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Negotiating Narratives of Kaunas 1972 from Archives to Oral Interviews

The Kalanta memorial in Kaunas

April 5, 2012

by Amanda Swain

The author looking down at Kaunas' Old Town. Kaunas hosted the European Basketball Championship in 2011.

The author looking down at Kaunas’ Old Town. Kaunas hosted the European Basketball Championship in 2011.

When I arrived in Lithuania in January 2009 for an eight month research trip, I did not imagine that I would spend 20 out of the next 36 months living in Vilnius and Kaunas. My purpose was to gather archival documents for my dissertation concerning two days of popular unrest that followed the self-immolation of a young man in Kaunas in May 1972. Although the event is one of the largest incidents of popular unrest in Soviet Lithuania –and has been commemorated annually and regularly discussed by newspapers since 1990– historians have not yet studied it in-depth. I was especially intrigued by reports that teenagers and young adults comprised the majority of participants in the two days of popular unrest.

On May 14, 1972, nineteen-year old Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in a public square in front of the Kaunas Musical Theater. A former member of the Young Communists League, Kalanta was attending night school after being expelled from secondary school. On May 18, the day of his funeral, approximately five hundred young people gathered outside the Kalanta home. When they received the news that the Soviet authorities had forced the family to bury him two hours earlier than the scheduled time, they decided to walk to the park where Kalanta had committed suicide. The young people chanted “Freedom for Lithuania” and “Freedom for the hippies” as they walked two and a half kilometers to the center of the city. After gathering in the park for an impromptu memorial service, the crowd – which had reached approximately two thousand people – began moving towards the police headquarters after a rumor spread that Kalanta’s father had been arrested. The police, however, had formed a cordon in the square in front of the church at the end of the street. In the confrontation, the police attacked the crowd with rubber truncheons. Some young people responded by throwing rocks, while others ran back toward the park. The police dispersed the crowd, but skirmishes between the police and young people continued late into the evening. The next day, May 19, several thousand people again gathered in the city center. They marched down Laisvės Alėja, “Liberty Avenue” in Lithuanian. After the local police were unable to break up the crowd, army troops and KGB units finally suppressed the demonstrators, who were mainly students and workers in their late teens and early twenties. On the first day of the protests, the police arrested 402 people, although most were released within a few days. The police made no formal arrests on the second day of the protests; however, hundreds of young people were beaten on the streets, in garages and in warehouses.

The Kalanta memorial in Kaunas. The stones represent the 'burned pages of history.'

The Kalanta memorial in Kaunas. The stones represent the ‘burned pages of history.’

My goal in 2009 was to determine whether or not there was sufficient archival material on these events to write a dissertation. I spent most of the first six months working in the KGB section of the Lithuanian Special Archives. Housed in a building that was originally used as a Tsarist Russian prison and was later used as a KGB prison, the KGB section of the National Archives holds material left behind after the demise of the Soviet Union. I was thrilled to discover hundreds of documents related to the Kalanta events. I found files on the criminal prosecution of participants in the two days of unrest and investigations into the distribution of poems honoring Kalanta as a hero. However, after six months, I had not found the files for the original investigation of his suicide. I knew the files existed because a 1990 article in the journal Nemunas referred to documents from the investigation. The staff at the Special Archives believed the files were still located at the Kaunas Prosecutor’s Office, who told me they were in the Special Archives, who told me that they did not know where the files were. After a second round of requests, I received a letter from the Kaunas Prosecutors’ Office informing me that the files had been given to the Kaunas Regional Archives in 2006. At that point, I had only one week left in Lithuania. On the morning after I received the email confirming the files’ whereabouts, I got up early, took the train to Kaunas and arrived at the regional archives just as it opened. After a bit of searching, the archivist at the front desk located the files and I spent the day photographing documents.

The author working in the chilly reading room of the KGB archives. (2009)

The author working in the chilly reading room of the KGB archives. (2009)

The KGB investigation files contained interrogation statements of over 100 young people who participated in the street demonstrations on the day of Kalanta’s funeral. The official documents – written out by KGB personnel and signed by the person questioned – provided my first window into the events of May 18, 1972. The nearly 40-year old documents were hand-written on porous paper, similar to construction paper, in green or purple felt tip pen – requiring, not surprisingly, hours of careful reading to decipher them. Fortunately, I gradually became familiar with the handwriting of the few people who wrote out most of the statements, which were then signed by the person who had been interrogated. KGB statements are problematic sources. Dated days and even weeks after the event, they give no evidence of how often or how long the individuals were interrogated. The statements did not include the questions asked, although it is possible to infer a basic set of questions based on the statements: Why did you participate in the unrest? Who did you go with? Did you know Kalanta? How did you hear about his death and funeral? Why do you think he committed suicide? The narratives of the statements are remarkably consistent, possibly shaped by the KGB officials constructing them, the young people’s assumptions of what they should say or perhaps even by a consistent experience on that day.

The site of the 1972 demonstrations, Laisvė Alėja is now a pedestrian shopping street.

The site of the 1972 demonstrations, Laisvė Alėja is now a pedestrian shopping street.

I was often asked by local people what I was doing in Lithuania. As I explained my research project in these everyday encounters, I discovered that many Lithuanians have a story to tell about what they saw or what they heard at that time. I even met people in their 20s and 30s who told me that they heard stories about Kalanta as they were growing up. Inspired by the personal memories Lithuanians shared with me in 2009, I applied for funding to return to Lithuania the next year and conduct an oral history project. I began by interviewing people with whom I had talked in 2009. They introduced me to their friends, who also told me their stories. Colleagues at Vytautas Magnus University made connections for me as well. As the months progressed, I interviewed an ever-widening circle of people who had participated in or observed the demonstrations. In the end, however, I discovered some of the most fascinating stories completely by chance. As I was walking down Pilies gatvė in Vilnius on February 16, 2011 (Lithuanian Independence Day), I saw a man carrying a large flag that said “Sukilimas 1972” (Uprising 1972). I, of course, introduced myself and asked why he was carrying such a flag. And so I met the brother of the man who had been convicted for instigating the street demonstrations in 1972. Later in the summer, I was interviewing a man who had played in a teenage rock band in the early 1970s. A friend of his dropped by and, hearing about my project, proceeded to tell me that she had been in the park when Kalanta set himself on fire.

Memories shared many years after an event are also problematic. As I interviewed people about their memories of the unrest that occurred on the day of Kalanta’s funeral, I found that they were not only consistent with each other but they were remarkably consistent with the narratives from the KGB interrogation statements. Given the coverage of the events in the popular media since Lithuania regained independence, I wasn’t too surprised that my interviewees articulated a “shared memory” of the events. Soon I realized that the clue to the uniformity between the remembered narratives and the interrogation statements was right there in the interviews. People constantly referred me to the 1991 article in the journal Nemumas about the 1972 events, an article based on documents in the KGB archives. There was one glaring difference between the two sources, however. Participants questioned by the KGB said that the crowd shouted “Freedom for Lithuania” and “Freedom for hippies.” Yet my interviewees only mentioned the crowd shouting “Freedom for Lithuania.” What accounts for this change? Were the hippies a KGB addition? Or have they been dropped from a more nationalist narrative of the events? With these and other questions, I am negotiating my way through the narratives of events of 1972 from the archives to the oral interviews.

In May, I will return to Lithuania to attend the 40th anniversary commemorations of Kalanta’s self-immolation and the ensuing demonstrations. I am looking forward to discovering what stories and memories await me.

Amanda Swain is a doctoral candidate in the University of Washington’s Department of History.  She holds a master’s degree from the REECAS program.  Her 2009 research trip was funded through UW FLAS and Chester Fritz research grants.  She received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award to conduct the oral interview project in 2010-2011.

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