By Leonidas Donskis
Twenty years ago Lithuania paid a 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 grace 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 March 11, 1990. The Supreme Council of the then Soviet Lithuania, by proclaiming the restoration of the independence of Lithuania, had 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 the other two Baltic states, and also by Russian and Ukrainian democrats, independent journalists, and dissenting intellectuals all over the world.
We know that the 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 a non-entity in terms of any observable political role, or at least a 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 an 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 incite 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.
In early January 1991, immediately after 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 deja vu move, the great neighbor was unable to ignore the crie du cour of the abandoned and endangered comrades.
Soviet troops started storming all key Lithuanian institutions, primarily the media and press centers. For some time, they tried to manipulate 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 January 13, 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.
The night of January 13, 1991, was the triumph of Lithuania. Nobody turned against Russian-speaking citizens of Lithuania. Lithuania’s Russians and Poles were in the same barricades, bravely defending their country, Lithuania. The head of the 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 Russian cultural historian Sergei Averintsev and other Russian democrats who immediately came to Vilnius from Moscow to express their solidarity evoked tears and standing ovations. 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 the very few in the 20th century.
Curiously, the storming 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 a price for its independence and freedom, the Soviet Union totally messed up and failed both kinds of war, the 20th-century war, unthinkable without mass massacres, and that of the 21st century, which aims at the conquest of human mind and soul, rather than his physical destruction.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D.. is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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