As the overnight train from Moscow pulled into Vilnius Central Station for its scheduled 10-minute stop, a pair of curious eyes peeked out of one of its windows – only to disappear behind a curtain hastily closed.
Passengers on the train were heading for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, accessible by rail only through Lithuania, and on the platform outside they were confronted with images of war and destruction.
Twenty-four large photographs, graphically depicting bombed-out Ukrainian towns, dead Ukrainian children and bloodied and shrapnel-injured Ukrainian bodies, have been installed here by Lithuanian railway supplier LTG, which also supplies the locomotive that pulls the Russian wagons through the territory of the EU.
They all carry the same message in Russian, which is repeated over the public address system when the train stops: “Today Putin is killing civilians in Ukraine. Do you support this? »
“People in Russia don’t have much access to unbiased information,” said Mantas Dubauskas, a spokesman for LTG. “Maybe we can change just a few passengers’ minds.”
The move to Vilnius Central Station is symbolic of a Baltic nation that seems not so much intimidated by war in another former Soviet state, as emboldened to tell the world that it must finally stand up to Russia.
In the first days following the entry of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil on February 24, concern spread around Lithuania, which has been an independent republic since 1990 and a member of NATO since 2004.
“It caused a lot of historical fears in my country,” said Linas Kojala, director of the Center for Eastern European Studies think tank. “I’ve had dozens of messages from friends asking what will happen next. Some have asked if they should leave the country, maybe Spain or Portugal. Just look at a map of the area to to feel uncomfortable.
The southernmost of the EU’s three Baltic countries, Lithuania borders Kaliningrad to the west and Belarus to the east – a military corridor between the enclave and the client state would cut off the Baltic states from the rest of Europe .
But within days of the start of the Russian invasion, anxiety in the Baltics had turned to determination. In central Vilnius, Ukrainian flags outnumber Lithuanian, with yellow and blue draped around government buildings, sprayed on walls in the Old Town or wrapped like scarves around mannequins outside shops.
On April 1, Lithuania became the first EU country to announce that it had ditched Russian gas, to meet its energy needs via a floating LNG terminal in the port city of Klaipėda.
He was also one of the first EU countries to downgrade diplomatic ties with the Kremlin after reports of war crimes emerged from Bucha, pulling his own top diplomat from Moscow and asking the ambassador of Russia to leave the Lithuanian capital.
The message was visually underlined by an artistic performance a stone’s throw from the Russian Federation’s diplomatic base in Vilnius: last Wednesday morning, Lithuanian Olympic champion Rūta Meilutytė bathed in a nearby pond that had been dyed blood red with a natural dye.
“We wanted to remind people how important it is to keep watching what Russian aggression is doing,” said Berta Tilmantaite, a journalist and artist who helped organize the protest. “I can understand why people look away or tire of the news.
“But in Lithuania we know Russia, and we are not afraid at the moment,” Tilmantaite told the Observer. “We feel a lot of determination.”
Anyone wishing to know what drives Lithuania’s prominent position at this point in history need look no further than the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Vilnius. Located in the former KGB headquarters across from Lukiškės Square, the museum tells how the Soviet Union in June 1940 gave Lithuania an ultimatum to allow Red Army troops to cross its borders.
Tensions between Moscow and Vilnius had increased after the Soviet foreign minister accused Lithuania of torturing and killing three of its soldiers. When the Russian troops massed on its borders already outnumbered its own, the Lithuanian government handed the country over to a puppet regime. Most of the museum’s exhibition space is reserved for partisans who nevertheless continued to fight for independence.
Migle Kriksciunaite, 25, was visiting the museum in the afternoon sun with his parents. Are there lessons that the rest of Europe could learn from Lithuania’s story? “The lesson our story teaches us is quite simple,” she said. “Fight for your freedom. It’s that simple.