The Trial of Lithuania

“Only an invertebrate degenerate could remain on the fence in such a quarrel.” So wrote an enraged man in 1922. Mr. Ernest Harrison, formerly British vice-consul in Kaunas and Vilnius, was describing the dispute between Lithuania and Poland, rather than that between Lithuania and Russia. This small, solemn country still has the power to seize the loyalties of outsiders.

At the time of this writing, during the last week of March, the relationship—if that is the word—between Lithuania and the Soviet Union has slithered a long way toward the edge of catastrophe. Following the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet on February 24 and March 4, at which candidates backed by the Sajudis independence movement gained an absolute majority, the new parliament declared that the nation was now resuming its sovereign independence, illegally violated in 1940 by Soviet annexation. This declaration was precipitated by Mikhail Gorbachev’s sudden step on the constitutional accelerator in Moscow: his acquisition of supreme emergency powers as president, and new legislation redefining (and making far more difficult) the right of a Soviet republic to secede from the USSR. So the declaration was issued on March 8 in Vilnius, a reaffirmation by the new parliamentary majority of Lithuania’s original declaration of independence in 1918.

There are people, in Russia and Lithuania, who genuinely hope that the Lithuanian crisis will end in what Polish euphemists call “a national tragedy”: martial law, mass arrests, the restoration of the pro-Moscow rump of local Communists to power in Vilnius. There is, as President Landsbergis and his colleagues are trying to tell us, just such a dark coalition of Russian chauvinists, old Stalinists, and frustrated jailers who would engineer any calamity that might shatter President Gorbachev’s reputation and halt the movement to democracy. But the leaders, Gorbachev and Landsbergis, and the ministers and advisers around them, both dread a collision. The trouble is that, as the events of late March showed, the situation is not safely in the grip of those “rational actors.” The army is taking its own decisions and letting Gorbachev take the blame for them, and acting in blatant alliance with that discredited fragment of the Lithuanian Communist party that remains “loyal.” To drive a column of tanks past the windows of the Supreme Council, the army’s opening gesture, was a gesture of anachronistic madness. It did not so much frighten the Lithuanians as remind them violently why they had decided to escape from the Soviet empire.

Far too many things could go wrong. Among the burning matches that could ignite the flames of a “provocation” are: the continuing hunt for Lithuanian deserters, the dispute over who controls the frontiers, the seizure of more public or private buildings, the roundup of privately held firearms, the search for (imaginary) Lithuanian snipers who fire at Soviet troops, the order to disband the volunteer militia, the nonproblem of the security of plants and power stations.

Ahead, a pessimist can foresee the expulsion of Americans and Canadians of Lithuanian parentage, the cutting…

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