Jun 10, 2010
By Rokas M. Tracevskis
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, lrytas.lt 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
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.