More than fifty years after his death at the hands of the KGB, Lithuanian partisan leader Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas remains at the center of a diplomatic spat between Lithuania, Russia and Jewish lobbies in the US and Israel.
On Sunday in Chicago, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius unveiled a monument for Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas.
This once more reignited the controversy, leading to the Russian Embassy in the US issuing a hawkish statement, accusing Lithuania of “glorifying Nazi collaborators and Holocaust henchmen” with “open support from NATO and the EU”.
Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on Russia “to refrain from spreading disinformation about the armed anti-Soviet resistance movement” and denying “the fact of the Soviet occupation”.
Efraim Zuroff, the head of Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told the BBC on Wednesday that Lithuania wasn’t “telling the people the truth and they're not facing the truth”.
Zuroff has issued a number of previous statements condemning Lithuania’s role in the Holocaust, and most notably, co-wrote a book with the Lithuanian author Rūta Vanagaitė – for which Vanagaitė claimed single authorship.
She herself later became the center of controversy, after accusing Ramanauskas-Vanagas on Facebook of “weakness” at the hands of the KGB.
Doctor Nerija Putinaitė, a researcher at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science, told LRT English that “Lithuania should be reacting to the BBC, and not to Russia”.
The BBC naming Ramanauskas-Vanagas ‘Nazi Collaborator’ and a ‘vigilante’ based on Russian Embassy and Wiesenthal Center sources, derives from “our own inability to distinguish who our heroes are, without demonizing the people” who had to take difficult decisions during a very difficult time.
The Soviet Union maintained that all anti-Soviet partisans were Nazis, and we shouldn’t expect Russia to change its course now, says Putinaitė – “Russia has declared itself the successor of the Soviet Union, and this is yet another example”.
Why does Lithuania defend the legacy of Ramanauskas-Vanagas?
Ramanauskas-Vanagas was born in 1918, and joined the armed anti-Soviet resistance in 1945, before being arrested and brutally tortured by the Soviets in 1956 and executed a year later.
Lithuania maintains that the partisan leader was the head of an underground Lithuanian government following Soviet occupation at the end of WW2.
Therefore, the Lithuanian parliament Seimas recognised Ramanauskas-Vanagas as a de facto head of state in post-WW2 Lithuania, and gave him a state burial on October 5, 2018, after locating Vanagas’ remains in Vilnius earlier that year.
The Simon Wiesenthal center told the BBC on Wednesday that Ramanauskas led a gang of ‘vigilantes’ in the southern Lithuanian city Druskininkai that persecuted local Jews.
However, Zuroff told the BBC there was no evidence that Ramanauskas had killed anybody, but had written "in his memoirs how he headed this band of vigilantes".
Holocaust complicity remains a taboo topic in Lithuania
Holocaust complicity remains largely a taboo topic in Lithuania, despite recent positive signs, including a debate by Lithuania’s presidential candidates on the issue.
Jonas Noreika-Vėtra, another controversial figure lionized in Lithuania, has come under similar controversy.
Despite also being part of the anti-Soviet resistance in later years, Noreika differs from Ramanauskas-Vanagas.
Noreika-Vėtra was appointed chief of Šiauliai District, where he signed documents under Nazi orders establishing a Jewish ghetto in Žagarė, where 2,236 people were later killed. By the end of Nazi occupation in WW2, over 90% of Lithuanian Jews were killed.
In 2018, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius was also the first senior politician in the country to speak out against Noreika-Vėtra, by claiming: “We cannot heroize these people which organized repressions against Jews, as we draw an undeserved black-spot over all freedom fighters”.
This statement led to a public outcry in Lithuania, with many civil society groups demanding a public apology from Linkevičius.
Linkevičius also notes that inability to critically judge Lithuania’s freedom fighters will enable the existing “tendency from neighbouring country [Russia] to accuse” them all.
However, Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow – an influential Washington-based think tank – says that fascism narrative for domestic Russian propaganda is only used in Ukraine’s context.
The issue in the Baltics was much more in focus several years ago, says Andrei, “but Russia understands they can’t make any substantive policy in the Baltics, and the attention right now is on Ukraine and Belarus.”
WW2 legacy: Russia’s soft power
Yet, the blurred line between Nazi collaboration and anti-Soviet resistance is now used by Russian disinformation to discredit Lithuania and its historic memory.
World War 2 memory, wrote Tatiana Zhurzhenko from the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna in 2015, morphed into “a form of Russia’s soft power,” becoming the “core of Moscow’s return to geopolitics”.
In a 1952 diary entry, Ramanauskas-Vanagas wrote that “Soviet occupants called us ‘German Nationalists’”.
Not unlike half a century later, Russia “used this term in order to discredit us inside the country and abroad – hoping that perhaps some people will believe that we were fighting for Nazi affairs, at the same time betraying our homeland”.