THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIALISM THROUGH THE EYES OF JONAS MEKAS AND THE HEAD OF LITHUANIA

The Collapse of Socialism. To the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall programme looks at the circumstances, contradictions, and consequences of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Lithuania will be one of the geographical points of the programme. Lithuania and the collapse of USSR, a film shot in USA by an avant-garde classic, Lithuanian emigrant Jonas Mekas, tells how the country lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union. It will be screened at the Freud Museum of Dreams during the festival, along with a 6-hour-long interview with Mekas, recorded shortly before the author’s death in January 2019. Mekas talks about his childhood and youth in Lithuania, underground resistance to the German occupation and his reluctant escape.

This year, the Individuum publishing house published a book «Why did the USSR Collapse», consisting of conversations of the author, political scientist Arkady Dubnov, with the leaders of the Union republics. With the kind permission of the publisher, we share a fragment of a chapter in which the former chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania Vytautas Landsbergis talks about how the departure from the USSR was accompanied by tense meetings with Gorbachev and a tank assault. According to him, it was Lithuania that became the “stumbling block,” and its departure from the Soviet Union started a chain reaction.

 

– In those years when Lithuania was leaving the Soviet Union, did you already have a clear idea of the future restored state?

– The fundamental things were clear: we will have a parliamentary republic with a democratic regime that is accountable to the people – a real one, not fictitious, like the Soviet ones; the Parliament will be elected by direct universal suffrage. Already in the Soviet Lithuanian parliament we adopted an amendment to the local Constitution that the laws of the Soviet Union are valid in Lithuania only if they are confirmed by the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR. That is, legally we placed the Lithuanian SSR above the Soviet Union!

– But in March 1990, you received what is called an asymmetric response from Moscow, when the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR deemed your declaration of independence illegal.

– Yes, and we also adopted an asymmetric response that the decision of the USSR Congress has no authority in Lithuania, because it is a decision of a neighbouring state.

– But you were still a part of the Soviet Union.

– No, we were not. On March 11, we declared independence and adopted an interim Constitution. On March 15, they sent us a decision that henceforth our laws are repealed. Then we said, “Comrades, have you recognized us for three days? For three days we were independent, and now you are repealing our Constitution? This is unthinkable!”

– But at the same time, Soviet troops remained on the territory of Lithuania.

– Yes, this was an argument of force and, of course, could become a threat. But we cannot sell freedom piece by piece because there is some kind of threat. Today the threat still exists.

– And then you were presented with the last argument – on April 18, 1990, the USSR adopted economic sanctions against Lithuania.

– Yes, only this was not the last argument. The latter was presented in January 1991, when the Soviet Alpha troops stormed the Vilnius TV tower. Prior to this, they thought that Lithuania would be economically crushed, that social unrest and protests would follow, but this did not happen.

THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIALISM THROUGH THE EYES OF JONAS MEKAS AND THE HEAD OF LITHUANIA
1990 Sąjūdis poster: YES – to democratic Lithuania, NO – to the USSR prison

 

– When the Prime Minister of Lithuania Kazimira Prunskiene announced a price increase, she was forced to resign (the decision provoked large-scale public protests, which led to a serious political crisis in January 1991. – A. D.).

– It was not she who was “forced” to resign, but the whole of Lithuania was indignant over her decision, which was not agreed with the parliament and contrary to its will. Prunskiene prepared economic measures involving at least a three-fold increase in prices without real compensation for people. At that time, our enemies in Riga, where the headquarters of the Baltic Military District of the USSR was located, were specifically preparing [to use force] – they were waiting for prices to rise. The Kremlin did not only follow the course of events, it manipulated it.

– Are you saying that the decision of Prunskiene’s Cabinet of Ministers contradicted your political logic?

– It was already a confrontation, almost a mutiny, if not worse.

– A mutiny inside the ruling regime?

– A mutiny aboard. Who is the captain? Looks like I am. But the boatswain and his group decided that they were real captains.

– At the end of 1990s (or already in 2000s?), Kazimira Prunskiene was scandalously discovered to allegedly have been a KGB agent.

– It was discovered in 1992 and the Supreme Court of the Lithuanian Republic addressed it twice. There were real documents and her handwritten commitment to help the secret services.

– But this was hardly the basis of her decisions as prime minister?

– We did not know about it then. She would have been dismissed anyway by a parliamentary vote, but she did not allow it to go that far – she resigned herself when she realized what was going on. On January 8, 1991, the first assault of the parliament building took place, which was fought off (members of a pro-communist organization Yedinstvo attempted to break into the building of the Supreme Council of Lithuania under the slogans of resignation of the government. – A. D.). We cancelled the unlawful price increase by voting, and the thinking part of the people calmed down. And those who did not want to know anything – only “back to the Soviet Union” and “no Sąjūdis” – they were set upon us to destroy the parliament. But our people came and defended the parliament, and as a result, a bloody skirmish so desired by the Soviet Union did not happen. Because from the very beginning Sąjūdis pursued a very strict policy: no weapons, no riot against the authorities, only political steps, demands, free elections and people’s representatives who will rule (and not the Baltic Military District or, for instance, the Politburo in Moscow).

– Do you think that Moscow authorities were behind those people who were against the Sąjūdis policy and demanded the return to the Soviet Union?

– Of course. This is known, not only we think so. These fundamental communists and Gorbachev corresponded – they formally asked him to send troops and the dictatorship of Moscow, to demolish our legally elected government by military force. Of course, they would then become governors, again declaring the Soviet republic.

– But Gorbachev did not go for it.

– They began to storm the TV tower, but not the parliament. They stopped because there were casualties and the entire world found out. They hoped that the Gulf War would drown out everything else and no one would look at Lithuania, but it turned the other way around.

THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIALISM THROUGH THE EYES OF JONAS MEKAS AND THE HEAD OF LITHUANIA
Demonstrations due to Gorbachev’s visit to the Lithuanian city of Šiauliai, 1990

 

– Do you think Gorbachev made the decision personally? Did he have the right to say the last word?

– He got the glory. When foreign reporters ask him, “Did you issue the order?” he says, “No.” And everyone is happy, “Gorbachev is not at fault!” But he is lying, and they ask wrong questions. This is what you should ask: “Did you allow the slaughter?” Yes, he did. Orders were issued by commanders or ministers: Pugo, Kryuchkov. But they ran everything by Gorbachev. And Gorbachev told them, “Okay, guys, try it.” And then sat by the TV and watched what happened in Vilnius. And did not stop it. Although Yeltsin called him, demanding, “Stop this disgrace!” Later, Yeltsin himself repeated those words to me.

– Did you contact Yeltsin then?

– Yes, I did. I am calling Moscow, and they tell me that Gorbachev is sleeping. They are lying and waiting for the slaughter to end, but it still drags on. And at that moment, Yeltsin himself calles him and sais: “Stop it!” In essence, Gorbachev knew everything and allowed to kill people, there is no way out from this. At the same time, the world greatly appreciates his contribution to democratization and perestroika and the fact that he signed an arms reduction treaty.

– At the same time, the “new thinking” really became a reality.

– Yes, it did. But you need to see the whole picture. The Soviet Union was bankrupt and could not keep up with the West in the military race. That is, Gorbachev had to save the USSR and somehow get money from the West, so he conceded in certain ways. At the same time, his goal was to preserve the empire. He allowed the satellites (Warsaw Pact countries) to leave, but not Lithuania. Lithuania was his estate.

– As soon as Lithuania was allowed to leave, the Union began to crumble.

– According to Gorbachev’s expression, “the process has begun.” But we began without permission.

THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIALISM THROUGH THE EYES OF JONAS MEKAS AND THE HEAD OF LITHUANIA
At a polling station in Lithuania on the day of the 1991 All-Union Referendum.

 

– Did you meet with Gorbachev? Before or after?

– Yes, I met him after March 11, 1990, when the Lithuanian parliament decided on independence and the confrontation began. Gorbachev believed that Lithuania should yield without negotiations. But then, probably, the Western leaders convinced him that in a situation where Lithuania wants negotiations, but he refuses them, he looks bad. As a result, we met in June 1990.

– One on one?

– At the first meeting there were leaders of all three Baltic countries, and Prime Minister [Nikolai] Ryzhkov next to Gorbachev. And then there was a meeting only with me and my deputy Česlovas Stankevičius with Gorbachev and Lukyanov. After all, Lithuania was the main stumbling block. They pressed us, saying that if we do not cancel the Act of Independence, we should at least declare a moratorium on its implementation.

– And you declared it.

– We did not. But we adopted a document in which this word was used. As an intention or promise to start multinational negotiations. And they picked it up and distorted. We only announced that a moratorium is possible after multinational negotiations begin; in this case, we agreed not to adopt new laws for a hundred days. That is the whole moratorium.

And strange negotiations began. On our part, everything was constructive: commissions, documents. And on their part, it was more like a game – to delay, to play for time. We felt that they did not want any agreement. Then they again began to pressure us, to introduce economic sanctions. It reached its peak in December 1990, when Lithuania adopted the budget for next year. According to it, it was assumed that Lithuania does not receive anything from the Soviet Union and, therefore, does not pay anything to it. Trade relations would be established between states: what you used to deliver to us, you will now sell; what we gave you, we will sell. To this they responded with tanks.

More about the programme here.


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