How Lithuania Destroyed the Soviet Union

A worker prepares Soviet-era statues for dismantling in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2015. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
Decades of stubborn resistance have resulted in today’s free and prosperous state.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuanians like America. Their unofficial slogan might be modeled after the famous Mexican lament: “So close to Russia, so far from America.” Although Vilnius is a member of the European Union and NATO, Lithuanians look to Washington as their protector. Their desire to strengthen that relationship led the Atlantic Council, a think tank founded in 1961, to organize a trip for some Washington policy nerds to visit.

Lithuanian fears over Moscow’s possibly malign ambitions are understandable, if probably overstated. Vladimir Putin is no friend of liberty, but attacking any of the Baltic states would result in far more costs and risks than benefits. A pragmatic authoritarian, he is unlikely to start a conflict that would, in the best of circumstances, dramatically intensify his government’s diplomatic and economic isolation and, at worst, lead to nuclear war, while yielding little in valuable booty.

Still, one can understand concern over Moscow’s behavior. Lithuania spent much of its history as an involuntary part of the Russian and Soviet empires, suffering especially badly under the latter.

The first united Kingdom of Lithuania arose in 1253. For a time it was paired with Poland. In the late 18th century Lithuania was absorbed by the Russian Empire, a backward, ramshackle, and authoritarian agglomeration of different peoples. Under pressure, Russia began to liberalize. Then came the Great War, of which the tsar may have been the single greatest casualty. After little more than two years of carnage, the monarchy tottered and moderates launched the first revolution.

However, they continued the purposeless and destructive war, an act of political madness. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, organized and agitated, while promising food, peace, and bread; in November they staged a putsch against a provisional government whose support had ebbed away. A bitter, brutal civil war ensued, as the new authorities negotiated terms in Germany.

Lithuania declared independence, which was affirmed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Berlin and Moscow. Germany expected Vilnius to be a puppet state, but Berlin’s defeat in the west ended the latter’s imperial aspirations. Lithuania then had to successively fight Russia, with the Poles’ assistance, and then Poland, to preserve its nationhood. A military coup soon ousted the democratic government, though Lithuanians prospered economically despite their lack of geopolitical security.

As World War II loomed, the country remained focused on Poland, the Lithuanians told me. However, while plotting Poland’s demise, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union coldly bargained over the Baltics, with Lithuania ending up in Moscow’s sphere of interest. In October 1939, Moscow insisted on stationing troops in Lithuania; the following year the USSR issued ultimatums to all three Baltic states, turning them into Soviet “republics.” Thousands of “anti-Soviet elements” in Lithuania were arrested, disappearing into the Gulag; thousands more were deported to Siberia, as the country was thoroughly “Sovietized.”

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Lithuanians rose up against their oppressor, only to see their land swiftly occupied by Germany. Most of the pre-war Jewish population — upward of 200,000 — was murdered. Then Moscow retook Lithuania as the tide of war reversed, reimposing Communist rule and restarting deportations. Lithuanians fought a desperate guerrilla campaign that lasted until 1953.

It took about 100,000 Soviet troops to suppress the insurgents; some 30,000 Lithuanians died resisting Communist rule. Another 105,000 were sent to labor camps or deported elsewhere in the USSR, while upward of 400,000 ethnic Germans and Poles were expelled westward. The leader of the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters, Jonas Zemaitis, was executed after his capture and in 2009 was officially anointed as having been the country’s “president” before restoration of independence. for which Lithuanians had to wait until 1991, in the Soviet Union’s waning days.

People remember the horror of being absorbed by Joseph Stalin’s Communist nightmare. Although repression eased after Stalin’s death, Communist control remained tight. An army officer with whom I spoke said his father had been detained by the KGB in the 1970s for producing pro-independence literature.

Worth visiting is the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (formerly known as the Museum of Genocide Victims) in Vilnius. The building was successively used by the Gestapo and Soviet security agencies (NKVD/MGB/KGB). The exhibits highlight the uniformly horrendous consequences of totalitarian rule by Right and Left.

In the basement are administrative offices, cells where prisoners were held, interrogated, and tortured, as well as the room where some 1,000 Lithuanians were executed through the 1960s. More than 700 sets of remains were discovered in a nearby mass grave. Other burial sites are presumed to exist but remain undiscovered.

Above ground are a variety of exhibits. They begin with the country’s recent travails, the Hitler–Stalin pact and subsequent Soviet occupation. On June 15, 1940, the Red Army marched into Lithuania, accompanied by Stalin’s representative, Vladimir Dekanozov, who dismantled the independent administration and appointed a “people’s government.” His work done, he returned home the following month. (He was executed in 1953 after his mentor, the notorious Lavrentiy Beria, was purged following Stalin’s death.)

Exhibits follow the country’s absorption into the USSR, the brutal repression that followed, the suffering during the struggle between two murderous totalitarian powers, the nearly decade-long fight against the triumphant Soviets, and the results of Moscow’s final victory. Awful though these subjects are, they are ennobled by Lithuanians’ fierce resistance to tyranny.

More difficult to view are the stories detailed and remnants displayed of life in prison and labor camps, as well as mass deportations. These remind us of the lives of real people that were interrupted and often ended by one of the most monstrous political systems in human history. Some 39,000 children were deported along with their parents; about 5,000 died while in exile. After Stalin’s death, repression eased. Most prisoners were released from labor camps and deportees were allowed to return home, though life remained hard for all of them.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending, though the cost of victory was high. Exhibits highlight continuing resistance to Soviet rule and revival of the independence movement as the Soviet Union headed toward dissolution. Perestroika and glasnost began to have an effect in Lithuania in 1987. The following year Lithuanians formed the Sajudis, or Reform Movement of Lithuania, and staged their first public demonstration. The KGB could not halt the demand for freedom.

On March 12, 1990, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania declared independence. Moscow imposed an economic blockade and then sent in security forces to reestablish control, which was resisted by the vast majority of Lithuanians. The resulting civilian deaths stained the record of Mikhail Gorbachev, though he denied responsibility for ordering the troops to use deadly force. In September 1991, Moscow yielded, recognizing the independence of Lithuania, which was quickly admitted to the United Nations. Recognition of Lithuania’s independence became the prelude for the USSR’s collapse little more than three months later. In 1993, Russia — the Soviet Union by then was long gone — removed its last army units from Lithuania. European Union and NATO membership followed eleven years later.

Lithuania has suffered significant economic challenges and a large out-migration, especially of younger workers, but has generally prospered, despite the crash of 2009, and established a vibrant democracy. Indeed, the country was in the midst of a presidential election during my visit.

Lithuanians well understand the hideous cost of totalitarian ideology, which submerges individuals, families, and communities to collectivist rule. The human cost figured by the museum is daunting. By the Nazis, 240,000 murdered, 30,000 imprisoned, 60,000 deported as laborers in Germany; by the Soviets, more than 80,000 killed, nearly 190,000 jailed, 625,000 deported. It is a daunting toll.

Lithuanians briefly tasted independence — and even more briefly democracy — between World Wars I and II. Alas, geopolitical shadows far too quickly closed in on their beleaguered nation. Lithuania’s second round of freedom has proved far happier. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the Lithuanian people already have enjoyed independence six years longer than they did during their doomed interwar period. Equally important, their liberal democracy also has thrived. Now they must protect their free society in the years ahead.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.

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