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Invented by a Woman Activist, an Early 1970s Rape Kit Arrives at the Smithsonian | At the Smithsonian

While volunteering at a crisis hotline for teenagers, Martha “Marty” Goddard knew she had to do something. It was 1972 in Chicago, Illinois, when Goddard became aware of the tens of thousands of sexual assault cases that were not being prosecuted due to a lack of standardized protocols for collecting the forensic evidence necessary to secure a conviction.

She began interviewing policy makers, survivors, attorneys, hospital workers and anyone who could provide insight. She wanted to design a system that would allow sexual assault cases to be addressed and prosecuted efficiently.

In the early 1970s, women rarely had the courage to report sexual abuse and when they did come forward, their accounts were often challenged and undermined, and any evidence of a crime committed was carelessly lost or mistakenly thrown away. It was also a time when spousal rape was considered legal—and incest and child sexual assault were considered rare. It would be nearly another quarter century that the “marital rape exception” was eliminated in all 50 states in 1993.

In Chicago in 1973, only a tenth of the estimated 16,000 sexual assaults were ever reported to the police, with only a few going to trial; and hardly any resulted in the aggressor’s imprisonment, says Pagan Kennedy, the author of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World. “Amid all that, Ms. Goddard began asking questions that might seem so obvious to us today but were radical in her own time,” wrote Kennedy in an article for the New York Times. “What if sexual assault could be investigated? What if you could prove it? What if, instead of a ‘she said’ story, you could persuade a jury with scientific evidence?”

Now, the National Museum of American History and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum have announced the joint acquisition of the historic kit that Goddard envisioned and that would standardize the process of collecting and preserving evidence of sexual assault. “Marty Goddard developed the design for the kit by speaking to the people who would ultimately use it—medical professionals, law enforcement, litigators and survivors—so each component and the instructions that go with them are a result of that collaborative research,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, a curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt.

View of the contents of the kit

The kit includes ordinary objects such as cotton swabs, a comb, paper bags, labeled envelopes, checklists of protocols and glass slides for semen specimens. 

NMAH, photo by Jaclyn Nash

The “Vitullo Evidence Collection Kit for Sexual Assault Examination” contains “off the shelf” products such as cotton swabs, a comb, paper bags, labeled envelopes and glass slides for semen specimens. It also holds a checklist of protocols and different forms for both the examiners and the victim, including treatment and counseling resources. The simplicity of the kit made it easily replicable and affordable, increasing the probability that it would be adopted, says Cunningham. The design was also adaptable, meaning that hospitals and police precincts around the world could modify it to suit their specific needs.

Reached at her home in Somerville, Massachusetts, Pagan Kennedy, who is writing a book on Goddard’s efforts, says that it was her interest in the politics of design that drove her to start thinking about her story. “I was just really fascinated with this object, as it seemed to come from the point of view of a survivor and would help them tell the story of what happened,” she says.

When Kennedy began looking at sources to unpack the history, she found that most gave credit to Louis Vitullo, a Chicago police sergeant who headed up the microscope unit and who had died in 2006. Marty Goddard was sometimes described as Vitullo’s helper—or was not mentioned at all.

The Chicago Police Star, the Chicago Police Department’s official publication, published a story about Louis Vitullo and the evidence kit in January 1979.

The Chicago Police Star, the Chicago Police Department’s official publication, published a story about Louis Vitullo and the evidence kit in January 1979.

Chicago Police Star

“I became very curious about Marty, but there was nothing I could find about her,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of pieces where I track down people who have invented things, so I’m very good at finding the obscure. I couldn’t find anything saying she was dead, so I had to assume that she was alive. And that set me on this obsessive hunt for her.”

Kennedy spoke with Cynthia Gehrie, Goddard’s friend and colleague in the 1970s, and learned that the first time Goddard introduced herself and described her idea for the kit to Vitullo, he wasn’t very interested. Yet, later, Vitullo created a prototype for the kit, and presented it as a partnership between the police department and the state attorney’s office. Goddard was not credited for the invention. But instead of worrying over recognition, she focused her energy on its distribution and expansion. And that’s what mattered to her.

Martha Goddard portrait

Martha “Marty” Goddard first saw a need while volunteering at a crisis hotline for teenagers in 1972.

Wikimedia Commons, U.S. Department of Justice

She then began training people, finding sponsors and developing a system. The initial funding for the kits came from the Playboy Foundation, a champion feminist causes. Playboy’s founder Hugh Hefner considered “the women’s liberation movement as a sister cause to his own effort to free men from shame and guilt,” wrote Kennedy.

In 1978 Goddard delivered the kits to about 25 hospitals around Chicago as part of a pilot program she created. A year later, almost 3,000 kits were sent to crime labs. “This was the ’70s and ’80s—and often the case nowadays—when sexual assault was such a forbidden topic that testimonies and experiences were dismissed or denied,” says Katherine Ott, curator in the division of science and medicine at the American History Museum. “So, taking their testimony or their experience seriously was one of the big hurdles to get over. And a way to support their statements was to have concrete evidence. The kit brought order to the process.”

The rape kit's box with checklist

With the acquisition of the kit, (above: box with checklist) Smithsonian curators hope to elevate Goddard’s contribution and create a space for dialog.

Photo by Jaclyn Nash / Courtesy of the Smithsonian

The invention’s impact continues to resonate. In the U.S., a sexual assault is attempted every 68 seconds. Commonly known as the “rape kit,” tools inspired by Goddard’s invention are still being used in hospitals across the country.

“Smithsonian staff collected this kit not to shock audiences, but to interpret the story of a woman activist and how her work as a victims’ advocate—specifically around sexual assault—continues to influence conversations around the topic today,” writes Angela Tate, curator of women’s history at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The object was purchased with support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative #BecauseofHerStory, which aims to amplify the untold stories of American women throughout history. Five Smithsonian units have formed “Marty’s Group,” with the aim of spotlighting how Americans have combatted sexual assault through activism, political advocacy and artistic confrontation.

“Sexual assault is shamefully common, and its cultural roots have very little public understanding,” Ott says. “There’s no word in our vocabulary for the lingering damage that follows people throughout their lives. And a lot of survivors talk about their experience with reporting and prosecution as their second assault, which is very horrific for many people. And that’s where the kit comes in.”

Although there might have been one or two other evidence collection kits for sexual assault cases at the time, they weren’t part of a specific system. More than a kit, says Kennedy, Goddard created a culture. “In the ’70s, the sexual assault exam would be used to determine, by the police, whether they thought the victim was ‘really raped,’ and they made judgements against the victim,” she says. “It was almost like a virginity test. But this is not about policemen or doctors deciding what they think about the ‘purity’ of the person. One thing Marty Goddard did was build this much bigger system with a whole set of really trained people who understood trauma and knew that they weren’t there to judge, but to collect evidence.”

In her search, Kennedy finally learned that Goddard had died in 2015. She also learned that Goddard, herself, had been a victim of sexual assault in the late ’70s. “The assault was the beginning of the end for her,” Kennedy says. “It was a turning point in her life that left her with very deep scars—both physically and mentally. She was doing all this fundraising, fighting for a different culture in criminal justice, and she started burning out. It was too much. And that’s when she started drinking.”

Although Goddard recoiled into her own world in her last years, she revolutionized sexual-assault forensics. With the acquisition of the kit, Smithsonian curators hope to elevate Goddard’s contribution and create a space for dialog where complex challenges can be discussed.

“We know what caused the Civil War and its impact—there’s a huge literature on that. But there are many other difficult histories like sexual assault that need examination,” Ott says. “And so, every little bit of information that can contribute to this public understanding is great, because we need to chip away at the cultural silence, disbelief and discomfort. That’s the only way we can end it.”

The “Vitullo Evidence Collection Kit for Sexual Assault Examination” is not currently on display, but it can be viewed online.

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War lore: Peters Township resident discusses animals turned heroes | News

War heroes don’t have to be human.

As a dedicated advocate on behalf of animals, Peters Township resident Faith Bjalobok was aware that four-legged friends – two-legged with wings, as well – had distinguished themselves during various military encounters.






Faith Bjalobok with U.S. Marine Corps veteran Craig Hodgkins and his service dog, Foxy.



Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans continues to provide support for pairings

But she didn’t know the depth of their accomplishments until she started researching the topic, learning the list includes a wider variety of mammals and birds than many people would have guessed.

An adjunct lecturer at Duquesne University, where she earned her doctorate in philosophy, Bjalobok gave a presentation on her findings during a recent fundraiser, hosted by Eighty Four Agway in North Strabane, on behalf of the nonprofit Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans

Crimean Tom and Simon

As founder of the Fluffyjean Fund for Felines, a trap-neuter-vaccinate-release program for feral cats, Bjalobok has a particular interest in war heroes of the Felis domestic genus.

In 1854, during the Crimean War, British and French troops occupied the Russian port town of Sevastopol following a yearlong siege. Unfortunately, their supplies were exhausted. Fortunately, a cat later known as Crimean Tom or Sevastopol Tom knew how to help.






Simon

Simon the cat, Dickin Medal recipient


“Tom led the famished troops to caches of food beneath the rubble, which had been hidden all along the waterfront by the Russian defenders,” PetMD reports. “Though not an official military cat, Tom was adopted as a mascot by the grateful soldiers and was taken along to England when the troops were called back.”

Ninety-five years later, a British Royal Navy cat called Simon was awarded the United Kingdom’s Dickin Medal for animal bravery. Aboard the HMS Amethyst on the Yangtze River during the Chinese civil war, Simon hunted rats that threatened the ship’s food supply.

“One particularly vicious rat, nicknamed Mao Tse-tung, carried out repeated attacks on the meager food supplies,” according to the U.K. organization People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. “When Simon killed it, the crew were so impressed they promoted Simon to ‘Able Seaman’ in recognition of his achievement.”

Sgt. Stubby

Among the many canine war heroes was a dog named Stubby, for his short tail. He became the mascot of the U.S. Army’s 102nd Infantry, 26th Division, and in early 1918, he accompanied the soldiers to France in early 1918, where he was exposed to poison gas.

“The injury left him sensitive to the tiniest trace of gas. When the division was attacked in an early morning gas launch, most of the troops were asleep. Stubby recognized the gas and ran through the trench barking and biting at the soldiers, rousing them to sound the gas alarm, saving many from injury,” according to “The Story of Sgt. Stubby” on the Army’s 213th Regiment website.

“Stubby also had a talent for locating wounded men between the trenches of the opposing armies. He would listen for the sound of English and then go to the location, barking until paramedics arrived or leading the lost soldiers back to the safety of the trenches.

“He even caught a German soldier mapping out the layout of the Allied trenches. The soldier called to Stubby, but he put his ears back and began to bark. As the German ran, Stubby bit him on the legs, causing the soldier to trip and fall. He continued to attack the man until the U.S. soldiers arrived.






Reckless

Staff Sgt. Reckless attends a 1950s-era military parade.


“For capturing an enemy spy, Stubby was put in for a promotion to the rank of sergeant by the commander of the 102nd Infantry. He became the first dog to be given rank in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Staff Sgt. Reckless

In addition to her work with cats, Bjalobok runs a rescue farm for horses and other animals.

During the Korean War, a filly named Reckless served the U.S. Marine Corps to the extent she eventually was promoted to staff sergeant by Gen. Randolph McCall Pate, the highest ranking Marine in Korea. Her mission was to help transport shells uphill for use in long-range recoilless rifles along the mountainous front.

The Horse Stars Hall of Fame, which inducted Reckless in 2014, tells of her experiences during the Battle for Outpost Vegas in April 1953.

“She was wounded twice, patched up and resumed her work without hesitation. Time and again, her fellow Marines marveled at her resoluteness, as she maneuvered across areas where shrapnel was falling and ran along the narrow berms beside the rice paddies, never stepping off into the mine-laden bogs,” a listing from the hall of fame said.

“In one day alone, she made 51 trips to the recoilless rifles sites, in all traveling more than 35 miles. She carried 386 of the heavy shells, each weighing 20 to 23 pounds, depending on their content, a total of over 9,000 pounds of explosives. Then, descending the ridge to reload, she carried the wounded or dead on her back. It is acknowledged that because of what Reckless accomplished in battle, many Marines came home who might not have otherwise.”

Cher Ami

One animal of significant value during wars of the distant past was the carrier pigeon, serving as an effective means of distance communication before the advent of wireless transmission.






Cher Ami

Cher Ami,was stuffed and is currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. (National Archives)


In World War I, the U.S. Army Signal Corps used hundreds of the message-bearing birds. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918, the last Allied push of the conflict, the Corps’ 77th Division pushed too far into the French forest and became surrounded by Germans.

Enter Cher Ami, a male carrier pigeon. 

“The brave bird flew straight into the German fire, dodging bullets as he went. However, his luck did not last for long. Cher Ami was hit in the chest soon after takeoff, as American soldiers watched in horror as their last hope hit the ground,” according to the United States World War I Centennial Commission.

“Against all odds, though, Cher Ami got up again. Wounded but still alive, the little bird took flight again, charging head-on into wave after wave of gunfire. By the end of the trip, he covered 25 miles in roughly half an hour.”

For saving human lives, Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honors.

Wojtek

In 1942, members of the Polish army adopted a Syrian brown bear cub named Wojtek. He apparently was quite the character.






Wojtek book

“As he grew, he was given marmalade, fruit, syrup and honey, and was often rewarded with beer, which fast became his favorite drink,” War History Online states. “Just like the soldiers around him, he started off his mornings drinking coffee, and he frequently smoked (and ate) cigarettes.

Beyond comic relief, the 440-pound bear provided his share of heroics, according to the site.

“Wojtek was present at the Battle of Monte Cassino (Italy) in 1944, where he is credited with helping move crates of ammunition, an effort for which he was promoted to the rank of corporal,” the site says. “There are many who disregard this tale as fiction, but at least one account exists. A British soldier recalled seeing a bear mimicking the troops and it was able to lift boxes that would normally require four men.”

Several books have been written about him, including “Wojtek: War Hero Bear” by Jenny Robertson, “Soldier Bear” by Bibi Dumon Tak and “Wojtek: The Bear Who Went to War” by Bob Moulder and Moy McCrory.

Sgt. Jack Cornelius

As a duck serving for 18 months as a morale-boosting mascot of a pack howitzer unit of the 2nd Marine Division, Sgt. Jack Cornelius – named after a human sergeant from Washington State, although the fowl turned out to be female – was the subject of a lighthearted story that appeared in the Oct. 7, 1944, issue of the Marine Corps Chevron.






Jack Cornelius

A photo from the Marine Corps Chevron shows Sgt. Jack Cornelius with his owner, Cpl. Francis Fagan, and another mascot, Duffy the dog.


According to the article, the duck “added a footnote to Marine battle lore at Tarawa,” fought Nov. 20-23, 1943, when she chased a “rooster up the beach while the fighting was at its height.”

As of the article’s writing, it still had to be determined whether the duck “was a WR (Woman Reservist) or a Marine. The question of the sergeant’s Stateside uniform hinges upon the answer to that one.”

In the meantime, “the salty sergeant suffered his first wound aboard the transport bringing him back. He stepped on something sharp and cut his ‘foot,'” the artcile says.

“Because all returning veterans are restricted to the base while being processed at the R&R Center, (Sgt. Jack) has had none of his favorite beverage – beer – since leaving foreign soil.”

Sgt. Billy

Billy, or simply Bill, a goat from Saskatchewan, served as a Canadian Expeditionary Force mascot during World War I, helping to boost morale among the troops in Europe.






Sgt. Billy

Sgt. Billy and friend


“The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War,” a 2019 book written by Mireille Messier and illustrated by Kass Reich, tells of how Billy trained with the soldiers, was smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean and was sneaked onto the front line in a crate of oranges. He also ate some secret documents and was imprisoned for treason, but he redeemed himself by head-butting soldiers into a trench, saving their lives from incoming artillery shells.

For that, Billy was promoted to the rank of sergeant, and he returned to Canada a decorated war hero.

Tirpitz

During World War I, a pig called Tirpitz was originally aboard the German Imperial Fleet cruiser SMS Dresden as a mascot.

Following the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, the Dresden was sunk by the British HMS Glasgow. An officer on the Glasgow rescued Tirpitz, and he – some sources claim the hog was female – became the mascot of a new ship.

Toward the end of the war, Tirpitz was auctioned off to raise money, including a Dec. 13, 1917, sale to the Duke of Portland for the benefit of the Red Cross Society. Another sale’s proceeds went to the Agricultural Relief of the Allies Fund.






Tirpitz

Photo of Tirpitz and friend from the Daily Record of Glasgow, Scotland, March 24, 1916


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The Last Soviet Generation | History

Every evening, Soviet army vehicles ploughed the white sand beaches at the shoreline of Soviet Lithuania, on the western border of the USSR. Locals knew not to go to the beach at night for leaving footprints on the perfectly raked sand could mean drawing the attention of the Soviet border troops. But when the soldiers left at 6am, the beaches offered the promise of treasure for the children willing to find it.

Those treasures were items lost at sea – ship rope, Coca-Cola cans, and even plastic toys washed ashore from capitalist countries. To Soviet children, collecting these useless but colourful items with their slight smell of “the other” world offered them a glimpse of what lay behind the Iron Curtain.

Sigita Kraniauskiene, a 50-year-old sociologist and senior research fellow at Klaipeda University in Lithuania, recalls collecting such “treasures” during her childhood and wondering how Westerners lived. “I tried to imagine how Swedish people lived on the other side of the Baltic Sea,” she says.

“Nobody expected the Soviet Union to collapse soon. We grew up behind the Iron Curtain, being prepared to become ordinary and submissive Soviet citizens,” she adds.

But it did collapse. Thirty years ago, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union, of which Lithuania was a part, was dissolved. Suddenly, a generation that had grown up under communism, found itself entering adulthood in a newly independent, capitalist state.

Sociologists, like Sigita, and historians have not agreed on a title to define this generation born in the late 1960s and 70s but the Last Soviet Generation, the Transitional Generation and the Threshold Generation have all been used.

“Although there is no unified term, researchers choose adjectives that show the dramatic change,” explains Sigita, whose research focuses on this generation that straddled two social and political systems.

Sigita Kraniauskienė plays kanklės, a Lithuanian folk instrument, dressed in Soviet school uniform [Courtesy of Sigita Kraniauskiene]

Foreign chewing gum

During the 1980s, on May 1, the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, would be decorated with Soviet flags. Posters of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leonid Brezhnev hung from state buildings and local flower shops displayed buckets of red carnations as Communist Party leaders and common citizens gathered to watch the International Workers’ Day parade on Lenino Prospekas (Lenin Avenue).

Dalia Kedaviciene recalls marching in the parade with a Pioneer drum when she was 10 years old. “I felt proud walking at the front of the parade,” the 49-year-old retired crime prevention chief at Lithuania’s Ministry of Interior explains.

“My childhood was a happy one, for I had nothing to compare it to,” she says, speaking via Zoom from her home in Vilnius. “It was an event when my mom brought foreign chewing gum from her work trips.

“We did not have many food choices, and I recall long lines waiting to buy bananas or books,” she adds, looking into the distance as she remembers her childhood.

Dalia’s father was an electrician, and her mother was a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Interior. Although her mother was a member of the Communist Party, she never instilled communist values in her daughter.

“My mother early on became disillusioned with communist ideals. There was a stark difference between the official narrative and the leadership’s actions,” Dalia says, adding: “She taught me human values: honesty, respect, consideration, and love towards other human beings.”

Display of military might was a staple of the October Revolution parade. Pictured here is from the last in Vilnius in 1990 [Courtesy of Paulius Lileikis]

Mandarins in summer

For those children who were raised to become members of the Communist Party, there were several options. From the age of seven to nine, they could join the Little Octobrists. Members would wear a ruby-coloured star badge with a childhood portrait of Lenin on it. Nine-year-olds could progress onto the Young Pioneer organisation, where they would be given a red neckerchief to wear with their school uniforms. From age 14 to 28, young people could join the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, commonly known as Komsomol.

Dmitry Denisiuk, a 55-year-old actor with the Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania, was an enthusiastic Pioneer. He attended parades, marching competitions, and spent time at Pioneer summer camps. “I was proud to be a Pioneer, and I learned from the Soviet children’s literature that a good Pioneer is studious, honest, and respects adults,” he says, switching between Lithuanian and Russian as he speaks over Skype from a dimly lit room in his flat in Vilnius after a week of new season premiere performances.

“I volunteered to clean the school after classes, collected old newspapers for recycling, and helped elderly ladies to cross streets,” he recalls.

Because of Dmitry’s active involvement in the communist youth groups, when he was 15, his school sent him to the Pioneer summer camp in Nordhausen near Erfurt in East Germany.

It was a typical Pioneer summer camp with cabins, an event hall, a canteen, a laundry and a sports field. Although the state built Pioneer camps across the Soviet Union, spending two weeks at an international camp was an honour afforded to only a select group of youngsters.

Dmitry was one of 20 Lithuanian students sent to the Nordhausen camp. There, he met young people from Italy, France, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungry, Greece, and elsewhere. “It was 1982, the year of the 12th Football World Cup, and we organised our own tournament at the camp,” he remembers.

He recalls being baffled at the sight of colourful merchandise in the stores and baked buns in the coffee shops during excursions to Erfurt and Berlin.

“Our retail stores had no smell, and food shops had a different, more earthy smell of potatoes, cabbage, beets, or carrots. It surprised me to see oranges and mandarins at the store during the summer in Germany. We could buy these fruits only in December in Lithuania. I remember enjoying its citrusy aroma mixed with the sweet smell of chewing gum,” Dmitry says.

At the youth camp, pupils from different countries exchanged T-shirts and souvenirs. “We had nothing to offer but our Komsomolsk pins [small metal badges of a red flag with a portrait of Lenin at the centre], pocket calendars, and postcards with images of Vilnius, Moscow, or the Kremlin,” he recalls. “I wondered if we won Second World War, then why do we have so little nice things compared to other communist or Western countries.”

Dmitry says the situation in Lithuania was better than in Ukraine, where his father was from, and Russia, where his mother was from, but that it was not as rich or colourful as life in East Germany. His parents had moved to Lithuania to escape famine and economic hardship after World War II. His mother worked as a nanny, and his father was a soldier in the Soviet army.

“During summer vacations, we visited my grandmother in a village near the Russian town of Pskov. My parents packed packs of sugar, legumes, and glass jars full of butter submerged in saltwater. At the village’s local store, there were only matches, bread, and vodka,” he remembers.

“As a child, you do not think about the quality of your food and clothes: mother gives you porridge, you put on your trousers, and go to kindergarten,” he says.

Dmitry Denisiuk was active in communist youth camps as a child and remembers meeting children from non-communist countries at one such camp and being surprised by their non-standardised belongings [Courtesy of Dmitry Denisiuk]

A world without colour

“I kept wondering why the Western world is so colourful,” says 48-year-old Audrius Lelkaitis, a freelance journalist who hosts a current affairs radio show called Relaunching Civilisation on National Lithuanian Radio. Once a week, on Saturdays, Audrius asks passersby on the street for their opinion about a current event or a social issue and then invites experts to provide analysis on a matter of concern.

As a teenager, Audrius loved watching pirated Western movies, copied onto VHS tapes. New movies were in high demand and children would pass them around. “It felt like the entire world lived in the Christmas spirit, and we lived in a khaki-coloured barn,” he says.

His father was an engineer and his mother a chemist technician. Both were Catholics who observed religious holidays at home, as attending church was risky. Although they did not support communism, Audrius says they never openly expressed their disagreement with it and led “ordinary, conformist, Soviet citizens’ lives”.

“Hardly anyone treated Soviet pioneer and Komsomol rituals as meaningful. The Last Soviet generation understood the difference between the official domain and private lives. They witnessed their parents’ conformism,” explains Irena Sutiniene, a researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the Lithuanian Social Research Centre.

She says that while their parents were more conservative and preoccupied with providing for their families in a shortage economy, the Last Soviet Generation had more opportunities to travel, had access to a broader spectrum of information and was more liberal.

As a teenager, journalist Audrius Lelkaitis would watch pirated videos from the West and wonder why it was so colourful [Coutesy of Paulius Lileikis]

Cartoons, chewing gum, and the death of Brezhnev

Born during an era when standards of living declined as Brezhnev presided over increased spending on defence and aerospace at the expense of industries such as healthcare and agriculture, the Last Soviet Generation experienced shortages of food and household items.

Identical school uniforms, similar clothing, and household items created a limited but familiar world for children in Lithuania and throughout the Soviet Union. Soviet schoolgirls wore brown dresses with white lace collars, and boys dressed in navy blue suits. The school year started on September 1, and all students opened the same textbooks.

Lithuanian children played with toys manufactured by three Soviet Lithuanian toy companies operating under the Neringa conglomerate or brought to Lithuania’s retail stores from other Soviet republics. There were green and yellow plastic trucks, blinking dolls that made a crying sound, or wild animal figurines made of rubber.

“There were not so many toys, and I remember making erasers out of colourful flip-flops found on the shore,” Sigita says.

Imported chewing gum covers were considered a collectable rarity. Some children had notebooks filled with glued wrappers: yellow Juicy Fruits, smiling Donald Duck, or Pink Panther.

Simplistic and identical Soviet residential buildings created featureless living micro-districts such as Pilaite in Vilnius [Courtesy of Paulius Lileikis]

While their parents were at work, many children spent their afternoons at playgrounds, surrounded by identical Khrushchyovka houses, the cheap five-storey brick buildings named after the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, who aimed to provide families with modern flats in the 1960s. Even the interior of the flats, with their similar lacquered dining room sets and identical household items, felt familiar. “If we meet a person of our generation, we find a common topic quickly. Everything was standardised,” says Sigita.

At the end of each evening from 8:30pm, “throughout the entire country, children would disappear from the playgrounds to watch cartoons”, says Irena.

Lithuanians could watch three channels on their TVs, two of which were broadcast from Moscow in the Russian language.

But on November 10, 1982, there were no cartoons on TV. Instead, the national broadcasters from Moscow and Vilnius disrupted the regular programming following the death of General Secretary Brezhnev, who had been at the helm of the Soviet Union for 18 years. The Last Soviet Generation had grown up looking at his portrait on their classroom walls, listening to his New Year speeches and watching him wave at military parades from the Kremlin balcony on the evening news.

“When my father told me about his death, It shocked me. He was immortal to me,” Audrius recalls.

Dalia, who says she barely paid attention to communist propaganda, was surprised by her reaction. “I do not know why, but I cried when I learned about his death,” she says.

Joseph Stalin’s sculpture, like many other monuments of Soviet leaders, was moved to storage during Lithuania’s independence movement [Courtesy of Paulius Lileikis]

Relearning history, reinventing traditions, and living with no currency

After 50 years of being one of the 15 constituent republics of the USSR, Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990.

During the first years of Lithuania’s independence, Soviet institutions were transformed, police replaced the Soviet-style Milicija, and churches that had been used as storage buildings or gyms welcomed back worshippers.

While the re-established Central Bank of Lithuania was getting ready to introduce the national currency, the litas, the Russian rouble was replaced by colourful talonai, printed on poor quality paper with images of Lithuania’s wild animals. People nicknamed talonai “vagnorkes” after the prime minister of Lithuania, Gediminas Vagnorius, who twice led the government during the transition period in the 1990s.

Citizens removed Soviet monuments from the squares and historians started rewriting history books. Before becoming a police officer, Dalia studied history at Vilnius University. While the old textbooks were being removed from the library’s shelves, students were left with none, she recalls. “Our professors were teaching from their notes, and we were making copies,” she says.

Newspapers changed their names. The daily Komjaunimo Tiesa (Kosomolsk’s Veracity) became Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuanian Morning), the education magazine Tarybinis Mokytojas (Soviet Teacher) became Tevynes Sviesa (The Light of the Homeland), and the Sirvinta regional paper Lenino Veliava (The Flag of Lenin) became Sirvinta.

Book stores displayed works banned during the Soviet era, including masterpieces such as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

“We felt a little bit lost,” says Sigita. “We were used to someone telling us who is right and who is wrong. Now we had to absorb new information and make choices.”

The Last Soviet Generation had not only to relearn history but also to reinvent traditions. For 70 years, atheists, following the Marxist view “religion is the opium of the people”, waged war on religious practices in the state. Scientific atheism, the official term for the Communist Party’s philosophical worldview, created ceremonies that replaced religious ones. New Year’s Day celebration replaced Christmas. Constitution Day was on October 7, Revolution Day on November 7, Victory Day on May 9, and International Workers’ Day on May 1.

“I did not know what Christmas or Easter were,” Dalia says. “We celebrated only New Year’s Day and birthdays in our house.”

Bananas and oranges were a rarity during Soviet times in Lithuania. After independence, a variety of merchandise arrived at its stores, markets and the stalls such as this in Laisves Aleja in Kaunas town in 1994 [Courtesy of Paulius Lileikis]

An introduction to the wild West

“During the Soviet times, life trajectory, official norms, and the structural conditions governing life were very clear. The Last Soviet Generation, with its freedom, had pressure to make the right choice in a changing society,” Irena explains.

While many enjoyed these new freedoms and opportunities, there was also a sense of insecurity. With the collapse of the centralised economy came unknown phenomena such as unemployment and a shortage of essential items. This, combined with the fact that independent Lithuania had to build a new law enforcement system, including police forces, courts and prisons, and to pass new laws to replace old Soviet legislation, created the ideal conditions for crime to flourish.

“The crime situation rapidly deteriorated in Lithuania, and it remained for the next 10 years until our police and legal systems became stronger,” explains Arturas Kedavicius, a retired general manager of the Lithuanian Emergency Response Centre that handles emergency and crisis calls, who also worked as a police officer at the independent Lithuanian police force.

“When the Russian Army was leaving Lithuania, soldiers sold everything: gas, equipment, metal, and guns. During the Soviet times, there was a minimal number of guns among civilians, but once the Soviet Army left the country, you could buy guns in the market,” Arturas adds.

According to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, the rise in crime started in 1988. The number of reported crimes increased from 21,300 to 31,300 in a single year in Lithuania. In 2000, police registered more than 82,300 crimes in Lithuania. Many criminal groups and individuals started trading metal, gas, and raw materials obtained from state factories, collective farms, or from Communist Party properties that were going through the process of transitioning to private ownership. Some new “businessmen” even removed sewage hole covers from the streets, melted them, and sold them as metal.

The first years of freedom in Lithuania were marked not only with new opportunities but also economic challenges. People shop for Easter at Kalvarijų market in Vilnius in 1994 [Courtesy of Paulius Lileikis]

Expensive cars with tinted windows became a new sight on the country’s roads. Residents started installing double entrance doors, and a chorus of car alarms would often be the soundtrack to a bad night’s sleep.

“During the Soviet times, youth either went to a trade school or continued their studies at a university,” Irena explains. “During the transition period, some started businesses instead of continuing their education.”

But these new businesses often became targets of racketeering by organised crime groups.

Lithuanian Department of Statistics’s records show that intimidation and murder by organised crime groups peaked in 1994 and 1995, with police in the country of approximately three million recording more than 500 murders in each of those years.

Arturas says that most business people were subject to intimidation and violence from organised crime groups. “Business owners who refused to pay fees for ‘protection’ to racketeers would receive a warning: criminal groups would burn, damage, or confiscate their property. If business owners continued to refuse payment, then racketeers would beat them, and their families received threats. The most stubborn businessmen got shot or exploded in their cars.”

Applauding citizens removed sculptures of Soviet leaders, symbols of oppression, such as this Lenin statue in Lukiskiu Square in Vilnius on August 23, 1991 [Courtesy of Paulius Lileikis]

‘Having freedom is better’

Irena believes that the Last Soviet Generation was shaped by the economic and political changes they experienced rather than their Soviet-era upbringing.

“Lithuania’s independence movement coincided with our generation’s beginning of independent adult life. We felt we had limitless opportunities and energy to achieve it,” says Dalia. She believes that growing up in the Soviet Union taught her to be collaborative, supportive of others, and have a less individualistic approach to life and relationships.

During the years of transition, Dmitry, who is from a Russian-speaking ethnic minority family, says he did not feel fear but hope and excitement about the opened borders and access to international literature and art.

“[During the Soviet era] the majority believed that if you thought differently than the majority, you were a dissident or a dangerous maverick. It took me a long time to re-evaluate this habit and adapt to new ways of thinking. Sometimes, I think I’ll never get rid of it,” he reflects.

Audrius is grateful for the opportunity to experience life in two different political systems: “We felt economically, but not politically, safe living in the socialist system. Although we waited in lines for basic food or household items, we were not afraid of losing our jobs. Now we have to compete and prove our value.”

Still, he adds, “while no system is perfect, having freedom is better”.