When I was trying to figure out where I should enter the Seimas building last week, I went around the side by the river — which I have never done. When I came around the corner, I discovered a memorial to January 1991, when Soviet troops tried to take control of the Vilnius television tower and also advanced on the Seimas building. Lithuanians built barricades around the Seimas to protect the newly-democratic parliament. My first trip to independent Lithuania was in July 1992, when I attended a one-month language course. The barricades were still up around the parliament building because former Soviet troops were still on Lithuanian territory. I attended a demonstration in front of the barricades demanding the withdrawal of the troops (which were under Russian control at that point). Seeing the barricades brought back a rush of memories from 1992 and those early years of independence.
Last Wednesday I dropped by the Seimas (Parliament) building because I had heard there was an exhibit about Romas Kalanta in the foyer. I assumed that the foyer would be open to the public, which was not the case. The guard at the entrance didn’t quite know what to do with this foreigner asking to see the exhibit inside the parliament building. He called a couple different people who came and talked to me. The last person to come was one of the parliamentary historians. He not only authorized my entrance through security and took me to see the exhibit, he also gave me a personal tour of the building. The building was built in the early 1980s for the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I got to see the original chamber where the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet declared independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990. I also saw the new modern parliamentary chamber. The original building has amazing stained glass windows with Soviet symbolism. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take photos because an event was going on in that space. I found out later that the Seimas is only open to the public on Fridays.
There were two official commemorations sponsored by the Kaunas municipality on May 14. I did not attend the first one at noon on Monday because I was at the secondary school. I did attend the one in the evening, which was jointly sponsored by Vytautas Magnus University. I believe that the mid-day event consisted mainly of speeches. The evening event featured a rock concert by local young Lithuanian rock bands next to the Kalanta memorial. A large screen displayed photographs of the demonstrations that followed Kalanta’s suicide as well as photos of Kalanta. I spent part of the evening hanging out with several former hippies whom I interviewed last year for my research. While the stage hands were setting up, music from the later 1960s was being played over the sound system. At one point, The Who’s “My Generation” was playing and the hippies at the table (and I) were all singing along. Suddenly, “My Generation” was interrupted by blaring metal music as the next band started performing. One of the hippies pointed at the stage and said “now this generation!” Perhaps the most interesting comment that evening was the number of former hippies who said to me that, in 1972, they could have never imagined that they would one day be sitting in the city center, listening to a rock concert in independent Lithuania. But 40 years later, there we were.
On Monday, May 14, I was invited to participate in a commemoration of Kalanta’s self-immolation at the Veršvų Secondary School in Kaunas. The school is located in the Viliampolė neighborhood and Kalanta attended the school (although it had a different name then). The event included two performances by students and speeches by a representative from Vytautas Magnus University, people who had participated in the demonstrations, and a couple of local of politicians. There were a lot of speeches — probably too many. By the time I gave a 10 minute talk in Lithuania about the hippie movement, it was an hour and a half into the program. I was faced with two hundred restless teenagers. The teachers were all pleased that I could speak Lithuanian; I don’t think the kids were that impressed.
Articles about and commemorations of Kalanta’s self-immolation often use “fire” language. This event was no exception — it was called “Lit a fire in the hearts of freedom.” Students performed a dance representing Kalanta burning himself, which I’m not sure what say about but I found fascinating. In the first performance, students dressed as hippies sang songs from the late 1960s. The first song is the lyrics of a famous 19th century Lithuanian poem “Trakai Castle” set to the melody of The Animals song “House of the Rising Sun.” The young men in dark coats and caps represent the Communist Youth League harrasing the hippies. Later in the performance, a larger group of young men came out and pretended to beat up the hippies, which is actually historically accurate.
When I left Lithuania at the end of August 2011, the new Kaunas arena was still under construction — even though the arena was supposed to host the September European Basketball Championship. They managed to finish the arena just in time. It’s a big glass box on the river, but I hear that inside it is comfortable and on the leading edge of arena technology. While the building itself isn’t particularly attractive, the glass provided amazing reflections of the clouds and sky on Sunday afternoon.
On Friday evening, I went to the opening of the Fluxus Ministry in Kaunas. Fluxus Ministry is an alternative arts organization that has transformed the former Lituanica shoe factory building into an exhibit and performance space. Fluxus Ministry’s mission is to intervene in the tedious, routine world with the unexpected and paradoxical. And they do just that! My favorite exhibit was “Requiem Orchestra” — a darkened cavernous second floor room was filled with rows of folding chairs, each with a music stand and a rusted or dented instrument. It was strange and fascinating and thought-provoking, exactly what I would expect from a Fluxus art space. You can get a glimpse of it in this Fluxus video of the opening.
Fluxus Ministry is named after the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s. The Fluxus community was organized by George Marciunas and Jonas Mekas, two Lithuanian-born artists who immigrated to New York. The movement grew to encompass artists in the United States, Europe and Japan. Fluxus artists were interdisciplinary and collaborative — and “anti-art.” They believed that art should have social and political meaning and not just be art for art’s sake. They emphasized minimalism in their work. Yoko Ono is probably the most famous Fluxus artists.
On Friday, I participated in a roundtable discussion with three VDU faculty members about Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation and the street demonstrations that followed his funeral. It was an interesting and lively discussion about the events in May 1972, what they meant for Lithuania at the time and what they mean for Lithuania today. I spoke about the “myth of the hippies” — that the hippies actually played a minor role in the events of May 1972 even though they are a large part of the historical consciousness of that period. Yet it is the very “myth of the hippies” that demonstrates the importance of studying these events. The hippies exemplify the tensions between Soviet authorities and youth in post-Stalinist Soviet Union that was manifested in the street demonstrations. This tension was a result of significant changes in the Soviet system and it reveals ways in which the system was fracturing. (The discussion was filmed but I haven’t been able to find a link to the video online.)
The opening of an exhibit “Flower Children: From Pacifism to the Barricades” was held immediately after the roundtable discussion. The exhibit features photographs of young people in Kaunas in the early 1970s, collages made in the early 1970s by a Kaunas hippie, and a 1970s-era vintage room for hanging out and listening to rock music. It’s a rather nostalgic exhibit and great fun!