Vilnius, Lithuania- Past 10pm, as the Baltic sun finally retreats over the horizon, the winding cobbled streets and yellow brick facades of the Old Town of Vilnius fades into a curious silence. It is not the silence of our little valley town, where the howl of coyotes and the occasional passing car on 133 punctuate the night. It is the silence of a European neighborhood abutted by universities and tourist spots. A dull thump of club music echoing through the walls from the pub that now caters to spring breaking 20-year-olds, after surviving nearly a century of hostile occupation, peppers the night in a rhythmic tone of distant familiarity. The murmur of the pensioners on holiday finding their way up the lane and stopping by souvenir stalls and cafés full of English-speakers blends with the club music to form an almost compositional contrast.
Breaking the calm of the city’s silence is the occasional outburst of the intoxicated frolickers happily stumbling to their accommodations from a night of cheap, but overpriced beers on the tourist streets.
This is not the silence that concerns me, nor is it a weight on my mind. These are the sounds of life, of reality, of existence playing out just as similarly as the live music echoing out of Sopris Park during every Mountain Fair. It is evidence that humans are living and experiencing life. The silence that is bubbling just below the revelry, however, that is the true worry. It is the pressure, the realization, the understanding that less than a thousand miles to the southwest, a war is waging every single day that stands to put the existential reality of all of us in sharp focus.
From the patio of a café on Pilies street, over an espresso, you can watch a curious procession on weekends. Young soldiers in their uniforms walking with their parents up the main drag, talking animatedly, sharing smiles, and preparing to go in for a family breakfast. This is a stirring sight.
Lithuania has a uniquely dark history of young soldiers having to defend their homeland. It has been the dominant reality of these people for the past century at the very least. Occupied at one time or another by the German Empire, the Third Reich, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union, Lithuania has seen her fair share of conflict both in her streets and in the spirits of her people. The remnants of these eras are etched into the city of Vilnius in sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit ways.
The former headquarters of the KGB and before it, the Gestapo, stands perfectly preserved down the river from me, now the Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights. Even on the street corners you can see the rusted steel Cyrillic street signs from when the Soviet Union renamed these ancient, cobbled ways underneath the far newer and more modern signs in the Lithuanian language.
Lithuania, as it exists at the moment I am authoring this piece, is barely three years older than I am, although the city outside my window is celebrating its 700th birthday. They were the first of the Soviet republics to secede from the USSR in 1991, ending a campaign of resistance to tyranny that began in the early years of the 20th century.
The soldier walking with his parents, a couple on the northern end of middle age, brings that history home. There is a very small chance that the man’s father walking in stride with him up the lane was not somehow in service to the national resistance at some point in his life. There is a guarantee that the young soldier’s grandparents fought the Germans in the 1940s or the Soviets after 1945.
Why is this haunting?
Because the shadow of that bubbling silence looms ever so loudly to the east. The sun rises from Belarus here, which lies only 30 miles away. There are Russian tanks and artillery there, heading to Ukraine. There are ICBMs there with global range. The silence echoing under the din of the city is this reality. That the war in Ukraine is not only real here, but it is a stone’s throw across the forest.
Before I traveled here, I took note often in my wanderings through our little town of the numerous Ukrainian flags planted all over. Yard signs that say, “We Stand with Ukraine,” faded blue and yellow stripes in shop windows. A sentiment that was quite a trend a year ago when the invasion first began. There are similar flags here. The left façade of the presidential palace itself is adorned in the blue and yellow of Ukraine. The flags hang in tandem with the Lithuanian tricolor from every embassy, law office, bookstore and hotel.
But the sentiment is different here.
It is hard in our town to understand the nature of life beyond the Valley, particularly when we pride ourselves on living in a place so amazing, we haven’t a need to “pass the roundabout,” so to say. When we consume our news, we are now so conditioned to leave a story in the infinite scroll void and move to the next one without the time to process what we have read.
When I see the flags around home, I have to ask: “How are we standing with Ukraine?” When I see the flags here, I needn’t even ask. With Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad to the west, Belarus to the east and Ukraine to the south, coupled with a fraught history of revolutionary defiance, this gem of the Baltic coast stands a prime target for an escalation at any moment. The soldier with his parents moves me to tears not for patriotism or for the glory of the heroes, but because I see this young man, a decade younger than me, happily enjoying the weekend with his parents knowing full well that it very well could be his last. He could, at a moment’s notice, be on the frontline trenches of a new global catastrophe.
The people of this city have stood with Ukraine. They have hosted her president; they have pledged untold amounts of arms and ammunition. A destroyed Russian tank stands rusted and burnt-out in the center of the city as a testament to the defenders of Ukraine and their efforts. There is a tension here that is twofold: stand with Ukraine and stand ready to defend your home. It can get lost in the beauty of the city and the warmth of spring, but it is here, nonetheless.
To those of us at home, I offer only the simplest of questions that quite ironically have been posed in academic circles here since the October Revolution: “What is to be done?”
How do we stand in the face of the greatest threat to our existential continuation of life? How do we invite our survival in the face of what is very real and very close to the hearts, minds and bodies of millions of our fellow humans?
I cannot presume to have the answers, nor can I offer a commentary condemnation of this entire conflict in the medium of our local publication. What I may offer is the reminder that I espoused a year ago: there are an infinite palette of nuances in our time. The villainization of Russia en masse solves no problems and stands to indenture thousands of innocent people to the downfall of an imperialist’s failed attempt at immortality. To “stand with Ukraine” in word or gesture solely only serves to warm our own egos. To do nothing or to downplay the seriousness of this conflict dooms us all.
I cannot, nor will I suggest avenues for us to support the defenders of Bakhmut or Kyiv. I cannot provide strategies for the deconstruction of the Russian invasion. What I can ask, suggest, offer and plead of my neighbors is this: think outside of our valley in our experience of reality. It is difficult for a myriad of reasons in the U.S. to consider the lived realities of others beyond our borders, especially “behind the iron curtain.” But it is damnably critical for us to not just be informed, but to grow out beyond the veil of the Cold War that still so heavily looms over the cultural reality of the United States.
We cannot feasibly stand with Ukraine as readily as the citizens of this city. We cannot meet mothers and children at bus depots with blankets and warm pork dumplings and a home out of the cold while their sons and husbands stamp their feet in the frozen trenches in Donetsk. But we can do something. We must. Not for the political rivalry of the Cold War, not for the balance of European power and economics, but for the humanity of the people who every single day face the artillery shell, the cruise missile barrage, the siege, the hunger and the cold. When we look at our Ukrainian flags in our yards and in our windows, we, as residents of a town that prides itself on community, need to ask the critical question. How might I lend a hand to the preservation of humanity?
In my experience, I hope that the soldier I saw in the street never gets the call to leave, that his parents do not get the letter bearing the president’s printed signature, and that the candles in the cathedral do not become overly bright with memories of humanity lost in the forests and fields of this terrible contest of humanity versus extinction.
What is to be done?
Tucker Farris teaches sociology at Colorado State University, researches Cold War spy craft, and occasionally writes for this paper from all manner of places. His work currently reaches us from the Baltic States.