Staunton, June 4 – Thirty years ago, two events, one in Lithuania and the second in Belarus, occurred which contributed in a major way to the end of communist rule and of the Soviet Union, events which deserve to be remembered not only because of what they achieved but also because of their continuing relevance as reference points for the future.
On the one hand, both of these events show the power of an enraged population to raise the most critical issues; but on the other – and perhaps even more important – they highlight the extent to which the success of such popular risings depends on finding allies within the political elite. In one of these cases, they did; in the other, they did not.
On June 3, 1988, a group of intellectuals formed the Lithuanian Movement for Perestroika – Sajudis, an event which Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov says, remains “one of the most important events not only in the modern history of the Soviet Union but in the history of the Russian Empire as a whole” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5B14D34E9179B).
That group ostensibly existed to promote the values of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika against a republic party leadership that was opposed to them, but it quickly made the centerpiece of its program the recovery of Lithuanian independence, mobilized the Lithuanian people, and won the republic parliamentary elections less than a year later.
As Portnikov points out, “Sajudis served as an example for their neighbors and comrades in arms from Latvia and Estonia,” although in Riga and Tallinn they had to conduct themselves more carefully because of the efforts of Moscow to play the card of the Russian-speaking population,” a problem Lithuania didn’t have.
He continues: “Sajudis became the forefather of the Popular Rukh of Ukraine and the People’s Front of Belus. Unlike the fronts in the Baltic countries, these movements were not able to achieve a majority in the republic parliaments, but they significantly changed public attitudes in favor of independence.”
But, Pornikov says, “the most important” achievement of Sajudis was to force local communists “to find their place in politics. Thus appeared sovereign-communism,” the Soviet Union’s death warrant.
“Even today,” he continues, “the political system of Lithuania is to a large extend build on the traditions of Sajudis and an independent communist party;” and because that is the case, Lithuanians overwhelmingly have no illusions about the Kremlin and its policies, in sharp contrast to many others.
On the same day in 1988, a second event occurred that continues to echo albeit in a different way. The Minsk newspaper Literatura i mastatstva featured an article by Zenon Poznyak and Yevgeny Shmygalyev entitled “Kuropaty – The Paths of Death” in which they described the Stalin-era killing fields near Minsk.
That helped power a mass anti-Soviet meeting in Minsk, organized by the Belarusian Popular Front. But in contrast to Lithuania, “with each year, the memory about the [Kuropaty] tragedy has faded” and young people “do not know about the role this horrific place played in the history of Belarus (belaruspartisan.org/politic/427267/).
Initially, that outcome appeared highly unlikely. The Belarusian SSR government established a commission to look into the tragedy and established that between 1937 to 1941 as many as 30,000 people were killed and buried at Kuropaty. Other researchers put the losses at 100,000 or even 250,000 dead.
But there was never the national unity between people and members of the Belarusian Soviet elite about this event that there was in Lithuania about the occupation; and consequently Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime has been able to walk back many of the earlier conclusions and thus prevented this not fully exploded mine from detonating in a more serious way.
Most of the reason for this difference, of course, lies in the fact that nearly all Lithuanians – including many in the communist party -- had long viewed themselves as an occupied country, while most Belarusians – and very few in the communist party – did not. But a not unimportant part of the explanation lies elsewhere
Sajudis and its leaders were willing and able to work across the aisle as it were while the Belarusian national movement was not. Had Sajudis not been willing to behave “politically” in this way, it might have achieved far less success. Had the Belarusian national movement been more willing to do so, it might have achieved more.