Feb. 16 celebrations in Soviet Lithuania: from pieces of cloth to tricolour

Tricolour on the Vilnius TV tower
Paulius Skučas

“Well, you could hardly call it a flag, but the colours did match,” Bogušis told BNS, smiling.

The tricolour, sewn together by the Polish mother of his friend Rimas, flew from the cemetery’s central chapel for more than a week before it was removed.

“For me and my friends, February 16, Vytis and the tricolour were inseparable. It was the Holy Trinity for us,” Bogušis said

Vytis is a Lithuanian national symbol featuring a knight on horseback.

Hoisting the flag of Lithuania in Soviet times was one of the most risky ways to commemorate the signing of the Act of Independence by the Council of Lithuania on Feb. 16, 1918.

Defying the Soviet ban, young Lithuanians devised other ways of celebrating Feb. 16 — from spontaneous acts to well-prepared protests.

Tricolours on chimneys and a train

Historians say that the tradition of marking Feb. 16 did not stop during Soviet times because of the great progress the interwar Republic of Lithuania had achieved in creating the state and installing national values into its people.

“Society and the nation fully embraced the national statehood during those 20 years of Independence,” Algimantas Kasparavičius of the Lithuanian Institute of History said.

Illegal celebrations of Feb. 16 began with the start of World War Two, with the flag of Lithuania illegally raised back in the first period of Soviet occupation and during the years of German occupation.

For example, an underground organization founded in 1942 by Petras Paulaitis removed German-language plates from official buildings Jurbarkas and raised Lithuanian tricolours in many places across the town.

Members of the Young Lithuania organization in 1949 hoisted the Lithuanian flag on the chimney of a local brewery in the town of Prienai.

Petras Plumpa in 1958 raised the Lithuanian tricolour on the Petrašiūnai power plant in Kaunas to mark 40 years since the signing of the Act of Independence.

The dissident, who was 19 at that time, says he had no time to fear.

“Hoisting the flag at the height of 80 meters was a matter of principle. I wanted to show the occupation authorities that the Lithuanian tricolour was flying above all their flags in Lithuania,” he told BNS.

Around ten cases of the yellow-green-red flag hoisted in Lithuania in February 1958 are known, including on a train running between Vilnius and Druskininkai.

In 1970, a Lithuanian flag with the the inscription “We will break the chains of slavery” was raised on the chain of a paper mill in Klaipėda.

It was not unusual for various notes to appear on blackboards at schools and patriotic songs to be sung in cafes on Feb. 16.

Activists would draw caricatures or anti-regime slogans on the walls of buildings or visit the grave of Jonas Basanavičius, the man who presided over the Council of Lithuania, or of soldiers killed during the Lithuanian independence wars of 1918-1920.

Proclamations and a rally

Another way of marking the declaration of Lithuania’s Independence was by distributing proclamations. Vidmantas Povilionis in 1972 dropped notes into mailboxes in Kaunas, calling on people to join the struggle for freedom.

The man says that he saw the underground activity as his contribution to preparing Lithuanian society for independence.

“We worked to keep that memory alive, to preserve another Lithuanian-speaking generation. We wanted to preserve the nation until the collapse of the empire,” he told BNS.

However, Feb. 16 was more often a day of inner celebration for Povilionis.

“You don’t have to celebrate with fun and inventiveness (…). You can simply straighten yourself up and think about the anniversary: it is an inner, personal celebration,” the dissident said.

“That was how we celebrated. You would wake up on every February 16, put on cleaner clothes and go to school. When I went to the institute, I would wear a ribbon or something else. Everybody understood that you celebrated that day,” he said.

On the eve of Feb. 16, 1975, Bogušis also went school wearing a white shirt and a tie from his father’s closet.

That marked the start of independence day celebrations for Bogušis and his friends. In December 1987, he and another 70 people signed a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, informing the Soviet leader about Feb.16 celebrations being planned in various places in Vilnius and throughout Lithuania in the coming year.

The letter reached foreign media shortly afterwards and Soviet officials started careful preparations for demonstrations. The situation triggered a response from US legislators and President Ronald Reagan, who denounced the occupation of Lithuania and proclaimed Feb.16, 1988 as Lithuanian Independence Day.

“That was a bomb. (…) we did not expect such a small stone to move such a rock,” Bogusis said.

The man spent that Feb. 16 being interrogated, but hundreds of people participated in a demonstration in Vilnius and the independence day was also marked in Kaunas.

“It was then that all the great events started: the rallies of May 1988, the establishment of (the liberation movement) Sąjūdis on Jun. 3, our rally against deportations on Jun. 14, the marking of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact on Aug. 23,” he said.

A year later, in 1989, Communist officials placed no obstacles to Feb. 16 celebrations and even attended some events. Everybody was free to fly the yellow-green-red flag.

Bogušis notes, smiling, that 14 years had passed since Lithuanian tricolors had to be hand-sewn from pieces of cloth

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