When Lithuania regained its freedom

more than a year ago
The ‘singing revolutions’ of 1987-1991 eventually brought freedom to the Baltic countries after five decades of tortuous Soviet rule. But the role of Sąjūdis in the eventual destruction of the Soviet Union is largely ‘unsung’.
Founded in 1988 during the greater openness of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, it was led by pianist and professor of music Vytautas Landsbergis, who showed steely leadership during several tense years of confrontation with Moscow but whose flowery speeches and authoritarian tendencies led to a stunning loss at the ballot box and the movement’s virtual disappearance.

In August 1987, Lithuania was shaken by the first unauthorised public anti-Soviet rally when more than 500 brave people gathered by the statue of Adam Mickiewicz near St Anne’s Church. Organised by the Lithuanian Liberty League, an underground resistance group founded in 1978, the aim was to publicise the Nazi-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 and its secret protocols dividing Eastern Europe into ‘spheres of influence’, presaging the Soviet annexations of the Baltic states.

Police and the KGB flocked to the scene and took photos of the crowd, which was led by individuals such as Antanas Terleckas and Nijolė Sadūnaitė, but decided not to interrupt the speeches and patriotic songs. The event was a bold and significant challenge that seemed to reawaken the consciousness of the Lithuanians.

Encouraged by this and by the reforms of glasnost and perestroika taking place in Moscow, in June 1988 a group of intellectuals and cultural leaders formed Sąjūdis (pronounced Sa-yu-dis, meaning ‘movement’) to rally mass support for further demonstrations. Immediately, peaceful protests began to grow in number, including one to mark the pact’s anniversary in 1988 at the amphitheatre in Vingis Park involving 250,000 people. The first issue of the samizdat newspaper Sąjūdis News was published in June, and that October a first conference was held, electing Landsbergis chairman.

Demands were issued, such as to bring back Lithuanian as the official language and to stop construction on a third reactor at the massive Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which ran on the same technology as Chernobyl, whose infamous explosion had occurred in 1986. Lithuania's Soviet leadership threatened to crack down on Sąjūdis but the public momentum was too fast and too strong. In early 1989, a demand for outright independence was issued for the first time.

The 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was remembered in unique style in August 1989. An estimated two million people in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia linked hands in a human chain along the highway, all the way from the hilltop castle in Vilnius to Tallinn. Called the Baltic Way, it was an incredible display of unity in the face of Soviet oppression.

The head of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Algirdas Brazauskas, had a powerful presence and a calm but commanding demeanour and was if anything the polar opposite to Landsbergis. A civil engineer and part of the nomenklatura for decades, he appealed especially to Lithuania’s workers and rural masses. But he understood the strength of the freedom movement overwhelming the country. In December 1989, he took the daring step of splitting the party from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – something no other Soviet republic had done, turning Lithuania into a multi-party state.

The momentum continued. In elections held in February 1990, Sąjūdis won 101 out of 141 seats in the Lithuanian Seimas (parliament). Landsbergis took up position as Seimas chairman. In March, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet republics to formally declare independence. Many tense months followed as Moscow shut down oil shipments to the country and the Soviet army seized key buildings in Vilnius. As tension mounted, leaders such as Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand pressed Landsbergis to shelve the declaration. Food prices rose steeply and hardliners worked to re-impose Soviet rule. Probably there were also KGB moles inside Sąjūdis. A number of Landsbergis’ advisors and security staff fell ill from the sheer stress, but Landsbergis himself showed amazing stamina, working long hours.

In January 1991, what everybody feared could happen happened. Soviet paratroopers seized the press building (Laisvės 60) and, in the early hours of the 13th, the television tower (Sausio 13-osios 10). Unarmed civilians tried to protect the tower and 14 were killed, most of them shot or crushed by tanks. January 13 is now a date etched into the consciousness of every Lithuanian. Yet an attack on the Seimas, which was surrounded on all sides by anti-tank barricades and more crowds, didn’t happen. The troops retreated.

In a referendum the vast majority of the population – including many local ethnic Russians – voted for full independence, and when a coup by hardliners in Moscow failed in August freedom finally came. Iceland had already been the first country to recognise Lithuania in February 1991, and independence was formally recognised by the United Nations that year on September 17.

But the long road of building a new country had only just begun. A new and modern justice system, constitution, laws, currency and privatised companies were badly needed. A celebrity abroad, Landsbergis travelled a lot while trying at home to recreate a traditionalist national and cultural identity based on the interwar Lithuania he treasured. This angered many Lithuanians as hyperinflation pushed living standards downwards. Humiliatingly, Sąjūdis lost the independent country’s first elections in 1992 – to none other than Brazauskas and his party of former communists. Landsbergis and most of Sąjūdis founded the conservative right-wing Homeland Union party, winning the 1996 elections spectacularly – and then just as spectacularly losing again in 2000. Western-style swings in electoral cycles had truly arrived in Lithuania.
- Howard Jarvis
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