As Vilnius moves to adjust memory policies by removing memorial plaques and renaming streets named after alleged Nazi collaborators, a statue and a square to a Soviet-era poet Petras Cvirka attracts controversy.
Why does the writer, named as both an influential Lithuanian author and an open Soviet advocate, implicated in the conviction and deportation of a fellow poet, Kazys Jakubėnas, remain an open sore in the society?
Submitting damning testimonies to a sham trial by the occupying Soviet authorities in 1946, Cvirka cited Jakubėnas’ two poems, ‘Laikrodėlis’ (A Small Watch) and ‘Paukštelis’ (A Small Bird), as the evidence of his alleged anti-Soviet activities, for which he was imprisoned in a labour camp in Kazakhstan in 1946. Returning to the Lithuanian SSR a year later, he died in mysterious circumstances.
Deported, returned, and tortured to death
A report by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (LGGRTC) submitted to the Vilnius mayor’s office claims that Cvirka helped Soviet propaganda, supported the occupation and contributed to the deportation of Jakubėnas.
And while the Vilnius authorities want to transform a square named after Cvirka and take down the statue that has until now escaped the fate of most Soviet-era monuments, others, including Lithuania’s minister of culture, advocate for a more nuanced approach to memory policy.
Documents quoted by the LGGRTC showed that the trial was based on witness testimonies from the Lithuanian SSR Writers’ Union, including by Cvirka, Antanas Venclova, Kostas Korsakas, Juozas Baltušis and Aleksys Churginas.
In every testimony, except Korsakas’, the two poems by Jakubėnas were used as evidence that he was consciously undertaking anti-Soviet activity. Following the trial, Jakubėnas was given a five-year prison sentence and deported to the Karaganda labour camp in Kazakhstan.
Following the efforts by Jakubėnas’ brother Alfonsas, the USSR Supreme Court in 1947 ruled that the “poems were not anti-Soviet,” and freed the poet.
However, once he returned to occupied Lithuania, he was never able to shake the attention of security officials and on January 8, 1950, Jokubėnas died naked in freezing temperatures outside Vilnius.
During the trial, Cvirka was the only person who gave statements in Lithuanian, and in the form of a letter and not the usual question-and-answer format of Soviet interrogations.
Therefore, it seems that Cvirka’s was a free choice to testify against Jakubėnas.
The LGGRTC documents claim that, according to Jakubėnas’ brother Alfonas, the court case was directly related to Cvirka’s grudge against Jokubėnas following a clash in a 1945 writers’ meeting in Vilnius.
During a dispute over whether to publish works by a deceased Lithuanian author, Vincas Kudirka, to which Cvirka objected, Jakubėnas said: “I can understand why horses in Kudirka’s satires are afraid of gendarmerie, but I cannot understand why Cvirka is afraid of Kudirka.”
Changing perceptions of the Soviet Union
In 1945-1947, Cvirka was the chairman of the Writers’ Union in the Lithuanian SSR. During the trial on December 27, 1946, Cvirka said that “after Lithuania was freed from the German [occupiers], he [Jakubėnas] was admitted into the Soviet Writers’ Union”.
“He started writing strange poems,” said Cvirka, claiming that the union members warned him that “there is an ongoing class war, and such poems shouldn’t be written”.
“I know his poems ‘Laikrodis’ (‘The Watch’) and ‘Raudonarmietis’ (‘The Red Army Soldier’), whose contents show that Lithuanian brethren are living under poor conditions in Siberia,” he spoke. “We were surprised by such poems. He read his work in the universities in the evenings, and reactionary student groups would greet them with applause.”
Cvirka went on to say that his work and language would show discontent towards other “writers and the Soviet government”.
Yet Jakubėnas himself was once a left-leaning poet. He had joined the literary magazine ‘Trečias frontas’ (‘The Third Front’) which was published by youths that rallied against the right-wing Smetona government in interwar Lithuania. However, Jakubėnas left the magazine in 1931 together with Kazys Boruta.
Another colleague from the magazine, Viktoras Katilius, said the poet was Boruta’s squire.
Much like his colleague, Jakubėnas was imprisoned under every regime. Before the war, he spent several years in jail for an attempt to assassinate Lithuania’s then Prime Minister Augustinas Voldemaras. He was in prison twice more for writing against nationalists in Lithuania.
In 1941, he was arrested by the Nazis who later killed his fellow poet and friend Vytautas Montvilas.
Before that, in 1940, Jakubėnas had enthusiastically welcomed the Soviet occupation. However, he was soon disillusioned by the new rule when his sister was deported. Later, when witnessing the Soviet terror, extermination of Lithuanian partisans and deportations of civilians, Jakubėnas avoided public life. He then concentrated on writing for children and youth.
Philosopher and historian Vytautas Ališauskas tells LRT.lt that the opinions expressed by writers and Cvirka in the trial of 1946 were not representative of the general moods in the society at the time.
“Lithuanian writers who matured during the interwar years were clearly divided into those who supported the Soviet regime and the ‘silent ones’,” according to Ališauskas. “The latter tried to push through, not get in the way, avoid praising the new regime, and avoid taking part in [the Soviet rule].”
Ališauskas also underlined that the post-Soviet writers were not united, and also competed for influence and importance among themselves.
Today, said Ališauskas, it’s important to separate the two issues surrounding Cvirka – his statue in central Vilnius, and him as a character.
“Cvirka’s character is clear as day – he’s a villain and a scoundrel,” said Ališauskas. “It’s [pointless] to speak about him.”
Historian and philosopher Nerija Putinaitė tells LRT.lt that the documents published by the LGGRTC reveal new details. However, it will never be possible to get a full picture of a person based on one case file.
“To say that the fate of [Jakubėnas] was decided by a few phrases in several poems would be an overstatement,” said Putinaitė. “The decision to remove, or repress an individual was taken well before any evidence emerged or investigation began.”
Putinaitė points to Cvirka’s very early involvement in the case, which indicates his active collaboration with Soviet security apparatus. This is also evidenced by a testimony written in free-form, and not under interrogation.
“We should remember the context that at the time, the Soviet Union had to purge itself,” said Putinaitė. “Jakubėnas’ case is a result of this purge. The Writers’ Union leader had to show he’s active in the effort, otherwise he risked being purged himself.”
“Cvirka solved the dilemma not in Jakubėnas’ favour,” she added.
The Writers’ Union was a repressive structure, “because writers were ‘soul engineers’, therefore there could be no ‘unfit elements’ in the union.”
“What [Cvirka] really felt in his heart shouldn’t interest us,” said Putinaitė. “Only the actions of a person who willingly became the head of a repressive structure are important.”
According to a historian Nerijus Šepetys, Cvirka took an active part in Lithuania’s sovietisation in 1940, after the Second World War and even before his death.
Persecution for anti-Soviet activities was illegal, “because the Soviet rule in Lithuania was illegal,” said Šepetys. The authorities could invent any charge, so “we shouldn’t look for any objectivity,” said Šepetys.
“It’s irrelevant what someone did or didn’t do, what poems he wrote or didn’t write – what’s clear is that Cvirka was directly and actively involved in the persecution of individuals.”
According to Šepetys, it’s very important that such people “shouldn’t be glorified on a national level as cultural heroes.“
Cvirka’s activities were coherent and integral in perpetuating the Soviet occupation, and “therefore, the current Lithuanian Writers’ Union opinion that his writings should be separated from his persona, are irrational,” believes Šepetys.
Death of Jakubėnas
On January 7, 1950, Jakubėnas was summoned to the Lithuanian SSR Security Ministry. As soon as he showed up, he was immediately detained and brought to the quiet Kapų (Cemeteries’) street, where, it seems, an interrogation facility existed.
There are several versions on how Jakubėnas died. According to one, the poet was tortured to death during the interrogation. His naked, frozen body was found on the same street.
According to others testimonies, the NKVD took the poet by car to Nemenčinė, outside of Vilnius. They undressed, beat him up and left to die in sub-zero weather.
While he was still capable of walking, Jakubėnas knocked on doors for help, but living in the state of fear during the height of the Soviet Terror, people were afraid to offer help. Jakubėnas died from exposure.