Just outside Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, on a hillside in a residential area stands a house belonging to the family of Vytautas Andziulis and his wife, Birutė. For 10 years during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania this couple, together with Juozas Bacevičius, ran a secret printing press that published 23 titles and 138,000 copies – dissident publications, religious pamphlets and books that played a vital role in Lithuania’s fight for freedom. It was known simply as AB, after the two founders’ surnames.
The printing press was underground in both senses of the term. Birutė, who still lives there (Vytautas died in 2018), took me to the greenhouse in the garden. She asked me if I could identify the entrance to the tunnel underneath where the secret printing press was hidden. I made a few guesses and failed. She then took a large rusty key, put it into a hole underneath a flower pot, and began to turn.
Slowly, the cement water tank, still full of water, began to slide to the right, opening up a narrow space that led to steps underground. Squeezing through the gap, I went down the steps to discover a series of tunnels and rooms 10 feet underground, and the ancient printing equipment that had posed such a threat to the communist dictatorship. The fact that over the course of a decade the couple were never caught was a miracle. That they had the courage to do it was an even greater miracle.
Earlier that same day I met Lithuania’s Cardinal Sigitas Tamkevičius, who as a young priest had served six years of a 10-year sentence in a Soviet prison camp. His crime: running a secret human rights group which documented abuses and smuggled reports out of the country to inform the world of the communist repression. Known as the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, it was founded by Tamkevičius in 1972. For 11 years he edited it until his arrest in 1983. He had also founded the Catholic Committee for Defence of the Believers’ Rights in 1978, together with four other priests. Charged with anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, Tamkevičius spent his prison term in the labour camps of Perm and Mordovia, before being exiled to Siberia in 1988. A year later, as the Soviet Union began to reform under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (“restructuring”), he was released.
In prison, Tamkevičius was not allowed to celebrate Mass. But he did so secretly. Using a few crumbs from bread he could buy in the prison shop, and a few drops squeezed from dried raisins he had soaked and fermented, he would consecrate them covertly.
“I had my back to the door,” he told me, “with a glasses case on the table. In the glasses case I placed a piece of bread and a small container with the juice of the fermented raisins. I sat with a book in front of me so it looked like I was reading and then, slowly, secretly, I celebrated the Eucharist in this way.” He had memorised the liturgy completely and so could pray the Mass in full. To meet such a remarkable man of faith and courage was an incredible inspiration.
The day before meeting Cardinal Tamkevičius and visiting the underground printing press, I had been walking along the street in Vilnius just beyond St Anne’s Church. It was December 10, International Human Rights Day. As I walked, a discreet plaque on the ground caught my eye. It was so small I could easily have missed it, but I bent down to look at the inscription which read: “Here, 08-23-1987, the first public protest demonstration during the Soviet occupation was held by the Lithuanian Freedom League, raising a demand for withdrawal of the occupation army and re-establishment of the independent state of Lithuania.” From that spot a movement was sparked that led, ultimately, to Lithuania’s freedom on March 11, 1990.
Lithuanians know the value of their hard-won freedom far better than those of us who have never had to fight for it and are in danger of taking it for granted. And they show this through their willingness to stand in solidarity with others who are struggling for their freedoms. I was inspired, for example, to stand in Tibet Square, Vilnius – the only public square in the world officially named after the land so bloodily invaded by the Chinese communist regime 70 years ago, and so brutally occupied ever since.
I was privileged to be invited to speak at a conference in the Lithuanian parliament about violations of religious freedom around the world. I highlighted religious persecution in Burma, North Korea and Indonesia and the campaign unleashed by China’s Xi Jinping, which amounts to the worst crackdown on religion in the country since the Cultural Revolution.
I spoke at a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy on Human Rights Day, organised by Lithuanian MP Mantas Adomėnas. And I met senior officials in the foreign ministry, former dissidents themselves who did not need to be persuaded of the gravity of the issues I was briefing them about.
Two weeks after my visit to Lithuania, a video emerged of Chinese tourists at the Hill of Crosses memorial site near Šiauliai, throwing away a wooden cross planted in the ground which bore the messages “Hongkongers”, “Glory to Hong Kong”, and “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” – phrases chanted by demonstrators in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations over the past eight months.
In many Western democracies, such an action would provoke little if any reaction from governments, which are either so secular they don’t care, too complacent about their own freedoms not to worry, or so eager to avoid offending China to speak out. Not so Lithuania. Foreign minister Linas Linkevičius tweeted: “[This] shameful, disgraceful act of vandalism is currently under investigation by Lithuanian authorities. Such behaviour can’t and won’t be tolerated.”
Even as Western democracies kowtow to Xi Jinping’s regime and sell out our national security to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, we can rely on plucky Lithuania to know the value of freedom and still to defend it.
I visited many churches in Vilnius, and in each one I lit candles for freedom. For China, Hong Kong, North Korea and Burma in particular. I prayed several times in the Shrine of Divine Mercy, in front of the original Divine Mercy image, based on a vision by St Faustina Kowalska.
I prayed for those struggling for their freedom. I prayed for people who may be running the equivalent of the AB underground printing press, risking their lives in pursuit of truth in places of tyranny and repression, and for those imprisoned in China and North Korea. And I prayed for those of us who enjoy freedom, that we would rediscover the courage of our convictions and support those fighting for them on the frontlines in places like Hong Kong.
On my final day in Vilnius I moved, within the space of a few minutes, from heaven to hell. I went from the bliss of praying in St Maria Faustina Kowalska’s home in Vilnius, where she encountered the Lord and was inspired by the message of Divine Mercy, to the old KGB prison. I saw the solitary confinement cells, the torture chambers, the execution grounds. I saw the raw, evil face of tyranny. And I knew why my vocation, every waking hour of every living day, is to fight for freedom.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at the human rights organisation CSW, founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and author of six books, including From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (2015)