How and Why Lithuanians are Supporting Their Neighbors in Need
I've now lived in Lithuania long enough to experience their two main Independence Days - while sandwiched in between them, a neighboring country has begun a fight for its own freedom. "Begun" maybe isn't the right word here. Living in Lithuania, I've found that people are always acknowledging their freedom, and Ukraine clearly values the same. They all know what it's like to have the opposite in a way I've never experienced in the United States. It's fresh in their national consciousness. People here have had to defend their land and independence over and over again - and for what?
As soon as Lithuanians learned about the plight in Ukraine, it became personal for them. Many of them have friends and family in Ukraine (and they are heartbroken), but more than this, they're well-aware of what it means to be occupied by another country claiming their land. (Cue to when people ask me if I've ever done Birthright.) People have asked me if it's still safe to travel here (yes, at this time), how the war is impacting Lithuania. So many American friends and family have checked in on us to make sure we're okay during this time, and while I do appreciate that, I can't help but think about my Lithuanian friends. Why? They understand the constant threat. Lithuania was the last country to fall to Christianity, yes, but also the first to leave the Soviet Union. (And thanks to Iceland, they received their first affirmation from the outside world in this endeavor.) This is very real for them, and now, very real for me, also. Status: pending.
Knowing we came from abroad, our Lithuanian friends have been checking in on us, too, something I find incredibly touching. They want to make sure we're okay. America is further away, but there is much to be done here: housing refugees, giving scientists and those in academia a home, driving goods to a border, teasing out an interlinked culture. The way people are mobilizing here reminds me of the crazy winter storm I experienced in Texas last year - mutual aid, people coming together, turning off peoples' water sites. So, this isn't to say that Americans don't or can't come together in times of crisis, but more so that this crisis is understood here, closer, more ripe for actionable efforts. (Note: that link also brings you to pages to support others in crisis - Somalians, Afghans, etc.) While my family and friends are concerned for me, I'm concerned for the world. I mean, I've only experienced Independence Day as fireworks, BBQs, beaches, lakes, truly horrible country music. But here, and in Ukraine, in so many other places, independence is still ripe - or pending.
Because they're at the forefront of my own consciousness right now (for obvious reasons), I want to take a brief moment to delve more into these Lithuanian Independence Days. Sure, I could be writing about Baltic gods and goddesses right now, but this is what's on my mind. So, here we go! The first celebration on February 16 is called Lietuvos valstybės atkūrimo diena, or State Restoration Day. In 1918, a council of twenty signed a document that Lithuania was a sovereign democratic state, declaring Vilnius as the capital. At one point, Lithuania was huge and covered large swaths of Europe, but for over 100 years at this point, they'd been part of the Russian Empire. I mean, this isn't to say that Lithuanian and Polish people weren't trying to restore their independence during that time (far from it!), but a big shift happened after the first World War. They'd been taken over by the Germans, but when given the choice to align with Germany or Russia, they ultimately decided on their own independence. (That's badass, right?!) Even though it didn't last long due to Polish takeover, it planted a seed and a confidence.
Baltic Way | © Kusurija / Wikimedia Commons
And the second Independence Day of March 11 is called Nepriklausomybės atkūrimo diena, or Restoration of Independence Day. After peaceful events like the Baltic Way and more tumultuous ones like the January 13 TV Tower events, Lithuania finally gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Baltic Way still holds a powerful visual of 2.5 million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians linking hands, uniting for their rightful independence (pictured). (If you're interested, check out a great 1989 video and song called "The Baltics are Waking Up," written during that time. People still connect with it to this day.) And, I've now been to the top of this famed TV Tower, eaten a sunset meal there, viewed hot air balloons from its heights. It looks like a thing of the past, but it holds a lot of power in the national consciousness. To me, it's a visual struggle for and then reclamation of independence. It's palpable.
As the news cycles continue and change around the world, there are so many people fighting for freedom and independence that we have to stay mindful of. Lithuanians have a strong willingness to help namely because they know how fragile and precious democracy and freedom are. And now, I, too, as an expat in this beautiful, resilient country, have firsthand experience of my own. I hope this post inspires you to think about what freedom means to you, if you'd be willing to fight for it if it came to that, and to continue to send support to those who currently need it the most.
Until next time, viso gero!