Friday, August 05, 2005

Today was a 'Missing Lithuania' day for me: if I didn't have to go back to Kyiv to get a visa, if I could just buy a ticket and jump on a plane, I would go to Palanga (via Vilnius or Kaunas, I guess) this very evening. But this is not possible, so I just spent part of the day feeling nostalgic - and even joined a Yahoo! Lithuanian Language Group.

Palanga was such a wonderful place back in the 1980s, so different from what we were used to: one of the main distinctions was that they didn't have fences around their private houses, no fences at all, neither tall, nor small ones, just shrubs and, beyond them, flowers and green lawns for everyone to admire. And the Baltic Sea. And amber.

My parents and I first went there in May 1985, for a kids' tennis tournament, and we fell in love right away. Last time we were there was in August 1990, fifteen years ago, and I've missed Palanga ever since.

At some point today, I walked into a tiny bookstore on Prechistenka, the one where I once bought a Czech and a Yiddish language textbooks. What if they have a Lithuanian one, I thought. Not that I'm planning to study seriously, but I seem to be collecting language textbooks, and Lithuanian is such a very beautiful language, it'd be a pleasure to try to remember some of the words I learned as a child.

The saleswoman said they didn't have Lithuanian textbooks but were thinking of ordering some. As I was paying for another book, she asked me if I had Lithuanian roots, I said I didn't, and this was how I got myself into that conversation...

The saleswoman was very angry at Lithuanians and the rest of the 'pribalty' (do you call it 'the Balts' in English?) - for their dislike of the Russians.

She must've been pretty bored, too, sitting in a cellar all day long, for it was somehow impossible to just say good-bye to her and leave.

She recalled how once, as a tourist in Lithuania, she was standing in line for a sausage and a vendor refused to pay attention to her because, naturally, she spoke Russian, not Lithuanian. Feels like a fresh wound, I thought, but when I asked, it turned out the incident took place in 1987 - and the bookseller has never gone back to Lithuania. I told her I was sure she had encountered a billion rude Russian vendors in these 18 years - did it mean anything to her except that jerks abound in every ethnicity and race, has it forced her to consider emigrating from Russia?

She seemed to agree - but not enough to let me go.

She recalled yet another offense: how Latvians were putting flowers to the monument to the Nazi collaborators on May 9 this year. I said there were probably many people in Latvia who found this as offensive as she did - similarly, there was a pretty large group of Russians with portraits of Stalin on May 9 here in Moscow, which, however, didn't mean that the majority of this country's population wanted Stalin or his policies back.

At this point, a man entered the room; he must've been the bookseller's colleague.

"Why," she exclaimed, pointing at the man, "I suspect our Sasha walks around with a portrait of Stalin every now and then!" My jaw sort of dropped. I was shocked, mostly, by how out-of-the-closet she sounded, not really proud, but still too casual for this subject.

The man she called Sasha turned to me and said that no, he didn't carry Stalin's portrait with him, but he did believe that Stalin deserved credit for many good things he had done.

I'm disgusted to retell the rest of the conversation here and, in any case, it had nothing to do with Lithuania.

We didn't fight, we didn't even argue with this Sasha. We spoke about Stalin in two different languages: the language of emotions, and the language of figures and economic data trimmed to fit a certain point of view. He even had an idea of how to praise Stalin in connection with the Ukrainian famine: according to him, the famine kept returning in cycles for decades, and the horror of 1933 was the last one, wasn't it, and all thanks to Stalin's economic policy...

I wanted to return the book I'd bought and get my money back, but that would've prolonged the torture. So I just left, having promised myself to forget this episode as soon as possible and not to be mad at those two assholes for the next 18 years.


  1. Ooooh... do I sense a little nostalgia nibbling at reality here?? Idyllic summer scenes of Palanga have been replaced to a great degree by the freedom of the West, with collective farm directors and their families morphing into inebriated New Lithuanians and their spawn. Palanga as a place has changed, particularly the beach by the pier - the old pier was destroyed by a storm a number of years back, replaced by a more modern version in the same place. The strand, for all practical purposes, temporarily disappeared over this last winter. The dunes separating the shore from the town were severely damaged - intertwined birch branches are apparently not the last word in beach erosion control. Attempted beach restorations over the last years have proven next to worthless and the locals are fearfull of the next major winter storm. Dredged sand is being brought up from the Nemunas delta, but one suspects that mother nature will have none of it. Amber is still there.

    The town is now representative of many post soviet resorts, with the same mix of old, 1989 villa, and modern architecture. Those locally connected continue to try and privatize/steal anything they can get their hands on - you know the drill.

    When your family expands (and you contract....hehe), you might find that the coast from Klaipeda south to Nida (UNESCO - Curonian Spit) a timely and pleasant mix of nostalgia and the new – with prices for the experienced post sovieticus well within reason. Mid-May is the perfect time, few people and usually comfortable weather. Juodkrante was a favorite for the Germans.

    Keep up the great work...

    08.06.05 - 3:05 pm

  2. Greetings,

    I quite enjoy the writing you do, and will put a link to your blog on my own. I wonder if you would do the same, and ask you to check out my site as well. I write mostly about Ukraine, and sometimes about the US, Latin American, and the Baltics, often about politics, and frequently just anecdotally. However, for the moment I am in Latvia, luckily tending to my own Baltic nostalgia by returning to Riga with the freedom of movement guaranteed of my American passport. Thus I am writing a bit about and posting photos from Riga and Latvia in general these days and will be for the next week to come. . .

    Really enjoy your site!


    08.07.05 - 2:13 am

  3. Thanx for posting a link to my blog on your site!


    08.07.05 - 8:14 pm

  4. "and the horror of 1933 was the last one, wasn't it, and all thanks to Stalin's economic policy..."

    Its a shame that the 1 million victims of Stalins 1947 famine are still forgotten.

    08.07.05 - 8:57 pm

  5. Vitalijus,

    Thanks so much for your comment! What's become of the dunes is such a pity... As for the New Lithuanians, I did have fears that Palanga might have become a little bit like Yalta - and now I know that, in a way, it has, but then, somehow, I also feel that it's just 'a little bit', that it requires too much idiocy to turn a nice place into real hell... (And Yalta was a really nice place in spring and fall, though not in summer!)

    As I was reading your comment, I also recalled quite vividly the Palanga women-only beach and the little illegal market operating there in the Soviet times - that's a very funny childhood memory. Also, the Cathedral - I sat through many evening services there in 1990, a very dear memory.

    I did hear about the Curonian Spit from friends, how wonderful it is, so yes, one day will go there, hopefully. And to Palanga, too, at least for a day.

    Thank you again, Vitalijus, and all the very best to you!

    08.08.05 - 10:30 am

  6. I had an almost identical conversation with a very wealthy Russian student in the Vienna Airport on my way to Chisinau about Moldovans. He, my age, contested that the Romanian speakers in Moldova were very rude to the Russians, because they had some sort of ethnic grudge. He had this crazy idea that the Russians had brought the alphabet to the Romanians--as if they were illiterate before they were forced to write Romanian using the cyrillic alphabet!

    I suggested to him that anyone who had been russified, much like those in the Baltic States, might not forgive and forget just because the Soviet flag is gone and the tanks have withdrawn.

    08.10.05 - 5:56 am