ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2009 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 55, No.2 - Summer 2009
Editor of this issue: Gražina Slavėnas.

Lithuanian Dissent in the Context of Central and Eastern Europe: 1953-1980


Tomas Venclova is a poet, essayist, and scholar. He is currently professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He took part in the Lithuanian dissident movement and is one of the founders of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. Among his books in English are Forms of Hope (Essays), Winter Dialogue (Poems), Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast, and Vilnius Personalities (forthcoming).

Tomas Venclova, a cofounder of the Lithuanian Helsinki Human Rights Watch Committee, draws on personal experience in this survey of dissent in Soviet Lithuania. There was no Berlin, or Poznań, or a Hungarian revolt, or Poland’s October of 1956, or Prague Spring of 1968. The first overt act of protest was Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation in Kaunas in 1972, followed by underground publications, foremost Lietuvos katalikų bažnyčios kronika (Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church). The turning point was the trial of Sergei Kovalyov (for overseas distribution of Kronika) and the founding of the Lithuanian Helsinki Watch Committee in Vilnius. Contacts with similar groups in Latvia, Estonia, Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia provided the needed international context and foreshadowed the events of 1988-1991.

On the last page of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak wrote: “Portents of freedom filled the air throughout the post-war period, and they alone defined its historical significance.” These words are appropriate to Lithuania too, but with some modifications. The first decade after the war was one of the most difficult periods in Lithuanian history. The thirst for freedom was there, of course, but it was difficult to find a portent of freedom. In the beginning, the illusion that the Western Allies would force the Soviet Army to withdraw from the Baltic nations continued to persist. Many believed that the country would not be completely Sovietized, and that they would succeed in retaining at least a modicum of autonomy, particularly in the cultural sphere. However, by the end of 1946, this illusion began to crumble and soon disintegrated completely. The communist government that returned to Lithuania was unchanged from the first occupation: totalitarian, brutal, and cynical. In fact, the scale of repressions and deportations was larger than it had been before the war. In the course of a few years, the authorities succeeded in crushing and destroying the anti-communist partisans as well as many of the peasants who supported them.

Moreover, the Soviet authorities found some collaborators among the village inhabitants by making promises and allowing them to appropriate property originally owned by people who were deported or otherwise politically repressed. They also recruited enough agents to infiltrate the partisan units in large numbers, and even to reach the very highest levels of the resistance movement. By the end of the Stalin era, Lithuanian armed resistance was crushed. A large segment of Lithuania’s political and cultural elite had already fled to the West while many of those who remained ended up in Soviet prisons or in the Gulag. As a result, the intelligentsia that remained was broken and demoralized. It was obvious to them that in order to save their lives and still serve Lithuania’s cause, it was necessary to conceal their true viewpoints until a better time, and to wear the outward mask of fellow travelers, loyalists, or outright communists. In many instances, this mask stuck to the face permanently, or grew deep into the soul.

Portents of freedom were palpable again after 1953 – that is, after Stalin’s death – mostly among the younger generation. On the surface, the totalitarian nature of the government was unchanged, but anyone who lived through those times remembers the gradual evolution that at times was quite marked and even hopeful. By the middle of the sixties, the change was already obvious: the communist system had begun to loosen up and even allowed itself to do so. The states of Central and Eastern Europe – some more, some less – took active part in this process, and Russia itself did not escape it. But in the Baltic States, including Lithuania, the process was somewhat different.

The entire mechanism of state life continued to be regulated from Moscow. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were also subject to this regulation, but control there was not as all-inclusive as it was in the Baltic States. Only in East Germany was the “degree of captivity” comparable. However, the occupied Baltic countries didn’t have even that much formal independence. They had been turned into provinces. The impact on each country’s economy, culture and national identity was devastating. The hypocritical constitution denied the most elementary democratic rights, and repressed all political dissent. National symbols were banned and language rights limited. The security system was perhaps not as omnipotent as before, but people were already so paralyzed by fear they fully believed – and some still do today – that the system was invincible. Although Russianization in some respects was not as strict as it had been under the Tsarist government – schools, the press, and cultural institutions continued for the most part to use the Lithuanian language – the Russian language loomed large in all strategic departments, such as the army, postal service, and transportation, and a great deal of time and effort was spent in inculcating its use. Language rights were also restricted for Lithuania’s ethnic minorities, sometimes even more so than for the Lithuanians. The status of religion differed markedly from that in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland. There the Catholic Church retained a good deal of its independence and continued to be a powerful social force, exerting its influence on society. In Lithuania, the fierce antireligious propaganda, the strict restrictions on religious teachings, the government’s intrusion into the life of the Church, the repression and the recruitment of priests, and the petty discriminatory measures against believers were much more obvious and broke down cultural traditions. This affected all of Lithuania’s confessions. Movement was controlled much more strictly than in other European satellite states, and so was access to information. An ineffective economic system was implanted, designed to tie Lithuania to Russia and the other Soviet republics for all time (although in the long run people learned to circumvent this system somewhat.)

All of the above led to a splintering and coarsening of society that has not been overcome even today. Amorality, corruption, and atrophy of civic consciousness, the obstacles to progress that we observe and deplore today, are, for the most part, the legacy of the communist period.

On the other hand, the situation in Lithuania was better than in some of the other Soviet republics. Political repression was not as brutal as it continued to be in the Ukraine, nor was there as much destruction of local culture as in Belarus. The languages of the Baltic republics, as in Georgia and Armenia, were more or less officially recognized as “having potential” – a privilege the Ukrainians, Belarus or Central Asian nationals were not accorded. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, but I assume that the West’s policy of refusing to recognize the Soviet annexation of Lithuania played a role. Although the communist government officially ignored that policy, it still had to deal with the West, and therefore camouflaged its true intentions.

After the collapse of partisan warfare, a true and widespread resistance ethos was lacking in Lithuania. There was no Berlin, or Poznań, or Hungarian revolt, or Poland’s October of 1956, or the Prague Spring of 1968. The only overt act of resistance, although on a much smaller scale, was Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation, followed by a protest in Kaunas in 1972. In comparison to Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Estonia, Ukraine, and dissident Russia, the Lithuanian intelligentsia, with a few exceptions, refrained from open protest (such as open letters, unofficial committees or scholarly courses, or involvement with uncensored or foreign publications). Their actions were limited at best to ecological concerns and the situation of Lithuanian schools in neighboring Belarus (unfortunately, anti-Polish sentiment was also considered a sign of patriotism). Whatever dissent there was took place “under the rug.” People had already built successful official careers and had become skillful in making compromises. It was argued that overt forms of protest would threaten the very existence of the nation, because occupied Lithuania had to play by other rules than its “more fortunate” neighbors – the satellite states of Europe. It is my belief that this threat was exaggerated and was used to justify caution and inaction and, in turn, weakened the nation’s potential for resistance. Is a nation worth its physical preservation if it vegetates with its spine broken? On the other hand, it is always a minority that chooses resistance and its risks. The rest join in only at the moment of a clear-cutturning point. This occurred in Lithuania in the years 1988-91. Until then, only the surviving partisans, deportees, and émigrés remained unconditionally loyal to the ideas of prewar independence.

The prevailing strategy adopted after 1953 was called “organic work.” I use this term in analogy to the Tsarist years. It meant being as useful to Lithuania as undesirable circumstances allowed and spreading “the zone of freedom,” even without much hope that freedom was attainable. At the very beginning some people still went by the naïve assumption that Lithuania’s “higher standard” of culture would gradually overcome barbarism, or that barbarity would resolve social problems and in the end give birth to a new and more worthwhile civilization. The Stalin era quickly destroyed these illusions. But after that era of unrestrained terror had come to an end, people reverted to this “organic work” in various ways and with varying degrees of success.

Today passionate arguments arise about its use and effectiveness. The former communist functionaries maintain that they employed it effectively to benefit Lithuania, even helping to bring about its independence. The opposition (the right wing, including some of those who joined the right only recently) calls them traitors and Soviet collaborators. The essence of this argument is not so much a matter of principles as a battle over government control. A historian should be able to make a more objective assessment. The communists, no doubt, overstate their merits, but many of them were indeed involved in at least some “organic work,” especially people who had managed to adapt to the party without actually joining it. They were convinced that the totalitarian government was there to stay for generations to come, and attempted to give some meaning to their lives by engaging in this so-called “quiet work for Lithuania.” However, all too often their “meaning of life” turned into personal profit. In Soviet Lithuania, as everywhere, there was no shortage of careerists and cynics.

It is also important to note that the Soviet system had gained supporters among the lower classes by providing them with education (however limited) and the possibility of social advancement. For this reason, a substantial segment of young people (more than is admitted today) were pro-Soviet and, as the government had hoped, offered support to the regime, but in the end they turned against it and contributed to its downfall.

All in all, “organic work” had many positive consequences. It helped to preserve and foster the cultural infrastructure, including educational and scholarly institutions, theaters, museums, the film industry, and the arts. This continues to this day. Innovations in literature, theater, music, philosophy, and the arts were apparent. Lithuanian classics were published despite censorship. A certain amount of industry was created, often ecologically damaging, more often completely unnecessary, but from time to time useful. Good roads were constructed, albeit for strategic military purposes. The ethnic makeup of Vilnius and Klaipėda was irreparably altered to Lithuania’s advantage, and the Vilnius and Klaipėda areas were totally integrated into Lithuania, even though this nearly destroyed the former regional cultures in those areas. Gradually, a clear pattern emerged during this period: thaws were followed by freezes, but every thaw went a little farther, and thus some gains remained, solidified, and spread.

Alexander Shtromas once called the advocates of “organic work” “intrastructural” dissenters as opposed to the openly opposed “extrastructural” dissenters. Incidentally, independence was won when both sides united. Paradoxically, it was the very nature of the regime that helped to unite them. As soon as an intrastructural dissident overstepped the line, he or she would lose status in the public sphere and had no choice but to join the ranks of extrastructural dissenters.

In the beginning, the extrastructural dissidents (many of them prefer to be called resistance fighters) were former political prisoners and former deportees, of whom, after 1956, a certain number were allowed to return to their homeland, where they continued to hold on to the old ideals of independence and to spread them among the younger generation. Small islands formed around them, subscribing to different rules than those prevailing in the totalitarian milieu. Similar islands were created by a number of activist priests and many prewar intellectuals, even those who outwardly accommodated to the regime, such as Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, Juozas Keliuotis, or Juozas Miltinis. In these circles, the focus was not on politics but on religion or culture, although in a totalitarian system these things are impossible to separate. During the period of de-Stalinization after 1956, such islands began to emerge spontaneously among the younger generation, who chose nonconformist behavior and shunned any appearance of collaboration. After 1958, young activists grew bolder, and their activities included raising flags on former national holidays, writing slogans on walls, distributing pamphlets, and creating plans for the future (albeit naive ones). Others sought to educate themselves about their prewar history and undertook underground printing. These groups were not numerous and consisted as a rule of only a few individuals, several dozen at the most, and most of them did not last for more than three years. They inescapably attracted the attention of the KGB, and their activities ended with arrests, prison terms, blacklisting, recruitment attempts, or at best so-called “preventative talks.” Of course, there were also direct security provocations.

The events in Poland and the uprising in Hungary provided a strong stimulus to all these groups. The extrastructural dissidents were more directly engaged in illegal activities. They demanded more extensive language rights, promoted the purity of the Lithuanian language, and clandestinely studied Lithuania’s history, specifically the forbidden pages of history – the partisan war, deportations, and the émigré press. Catholicism was revived, as well as folk traditions and pagan mythology. Ethnographical associations frequently overstepped the boundary of legality. In 1967, admirers of the ancient pagan religion created the semi-legal “Romuva.” It was partially tolerated by the government, which planned to use it in its battle against the Christian Church, but eventually the government had to exert control over its activities. Western fashion, art, literature, and philosophy began to filter through the censor’s net and border control. Ties were established with Poland, which enjoyed a special status as a People’s Democracy, and whose press, literature, music, and lifestyle were not difficult to access and offered far more freedom than what was available inside the Soviet Union. Useful cultural relations with East Germany were established, and solidarity with Latvia and Estonia. Competition developed with Estonia, where “undesirable” Western influences were particularly pronounced. Some news, though sparse, arrived about dissidents and nonconformists in the Ukraine and the Caucasus. Last but not least, unofficial Russia began to emerge as a focal point of dissent – first it was Pasternak’s case in 1958, and later Solzhenitsyn began to reach a broader range of people. In the Gulag, there developed close cooperation with Russian democrats.

Brezhnev’s and Andropov’s re-Stalinization efforts failed to suppress the ferment throughout the communist world, including Lithuania. The invasion of Prague in August of 1968 put only a temporary stop to this hopeful period. Young Lithuanian soldiers serving in the Soviet army were sent there to suppress the uprising (as they had twelve years earlier in Hungary) – in my opinion, one of the truly heinous crimes of the Soviet empire against an occupied people – but it also exposed them to the discontent brewing elsewhere (although almost no one knew Czech or Slovak!). Extrastructural dissent grew stronger, as well as the belief that much of the “organic work” was a form of self-deception. The symbol of this period was Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation in Kaunas on June 14, 1972. Kalanta’s funeral led to demonstrations, and for a short time the city nearly fell into the hands of Kaunas locals. Not much is known about the nineteen-year-old Romas Kalanta. He appears to have been interested in Western youth subculture, and it is thought that he imitated Jan Palach, who had burned himself alive as a sign of protest three years earlier in Prague. Kalanta executed his act in a public space – across from the theater building where, in 1940, the puppet Peoples Parliament voted for Lithuania to join the USSR. There were several more self-immolations, but none had the same impact. One way or another, the events in Kaunas marked a new phase in Lithuania’s dissent movement.

A few years earlier, Lithuania attracted the world’s attention through an incident in the United States. In the fall of 1970, the Lithuanian seaman Simas Kudirka defected from a Soviet ship in search of political asylum in the United States. He was forcibly returned to the Soviet vessel on the orders of an American officer and there savagely beaten in full view of the American crew. The mishandling of the case led to a public outcry, especially among the Baltic émigré community, and was finally resolved at the highest levels of the U.S. government, resulting in Kudirka’s release from Soviet prison and permission to emigrate to the United States. In the same year, Pranas and Algirdas Brazinkas tried to escape to Turkey with a hijacked airplane. While their case belongs to a different category, it served as another desperate attempt to escape from Soviet Lithuania.

Romas Kalanta’s death more or less coincided with the beginnings of the Lithuanian self-publishing phenomenon. The first significant uncensored journal was Lietuvos katalikų bažnyčios kronika (The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania), published from 1972 to 1989, almost to the restoration of Lithuania’s independence. Kronika was an anonymous but reliable publication which, following examples of unofficial Russian samizdat publications, documented infringements of human rights. Russian dissidents, who had good contacts, helped to distribute it to the West. Nevertheless, its roots were local, to some extent paralleling the methods of the prewar Christian Democrats during the Smetona government. The Pope was an avid Kronika reader, three Popes, in fact: Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II . Kronika was followed by other Lithuanian periodicals – fourteen altogether, a higher number than in any other area of the Soviet empire. Kronika remained the most influential and the most skillfully edited; it limited its coverage to factual reports whereas other journals did not exclude polemics. The groups of dissidents who converged around these journals attempted to represent a spectrum of different viewpoints, but in fact the journals were fairly similar, espousing an elementary nationalistic program and demands to end the occupation, but without offering serious political or sociological analyses, or clear scenarios of the future. The intrastructural dissidents – with a few exceptions – did not support the underground press, partly because they viewed it as simplistic, but more likely out of caution. On the other hand, the émigré community was deeply involved in distributing illegal publications in the U.S. On the forefront was the liberal organization Santara-Šviesa. Its members carefully monitored both the official and unofficial Soviet Lithuanian press and attempted to unite all directions of dissent to develop Lithuania’s political consciousness. In retrospect, Santara-Šviesa and its journal Metmenys roughly played the same role as the Polish journal Kultura. Today we see that this strategy was correct and proved successful. Valdas Adamkus, a long-time member of Santara-Šviesa, is now Lithuania’s president.

In December 1975, foreshadowing the events of 1988-89, dissent became tied to a wider, international context. Sergei Kovalyov was arrested in Moscow for assisting in the overseas distribution of the Kronika. The KGB transferred him to Vilnius, where Kovalyov was to be tried without international observers. But the government erred in its calculations. Andrei Sakharov, Kovalyov’s friend, having just been awarded the Nobel Prize, decided to come to Vilnius for the trial. His visit to Vilnius had international reverberations. He stood outside the doors of the Vilnius courthouse exactly at the time he should have been receiving the Nobel Prize. It was exactly then, and not without Sakharov’s influence, that the idea arose to found the Helsinki Group for the purpose of defending human rights. The members, who belonged to wildly varying groups, were united by a single thought: wherever one person’s rights are violated, everyone suffers. The Helsinki Group was founded at the end of 1976, and created a precedent that remains relevant to an independent Europeanized Lithuania even today. Members of the Helsinki Watch Group formed ties with the Latvians and Estonians, as well as with similar groups in Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia. The founding in 1978 of Tikinčiųjų teisių gynimo komitetas (Committee to Defend the Rights of Believers) and Lietuvos laisvės lyga (Lithuanian Freedom League) were further steps in the same general direction. The Committee (Tikinčiųjų teisių gynimo komitetas) went public from the very beginning, and Lietuvos laisvės lyga did so during the Gorbachev period. Finally, in 1979, forty-five Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians publicly demanded independence. Of historical significance was the fact that several well-known Russian dissidents supported the Helsinki Declaration, including Andrei Sakharov, who was deeply involved.

These acts, at first only symbolic, gradually prepared the ground for Sąjūdis and subsequent historical events that unfolded a decade later. One flame of resistance helped ignite another. The little islands that had acted independently grew and finally coalesced into an alternative society, and this meant the beginning of freedom.

The extrastructural dissidents did not avoid the shortcomings that are typical of any underground movement. Lack of tolerance, disdain for practitioners of “organic work,” and personal feuds eventually spread to public political life, while the excessive ambitions of some leaders blocked them from securing a proper place in independent Lithuania. Nevertheless, such names as Nijolė Sadūnaitė, Antanas Terleckas, Viktoras Petkus, Vytautas Skuodis, Balys Gajauskas, Alfonsas Svarinskas, Vladas Šakalys, and others have all entered the pages of Lithuania’s history and cannot be erased, regardless of what position they assumed, or did not assume, later.

Lithuanian dissent had other weaknesses that a social historian cannot overlook. Dissenters, both legal and illegal, limited their battles almost exclusively to the preservation of Lithuanian identity. In reality, except for the Stalin era, the communist government, while prohibiting independent governance and democratic ideas, did not particularly restrict ethnicity; it castrated nations rather than annihilated them. The so-called “national self-defense” was to many Lithuanian intellectuals a sacred duty to which they devoted their best efforts, but it was all too often linked to provincial isolation, chauvinism, xenophobia, and even racism. Lithuanian identity was defined in a very narrow sense and included elements of a “blood and soil” mythology, a peasant worldview, and idealization of the village as the “source of national strength.” Compared with Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary, Lithuania lacked an urban working class and an urban intelligentsia at least two or three generations deep. Backwardness was turned into a virtue. Incidentally, ethnic nationalism is not incompatible with the Soviet mentality; in fact, the two complement each other and sometimes sustain one another. More than one Lithuanian intellectual considered “national” communism (i.e., without the Russians) to be more acceptable than Western Capitalism. Ethnic nationalism was used by the Soviet totalitarian system to extend its control by dividing enslaved nations and setting them against each other. For example, when the government wished to undermine the influence of Poland’s Solidarity movement on Lithuania, it resorted to traditional anti-Polish resentments. The government also made use of anti-Semitism and even Russophobia. (According to interrogation records, KGB agents found it upsetting that Lithuanian dissidents cooperated with “Jews and Russians”). This one-sided mindset was reflected in many works of literature from that period as well as in the pages of the underground press. The Lithuanian intelligentsia refused to admit that national identity is a dynamic, living, changing, and self-renewing phenomenon, and that nineteenth-century concepts of nationhood are anachronistic in today’s world. Today we find this mindset in the rhetoric of “antiglobalization” and “anti-Europeanization,” which are presented as the greatest threat to Lithuanian national identity. It perpetuates a lack of understanding that antidemocratic ideology is a bigger danger than the threats posed by real or imaginary geopolitics or demographics.

Lithuania lacked intellectuals in the style of a Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, or György Konrád, who were able to cast a critical glance on their own traditions as well as on communism. The argument that “we did not have this luxury because we were in mortal danger” does not convince this writer, all the more so since an uncritical, apologetic attitude toward our nation and its history is still popular today, when mortal danger truly no longer exists. In this respect, Lithuania is closer to Romania, Slovakia and, alas, even Serbia (not to mention the Kaczyński brothers in Poland) than it is to more advanced Central and Eastern European countries. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that Lithuania has passed its test of citizenship, pluralism and tolerance better than expected, even surpassing some of its neighbors.