Rethinking the People’s Revolution: The Role of the Soviet Union and National Elites in Lithuania’s Velvet Revolution

By Mykolas Gudelis

“The most interested and concerned bystanders of Mikhail Gorbachev’s overhaul program for the Soviet Union are necessarily the countries of Eastern Europe. Although most have gone well beyond reforms proposed by Mr. Gorbachev, their prospects for going further are inevitably defined by the standards of acceptability set in Moscow.”[1]

-The New York Times, March 9, 1986.

The Myth of “The People”

The Soviet Union or USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was a federal political entity: a unitary state of multinational composition with a federal administrative structure. It consisted of fifteen member states also referred to as “Soviet Socialist Republics.” The USSR was one of the major political-economic world powers of the twentieth century. It disintegrated under the pressure of high-paced social, cultural and economic reforms initiated by its very last leader, Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and disappeared from the political world map in December 1991. The Soviet Union had its roots in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and emerged from the territories of the former Russian Empire. However, not all of the territories of the former Russian Empire became incorporated into the new political body of the Soviet Union. Territories with distinctive culturally and linguistically homogeneous populations situated on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, established themselves as three independent nation-states shortly after Russia’s defeat in World War I: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.[2] Given the peculiar post World War I European political context, Lithuania was able for some time to resist political control by defeated Russia under the hospices of Germany. Later Lithuania declared its geopolitical independence from Germany and achieved its total political independence by becoming a sovereign state.[3]

Lithuania’s independence did not last long. After the outbreak of the Second World War and Hitler’s breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1940, the Soviet Army annexed the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and incorporated them into the USSR under the rule of the Kremlin headed by Joseph Stalin. Lithuania, together with Latvia and Estonia, became one of the “socialist republics” of the Soviet Union against its will and forcibly remained part of the USSR until 1990. In January 1991, ten months after Lithuania declared its independence, Soviet troops intervened in order to negate Lithuania’s secession, but failed. Less than a year later the Soviet Union dissolved, and soon after major Western powers recognized Lithuania’s independence internationally.[4] After the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991 and Lithuania’s independence was recognized by Western powers, the events in Lithuania during 1988-1990 were dubbed the “Singing, Velvet, or January Revolution” by foreign observers and political scientists.”[5]

Today Lithuania’s “revolution” of the period 1985-1990, in the broader context of neo-liberal ideological discourse and the international political landscape, including Lithuania’s membership in NATO and the European Union, is presented as the triumph of the Lithuanian people over the “evil communist empire” of the Soviet Union. The Lithuanian Movement for Reconstruction (LMR) which played an important role in Lithuania’s succession from the USSR is today portrayed as the organization that single handedly restored Lithuanian independence, destroyed the USSR, and even brought down the Berlin Wall.[6] The portrayal of Lithuanians as communism fighters in the international context and popular discourse at the national level in the last twenty years became the norm and began acquiring the status of historical truth. However, discoveries of new facts, declassification of KGB documents, reviews and analyses of diplomatic cables, and the publication of diaries, reveals the problematic nature of interpreting and legitimizing the Lithuanian events of 1985-1990 as a “people’s revolution.” The insistence on the portrayal of events in Lithuania as a democratic struggle against communism is not only ideological but also reductive. It overlooks the complexity, the ambiguity and often the contingencies of processes of political transformation. These processes involved numerous forces of individual interest and convictions which, during 1985-1990, often overlapped and formed paradoxical relationships and power configurations.

Today, the attempts of Lithuanian political elites to control interpretations of historical events and keep them “safe” from critique by the public becomes dangerously close to the practices of the former Communist governments. It also casts a shadow of suspicion on former Communist Party nomenclature and its involvement in Lithuania’s current political life and the structures of policy formation.[7]

I do not aim to engage in a theoretical critique of the concept of “revolution.” My aim is to challenge the populist discourse portraying events in Lithuania in the reductive form of “the Lithuanian people vs. Communism.” I attempt to do this by emphasizing the role of the Soviet and Lithuanian communist parties and political and cultural elites in key sociopolitical reforms, which led to Lithuania’s secession from the USSR. In my view there were two important factors: one external and one internal. The first relates to reforms within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) introduced by the Secretary General of the Central Committee, Mikhail Gorbachev; the second refers to the Communist Party of Lithuania (CPL) and its competition for power with Lithuanian cultural elites and the Lithuanian Reconstruction Movement.

The implicit claim of this paper is that changes in Lithuania of the period of 1985-1990 should not be thought of as the result of the movement from “below” initiated by the oppressed yet politically conscious masses. On one hand the principal political changes in Lithuania were results of reforms initiated at the very top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev. These reforms, due to the specific highly centralized federal administrative structure of the USSR, affected local communist parties of the member states and became catalysts for the mobilization of national sentiments of the broader public. On the other hand, the main actors of the Lithuanian movement for independence were not the people but the intellectual elites, many of whom were members of the Communist Party themselves.

Gorbachev’s initiatives produced unprecedented political, economic, social and legal reforms in the USSR. These reforms allowed for democratization of society, de-centralization of the economy, minimization of party control over the media, and created favorable circumstances for individual member states to express their cultural, historical and religious uniqueness.[8] By the end of the 1990s, however, they had created a situation that Gorbachev himself could no longer control.[9] Movements from “below,” in the form of awakening national sentiments in member states of the Soviet Union, were a consequence of Perestroika rather than a stimulus to it.[10] Lithuania’s “Velvet Revolution“ was a peculiar combination of nationalism and populism administrated by local, communist and intellectual elites, where the impetus for transformation was initially provided by reforms in Moscow.

The State of No Politics

In 1985 Gorbachev secured his position as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, following the sudden departure of Constantin Chernenko. Gorbachev was unique in comparison to previous Soviet leaders — he was the only one to succeed professionally without having any mentors in the party apparatus of the Post-Stalin period. He also had a strong formal education, which was superior to many of his colleagues in the Politburo. Of particular importance were the five years he spent studying law at Moscow University.[11] At the time of Gorbachev’s ascension, many Western observers expected that he would display a markedly different political style than his predecessors.[12]

In 1985 party politics at the level of the member states of the USSR were “business as usual.” For example, on January 24th, 1985, elections to the Supreme Soviet were held in the Lithuania. It was the 11th Supreme Soviet of Lithuania and was analogous to the previous ones in its composition and the manner of the election process. The “elections” were standard: Communist Party authorities appointed candidates, and the rest of the process followed formal procedure by 99.99% of voter turnout and 99.99% support for the proposed candidates.[13] To sum up, more than half of the deputies were members of the Communist Party, while the rest represented the youth organization Comsomol. In short, the “candidates” were selected by Communist Party leaders under supervision from Moscow and after approval of the “electorate” the same candidates embarked on a new five-year economic plan established by the CPSU.

In Lithuania, the National Supreme Soviet as a legislative and policy-making institution had zero autonomy as a political power. Most of the decisions regarding local economy and politics were made by the Kremlin and were carried out under its supervision. This indicates a very high level of integration of member states into the larger federal political-economic body of the Soviet Union. Very little local or national interest could be voiced in a sovereign fashion by the member states.

We should also remember that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime. There was no place for politics in the Arendtian understanding of the political as public dialogue, with intersubjective deliberation and free-reasoned persuasion — there were no public spaces where political debates, open public deliberation, and exchange of opinions could take place.[14] As publicly available KGB documents show, secret police were involved in the everyday life of the citizens at all levels; ranging from their roles as productive members of society to their private lives. KGB methods of control and punishment included not only deportations and imprisonment but more “subtle” approaches, such as psychological pressure, manipulation through public opinion, the ruining of professional careers, exile, compulsory commitment to psychiatric hospitals, political trials, slander, and campaigns to discredit.

While dissident organizations in Lithuania did exist, and were strongly supported by the Lithuanian Diaspora,[15] KGB was monitoring and controlling their activities with ease. Security forces had a widespread network of “agents” — people drawn from a wide strata of society to work for the authorities: students, workers, academics. They functioned as informants but were not considered staff members. For example the Second Board of KGB established in 1960, was engaged in exposing anti-Soviet organizations and groups, carrying out counterintelligence in border districts and was responsible for infiltrating secret agents into the foreign intelligence services and émigré centers. It also closely monitored foreign citizens temporarily residing, visiting, or working in Lithuania.[16] In the words of Archie Brown: “The skill and ruthlessness with which Communist rulers drew on a wide range of rewards and punishments had by the eve of perestroika reduced the never-large dissident movement to groups that were both minuscule and marginalized.”[17]

One could say that Lithuania, as other member states of the Soviet Union at the time, was a state with no place for politics in the form of open and free public exchange of information and opinions regarding social, cultural, and political matters. There was also a very low degree of self-governance on local administrative levels. Institutional outlets for public opinions to be voiced, exchanged, and discussed were only formal and did not allow for true political practices; surveillance and control by security forces permeated every level of society; propaganda, disinformation and information-control by authorities kept society cut off from the rest of the world.[18] While there were numerous public institutions such as houses of Soviets, courts, and worker unions, they were only a façade covering an enormous and powerful bureaucratic state apparatus that filtered, controlled, and suppressed popular political opinion. All public associations and organizations were subordinated to Party control.

Another factor contributing toward the apathetic attitude of many Lithuanians towards civic involvement until 1985 could be identified as cultural-historical, as noted by Laurinavičius and Sirutavičius.[19] The older generation of Lithuanians, constituted of numerous victims of Stalin’s mass deportations and terror in the post World War II period were more likely to become politically involved under the Gorbachev reforms. Even so, a much larger and younger part of Lithuanian society was born into the Soviet system and accepted it as the only way of life while enjoying its paternalistic character and advantages of free education, free healthcare, and full employment.[20] Historians Laurinavičius and Sirutavičius draw the unequivocal conclusion that a majority of Lithuanian society at that time lacked any political consciousness.[21]

Crisis Invented

The sudden awakening of Lithuanian society, the re-activation of local governing bodies such as the Supreme Soviet, which from 1988 onwards engaged in a vast number of constitutional revisions and legislative changes, could not have arisen organically from within the society itself. The social, political, cultural and economic changes that took place in a period of merely five years required an impulse, a principle change in the very logic of the functioning of the political body of the USSR.

There are many works written by Western scholars that attempt to explain the sudden demise of the Soviet Union. Some explain it in terms of the structural systems, resorting to the theory of the “imminent crisis.” They interpret Gorbachev’s reforms as an attempt to avert the crisis, which allegedly was deepening for decades as the result of a centralized state economy. However, scholars such as Brown, Kagan, Aron, and Kotkin suggest that there was no imminent crisis at the time of Gorbachev’s succession to power. On the contrary, they assert that reforms initiated by Gorbachev precipitated changes that outstripped the reforms’ ability to accommodate their own effects, which then led to the collapse of the economic, social, and political structures of the USSR.[22] Reforms were inevitable not because of a structural crisis but due to the moral crisis of the Communist Party and the soviet society as a whole. Gorbachev and his closest compatriots, Yakovlev and Ryzhkov, knew all along that the most important reforms are not economic but political. They agreed that democratization of the whole political system was necessary.[23] The aim of Gorbachev, first and foremost, was to revitalize society, which could not have been done without changing the old ways of the Communist Party and the Central Committee itself.

Gorbachev, soon after receiving the highest post at the CPSU, launched the series of reforms named Perestroika.[24] In 1988 Gorbachev introduced changes which significantly reduced party’s control of the government functions. One of the proposals, which later played a significant role in Lithuanian politics and its request for independence, was the separation of the government structures from the Communist party bodies at the regional and national member states levels. In December 1988, the Soviet Constitution was amended and a new legislative body of the Congress of Peoples Deputies formed as the part of Perestroika reforms.

At the international level, Gorbachev’s reforms had a larger impact than anyone could have predicted at the time. In December, 1988, in a speech at the United Nations in New York City, Gorbachev declared that all nations should be free to choose their own course without outside interference.[25] Soon after, in 1989, Communist regimes began to crumble in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. By the end of 1989, the Berlin wall, which had been built in 1963, was dismantled, symbolizing the end of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

The Project of the Elites

In the beginning of 1987 democratization was rapidly increasing both in the CPSU, as well as in Soviet society as a whole — throughout all fifteen member states, so called “Soviet Republics” — taking the form of what Gorbachev called “social pluralism.”  At the all-Union party congress Gorbachev declared: “We have seen in our past how the people were excluded from the political process. Today, we have to use political democracy and free press in order to involve people in the process of decision making.”[26] At this time there was a proliferation of “informal” social organizations across the whole body of the USSR. By the end of 1987 there were over 30,000 social organizations in the USSR which did not require sanctioning of local national Communist Parties in order to function publicly. While Lithuanian society reacted indifferently, Lithuanian cultural elites were the first to take advantage of the situation. The very first signs of reforms in Lithuania appeared as searches for a theoretical model of “socialism with the human face.” A series of philosophical works accentuating human creative capacities were also published at that time.[27] Parallel journals also began publishing articles addressing the “white areas“ of Lithuanian  history — facts and events that had never been mentioned in the official Soviet history of Lithuania, such as mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, events of Lithuania’s inter-war period, and many others. These tendencies coincided with the official elimination of the ban under which Stalin’s deeds could not be subjected to scrutiny and critique. This aspect gained significant importance as Stalin’s crimes in Lithuania were associated with the eradication of Lithuania’s sovereignty and of a nationally conscious society. Public critique of Stalinism in Lithuania indirectly implied a critique of Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. In 1987 for the first time people publicly debated on the streets of the major cities about the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Lithuania’s forced incorporation into the USSR. For the first time there were deliberately no actions taken by the authorities against the participants of these gatherings.

In April, 1988, the dissident group Lithuanian Freedom League proposed to the public a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the mass deportations of 1941 and 1951.[28] In May of that year the local communist leaders seized the moment and organized these commemorations on their own initiative. Local party officials promised to pressure Moscow to declare acts of mass deportations inhumane and contradictory to the laws of the Soviet Union.[29] This was the first time when arch-enemies, local Communist party officials and dissident groups, met in public for discussion. However, neither side attracted much interest from the wider public.

At the Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Communist Party in June, 1988, Gorbachev openly embraced the concept of a pravovoe gosudarstvo, which translates to a state based on the rule of law. He also called for the creation of a new legislative body, the Congress of People’s Deputies, as well as numerous other institutional changes, including a review of and amendments to the constitution of the USSR.[30] This move implied the somewhat unofficial call for the review of constitutions of the member states of the Soviet Union. The same year the special committee in Lithuania was formed to prepare the new state constitution. Formation of the committee was followed by a political manifesto, which encouraged addressing questions of the national sovereignty and legal identity of the Lithuanian state.[31]

That same June, at the Academy of Sciences of Lithuania, in the capital city of Vilnius, during a discussion about ways to overcome the proliferation of the state bureaucracy, the idea behind the organization of the Lithuanian Movement of Reconstruction (LMR) was born. The initial group of the movement rejected a proposal to follow Estonia’s example and name it “National Front.” Perestroika was entrenched in the ideology of this new movement in Lithuania — indeed the word “reconstruction” mirrored Gorbachev’s “Perestroika,” which in translation means exactly that. Kazimiera Prunckiene, one of the members of the initial group, said: “We wanted our movement to come close to what was happening in the Soviet Union. We wanted to bring it closer to Gorbachev’s Perestroika.” Similarly, another member, Romualdas Ozolas, said, “What was happening in Moscow at the time was inspiring…”[32] These attitudes show that the founders of the LMR were inspired and energized by the new political dynamics in Moscow and the CPSU, introduced and led by Gorbachev and not by any local, national movements. Throughout the whole period of transition, dissident movements and LMR remained parallel organizations, but differed in their agenda, platforms, and tactics. The initial group of LMR had thirty-five members, seventeen of which were members of the Lithuanian Communist Party, including those of the top party ranks.[33] There were no students, no dissidents, and no workers.[34] Contrary to the presentation of LMR as an organization built on democratic principles,[35] some interviews with the former members of the national chapters indicate that the initial group based in the capital city held the sole decision-making power and did not seek or even allow external input.[36] The new organization almost unconsciously followed the centralization pattern and mentality of the Communist apparatus with decisions made at the “center” behind the closed doors, without the representation of the wide national public and in a framework of a strong hierarchical structure. There was no indication of the theoretical and historical bases for the notion of the “people” in these practices and the discourse of Lithuania’s academic and cultural elites aiming for political transformation.

Visit from Moscow

In order to acquire concrete political significance, the LMR had to ally itself with the Lithuanian Communist Party. After returning from the Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the CP initiated by Gorbachev, Lithuanian communist representatives were officially greeted by a public rally organized by the LMR. It also was an opportunity for the Lithuanian Communist Party, and the new party secretary, Algirdas Brazauskas, chosen for the job personally by Gorbachev himself, to “redeem” itself in the eyes of the nation and to compete with LMR for public trust in the context of the awakening national consciousness. The new party secretary publicly announced that traditional national symbols of Lithuania,  the tri-color flag and coat of arms, would be legalized along with the pre-Soviet national anthem.

These and similar actions by Lithuanian communists were not as radical as they are presented by some historians today. These actions did not go against Moscow’s expectations. In 1992 Vadim Bakatin, former Minister of Interior of the USSR, noted in an interview that Brazauskas’ demands for restoration of pre-Soviet symbols of the Lithuanian state were not unreasonable. Even the talks about increasing Lithuania’s economic independence and the right to national expression were not something that Moscow was categorically opposing.[37]

In 1988, Aleksandr Yakovlev, the closest and most liberal of Gorbachev’s allies and supporter of Perestroika, visited Lithuania and met with members of LMR. According to Prunskiene, who was one of the members of the initial LMR group, Yakovlev’s visit was perceived as support of reforms in Lithuania. Yakovlev considered the changes in Lithuania to be part of the same process of Perestroika taking place at the level of the whole Soviet Union. He guaranteed that Lithuania would be safe and that leaders in Moscow understood what was going on and supported Lithuania’s initiatives for less control from Moscow.[38] Even after the dissolution of the USSR in 1992, Yakovlev said: “We had to support them in their process of change. Not to support them would have been sacrilegious. Even today I think I was right supporting them.”[39] Today historians still debate the meaning of Yakovlev’s visit to Lithuania in 1988. There are two prevalent versions: either Gorbachev’s team did not understand the full extent of changes in Lithuania and undermined increasing the national sentiments and political game of the LMR, or Moscow at that time had already made up its mind to give Baltic States special confederate status within the body of the USSR.

Yakovlev’s visit took place at the time when Gorbachev’s reforms acquired a life of their own and national sentiments were awakened across the USSR: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, Georgia and other states. Romualdas Ozolas, one of the key members of the initiative group of LMR wrote in his diary: “Yakovlev did not promise much. They did not know themselves what to do. Their actions represented walking into the unknown…but, not into the absolute unknown. Behind it is a knowing that things will not be the same as they were.”[40] This note indicates that Gorbachev and his supporters were no longer able to predict further effects of neither their initial reforms nor how events in Lithuania would continue to unfold.[41]

Despite this unknown variable, there was no radical confrontation between the leadership of the USSR and Lithuanian elites during this period. In fact, both fed each other: Gorbachev saw in Lithuanian movement the embodiment of the success of Perestroika’s ‘experiment,’ while Lithuanians needed Perestroika as a legitimation for their future reforms.

Hesitation of Communists

At the end of 1988, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet Session took place in Vilnius. The LMR participated in the session in an advisory capacity — it did not have any official seats — and immediately pressured delegates to consider questions of Lithuanian national sovereignty. The Communists refused. While there are no available documents, some sources speculate that the leader of the LCP was secretly summoned to Moscow prior to the session and was asked personally by Gorbachev not to complicate the delicate political situation in the USSR by raising questions such as these.[42] However, both the LCP and the LMR understood that they needed each other in order to consolidate the state power beyond Gorbachev’s control. Despite confrontations during the session, the LCP continued cooperation with increasingly nationalistic Lithuanian reconstructionists. Lithuanian communists knew that they had to play a double game and continue their relationship with Moscow for the time being.

Pseudo-democratic Elections and the Congress of National Soviets

On March 26, 1989, elections were held in Lithuania for candidates to the Congress of National Delegates in Moscow. Thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms this allowed LMR to present officially their political platform to the leadership of the Soviet Union at the Congress. The elections were unique. For the first time the party did not hand pick candidates and there was more than one candidate to choose from on the list. LMR won 36 out of 42 seats. This was an important moment as LMR became a legitimate political force backed by law. As such it also acquired moral legitimacy from the majority of the population. From there on, the movement could legitimately claim it represented the Lithuanian people.

During the course of the Congress in Moscow in May 1990, the Lithuanian delegation opposed new directives proposed by Gorbachev regarding elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR: national electorates could only recommend candidates to the Supreme Soviet but not actually elect them. The Lithuanian delegation openly disagreed and walked out of the session. Gorbachev asked remaining representatives of the Soviet Republics to vote for the proposal, but the unanimous decision could not be reached as the state of Lithuania was no longer represented in the congress. These were the moments when Gorbachev publicly faced the result of his own reforms. And these instances appeared in the context of increasing troubles in the USSR: the gas explosion in Bashkiria, violent ethnic conflicts in Uzbekistan, increasing tensions in Nagorny Karabach and Abkhazia, rising national aspirations in Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, and many others.

After the Lithuanian delegates returned home, it became clear that Gorbachev did not grasp the fact that by now, despite the excitement of Perestroika, a peculiar hybrid power of local communists and increasingly nationalistic cultural elites in Lithuania was focusing on its own specific agenda. The LCP took the initiative by seriously debating possibility of separation form the CPSU and being independent from the “center.” Lithuanian communists knew that the separation would increase their standing in the eyes of the public and would provide them with a better position in a power struggle with LMR. The official resolution was accepted in 1990 stating that the Lithuanian Communist Party re-organized itself and declared becoming independent from the “center” in Moscow.[43] After the split from the “center” in Moscow, the LCP acquired a strong political charge and public support in competition with LMR, who realized that they had no choice but to work together with the communists in order to achieve Lithuania’s independence.

For Gorbachev separation of Lithuanian communists was “a blow to the heart.”[44] Soon after, on January 11, 1990, Gorbachev visited Lithuania. He met with the leaders of the newly independent LCP and sought straight answers to questions of whether Lithuania really wanted to be independent of the Soviet Union.  He criticized Lithuanian elites for separatist tendencies which he perceived were instigated by “professors”[45] imposing nationalistic schemas on a people without their will. Gorbachev rightly noted that social and political elites, and not the people themselves, designed and overlooked political processes in Lithuania. In the meeting Gorbachev brought up the point that if Lithuania wanted to exit the USSR it would take a long time — Lithuania would have to rearrange its relations with all remaining member states. Gorbachev failed to understand that neither the Lithuanian masses, the LMR, nor the LCP saw themselves as a part of the USSR any longer. Nor did they care about the all-union effects the secession would have produced on the rest of the union. In the psyche of Lithuanian leaders, the country was already no longer a member of the USSR.

The Decisive Aspect of “Gorbaphobia”

Both the LCP and LMR perceived Gorbachev’s visit to Vilnius, and Moscow’s relatively mild reaction to processes in Lithuania, as an encouragement. While Gorbachev was not happy with the prospects and implications of Lithuania breaking away from the USSR, he sincerely believed that such process, if it ever happened, would take place only under conditions dictated by Moscow.[46] However, preoccupied with power struggles within the Central Committee of CPSU, Gorbachev did not pay attention to how strongly the LMR, which by 1990 together with LCP, became part of a major political force, were persistent in seeking Lithuania’s independence.

On February 24, 1990, elections to the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania took place. Under the new election law established during the congress of Lithuanian Supreme Soviet in November 1989, for the first time there were multiple organizations and parties presenting their delegates: Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Green Party, and others. The LMR did not officially participate in elections. Instead, it announced itself as a social organization and not a party. As a consequence, the LMR was not presented as one political body and its members were scattered across the spectrum of different parties, including the LCP. Not competing for seats officially, but having been endowed with public trust and moral legitimation, the LMR was endorsing its members as candidates for different parties. LMR-endorsed candidates won the majority of seats: 133 out of 141. Members of the LCP endorsed by the LMR won a little over 50 seats. These final results were announced after the additional round of elections was as held on March 7.

The second date of elections did not take place, as it was scheduled but much earlier. It was rushed due to the “Gorbaphobia factor.”[47] By that time, in order to be able to control the situation, Gorbachev proposed establishing the institution of the President of the USSR and immediately proposed himself as a candidate. In this case if successful, Gorbachev would have acquired vast presidential powers, which would allow him interfere and veto decisions made by the member states of the USSR. Any state legally part of the USSR would have hard time opposing presidential decisions. It would have also allowed Gorbachev to legally use force against secession attempting states. This move by Gorbachev was interpreted by the more radical members of LMR and presented to the public as an attempt to invent an institution of the president specifically in order to intervene with Lithuania’s increasing attempts to separate from the USSR. Because of that, LMR leaders were eager to begin the session of the newly elected Supreme Soviet immediately, before the new presidential institution was officially established. Little did they know that at that time conservative forces of communist nomenclature were awakening among the highest ranks of the Central Committee of the CPSU.[48] As hardcore conservatives and military leaders in Moscow pressured the government to resort to force, Gorbachev was the only guarantor of peace and the continuation of democratic processes within the geopolitical realm of the USSR. Exactly in the context of these tensions the session of the newly elected Supreme Soviet of Lithuania began its work immediately after elections.

It is crucial to mention that up until the March 11 session, when the historical documents of Lithuania’s restoration of independence were signed, a highly nuanced power struggle between LCP, its leader Brazauskas, and a coalition of other remaining parties, whose members were mainly representatives of LMR, took place. There were heated debates about when and how to proceed with the secession from the USSR, what political body should officially declare it, and in what form. Despite different opinions, the decision making process was catalyzed by the “scare factor” of Gorbachev becoming a president of the USSR mentioned previously. Lithuania’s independence was declared on March 11, 1990.

The declaration of Lithuania’s independence went nearly unnoticed by the international community and certainly was not perceived as a “Big Bang” in Europe. At that time the Unites States were involved in the Persian Gulf War, and the main question for the European Community was the fate of the German Democratic Republic and the unification of Germany. The fact that USSR still existed was another important and decisive factor for the international community’s ignorance. The United States and Europe continued to remain indifferent throughout the bloody events of January 13, 1991, when Soviet military forces stormed the Vilnius television tower and Lithuanian National TV and Radio headquarters. Ironically, the tiny Republic of Iceland, with a population of a little over 300,000, was the first to recognize Lithuania as an independent nation on February 11, 1991. The United States and European nations recognized Lithuania only after it was officially recognized by the Soviet Union on September 6, 1991.

Conclusion

This essay does not aim to diminish the importance of the rebirth of Lithuania as a sovereign and independent nation state in 1990. I do agree that political and social changes in Lithuania during 1985-1990 were profound, and in that sense revolutionary. However, the portrayal of events in Lithuania as the democratic struggle by the people against the communist empire is reductive and incorrect. The changes in Lithuania that occurred in the period in question were not brought about by the movement from “below” initiated by politically conscious masses. Although people’s support for actions of local communist leaders and cultural elites played an important role it was always mediated by them.  The principle political changes in Lithuania — the  ones that opened the doors for the Lithuanian Movement for Reformation which later became the major force in establishing Lithuania’s independence — were a result of the political, economic, and social reforms initiated at the very top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev. These reforms, due to the specific federal administrative structure of the USSR, trickled down to the level of local communist parties of the member states and became catalysts for mobilization and for the growth of national sentiments at the level of Socialist Republics. Under these circumstances, almost all of the major political decisions in Lithuania during this period were initiated, administered and executed not by organizations constituted by politically active masses, but rather by established intellectual and political elites. In the absence of a revolutionary movement during the period of reforms, the myth of the founding of the new independent state of Lithuania in the form of the “people vs. evil empire,” was necessary in order to instill the society with a renewed national pride and consciousness. These factors are what provided the new political system with popular legitimacy. Twenty years later, the dangerous tendency for national myth to transform into historical truth comes to the fore. There is a danger that gradually the myth of the founding of the new democratic state by “the people,” which political elites sustain and propagate in order to appropriate historical truth, will replace the factual history of events of 1985-1990. As such, the new political regime runs a danger of undermining democratic principles, which as it claims, constitute the basis of the newly invigorated society of democratic Lithuania. The state, which does not provide democratic spaces for the re-examination and criticism of its history, runs the risk of history being appropriated by political powers. As such it runs the risk of elapsing to the totalitarian state of the new, post-soviet-liberal breed.


[1] Flora Lewis, “A Pole In Moscow,” The New York Times, March 9, 1986.

[2] Today all three are known as “Baltic States” or simply “The Baltics.”

[3] The Council of Lithuania signed the Act of Independence on February 16, 1918.

[4] It is interesting to note that the Independence of Lithuania was officially declared on March 11, 1990. However, no international recognition followed. The international community only recognized Lithuania as an independent state a year later, in 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Iceland was the first and the only country to recognize Lithuania’s independence while the Soviet Union was still in existence.

[5] The name does not apply to Lithuania specifically but to the whole range of similar events that took place in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The word “velvet” reflects the relatively peaceful manner of the political change. Originally, the name “Velvet Revolution” referred to events in Czechoslovakia in 1989 that saw the Communist government retreat from power.

[6] Consider this passage: “Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of the movement, says that it destroyed not only the Berlin wall. ‘It also destroyed the fear, the syndrome of the slavery, the alienation, and the antagonism. It suggested looking at things in a simple and human way instead of a Soviet way.’” From “The Story of Lithuania Independence, 21 Years On.” The Lithuanian Tribune, March 11, 2011. http://www.lithuaniatribune.com/ 2011/03/11/ the-story-of-lithuanian-independence-21-years-on.

[7] Transitional justice trials in Lithuania were very formal and largely ignored by the media. Lustration law in Lithuania was introduced in 1999, but debates continue regarding a need to revise them. Although some KGB archives became public, they constitute only a fraction of the amount of the documents compiled by the KGB in the 50 years of its activity in Lithuania. Most of the documents containing names of the officials involved in the events of 1985-1990 are still classified. The large part of documents compiled by the fifth (political surveillance) and the second (counterintelligence) departments of the KGB, which operated in Lithuania, currently remain in Moscow.  No systematic attempts have been made by Lithuanian governments to retrieve these documents.

[8] There were more than a hundred different nationalities in the Soviet Union and over forty territorial units below the level of the Union, including fifteen member states.

[9] The situation could have been taken under control in an old Soviet fashion by force.  However, it was unimaginable for Gorbachev. As national elements in member states such as Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and others were gaining strong public support, Gorbachev had been put under pressure by conservative members of the Communist Party and of Central Committee. He was pressured to use military force to “restore order,” however he never agreed to do so. Gorbachev did not sanction the military intervention in Lithuania in January 1991. In his book On My Country And The World Gorbachev writes: “I felt, as before, that I did not have the right to take extreme measures. All attempts to resort to armed force in political struggle are unacceptable.”

[10] Archie Brown, Seven Years That Changed The World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 19.

[11]This aspect was important not only in the context of his formal education but also politically. While in Moscow Gorbachev became a full member of the Communist Party. (Before, he was a member of the Communist youth organization Comsomol.) He also made important connections. Later, during the Perestroika years, Gorbachev used Moscow University class reunions as a platform to spread his innovative political ideas among intellectual communist elites.

[12] Archie Brown in 1985 in an issue of Problems of Communism wrote: “There is every possibility that Gorbachev will in time become the most powerful Soviet leader since Khrushchev, though his political style is likely to be very different and his policies more carefully thought through.”

[13] The breakdown of candidates of the 11th Eleventh Supreme Soviet was as follows: 61% of elected deputies were members of the communist party, 15.1% were members of the communist youth organization Comsomol, and 17.8% were not party members. There were 350 deputies, of which sixty-four were ministers and other high rank officials, and thirty-eight were regional and city secretaries of the Lithuanian communist party. 78.6% of deputies were ethnic Lithuanians, 6% were Poles and 11% were Russians. Others deputies were Ukrainians, Jews, and Belorussians. One hundred eighty-six deputies, possessed graduate education, while 153 possessed college level education. Only 11 were without college education.  For more, see Vilnius Pedagogical University. Historical Works. Vol. 75. Liudas Truska. The Last (1985-1990) Lithuanian Supreme Soviet: Evolution From Fiction of Authority to Power In Parliament.

[14] The most common place for political debates among private citizens was a kitchen. Political talk would be    spoken half-voice and would be accompanied by the sound of the running water. The sound of the running water contains the “mixture” of high and low frequencies, which blocks the sound waves with smaller amplitude of frequencies, such as the human voice. The running water was used as a precaution in case the place was wiretapped by the secret police.

[15] The United States never officially recognized Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. The Lithuanian embassy in Washington D.C. fully functioned without interruption since its establishment in 1924.

[16] One of the declassified documents from the KGB archives presents a detail five-page list of all foreign citizens who resided in Lithuania during the period of January 27th to March 5th, 1989. It lists 2353 foreigners. The list meticulously classifies foreign citizens according to their occupations, provides exact dates of arrival and lists their affiliate locations in Lithuanian organizations and companies.

[17] Archie Brown, Seven Years That Changed The World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 24.

[18] This control of incoming and outgoing information by the propaganda, and disinformation mechanisms was also known as the “Iron Curtain.”

[19] Česlovas Laurinavičius and Vladas Sirutavičius, The History of Lithuania. Sajudis: From “Perestroika” to March 11th. Vol. 12. Part 1. (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2008).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Stephen Kotkin has written: “In the 1980’s, Soviet society was fully employed and the regime stable. The country had low foreign debt and excellent credit rating.” Similarly Leon Aron has written: “Soviet Union was hardly crumbling under external pressures. On the contrary, in 1985 it was at the height of its world power and influence, anchored in a state of strategic nuclear parity with the United States.” See: Stephen Koktin, Armagedon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000 (Oxford University Press, New York, 2001) also Leon Aron, ‘The “Mystery” of the Soviet Collapse,’ Journal of Democracy, Vol. 17, No.2, April 2006.

[23] Nykolay Ryzhkov wrote in 1985, “Nothing was done with any care. We stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this, from top to bottom and from bottom to top.” Nikolai Ryzhkov, “Perestroika: Istoriya Predatelstvo” in Novosti, 1992.

[24] Translated from the Russian language, “perestroika” means rebuilding or restructuring.

[25] 43rd U.N. General Assembly Session. December 7, 1988. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/coldwarfiles/files/ Documents/1988-1107.Gorbachev.pdf.

[26] Excerpt from Oren Jacoby’s documentary The Second Russian Revolution. The episode “Breaking the Ranks.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kf99RK90_s&hd=1(1:12 – 1:30).

[27] Some Lithuanian cultural figures at the time noticed that in 1988 the interest in philosophy in Lithuania was the highest ever.

[28] “The Black June” of 1941 saw unparalleled atrocities in Lithuania. Deportations marked by the largest numbers of victims and secrecy of planning took place on May 22, 1948 (under the code “Vesna”), March-April 1949 (under the code “Priboj”), and October, 1951 (under the code “Osen”). Now, as KGB secret lists of deportees’ have been decoded, these acts of repression are regarded as the genocide of the Baltic nations.

[29] Česlovas Laurinavičius and Vladas Sirutavičius, The History of Lithuania. Sajudis: From “Perestroika” to March 11th, Vol 12, part I. (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2008), 65.

[30] For more on constitutional reforms see Robert B. Ahdieh, Russia’s Constitutional Revolution. Legal Consciousness and the Transition to Democracy 1985-1996. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1997).

[31]31 Arvydas Juozaitis, the member of Lithuanian Academy of Sciences delivered his speech in April 20, 1988 entitled “Political Culture and Lithuania.” At that time the speech seem to cross all the boundaries drawn by the local Communist Party in terms of communist ideology and Lithuania’s conformity to the rules of the Kremlin.

[32] Excerpt from Oren Jacoby’s documentary The Second Russian Revolution. The episode “Breaking the Ranks.” http://youtube.com/watch?v=kf99RK90_s&hd= (2:37 – 3:11).

[33] Vilnius Pedagogical University, Historical Works. Vol. 75. Liudas Truska. The Last (1985-1990) Lithuanian Supreme Soviet: Evolution From Fiction of Authority to Power In Parliament.

[34] This aspect is very important in retrospect. Even today, Lithuanian politics largely ignores workers and their organizations. The legal system makes it almost impossible for workers’ strikes to organize without breaking the law. The political demands of workers’ unions are consistently undermined.  The youth organizations in Lithuania are politically weak and do not have influence over political elites. Radical political movements in Lithuania are almost nonexistent. It is important to note that the mode of transition in Lithuania at that time determined the state of democracy to follow.

[35] See Alfred Erich Senn, Gorbachev’s Failure in Lithuania.(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

[36] For excerpts of interviews see Ceslovas Laurinavicius and Vladas Sirutavicius, The History of Lithuania. Sajudis: From “Perestroika” to March 11th, Vol 12, part I. (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2008), 115.

[37] Excerpt from Oren Jacoby’s documentary The Second Russian Revolution. The episode “Braking the ranks.” http://youtube.com/watch?v=kf99RK90_s&hd= (4:00 – 4:26).

[38] Ibid. (4:45 – 5:11).

[39] Ibid. (5:14 – 5:36).

[40] R. Ozolas, Diary 1988. LIIA. R. Ozolas private archives.

[41] At that time perestroika was compared by its opponents to an airplane, which took off, not knowing where it would land. For more, see Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenek Mlynar, Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, The Prague Spring, And The Crossroads of Socialism, trans. George Shriver (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 91.

[42] At the end of 1988, the Soviet Union was already experiencing budget constraints. Gorbachev was harshly criticized by conservatives in CPSU for his perceived radicalism yet was also criticized by awakened Soviet masses for not being radical enough.  This second point of view would be the line of critique adopted by Yeltsin against Gorbachev.

[43] “Nutarimas del LKP statuso,” in Tiesa, 1989 12 21, Nr. 292.

[44] “Pirmas Vertinimas” in Respublika, 1990 01 06, nr. 4.

[45] “Susitikimas Spaudos Rūmuose“ in Tiesa, 1990 01 14, nr 11.

[46] Some sources suggest that Gorbachev was finally ready to allow the proclamation of Lithuania’s independence on March 11, 1990, on condition of Lithuania’s port city Klaipeda being assigned to Russia and the demand of 21 billion Roubles. These claims today are highly disputed partly due to the unwillingness of former Lithuanian elites to acknowledge that such an “offer” could have been considered by some. For more, see “Gorbachev wanted Klaipdeda Rbl 21 bln for Lithuanian’s freedom; Swedish cables,” The Lithuanian Tribune, Februay 23, 2011. http://www.lithuaniatribune.com/2011/02/23/gorbachev-wanted-klaipeda-and-rbl-21bln-for-lithuanian’s-freedom-swedish-cables/

[47] Ceslovas Laurinavicius and Vladas Sirutavicius, The History of Lithuania. Sajudis: From “Perestroika” to March 11th, Vol 12, part I. (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2008), 511.

[48] These where the same forces responsible for military intervention in Lithuania on January 13th, 1991, and the failed Soviet coup in August of the same year.