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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

1991: Paying the Price of Freedom
Helen Womack

The young woman sitting next to me on the plane clutched a bag of Lena River fish and a Lithuanian passport— actually a Soviet passport that she had backed with green card. Snezhana, from Tixi in the Arctic, was the daughter of Lithuanians exiled to Siberia by Stalin and now she was coming home to start a new life in Vilnius.

Inside and around the Lithuanian parliament building, January 1991


“There are too many Lithuanian graves in Siberia,” she said, according to my notebook from the time.

It was February 1991 and the Lithuanians were voting “taip” or “ne” (yes or no) in a referendum on independence. In fact, in March 1990 they had already made themselves clear with a declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. But they were going through the motions again to satisfy Moscow, which was extracting a high price for relaxing its grip. In the early 1990s, there were too many Lithuanian burials in Lithuania too.

After the first declaration of independence, Moscow had tried to strangle Lithuania with an economic blockade and was sending in troops, ostensibly to round-up draft dodgers. In May 1990, I was in Kaunas to interview the widow of Stanislovas Zhemaitis, who left his wedding ring and two months’ wages on the kitchen table and travelled to Moscow to set fire to himself on Red Square. “Forgive me if I did anything wrong in my life,” he wrote to his wife Stasele, “but I can’t go on. The occupiers have turned off the tap and sent in the paratroopers.”

Soviet tanks and soldiers ringed the Seimas (parliament), inside which President Vytautas Landsbergis and his government barricaded themselves. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians demonstrated outside, as they said “armed only with our songs”.

On 13 January 1991, Soviet troops killed 13 Lithuanian civilians near the television tower in Vilnius. I did not witness the killings but was at the hillside cemetery of Antakalnio shortly afterwards. “The Communists do not respect human life,” said a young engineer called Arturas. “They have murdered millions of people, so what are 13 more?”

Above the freshly dug graves was a wooden crucifix, carved by folk sculptor Ipolitas Uzkurnys. In his studio in Vilnius, he was carving 13 small oak figures of Christ, the Man of Sorrows, to give to the bereaved families.

Mr. Uzkurnys cursed the Russians but was hardly more forgiving towards the West, which was tied up at that time with the First Gulf War and distracted from the Baltic crisis. “So you will write an article,” he snapped at me. “Your soul does not hurt. If your brothers and sisters had died, you would have written a whole book.”

I returned to the besieged parliament, paying close attention to the advice of more experienced correspondents who told me always to keep in mind a possible route of exit from tense, closed situations. I spent a brief time in the bunker with President Landsbergis, a romantic musicologist who’d made a defiant farewell address to the nation and said he was ready to die. Around him, nervous youths sat on sand bags and nursed hunting rifles. Fortunately, it didn’t come to the storming of parliament. By the end of January 1991, Soviet troops began pulling out after Washington exerted its influence.

After the intense emotion and obvious national unity I saw in Lithuania, the resistance to the hardline coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 felt flat by comparison. Russians came to the White House in Moscow to support Boris Yeltsin when he famously leapt on a tank to defy the putsch. But for a country the size of Russia, there were not enough pro-democracy demonstrators, or so it seemed to me. Thousands stood up for their freedom but was the whole country really behind them?

At home in Moscow, we switched on the television to see Swan Lake, the coup plotters’ choice of viewing. Staying with us were Russian friends who were due to make their first visit to the West. I remember the father of the family crying, as he and his wife in all seriousness discussed the possibility of fleeing to London themselves and leaving their three-year-old daughter behind with grandma, in the hope of a reunion perhaps years in the future.

In the event, within three days, the tragedy of the August putsch turned into a comedy and Gorbachev returned, although fatally weakened.

It was a comedy except for Ilya Krichevsky, Dmitry Komar and Vladimir Usov, who gave their lives trying to stop tanks from smashing through a barricade on the Garden Ring. I joined the crowds in their funeral procession from Manezh Square to the White House. Lithuanian, Georgian and Ukrainian flags fluttered among the tricolours of the new Russia. Solemn vows were made that they would never be forgotten. But who remembers them now?

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