A One-Way Ticket is the inspirational story of a California-born woman who travels to her family’s homeland to learn about her heritage and becomes a part of Lithuania’s “Singing Revolution” against Soviet occupation.
In 1989 the revolution had swept across the three Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. On August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, whose secret protocols enabled the illegal annexation of the Baltic states by the USSR, the three countries staged a protest of 2 million people holding hands, forming a 450 mile human chain across the three countries.
In A One Way Ticket, Daiva travels to Lithuania in July and August of 1989 for her first visit to the USSR to work on an archeological dig. She witnesses the wave of revolution and desires to be a part of it. She returns to the United States to become a activist leader in her emigre community.
In March of 1990, the newly elected Lithuanian Parliament declared the restoration of independence. Gorbachev reacted with an economic blockade and Soviet military intimidation, but it did not break the will of the people.
By 1991, Moscow’s patience with the defiant Lithuanian people grew thin and Moscow took more aggressive actions with the attempted overthrow of the Lithuanian government. Soviet troops seized press and media buildings on January 8th, 1991, in order to create a media blackout.
On January 13th, when Soviet troops seized the Lithuanian TV transmission tower, they killed 14 and injured over 700 unarmed civilians serving as human shields. When Soviet tanks arrived at the Lithuanian Parliament building to arrest the independence movement’s leaders, they were met with over 30,000 unarmed civilians, who repelled the Red Army’s tanks with folk songs.
A One Way Ticket tells the inside story of those at the TV Tower, outside the Parliament building and barricaded inside the Parliament building fighting to keep Lithuania’s dream for freedom alive.
The lines held against the tanks that day. The Soviets didn’t succeed in their coup attempt but they didn’t end Lithuania’s drive for independence.
Two days after the massacre 25 year old Daiva Venckus arrived in Vilnius. After working for the underground Lithuanian TV station and the Reform Movement, she began work as a press spokesperson for the Lithuanian Parliament. On August 19th, the Soviet army attempted another coup. While Gorbachev was held hostage, tanks surrounded the Lithuanian Parliament building where Daiva and others were barricaded for a final last stand.
This is the true story of my life as the American-born daughter of Lithuanian immigrants who believed it was my sacred duty to preserve their language and culture until the day Lithuania could be free of Soviet rule. However, no one expected that day to come in our lifetimes.
My fondest childhood memories were making ‘bullets’ (a nickname for traditional Lithuanian meat dumplings) with my great grandmother, Sena Baba. She often told me, “Tradition is our weapon.” My days were filled with family stories about the homeland and their struggle to survive WWII and escape the Soviet occupation.
Our lives centered on Lithuanian activities: folk dancing and singing, Lithuanian Saturday School, Lithuanian scouts and endless commemorative gatherings where everyone cried about the loss of the homeland. I didn’t know I was an American until my first day of nursery school when I realized I didn’t speak English—my first introduction to American society. This created a schism in my psyche while I tried to understand what meant to be Lithuanian and what it meant to b an American.
Eventually I grew tired of conjugating verbs fifty-two different ways, reciting 100 year-old poems and being forced to perform in nineteenth-century embroidered peasant clothes at the annual Potato Pancake Ball. What was the point to it all? I wanted to go to the mall. I wanted to go surfing. I wanted to hang out with my American friends. Unable to reconcile my identity crisis I suffered an existential separation where my consciousness split into two worlds, one American and the other Lithuanian. Eventually I rebelled and drifted away from the Lithuanian community.
With USSR President Gorbachev’s introduction of perestroika, the cause of freedom for Lithuania unexpectedly became my passion. I had connected to something bigger than me—I had meaning in my life. The fact it was a cause my family had tried to force on me for all those years didn’t matter, because it had become my cause by choice.
I traveled to Lithuania on a student archeology visa in July of 1989. The land I only knew from Saturday School books and family stories finally came alive. But I also saw how my beloved Lithuania suffered through decades of “Sovietization.” Revolution was in the air and I wanted to be a part of it.
I arrived in Vilnius on January 15, 1991, two days after the Soviet forces blood assault on citizens at the TV Tower. I was surprised the Soviets at the border allowed me to enter the country. I just showed up and asked, “Where can I help?” This question meant translating documents, a brief stint as an English-speaking TV newscaster, a music radio show host, an MC for a benefit concert, and eventually volunteering for the revolutionary freedom movement, Sajudis.
I wasn’t prepared for the food shortages, looking for toilet paper on the black market and the escalating Soviet military violence on the streets. As months went by, I dealt with the stress and uncertainty by taking my motorcycle with a sidecar out for long rides in the countryside, much to the amusement to Lithuanians who had never seen a woman on a motorcycle before.
It was chance that caused me to be working inside the barricades of the Lithuanian Parliament as a press spokesperson. My only skill was being able to speak and write both English and Lithuanian fluently. The days I spent conjugating all those verbs in Lithuanian Saturday school back in LA finally paid off. For several months it was a race against escalating Soviet military aggression to get information out to the West before the Iron Curtain shut down on Lithuania once and for all.
On August 19th, the Soviet military went in for the final deathblow to Lithuanian Independence. When Gorbachev had been taken hostage, kicking off the Moscow coup, I was 300 miles from Vilnius in a resort town on the Baltic Sea for a break from all the stress. The only way out was by ferry to the mainland. While I watched people pile up in buses and taxis, I knew I had to escape before I was trapped, so I jumped into the street in front of a taxi and offered the driver all my money to drive me to Vilnius. For five hours we negotiated Soviet checkpoints through torrential rain, searching for gas to complete the journey and listening to the radio about the Coup updates from Moscow. Lithuanian radio broadcasts were disappearing as the Soviets once again stormed local transmission towers.
I arrived at the Parliament building late in the afternoon and picked my way through a minefield as Soviet tanks approached the city. When the tanks arrived at Parliament close to midnight, everyone waited for the soldiers to fire the first shot before Lithuanians would fire back—using their outdated hunting rifles and Molotov Cocktails. No one was going to leave the building alive before Lithuania was free.
For three days and nights the standoff continued. Sleep deprived, my co-workers and I fielded calls from citizens reporting troop movements and fears, and I kept foreign journalists updated. Finally the hard-line Soviets relented and Gorbachev returned to Moscow.
In these days where our lives were at risk, I finally understood what it means to be a Lithuanian and an American. It took facing tanks and the willingness to die for another nation’s freedom to find resolution for the identity crisis that plagued me all of my life.
Gorbachev’s return to Moscow didn’t mean the fight was over. Although troops retreated from buildings, those that had been occupied in January, such as the TV tower where the massacre occurred, were still occupied. Only after Lithuania delivered an ultimatum to Moscow did those troops begin their retreat.
I arrived at the TV tower as the Red Army tanks began to withdraw. Thousands of Lithuanian citizens had gathered to witness the event. In a final act of defiance, Lithuanians turned their backs and stood silent as the tanks retreated. I was one of the first to enter the TV tower as I guided a BBC crew in to film the historic occasion.
After 50 years of Soviet occupation –Lithuania was finally, truly, free. Afternoons of “making bullets” with my great-grandmother flooded my memories, and the words of my family through the years filled my heart, “We preserve our heritage because we do not give up hope. Someday, with our own eyes, we’ll see Lithuania free once again.”
Not only did I get to witness history, I was a part of it.