Meanwhile, In The Headquarters Of The KGB…
Behind this door, grotesquely cruel things happened.
There’s no actual blood on the floor of the execution chamber but just in case you can’t visualise it, there’s a video playing of dissidents being shot in the head and their insides being sluiced out with buckets of water before they’re bundled into laundry chutes. I’m in the headquarters of the KGB in Lithuania, which, let’s not forget, was still active in 1993.
What happened in this building is too staggering to contemplate. The vastness of scale is something we’ve seen in other genocides, but the cruelty of the Russians is astounding. In one cell there’s a tiny circular plate on which inmates were made to stand naked in sub-zero temperatures. The cell was flooded with iced water (temperatures here are always extreme veering from -24C in winter to +35C in summer) and if they lost their balance, they’d fall in, gradually becoming weaker each time.
Vilnius has the Museum of Genocide, too – it’s a subject the Baltic countries know a lot about. Judging by the astonishing number of elaborate churches, Lithuania seems even more staunchly Catholic than its neighbours (I’ve visited them all except Belarus) and their rescue from German hands, only to suffer the horrors of a Communist state dedicated to crushing all freedom of thought, is unbearably sad.
What’s happened since 1993 is amazing – freedom of belief and expression and finally last year, adoption of the Euro. Vilnius isn’t a popular tourist destination (although that may come in time) and perhaps we should be thankful that it hasn’t gone the way of Prague, where McDonalds junk-food outlets overshadow national monuments. But there are elderly folk on the streets whose faces suggest that memories are long.
If you’re interested in Baltic countries, as I am, it’s a destination you should try. St Petersburg is not far from here, but to enter it I would have to renege on a promise I made to myself; to stay away until Russia’s human rights agenda matched those of the civilised world’s.
Meanwhile, I’m enjoying myself in this snowswept capital, where the elegance of grand French colonial-style buildings masks backstreets of crumbling tenements. Back tomorrow, and readying myself for a rather more complicated adventure next month.