During my university years in Moscow it was a treat to take a trip to our West-the Baltics. They weren’t like Russia. They were clean and green. Their cities were pockets of European culture, where Soviet film-makers shot their Paris and London scenes.
To Russian students, the Baltics represented Europe and freedom. We, who had no opportunity to see the world, reveled in the experience of being foreigners-unwanted foreigners. The natives didn’t like Russians or the Russian language. And they didn’t like us in a special kind of way: they avoided us.
We enjoyed being ignored. We liked being the untouchables. It was such a relief from the way we were treated at home. There, from the earliest days of childhood, we were never let alone. There we could be scolded for our outfits on the street. There people with flashlights could walk into our dormitories in the middle of the night to conduct passport checks. It was a relief to escape temporarily to the cold sea.
It was even more remarkable when Balts spoke in anger: “Russians will never be able to learn our language!” my college roommate said, even before we had settled in the dormitory. The bitter hatred in her voice stunned me. An Uzbek would not have spoken that way, nor a Kirghiz, nor a Ukrainian. No one else would have dared to say that in the 1970s- not after the Tashkent Conference had made Russian the official language throughout the Soviet Union.
Still the Balts spoke their own languages. A Russian felt flattered if an Estonian or a Lithuanian spoke to him without resorting to the Russian language. It meant he had been taken for a native, for a civilized person! In all the other corners of the boundless Soviet Union, the Russians were the bosses, the smart ones, the civilized ones. In the Baltics a Russian could never, ever feel that way.
For more than four decades the “Soviet Baltics” separated Russia from Europe. Europeans paid little attention to political events in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia because they were of no significance to European politics.
When the West did cast its eyes on the Soviet Union, Moscow was the object of its scrutiny; Moscow, where the action was; Moscow, which could inspire fear or offer hope. The three little Baltic nations were merely a spot on the map.
We, the Russian Soviets, had an equally vague but different idea about Baltic politics. We knew something of the “brothers of the forest,” the Baltic partisans (“bandits” in Soviet history books). These were the Lithuanian patriots who fled to the forests in the 1940s, from which they attacked Soviet organizations and killed Soviet administrators.
We knew it took a long time to get rid of these brothers of the forest- the unrest continued into the early 1960s. But what did their persistent resistance mean? Unfortunately, we rarely looked beyond university textbooks, where, instead of answers, it was dutifully reported that Lenin’s office had been guarded by “faithful Lithuanian riflemen,” a fact repeatedly stressed by Soviet historians.
In 1988, the giant “Baltic Path” demonstration jolted Europe. Europeans suddenly saw a stream of blue-eyed people illuminated by candlelight, wearing white garments, crying and holding hands in a human chain that went unbroken for hundreds of kilometers along the Baltic Sea. It was an elegant way of signaling to the outside-or perhaps it was meant only as an internal affirmation of Baltic pride.
A year and a half later, the Baltic republics, one after another, declared their independence from the Soviet Union. (The other republics’ swift “parade of sovereignties” followed immediately.)
I think it is no coincidence that the disintegration of the Soviet Union began at its Western borders, and no coincidence that the greatest armed response to disintegration that the dying giant mustered was a foray into Lithuania.
The Baltics are a prism through which it is possible to glimpse hidden knowledge of Russia’s past and present, its nightmares and its reality. Russia and the Baltics have had a peculiar relationship for a long time.
The Balts were not Slavs, whatever Alexandr Pushkin, the great Russian poet, may have claimed. Pushkin’s mistake is revealing, though: Russia has long played a political game with the origins of the Balts, their relations with one another and with the Slavs. In his poem To Slanderers of Russia, Pushkin-who saw freedom as a necessary condition of life, not a luxury-dismissed the same striving in the Baltics with an arrogance born of Russian imperialism.
The Baltic languages are neither Slavic nor Germanic in origin. Estonian belongs to the Finno-Urgic family of languages. Latvian borrows from Lithuanian, as French does from Spanish. All three languages use the Latin script, not the Russian Cyrillic. Russian has more in common with English than with Estonian.The Baltics have been the site of conflict since ancient times, and the Baltic people have rarely been independent since the fifteenth century. In the eighteenth century the Russian Empire owned the land, but it put local administration into the hands of German- and Polish-speaking nobility. The Lithuanian peasants refused to speak Polish just as they would later refuse to speak Russian.
The Balts may have buried generations of defenders and patriots, but they did not bury their national identity. The people kept the sense of nation through every political change. The Balts managed to keep their own languages and cultures, which inspired a combination of hatred and admiration, suspicion and curiosity in their Russian neighbor. Their fierce independence gave Moscow an inferiority complex.After the Russian revolution, all three Baltic republics fought against Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1920. They were independent for 20 years, a successful period in contrast to what preceded it and what followed, even though the times were marked by the Great Depression, as well as by the rise of fascism and communism. In 1939, Hitler “ceded” the Baltics to Stalin as part of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, and annexation followed in 1940. With Soviet colonization, the Baltics soon fell behind neighboring Finland and Sweden in standard of living. Worse yet, war and the deportation of the “politically unreliable” reduced the population by a third.
From the moment Soviet Russia was born, it built internal and external barricades. The barricades inside were the camps for workers created by the giant Soviet industries; the collective farms were camps for peasants. The annexed European nations formed a protective shield against the West. According to Soviet historians and Soviet propaganda, new Soviet republics always resulted from age-old friendships and the irresistible inclination of nations to unite. A nation’s entry into “the family of Soviet peoples” was invariably said to be accompanied by a flourishing of its economy and culture. But “age-old friendship” covered a multitude of motivations and means of expansion.
The Baltics were seized openly, in full view of Europe. Still, “age-old friendship” was trotted out to cover over centuries of animosity. A 1970s Russian textbook, A Short Course of Soviet History, makes for ironic reading: “The working class and the working peasantry of the Baltics remembered that their government was overthrown in 191819 with the military aid of imperialistic countries. Conscientious and brave representatives of the working class and peasantry, united into communist parties, led a struggle against the bourgeoisie for the restoration of Soviet power for over 20 years.” And on the Soviet arrival: “In June of 1940 the streets of large proletarian centers: Riga, Tallinn, Kaunas, and Vilnius were filled with thousands of demonstrating workers. They were liberating political prisoners, creating armed detachments, occupying government buildings. People were fraternizing passionately with Red Army soldiers who were here on agreement between the Soviet Union and the governments of these countries.”
It is true that in 1939 communist movements did exist in the Baltic countries (as they did in much of Europe). But the secret pact with Hitler that allowed Soviet troops to enter these countries had nothing to do with this movement. “Fraternization” meant nothing but occupation. The hated Soviet takeover remains a painful memory in the Baltics because it took place without a single shot being fired in defense. It’s no surprise that from the first moment they declared independence in 1990, each Baltic country began to assemble its own small army. Lithuania’s army was designed “to meet possible occupation by an act of resistance.”
Lithuania was hardly being paranoid. The latest example of the Soviet Union’s “brotherly help” to other nations had occurred most recently in pure form in Afghanistan in 1979, when Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin was smothered by his brotherly helpers with his own silk pillows in his own palace. Meanwhile, a special division of the Soviet troops Hamin allegedly asked into his country perpetrated a terrible slaughter outside the palace gates. The Baltics’ socialist life began with a Soviet rewrite of their history, inserting an ancient Russian claim to the land: “In its struggle against the German knights, the Great Princedom of Lithuania used people from the Russian lands they had seized. The Great Princedom of Lithuania was a Lithuanian-Russian state in its territories, population, and culture.”
After annexation, young Russians, builders of communism-people without sadness or doubt-went to the Lithuanian “frontier.” They built man-made lakes in place of Lithuanian villages. They built factories and an atomic power station-Ignalina, a sister in design to Chernobyl. The Soviet Union called this process “the conquest of virgin soils.” Many Balts, Lithuanians especially, were quickly and pitilessly deported to Siberia because of their so-called anti-socialist inclinations, because they thought their land was being violated. (Lithuania, of course, was not singled out. The Russian nation itself suffered such deportations during the massive collectivization. In this way the Soviets made everyone equal: All nations had equal rights to prison cells and Siberian camps.)
By the 1970s no written work, document, dissertation, or book was reviewed unless it was written in Russian. When we traveled to the Baltics to get a break from school, the Balts greeted us in silence. In the Baltics, dignity was the measure of resistance. During the Soviet years, the Baltics- the Soviet “West”-worked hard and put out products that helped Moscow maintain its habits and its desire to live better then the rest of the Soviet Union. Petersburg (Leningrad), another city that enjoyed living off the efforts of others, was also drawn to the Baltics.
In turn, the Baltic republics made themselves indispensable to Moscow and Petersburg. (It helped that Baltic farmers failed to adopt the habits of Russian collective farm workers, who stole and drank with a passion for self-destruction.) The bureaucrats knew how to take advantage of the situation. During the Brezhnev years, party bureaucrats from the Baltics carried suitcases filled with meat and vodka when they traveled to Moscow on business. As a result, local ministries had more rubles than they knew what to do with and did practically anything they wanted at home.
In the meantime, the Baltics’ natural resources were pushed to their limits. Lithuanians had always been proud of how well they tended their land, how much they made it produce. But under Soviet occupation, Baltic farmers used so much fertilizer that the land started falling apart. The dissident movement in the Soviet Union began in the 1960s. But no such movement could be identified in the Baltics.
Why couldn’t we see a dissident movement in the Baltics? Because we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The Balts were already the Soviet dissidents. Ordinary people, intellectuals-who fed their spirituality with emigrant literature and Catholic underground chronicles-even party bureaucrats who collaborated but never believed, were all united in opposition to the Soviets. No one needed to be a dissident; the nations were undivided. The consciousness of being under occupation helped save these nations from the worst effects of the Soviet life-style and ways of thinking. The Balts lived under an imposed regime but never accepted it. Their struggle was never within themselves the way it was for Russians. They were consistently and solidly opposed to the Soviet regime.
The conscience of the Balts remained clear. We, the Russians, can only envy them. In Russia, what we did, we did to ourselves. Did Gorbachev’s coming to power change Moscow’s attitude toward the Baltics? Not at all. Gorbachev moved Soviet thinking forward in other areas, but with regard to the Baltic republics, he shared the limits of Soviet thought.
In the end, the Baltics were liberated by pure chance-their independence served a purpose in the power struggle in the Kremlin. Russia gave them up in order to become the free successor to the Soviet Union. Russia had to be “the liberator”-or it would simply have been liberated along with everyone else. Russia needed to hand out the flowers of liberty to prove it was still an empire. Boris Yeltsin’s chance came during the events of January 13, 1991, when Russian troops tried to retake control in Vilnius. Yeltsin condemned Mikhail Gorbachev and the armed attack on the Lithuanian people so eloquently that even his speech from the top of a tank during the August coup in Moscow did not overshadow it.
People gathered around the parliament building in Vilnius and cheered: “Yeltsin! Lithuania! Russia! Landsberghis!” There was really no need for the August coup; Gorbachev’s political career was finished in January. I don’t believe even Yeltsin would have been able to let the Baltics go had it not been for this set of political circumstances. He too would have found it unthinkable.
Moscow’s ambivalence about Lithuania goes back to a time long ago when Lithuania overshadowed Russia. Lithuania’s position on the map is critical-it clings to the Baltic Sea. It is difficult to bypass it on the way to Europe. “It is like a fish bone in the throat,” goes one Russian saying. Lithuania was always the irresistible obstacle for Greater Poland and Imperial Russia. As far as they were concerned, the solution to “the Lithuanian problem” was annihilation or conquest.
Russia’s troubled history with Lithuania reveals the psychology of
nearly every Russian ruler from Ivan the Terrible to Gorbachev. They saw secret danger, self-interest, and intrigue in their proud and civilized neighbor. Tsar Alexander, a well-educated and civilized monarch who conquered Lithuania, felt this way. (When Stalin sent troops in to “help” this neighbor, he felt the same way.) The tsar heard falseness in German-sounding Lithuanian speech. His eyes detected knives concealed in the opulent caftans of Lithuanian ambassadors. It seems to me that even the Tatars who ruled over Russia for an entire century were more comprehensible to the Russian princes: The Russians and the Tatars shared an Asian sensibility; Lithuania was Western, alien.
To Russia, the dividing line between Asia and Europe runs through Lithuania-is Lithuania. Russia marched through it on its way toward European adventures, or fought there to block Europe from Asian conquests. The Baltics-and Lithuania in particular-have denied Russia a place in Europe, geopolitically and emotionally. Lithuania is a European nation-but to Russians it has no right to the label. The first time I visited the Baltics after my university years was in 1988. I was surprised by the abundance of national flags, an even greater coldness toward us Russians, and the nervous expectation of Soviet tanks. A friendly Lithuanian was one who was willing to recite the history of Russian aggression, occupation, and their nation’s suffering.
In the fall of that year, Lithuania was preparing a number of expeditions to Siberia to bring back the bodies of countrymen who had been deported in the 1950s. Everyone complained about all the obstacles Soviet bureaucrats were putting in the way. Lithuania seemed enlivened and inspired. When I returned to Moscow I tried to keep up on what was happening, but for almost an entire year the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party censored all publications about Lithuania. When I wrote a biographical article about Romualdas Ozolos, an independent politician I had interviewed there, the censor described him as an “undesirable figure.”
On March 11, 1990, I was on a train, headed in another direction. The radio was on. I heard the news that Lithuania had announced its independence. I changed the destination of my trip to
be able to report Ozolos’s understated message to the Lithuanian Parliament: “Everything is going well.”I remember the rejoicing in the streets. Everyone was saying that tomorrow they would be happy. “We will live as they do in Finland!” they shouted.
But on the train back to Moscow I heard an angry Russian yelling: “I am the boss in Lithuania! I am the boss!” From the radio came the words of a Russian commentator, reporting that one of the Soviet leaders said he could not accept Lithuanian independence. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was still deliberating. But it didn’t take him long to make a decision. Less than a year later, in January 1991, Soviet troops spilled Lithuanian blood.Russia could not accept the loss of Lithuania-but Lithuania was only the first in line. Careful Estonia was the next to declare independence, then half-Russian Latvia. Finally, Gorbachev
made the choice that ultimately sealed his political fate. He declared the Baltic declarations of independence to be illegal, and initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania. (Russia also set up “defense committees,” tried to provoke violence in Lithuania, and manipulated Russian public opinion.)
In turn, Lithuanians were torn between their need to remain rational and a sense of revolutionary zeal. At the end of 1990, Ozolos told me that bloodshed was inevitable. “It will occur simply,” he said. “Soviet paratroopers will enter the Soviet of Ministers.” He was right. Later I was to see Russian soldiers march through the streets of Vilnius under a banner that read: “No to extremism.”
In the official Russian press, “extremism” means the desire for national independence. To the newly “independent” press in Russia, the Baltics were suddenly a very dangerous topic, more dangerous than Joseph Stalin. Articles about the Baltics “being even farther away from independence than they were before” appeared on the pages of these publications with alarming frequency.
On January 12, 1991, photojournalist Yevgeny Stetsko-my husband-and I heard alarming reports about events in Vilnius. We wanted to cover the story, but the roads were already closed. Trains were no longer going to Vilnius. So we went to Belarus, and from there managed to cross the border into Lithuania to catch a train. At the train station in Vilnius, Ozolos’s aide, a young university student, ran up to me and exclaimed, “It’s possible everything is already finished.”
We drove quickly on the empty highway. The radio was broadcasting an announcement by the just-appointed commander of Vilnius, a Soviet officer. He said that authority in Lithuania was being transferred to a special defense committee. We didn’t know what this meant to the independent Lithuanian government, which had been “dismissed” a few days earlier, allegedly because the population was “indignant at the rise in prices.”
The “dismissed” parliament was, of course, still meeting. Huge concrete blocks had been placed around the parliament building to protect it from Soviet tanks. Using our press passes, we got in and made our way to the press box. Parliament was already in session. I saw the pale face of Ozolos, whose son had been killed on New Year’s two weeks earlier. As evening turned into night, the names of journalists who remained in the building were recorded. We were given gas masks. People were sleeping on the floor or roaming through the corridors. The air was thick with cigarette smoke.
The members of the parliament seemed cool. Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskene wore a dress adorned with a crisp white lace collar. “We will be able to die with dignity because we’ve always been ready for that.” I had heard these words before, in 1988 and 1989, when Lithuanians were waiting for Soviet tanks that we Russians believed existed only in their imaginations. Although a handful of demonstrators had been killed in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1990, we still thought: Not in the Baltics. They wouldn’t dare.
In spite of the curfew, during the night people gathered around the parliament building and encircled it tightly with their bodies. We didn’t bother to wear our gas masks-if the tanks came, a gas mask would be nothing but a toy defense. I remember my fear. It resembled a sudden migraine attack against which you can’t fight. The only thing you can do is try to save face.Today it’s commonly believed that it was the presence of more than 200 news correspondents in Lithuania that prevented the Soviets from storming parliament. The world had already seen enough bloodshed on New Year’s night, when Lithuanians had tried to prevent the Soviet takeover of the television station.
Every one of us former Soviets said good-bye to the Soviet Union at our own specific moment. For me, it was during those frozen January days, when I looked at the tops of the iron spikes of the man-made barrier around the parliament building. There, a multitude of abandoned party membership cards had been pinned like dead butterflies.
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