Witnessing Lithuania’s 1991 Fight for Freedom from Soviet Power

Published January 12, 2021

Individual liberty and representative democracy as complementary forms of personal and political self-government are precious aspects of shared social life. Given the political and economic events surrounding the recent presidential election and the restrictions on personal freedom due to the government-imposed lockdowns in the face of the coronavirus, it seems appropriate to recall a real fight for a free society that played out in the Baltic Republic of Lithuania thirty years ago, in January 1991, against half a century of Soviet tyranny. I happened to be a witness on the ground in Lithuania at the time, watching part of the historical event unfold. 

What happened in Lithuania three decades ago reminds us of what dictatorship is actually all about, and why, sometimes, oppressed people have little or no choice other than to stand up and oppose political forces of evil. For many of those under, say, forty years of age, the post-World War II period too often seems to be ancient history, if known about at all.  

But for those who were alive and living in the countries of Eastern Europe in those decades after 1945 – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany – the cruelty and barbarity of Nazism during the Second World War had been followed by a new and equally cruel and tyrannical system, Soviet communism, that had been imposed by Stalin in the aftermath of the Red Army’s march to Berlin as part of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany.

But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the political and economic bankruptcy of the Soviet system was increasingly difficult to hide or shore up. Finally, the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe began to crumble in 1989 and 1990, as the communist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were replaced with democratic-oriented governments. The collapse of the Iron Curtain that had divided the European continent since 1945 was symbolized most dramatically with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989. (See my articles, “FDR and Stalin Planned the Future of the World” and “The History and Meaning of the Berlin Wall”.)

The Soviet System was Rotting from the Inside

The then head of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, was hailed in the West as an enlightened communist reformer who wished to create a new Soviet “socialism-with-a-human-face.” He was also praised as a man of peace who was allowing the Eastern European “captive nations” to go free, when the threat or use of Soviet military force – like had been used in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 – could have, once again, crushed the dreams of the people in these lands finally to be free. 

The reality was that the Soviet Union was finished. I was traveling to the Soviet Union fairly regularly in its last years doing consulting work on market reform and privatization. What was clear was that the Soviet system was like a giant tree that had been eaten away from the inside. Outwardly, it appeared immovable, but inside there was nothing but rot. All the power structures remained in place: a large bureaucracy overseeing a vast government-owned and managed economy; the Communist Party with its tentacles of monopoly control all around the country; and the dreaded KGB, the secret police, maintaining its omnipresence throughout every corner of Soviet society. 

But beneath the surface, the system had been eaten away. Soviet ideology had neither true believers nor idealistic adherents. At the same time, both the rulers and the ruled knew that the system ultimately could not be saved in its existing form. All that drove those who controlled and managed the bureaucracy and the Party was the fear of losing the power and the special privileges a communist dictatorship had put into their hands. 

Whether it was in the dirty government-run food shops with their empty shelves, or in the dilapidated taxicabs with their gruff drivers behind the wheel, or in the homes of the Moscow intelligentsia, all you heard was anger, resentment and hatred for what 70-odd years of communist rule had produced. Wasted, destructive and cruel years: that was the epitaph that almost every Russian verbalized in summarizing 20th century Soviet history. 

It was a totalitarian collectivist system that had attempted to remake human beings into “new socialist men,” and in the process had murdered well over 60 million men, women and children through execution, torture, starvation or forced labor in concentration camps, known as the GULAG, that stretched from one end of the Soviet Union’s vast territory to the other. (See my article, “The Human Cost of Socialism in Power”.)

A Crumbling Empire Determined to Preserve the Soviet Union

The Soviet retreat from its Eastern European communist empire was not an act of generous benevolence by a global great power. The fact was that any attempt to maintain Moscow’s political grip on these countries would have shattered the economic viability of the Soviet Union itself. The cost of military force and direct day-to-day indefinite occupation of these Eastern European countries would have drained the Soviet Union of its remaining strength. 

The economic reforms that Gorbachev had started to introduce following his ascendency to Communist Party leadership in the Soviet hierarchy in 1985, generally, had been an abysmal failure. Being neither real market reform nor the traditional rigid structure of total socialist central planning, it produced economic chaos, new layers of corruption and bribery, and political fears and uncertainties. 

But there was one thing that both old-fashioned Communist Party “hardliners” and Gorbachev-style “reformers” were united about and agreed upon, that the loss of the Empire would not extend into the Soviet Union itself. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – the formal name of the Soviet Union – was comprised of fifteen national “republics,” of which the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was the largest and the center of communist power. The other “Soviet Republics” were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia (Belarus), Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. 

Lithuania and Demands for National Independence

Each of these non-Russian Soviet republics had its own national Communist Party leader; but invariably, the second in command in these fourteen other divisions of the Soviet Union was a Russian. The sham Soviet constitution talked about national autonomy and ethnic and linguistic diversity, but in fact the entire Communist Party and bureaucratic structures in these “republics” were dominated, overseen and controlled by Russians. In each of these republics there was varying degrees of anger and resentment with both Soviet ideology and Russian linguistic, cultural, and national domination. But especially and always, there was anger and resentment against Russian domination. 

Such resentments and anger were, probably, the most intense in the three Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In February 1990, an election was held in Lithuania, with a non-communist parliamentary majority coming to power. On March 11, 1990, that new parliament declared Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union, and announced that Lithuanian law took precedence over Soviet law, with Lithuanian youth no longer having to serve in the Soviet military. 

Gorbachev’s response was immediate and uncompromising. Lithuanian independence would not be recognized, and he imposed an economic embargo on Lithuania in an attempt to bring the little republic to its knees. The embargo backfired, with virtually the entire Lithuanian population of three million people undertaking peaceful public demonstrations to show their determination to not give into Moscow’s manipulations. They were willing to pay the economic price for freedom. 

Lithuania the Victim of Hitler and Stalin’s Secret Pact

Lithuania is an ancient nation, with a distinct culture, language and customs. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. United with Poland in 1386, the Polish-Lithuanian state was wiped off the map of Europe when it was carved up and annexed by Prussia, Austria and Russia in a series of partitions in the late 18th century. 

Lithuania reclaimed its national independence as a constitutional republic in 1918, as the First World War was coming to an end, along with the other Baltic Republics of Estonia and Latvia. The national freedom of these three small republics was taken away in 1940, when they were annexed by the Soviet Union under Stalin’s orders. 

Since many may be unfamiliar with how Lithuania and the two other Baltic Republics lost their independence it is worthwhile to briefly review the history. On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact in Moscow. Declaring peace and closer economic ties between the two totalitarian powers, the pact contained a secret protocol to carve up Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin. 

If a war broke out, Poland would be divided between the two countries. On September 1, 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland from the West, and on September 17, 1939, Stalin ordered the invasion of Poland from the East. Before the end of the month Poland had ceased to exist, and was again wiped off the map of Europe. The secret protocol (and then a revision in it) also contained a clause that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Finland were in the Soviet “sphere of influence” and therefore, handed over to Stalin’s tender care. 

In October 1939, the three Baltic Republics were forced to sign “mutual assistance” treaties with the Soviet Union establishing Soviet bases in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with the stationing of large numbers of Soviet military forces in the three countries. Stalin tried the same strong-arm tactics with Finland, but the Finns chose to resist, with a war breaking out in November 1939 that lasted for six months until in March 1940, when the Finns were compelled to accept peace terms; the Finns lost large portions of borderlands to the Soviet Union. 

In May 1940, the stage was set for the formal annexation of the Baltic Republics. Stalin demanded a change in the governments of the three countries, with political figures more to Moscow’s liking. In June 1940, the charade was ended, with the Soviet Army invading and fully occupying the three nations, as the rest of the world’s eyes were on Nazi Germany’s conquest and occupation of France. The Baltic States’ official annexation into the Soviet Union came the next month in July 1940. 

Immediately, the Soviet secret police and army went to work rounding up, arresting and deporting “enemies of the people.” In the end, including after the Soviet reoccupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the end of the Second World War, 500,000 people from the Baltic Republics were sent off to the slave labor camps of the GULAG, and another 150,000 were outright executed as “class enemies.” 

Lithuania Demands Independence from Its Soviet Conqueror 

For the entire post-World War II period, the Soviet government insisted that the Baltic Republics had joined the Soviet Union of their own free choice. But in 1989, Gorbachev finally admitted the existence of the secret protocol to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, with its agreement to view the three countries as fair game for Stalin. 

For the Lithuanians, this showed before the world that their loss of national independence in 1940 had been an act of brutal power politics by the two totalitarian tyrants. This justified their redeclaration of independence in 1990, and an insistence before the world that their freedom had been taken away 50 years earlier through an act of outright Soviet aggression. 

Having not succeeded in getting the Lithuanians to back down as a result with the imposition of that economic embargo, Gorbachev and the Communist Party leadership feared that Lithuania’s defiance of Moscow’s dictates would set an example for other Soviet republics, fears that were well-founded due to similar demands for independence in other parts of the Soviet Union. 

Soviet Power and Lithuania’s “Bloody Sunday”

Thirty years ago, in January 1991, the Soviet government attempted to intimidate the Lithuanians through a show of military force, especially in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius. When the Lithuanian government and people continued their defiance, the Soviet government decided to crush Lithuania’s freedom movement by brute force. 

I was in Vilnius, Lithuania at precisely that time, meeting with members of the Lithuanian parliament, presenting an agenda for the full transformation and privatization of the Lithuanian economy into a free market system, and delivering a lecture at the University of Vilnius on the country’s need to abandon socialism as well as Soviet power.  

Rumors of Soviet plans to occupy government buildings, seize all communication facilities, and arrest the leadership of the non-communist government resulted in huge crowds of people surrounding the government buildings and communication sites. 

In the early morning hours of Sunday, January 13, 1991, the sound of cannon fire echoed across Vilnius. The hotel I was staying at was less than a quarter of a mile from the Lithuanian radio station. I joined the crowd that had formed to defend the radio station in the face of a large force of Soviet paratroopers advancing toward the building 

The crowd of defenders began to chant over and over again, “Lietuva! Lietuva! Lietuva!” (“Lithuania! Lithuania! Lithuania!”) The KGB-commanded paratroopers moved toward the crowd, their machine guns pointed directly at the unarmed defenders of the radio station. And still the Lithuanians stood, undaunted, repeating their chant, “Lietuva, Lietuva!” 

The paratroopers moved forward until they were face-to-face with the crowd. The two groups were now so close that the machine gun muzzles were in our chests, and still the people would not move. Orders were barked out by the Soviet officers, and the paratroopers began to fire their weapons above our heads. And still the people would not give way. 

Finally, another order was shouted out, and the paratroopers waded into us, beating people with the butts of their machine guns and with clubs. Only then, under these direct physical blows of brute Soviet power, did the people give way. Dozens lay on the ground bleeding or unconscious from the beatings. Those Lithuanians unharmed helped the wounded. The paratroopers swarmed into the radio station, beating up all those in the building and stealing their money and jewelry in the process, before throwing them out of the facilities. 

Three miles away at the Lithuanian television transmission tower, the same acts were being repeated. Only here the consequences were far deadlier, as I witnessed when I arrived there. Two people were crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks. The paratroopers fired point blank at Lithuanians who were in the transmission tower building and the surrounding grounds. A dozen people fell dead under the hail of bullets, with scores more wounded. 

In spite of the Soviets seizing the radio and television facilities, Lithuania’s democratically elected president, Vytautas Landsbergis, broadcast to the nation from a clandestine radio station, telling them to offer no armed resistance, but instead to face Soviet power through peaceful, civil disobedience. Right and morality were on their side, he assured the people. Lithuania, he promised, would be free. 

In the center of Vilnius, at the Parliament building, tens of thousands of Lithuanians were standing vigil to protect this symbol of their declared new national independence. This ocean of unarmed Lithuanian men, women and children were themselves surrounded by a huge force of Soviet military units. 

Thus ended Lithuania’s “Bloody Sunday,” as it soon came to be called. 

Lithuanian Freedom Fighters Defy Soviet Intimidation

But the Lithuanian government was determined to continue “business as usual” as one more demonstration of defiance against Soviet brutality and intimidation. A colleague and I met with the members of the Lithuanian Parliament the next day, on Monday, January 14, 1991. 

We had to weave our way through the concrete barricades and heavy industrial equipment that had been placed around the Parliament building to help hold off a possible Soviet assault. Inside the Parliament building the corridors were crowded with 2,000 young Lithuanians who had taken an oath to defend the building to the death. 

In the Parliament meeting room, we presented to the deputies our four-point program for the rapid freeing of prices and wages; the privatization of all state enterprises (banking, industry, agriculture and retail stores); reforms in the legal framework of Lithuania for the recognition, specification, and enforcement of private property rights and contracts; and the opening of Lithuania to international trade and foreign direct investment as soon as politically possible. 

Lithuanians Vote for Freedom, Gorbachev Holds a Fake Referendum

In February 1991, a referendum was held in Lithuania asking, “Do you agree that the Lithuanian state should be an independent, democratic republic?” About 85 percent of eligible voters participated and 90 percent said yes. In neighboring Estonia and Latvia, similar referenda were held in early March 1991with equally high voter turnout and assent for national independence as democratic republics. 

Gorbachev attempted to counteract this by holding his own Soviet-wide referendum in mid-March 1991, asking whether or not the preservation of the Soviet Union was essential. Canadian and British polling observers reported that they saw Russian and Ukrainian voters voting early and voting often! When the polling authorities were asked why certain people had been given multiple ballots, they replied that these individuals were also voting for their bed-ridden relatives and friends. 

But even with a rigged election, affirmative votes in the Soviet Union as a whole as well as in the Russian Soviet Republic and Ukraine were only in the 70s percentage range. Voter opposition to the continuation of the Soviet Union must have been massive if even with a rigged vote, support for the system would only be manipulated in the 70s percentage range, in a regime in which 99 percent affirmative votes for whatever the Communist Party wanted had been the routine for 70 years. 

This explains why Gorbachev and the Communist Party apparatus struck out at Lithuania. The Lithuanians had been at the vanguard in the movement for freedom in the Soviet Union. They had elected a non-communist government in free elections, had declared their national independence from Soviet rule, and strongly affirmed their intention of reversing a half-century of socialist central planning through privatization and free market reforms. 

Lithuania’s defiance in the face of a Soviet economic embargo, political pressures and threats, and finally direct violence, brutality and murder 30 years ago on January 13, 1991 was like that proverbial stone that starts down the mountain and finally brings a destructive avalanche. Through its resistance, defiance and, finally, unbreakable courage in the face of naked force, little Lithuania helped bring down the Goliath of Soviet power before the end of 1991. 

Personal liberty and political self-government have been rare things in the broad sweep of human history. They have been difficult to establish, often hard to preserve once possessed, and far too easily taken away under the pressures of fear, demagogy, and despotic ideologies. We should remember and appreciate episodes in history like those in Lithuania in January 1991, in which a people oppressed by socialist tyranny said, “No,” and insisted upon regaining their freedom. 

[Originally posted on American Institution for Economic Research (AIER)]