In Vilnius, Lithuania, a book fair on a war footing


The President of the Republic of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, participating in the collaborative construction of camouflage grids for the Ukrainian army, on the day of the inauguration of the Vilnius Book Fair.

On some winter days, the tower disappears in the mist. But on this morning of February 23, the sky is clear above Vilnius, and the crowds which flock to the vast halls of Litexpo, the exhibition center of the Lithuanian capital, at the foot of the hill from which rises the monument, cannot escape this giant of more than three hundred meters, similar, with its long mast, its ovoid cabin, its gigantic antenna, with all the television towers which strew the old cities of the Soviet Union and the block from the east.

Whether we are queuing up to enter the Salon du livre, which has just opened its doors – it will be held until the 26th –, whether we go out to smoke a cigarette or buy a pancake in a food truck, she appears, and with it the memories of which it has become the symbol. Those of the struggle for independence which saw Lithuania, between 1989 and 1991, along with the other Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, tear itself away from the USSR and help to destroy it, like sacrifice of the fourteen Lithuanians who died there during the assault by Soviet troops on January 13, 1991.

Two days earlier, the Red Army had invaded the city. Nomeda, met in the aisles of the living room, remembers the windows that vibrated in her parents’ apartment as the tanks passed. The soldiers were everywhere, occupying public buildings, shooting at the crowd gathered near Parliament. Everything seemed to be collapsing, as if the oppression that the country had suffered for five decades was closing in on him, sweeping away the formidable desire for freedom that had electrified him for two years.

In reality, the game for the Soviets was already lost. Faced with the massive reaction of the population, which had rushed to the streets after the tragedy of the television tower, the Red Army withdrew from the country on the evening of January 13. In September, the world recognized Lithuania’s independence. By the end of the year, the USSR had ceased to exist. But that, Nomeda, sealed off at home, could not guess. The tanks were advancing through the city, and, more than thirty years later, their dull roar still haunts it. “It all came back to me last year, when the Russians invaded Ukraine”she adds.

The awakening of an old terror

Kristina Sabaliauskaite, one of the country’s most prominent novelists – her novel The Stone Empresswhich has just been published in France (Quai Voltaire), has sold 100,000 copies, an unheard of score in a country of 2.8 million inhabitants -, was a teenager, too, in 1991. “My high school was right in front of the Parliament, she says. I heard the shootings. I even received a few beatings. When, a year ago, I saw the first images of the invasion of Ukraine, I felt exactly the same physical symptoms as then. »

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