Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Vilnius at 25 – What the West and the Russians Have Forgotten

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 13 – Today, Lithuanians and all those who love freedom around the world are remembering what happened in Vilnius a quarter of a century ago – the brutal killing by Soviet forces of 13 peaceful Lithuanians at the TV tower, an act that accelerated the drive to the recovery of Baltic independence and to the destruction of what was truly an evil empire.

            It is important to recall what happened then and especially the courage of Vytautas Landsbergis and thousands of ordinary Lithuanians in standing up to a brutal system and claiming their right to freedom and independence.  But it may be equally important for the future to remember what both the West and many Russians appear to have forgotten.

            Not the details of those now long-ago events – those will always slip from memory with time – but rather two underlying realities that most Western leaders and populations and most Russians now seem committed to forgetting, realities that the deaths at the television tower should compel both to remember – and even more, to act upon.

            What the West has forgotten is precisely what the Vilnius events underscored: the Cold War, which the Western powers had been engaged in for more than 40 years, was not simply about overthrowing the communist dictatorship. It was also about the liberation of peoples who had been occupied and oppressed by Moscow.

            Those two goals reinforced one another, but many in the West prefer to forget the second goal because it is all too obvious that that it has not been fully achieved.  The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin remains an evil empire at home, suppressing dozens of non-Russian nations, and currently is seeking to expand abroad as in Georgia and Ukraine.

            For its own convenience, the West has preferred not to recognize that reality, choosing instead to accept Stalin’s hierarchy of nations – only those he gave union republic status do somehow are somehow deserving of independence – and to ignore Putin’s ever harsher repression of the non-Russians at home and abroad.

            In a commentary on, Yevgeny Ikhlov calls attention to this forgotten or at least ignored reality.  He argues that the new cold war which has emerged won’t end as quickly and easily as the old one didn’t because of what has changed since 1991 and equally what has not (

            The West’s doctrine during the first Cold War, the Moscow commentator points out, was not just the rolling back of communism but also the liberation of the nations it had enslaved. The new Cold War, he argues, is different not only because of who its participants are but because of how they are approaching the conflict.

            “The Second Cold War,” he writes, “was begun by a country [the Russian Federation] which was freed from communism and which had obtained democracy but which voluntarily returned to the path of the tsars and general secretaries in their imperial opposition to the West.”

            According to Ikhlov, there aren’t any more peoples to be “saved.” Instead, “there is a revanchist empire that must be destroyed … For the end of the First Cold War, it was sufficient for the West to assure itself that the USSR had rejected the chimera of communism, world revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat.”

            Now, however, the West will have to demand that Russia undergo “a political and geopolitical transformation that will “forever deprive it of the possibility of threatening the West or its neighbors.” And consequently, he suggests, the West is obviously preparing for Russia “not a Marshall Plan but a Versailles.”

            That somewhat overblown language, likely offered to suggest why Russians should resist rather than to indicate how the West really will act, nonetheless points to something many in the West don’t want to recognize: Although the Russian empire has been dying for over a century, it still exists and represents a threat to all precisely because it is an empire.

            If the West has forgotten that, many Russians have forgotten something else – and on this anniversary, it is extraordinarily important that they remember it.  When Gorbachev’s siloviki killed Lithuanians, tens of thousands of Russians went into the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities in support of the Lithuanians and in opposition to the Kremlin.

            What a difference 25 years makes, Grigory Amnuel points out in commentary today.  Now, polls suggest, large majorities of Russians back Putin’s imperial project, and his aggression there and elsewhere instead of unifying Russians against him as Gorbachev’s moves did against him is having the opposite effect (

            What made Vilnius so important was precisely the shockwaves it sent through the Soviet empire and first and foremost through the first although often unrecognized victims of that empire, the ethnic Russians.  Once they broke with the Kremlin, there was no one left to defend it but a few aging CPSU and KGB thugs as the August 1991 coup showed.

            At that time, he writes, “the simple residents of Lithuania” stood up for freedom, and “tens and hundreds of thousands of their then-fellow citizens” across the USSR supported them. “Above all, Moscow supported them … and this support was no less important than the courage of those who went to defend the television tower with their bodies.”

            What was important, Amnuel says, is that “people found in themselves the courage and desire to hear the truth and not ‘Pravda’ [the Russian word for “truth”], to bring it to other people and declare it to the authorities. At that time, people still remembered about the repressions of the GULAG and the struggle with dissidents, but they came out into the streets” anyway.

            “Vilnius unified us then,” no everyone of course but at least “those in whom humanity had remained alive despite all the many years of repression in the kingdom of unfreedom” that was the Soviet system. Now, “alas, Crimea and the events in Ukraine have not unified us but divided us,” Amnuel notes.

            In 1968, eight brave people demonstrated against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1991, tens of thousands came out to support Lithuania. Now, “in the best case,” something under five percent of the population of this “still enormous country” have the courage to do the same. A sad, even tragic evolution in the wrong direction.

            “It is possible,” Amnuel says, “that the anniversary of those events, 25 years now (a whole new generation has grown up!) will force someone to remember and someone to learn about those times … and change something … For this, memory exists,” despite all the efforts of the current regime like its predecessors to falsify the past.

            “While we are alive, while we recall the victims and what we then were, there is hope,” he concludes, and “that means we must preserve the truth about those days for the sake of the future.”  That is true for Russia; it is also true for the West as well.

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