RIGA - Like a rag doll caught in a tug of war between two belligerent children, the Baltic States suffered the consequences of being a prize fought over by Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany during WWII, only to be ripped to shreds in the end. Both aggressors staked overlapping claims, initially colluding through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.
Already in 1934 these three small countries felt threatened. In September of that year, British minister to the Baltics, Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, wrote in a dispatch from Riga on the changes taking place: “There is a ‘lives of the hunted’ element in the attitude of these small States to their great neighbors; and it would be difficult to decide which in the last resort they fear most – the protective solicitude of the Soviet Union, the clumsy directness of Germany, or the devouring overtures of Poland,” John Hiden and Patrick Salmon wrote in The Baltic Nations and Europe.
Soviet troops rolled into the Baltic States in June 1940 in what was their first occupation of the countries. They committed uncountable atrocities against the populations, including murder and the deportation of hundreds of thousands. This marked the end of the Baltic Germans – who were evacuated – and the Jews – who were exterminated. In Lithuania, 75,000 were deported or killed.
The Nazis stormed in a year later, only to be driven out for good by the Soviet onslaught in 1944. They sought their revenge. Not surprisingly, the period was marked by a “ruthlessness and brutality of the Soviets against Lithuania.”
The Soviets met with continued resistance through the early 1950s by Lithuanian freedom fighters; if caught, they faced deportation to the gulag. Not all captured partisans were so lucky to be deported.
From 1945 on, the Soviets worked to extinguish the national identities of the Baltic peoples by attacks on culture, religion and freedom, and through Soviet-style industrialization: importing workers from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, amidst the rubble the veil of the past 50 years slowly began to be raised.
It is in the center of Vilnius, in 1994, that Rokas Tracevskis begins his book The Manor of Horror: The Soviet Era Mass Grave in Vilnius, with the shocking discovery of a mass grave of Soviet-era victims, a secret kept hidden since the final days of the war.
Excavations of the grave, within the walls of the Tuskulenai estate, started that year, and continued until 1996. The remains of more than 700 victims were found.
We learn that 767 people were executed (including 5 women) at night in another location - the NKGB/MGB headquarters and prison on Auku street, near Gedimino Avenue - with the bodies then taken to Tuskulenai.
Choosing sides (of the lesser of two evils, as was the choice for Lithuanians) in the chaos of those times meant death for many of those who ended up on the wrong side of the dividing line: with allegiances in constant flux, it was sometimes difficult to know who was fighting on what side. In situations where “…the same person could be a collaborator for a foreign occupational force, and a fighter against it…” many ended up facing the firing squad.
The murders took place from 1944-47. In most cases, this was simply for expressing one’s beliefs or ideas. On a visit to the grave site in 2009, President Dalia Grybauskaite reminded the audience that many of the victims “were executed for political beliefs and for their faith in the ideas of freedom and independence.”
In Stalin’s Great Terror purges of the ranks of the peasants, “killings took place in soundproofed rooms… The executioners were always NKVD officers, generally using a Nagan pistol. While two men held a prisoner by his arms, the executioner would fire a single shot from behind into the base of the skull, and then a ‘control shot’ into the temple,” wrote Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands. One can imagine the methodical operation conducted in Vilnius. Only they didn’t stop with just one ‘control shot.’
The Manor of Horror explains how victims were “shot from a short distance… only 76 percent of the Tuskulenai skulls show the impact of one bullet. Some skulls show the impact of up to six bullets.” One young woman was killed without a bullet, being bludgeoned to death instead with a hammer and axe.
Torture was also part of the procedure: “Some skulls showed that while still alive, the victims had their heads crushed in special squeezing machines.” This was all done in the execution room, called the ‘Kitchen’ (Kukhnya).
There must have been real hatred against the freedom fighters by their Soviet captors.
Tracevskis touches on the role of Nazi cooperation by the local population. Forty-three participants in the June 1941 uprising against the Soviets declared their support for Hitler’s ‘New Europe,’ though for tactical reasons rather than political belief – to restore independence from both totalitarian powers. In fact, the world’s first trial against the local pro-German Nazi group’s leadership took place in Lithuania in 1934-35, he writes.
The victims buried in Tuskulenai were not all combatants. One, a member of the Catholic clergy, was Vincentas Borisevicius, bishop of Telsiai. Borisevicius was arrested on Dec. 18, 1945. Refusing to become a Soviet agent meant torture by the KGB. He was kept in a basement cell full of sewage, living in blood soaked clothing, presumably his own blood. The bishop was executed in November 1946.
A Chapel Columbarium, a sober memorial to the victims, opened on Nov. 2, 2004 on the Tuskulenai estate. The former KGB building is now a museum.
The author knows his subject well. Not only a journalist covering the events in Lithuania since re-independence, Tracevskis was on the front lines himself, at the barricades, when the Soviet Union was forced into oblivion in 1991. He brings real insight and passion to his writing, and a detailed accounting of history.
Where to find The Manor of Horror:
The bookstore at the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania on Didzioji Street 17/1 in Vilnius’ Old Town.
At the KGB Museum, Auku Street 2A.
At Tuskulenai Museum, Zirmunu Street 1F.
Via the Internet at www.balticshop.com