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November 30, 2005

Freedom...Up!

Originally published at Open Source Politics on 14 November, 2003.

I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country, say, "We do it this way; so should you."
- Candidate George W. Bush in the 2nd Presidential Debate of 2000.

On my second trip to the Soviet Union, during a language study program in Moscow during the summer of 1990, I got to visit Lithuania. It was our mid-term break, and we spent an interesting week in three different towns, including the old capital of Kaunas.

It was quite an experience. I was usually mistaken for an Estonian because of my accent, which I always thought was funny. After I convinced people I was really American, they universally got excited and asked me all sorts of questions about our democracy and what we thought of their struggle for independence from the Soviet Union.

This was back when Lithuania had declared independence from the USSR, and Gorbachev had turned off the oil spigot in retaliation. There was no hot water and even though it was summer, the water we used in our hotels was from the Gulf of Finland, which was so cold that we only dared clean one body part a day in the shower--my scalp literally1 went numb when I washed my hair.

Silly inconvenience of cold water aside, it was amazing to be there during what amounted to a peaceful revolution. The people were so full of energy about their new assertiveness, even with the hardships they endured. That made it a little tough for students of Russian because the people didn’t like to speak the official language of the Soviet Union any more.

I always went through the same ritual when I went into a shop. I would ask, in Russian, if the clerk spoke English. If yes, great. Most of the time, however, the foreign language they knew was German, so I would sheepishly tell them I was an American and ask if they would speak Russian. A grimace, a nod, then we would quietly converse po russki.

One day some friends and I were in a bar in the old section of Kaunas, where it felt like you’d just stepped into a time machine and landed in the middle ages. We sat at a long table with a bunch of strangers whose language we didn’t understand2. After a little while, some young English-speaking Lithuanians sat down by us, and we hit it off right away. 

We ended up back at their apartment where we drank, listened to heavy metal--I was a hero for giving one of them a tape3 of mine--and talked politics. Turns out that one of the dudes was the son of the president of the Lithuanian parliament (who was in Canada at the time, drumming up money and support for their independence). We learned a lot about Soviet history and politics from their perspective.

The next day we went out to dinner at a nice restaurant, and we ordered champagne to toast our new friendship. That's when I was truly struck by just how seriously these folks took their breaking away from the Soviets: the label said "imported from the Soviet Union".

That might not sound like much, but this was at a time when the Soviets considered the country to still be a part of their empire, there was a Soviet embargo, and it was not clear if Lithuania would get away with leaving4. Even such a small act of defiance I found to be incredible. They didn't just look to a future independence, they made it a reality on the ground right from the start.

On our last night in the city, I was out late with some friends and we bumped into an extremely drunk man who kept asking if we were from Chicago5. He was in a great mood, very friendly and spoke okay, if very slurred English. He kept going on an on about "Tomorrow, Vytautas…up!" and pointing at some big pedestal thing.

Turns out that this was where a huge statue of the much-revered Vytautas--as Grand Duke in the 14th century he re-established Lithuanian independence from Poland and brought great prosperity and power to the country--was to be raised the next day. Alas, we had to catch a train and could not stay around to see the festivities. This was hugely symbolic: another small act of defiance representing Lithuanian national pride and another way to assert independence from the Soviet empire.

Lithuania is a pragmatic, thoughtful nation. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Lithuanians created a civil defense force based on non-violent strategies in 1991. They recognized that there was no way they could take on the USSR militarily, but they could make peaceful non-cooperation an organizing principle of their defense strategy to make any aggressive move by the Soviets very costly.

Pop quiz: what does Lithuania have in common with Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and even the Soviet Union itself? Their people were all liberated without an American invasion. Food for thought for those who make the ex post facto claim that we had to invade Iraq to bring democracy and freedom to its people.

I want the Iraqis to be free and to have a democratic nation. I agreed with President Bush when he said last week:

[W]e believe that freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind.

All people do indeed have the right and capacity to create their own freedom. Unfortunately, Bush has tossed aside the humbleness he correctly espoused as a candidate: liberty is not a treat we dole out as a benevolent nation. That attitude is the height of arrogance. Freedom cannot be imposed from outside—it springs from within, as it did in Lithuania.



1 – I mean “literally” in its literal sense, not for emphasis as many people literally do now.
2 – By that time, I’d actually bought a Lithuanian-Russian dictionary and primer, but it’s hard to go from English to Russian to Lithuanian when you’re drinking.
3 – Metallica’s “...And Justice For All”, one of my faves.
4 – We were there when Lithuania had declared their “moratorium”, effectively freezing the independence declaration until 1991.
5 – He had determined that we were Americans and not Estonians.

November 30, 2005 | Permalink

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