“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 of all outside communications, the seizure of radio, television, and newspaper offices. Foreign journalists are already being ushered impatiently out of the country; the last television lights go out, leaving the Lithuanians alone with the Russians in the dark. It will take one excessive move by one reckless booby in or out of uniform, Russian or Lithuanian, to release the avalanche.

Most dangerous of all, I think, is the opportunity the crisis offers to the leaders of the non-Lithuanian minorities. Some 3.67 million people live in the country, of whom 2.9 million—79 percent—are Lithuanians by language and culture. But there is a Russian minority of 344,000 and a Polish minority, densely concentrated around Vilnius and in the southern districts of Lithuania, of 258,000. The leadership of both communities, especially of the Poles, would like nothing better than to issue a public invitation to the Soviet forces of order to “rescue” them from Lithuanian “oppression.” In fact, they have already begun to publish flesh-creeping nonsense about the supposed danger to Polish identity inherent in Lithuanian independence. But being the sort of men they are, they will not actually issue their invitation until the secret order comes from Moscow.

The outside world remains miserable about the crisis but irresolute. On the one hand, nobody wishes to make life even more difficult for President Gorbachev by encouraging President Vytautis Landsbergis; there is the hope that some compromises can still be found which will allow Lithuania to resume statehood by the end of the year without pitching a defeated Gorbachev to his enemies and the enemies of the reform process itself.

On the other hand, the most powerful nations in the West refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet annexation of all three Baltic republics in 1940. This does not automatically constrain them to recognize Lithuanian independence now; as the British put it, it is the de facto authority of a government within its territory that is recognized by other countries, and that is not yet established in Lithuania. But it puts those states under a painful moral obligation. And, as in the case of Canada, with its large and vociferous Lithuanian population in Toronto and elsewhere, there can be political leverage as well. The outcome is that the West breathes a great deal of sympathetic hot air over the Lithuanians, while extracting one assurance after another from Gorbachev and his lieutenants that there will be no resort to force. This is fence-sitting, and the late vice-consul Mr. Harrison would see here an assembly of his “invertebrate degenerates.” But for the moment it will have to do.


In Vilnius, the public’s self-control has been phenomenal, not much has changed. Television suggested that the people were constantly on the streets, chanting national songs and weeping with joy under their tricolor. Lithuanians, however, are economical with political gestures. When the moment is right, they will turn out by the hundreds of thousands, but for the most part they have behaved as if an attempt to break out of the Soviet Union was a monthly routine. “We do have common sense,” they say, as if measuring a natural resource. They are very un-Slav.

A foreign visitor sees Lithuania as a magical place. Seemingly infinite forests, rivers with shy female names like Neris or Nemunas, the city of Vilnius, which calls itself (like Edinburgh) an “Athens of the North.” Much of the old town, certainly, is built in postbaroque classical styles; there are enormous temples with Doric or Ionian capitals. But Vilnius (Wilno, Vilna) is really more of a Jerusalem. It is the birthplace of three irreconcilable histories: of the medieval Lithuanian state, whose capital was put here by the pagan ruler Gediminas; of Polish anti-Russian patriotism (the poet Adam Mickiewicz, the liberator Jozef Pilsudski, the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki all began here); and of eastern Judaism, which made Vilnius the intellectual capital of the Jewish world. The Jews were murdered during the Nazi occupation. The Poles, once the ruling caste, are now an underclass in the city.

War didn’t destroy this wonderful town. The Old City is run-down, and many of the enormous baroque churches are still “museums” or simply used as warehouses. But in Lithuania political change has run far ahead of physical and economic reform. Here, in utter contrast to Warsaw or Budapest, the street scene belongs still to the 1970s of European communism. The shops are almost empty and queues stretch along the sidewalks; there is money, but nothing to buy with it. Subsidies still shape the cultural landscape; every little association for cultural this- and-that has its own small magazine, badly printed but full of lofty, unhurried thought. Intellectuals, nominally holding down several underpaid jobs at once, are always free to take hours or days off on impulse. It can be expensive to bribe one’s way into a restaurant, but—once inside—the food is cheap and very good. So is the theater. So is the (subsidized) bread: the best black rye in Europe. I stood in line for it early one morning outside the bakery on Konarskas Street, and bought two loaves still hot; they filled my hotel room with a rich, feral scent like that of a forest floor after summer rain.

So far, Sajudis has not had the time or opportunity to dismantle this Brezhnevite economy by introducing market forces, canceling subsidies, deregulating prices and letting them soar, although the collective farms are thinking of going private by selling stock to their own peasants. All that is for the near future, and meanwhile the Lithuanians refuse to feel any nostalgia for the frowzy, static economy they are about to leave.

They will leave it cautiously, all the same. Lithuanian politicians talk about a gradual transition—nothing like the headlong leap of Poland into the free market. A recent document, the report on the economy of an independent Lithuania prepared by a special parliamentary commission, shows why. The country is 97 percent dependent on the Soviet Union for fuel supplies, mostly oil and gas, and gets them at artificially low prices. The report observes that “at world market prices, we would be running a deficit of 700 million dollars for oil alone,” and concludes that the energy problem is “the foremost question that must be answered without delay, it would be the basis for our whole economy, for its stable functioning; it is the basis for normal life.” Some hopeful politicians suggest that new Danish gas finds in the Baltic could have their land terminal and refinery in Lithuania. But most people admit that this dependence on the USSR will go on, and must be regulated by an agreement. Lithuania has a good agricultural surplus, and a fairly high technical level in electronics and other light industries, but, again, the report recommends “exports directed mainly to the East, with gradual orientation towards the West as quality of production improves.” And “Lithuania is of interest to Western companies as a springboard to the Eastern market.”


The last of the report’s proposed “immediate steps” is: “preparation of a plan for continuous economic functioning and alternatives under conditions of economic blockade.” That plan had better be good. I have heard Lithuanians boast that the USSR is actually dependent on them, that there are twenty-two factories making products whose lack would bring the Soviet Union to its knees. This is a sick joke. And any attempt to assist Lithuania from outside—unless by airlift—would have to go through either the port of Klaipeda, which the Soviet navy would probably close, or across the short stretch of common frontier with Poland, which has a road but no rail link.

Lithuania may be slightly less inefficient than Russia, even after sixty years of occupation, but what sort of measure is that? An impassioned woman patriot on Vilnius TV the other night said that “in five years, we must be living at least as well as the Finns.” The parliamentary report, in contrast, points out that unit production in Lithuania consumes between 1.5 and two times as much energy, wood, and metal as in Sweden or Finland, and that heating a square meter of living space takes sixty kilos of fuel a year in Vilnius and only twenty in Helsinki.

The cliché about the Baltic Republics—“models of German efficiency” or “little Finlands”—is almost meaningless at present. Their economic leverage on the USSR is almost zero, and their dependence on the USSR for energy and markets will remain overwhelming for the next decade at least. Lithuania will find it easier to adapt to a market economy than—say—the Russian Republic, but it will still be a very painful experience. Vilnius and Kaunas may seem neat and prosperous compared to Voronezh or Kharkov, but they are backward compared to Dresden or Budapest.

I seemed to spend a lot of time in Vilnius talking to philosophers. This wasn’t entirely an accident. Sajudis itself (the name means simply “movement”) emanated from an unofficial meeting of young members of the Institute of Philosophy of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, in the salon of the château at Verki outside Vilnius. Next day, on the now enshrined date of June 3, 1988, they called a much bigger meeting in the hall of the academy itself, and Sajudis was launched. Sajudis is in many ways a typical example of the new “forum politics” that has emerged in the 1989 revolutions: its commitments are to the market as a dimension of political liberty, to the revival of civil society and the shrinkage of state power, to a Europe of federated nationalities rather than of nation-states. The Sajudis program resembles those of Solidarity in Poland, or of the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, or of the Free Democrats in Hungary. The Lithuanian intellectuals themselves might seem typical too: a revolution that is led by a musicologist and a parliament that announces that “historians and philologists comprise 12.2 percent of the deputies,” surely conform to patterns of romantic nationalism. But there are strange variations here.

To start with, intellectual leadership in Lithuania can plausibly say that it originated in pagan times, which were not very long ago: the “old religion” survived here until the end of the fourteenth century, giving other European scholars a unique chance to describe and record it. This was an almost theocratic society; but in the sense that almost everyone was involved in religious functions from priesthood and shamanism through the hierarchies of bards to the young girls who kept the eternal fires alight. Then, with conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, came the union of the Grand Duchy with the Kingdom of Poland, and the gradual “Polonization” of the ruling classes. But here again the tradition of magical authority survived in disguise, so that—after the partitions of Poland—many of the poets and thinkers who made a universal and messianic message out of Poland’s crucifixion were themselves of Polish-Lithuanian origin. Adam Mickiewicz then: Czeslaw Milosz now.

But romantic liberal nationalism, the revival of Lithuanian culture as opposed to Polish, came very late. Old Dr. Basanavicius, the song collector and father of the “Lithuanian Renaissance,” survived until after the First World War, although he would have been more at home in the Europe of the 1830s or 1840s. The reason for the delay was the cultural terror directed by the tsars against Lithuania: universities closed, the language banned, all official jobs reserved for Russians, men and women with higher education forbidden to work in their own land. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the exiled intellectuals came home and organized a mainly peasant population into an independent republic. But in 1940 and 1944, the years of Soviet conquest and reconquest, the old Russian pattern returned. The philosopher Vytautas Rubavicius, editor of the cultural weekly Literatura ir Menas, told me: “In 1944, 75 percent of our intelligentsia left, including 80 percent of the writers. The creative intellectuals fled to the West. The technical intelligentsia stayed, and were deported to Siberia.” Under Stalin, some 200,000 Lithuanians were deported, imprisoned, or killed.

This is a twice-beheaded culture. The head, however, landed on the other side of the Atlantic and from there continued to think. “We not only feel like victims,” said Rubavicius, “but we are victims. The intellectual element in our culture, especially official culture, is very weak. But our return to history has been made possible by the emigration, who saved our moral values in their own free creativity.” He spoke of the excellent Lithuanian periodical in Argentina, of the thirty-volume encyclopedia published in Boston after the last war, of the reestablishment in recent years of the University of Kaunas as a joint project of local and emigré scholars. But as he talked, I thought of another kind of help provided by the emigration. The “wild geese” themselves have not flown home, but their children have. All over Vilnius, there are small groups of young Americans and Canadians of Lithuanian parentage who have arrived in the past two years, often as students, and have stayed to take part in the struggle. They have skills that are invaluable, and often the hardware (laptop computers, for example) to express their skills, and they also bring with them a very foreign optimism and bustle that are new in Vilnius. I met Carla Gruodis and her friends who edit the Lithuanian Review, and Rita Dapkus who, with a similar circle, runs the press office for Sajudis, and there were others. They are a lifeline to the outside world, and it is because of them and others like them who are on their way that the KGB have been ordered to tighten control over the admission of foreigners.

The philosophers are very self-critical. Their talent for deconstructing the political society that, as Sajudis supporters, they are trying to construct is alarming. But this sharpness arises from the sort of freedom they are trying to propagate, which sets a demanding standard. Rubavicius, for example, said to me that “only now are we discovering that we are not free. Even if we have an independent state, we will not be morally and culturally free. For we lack the level of consciousness of free men. Our ways are still old Communist ways.” The same kind of point was made to me by Arvydas Sliogeris, another philosopher. “If we had been truly free in 1940, we would not have lost our independence. Why was there no resistance then? It’s only partly compensated for me by the resistance movement after the war, which reassures me that we are not slaves by birth.”

Sliogeris, although he is involved in a project to found a liberal party, is in some ways an authoritarian. He believes in an almost Thatcherite “liberation” of economic forces, in order to kill off homo Sovieticus and replace him with self-reliant and energetic human beings who are subjectively independent. He says: “I dream of a democratic republic.” But at the same time, he fears that the disease of passivity and dependence has too deeply infected the Lithuanian people to be easily cured. “People are still steeped in totalitarian consciousness, waiting for something to be given to them. Now people will make the same demands on Sajudis: not just for bread and meat, but for Volvos as well.” He does not trust the caliber of the deputies elected to parliament in February: “dilettantes, romantics, Brownean particles in whirls of random motion. They were elected as personalities and have no program; the chaos in society is simply reflected in them, but they could establish a parliamentary dictatorship and appoint an executive [of officials] who will be no more than their marionettes.”

His hope is for a strong and independent president, above parliament but responsible to a constitutional court. But where is that leader? “Today’s world is full of infusoria [microscopic animals],” Sliogeris said disdainfully. “There is no place for great personalities. Nobody is going to leap out of nowhere on a war horse. In the last fifty years we have been broken: we have lost political awareness. The twenty previous years of independence were too short for a civil society to develop, and there followed an Asiatic half-century in which individuals were totally atomized. In intellectual life, all that was alive happened underground. In the economy, the energetic people—those who would have become capitalists in the West—turned to speculation.”

I thought of a girl I had met in the Old City, an art student in her second year who, to obtain paints, traveled with her husband every few months to Leningrad in order to hang around certain bars where the workers from the paint factory drank. Here was a culture literally rooted in illegality. “In the course of a hundred years,” Sliogeris went on, “we lost our intelligentsia to East and West; we lost most of our hard-working peasants and all our politicians. We have to start from zero in politics, although there is some continuity in culture. We have no parliamentary tradition, but some tradition of strong presidential authority, and that is why I want a good president.”

It has to be understood that Siberia is close to these calm, rational, ironic people. The Lithuanians deported there by the Soviets in the 1940s and 1950s did not melt away into the lake of the gulag and the exile settlements, but survived mentally and spiritually as many other groups did not. When the survivors were allowed to trickle back, after 1956, they came home haunted by the pitch-darkness of ignorance they had seen. I talked to yet another philosopher, now a sophisticated university teacher, who was born in exile on an Asian steppe and who started his moral existence as a little Komsomol narc in short pants berating and threatening his own parents for their incorrect bourgeois attitudes. And I spoke, too, with Jonas Urbšys, now aged ninety-four, the last foreign minister of independent Lithuania.

The winter sunlight glowed on the floor of his small apartment, in a concrete housing development on the outskirts of Kaunas. It was Jonas Urbšys who signed the 1939 treaty with Molotov, which was a Soviet guarantee of Lithuanian independence. And it was Urbšys, who, the next year in Moscow, on July 14, 1940, received from Molotov the Soviet ultimatum: ten hours to agree to the entry of the Red Army and Soviet occupation of all strategic points. Molotov said to him: “Whether you agree or not is irrelevant, because the Red Army is going in tomorrow anyway.” In Vilnius, the cabinet met. The president wanted to fight even though resistance was hopeless; the generals overruled him. The government resigned, and the fifty years of Soviet incorporation began.

Jonas Urbsys spent eleven years in solitary confinement, without a trial. Then he was notified that he had been sentenced by a special commission to twenty-five years’ imprisonment under Article 58, paragraph 4 of the penal code, for actions assisting the international bourgeoisie in its efforts to over-throw Soviet power. He was released without explanation in 1954, and allowed to return to his country in 1956.

He is an upright, handsome old man in a cardigan and spectacles. He talks fluently about the past, smiling to himself. His view is that, now that the 1940 ultimatum and its acceptance have been declared null and void from the beginning, the 1939 pact he signed with Molotov resumes its validity, and commits the Soviet Union to recognition of Lithuanian independence and sovereignty.

“I have no reason to be happy about those lost years, out of the ninety-four that I have lived. I feel no hatred, but only pain for my country. I never lost hope that we would regain our independence, and I wrote two memoranda to Stalin on the subject from prison, explaining why our independence was a necessity. I gave them to the governor. But I don’t know if they ever got to Stalin.”

During the eleven years in solitary, he was allowed to meet his wife once a day to walk in the exercise yard. “Marija suffered much more than I under the interrogation. She was more sensitive, more damaged by it all.” She died soon after they were permitted to come home. “I don’t remember what we talked about in that yard,” he reflected. “I don’t remember.” Then he looked up at us. “Perhaps it was the will of the Lord God that I should have lived so long, and survived so strongly. So that somebody should remain alive, to tell others what it was like then.”

March 29, 1990

This Issue

April 26, 1990