LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2009 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 55, No.2 - Summer 2009
Editor of this issue: Gražina Slavėnas.
From a Journalist’s
Vilnius, January 13, 1991
David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He served as Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London and special correspondent on Soviet affairs for the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Satter is the author of Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. Age of Delirium has been translated into many languages and is now being made into a documentary film by the Russian director Andrei Nekrasov.
The life stories of underground priest Father Jonas Boruta, Gulag survivor Liudvikas Simutis, and the young draft dodger Rolandas Meiliūnas provide a human face to the historical background presented by Darius Furmonavičius. David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent, has interviewed many Soviet citizens about their experiences under the totalitarian system. This account consists of sketches originally intended for inclusion in his book Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (Knopf, 1996, Yale 2001). Each of the three persons he introduces represents a recognizable segment of Lithuanian society, all deeply affected by the Soviet system and finding a common purpose in Sąjūdis.
“We’ll meet again, in
a better world.” Antanas Terleckas.
Letter from Siberian exile to Lithuanian émigré Kęstutis Jokubynas, 1984.
A crowd of more than a thousand persons gathered in front of the Vilnius Television Tower, preparing to defend it against seizure by Soviet troops. There was a holiday atmosphere as young people danced to music played on a portable tape recorder, couples strolled arm in arm under the streetlamps, and vendors sold coffee and rolls.
At 1:00 AM, however, the tension suddenly increased. Twenty Soviet tanks began moving down Kosmonautų Street, rattling the windows of nearby apartment buildings, and then pulled into the adjoining woods. Demonstrators linked arms as all eyes focused on the tanks, whose lights glowed amid the bare winter trees. The demonstrators, including Loreta Asanavičiutė, a twenty-four-year-old Vilnius factory worker, stepped back to form a protective ring around the tower.
Suddenly, tracer bullets lit up the sky. The tanks, surrounded by soldiers, began moving toward the tower. The soldiers threw smoke bombs and, as the defenders started to disperse, the soldiers opened fire and the tanks accelerated, driving into the crowd. The area was filled with screams as the demonstrators realized that they were being attacked. Loreta began to run from the tower with a group of friends across a field shrouded in smoke and crisscrossed with the beams of searchlights.
The tanks were cutting through the fleeing crowd, racing around the tower in circles. Loreta, disoriented and partially blinded by the smoke, found herself in the path of a tank. As her friends looked on in horror, she lost her footing and fell under the tank.
With members of the crowd falling from bullets and being crushed by the tanks, a message began to be broadcast from a loudspeaker attached to an armored personnel carrier. “Brothers and sisters” it said, “the bourgeois fascist power in Lithuania has fallen. All power is now in the hands of the Committee for National Salvation.” The massacre at the television tower, in which thirteen persons were killed and more than six hundred injured, was the climax of a drive by Lithuanians to emancipate themselves from communism.
* * *
Gorbachev and his associates, at first, saw Lithuania as a laboratory for his “perestroika,” and when hundreds of ecological, cultural, political and rock musical organizations began to appear in the republic in response to the new tolerance for “informal groups,” they inspired the creation of Sąjūdis, a popular front, whose purpose was to coordinate the activities of these groups and direct them in the interests of liberal communist reform.
The consequences of trying to co-opt a grassroots movement in a Soviet Republic with deep nationalist traditions, however, were seriously underestimated. Instead of Lithuanian communists directing the activities of the informal groups in the interests of perestroika, the demands of a mass movement were soon forcing changes in the policies of Lithuanian communists. For the first time, the driving force of events became not commands from above, but the political and cultural demands of the population.
The new liberalization in the country at first did not touch Lithuania directly. But Lithuanians were aware that something was changing. On August 23, 1987, about five hundred demonstrators gathered in Vilnius at the statue of Adomas Mic-kevičius to mark the forty-eighth anniversary of the hitherto secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact under whose terms Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union. Antanas Terleckas, a former political prisoner, made a brief speech at the monument, denouncing the occupation of Lithuania and, to the surprise of onlookers, was allowed to finish his remarks.
On February 16, 1988, another demonstration was held in Vilnius, this time to mark the anniversary of Lithuanian independence. Terleckas and members of the Lithuanian Freedom League began to organize further demonstrations to mark the anniversaries of major deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia.
On June 3, a group of Lithuanian communist intellectuals announced the formation of Sąjūdis, a popular front “to aid perestroika.” A short time later, Sąjūdis announced its program, which called for Lithuanian economic and cultural autonomy.
Many Lithuanians suspected the motives of the liberal communists who organized Sąjūdis, but it quickly became clear that Sąjūdis was a potential alternative political force. Branches of the new organization began appearing in factories and offices and, in the course of two months, Sąjūdis became a mass organization.
At first, Sąjūdis focused its attention on corrupt party officials, frequently organizing demonstrations against them that were covered by radio and television, in this way stimulating a turnover in cadres. When Gorbachev was asked during a visit to India what was happening in Lithuania, he said, “they’re building perestroika.”
At the same time, Sąjūdis began to stray from the theme of support for perestroika and speak on national and religious themes, demanding the opening of churches, particularly the Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuania’s principal church.
On October 21-22, Sąjūdis held its first congress, and the opening of the Vilnius Cathedral, which was being used as an art gallery, became its principal demand. In response, Algirdas Brazauskas, who had replaced Rimgaudas Songaila as First Secretary of the Party, promised that the cathedral, closed to worshippers for forty-four years, would be returned.
As the first scarlet streaks of dawn became visible on the horizon, Father Jonas Boruta, an underground priest, and his driver, a young man from Sangrūda, drove through the sleeping countryside in the direction of Vilnius. On entering the capital, they began to see streams of people heading toward the city center on foot.
The crowds grew, filling the streets, and soon the streets were also clogged with cars, which had to be directed by the police to distant parking lots. Boruta was allowed to proceed because he wore a priest’s collar. Finally, Boruta and his driver left their car on a side street near Gediminas Square, and Boruta walked to the square, where he saw a sight that he did not expect to see in his lifetime.
As the square filled with people of all ages, an altar was being set up amid the columns of Lithuania’s most important church.
* * *
Twenty-six years earlier, in 1962, Boruta had wanted to study for the priesthood, but he was not accepted, so he entered the university and studied physics instead. In 1975, however, while working as an atomic scientist in the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, Boruta was given another chance. A rural priest, who had managed to save old religious textbooks, offered to train him as a priest, and he agreed. He completed his training and was ordained in secret by one of the bishops.
In this way, Boruta began his long career as an underground priest. He was not recognized as a priest by the atheistic authorities and could not receive a congregation. Instead, he became an itinerant, traveling all over Lithuania filling in for ailing priests or helping others to officiate when there were large crowds.
Boruta’s existence was fraught with risk. Without a regular job, he was vulnerable to charges of vagrancy, and his unsanctioned interest in the priesthood attracted the attention of the KGB. He was frequently harassed. If he was noticed by the local authorities, he was denounced in the newspapers as an imposter. Sometimes officials went from house to house in a village trying to persuade elderly women that he was not a real priest. Once, when Boruta celebrated a mass in Šiluva, the village where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared on Lithuanian soil, he was picked out of a crowd by the state traffic police and told to answer a summons in Vilnius.
Finally, Father Algimantas Kaina, the priest in Valkininkai, thirty-four miles from Vilnius, gave Boruta a certificate stating that he was working as a priest’s assistant and the threat of arrest on vagrancy charges disappeared. Nonetheless, when Boruta officiated in a small rural village, he tried not to be seen outside of the church.
One of the persons with whom Boruta frequently officiated was Father Sigitas Tamkevičius, who had a church in Kybartai. Tamkevičius was editor of the underground Lietuvos Katalikų bažnyčios kronika (Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church), which reported on human rights violations throughout the republic.
Despite repeated attempts, the authorities were not able to find the editors of Kronika, and the journal continued to appear regularly. After the arrest in January 1983 of Father Alfonsas Svarinskas, another outspoken priest, Tamkevičius asked Boruta to take over Kronika in the event of his own arrest. Tamkevičius was arrested in May 1983, and Boruta became the editor of Kronika a short time later.
For the next four years, Boruta’s life was dominated by his work on Kronika. Wherever he went, he collected information for the publication, a small but carefully run conspiracy based on the careful cooperation of a network of rural priests, lay believers, and nuns.
Boruta’s years in the shadows made him adept at conspiracy. Kronika was typed in isolated houses in remote villages so that the sound of typing would not be noticed by the neighbors. Boruta switched typewriters to give the impression that Kronika was being typed in different locations. Once an issue was typed, it was photographed and new copies were made from the negatives. Most of those who prepared material for Kronika were known only to their immediate contact.
Because of these precautions, Kronika appeared regularly four times a year. In December 1986, however, an issue of Kronika was seized by the KGB in an apartment where it was being stored. Two nuns and Nijolė Sadūnaitė, a member of the editorial board, were arrested, and Boruta feared he would be next. A short time later, however, Sadūnaitė and the nuns were unexpectedly freed.
In the past, production of dissident publications led to an obligatory seven-year sentence in a labor camp. When he learned about the unexpected freeing of his coworkers, Boruta sensed that something fundamental in the country was about to change.
* * *
In February 1987, there were clear signs of a thaw in Moscow as the first political prisoners, including Lithuanian nationalists, were released. As they arrived back in Lithuania, they helped to activate previously moribund dissident organizations, some of whose members in the 1970s and 1980s had managed to avoid arrest.
Boruta himself began to consider emerging from underground. On February 16, which was the anniversary of prewar Lithuanian independence, the police were on guard all over Lithuania against any sign of nationalism. Nonetheless, in Alytus, where Boruta was officiating, he offered a holiday mass to mark the anniversary, infuriating the local authorities.
As the months passed, word spread of the first nationalist demonstrations in Vilnius, and Boruta noticed new people attending church. Some Lithuanians, inspired by the new frankness in the press, began to defy the KGB. By early 1988, the tension in Lithuania increased. In fact, there were two forces at work. The central authorities in Moscow were giving the growing national forces their protection and tacit encouragement, whereas the local party and KGB were determined to crack down.
The tension came to a head in the days before February 16, 1988, the seventieth anniversary of Lithuanian independence. Priests were being demonstratively shadowed all over Lithuania, and there were anonymous calls to priests warning them that if they mentioned independence for Lithuania in their sermons they would be arrested. Boruta was again officiating in Alytus and, during the week before the anniversary, local officials warned citizens not to attend church services.
On the morning of February 16, Boruta arrived at the church and was stunned to see that in an effort to intimidate believers, the entire local party leadership was waiting outside the church. A short time later, however, he realized that the agitation by local authorities had heightened interest in the anniversary. Instead of the 200 to 300 faithful who would have been expected, more than 2,000 people came for services, filling the church and overflowing into the courtyard.
Under these circumstances, Boruta felt that he had to speak out forcefully for Lithuanian independence. “God’s great gift to man,” Boruta said, “is freedom. Now, we pray for Lithuania and for freedom. There are different sins, including theft. In the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet authorities committed the sin of theft. They took Lithuania, which was not theirs. Now we have to correct this sin. Lithuania should be independent.” There was a moment of silence. The worshippers then broke into the Lithuanian national hymn.
The sermon was a turning point for Boruta. Years of police pressure had inculcated the habits of caution and self-limitation, even though he had always gone further than other priests. Now, he began speaking out regularly on behalf of Lithuanian independence, and he was gradually joined by other priests.
He and other priests returned repeatedly to the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, mention of which had the effect of breaking a spell. As people learned about them, they began to understand the illegality of Lithuania’s inclusion in the Soviet Union and the mendacity of the official version of history.
The physiognomy of the countryside began to change. Lithuanian flags, including flags with bullet holes from partisan battles, began to appear in the windows of houses and even to fly over village councils. Destroyed monuments began to be restored. Crowds of people began to gather outside village churches every Sunday to sign petitions, many of them calling for the return to believers of the Vilnius Cathedral.
In late summer, Boruta went to the village of Sangrūda on the Polish border to officiate with another priest, Antanas Gražulis, and to teach in the Sunday school, instructing children in religion, although this was still against the law. While helping to repair the neglected church, he waited to hear how the Vilnius City Council would reply to the thousands of petitions, some of which he had helped circulate, that called for the opening of the Vilnius Cathedral for religious services. Finally, the City Council announced the cathedral would never be returned to believers because this would harm the cultural interests of the city’s workers.
Four weeks later, however, listening to a report on the radio during the Sąjūdis Congress, he heard the announcement that the cathedral would be given back to the church and a celebratory mass would be held outside the cathedral the next morning. The struggle that he had expected to go on for decades had suddenly been won. Boruta agreed with his driver that, after a few hours sleep, they would rise at 2:00 A.M. and make the four-hour trip to Vilnius by car.
The crowd in Gediminas Square was seized with euphoria. The doors to the cathedral were open and he entered the antechamber, where he joined about ten other priests who were putting on their white ceremonial gowns. A gold crucifix and candles in a candleholder had been placed on the altar.
At 6:30 AM, the mass began, led by Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevičius, who spoke through a battery of microphones. The crowd now filled the square and adjoining streets. People hung from the windows of nearby apartment buildings waving the national flag. Cardinal Sladkevičius called on the crowd to rejoice in the return of the cathedral and, as the sky grew lighter and lighter, it seemed to Boruta that the breaking dawn symbolized the rebirth in Lithuania of a new spirit of faith.
* * *
The return of the Vilnius Cathedral to believers helped prepare the way for the next victory – Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence on March 11, 1990. The authorities legalized the Lithuanian flag and national anthem and declared Lithuanian the official language. They also legalized observance of All Saint’s Day and Christmas Eve. The concessions to Lithuanian national feeling, however, had the paradoxical effect of alienating Lithuanians even further from the communist government.
For the first time, national symbols, long forcibly suppressed, had the opportunity to demonstrate their emotional power. They helped to reawaken that sense of traditional Lithuanian identity in the population, which had been persecuted, but which had never really disappeared.
On November 18, after communist deputies at a meeting of the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet used procedural motions to block a vote on a declaration of sovereignty for Lithuania, thousands of demonstrators showed their anger by spitting on the deputies when they emerged from the Supreme Soviet building and calling them “traitors” and “bootlickers.”
Vilnius and Kaunas became the scene of nearly constant demonstrations as the Lithuanians, in rapidly escalating numbers, embarked on a process of self-discovery. The relics of saints were returned to their original resting places, the bodies of Lithuanians who died in Siberian exile were brought back to their homeland for reburial, and the anniversaries of deportations as well as the important dates in Lithuanian history began to be noted with speeches, marches and demonstrations.
On February 16, 1989, the anniversary of prewar independence, Lithuania was a different country from what it had been even a year earlier. Cardinal Sladkevičius, for the first time, called for the independence of Lithuania in his sermon at the Kaunas Cathedral. After the services, 200,000 persons gathered in the center of the city to participate in the dedication of a new monument to freedom to replace the monument that had been torn down by the Soviet authorities after the war. Enormous crowds also gathered in other cities.
On March 26, elections were held for the Soviet Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, at which Sąjūdis won thirty-nine of the forty-two places, influencing the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet to reverse its stand of the previous November and vote overwhelmingly for Lithuanian sovereignty.
In August, an impasse was reached with the Center over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as Alexandr Yakovlev, who headed a parliamentary commission, conceded that Hitler and Stalin had illegally divided up Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States, but contended that the pact had no significance for the present Soviet Union because the Baltic governments had joined the union voluntarily. By August, however, the Soviet position on the pact had become almost irrelevant. The discrediting of the communist past had created a psychological vacuum that only nationalism could fill, and the drive for independence had gripped virtually the entire population.
On August 23, in a demonstration organized by Sąjūdis and the Latvian and Estonian Popular Fronts to denounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, nearly two million people formed a human chain that stretched for four hundred miles from Vilnius to Tallinn, with nearly one million people participating in Lithuania alone.
In response, the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow denounced Baltic nationalists, but this had the effect of diminishing its influence in Lithuania even further. The Lithuanian Communist Party, caught between the nationalism of the population and the demands for obedience from Moscow, broke with Moscow on December 20.
In February 1990, republican elections were held in Lithuania, the nearest equivalent to Lithuanian national elections for many decades. In the elections, Sąjūdis, campaigning on a platform calling for immediate Lithuanian independence, won 97 of the 141 seats in the Lithuanian parliament. On the strength of this majority, on March 11, Vytautas Landsbergis, the chairman of Sąjūdis, was elected Chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament. Moments later, to ringing applause, the hall voted overwhelmingly for independence.
* * *
Liudvikas Simutis, a former Lithuanian partisan, joined in the applause as the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence was announced. As the deputies began singing the national anthem, Simutis’s thoughts drifted back to the war in the forests.
On June 27, 1941, there was a knock on the door of the farmhouse where Liudvikas, a five-year-old boy at the time, lived with his mother and brother. A neighbor told Liudvikas’s mother to come with her. “You’d better hurry,” she said. “They’ve found some bodies.”
Liudvikas’s father, a farmer, had been arrested by the NKVD a few months earlier and taken to the prison in Telšiai, the district center. Since then, however, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union and driven the Soviet forces out of Western Lithuania, but there was no word about the fate of the political prisoners.
Taking her two sons with her, Liudvikas’s mother walked nearly twelve miles to a wooded field, and there, amid a pile of corpses, Liudvikas saw the body of his father. Liudvikas’s father’s face was puffed up and bloody, and his eyes were gouged out. His tongue had been pulled out and tied behind his head, and his sexual organs were crushed. The skin on his hands and feet was burned and looked like gloves. Liudvikas was to learn later that his father’s hands and feet had been thrust into boiling cabbage soup, the cabbage increasing the heat of the boiling water.
From the moment young Liudvikas saw the tortured body of his father, his path in life was set. “If others had illusions about communism,” he said, “my attitude was defined once and for all.”
In 1944, after defeating the German army, the Soviets reoccupied the country, and began inducting young Lithuanians into the army. In response, thousands of young men took to the forest, where they created a partisan army that became known as the “Forest Brothers.”
In 1944, Liudvikas still lived on the farm from which his father had been taken to be murdered, and local nationalists, aware of his father’s fate, recruited the young boy into the Forest Brothers. By the time he was ten, Liudvikas was reporting to the partisans about the location of Soviet punitive units. As he grew older, he pasted leaflets on walls and bought supplies for the partisans, particularly batteries for radios. Later, he took part in armed appropriations.
In the late 1940s, the Forest Brothers were a formidable opponent for the Soviet forces. Striking mostly at night, they attacked Soviet officials and government installations, and warned Russian colonists to leave Lithuania in forty-eight hours or face death. The communist government retaliated with mass deportations and punitive raids, hanging the bodies of dead partisans in the central squares of towns.
In 1951, however, the partisans suffered a major defeat. A sudden, heavy snowfall blanketed the forests, and Soviet punitive units, seizing their chance, entered the forests to search for footprints, hunting the partisans down like animals. The partisan leader of the Žemaičiai region was killed, a major bunker near Kaltinėnai was smashed, and the partisans’ military organization was destroyed. Surviving Forest Brothers recognized the futility of further armed resistance and began to infiltrate official Soviet organizations. But the KGB tightened its grip on Lithuanian society, and their activities were uncovered.
Simutis, who had become an activist in the Komsomol, was arrested on June 20, 1955, in a hospital in Klaipėda, where he was being treated for tuberculosis of the spine. He was taken to the Lukiškės KGB prison in Vilnius and sentenced to death. He spent 131 days on death row waiting to be executed before being informed that his sentence had been reduced to twenty-five years at hard labor. He spent the next twenty-two years in Soviet labor camps, principally in Mordovia, halfway between Moscow and the Ural Mountains.
Under Khrushchev, the Lithuanian prisoners received books in Lithuanian and conducted an active program of self-education. They were also able to practice their religion. Religious books were smuggled into camps and priests were secretly ordained. The Lithuanians gathered informally for religious celebrations, particularly Christmas and Easter.
Simutis was freed in 1977, and went to the port city of Klaipėda to live with his mother. What struck Simutis on returning to Lithuania was the poverty. Fresh from the camps, he needed clothes. When he found a suit and tried it on, however, he saw that the legs were different sizes. When he found a pair of shoes, the soles fell off.
Not long after returning to Lithuania, Simutis was invited by a priest to Viduklė. When he arrived, Liudvikas was taken to a dilapidated church, where a group of a hundred people were waiting for him. The audience began asking him questions. “There is no reason to fear a Soviet prison,” he said. “I entered on crutches and came back on my feet.”
Simutis tried to begin a normal life, but he found that everything he did in Soviet Lithuania was influenced by the fact that he had been in the Forest Brothers. He married and moved to Kaunas, but he was repeatedly called in by the KGB and threatened with arrest. Because of the KGB pressure, he did not participate openly in dissident activities, although he did secretly translate Kronika into Russian and signed a few letters of protest. When the first demonstration was held in 1987 at the statue of Adomas Mickevičius in Vilnius, Liudvikas did not participate because he was afraid that his presence could be used to discredit the demonstration.
In the spring of 1988, however, with the organization of Sąjūdis, Simutis began to think that political participation for him might be possible. On June 24, 1988, Simutis was in Vilnius, where he witnessed a demonstration organized by Sąjūdis to see off the Lithuanian delegation to the Nineteenth Party Conference. What impressed him was the size of the crowd and its orderliness, and the fact that some of the demonstrators were waving the long-banned Lithuanian flag.
After the demonstration, Simutis and a number of other former partisans debated in a Vilnius apartment whether or not to participate in Sąjūdis. Some objected that Sąjūdis was a creature of the party, but others, including Simutis, said that participation in Sąjūdis offered the only chance to affect its course.
Under the impact of glasnost, the attitude toward the partisans had begun to change. For forty years, the Soviet press had depicted the Forest Brothers as bandits and terrorists, and intimidated others with the brutality with which the partisans were repressed. However, when the text of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were published in the Lithuanian newspapers, Lithuania began to engage in a reexamination of its postwar history, which was reflected even in the party-controlled press. In the resulting confusion, Lithuanians began to search for individuals whose sincerity was unquestionable and, in the drive for reliable points of orientation, former Forest Brothers became the human counterparts of the restored crosses and monuments. The Sąjūdis leaders began to treat the former guerilla fighters as their spiritual antecedents, and it was clear to Simutis that he was ready to participate.
Simutis soon found himself an honored member of Lithuanian society. On February 16, 1989, at a meeting of Sąjūdis in Kaunas to celebrate the anniversary of independence, he was asked to sit in the box reserved for the most distinguished guests. He was asked to attend the ceremonies at which the bodies of partisans, which had been left in unmarked graves, were reinterred in village cemeteries.
In June 1989, Simutis spoke at a demonstration in Kaunas marking the anniversary of the mass deportation of Lithuanian families to Siberia in barred cattle cars on June 14, 1941. Finally, in October 1989, Simutis was visited by two young members of the Sąjūdis Council, who asked him to run for the Lithuanian Parliament. They argued that it was essential to have at least one person in the new parliament who had fought with the Forest Brothers.
The election campaign in the Šančiai area of Kaunas quickly became a referendum on the legitimacy of the Soviet period. Simutis’s presence on the ballot evoked a furious reaction from the local communists. Leaflets were circulated in Kaunas, denouncing him as a robber and criminal.
The campaign was waged in clubhouses, factories, and public squares. Simutis’s opponents were Professor Eugenijus Meškauskas from the Communist Party, and Linas Linkevičius, from the Komsomol, both of whom favored “sovereignty” for Lithuania. Simutis, however, demanded full independence. This always drew sustained applause from the crowds.
There was, however, a serious objection that was raised against Simutis. At one meeting, he was asked whether the resistance of the Forest Brothers was justified in a situation where Soviet retaliation claimed the lives of innocent civilians.
“No one,” Simutis replied, “thought of armed resistance when the KGB burned my father’s arm or sent people to Siberia in 1941. We had no choice but to stand up against this cruelty.” Simutis won the election with 65 percent of the vote. As Simutis left the parliament building and walked out into the courtyard, workmen were busy removing the Soviet hammer and sickle seal from above the main doorway. A light snow began falling, the flakes illuminated by the light of the streetlamps. People surrounded individual deputies, and families hugged each other. A new chapter in Lithuania’s postwar history had begun.
* * *
In the months after the Declaration of Independence, it became clear that although the central government could coerce Lithuania economically, the only way it could reverse the destabilizing consequences for the Soviet Union of Lithuania’s attempted secession was through military force. The confrontation between Lithuania and the central government reached its climax in January 1991, as the Soviet government sent paratroop units into Lithuania to arrest military deserters and draft evaders.
In fact, the declaration inspired two processes: a political and economic confrontation between Lithuania and the central government, and a spontaneous movement by the Lithuanian people to dissociate from Soviet rule. The Soviet authorities could prevail only in the first case.
The central government’s first step was an economic embargo. On April 17, the Soviet Council of Ministers announced that it was banning the shipment to Lithuania of raw materials that could be exported for hard currency, particularly oil and gas. In a short time, the Mažeikiai oil refinery closed down. Textile factories began working at 50 percent capacity. The construction industry was paralyzed because of shortages of cement and metal and a lack of fuel, and the number of unemployed rose quickly into the tens of thousands.
At the same time, however, young Lithuanians began to resist the Soviet draft in massive numbers, creating a crisis of discipline for the Soviet army. The Lithuanian government began to organize its own self-defense force, and the Lithuanian Internal Affairs ministry refused to cooperate with the Soviet government.
Lithuania soon began to resemble a rebellious overseas colony, united in opposition to the colonizers and held in check only by economic domination and the fear inspired by a foreign military force.
Tanker trucks began leaving Lithuania in all directions in an effort to find persons willing to make black market deals for gasoline. They were followed by other trucks, loaded with furniture and food products that the Lithuanians hoped to offer in exchange. By June, however, the threat of running out of fuel before the harvest forced Lithuania to compromise or face economic ruin. On June 29, the Lithuanian parliament voted to suspend the Declaration of Independence for one hundred days. On June 30, the embargo against Lithuania was lifted.
The crisis provoked by draft resistance and military desertion, however, continued to intensify. At first, no decisive action was taken by the central government in Lithuania because Gorbachev had entered into a tentative alliance with Yeltsin in Moscow and needed liberal support. In December 1990, however, hardliners in Moscow gained the upper hand, and shortly afterward the Soviet government decided to act.
On January 7, the Soviet Ministry of Defense announced that it was sending paratroops into Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia to hunt for draft evaders and army deserters. On January 8, Gorbachev met with Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskienė and told her to go home and “restore order.” Finally, Gorbachev accused the Lithuanian government of trying to restore “a bourgeois system” and demanded that they restore the “constitutional order.”
Shortly afterward, Soviet army units in Lithuania began stopping buses and entering factories and homes in a search for draft evaders and deserters. At 4:00 A.M., weary from lack of sleep, Rolandas Meiliūnas and two other draft evaders approached the outskirts of Vilnius in their car and noticed a group of soldiers standing by the roadside in the dark next to an armored personnel carrier. Meiliūnas felt his throat tighten because he knew that if their car were stopped, he would be arrested immediately. But, for some reason, the soldiers did nothing, and the three draft evaders passed the checkpoint and entered an outlying district of Vilnius.
Meiliūnas’s decision to refuse induction stemmed from his growing historical awareness. In 1988, when he was seventeen, demonstrations focused on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as the key to Lithuania’s situation. Rolandas had been raised on a version of history that never made sense to him, and now, on September 23, 1988, he attended a rally in Vilnius called by the Lithuanian Freedom League in Gediminas Square to demand complete political independence for Lithuania. The rally drew 10,000 to 20,000 persons and, as the first speaker began to address the crowd, the demonstrators were attacked by a line of internal security troops carrying plastic shields and nightsticks and driven into another line of troops who also beat them with nightsticks.
After the demonstration, Meiliūnas returned to Panevėžys, but decided that he was not going to serve in the Soviet army. He left Panevėžys for Vilnius, where he found a room in the Old City, and began life as an internal refugee. He could not work in a normal Soviet enterprise for fear that a records check by a personnel department would disclose his status, so he took odd jobs in Vilnius. He cut his hair and changed his place of residence in Vilnius continually so that the police would not find him by learning his address. In those days, even the Lithuanian police could arrest a draft evader.
At first, Rolandas was nearly alone in his refusal to enter the Soviet army. By the time of the spring call-up in 1989, however, thousands of other Lithuanians refused to enter the Soviet armed forces. Rolandas, who had lived in fear, began to emerge from the shadows to participate in political demonstrations.
In May 1989, Meiliūnas joined a group
demonstrators supporting Vytautas Milvydas, a former partisan, who was
staging a hunger strike in Cathedral Square to demand that the Red Army
withdraw from Lithuania. On June 23, 1989, he took part in a
demonstration to mark Lithuania’s second declaration of
independence, which took place in 1941 after Soviet forces were driven
out by the Germans. He participated in other demonstrations and the
momentous “Baltic Way” linking of hands.
At the end of 1989, the pressure on draft evaders on the part of the Lithuanian police suddenly relented. Sąjūdis was now calling for Lithuanian independence, and had emerged as a political counterforce to the Communist Party. Under these circumstances, the police, unwilling to be caught in the clash between two opposing forces, stopped making arrests.
In January 1990, Gorbachev came to Lithuania and tried to persuade the Lithuanians not to proceed with independence. It became clear to Rolandas from the reactions of Lithuanians shown on Lithuanian television that Gorbachev had suffered a complete fiasco and that a Declaration of Independence in Lithuania was only a matter of time. Accordingly, in late February, he emerged from hiding and returned to Panevėžys, where he went to work as a carpenter. On the first Saturday after his return home, he saw young men in the central square in Panevėžys at a table manned by Sąjūdis members, placing their draft certificates in an urn. Rolandas was struck by the way the Lithuanian people were being transformed. Young men handed in their certificates, while army veterans turned in their military tickets and distributed typewritten statements listing reasons for disassociating themselves from an occupying power.
The military commissariat in Panevėžys issued orders for the arrest of the organizers of antidraft activities. However, the police required an order from the city procurator’s office, which was under the control of Sąjūdis, and refused to act.
After the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence on March 11, the struggle against the Soviet draft appeared to have been won. The Lithuanian Parliament passed a law ending service in the Soviet armed forces, and virtually no Lithuanians answered the spring call-up. At the same time, Lithuanians already serving in the Soviet army began to desert, arriving back in Lithuania in cars, buses, and on foot. The deserting soldiers sent messages to their units that read: “I consider myself a citizen of the independent Lithuanian Republic and renounce my oath and service in the army occupying Lithuania.” In April, however, the central government took steps to reassert its authority. The first target was deserters. Commanding officers began to arrive at the homes of deserters to persuade them to rejoin their units, and paratroopers were sent into Lithuania to arrest deserters and return them to their units by force. On April 9, Soviet paratroopers broke into a Vilnius psychiatric hospital and arrested twenty-one deserters who were quartered there. Many deserters immediately went into hiding. To counteract the Soviet dragnet, members of Sąjūdis formed a group called “Geneva ‘49.” Local branches followed, and parents of deserters could call them whenever Soviet army representatives arrived at their homes. Rolandas joined the branch of Geneva ‘49 in Panevėžys.
For most of the spring, army units searched for deserters all over the republic. By the summer, however, the Soviet campaign to recover deserters relented because the economic embargo was taking effect. In January, however, the Soviet authorities became active again. On January 7, Lithuanian radio announced that the Soviet army was again sending paratroop units into Lithuania, and this time they would be hunting for both deserters and draft evaders.
Rolandas joined the local headquarters of the Lithuanian self-defense force and began manning a radiophone and collecting reports on Soviet troop movements. The Soviet authorities were mounting a more serious effort to capture deserters and draft resisters than before. Throughout Lithuania, army patrols were stopping young men of draft age on the roads and demanding proof of military service. Those without the document were arrested.
Outside the self-defense headquarters, volunteers parked heavy trucks in front of the telegraph agency and the television tower to protect them from seizure by the Soviet army. On January 8, paratroopers burst into a bread factory in Panevėžys and arrested a loader. They took him to the local military commissariat, beat him and ordered him to report for duty the next day. On the night of January 10, with tension increasing hourly, Meiliūnas and two other resisters got into a car and left for Vilnius. On the outskirts of Vilnius, without being stopped, Rolandas left the car and joined the crowd of thousands that had already gathered to defend the Lithuanian Parliament building.
* * *
News of the Television Tower massacre spread rapidly, and by daybreak the area around the parliament building was a hive of activity. With the sound of automatic weapons fire and the wail of ambulance sirens piercing the night, a large part of the crowd at the tower left the scene of the massacre and headed for the parliament building. Giant coils of barbed wire were being placed in front of the entrances, and sandbags began to be piled up behind the windows. Heavy cranes lowered enormous concrete blocks into place around the building and, inside the Parliament, members of the Lithuanian self-defense force and young volunteers handed out hunting rifles, which began to arrive in a steady stream from all over the republic.
When the basic fortifications were complete, nearly 20,000 persons in the square formed a human cordon around the building. The pictures of the persons killed at the Television Tower began to be displayed on wooden memorial boards. One picture showed the child of one of the victims reaching out to touch the head of his father in a coffin. Funeral music was played over loudspeakers and everywhere yellow candles flickered at makeshift shrines. Children’s drawings were attached to the barbed wire, depicting the Soviet Union as a bear or a dragon devouring Lithuania, which was drawn as a small animal or a helpless child.
Terleckas, who had spoken at the first public demonstration only three and a half years earlier, spoke to members of the Lithuanian Freedom League clustering around him. “It will be no problem for the Soviet army to capture the parliament building,” he said, “but they will have to take about 1,500 lives.”
As the hours passed, the Lithuanians worked feverishly to strengthen their defenses. Construction workers erected a fifteen-foot high barricade of cement, steel and dirt to defend the parliament building, and tank traps were set up along the icy banks of the nearby Neris River. Vilnius began to prepare for street battles. Ten-foot-high concrete barriers went up on Gediminas Boulevard, blocking access to Parliament Square, except for a narrow access way. The central library was converted into a temporary hospital with a Red Cross flag fluttering over the entrance, and for miles around the parliament building the windows of the city’s apartments were covered with crisscrossed bands of tape to reduce shattering in the case of shooting or a tank battle.
By January 15, the confrontation had turned into a waiting game. Members of the crowd filled sandbags during the day and at night kept vigil around campfires, whose orange flames sent off clouds of sparks and smoke against a starry sky. In the meantime, Soviet military commanders watched the scene from forward positions, and army patrols stopped traffic and checked for draft evaders and deserters.
On January 16, the funeral for nine of the victims of the massacre at the Television Tower was held in the Vilnius Cathedral. A crowd of nearly one million mourners filled the cathedral and Cathedral Square, and a long procession escorted the coffins through the narrow streets of the Old City to a hilltop cemetery. In the face of this show of solidarity, Moscow showed its first signs of hesitation. On January 17, the authorities ordered Soviet armored units to return to their barracks, and for the next few days, the situation was confused. Gorbachev denounced Yeltsin, who had called on Soviet troops to refuse orders to use force in the Baltic States, but made no move to arrest him. Official Soviet television depicted Lithuanian nationalists as fascists and counterrevolutionaries, but support for Lithuania in other parts of the Soviet Union grew.
The Soviet Union was seized by a sometimes visible, sometimes veiled clash of forces, and on January 20 the confrontation came to a head. In the morning, nearly 500,000 persons demonstrated in Moscow in protest over the killings at the Television Tower. In the evening, four persons were killed in Latvia as Soviet internal security troops stormed the Latvian Internal Affairs ministry. Gorbachev was now under pressure to act. Everything was in readiness to seize the Lithuanian and Latvian parliament buildings and install the Committees of National Salvation, but the order to the army to attack never came.
On January 21, there was widespread uncertainty, but on January 22 the tension broke. The Lithuanian Committee of National Salvation and a similar committee in Latvia announced that they were suspending their activities. A short time later, the paratroop units and internal troops that had been sent into the republic to hunt for draft evaders were withdrawn.
Colonel Viktor Alksnis publicly accused Gorbachev of betraying the Committees of National Salvation and the Baltic communists. Lithuania’s test of wills with the Soviet empire had been won.