An essay in honor of March 11, 1990, Lithuanian independence day.
I remember my father telling me that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was once the greatest country in Europe, extending from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. It was in the fifteenth century—but I was too young to understand that. One Sunday when I was twelve, at my grandparents’ church in Southfield, he bought me a little gold pin with the American flag flying opposite the Lithuanian tricolor. He told me that the colors of the Lithuanian flag—geltona, žalia, raudona—represent Lithuania’s golden fields, its forests, and the blood that has been shed for the Fatherland. It doesn’t sound so melodramatic in Lithuanian. I had always been aware of my heritage on both sides of the family, but from that day I began to identify myself as being something other than American.
Leather bomber jackets were popular then, and I wore that pin around on my pocket, next to the fake patches the jacket came with. No one noticed my pin, or rarely commented on it, but I knew the flag was there. This was around the time that the Berlin Wall fell, and for the first time in almost fifty years, Lithuanians had the hope of independence. I began to pay more attention when my father would talk with his friends—I didn’t speak Lithuanian yet, but I hung on every word. There was talk of a revolution.
During this time, President Gorbachev often used the words перестройка and гла́сность—perestroika and glasnost—I didn’t speak Russian either but I looked them up. He was speaking about a restructuring and openness between the government and its people. Gorbachev did not intend to break up the Soviet Union, but the Communist Party was losing its grip.
Lithuania has two national days. Both of them mark declarations of independence from a Russian-held state. The country will always celebrate February 16th—the start of a brief period of autonomy during the interwar years, though Vilnius was lost to Poland—but March 11th holds greater meaning for me. It was almost Spring Break in 1990. My family was looking forward to a ski trip in Colorado. We had spaghetti for dinner—my mother’s famous recipe. We didn’t normally have the television on during meals, but my father was excited and glued to the evening news. He had tears in his eyes as the camera panned across Vilnius, from the remains of Gediminas Castle, across Cathedral Square, past the Old Town, and down a grand avenue towards the Seimas (the Parliament Building). People flooded the streets, stripes of yellow, green, and red floating above a sea of bodies. They were singing; I didn’t understand the lyrics, but I knew the song.
Latvia made a similar declaration in May, though independence didn’t come right away. Moscow imposed political and economic sanctions before the situation eventually turned bloody when unarmed citizens fought to retain control of the Vilnius TV Tower. Thirteen people died, the youngest a high school student only a few years older than I was. They showed a picture of him on the news. He was blond. He had been shot in the head. In September 1991, the three Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia— were welcomed into the United Nations. The Soviet Union was crumbling.
Throughout all of these events, I wore my bomber jacket with my little gold pin. Whenever the subject of current events came up among friends or classmates, I would point to my pin and proudly declare that I was Lithuanian too.
Years later, I backpacked around Europe. It’s common among travelers to sew an identifying patch on their pack, a mark of their provenance. On the top left side of my bag—not too prominently, but close to my heart—I stitched a Lithuanian flag.