A chilling photograph in the morning papers of January 14 showed a group of Lithuanians pushing against a Soviet tank in a desperate effort to stop its advance; under the tank one could see the limp legs of a woman wearing black leather boots. This photograph, which stayed in my mind during a recent visit to the Soviet Union’s Baltic republics, quickly faded from world attention after war broke out in the Middle East. Yet the two events—the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania and the conflict in the Persian Gulf—are not unrelated: there is good reason to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev chose to move against the independence movement of Lithuania at a time when most people would be distracted by events in the Middle East and when the US government, eager for Soviet support against Iraq, would mute its criticism of Soviet repression.
If these were Gorbachev’s calculations, they were wrong. Many people in the Soviet Union and in other countries around the world were angered by the Soviet army’s attack on government buildings in the Lithuanian capital, which culminated in the storming of the television tower in Vilnius on January 13, leaving fourteen people dead and more than six hundred wounded. Mr. Gorbachev’s claims that he did not authorize the attack—a response he has made in similar circumstances before—further undermined his credibility.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other republic capitals. The crowds, the largest to take part in a public protest since Gorbachev came to power, demonstrated against the violence in Lithuania and against communism, and for their independence from central authority. In the West there were demands to end economic aid to the Soviet Union and to cancel the Moscow summit meeting of Bush and Gorbachev. Medical supplies were sent directly to Vilnius from Western Europe to help treat the wounded. The Bush administration, at first reluctant to speak out against the massacre, responded to congressional and popular pressure by issuing several strong statements. Its decision to postpone the summit meeting, although not officially linked with events in the Baltic states, was nevertheless greeted there as a welcome gesture of support.
Only in the West have we heard people question Mr. Gorbachev’s responsibility for the violence in Vilnius (“Did he know about it in advance?” “Did he authorize it?”). When a colleague and I went to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on behalf of Helsinski Watch during the last week of January, we found literally unanimous agreement among the many people we talked to that Gorbachev was their enemy. What, they asked, would he do next?
Admiring Gorbachev and his reforms, many in the West have glossed over the pattern of violence that has punctuated his rule. Gorbachev has not hesitated to use military force to suppress dissent in situations where Communist party dominance seemed threatened. On at least five occasions before the recent Baltic violence, beginning in December 1986, the Soviet army …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.