd crossed this bridge from Vilijampole into the city center.

5:00 p.m. The crowd crossed this bridge from Vilijampole into the city center, disrupting traffic along the way.

They marched down the main street in Kaunas shouting, among other things, "Liberty for Lithuania!" and "Liberty for the Hippies!"

They marched down Laisvės Alėja, the main street in Kaunas, shouting among other things "Freedom for Lithuania!" and "Freedom for the Hippies!"

The crowd from Vilijampole joined the crowd that had already gathered in the city park, where they laid flowers and sang songs.

The crowd from Vilijampole joined a crowd that had already gathered in the city park, where they laid flowers and sang songs.

6:00 p.m. A rumor spread that Kalanta’s father had been arrested.  Several people in the crowd shouted that they should go to the militia headquarters to free him.  The crowd moved again down Laisvės Alėja towards the cathedral.

By this time, the militia had established a cordon in the cathedral square and came after the crowd with rubber truncheons.

By this time, the militia had established a cordon in the cathedral square and came after the crowd with rubber truncheons.

The young people at the front of the crowd responded by throwing stones at the militia.  Most of the crowd ran back towards city park, which was then surrounded by the militia and the crowd was forcibly dispersed. However, violent confrontations between the militia and young people continued late into the night.

Whay I find so surprising about this time line is that the authorities appear to have been unprepared for the mass action that occurred.  Despite the fact that a crowd of several hundred people had gathered at the Kalanta home by 4:00 p.m., it was another two hours before the militia seem to have been called out.  Additionally, a separate crowd had gathered at the city park where Kalanta had committed suicide.  I would have expected the park to be sealed off in order to prevent that from happening.  From what I’ve been told, people had been gathering at the city park all during the week and authorities had visited secondary schools to forbid young people from attending the funeral or gathering in the park.  So they seem to have been aware that the funeral could be an occassion for popular protest, yet they did not take the advance action I would have expected.  One of the many questions about these events that I am hoping to answer…

Wooden houses from the late 19th/early 20th century can still be found in Lithuania — some have been restored and some haven’t.  Here are a few photographs of wooden houses in the Vilijampole neighborhood of Kaunas.

wooden-house-1

wooden-house-2

wooden-house-3

Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation on May 14, 1972.  I spent the day in Kaunas attending two commemorations, visiting Kalanta’s gravesite and and talking to several people about their experiences of the events in Kaunas in 1972.  Many thanks to R., who posts comments on my blog as “Kaunas 1972,” for picking me up at the train station, introducing me to his friends, and arranging a ride back to Vilnius for me.   I also greatly appreciate that his friends spent several hours with me sharing their experiences and perspectives.  Once again, I experienced wonderful Lithuanian hospitality.

In yesterday’s conversations, I learned some new things, received confirmation of some of my ideas, and gained a better understand of the human side of my dissertation topic.  After four months in the KGB archives, I was feeling a bit burnt-out and have struggled over the last couple of weeks to be disciplined with my research.  Yesterday I was able to see more clearly the importance of studying these events and I am feeling re-energized about my work.  Today’s task — write up my notes from yesterday’s events and conversations.

At Kalanta's grave

At Kalanta's grave

Young women holding the traditional Lithuanian juostas at the noon commemoration.  The stones behind them are part of the monument to Kalanta's sacrifice in the park where he died.

Young women holding the traditional Lithuanian juostas at the noon commemoration. The stones behind them are part of the monument to Kalanta's sacrifice in the park where he died.

Channeling 1972 -- at the evening commemoration, a teen-age rock band played Jimi Hendrix "Kiss the Sky"

Channeling 1972 -- at the evening commemoration, a teen-age rock band played Jimi Hendrix "Kiss the Sky"

The main building of Vytautas Magnus University, where I spent many hours.

The main building of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, where I spent many hours 15 years ago.

Today I went to Kaunas for the first time since I lived there as one of the first Fulbright students in Lithuania in 1993-1994.  At that time, I was in the master’s program in the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.  I received the Fulbright award to do research for my master’s thesis on the reform of history education in newly-independent Lithuania.

I lived in Kaunas for ten months, just a few years after the demise of the Soviet Union.  It was a challenging time  in Lithuania — the economy was in shambles, significant social and political changes were occurring with the transition to a post-Soviet democratic state, and everyone was wondering if the Russian government was going to cut natural gas supplies as it had the previous winter.   As a student at Vytautas Magnus University, I personally had to face some of these challenges, such as period cuts in heat and hot water and limited food supplies.  And I vicariously experienced the social and political changes through the lives of my Lithuanian friends.  But despite these difficulties, I had a great year and have fond memories of my time in Kaunas.  Unfortunately, in the intervening 15 years, I had lost contact with the friends that I made while I lived there.

Recently I re-connected with the professor who was my adviser while I was at Vytautas Magnus University and today I went to Kaunas to have lunch with him.  We had a great time talking about my research project and remembering “the old days.”  I was very excited to learn from him that the woman who was  a great friend to me still worked in the Humanities Faculty office.  In addition to helping me navigate the many labyrinths of life in Lithuania at the time, she was a wonderful person to hang out with.  Needless to say, she was quite surprised when I walked into her office today after 15 years!  It was an emotional reunion with lots of smiles and hugs and even a few tears.  We are already planning to get together next weekend to catch up on each other’s lives and have some fun together again.

I also tried to find the apartment building that I lived in while I was in Kaunas.  I remember that I walk to the end of Laisves Aleja, the long pedestrian street through the center of town, and turned right at the Cathedral.  But, at that point, my memory fails me.  Today I walked up two different streets but nothing looked familiar.  I’ll look again next time I go to Kaunas.  But even if I don’t find my house, I found my friends — and they were the most part of my life there.

The Cathedral at the end of Laisves Aleja -- turn right but then what?

The Cathedral at the end of Laisves Aleja -- turn right but then what?