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How Lithuania grasped freedom

Millennium song festival
Dancers at this year's song festival celebrate the country's 1,000 years

Lithuania is holding festivities to mark 1,000 years since the country was first mentioned in historic chronicles. It is also 20 years since the nation intensified efforts to split from the USSR. The BBC's Olexiy Solohubenko looks back at 1989 and asks how far the country has come.

Vytautas Landsbergis sits next to his grand piano and talks about music, politics and memories of 1989.

Two decades ago, the music professor - and now member of the European Parliament - was leader of the Sajudis movement struggling for Lithuanian independence.

"Of course we knew it would be very tense, and we knew that we could be crushed, but we also knew that we had no other choice and that it was the time for Lithuania to regain its freedom, despite the threat of tanks," he says.

Vytautas Landsbergis
Vytautas Landsbergis: Professor, president and MEP

Soviet tanks did come to the streets of Vilnius in 1990 and 1991 - one of the few places when the Kremlin thought military power could still win.

Before the tanks there were behind-the-scene talks. The irony was that the Soviet president Gorbachev had to confront not just the independence movement but also the Communist Party of Lithuania, which also wanted independence.

Prison cells

At one meeting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was filmed castigating Lithuanian leaders: "You are not savages, you will never leave," he shouted.

Algirdas Brazauskas, a former president and prime minister of Lithuania, and 20 years ago the leader of the Lithuanian Communist Party, chuckles as he recalls how the authorities in Moscow clung to Soviet illusions.

Algirdas Brazauskas
Algirdas Brazauskas: Lectured, like a child, by Soviet leaders

"For them it was not an illusion. They thought things would actually stay the way they were. They formed a commission on Baltic affairs which included five or six Politburo members, the head of the KGB [Viktor Chebrikov] and Defence Minister Marshall Yazov.

"They will again and again tell us to come to Moscow, and there I would sit at one end of the table and they would sit at the other and they would lecture me for two or three hours like a child."

He was threatened on many occasions, he says, "and not only threatened but specifically told they would use all available means - the army, the KGB - to put the Lithuanian situation under control."

Vytautas Landsbergis later discovered one aspect of the plan to deal seriously with the independence leaders.

"Of course we could be executed," he says. "Later, after we declared independence, we learned a strange thing: it appears that the prison cells in the KGB building in Vilnius which used to hold 20 prisoners were all freshly painted and had bunks for two - with fresh linen."

"I was told it was for us," he smiles, "in case some Western politicians would start asking about the fate of Lithuanian political prisoners - see, they are in jail, but what a nice jail it is…"

Poland's dramatic rejection of communist rule in 1989 had a great influence on Lithuania as it struggled to break from Moscow. Baltic solidarity also played a key role - all three countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) used singing festivals as a means of peaceful protest, and the events of 1988-91 have become known as the "singing revolution".

A key event took place on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, on 23 August 1989, when hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians joined hands with Latvians and Estonians in a human chain across the Baltic states.

It was the strongest signal to Moscow that independence was on the cards - and the strongest signal to local leaders that, should they support independence, the people would support them.

Home-grown leader

Lithuania has come a long way since then.

Dalia Grybauskaite
Dalia Grybauskaite was elected as an independent with 60% of the vote

The biography of Dalia Grybauskaite, just elected as Lithuania's new president on an independent ticket, reveals something about the national mood.

The outgoing president, Valdas Adamkus, spent most of his life in the United States, returning only after independence.

Ms Grybauskaite has one foot in the West and one in the East. She studied in Moscow and the US as well as Vilnius, and has spent the last five years in Brussels as Lithuania's European commissioner.

"I think it gives the message that Lithuania has finally got its own leaders, who were born here, grown here, studied everywhere, took the best of all societies," she says.

"And as a person of my generation I was living in both societies and we'll try to bring the best that we had in all societies and to try to live for a better future of our country."

Lithuania's singing revolution gave people here the opportunities and risks of a free market and free society.

While there may be some lingering nostalgia among older citizens for the stability of Soviet times, the new generation feels firmly a part of Europe.

The EU flag here is more visible than in many other countries of Europe - it's a statement, an affirmation of where Lithuania belongs.



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