The Legend of Kalanta

  • 2010-06-10
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

UNUSUAL MONUMENT TO AN UNUSUAL HERO: The horizontal monument, by sculptors Robertas Antinis and Saulius Juskys, named Field of Sacrifice in the same place where Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in 1972.

VILNIUS - May 14 is a significant day for Lithuania. On May 14, 1972, 19-year old Lithuanian student Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, in protest against the Soviet occupation. Kalanta poured petrol over himself from a three-liter glass jar and set himself on fire near the fountain at the Musical Theater. Nearby, he dropped his notebook, in which he wrote, “Only the political system is guilty of my death.” It inspired an anti-Soviet two-day rebellion in Kaunas, on May 18 and 19. The Kalanta legend is still alive. Kalanta became a symbol of desperate protest and he is mentioned on various occasions.

On April 24, the day of the funeral of Drasius Kedys, who is regarded by many as a fighter against a pedophiles’ clan, reader Jonas wrote his comment on this Internet site, saying “It is symbolic that Kedys was born in 1972, the year of Kalanta’s sacrifice.”

Vaidotas Stasytis, who’s signature is No. 43,848 on the Internet petition against Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius’ invented tax for the compulsory health insurance (CHI or PSD in Lithuanian) of 2009, for those who where not covered with that insurance, wrote near his signature, “I’m angry because we do everything for them [the government]. We elect them, we pay taxes and they continue to sh… [unprintable word] on our heads – I don’t know what to do: to take a gun into my hands or to become the second Kalanta!!!”

It is quite symbolic  that the main fighter against the PSD absurdity in the parliament was Social Democrat MP Vytenis Andriukaitis, who was a participant of the uprising of 1972 in Kaunas. “It was a time of revolution of hippie students throughout the entire world then. You must see Kaunas’ events in this cultural context,” said Andriukaitis. He was living in the neighborhood of Kalanta’s family house. Andriukaitis took part in anti-Soviet demonstrations and was beaten by the Soviet militia during Kaunas’ rebellion. He is the only MP who took part in the Kaunas rebellion.

Kaunas’ spring of 1972 was an extraordinary event for the entire rather stable and sleepy Soviet empire, which then was ruled by Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Much of what happened in Kaunas in 1972 failed to filter through to the West. However, gossip about the Kaunas revolution was spreading in the USSR. Some Russians even half jokingly nicknamed Kaunas as “Kalantagrad” (“the city of Kalanta” in Russian). The Kaunas uprising of May 1972 was a revolt of young hippies, which was similar to the revolt in Paris in 1968. Just the slogans of flower power in those two cities were different. The Soviets lost control over Kaunas on May 18-19, 1972. Thousands of young, mostly teenage guys and girls demonstrated in Kaunas’ central streets chanting “Freedom for Lithuania! Russians go home!” Soviet authorities declared Kaunas a closed city. Entrance to Kaunas was forbidden. As the first units of the Soviet militia and army appeared on Laisves Aleja, Kaunas’ central avenue, young people started erecting barricades from benches and reinforced concrete.

It was a real revolution. Army and militia beat young protesters. Demonstrators responded in the same way, too. There were hundreds of arrested young men and women in Kaunas’ KGB headquarters. Participants of the rebellion were persecuted by the KGB for the rest of their lives. Many of them lost their jobs or were kicked out of school. After such punishment, they could work only as gravediggers in cemeteries or cleaning the streets. Some of them succumbed to alcohol or disappeared in psychiatric hospitals.

Only several participants were sent to court. Antanas Snieckus, first secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party, as well as heads of the Kaunas KGB, told lies to Moscow in fear of losing their posts. They were trying to show the entire uprising as the action of a group of hooligans. Otherwise, Snieckus and Co. would be responsible for the domination of anti-Soviet feelings in Lithuanian society. This is why only several guys were accused of hooliganism and received prison sentences.

Kalanta’s sacrifice was an expression of a nation’s desire to return to the West. It was a protest against the damned Soviet system. Kalanta’s behavior was probably inspired by Jan Palach, the 20-year old Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. There were several more Lithuanian young men in 1972 and later who set themselves on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation. However, the KGB managed to keep secret these events. The anti-Soviet rebellion exploded only in Kaunas. Kaunas’ events were unique for the entire Soviet empire.

Kaunas was an interim capital of Lithuania until 1939, when Lithuania got back Vilnius shortly before the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940. Poland occupied Vilnius from 1920-1939, though Lithuania refused to recognize the legality of Polish rule over Vilnius, the ancient capital of the historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Vilnius was Lithuania’s capital, according to Lithuania’s constitution. However, Kaunas was the de facto interim capital of Lithuania and the intellectual center of the state between the two world wars. Kaunas preserved the high spirit of Lithuanian patriotism during the Soviet era.

It was hard to find a big city in the USSR in which the central street was not named Lenin or some other Communist name. However, in Brezhnev’s times, Kaunas’ central street was officially called Laisves Aleja (“Avenue of Freedom“) with the same name as before Soviet occupation. This spirit of the temporary capital was still alive in Kaunas in the 1970s. The percentage of Kaunas’ people having relatives in the United States was very high due to the mass exodus of Kaunas’ elite to the West at the end of WWII. Young people were receiving jeans and music records by post from relatives in the United States. It had some ideological impact. Immigration of Russian-speakers was rather small; they made up some nine percent of Kaunas dwellers and these Russian-speakers were Lithuanized by the local community in a short period of time.

Kaunas of 1972 was the eastern fortress of the western hippy culture, despite the iron curtain. In 1972, young people with long hair and torn jeans used to gather near the fountain in the center of Kaunas. They listened to music from Radio Luxembourg on small portable radios. Sometimes Kalanta, a longhaired student at evening school for young workers, was joining this group. From time to time, the Soviet militia beat them and cut their hair. The communist authorities considered long hair a dangerous influence of capitalism. On May 14, 1972, the hippies of Kaunas were planning to show the well-known musical Hair in underground conditions. However, on this day at 12:30, Kalanta poured petrol over himself and Kaunas’ youth exploded with rebellion.

After May 1972, severe repression began, particularly against the cultural elite, whom the communists blamed for creating the anti-Soviet atmosphere in Kaunas. One popular patriotic play, Barbora Radvilaite, about the wife of a 16th century ruler of Poland and Lithuania, was banned. Jonas Jurasas, director of the Kaunas Drama Theater, was forced to leave his job. He later emigrated to the West. Modris Tenisons, director of the Kaunas Pantomime Theater, was forced to return to his native Riga. Kaunas’ cultural life was under close surveillance of the KGB. Some say that Kaunas felt the consequences of this repression for a couple of decades, deteriorating to the status of a rather provincial town, from which Kaunas is now recovering.

In the early 1990s, political elite (both, the rightist and the leftist) of independent Lithuania was feeling somewhat uneasy about the events of 1972 – some part of it belonged to the communist nomenclature in 1972 while others were intellectuals who kept silent in 1972. The dissident movement had started only after the Kaunas uprising - old dissidents and activists of the Roman Catholic underground movement did not take part in the Kaunas revolution.
Facing the events of 1972, the current elite felt uneasy because some could ask what they were doing back in 1972. In fact, many of them managed to live quite comfortably in 1972. Only in 2002, the Lithuanian parliament made May 14, the day in 1972 of Kalanta’s sacrifice, a commemorative day, which means that it is a state holiday, though not a day off. It took a decade for the Lithuanian state institutions to find money to finance construction of the quite modest monument on Laisves Aleja in front of the Musical Theater in Kaunas. In 2002, on May 14, the horizontal monument by sculptors Robertas Antinis and Saulius Juskys named Field of Sacrifice, was unveiled exactly in the same place where Kalanta set himself on fire in 1972. Nineteen reddish stones, spread on the lawn, symbolize Kalanta’s age at the moment of his death.

Since the construction of the monument to Kalanta, city life made some corrections in this horizontal monument. Little by little pedestrians made a narrow path across the monument’s lawn, towards the nearby public toilet. The monument’s sculptor, Antinis, who himself was arrested by the Soviet militia during Kaunas’ events of 1972, was not worrying too much about it then. “I didn’t create this monument as a fetish. I wanted that this place would be democratic and would change with the seasons and would become part of modern life,” Antinis said in 2003.

The hippie times are remembered each May 14 in Kaunas. Usually on each May 14 local musicians play in some Kaunas clubs live music of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, who were popular in Kaunas in 1972. Near the monument of Kalanta, on May 14, 2010, poets recited their poems and musicians sang their songs playing guitars.