NAUJASODES, Lithuania (Reuters Life!) - Young Europeans have been experiencing a taste of the brutal life in a Soviet prison camp in the Baltic state of Lithuania.
Students from Italy, Poland and other EU member states have been taken back in time and place to re-live the fear of interrogation by the secret police, snarling dogs and forced labor under the glare of shouting uniformed guards.
The “Deportation Day” experience in a recreated Soviet gulag (prison camp), which has received European Union funding, comes amid a debate across eastern Europe and particularly in the Baltics about whether Soviet oppression and the Nazi Holocaust should share equal billing in history.
Jewish groups have been angered by east European attempts to draw comparisons between the communist oppression of people trapped behind the Iron Curtain and the Nazi Holocaust.
Russia has also criticized what it calls efforts by the Baltic states to glorify Nazism, the movement which propelled Adolf Hitler to power in Germany, led to World War Two and the Holocaust in which six million Jews were systematically killed.
Russian Jewish groups say enormous honor is due to the Soviet Union’s Red Army for liberating Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, which was the most deadly of the Nazi death camps.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last year that Russia should resist attempts by some of its ex-Soviet neighbors to “falsify” the history of World War Two by underplaying Moscow’s role in defeating Hitler.
“We should be tougher in defending our positions, to tell our partners the whole truth about falsifications of history, glorifying Nazi criminals in neighboring states,” Medvedev said at celebrations marking 65 years since the Red Army lifted a 900-day Nazi siege of Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg, known then as Leningrad.
But for Lithuanian Ruta Vanagaite the camp experience is just about education.
“Many Europeans don’t know what it was to be a prisoner in the Soviet gulag,” said Vanagaite, who produces the Lithuanian bunker event in a forest near the capital Vilnius.
She calls the event “social therapy” and says she has personal reasons to dramatize the dark side the Soviet era.
“My grandfather died in a Soviet gulag after being deported to Siberia in 1946. He froze to death there, I just discovered his archive file a month ago,” she said.
About 40 students from various EU member states went on the trip back in time recently and others are to follow in the coming months, according to website www.deportationday.eu
For three hours they became “political prisoners” and were pushed around, shouted at and interrogated by actors dressed in the uniform of the KGB, the Soviet security service.
The group lined up in a snowy yard and learned the basic Russian phrases needed to survive. They shouted in unison: “tak tochno” (precisely so), “nikak nyet” (not at all), as a fearsome guard looked at them.
The participants are also made to run through a labyrinth of corridors in the two-storey bunker, which was supposed to house a TV center designed to survive a nuclear war.
A dose of Soviet propaganda follows the interrogations, and later everyone has to go to work in the forest and shovel snow under the watchful eyes of a guard with a German shepherd dog.
“People were really considered here at least as animals, maybe even worse,” said Dario D’Anna, a student from Italy.
“I think it’s going to change me, this experience, because I did not know many things about the Soviet Union, about the Soviet power here,” he added.
The show reflects a widely held opinion in the Baltic states that western Europeans do not fully appreciate the travails of the people who suffered under decades of Soviet domination.
Events in World War Two are actively debated in several ex-Soviet republics, especially Ukraine and the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
The Baltic states, annexed by Moscow shortly before World War Two, view the conflict as a clash of two totalitarian regimes in which small nations had to survive.
Veterans who fought in specially formed Baltic Nazi SS Waffen divisions are still honored as national heroes.
Jewish opinion-makers are appalled by the view that the Holocaust and Soviet rule can be treated equally, arguing that the Nazis tried to eliminate an entire race while the Soviets arbitrarily imprisoned people from different ethnic groups.
“Make no mistake, the peoples of eastern Europe suffered enormously under Communism for decades after the war, while we westerners were enjoying unbridled freedom and prosperity,” Dovid Katz, a Jewish scholar who lives in Vilnius, said in an opinion piece published in Britain’s Guardian daily recently.
“But the demand that the entire EU declare Nazism and Communism to be ‘equal’ is something else entirely,” he added, pointing out the reluctance of the Baltic state to admit locals were eager to help Nazis in exterminating Jews.
Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis