Stumped by Trump in Lithuania


A mural in front of the Keule Rukle cafe in Vilnius.  For more, see:

By Anna Melberg


Note:  Anna Melberg, a junior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, spent the summer of 2016 studying Russian language in Vilnius, Lithuania.  She discovered that the forthcoming American presidential election is one Lithuanians are closely following too.


I looked out the window as the small, propeller-powered plane descended toward Vilnius airport and gasped. I wasn’t expecting the land to be so full of forests, rivers, and castles. From above, Lithuania was the closest thing I had ever experienced to a fairy-tale. We touched down and I was driven to the apartment complex that would be my home for the next five weeks. The fairy tale scenery ended once we pulled up. I recognized the architecture straight away. One cannot study Russian culture for three years and not be able to pick out the towering, communal-living dormitories erected during the Soviet era. It was as though I had stumbled upon the bones of Jack’s giant years after he had fallen from the beanstalk. As I traveled around Lithuania and Latvia, the carcass of the Soviet Union was visible everywhere, in the architecture, in the language, in the monuments and in the memorials. Most remarkably, however, the Soviet legacy was also present in the intense interest among all Lithuanians I met in the result of the current U.S. election.

“Can he possibly win?” It wasn’t a question I was expecting as my host, Rasa, and I took a bus to the center of Vilnius. The question was so out of the blue that at first I had no idea what Rasa was asking. “You are interested in Political Science,” she said, “Tell me, can Trump win this election?” This was back in June, and I was more hopeful for our country than I am today, so I replied, “Absolutely not. I can’t imagine that having said the things he has said about women, the handicapped, and minorities he will be elected into office.” I wish I was exaggerating when I share what Rasa said next. “Good,” she said, “Because we are frightened.”

Throughout the five weeks I stayed in Rasa’s apartment we discussed why she and many others were following the election so closely. The annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine by Russia had set many Lithuanians on edge. The country even reinstated its draft in anticipation of conflict. “With Kaliningrad so close,” Rasa said, “their soldiers could be here in fifteen minutes.” Rasa, at 69 years old, is no stranger to fear. She has lived through two occupations, was followed and interrogated by the KGB, and has fought for everything she has received in life. When a woman like Rasa is afraid, there is a good reason.

As connections between Russia and Trump evolved from myth into fact, Rasa’s fear became more and more substantiated. I tried to dissuade her fears with what I now realize to be a gross combination of optimism and naiveté. I reluctantly left Lithuania on July 18, when my language program ended. Three days later, the problem got infinitely worse.

In an interview with The New York Times on July 21st, Trump clearly stated that he was prepared not to protect Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from Russia if they were not able to pay the bill. The statement reversed previous commitments of Republican politicians.  In a visit to Vilnius on November 23rd, 2002, President George W. Bush had this to say about the relationship between America and Lithuania, “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.” Although these words have apparently been forgotten by Trump, they are etched in stone on the walls of the Vilnius City Hall.

Rasa’s fear, one shared by many other Lithuanians I met, helped me to fully understand the international implications of this year’s election.  November 8 is not just a domestic affair, but one that will reverberate throughout the world.  Trump’s words have certainly been heard in Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, which became both NATO members and EU members in 2004 .  The possibility of a Trump presidency is one that Rasa and others in the region openly fear.  After a summer spent in Vilnius, I hope her fears do not become reality.


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