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The dark shadows of the past

  • 2010-02-03
  • By Lasse Felsen

NEWS ROOM: The museum presents historical items supported by documentaries and slideshows telling about constant hardship the people struggled against.

VILNIUS - It has now been 20 years since Lithuania proclaimed its regained independence and freedom as a nation, but the shadows of the past still dominate the minds of the many who can remember back. The postwar Soviet occupation is a long and painful chapter in Lithuanian history. It is important for new generations not to forget what their forefathers suffered and endured, and thankfully, young people today have access to free information, allowing for them to educate and enlighten themselves as much as they please. In Vilnius, there is a place that gives us a stark reminder that things did not always use to be that way.

In the center of the city, a pompous 19th century building (constructed in neoclassical style back when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire) today houses the Museum of Genocide Victims. This museum is very special. It was established in 1992 on the request of the Ministry of Culture, and its exhibition deals with the Lithuanian people’s struggle against Soviet oppression from 1944 up until 1991. During this period, the building served as operational center for the Soviet security agencies (the KGB and its branches), and in the basement there was a prison, interrogation cells, and an execution chamber. Now, the museum is the only one of its kind in the former Soviet republics, and thus, it is a unique and important historical monument. In fact, it is a place everyone who has been to Vilnius ought to visit.

The museum is operated by and runs under the responsibility of The Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania, which is a national institute that studies, investigates and disseminates the atrocities of Soviet and Nazi occupants during and after the Second World War. More than being of high historical importance, the exhibition itself is made to look very interesting, and everything inside of the museum is arranged and presented in an engaged and captivating fashion. There are three separate floors full of personal stories, reading material and historical evidence, with thousands of items donated by private people and governmental institutions. It is a collection which over the years continuously has expanded and become more and more comprehensive.

Guests begin their journey on the ground floor of the building, which used to house KGB administration offices. There is an introductory part that tells us the story of how Soviet Russia began to close its iron grip around the Baltic countries and control every sphere of political, religious and cultural society. There is a lot of original material on display, including old Soviet maps, letters from family members deported to the concentration camps of Siberia, personal documents and other belongings, and several private pictures. Each of the compact rooms that make up the exhibition are designed and arranged differently, and the installations are displayed in an inventive and creative way, with large background wallpapers in black and white picturing different natural environments.

There is a special area dedicated to the partisan groups who risked their lives and organized themselves all over Lithuania, uniting in fighting against the occupants. The partisan war was an uneven fight, and documentations of partisan activities can be seen in the form of authentic underground publications, maps with coordinates of troop movements, and other communications. You also find samples of the weapons the partisans used and the uniforms they wore. It is a true tribute to the heroic efforts of patriots who bled for their country.

All material is presented in an informative, entertaining and educational manner, with many details and substantial reading material. You find yourself studying, rather than just viewing. The impression is that the organizers were good at combining visual and physical layers, in that historical items on display are supported by documentary movies and wall slideshows telling about everyday hardship during the occupation. There are also many interesting soundscapes, adding to the emotional impact and making everything become an integrated experience.

Heading downstairs to the old KGB prison, little change has been made to the original environment since the communists left the premises almost two decades ago. With authenticity maintained, the atmosphere here is very sinister and bleak, and it is no place to be for the faint-hearted visitor. As you walk down to the basement, it is striking how the room temperature becomes colder. It is an uninviting place, and the surroundings are kept in their raw and primitive initial style. Two tiny rooms, the so-called boxes, are found at your left immediately when entering the prison. The two boxes served as cells where new prisoners were held in temporary custody, while their personal documents were examined. There is a narrow wooden bench in each box, with just enough space for one man to sit down and not move around. For the museum guest to actually enter the box and close the door is a real experience of suffocating claustrophobia.

After being held in the box, dissidents were removed and taken for further questioning and interrogation. Inmates were taken to a photographing and fingerprinting room next door, and all of their personal data was checked and noted down. Prisoners were now stripped from their original identity as they became victims of the brainwashing terror machinery. Walking further down the corridors, museum guests see dozens of 10 square meter cells which used to held up to 20 prisoners inside. The cells are kept intact, with some refurnished in original style. Old writings and messages are carved into the walls by former prisoners, still visible even if the walls over the years have been covered by several layers of paint.
There are small solitary confinement cells down here too, for the convicts breaking prison rules or refusing to tell officials what they wanted to hear. There is even a specially designed padded cell with soundproof walls, which served as a torture chamber. On the back wall of the padded cell, a straitjacket used for reluctant prisoners ominously hangs for visitors to view.           

Disturbing as all of this scenery is, the worst part of the museum still has to be the execution chamber. Situated next to the basement prison, this chamber of horror is now made into a memorial museum. In this room, prisoners were shot dead and then taken away by trucks during the night and buried in mass graves outside Vilnius. Items collected from the mass graves are put on display under floor glass monitors, in the form of victim’s clothing, jewelry, personal papers, and other prisoner belongings. On the walls, textual and photographic material about individual trials and how executions were carried out is presented.

Finally, it is a relief to leave the basement and walk up to the first floor of the building. Here, there is a large collection of material making evident the Lithuanian people’s unarmed resistance against the Soviets. The ‘Singing Revolution’ of the Baltic people is legendary and something for new generations to keep celebrating and honor. During occupation, the public peacefully demonstrated for national independence and in this conclusive part of the exhibition, it is shown how the Baltic people kept battling for their cause, however suppressed. ‘The Singing Revolution’ of the late ’80s comes back to life with photographs and movies of the demonstrations, periodicals and underground Sajudis (Reform Movement of occupied Lithuania) publications.

The evidence of the activities of the freedom fighters is all present here, and it is an amazing experience for the museum guest. The demonstration named ‘The Baltic Way’ became a milestone during ‘The Singing Revolution’, and it remains so. On Aug. 23, 1989, two million Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian people created a human chain and held hands across all three Baltic states, from Vilnius, to Riga, to Talinn. In Vilnius alone, 5000 people gathered at the Cathedral Square, where they lit candles and sang national hymns. The many voices ushered the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime, and soon, Lithuania would be a free nation again.