By Leonidas Donskis
Twenty years ago Lithuania paid the heavy price for having become the first rebellious and breakaway republic in the former Soviet Union. The kiss of death to the dying empire, the real coup de grâce dealt by a small country to the last colonial empire in Europe, albeit disguised as a legitimate heir to the ideals of the Enlightenment and also as a trailblazer to the Left in the world, signified the arrival of the new epoch.
In terms of legitimacy and the rule of law, Lithuania restored its independence on 11 March 1990. The Supreme Council of the then Soviet Lithuania, by proclaiming the restoration of the independence of Lithuania, has become the Independence-Restoring Parliament overnight. Yet, as we all know, it was a long way to go to the real independence and international recognition for a tiny and isolated country that dared to challenge the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev admired in the West as a hero and a gravedigger of the Evil Empire (later Gorbachev turned out to have been neither, but that was still to come as an eye-opener).
Vilified by the major powers of the world for jeopardizing Gorbachev’s Perestroika, killing his noble-spirited initiatives to reform the Soviet Union into a legitimate federation (as if a prison can ever be reformed into a parliament), and the like, Lithuania was first and foremost supported by the democratic forces and political opposition in the neighboring countries, Poland and other two Baltic states, and also by Russian and Ukrainian democrats, independent journalists, and dissenting intellectuals all over the world.
We know that President of the United States, George Bush, was far from enthusiastic, and so were his counterparts in Western Europe. At that time, there was no theory that a small country, in fact nonentity in terms of any observable political role or at least minimal presence in the world, no matter how just and brave or how right its cause, could somehow change the logic of international relations and world politics. Therefore, Lithuania had to be prepared for the inevitable retribution from the powerful neighbor or the former colonial master, whatever its guise. All sound persons in Lithuania and beyond understood this perfectly well. It was just a matter of time.
The retribution would not be long. In the beginning it was the economic blockade and some other severe sanctions imposed by the Soviet Union on Lithuania. Without a shadow of a doubt, the independence-restoring political groups and social movements in Lithuania were heavily infiltrated by KGB provocateurs who worked hard to stir the atmosphere and insight ethnic clashes between Lithuanians and Polish or Russian-speaking minorities. When all these efforts failed, the time was ripe for a major attempt to set in motion the fifth column of the country and then to “legitimately save it from the political terror and war waged on them by local ultranationalists and fascists” – that was the way in which Soviet propaganda and its local newsmongers and grovellers used to describe the peaceful and patriotic citizens of Lithuania.
In early January 1991, immediately after the New Year’s Eve, the situation started changing rapidly in the country. The fifth column, made up by fanatical hardliners of the former Communist Party of Lithuania who refused to accept the new reality and who chose to ignore the legitimate restoration of independence by the Parliament, and also by disguised KGB officers, informers, and political revenge seekers, appealed to the Kremlin to save the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania from bourgeois nationalists and terrorists. A déjà vu move, the great neighbor was unable to ignore the crie du cœur of the abandoned and endangered comrades.
On a personal note, I will never forget what happened in Lithuania at that time. At the beginning of January, I, a young visiting lecturer at Vilnius University, was examining my students. During the exam, my students told me that they were informed about some casualties near the Press Center stormed by Soviet troops. The sound of shooting from machine guns as well as the breaking news on Lithuanian radio and TV left little hope that there would be a chance of peaceful solution.
It was obvious that a series of military operations were waged on the civilian population of Lithuania. I suggested to my student that we continue our exam, instead of panicking and thus allowing the Soviets to disrupt life in Lithuania. And so we did discussing theories of history, which was quite ironic keeping in mind the arrival of Lady History before our eyes. After exam, I went to the Dean’s office in the Faculty of History of Vilnius University, since there was an agreement among us, young colleagues, to defend, at least symbolically, the university and its premises from the attempt of Soviet troops to vandalize or otherwise desecrate them.
Soviet troops started storming all key Lithuanian institutions, primarily the media and press centers. For some time, they tried to manipulate the public opinion with the help of a bunch of collaborators who broadcast on radio and reported on TV the Soviet version of news and recent events.
Yet 13 January 1991 became the very culmination of this mayhem. Soviet troops stormed the TV Tower in Vilnius, the sole possibility of authentic information for Lithuania and for the world regarding the real events in Lithuania. Thirteen people, who peacefully defended the TV Tower in Vilnius, were brutally killed by troops.
Whatever the case, the night of 13 January 1991 was the triumph of Lithuania. Nobody turned against Russian-speaking citizens of Lithuania. On the contrary, Lithuania’s Russians and Poles were in the same barricades bravely defending their country, Lithuania. The Head of Russian Orthodox Church in Lithuania, Father Khrizostom, became a hero of Lithuania due to his courage in denouncing the senseless cruelty of Soviet troops that resulted in bloodshed, and challenging Gorbachev himself whom he bravely and caustically described as the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, rather than President of the state. The moving words of the eminent cultural historian Sergei Averintsev and other Russian democrats who immediately came to Vilnius from Moscow to express their solidarity evoked tears and standing ovations.
The Soviets failed, both in terms of propaganda war and also as the supposedly stronger side defending “law and order” against the rebellious country. In brief, David prevailed over Goliath. The peaceful and dignified stance of Lithuanians, in addition to their unquestionable support of and dedication to the Parliament of their independence, made a miracle, one of very few in the twentieth century.
Curiously, the storm of the Lithuanian TV Tower served as proof of the arrival of the era of postmodern wars focused on the fight over public information. Although Lithuania paid the price for its independence and freedom, the Soviet Union totally messed up and failed both kinds of war, the twentieth-century war unthinkable without mass massacres, and that of the twenty-first century which aims at the conquest of human mind and soul, rather than his physical destruction.
This article was published in Ukrainian on "Ukrainian week"