Opening speech at the international conference held in Vilnius: “Totalitarianism and Tolerance. Challenges to Freedom.”
Lithuania and its capital Vilnius welcome the day of tolerance with great inspiration. We are grandchildren of the empire of tolerance – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Even in the Nineteenth century, during the second uprising against occupation, when asked “who is a Lithuanian?” one would answer “He who believes in freedom and abides by the Statute.” Lithuania of the times of the Statute was a unique center of religious, political, and ethnic tolerance.
Alas, my country, as well as many others, fell into the trap of history and faced the blade of totalitarianism. Nazism in Lithuania left a terrible wound in the history of mankind – the Holocaust. The Jewish genocide took place here. And during the long decades of Soviet occupation the last traces of Jewish Lithuania [Lite] were erased from memory. We retraced them only when censorship ended in Lithuania, and people began to say what they think.
After the restoration of Independence, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a statement on the Jewish genocide during the Nazi occupation in Lithuania. Since that time many scientific books have been published on this terrible subject. Holocaust memorial sites have been set up, museum exhibitions established, conferences and public discussions held. But, most importantly, it is our duty to hear and perpetuate the testimonies of those who survived the tragedy, and do everything possible to prevent a recurrence of this inhuman history.
It is true that each generation has new challenges. When hearing offers to trade freedom for cheaper gas and promises of an Orwellian Animal Farm, the question arises whether this was what the martyrs during the totalitarian regime sacrificed themselves for.
Once Viktoras Petkus together with his colleagues Eitanas Finkelšteinas, Jadvyga Stanelytė, Antanas Terleckas, Yuri Orlov from Moscow, Mart Niklus from Tallinn, Vladimir Drot and many other like-minded people bravely stood next to Andrei Sakharov. They boldly testified to Lithuania and the world about the parody of the trial of Sergei Kovalev in Vilnius . By the way, among other charges Kovalev was accused of distributing the underground publication “Catholic Church Chronicle”. Then everyone in Lithuania realized what the Russian word “samizdat” meant.
I do not know who of the human rights defenders was Catholic, and who was Jewish or Orthodox or a free thinker. But I do know that all members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group [Viktoras Petkus, Karolis Garuckas, Eitanas Finkelšteinas, Ona Lukauskaitė-Poškienė and TomasVenclova] were united in their desire to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms. Common human values were a more stable basis for sustainable coexistence than the false declarations of “the people’s Friendship” in the Soviet “people’s prison”. "We knew this and that’s why we won.
Today, when teaching our children how to face the new challenges and temptations of freedom, let’s not limit ourselves to dry textbook lines and official statistics. What we should do is use the experience and testimonies of the real defenders of freedom, such as Viktoras Petkus or Nikolajus Medvedevas. After all, this is not an entirely Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish, or Russian liberation history but our common one.
Recently, we opened a bench near the Press House in memory of Andrei Sakharov. Let’s encourage teachers to come there with their students, sit down, and talk openly about the resistance against the totalitarian system of the time. It would be symbolic: after all, at one time human rights and freedom activists used to sit in protest in Moscow's Pushkin Square. Living memory of stories similar to this is a perfect lesson of civic education.
The need for tolerance is particularly relevant today, when information is disseminated at the speed of light and each message can become an enmity detonator. As a result, there are propositions to limit free speech, allegedly, for the sake of order. But I'm sure it would be a big mistake. According to the Freedom index of the organization Freedom House, which is about to open its office in Vilnius, Lithuania has achieved the highest possible evaluation [1 of 7], and I wouldn’t like us to regress to where we once were.
For this not to happen, we should not confuse tolerance with indifference. [All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing]. These words of Peter Burke’s are very important in the face of the Holocaust as well as other tragic human experiences and challenges.
Tolerance and freedom are never static, and for these ideals to flow freely, good laws are not enough. It takes people of good will who are willing and able to implement them. I am glad that at this moment before my eyes I see those who care, who are willing and able. This proves that in today’s independent Lithuania there is much more freedom and hope.