IT TOOK Thomas Mann just a few days to fall for the Curonian Spit. The “indescribable beauty” of this geographical oddity, a skinny stretch of land curving from Lithuania’s west coast to what is today the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, so enthralled the German author and his wife during a holiday in 1929 that they decided to build a summer house on its coast. The best part of a century later the view has hardly been enhanced by the Independence, a vast floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal that sailed into the nearby port of Klaipeda in 2014. The ship rarely leaves harbour, thanks to what Rimas Rusinas, the terminal’s operations manager, politely calls Lithuania’s “interesting neighbours”. But as the country prepares to mark a centenary of restored statehood on February 16th, for visitors contemplating its turbulent history there are worse places to start.
For some countries independence is about military might or economic heft. For Lithuania it means protection from the giant neighbour to the east. The Independence helps by blunting Russia’s energy weapon; LNG from friendly countries like Norway now covers around half of Lithuania’s gas imports. Below deck a cabinet groans with messages from VIP well-wishers, including a congressional delegation from America. The terminal slots neatly into the European Union’s energy strategy, which aims to expand diversity of supply, break monopolies and increase interconnection (a planned EU-funded pipeline to Poland will also help). Meanwhile a small NATO “forward presence” of 1,200 German and other troops is stationed 240km inland.
This is the fruit of Lithuania’s dedication to finding powerful friends. Today the country is safely docked inside the EU and NATO. But for most of the 20th century hostile neighbours determined its destiny. The Poles nabbed Vilnius in 1922; the Germans annexed Klaipeda in 1939 and later, with the help of local collaborators, murdered 95% of Lithuania’s roughly 200,000 Jews. And always, there is Russia. A gritty independence movement brought the Soviet occupation to an end in 1991 (and hastened Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation). But it hardly eliminated the threat. Today Russian forces stage war games modelling the invasion and occupation of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. Kaliningrad teems with nuclear-capable missiles and other weaponry. Kremlin propaganda infects Lithuanian media. “We can never feel relaxed,” says Linas Linkevicius, the foreign minister.
As history casts such a long shadow, it is a wonder that the country is doing as well as it is. Living standards have risen from around half the EU average in 2004, when Lithuania joined the club, to three-quarters today, despite a spectacular economic crash in 2008 and a brain drain of some of the country’s brightest (1m Lithuanians have emigrated since 1990). The post-Soviet national mission of state-building and grand diplomacy has yielded to a quieter emphasis on convergence with the rest of Europe. Many prefer it that way. “Incrementality is really beautiful,” says Arturas Vasiliauskas, a historian.
Yet the centennial celebrations still carry a particular weight in Lithuania. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, which will mark their respective centenaries later this year, Lithuania has a history of statehood stretching back to the Middle Ages. Amid the chaos of the Russian revolution, it was the first Baltic state to assert its independence in 1918. Decades later, that proclamation helped motivate a brave but futile nine-year armed struggle by forest-dwelling partisans against the Soviet occupiers. It also inspired Lithuania’s audacious declaration of independence in 1990, the first in the crumbling Soviet Union, which initially shocked its Baltic neighbours and unsettled some outsiders.
The long struggle has left Lithuanians with a singular sense of European purpose. A country with roughly the population of Chicago believes it has a special duty to help non-EU countries battling Russian oppression, such as Ukraine and Georgia. “Go to the Maidan in a Lithuanian T-shirt, and everyone loves you,” says Dovile Sukyte of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, a Vilnius-based think-tank. Lithuania’s encounters with Russian mischief are also useful for western European countries just beginning to grapple with disinformation. Five years ago, says Mr Linkevicius, European leaders brushed off his warnings with homilies about the value of free speech. Now they listen.
Forgetting creates a nation
Sometimes Lithuania’s past seems to weigh too heavily, though. The country has three national days, surely a world record (on a per-head basis, at least). Violeta Davoliute, a historian at Vilnius University, contrasts her country’s obsession with history to Estonia’s successful branding as a forward-looking champion of all things digital. Perhaps this is why progress in Lithuania can feel a little too incremental. Public services, especially education, need an overhaul. There are slivers of manufacturing success, such as laser production, but the country has not yet found its own industrial niche. And Lithuanians drink, fight and kill too much. Many are surprised to learn that their country has the highest murder and suicide rates in the EU.
Still, there are signs that Lithuania’s next generation, or what remains of it after emigration, is reinventing its precious bequest of sovereignty. Battles over monuments in Vilnius have exposed strong intergenerational differences: older Lithuanians like giant bronze knights, while younger ones prefer grass-covered bunkers. The #MeToo campaign has struck Lithuania with peculiar force, toppling grand figures like Jonas Gasiunas, a renowned painter accused of harassing students. (He resigned his university post, though he denies the charges.) Neringa Vaisbrode, who has been directing the centennial festivities from the prime minister’s office, is surprised by the surge of interest across the country in the run-up to February 16th. “The narrative was written by historians,” she says, “but I see it alive before me.”
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