Lithuania under Totalitarianism

Lithuania Under Totalitarianism

By 1939, liberal democracies in Britain, France, Scandinavia and Switzerland were realities. But elsewhere across Europe, various kinds of dictators reared their ugly heads. Dictatorship seemed to be the wave of the future .The Age of Anxiety, the age of the lost generation, was also an age in which modern Fascism and Totalitarianism made their appearance on the historical stage. Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.

Lithuania lay under communist, totalitarian rule for half a century. Soviet troops moved into Lithuania in June 1940, and six weeks later the Soviet Union annexed the country. The Soviet culture of violence exploded when Nazi troops crossed into Lithuania on June 22, 1941. As Soviet authorities fled, some local communist officials summarily executed prisoners whom they could not take along. In turn Lithuanians rose in revolt and attacked the retreating Red Army. Urged on by Nazi propaganda that identified Jews with communism, some joined the Nazi authorities and turned on the Jewish population of the republic. From June to December 1941, an estimated 90-95 percent of Lithuania’s some 250,000 Jews died. When the Red Army returned to Lithuania in 1944, it found a different mood and even a different population than it had faced in 1940. In the cities, the historic Jewish communities barely existed; many urban Lithuanians had fled to seek refuge in the West .In the countryside, partisan groups offered fierce armed resistance to Soviet rule.

Soviet authorities established a ruthless regime, ranging from brutal warfare and collectivization of agriculture to mandated changes in Lithuanian vocabulary. To fight the partisans, they mobilized locals as so-called “people’s defenders” –– and they called the struggle a “civil war” of Lithuanians. Opposition Lithuanians called  “the second Soviet occupation,” and they referred to the “people’s defenders” as “stribai,” from the Russian word for “destroyers” (istrebiteli). The Soviets called resisters “bandits,” while Lithuanians called them “forest brothers” and “partisans.”

Despite determined, even desperate, resistance, in the absence of significant aid from the West, the Lithuanians had to submit. The communist authorities carried out a continued program of mass deportations – the largest, totaling some 40,000 persons, occurring on May 22, 1948. (Deportees had to live on the local economy in Siberia as opposed to gulag prisoners who lived under greater control in the labor camps.) In 1949 the regime’s massive collectivization campaign deported another 32,000 persons. In all, Soviet police records reported deporting 112,000 Lithuanians in Stalin’s last years, about one-sixth of all the people deported in this period in the entire Soviet Union. (Lithuanians made up just over one percent of the Soviet Union’s 220 million population.)

The “thaw” that came after Stalin’s death in March 1953 at first raised hopes of relief. Moscow began allowing deportees to return to the homeland. The generation entering society after 10 years of communist education looked forward hopefully to a better life. Authorities spoke of developing “national cadres.” In the mid-1950s the regime also allowed Lithuanians to emerge from their post-war isolation, letting selected persons travel abroad, and in the fall of 1959 the authorities allowed in the first foreign tourists who, as cynical locals put it, “did not have that certain smell.” Nevertheless Moscow ruled the system with a strong hand, and it kept a close watch on all foreign visitors.

Although the Soviet constitution promised considerable freedom to the population, in practice the constitution was not the law of the land. The power, the wishes, and the decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were superior to the constitution.

Protest, resistance and dissidence took various forms in Lithuania, both organized and individual. There were protesters who objected to the Soviet system altogether, and there were protesters who just demanded reform of the existing order. There could be both public and private acts of protest. A young man might hang out the banned national tri-color flag, yellow-green-red, and thereby risk a jail term. Underground activity, especially after 1970, could involve writing critical texts and secret publishing – this could result in deportation to a prison camp. In the most shocking act of protest, Romas Kalanta, a young man 19 years of age, torched himself in the center of Kaunas on Sunday morning, May 14, 1972. Among his last words were “Freedom for Lithuania.” Demonstrations by Kaunas youth followed, resulting in arrests and severe beatings by the authorities.

In these activities, the Catholic Church, which had a legal existence in Soviet Lithuania, played an important role as a focus for national consciousness. The Lithuanians constituted the major group of Catholics in the Soviet Union, and national feelings and religious beliefs intertwined closely.

When Soviet leaders, after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, began to consider reforming their system, which they themselves now spoke of as suffering from “stagnation,” Lithuanians found space in which they could raise public complaints. In the cause of protecting the environment, they were able to protest projects such as drilling for oil off the republic’s Baltic Sea coast. They were able to organize groups to preserve historical sites. Such actions, now legal, could easily assume national coloring. Concern about the official program of “bilingualism” introduced into schools to prepare children to speak Russian caused Lithuanians to rally to the cause of preserving their language, obviously a major element in Lithuanian national consciousness.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s slogans of perestroika and glasnost’, and “a state run by laws,” opened the way for Lithuanians legally to organize themselves as a national movement. In June 1988 intellectuals in Vilnius proclaimed the establishment of “The Movement for Perestroika in Lithuania,” which eventually became known simply as “Sajudis,” the Lithuanian word for “movement.” Under the banners of perestroika and glasnost, Lithuanians could now discuss long forbidden topics.

Mass meetings throughout Lithuania in the course of the summer of 1988 opened the way for the public to discover its voice – and to use that voice to sing the old, banned “National Hymn.” Veterans of deportations could for the first time talk freely about their experiences; environmentalists spoke of dangers to the physical health of the nation; writers protested that their very language was in danger. Advocating first of all the causes of environmental protection and preservation of the language, Sajudis, within a few months, moved to political issues.

On August 23, 1988, some 150-200,000 persons gathered in Vingis Park in Vilnius to observe the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet agreement of August 23, 1939. Speakers denounced the pact and the subsequent Soviet takeover of Lithuania, and spectators left the meeting with new focused determination. Two months later, October 22-24, Sajudis held its constituent convention and established itself as the national organization that eventually led Lithuania to independence.

In March 1990, the Lithuanian parliament, under Sajudis’s direction, proclaimed Lithuania’s independence. Moscow, however, refused to recognize this action and in January 1991 the Soviet army seized key buildings in Vilnius in a vain attempt to reestablish Gorbachev’s authority. In September 1991, after the abortive putsch in Moscow against Gorbachev, the Soviet authorities were pulled out of the buildings they had occupied, and Lithuania won world recognition as an independent state.



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