Reflections on a Memorial Day past and our duties to the future

Some years ago now (Four? Five? It seems impossible that time in still linear after these disrupted years), I spent a quiet Memorial Day in Lithuania. Late May is a spectacular time of year in the northern Baltic states — not the early heat of the impending American summer, but impossibly long bright days as the arc of the sun sweeps toward solstice, gentle temperatures of a prolonged and decadent spring, many excess hours that deceive our sense of the passage of time, seemingly designed for sitting with friends and trading stories. During the long twilight hours under dusky skies that refuse to fade, memories seem more real as they are shared, catching the strange light as they brush past, tactile, electric, a petrichor of remembrance to cement the responsibility of the stories we now carry together. 

On this particular Memorial Day in Vilnius, we were sitting in the open courtyard of what was formerly a sprawling monastery, the lavender sky above us lit with wisps of neon clouds that burned bright through at least one bottle of something and on into the next. I remember the sci-fi sky that night because I remember it was the first time that things I knew about these hinterlands of American understanding — places like Georgia and Lithuania and Estonia, places that I had had the random good fortune of getting to work in and learn about and fall in love with — coalesced into a deeper understanding on perspectives of history that I found significant, and which has helped me subsequently better understand and better value the experience and advise that is offered to us by these allies and partners. 

For Americans, the end of WWII was the victory that defined our modern era. For the former captive nations, it was the end of WWI that was the far more significant formative occasion. 

It’s a simple and obvious but important differential between us — one that we should know about. 

In American collective memory, WWI is really a forgotten war. WWI veterans returned home to America with little support and little public understanding of the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks. We still don’t learn much about The Great War, and all this stuff about archdukes and collapsing empires doesn’t mean much to us, far away here on our American island. We think of it as an unfinished war — the beginning of a time of uncertainty and turmoil that simmered on through the interwar period, years of economic hardship and dust bowls and prohibition in America, years when we withdrew into ourselves and ignored those unfinished troubles far from our shores until Pearl Harbor meant we couldn’t ignore them anymore. WWII is seen as a more morally decisive and clear victory — we beat the Nazis! Europe was saved! Oh and whatever happened in the Pacific too! — an end of the first blah sepia half of a century and the beginning of a second technicolor half that was the boom times of modern life. 

How we talked about ourselves changed. How we lived changed. How we saw ourselves as a citizen of the world changed. Or at least, these are the stories we tell.  

So we have Memorial Day — a uniquely American holiday to honor our soldiers who fell in battle, a day of remembrance with roots in the years after the Civil War (not that most of us know this history, either). For our European allies and all the far flung corners of the world that those collapsing empires touched, they commemorate their war dead on November 11 — Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, which marks the end of WWI (which we in turn commemorate as Veterans Day, honoring all those who served, including those WWI vets who came home and had to fight for the benefits they were promised — a foreshadowing of modern veterans organizations). 

For countries like Georgia and Estonia and Lithuania, they also celebrate one of their independence days to mark the end of WWI. As all those empires receded, these nations got their first stab at some sort of modern self-determination. For some, like Georgia, this was short-lived, with the Russians (Soviets) invading again just a few years later. For others, like the Baltic states, they made it all the way until the pact between Stalin and Hitler that launched WWII. Either way, these years of independence were essential parts of identity and memory in the decades of occupation that followed, and essential frameworks for the states that emerged from the Soviet collapse in 1991 — the occasion of which is marked by their second independence days. 

For these countries with two independence days, the end of WWI — the collapse of empires what allowed them to be free — was the more important benchmark. Constitutions written, democracies framed. A journey started, if interrupted. The first promise of a future of self-rule. A state of independence that is still new enough again that they do not take it for granted. 

Because when WWII ended, we walked away and had these boom times that hurtled us into modern life — and we left all these countries as captives to Stalin and the darkest years of their history. Where the end of WWI was an opening for them, a possibility of better days, the end of WWII was the door closing on that dream for many years to come. 

We jump over all this in our American historical narratives, how we went from “Uncle Joe” Stalin and FDR and Churchill yucking it up in Yalta to poof! suddenly there’s this Cold War thing happening. But this collapse of alliance was a forgone conclusion because we knew who Stalin was. We may have ignored the famines he used as political vengeance, ignored the purges and the gulags and the deportations — but we knew about them. We knew about all of it. And yet we still left these nations as captive to Stalin. They suffered crushing measures of internal control meant to divide families and turn neighbors against each other, measures that still leave deep scars across these societies. And dutifully during those long decades, diaspora populations and governments in exile from these nations wrote to the US president and the US Congress, explaining what was happening, reminding them not to forget. Baltic Americans served in the US Armed Forces, grateful their adopted nation gave them this chance to keep fighting. 

And they waited and they waited, and when four decades later they finally found a way out, they thanked us for all we had done to support them when for most of that time, it wasn’t a hell of a lot. They picked themselves up, dusted off the old constitutions, and got down to the decades of hard work it would take to catch up to the nations who didn’t live behind the Iron Curtain — the hard work of making themselves into valuable allies and partners in our security architecture so that hopefully there won’t ever be the need for a third national day of independence. 

Every year, I give my students an assignment to learn about Stalinist control mechanisms in a captive nation. I tell them to go find primary source material and tell me the story of a person or event that is a poignant example of the brutality of these measures of control. Every time, I learn more stories. This year I learned about an Azeri poet who fought to preserve the Turkic cultural identity that the Soviets sought to erase, and about an Ingush family that survived the mass deportation of the Ingush within the Soviet Union because a young soldier warned them not to bring clothes but only food for the long journey. We learned the story of one Estonian resistance fighter who survived his time in the gulag, returned to Estonia, and became a fitness buff, winning competitive sporting events well into his 80s. He lived to be 95, receiving an order of merit from the Estonian president in 1998 for his suffering and sacrifice during the occupation. We also learned the story of another resistance fighter with the same name who died in the gulag in 1948, his crime is listed as “betraying the motherland” (aka being a good Estonian). His photo, his fingerprint, a card in badly-written cyrillic is the only memory that he stood up when it counted. 

Stalin transformed the Soviet Union with gulag labor and POWs. One such infrastructure miracle — the Volga-Don Canal, which connects the Caspian and Black seas — was in the news recently when Putin moved ships from the Caspian Flotilla to menace Ukraine with the Black Sea Fleet. This 100 kilometer canal was built using German prisoners of war and other gulag labor in just over 3 years in the years following WWII. Such hard-labor affairs were known for their high and poorly recorded casualty rates — tens of thousands likely died, for example, during the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was about twice as long as the Volga-Don. Plenty of Estonians and Lithuanians and Georgians would have been digging these canal for “betraying the motherland.”

This is pretty different from our own post-war infrastructure boom, with the construction of tens of thousands of miles of interstate highways and other projects heralding an expanding middle class and burgeoning economy. 

Each country remembers the victims of Soviet repression in their own ways. The dead, executed, purged, and missing. Most of them were not in uniform, and the way they served their nations is much harder to quantify or glorify. We know so little about most of them — how they lived, why they died, what they dreamed about and who they loved and what they feared. There are a thousand thousand stories of terror — and a thousand thousand stories of love and camaraderie and survival and heroism that we will probably never know or even be able to imagine. There are no quiet, orderly, well-kept cemeteries where they can be remembered. Most don’t even have graves, their bones are scattered across the thousands of miles of the Soviet expanse now crisscrossed by the railways and roads and canals they may have helped build. 

This difference in perspectives of history is so stark and so vast, and for some reason I think of it now every Memorial Day, of the absence of 50 years of history in these places, and everything they had to do to survive, excel, stand next to us now as friends and partners. It’s easy to forget this, in these plucky little allies, the first to show up and the last to leave when we call. Easy to forget the immense and recent suffering they have experienced, the very different stories of the wars their grandfathers and fathers fought. 

We forget this too often and too easily in our understanding of our alliances and what matters most. It’s easier to nod along to explanations about why it makes sense that Germany and Russia are still divvying up the lands between them, albeit in new geo-economic ways, than it is to heed the warnings of smaller allies about where this will lead. They know the cost of a “stable and predictable” relationship with a strongman in the Kremlin. They’ve paid it for us before. And we owe it to them not to ask them to do so again. 

And yet here we are, sleepwalking into a reset by a different name, as if we really have learned nothing despite the great costs incurred to our unity, our security, and our future. 

If our Memorial Day was formed from the ashes of the Civil War, then it’s fair, perhaps, to see Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as an early contribution to our commemorations of those who have fallen to keep us free. And in this passage, then, I find great relevance: 

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain...

That from these honored dead may have a very different meaning for each of us depending on our history, and the stories we carry along. But the duty it conveys for the future is something we share, and we should forget neither the quiet cemeteries nor the restless and wandering ghosts in the measure of this duty. 

There is work to be done, my friends, and with apologies for the prolonged silence, I recommit myself in service to the sacrifice that has come before, and for the stories I carry, and all the ones I still don’t know but hope to share with you when I find them.