I’ll get the amusing story out of the way, so that this post can then assume whatever tone will ultimately fit it best. So, during check-in, the evening manager solemnly informed me of his pleasure on behalf of the hotel in upgrading my room from my requested single to a double. “Great!” I thought. “Nothing wrong with a bigger bed to stretch out in.” Well, whatever his intention and no doubt from the goodness of their hearts, the hotel upgraded me from one of these tiny beds, to two! What a deal! I thanked them as though it were the most princely of gifts anyway.
Some time ago, while getting ready for this trip to the region, I had made plans to go to the KGB Museum in Vilnius. For me, part of this tour of the various former Soviet countries is really about trying to gain as close, as accurate and as sensitive an understanding of what the period was like for those who lived through the period as I possibly can. The KGB Museum seemed an apt destination.
Although I could not take any pictures of the interior of this chilling building (the no-photography rule was strictly enforced here), a look at the menacing front façade hints at the unpleasantness of the place. In a way, it is fitting that you readers won’t be getting a glimpse of the exterior: scenes like this are exactly the sum total view all but the most unlucky Lithuanians got as well. Part of the exterior, something explained only during a tour of the inside, are the little, innocuous-seeming boxes which jut out from the basement floor along the base of the outside of the building. A guard would stand there with a complete view of the outside. If someone wandered too close to the building, the guard would phone up to the guard-shack, and MGB policemen would fly out of the building, nab the curious gazer and yank him inside. Then, in no uncertain terms it would be explained to him or her, what would happen the next time they came around that building. There were apparently no repeat-offenders, judging from the meticulously-kept MGB records of those who were warned.
I will tell you, though, that the inside is a very creatively arranged museum. Some of the eavesdropping and torture-cell displays are equal to what the imagination conjures up about that era: old, sinister, crude ways of making victims’ lives hell. If you find yourself in Vilnius, go there just to see what the place feels like. Then, come back and tell me what the hairs on the back of your neck did.
I left the museum and tried to deconstruct how I felt about what I had just seen. The “no photos!” cashier lady actually precipitated the thought avalanche. She was an older woman, someone who according to my estimation was without a doubt intimately familiar with Soviet Vilnius. Moreover, she wore the now-familiar bored, slightly frowning expression that creased for a moment when she angrily told me to put my camera away. So, unfairly or otherwise, I ascribed to her the role of Soviet someone-or-other. Here she was, working in a KGB museum. Never mind what my thoughts of the place were; what were her thoughts? How did she feel about her place of employment? None of this was cleared up during my pathetic attempt at a joke, and as soon as the angry crease faded back to monotone sullenness, I knew there wasn’t going to be a second crack at close, everlasting friendship. When my walkthrough of the KGB museum ended I left, disturbed both by the overall experience of the museum and my dismal social skills. I thought about how Lithuanians like the woman at the ticket booth shared a sharply-divided past. Depending on social and political circumstances, the extreme ends of the spectrum consisted of people who either benefitted from the old system, or else had their lives brutally, unwillingly ripped away from them.
So, how does each group (and this includes today’s generational “hand-me-down” perspectives regarding that era) come to grips with such a past? How do I, how do you, feel about places such as these? Do they imply forgiveness but not forgetfulness? Neither one nor the other?
More about this great city next time…