Greta Nekrasova. Courtesy photo

Forest Park is 5,000 miles away from the violence and death in Ukraine, so the effect of the war in that country doesn’t affect most of us personally, other than at the gas pump.

For Greta Nekrasova, however, the war is up close and much more personal because members of the Forest Park resident’s family and many of her friends live just 500 miles away from the fighting in the small country of Lithuania where she grew up. 

Not only is Lithuania close to the war, separated from Ukraine only by Belarus — a country the size of Kansas — but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that if Ukraine fell to the Russians, Putin would then topple Lithuania and its two other Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, like a row of dominos.

“My parents and the rest of my family still live in Lithuania,” Nekrasova said, “and they are very afraid of the war. Everyone there is afraid that nuclear weapons might be used and the possibility of World War III.”

She doesn’t get much comfort from the United States being a member of NATO.

“The damage Putin has done,” she said, “is already huge and could become way bigger if he decides to invade any NATO country.”

The war in Ukraine and the possible threat to her homeland is always on her mind. She said that she and her coworkers at the University of Illinois-Chicago talk about the situation frequently. She is getting news from YouTube, France 24, DW (Deutsche Welle in Germany) and the BBC.

“I have been keeping my phone close by and charged,” she said, “so I won’t miss anything about the situation.”

The conflict in Ukraine has brought back memories of the part she played in Lithuania’s struggle to gain its freedom from the Soviet Union. “I was 15 years old when my friend and I stood as a human shield at the Kaunas radio tower to protect it from possible attack by Russian soldiers. Their goal was to destroy freedom of speech, freedom of information. Those were very dark days for us.”

She vividly remembers what life was like when her homeland was under Soviet rule. 

“Everyone there adapted to survive and live with very little. I remember as a kid I skipped a class to go to the grocery store near school and stand in line for hours to buy bananas or lemons from Cuba with my pocket money.”

Under communist rule, consumers had very little choice. Food was in short supply, so her neighbors would tend gardens and even go out into the woods to pick berries or mushrooms. Her parents didn’t own a car until she went to college. Clothes tended to be black or brown and poorly made. Travel abroad was forbidden unless you were a big shot in the Communist Party.

“We didn’t know what it was to be free.”

She empathizes with the people of Ukraine — its part of the reason she and her family and friends back home are so frightened. 

“Lithuania became independent in 1990 and we Lithuanians cherish that day with pride and joy,” Nekrasova said. “To lose it is the scariest thing that can happen.”

The Soviet Union did break up, much to Vladimir Putin’s displeasure. Lithuania became an independent country on March 11, 1990, and Ukraine took a similar path to independence. Greta remembers what happened.

“A referendum and the first presidential elections in Ukraine took place on Dec. 1, 1991,” she said. “More than 92% of the electorate expressed their support for the Act of Independence, and they chose Leonid Kravchuk as their first president.”

“The people made their choice!”

She is not optimistic about a cease fire being negotiated, believing that sanctions won’t stop Putin until all his demands are met, including a total surrender of Ukrainian troops. 

Regarding sanctions on the Russian people, she said, “The younger generation in Russia is going to experience what it feels like to have nothing because of Western sanctions. I don’t think they have a choice because they have no opposition party, no democracy or freedom of expressing themselves. The Iron Curtain is coming down.”

She is resolute in her determination to resist what the Russian autocrat is doing. 

“Ukrainians, our neighbors and brothers, stood by us in Lithuania,” she said, “and helped us fight for our freedom, and now all the world is watching as they are fighting for their freedom again.”

Nekrasova is a U.S. citizen who has lived in this country since 1999, been a resident of Forest Park since 2005 and describes her identity as being half American and half Lithuanian. 

“My plan,” she said, “is to stay, live and work here, but if my country calls for me, I will go back to fight against the invaders. Although I am an American citizen, my heart is in Lithuania, the country where I was born and raised.”