Lithuanian brothers. This is the National Salvation Committee, ”said the sickly sweet voice over the loudspeaker. “All power in the republic is now in our hands. It is the power of workers, peasants and soldiers. All resistance is meaningless. ”
It was January 13, 1991, and I had just watched as Soviet tanks and soldiers mowed down civilians at the Vilnius television tower. Fourteen died on that day, which is now known as Lithuania’s Bloody Sunday.
It was the culmination of months of confrontation with Moscow, after the Lithuanians declared independence from the Soviet Union. I had flown to Vilnius from Moscow to report for the FT as Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet leadership issued a string of ultimatums for Lithuania to back down. The crowd had gathered around the TV tower after Soviet troops seized control of others mass media in the capital. They remembered what half a century of Soviet occupation had been like – and they did not want to go back.
Ever since, Lithuania has celebrated the anniversary as the Day of the Defenders of Freedom. But that morning, as I rushed to parliament, the next expected target of a Soviet onslaught, it looked like the end of the Baltic republic’s struggle to regain the independence that had been snuffed out by Josef Stalin in 1940. With me were a dozen other foreign journalists including my husband, Ralph, then reporting for Reuters.
Knocking on a door in an apartment block overlooking the parliament, Ralph and I were taken in by Ramune and Arvijdas, a couple with a cat and a cello who saw it as their patriotic duty to help. We stayed with them for 10 days expecting the worst. Yet no attack came – and, by the end of the year, the Soviet Union itself had collapsed.
Today, as Vladimir Putin prosecutes a ruthless war to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, the Kremlin’s preposterous lies and total control of the media bring back memories of that time – as does western admiration for the heroism of a smaller nation defending itself from Moscow’s predations .
Other than today’s incomparably larger scale of aggression, the big difference is that Russian power is these days concentrated in the hands of just one man, who decries the fall of the Soviet Union as the geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
“Whereas what happened with the end of the Soviet Union was a fight for the future,” says Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist who leads Yabloko, which he describes as Russia’s last opposition party, “what’s going on now is a fight for the past” .
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Lithuania, like its neighbors Estonia and Latvia, went on to join the EU and NATO. Their relatively smooth integration into the club of western democracies stood in contrast to that of other eastern European nations.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Vladimir Putin gained power, restoring a semblance of prosperity and stability to Russians exhausted by a decade of internal political turmoil. He hung on to it by eliminating rivals and seizing control of the mass media.
According to Yavlinsky, who was born in the Ukrainian city of Lviv but has lived in Moscow since the age of 17, Ukraine’s young democracy posed an intolerable challenge for Putin.
“Why? Because Ukraine decided to become a European state, to elect a new president every five years, to have an independent judiciary, and genuine property rights, ”said the 69-year-old, speaking from Moscow recently. “That was the starting point, because if all these things could happen in Ukraine, what would the Russian people say? If it’s possible in Ukraine and Belarus, then what next? Putin decided to destroy this challenge. “
Yet as Yavlinsky sees it, the rot began with Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin, whose entourage in 1995 made a deal giving oligarchs shares in valuable state-owned companies at knockdown prices in return for help fending off a resurgent Communist party. “That created a mafia corporate state,” he argues.
It may now be too late for Russians to stop the devastation. Putin has embroiled Ukraine in a terrible war that could destroy the hopes of a generation. But the example of Lithuania reminds the rest of the democratic world, in which some leaders have been playing hard and fast with the truth, to guard fiercely its right to freedom from lies.