Lithuanians' list of dislikes includes even themselves

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 17, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff Writer

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- The unforgiving past is so much with this place, so relentlessly at your elbow, that it comes as a complete surprise to find the Sarunas Hotel, surely the only hotel in Europe (or anywhere else) named for a professional basketball player.

Sarunas Marciulionis, a guard for the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association, a Lithuanian who made good elsewhere but is still a hero in his native land, not only lent his name to the hotel but owns it.

And he's given it a certain American bounce.

It's small and dazzlingly well lighted, one of the few places here or anywhere in the old Soviet Union with lighting that appears to be more recent than, say, 1939. The decor in the bar might be described as NBA post-modern. Basketball shoes of many colors hang from the ceiling.

The people who work here are friendly and helpful, and appear to like their jobs. The Sarunas is a happy place.

Outside, all is Lithuania.

You could describe Lithuanians as skeptical and ornery, but that makes them sound like Missourians -- a nation of Harry Trumans. They're skeptical and ornery, but also weighed down by some of the truly dreadful memories of European history.

Beset by geography, once-powerful Lithuania was run for centuries by the Russian czars. When independence came in 1918, the Poles helped themselves to a big chunk of the country, including the capital city, which they called Wilno.

Moscow swept back in in 1940 (having paid Hitler for the privilege, newly uncovered archives show), the Nazis came the other way a year later, and then the Communists returned, seemingly for good, in 1944.

In living memory, some Lithuanians helped the Nazis, some helped the Communists, and some helped both. Thousands were betrayed to one side or another, thousands were deported, and thousands (including almost all of Lithuania's Jews) were killed -- not always by invaders.

Today, Lithuanians don't like the Russians. They don't like the Poles. They don't like their Baltic neighbors, the Latvians and Estonians -- for being too Lutheran, too Nordic.

And they don't always get along with each other.

The world cheered on brave little Lithuania when it stood up to Moscow in 1990. But with independence last year came recriminations, accusations. It seemed Lithuania turned inward even as the world's attention turned elsewhere.

Defections mortally wounded the independence movement, which had carried the day when the foe was in Moscow. A dozen parties pushing for progressive reform sprang up, but each party seemed to consist of one egotist and four followers.

In the end, in the elections of October and November, the Lithuanians shrugged and scowled and gave the ex-Communists another crack.

Maybe they did so because of what Lithuania is.

The Democratic Labor Party, as the Communists have renamed themselves, takes on a small nation that longs for Western investment -- Western miracles -- but is tied irrevocably to the East.

One night a Canadian businessman was sadly musing in the bar of the Soviet-era Lietuva Hotel, which from its appearance could just as well be in Siberia or Uzbekistan as in the center of a medieval European city.

Both his parents were Lithuanian, but then came independence, and his first chance to see Lithuania and deal with Lithuanians in their own country, and it was then, he said, that he realized for the first time, ruefully, that he is a Canadian and not a Lithuanian -- that he is a Westerner, and that as a Westerner he doesn't belong here.

Over at the Sarunas Hotel, the dark past, the disappointment, the inwardness, would be banished. You could try to wish a sort of cheerful American forgetfulness into being. A joke with the desk clerk, peanuts at the bar, a nearly life-size poster of Michael Jordan -- all conspire to create something new, something that would be free.

But no. Who can walk in here and not recall how Sarunas Marciulionis himself has been laid low -- by a freak, of course, by a mere accident -- how he broke his leg this fall, how he'll be out of action, out of the Golden State lineup, for God knows how long? Who cannot wonder at that --and scowl?

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