Sunday, October 23, 2005

VILNIUS, Lithuania — The dreaded KGB Soviet secret political police is remembered here by thousands of people who visit a special museum designed to help Lithuanians know about the arrests, torture and deportation of their countrymen under Moscow’s rule.

Vaidotas Nikzentaitas, a teacher who works at the KGB museum, said the building where torture and executions were carried out for some 50 years of communist rule are an important element of national memory.

“After the Cold War, people knew the KGB from movies as a kind of mafia,” he said in an interview. “They did not know so much about how the KGB was behind the horrors and killing of millions of people in camps.” Some 30,000 Lithuanians were deported to Soviet labor camps, where many died.

Mr. Nikzentaitas said the main purpose of the museum is to remind the younger generation of Lithuanians about the history of Soviet repression. “We must make sure that this kind of thing never happens again in the future,” he said.

Annually, as many as 40,000 people visit the museum.

Mr. Nikzentaitas told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during a tour of the museum yesterday that 1,037 Lithuanians were executed inside the Vilnius KGB headquarters, which housed 300 KGB officers from 1944 to the 1990s.

The KGB used small concrete-walled cells to hold up to 15 prisoners at a time who were packed in while they waited interrogation and torture for “political” crimes, such as writing anti-Soviet pamphlets or articles. The last Lithuanian political prisoner was a Catholic nurse who was released in 1987.

The most gruesome part of the museum is the execution room, where prisoners were shot twice in the back of the head by a special KGB unit. The bodies were then stacked in piles before being removed secretly by truck to mass graves.

Lithuania became independent in 1990, but the KGB horrors were not fully discovered until the mid-1990s. Bitter memories of the Soviet era remain strong. In downtown Vilnius, graffiti on building walls includes scrawled denunciations of the KGB.

Tensions between Lithuania and Russia rose last month when a Soviet Su-27 jet strayed into Lithuanian airspace. The jet, which had been flying from St. Petersburg to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad when it went off course, ran out of fuel and crashed. The pilot, who ejected, was held captive in a hotel and eventually released to Russia.

The story received wide attention in the Baltic media and was viewed as a violation of sovereignty by the Russians.

Mr. Rumsfeld is in Lithuania for a meeting today of NATO defense ministers, where key topics include Ukraine’s desire to join the Western alliance. At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld said Ukraine is making strong strides toward meeting NATO’S criteria for membership.

“Progress has been made, and we encourage it,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at a press conference with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who also expressed optimism that Ukraine eventually would join NATO.

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