May Day parades through Moscow, past the Kremlin and Kruschev, Breschnev, whoever, propped up to take the salute. Those of us who lived through the Cold War will never forget these displays of Soviet might, designed to reassure the comrades at home and intimidate the capitalists of the west.
As missiles rolled by punctuating the battalions of goose-stepping troops of the Red Army it was hard not to be impressed, awe-struck, even fearful. Was the Red Army really such a fearsome force? Not according to ‘Remus’, one former conscript from Lithuania. They were too busy fighting each other.
“Two times big fights – Lithuanians against Armenians. Fifty against fifty. We always win,” ‘Remus’ adds gleefully. “All the officers and all other nationalities disappeared – hiding somewhere. The officers – everyone hated them more. For them, they always have some enemies. You know, from behind…”
Why? “For nothing – maybe someone on the stairs pushed someone else. It was danger for building, so many fighting. One officer, he is brave – he stopped maybe one hundred more coming in the other entrance, with a fire extinguisher or something.”
There was no particular enmity between Lithuanians and Armenians, just they were the largest two groups in this squad. “In other places it was Lithuanians and other nationalities.” And the consequences?
“The officers said after they would call the military police – the Zazinsky Squad or something – next time.” And did they? “No. They have no telephone where they are hiding. And after for two months it was so peaceful in our troop, but the Armenians, they always stand back and let us go on the stairs.”
‘Remus’ spent six weeks in hospital with a compound fracture of his right index finger from an army boot after one of these brawls. “Nobody killed – a few black eyes, broken fingers, ribs.
“Not such a good school. But…I don’t know – maybe some good lessons,” ‘Remus’ comments ruefully. He is nursing a freshly split forehead from an altercation the previous evening when he was the target for a flying iron – a fight he started.
Lithuania, the southern-most of the Baltic states, was one of the republics of the former USSR. Famously nationalistic and recalcitrant, Lithuania was among the first nations to secede in the dissolution of the Soviet Union following Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost.
Lithuania was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity in a series of crusades beginning in 1201 until the last crusades, led by the Teutonic Knights in the fifteenth century. It has remained staunchly Roman Catholic ever since. The church enjoyed massive support during the Soviet era, as a symbol of resistance, but has lost power and support since independence.
It has endured occupation by Germans, Poland and Russia without ever losing its sense of nation. Victory over the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg in 1410 by the Christian Grand Duke Vytautas the Great is a source of great pride. At the height of Lithuanian power they controlled territories as far south as the shores of the Black Sea.
Russia annexed Lithuania in 1795 and in 1864 banned the Latin alphabet in favour of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Travelling teachers continued to teach Lithuanian in secret, supplied by “book carriers” who smuggled texts from Germany. “They swam in the winter. Some were shot, some in prison for tens of years. They have statues now.”
Lithuania enthusiastically embraced capitalism – both legal and illegal enterprise – after independence and Vilnius is a hive of economic activity. Lithuanians remain infamous smugglers, cars with Lithuanian plates and travellers with Lithuanian passports are particularly targeted in Germany. ‘Remus’ supplements his income from a car wash with occasional trips to Ostend for tobacco and cigarettes.
“Is Lithuanian character – more you ban something, more they do, say, ‘Why not?’ If you steal from neighbour – no respect. If you do crime with no victims everyone will respect you.
“But when you know them, very nice people. Very friendly and honest,” adds ‘Remus’ without a hint of irony. He seems proud of this national stubborn trait. “Yes. Sometimes not, but mostly, yes.”
After independence they imported a president from the upper echelons of Washington bureaucracy, Valdas Adamkus – an ex-patriot who had lived most of his life in the US. Adamkus is the current president although he lost power after his first term.
Since accession to the EU last year (and illegally before) many Lithuanians have arrived in Britain and a large community has centred in the east of London around Catford, Deptford and Forest Hill, where ‘Remus’ can buy rye bread (sweet and sour – it has marmalade among the ingredients) from his home town and cheese and sausage from home.
‘Remus’ was an illegal and was deported after a Home Office raid on the car wash he then worked at, in March last year. In typical Lithuanian fashion he was back in London before the May accession, having been detained with smuggled tobacco at the German border en route.
‘Remus’, 40, from Alytus in southern Lithuania, was drafted from May 1984 and spent his national service in a camp in Tsaritza, a seedy suburb of Moscow. Unsurprisingly he never rose above the rank of private, riadovoi, which literally translates from Russian as “one from the row”. His regiment – in Russian Stroibat – included 18 different nationalities. “We counted. We had Kurds…from all over.
“Estonians, they can’t speak Russian, or they play [they can’t], you know? So they were all cooks. It was easy – two big bags of rice, two kilos of salt and big, big pot, you know?”
National Service was compulsory. “They needed people, you had to be not able to walk to not pass medical. Or mental…was possible to buy all instructions how to cheat.”
“They wanted officers from all over, all the republics, but no Lithuanians wanted [to],” ‘Remus’ says with a wink. “They came to our school to recruit. You could get a degree in three years instead of five, pension, good conditions… No-one, hardly anybody did. If they did they left when they got qualification, swear at someone, you know, something – get thrown out. Was no shame.
“Ukranians different. Remember the Cossacks, they leave their homes, take their horse and fight whenever Tsar said something. So, you know, Ukranians take seriously. I remember this officer, he said to me, ‘You are bad soldier. I write to your family and tell them’. I laughed at him.
“But Ukranians, they write that letter, to the boss of the collective farm, maybe, it is great shame for all family. For me is no shame. I don’t care,” declares ‘Remus’ emphatically.
His attitude had a price though. He was obliged to serve an extra two months over the normal two years – the maximum – for his transgressions, along with a few Lithuanian colleagues.
“That was bad for us. Everybody new, all changes. We did what we liked. We said, ‘What can you do? We want to go home.’ Drinking beer all the time. When, you know, a general or someone is coming, an inspection, they begged us to stop.
“We used to go into the town, drinking. We climb over the fence, whatever. If you are missing for less than three days – nothing. Just shout, you know, nothing.”
‘Remus’ is full of anecdotes, not just of his army experiences, but one hearsay story from the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is worth relating.
“The Afghans, they give the soldiers cannabis, hashish, you know. They forget, they don’t know where they are going and walk around. The Mujahadeen catch them.
“There is one American there, I don’t know, an advisor, Special Forces. Whenever they catch a Lithuanian he comes quickly. You had a choice, you could go to Switzerland or America. I don’t know why Switzerland, you know? It’s interesting. I didn’t think about it before, then, but now…you know? Switzerland?
“It happened to someone from my home town. He was living in Switzerland two years, driving buses, but then he wanted to go home – so he did. Nothing happened. They asked him lots of questions, that’s all. I don’t know, maybe once a year they take him and ask him all same questions. Apart from that nothing happened. Nothing.” ‘Remus’ is laughing again.
“So, they didn’t put many Lithuanians up the front. They all hear about it and leave…” ‘Remus’ holds his hands up in imitation of surrender.
“The Tajiks, Khazaks and, you know, the ones from the southern republics, they made them into proper Muslims. I don’t think it was so good for the Russians [who were captured].
“And, you know – I don’t remember his name, but this American – after independence he came to our country as advisor to Lithuania army.”
So the Red Army was not a disciplined, motivated force poised to storm through Europe in the event of war, an imminent threat to life in the west? “Not,” chuckles ‘Remus’, “Impossible.”