Staunton, January 23 – The Lithuanian Center for the Investigation of Genocide and Resistance has released the names of 1700 Lithuanians who cooperated with the Soviet security agencies as its “agents.” Among them is the prominent actor Donatas Banionis, a step that has sparked a spirited debate about how and why people cooperated with the occupation.
Besides the usual observation that people under foreign occupation had few good choices and were often forced to act in ways that they would never have done under any other conditions, that debate has led to some revelations about the Soviet past in Lithuania and other non-Russian republics that are far more significant.
Among the most important of these is Soviet (and now Russian) .commentator Leonid Mlechin’s observation that the decision of Lavrenty Beria to “bet on the republics” after Stalin’s death as part of his struggle for power led to significantly more Lithuanians and other non-Russians becoming part of the security services (mlechinshistory.ru/node/53).
Not only did that make it easier for the Soviet security agencies in the republics to recruit non-Russians – this made them appear less alien than they in fact were – and even more important it had the effect of reducing the ability of these organs to keep track of what was going on in the national movements in these places.
“After the war,” Mlechin writes, “Lithuanians were not hired for work in the republic organs of state security. Too many had relatives abroad.” But that all changed as a result of Beria’s actions after the death of Stalin. “Lavrenty Beria made a bet on the national republics. He wanted power” and believed that the first secretaries of the republics could help him get it.
“In Lithuania, over the course of several days, all the leading workers in the Ministry of Internal Affairs were removed … all documents were written only in Lithuania and at meetings, the new officers [overwhelmingly Lithuanian] spoke Lithuanian. They drew up lists of non-Lithuanians in the party and Soviet apparatus,” presumably for removal.
People in Lithuania began to say that “all the Russians are leaving. The secretary of the Varensk district committee of the party Kashinskas pleased his colleagues by saying that “earlier politics regarding Lithuanians was incorrect and conducted just as under the German occupation. Now the question is being decided correctly.” Lithuanians will decide, and Russians will leave.
Even though most Balts and many other non-Russians viewed the NKVD, MGB and KGB as “the symbol of repression” and viewed any cooperation with them as “treason,” some did cooperate even working within these institutions not only from careerist motives or fear but with an active political program of their own, Mlechin says.
One Lithuanian who cooperated with the KGB and was subsequently among the first to be unmasked was Virgilius-Josas Chepaitis, a leader of the national movement. He said that he had done so in order to ensure that Moscow in Gorbachev’s time would have the right understanding of what was happening in Lithuania.
But it turns out, in some measure because of “the reforms” Beria introduced, that the republic KGB wasn’t giving Moscow a real picture of what was happening, Mlechin says; and “as a result, all of Moscow’s policies … had an effect exactly the opposite of what was needed, strengthened the positions of the radicals and put the Russians there in a difficult position.”
The commentator recalls that in the fall of 1988, he travelled through the three Baltic countries and was shocked by what he saw: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were at the boiling point and demanding independence, but in Moscow they didn’t suspect a thing. Local party workers and even employees of the republic KGB had joined the national movements.”
Indeed, Mlechin recalls, he read “in an Estonian newspaper the report that the city department of the KGB in Tartu [Estonia’s university city] completely supported the Popular Front,” and it thus “became clear that the Baltic republics in fact had already left the USSR.”
And when in January 1991, Moscow did make an attempt to restore control over Vilnius, he continues, “the officers of the KGB of Lithuania weren’t even warned about the Chekist-military operation being prepared: [Moscow] didn’t trust the republic committee.”
“People died and the operation failed,” Mlechin says. Some 70 Lithuanian KGB officers quick in protest over what Moscow had done. And Moscow proved to be the loser because the republic KGB spent its time fighting the influence of “aging Lithuanian emigres” in the West rather than defending the Soviet system, the direct result of Beria’s moves decades earlier.