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This was an assignment given to me by Joe Scala. He relayed a story to me that a Russian tank operator refused an order to attack the civilians barricading the Seimas council building in Vilnius.

I read up more on the history of it (I did vaguely remember some of the general facts leading up to Lithuania's independence), and it's fairly typical of the final years of the Soviet Union and its satellite states: economic turmoil leading to protests, and the SSSR loses control of the situation and eventually the territory.

I couldn't find the actual story of the tank operator that Joe was referring to, and the order refusal isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia article or other accounts that I was able to find, but the column of tanks did turn around and leave when they reached the barricades.

More than a dozen people were killed during the protests.

I decided to make my tank operator grow up in a party-supporting family, but not one that's particularly well off; he pretends he's a good soldier when he's little, and joins the military to put food on the table, around the time Gorbachev comes into power and institutes glasnost and the Perestroika programs.

A lot could be written about the complicated nature of Soviet occupied countries; but one thing that is a major issue is that there really are many people who identify as as speak Russian, and it's been a source of unrest right up to the present day (most recently in Ukraine). Russia dispatched their military in part, at least by their reports, to "protect" the Russophone population, and protect might not really need scare quotes there on some level.

Anyway, this could turn into a book if I really get into it, so if you're interested, look up Bloody Sunday, Lithuania, 1991.

The chord structure was lifted in part from Katyusha, a Russian folk song.

Brief gloss: Bajkal was the Soviet equivalent of Coca Cola; you can still buy it I believe. Kalev was a very popular candy manufacturer in Estonia. Perestroika is reconstruction, one of Gorbachev's programs. Seimas was the council building (I hope I pronounced it right).

lyrics

Cm
I recall what it's like to be small
Gm Cm
As a boy in an iron shell
Eb Bb Bb7
And mother, laughing, would say her soldier was the best
Cm G7 Cm
I'd keep our Mother safe from the west

F C
Bajkal when I was thirsty
Dm Am
Kalev when I did well
C G
A kitchen pot for a helmet
Am E Am
I was a boy in an iron shell

But it's become a perplexing world
Our books teach us to reserve any hopes
The iron curtain is shrinking and soon will be down
And many drink as if hoping to drown

We are finished with 5-year plans
Perestroika might fail in its turn
Many friends as we lyingly called them for years
Leave in anger and never return

I am a man in an iron shell
And I fear my fellow man
Those who cannot see beyond themselves
I am a man in an iron shell

But one can stomach only so much debt
So when I came of age I took a pledge
And as imagined when a child I served in a tank
And such service gave me metals and a rank

Always a protector to my fault
I believed that's what others would want
But at Seimas no comrades nor countrymen would wait
Only barricade upon barricade

I am a man in an iron shell
Fearfully awaiting a command
I fear the darkness in my own soul
I am a man in an iron shell

Eb Bb7
I recall the oath that I once swore
Eb Bb7 Cm
But I know what it's like being poor
Eb Bb7
When you buy with a hundred what used to cost one
Eb G7 GmM#11
And secretly we know that we are done

Through the periscope they look so small
And I recall what it's like being small
Outside I hear songs over the radio's crackling
And we refused the command to attack

I'm a man in an iron shell
And I fear my fellow man
I fear others and I fear myself
I'm a man in an iron shell

credits

from The Howling Tongue of Each Other, released March 11, 2016

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baltimericana Baltimore, Maryland

Baltimericana is a place for me (Jon Patton) to stash my solo projects and collaborations with friends. I'm a writer, musician, and (unfortunately) day job schlub from Baltimore and the founder of Baltimore-based folk rock band Midway Fair (midwayfair.org). Be sure to also check out Joe Scala (joescala.wordpress.com), who produced the Baltimericana EP. ... more

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