LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 57, No.2 - Summer 2011
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
When the Tanks Rolled – Vilnius 1991
ALFRED ERICH SENN
ALFRED ERICH SENN is author of several books on Lithuanian history and editor of Robert Heingartner, Lithuania in the 1920s: A Diplomat’s Diary (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2010).
An account of the author’s experiences in Vilnius during the “January Days” of 1991 when Soviet troops, backed up by tanks, seized several strategic buildings in the Lithuanian capital.
In the first week of December 2010, I began thinking about the twentieth anniversary of the “January events” (sausio įvykiai) in Lithuania in January 1991. Official anniversaries emphasize lessons and current concerns; as the American journalist Ted Koppel has said, “History is a tool for politicians to justify their ambitions.” I was not driven by any political ambition; I simply began to feel an urge to record my memories of January 1991: How I witnessed the “January events,” the violence in Lithuania in January 1991. And I succumbed to this urge. This is not an account of what happened in Lithuania in that week; it is an account of my experiences in Lithuania in that week. I originally wrote it for a small group of friends and relatives who I believe might be interested; their response has led me to offer it to a larger audience.
Memory is tricky. We remember what we want, and perhaps also what we most do not want to remember. In between is a lot of space. My account draws on three sources, all of which are my own doing: 1. My memory – those were days that were burned into my memory; 2. Accounts that I have published – particularly Lithuania in Crisis, a pamphlet published in March 1991 and several times translated into Lithuanian, and Gorbachev’s Failure in Lithuania, a book I published in 1995; and 3. A little grey notebook in which I scrawled thoughts and impressions during those days.
My decision to go to Lithuania in January 1991 was built on past experiences. In the fall of 1988, I had participated in the fascinating development of Lithuanian national feeling. When the opportunity came to join a delegation headed to Lithuania in January 1990 to consolidate the “Sister Cities” relationship between Vilnius and Madison, my daughter and I signed up. The trip fell between semesters at the university, and since that time accidentally coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Lithuania, it provided a real “upper” for returning to the classroom. In the summer of 1990, I visited Lithuania during a governmental crisis there that probably never will reach the history books, and after all this, I decided it would be fun to go again in the space between semesters in January 1991.
Lithuania was changing rapidly. Having declared their independence of Moscow, the Lithuanians had split into political factions among themselves. Gorbachev was showing growing impatience, but he was having trouble keeping order even in Moscow. Nevertheless, I really did not expect any sudden outburst of trouble. Despite the uncertainties, I received a Soviet visa very quickly – quite a contrast to the situation during Moscow’s blockade of Lithuania in the summer of 1990, when the Soviet mission in Washington first denied me a visa and then called me on the phone to tell me to apply again.
It was not easy to fly into Lithuania in those days. In 1990, I had to fly through Moscow. In January 1991, my ticket read Chicago-Amsterdam-Berlin-Vilnius. On the first leg, flying to Amsterdam, I sat with an Irishman who had been working in the post office in Minneapolis and now considered this to be his cheapest route home. (I still cannot explain that.) When I told him of my destination, he declared that once there I should buy a horse. Why? Because the Soviets would impose a new blockade, and horseback would be my only possible transportation out of the country. I laughed that off.
In Berlin, where I overnighted, the radio gave me news of trouble exploding in Lithuania. Moscow had sent troops into Lithuania, allegedly to collect recalcitrant military recruits. Russians in Vilnius, with the support of the military, were mounting demonstrations against the government. Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskienė had resigned under pressure from the parliament; Lithuania had to form a new government. This sounded serious, but on I traveled. On the plane to Vilnius, I met a small group of Germans who were planning business contacts in Lithuania. We compared travel itineraries: We were flying in on Wednesday, January 9, and we would see each other when we departed on Wednesday the 16th. That was quite a week.
My friend Alfonsas Eidintas met me at the airport and apologized that his wife Birutė could not provide me with my traditional first meal in Lithuania. The stores had been closed on Tuesday because the government had ordered an increase in food prices, but with Prunskienė’s fall from power, the parliament had cancelled the increase. As a result, stores had to close again on Wednesday to reduce marked prices. We ate at the Neringa Hotel (where I was to stay), and after dinner we went to Independence Square where Lithuanians were gathered to protect the parliament building from Russian demonstrators. I was deeply moved when some Lithuanians recognized me and shouted things like “Tell the world that we are not afraid.”
The continued presence of Lithuanian demonstrators at the parliament and the television tower was a major factor in the developments of the following days. Lithuanian leaders announced quotas for various regions of the republic to send people in buses to the capital to serve shifts at the two buildings. The demand for bread in the city grew enormously over the next several days, and subsequently Lithuanians were advisors for demonstrators throughout the Soviet Union on problems of providing food and toilet facilities for large crowds. At times musical groups provided entertainment, and the demonstrations occasionally had the tone more of a festival than of a guard watch.
That evening I learned that, late in the afternoon, Soviet troops had briefly occupied the television tower in Vilnius, suddenly withdrawing again. I later came to suspect that the Soviets had planned for Russian demonstrators at this time to take over the parliament, and then the television facilities would serve new masters. The Lithuanians, however, had gathered too many defenders at the parliament to allow any quick move, and the military retreated. Television that evening showed a basketball game between Kauno Žalgiris and Moscow TsSKA. Žalgiris won; Lithuanians hoped they could take this as a good sign.
Thursday the 10th was a day of rising tension. In the afternoon, I was in the Mažvydas Library, next to the parliament, when the radio brought news that Gorbachev had sent an ultimatum demanding that the Lithuanians cease their efforts “to restore the bourgeois order.” The Lithuanian government called for popular support. My friends in the library took me to a large window on a high staircase across from the parliament, and I could watch Lithuanians streaming from all directions into Independence Square in front of the parliament. Many came running. The square was soon packed with people. There was no invasion.
Late in the afternoon, I made my way through the singing crowd over to the parliament, and at the security entrance, I called around to find someone who could give me a pass into the building. After a few minutes I succeeded, and I proceeded to the parliamentary floor. I knew a number of parliamentarians personally from the exciting days of 1988, and after the election of a new prime minister, Albertas Šimėnas, I was able to put together an interesting story of the maneuvers involved in his selection, in his agreement to serve, and in the protests of his own party that would not approve his selection. I subsequently put all this into my pamphlet on the January events, and as I later learned, a number of conservatives complained strongly about my readiness to reveal internal Lithuanian squabbles to the wide world. I do not think any Lithuanian has yet published an account of these maneuvers, but I have chosen not to repeat my account here. This is my personal story.
Thursday night and Friday morning, we heard more stories about Soviet measures cutting Lithuania off from the outside world. The airport was closed (Soviet special forces were flying in), the train station closed, and international trains were stopped; I heard that highways were closed. (The blockade, to be sure, seemed focused on Vilnius; I do not think people in Kaunas experienced the full taste of these measures.) As I shaved on Friday morning, listening to the radio, I thought to myself: “I am a hostage! I should grow a beard!” But I had already begun shaving, so that would not work. And I had not bought a horse! But then again, I have never ridden a horse in my life.
On Friday morning, the 11th, Eidintas and I had business. We went to the Press Building, where the publication of Lithuanian newspapers was centralized, so that I could pick up an honorarium that I was due. A group of women and men, armed with the national flag, fire hoses, and umbrellas, told us they were expecting a surge of Russian demonstrators at any time and that we should hurry. We hurried, and they waved goodbye to us as we left. We went on to a publishing house where I signed a contract for Lithuanian translations of two of my books. Upon returning past the Press Building we saw a Soviet tank parked at the entrance; the Soviet army had occupied the building. (I heard that some thirty tanks had driven around the building during Thursday to Friday night; speculation had it that this had been a rehearsal.) We later heard that a Soviet officer, sprayed by a fire hose, raked the side of the building with rounds from his gun. Lithuanian television that evening repeatedly showed film of the officer and of a truckload of dolls that had been damaged by the tank; the sight of the broken dolls surely evoked images of children victimized by rampant tank drivers. In the afternoon, troops seized the international telephone exchange.
Television news on Friday evening amply illustrated the conflict. Lithuanian television reported Soviet actions and threats; the poet Justinas Marcinkevičius spoke of a “menacing black wing” and declared, “The cause of freedom is always correct.” After the news, the mayor of Vilnius appeared on television to urge Lithuanians to provide food for the passengers stranded on the immobile international trains. Moscow television reported discrimination in Vilnius against Moscow loyalists, who had just announced the formation of the Committee for National Salvation, which in turn called for “presidential rule” to replace the existing government in Lithuania. That evening, I visited friends in Antakalnis, and at midnight, as they accompanied me to the bus stop in front of a building housing Lithuanian defense forces, we all commented on how quiet things seemed. A half hour later, a bomb blew up the building. Each evening now, Soviet tanks rumbled through the city, shaking buildings. Lines of Lithuanian cars followed them, no doubt irritating the Soviet authorities. (The Soviets had a military base, Šiaurės miestelis, in the center of the city; the tanks did not have far to go to make people notice them.)
Saturday the 12th was a day of enormous tension. Troop movements like this were not meant “for show.” Just before noon, the radio reported that George Bush’s press spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, had said it was too soon to speak of any use of force in Lithuania – this did not improve the mood in Vilnius. In Moscow, Gorbachev was meeting with his new “Federation Council,” made up of representatives of the major nationalities of the Soviet Union, and no one could be sure of the result. There were rumors that the council had established contact with the Committee for National Salvation, even that the council might seat the committee as Lithuania’s representative. Endless discussions considered the Soviet government’s previous violent actions in Tbilisi, Baku, and Moldava. (It was said that the troops that seized the Press House included veterans of Baku and Tbilisi.) Would the council approve some sort of action against the Lithuanian government?
In the afternoon, I went to Independence Square where buses were lined up to block access, and I visited the parliament to speak with various acquaintances. Audrius Siaurusevičius, then a fledgling journalist and now the director of Lithuanian radio and television, greeted me with the cheerful thought “They have not yet shot us!” I have recorded other statements by Lithuanian leaders at this time in my pamphlet Crisis in Lithuania and my book Gorbachev’s Failure in Lithuania.
In the early evening, news came that the Federation Council had decided to send a delegation to Vilnius in the hope of finding a “political” solution to the situation. For unexplained reasons, the commission would spend the night in Minsk and then fly into Vilnius on Sunday morning. The announcement brought enormous relief, but even as Moscow television seemed to be adopting a more restrained reportage, Lithuanian government spokespersons, especially Vytautas Landsbergis and Zigmas Vaišvila, called on demonstrators to remain at their posts at the television tower and the parliament building. “You cannot trust Moscow,” was their message. The State Opera, making its contribution to the spirit of sacrifice for the nation, announced that there would be no admission charge for its performance that evening of the opera Pilėnai, telling how medieval Lithuanians had set their castle on fire to prevent its capture by German invaders. On the other hand, Soviet television expressed support for the Committee for National Salvation.
That evening, I was at a social gathering of historians, and we generally believed that the worst was over. Political prophets – hah. My friend who drove me back to the Neringa Hotel was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. In fact, he got none. Shortly after his returning home, his parents demanded that he take them back into the city. Soviet troops were moving, and many Lithuanians wanted to show their national feeling and their support for their government.
I was in bed reading newspapers when the first three tank cannon shots went off at 1:36 a.m. It was now January 13. I immediately turned on my television set, and a Lithuanian spokesman said the Soviets were shooting blanks. More cannon shots. At 1:53 the television announcer reported that armed Soviet troops were “at our door” and declared that she would remain at her post as long as she could. At 1:59 they entered the station. At 2:02, Vilnius radio, located on the first floor, closed down with a crash. Television cameras showed armed Soviet soldiers advancing through the building and opening every door. At 2:08, the television sound began to fade, and at 2:09, the picture of the announcer, Eglė Bučelytė, blanked out. For another eight minutes television carried pictures from the square in front of the parliament, showing the crowd reciting the “Hail Mary” and then singing Lietuva brangi (Precious Lithuania), which had been the unofficial national anthem in the Soviet years. The demonstrators had put aside their spirit of celebration, and now they faced real danger. Then television ceased.
I rose from my bed, put on a warm-up suit, and went out into the hotel lobby to find someone, anyone, to talk to. The hotel administrator came to me and asked whether I had something for an upset stomach. (By this time, having already stayed several times in the Neringa Hotel, I had a reputation for having a magic medical kit – I usually handed out an aspirin or two.) I gave her a package of Tums. In the lobby, people speculated what would be next. I finally decided to walk down to the parliament building. I threw on a coat over my warm-up suit, and set off. As I passed the Soviet KGB headquarters, I noticed that all the windows were dark; the Soviet security forces had presumably established operational headquarters someplace else. (The KGB headquarters were next to the Music Conservatory; some Lithuanians referred to the KGB building as the Department of Solo Singing and Percussion Instruments.)
Independence Square was bright with electric lights. A band played. People knew there could be a military attack, and many had come dressed up in their best clothes, ready for death. An announcer occasionally tried to help separated groups to collect themselves together again. In the distance, we could hear pops that we presumed to be gunfire. In a piece written for the London Guardian, Siaurusevičius described the action at the television tower: “The troops started firing into the air, and the tanks rolled over lorries and cars in their way, crushing them… In two hours it was all over. The transmission tower was firmly in the hands of the Soviet troops.” There was no sign of military activity in the square, but the Lithuanian government kept issuing warnings to demonstrators not to stand too close to the building.
When I returned to the hotel, I stayed on in the lobby for several more hours. There we heard Radio Kaunas, which had already been functioning since about 2 a.m.: “Kalba Lietuvos radio!” (Lithuanian radio speaking!) Broadcasting items successively in six different languages (Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, German, French, and English), it gave the rising body count of dead at the television tower: 9 dead, 70 injured; 11 dead, 108 injured. One of the Germans with whom I had flown into Vilnius declared that the spoken German – “Es spricht Litauens Rundfunk” – sounded like a World War II underground broadcast. At 6 a.m., I still sat in the hotel lobby with an American-Lithuanian professor – we were drafting a statement that we would make if we got out of all this alive. We were not sure what was really happening. We also had no idea that there were so many foreign journalists in Vilnius at this time and that they had such modern means of communication – our statement died in my little notebook.
I got to bed about 7 a.m. At 9:30, heavy pounding at my door awakened me, and my first thought was “They have come for me.” I did not fear violence; I thought that “they” might just force me to leave Lithuania. But the visitors turned out to be two of the Germans. The Germans had rented a car to take them to Minsk: Did I want to join them? I am still amazed that I immediately said no. As a historian, I felt it was almost a duty for me to stay in Vilnius to see how this matter would turn out. I asked them, however, to call my sister in Virginia to tell her that I was all right. And they did.
Now wide awake, I went to the hotel café for breakfast, where the journalist Algimantas Čekuolis joined me and gave me the latest news. The Prime Minister, Albertas Šimėnas, had disappeared – possibly he had been kidnapped – and Lithuanians were barricading Independence Square with trucks and construction equipment. Trucks with loudspeakers were roaming the city declaring that the Committee for National Salvation was now in charge and that Vilnius now lay under martial law. Major General Vladimir Uskhopchik, chief of the Vilnius garrison, was now commandant of the city and Lithuanians were to observe a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The voice announcing the Soviet takeover was that of the historian Juozas Jarmalavičius, who a year earlier had told me that he hoped Lithuania could avoid bloodshed.
Amazingly, no one seemed to take the Committee for National Salvation seriously. Its membership remained anonymous; Moscow eventually admitted that it was ridiculous for Soviet troops to be accepting orders from an anonymous committee that feared to reveal its members’ names. Even Jarmalavičius eventually claimed to know nothing about the organization, and Gorbachev and Moscow loyalists obviously wanted everyone to forget about it.
Late on that chilly Sunday morning, I walked to Independence Square with a friend. We squeezed through a narrow passageway that blocked entrance to the Square from Gediminas Prospektas, and saw that the large space in front of the parliament and the Mažvydas National Library was filled with groups huddled around fires. No stage, no bands playing. Demonstrators had torn apart a local construction site and were burning the wood; the acrid smell of the smoke added to the tense atmosphere.
The day passed in enormous confusion. We now knew that the foreign journalists who had gathered in Vilnius had sent news of the military action to the world. We were not in an isolated “bears’ den.” The Lithuanian parliament, called into session during the night, met, named a new prime minister, and managed to broadcast through informal, makeshift radio arrangements. The broadcasts were confusing, and listeners could not put together any clear understanding of developments. News that Boris Yeltsin had flown to Tallinn and had issued a statement of support for the Baltic raised spirits considerably. Šimėnas, the former prime minister, reappeared, but the Lithuanian authorities refused to reinstall him and rejected all calls for explanation of his disappearance. There were rumors that Soviet tanks might yet attack the parliament; the rumors suggested different times. I was myself at Independence Square at 4 p.m., one of the hours mentioned, and saw nothing that even hinted at such a possibility.
At the hotel, I fell into a conversation with a young couple who worked for the German embassy in Moscow. They understood nothing and were obviously frightened. The man questioned why all this action over a rise in prices? I did not try to explain, but I asked them to notify friends in Hamburg, who were expecting me on the following Wednesday, that I was all right and expected to arrive as scheduled. To be sure, I was not at all confident that I would be there, but such is life. I later learned that the embassy did call my friends.
The key issue of the moment, however, revolved around the work of the delegation from Moscow that had overnighted in Minsk and finally arrived in Vilnius at noon. Through the afternoon, it talked with Lithuanian and Soviet representatives, and then in the evening, out of the muddle of reports, came the news that a provisional settlement had been reached. The delegation proved to be sympathetic to the Lithuanians, and the pro-Muscovites retreated. The military would take its patrols off the street, and the Lithuanians would tell the demonstrators in Independence Square to move out. The military held on to the buildings it had seized, but the Committee for National Salvation melted away into the shadows from which it had come. On the other hand, a Lithuanian spokesperson told the demonstrators that they did not have to hurry away.
The tension eased, but it did not immediately dissolve. That evening, I was to go to dinner at the home of friends who lived near the television tower. When the hotel authorities learned of my intentions, they insisted that I not go. Members of the staff assembled, even calling the doorman, and said they would not allow me to leave the building – it was too dangerous. So instead, I sat in the hotel café and collected information. My friends, with whom I was to dine, came to the hotel with a bag full of hot cepelinai for me. As I ate, young friends who had been acting as translators for foreign journalists sat with me and recounted what the journalists had learned during the day. A member of parliament stopped in and told me that the parliament building had been mined – “We could become ashes in a minute.” (An American friend later claimed to have seen bottles of “Molotov cocktails” in the parliament even in the summer of 1991.) Particularly interesting was a young Russian who played an audiotape of the sounds at the television tower in the early morning – gunfire, yells, screams. He declared that, because of his dark complexion, the soldiers had thought him to be a Georgian, and he told us how Soviet troops had beaten and kicked him.
Monday the 14th saw falling action, but still some excitement. I called the airport to check on whether my scheduled plane to Berlin would be leaving on Wednesday as scheduled. I got the answer, “Of course it will. Why shouldn’t it?” At times, the events of these days struck me as pure fantasy, even Kafkaesque.
There were now rumors that the Soviets were planning a helicopter attack on the parliament building. The gossip included stories that the defenders had somehow loosened the roof and that upon landing the helicopters would fall into the building. The worst-case rumors suggested that the defenders would blow themselves up.
Toward noon, walking on Gediminas Prospektas, I had a moment of enjoyable relief when, by chance, I met an old Communist Party functionary with whom I had, so to speak, crossed swords in a Milwaukee-Vilnius “radio bridge” some four years earlier. He confirmed my thought that I had confounded the Soviets in this discussion between “ordinary Americans and ordinary Lithuanians” when I had refused to allow my comments to be translated into Russian like every other American’s comments. I had insisted on providing my own translation into Lithuanian. The Lithuanians in Vilnius had been under orders to use only Russian, but after my intervention they applauded and happily switched to Lithuanian.
These cheerful reminiscences, however, were interrupted when a man ran up to announce that Soviet troops had uncovered an underground, illegal radio station just a block away. I hurried off to the scene. A crowd was gathered in front of a building, chanting anti-Soviet slogans, and at a window on the third floor, a defiant woman waved a Lithuanian flag. A Soviet soldier stood on a first floor window ledge holding an automatic rifle that he waved around in an attempt to intimidate the demonstrators. I joined with a pair of British journalists in pushing our way to the front of the crowd, but I stopped short of trying to get into the building. (I had no credentials as a journalist with me.) I stood a moment to get the flavor of the situation, the crowd chanting “Fascists, fascists.” Suddenly I realized that the soldier now had that gun pointing directly at me. I thought to myself, “I would rather read about this than experience it,” and I edged my way back out of the crowd.
At 8 p.m. on Monday evening, I walked to the Sports Hall, Vilnius’s basketball palace, where the Lithuanians had set up an elaborate wake for Sunday morning’s dead. I did not go in: There was a long line of people outside waiting to pay their respects. Exercising the passion I have for measuring things, I walked around the building and estimated the line to be well over a mile long. In the line I saw Alfonsas and Birutė Eidintas, who had been standing there since 5 p.m.; the next day, I learned that they had gotten into the building at midnight. (They had been able to leave the line for an hour at one point to go home to check on their children.) On Wednesday, after my departure, I heard that “hundreds of thousands” of people had participated in a procession taking the bodies to the cathedral for the last rites of the Church.
On Tuesday the 15th, I suddenly felt a change in my own feelings and attitudes. Up to that time, I had been a participant in the kaleidoscopic events; I was a part of them. I had even come to grips with the thought that, while I was not looking for trouble, I might not get out of this place alive. (I considered who might be upset by my demise – I chuckled at the thought that the students who had taken Incompletes in my last course would surely have problems.) Now as tension visibly, palpably, receded, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I wanted to get out of Lithuania, to return home. At the same time, I had strong feelings of guilt for this attitude: I would be abandoning my friends to an unknown fate as I fled to safety. I do not remember going through such drastic mood changes at any other time in my life.
Tuesday was the last day in my sojourn. In the morning, Eidintas and I traveled around Vilnius in a taxi, visiting the sites of action and tragedy over the weekend: the Press House, the television tower, etc. I then went back to the Sports Palace. As an American, an “outlander,” I received immediate entry (be eilės), but inside the building, it took another half hour to reach the basketball court. Inside, people filed in twos past the orchestra gathering to play and then ten bodies, nine men and one girl, were placed in caskets on the basketball court. Each coffin was open: At the head of each was a picture of the deceased; in front of each lay flowers beside burning candles. Members of the families of each victim stood as honor guards. Young men and women in national costume served as guides. The sports identity of the building was minimized: The scoreboard was dark; there were no baskets to be seen. People sat in the stands for a mass that began at noon: I estimated the orchestra at about twenty members, the choir at about forty singers. The preacher likened the Soviet actions to “Satanism.”
After that, I went to the parliament for a last visit to get a feeling for the atmosphere. First of all, I discovered that the authorities had changed the entrance to the building; I could not see how to get into it now. Fortunately, I ran into Lionginas Šepetys, the former ideological secretary of the Communist Party, with whom I had established an acquaintance the previous summer. He led me toward the entrance of the moment and then stopped; he advised me to go up alone. “They” might not admit me if they saw me talking with him. I got in with no problem; I saw that he entered behind me.
Inside, my first impression was formed by the smell of sweat. Armed volunteers controlled the first floor, and they had obviously been living there for these four to five days without benefit of adequate conveniences. In other parts of the building, I was confused by the temporary, emergency housing of government offices. At one point, looking for a woman I knew who worked for the Committee on Foreign Relations, I walked into her office and disrupted a session of the cabinet of ministers. The prime minister, Gediminas Vagnorius, informed me that she had moved to another office. Various government officials, fearful of the vulnerability of their offices to Soviet intervention, had chosen to move their work to the parliament building.
One other moment of that brief visit stands out in my memory. Mounting a staircase, I ran into Landsbergis himself, coming the other way and surrounded by his bodyguard of several men. Here was the man at the core of this crisis. In the past criticized by more than a few, at this moment he embodied Lithuanian resistance. Besides getting out of the way, what does one do or say at such a moment, especially with the bodyguard eyeing me suspiciously? (Landsbergis and I had first met at Sąjūdis gatherings in 1988.) Antanas Terleckas, a rebel nationalist who had spent time in Soviet camps, had just told me of his joy that the government had finally expelled all “communists,” and he had assured me that Landsbergis was “irreplaceable” as chief of state. I simply shook hands with Landsbergis and wished him well.
Finally, Wednesday morning, the 16th, arrived, and it turned out that our flight was not quite as certain as officials had declared on Monday. As we somewhat nervously waited for the plane to come from Berlin, three of us travelers formed our own little group. (The Germans with whom I had flown in had, of course, long since left the country.) My traveling companions now were a German travel agent who was trying to arrange tourist excursions to Kaliningrad and a Swedish journalist who was just ending his first stay in the Baltic States. After a bit of delay and uncertainty, everything fell into place, and we were able to fly out. I received an unexpected bonus when the journalist, saying he wanted to see Berlin and spoke no German, asked me to be his translator in Berlin during the couple of hours before my train was to leave for Hamburg. I agreed – he hired an East German taxi driver, and we had a fabulous tour of East Berlin before he dropped me off at the Zoo train station.
Once I got to Hamburg, it was a new life. The Gulf War Part I started, and German protesters took to the streets. The contrast between the violence of demonstrators in Hamburg and the peacefulness of demonstrators in Vilnius made a deep impression on me. Throughout the week in Vilnius, Lithuanian leaders had urged their fellow Lithuanians to avoid violence or “provocation.” The Soviet troops were destructive; the Lithuanian demonstrators destroyed nothing. Russians broke windows; Lithuanians did not. While in Hamburg, I gave an interview, by telephone, to a radio station in Chicago, and then I made a quick trip to Bonn to see my son, who was studying there. In Bonn, I went to a demonstration in support of Lithuania, and there I met the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Algirdas Saudargas, whom the government had sent out of the country to represent Lithuania in the event that the Soviets occupied the parliament building. I also spent an hour in a coffee shop with a member of the German parliament, filling his head with my commentary on politics and personalities in Lithuania. At one point, he interrupted our conversation for a telephone call to the German Foreign Minister. Once back in Madison, I gave one or two lectures and even appeared on early morning TV. My wife claims that it is frequently difficult to integrate me back into Midwestern life after a lively stay in Lithuania – this time was no exception.
I had left Vilnius convinced that Gorbachev was politically bankrupt, despite the fact that he had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He could not speak of liberalizing the Soviet system while he tried to crush Lithuania. The Soviet authorities had attempted a coup d’état that had ended as a fiasco. Gorbachev then tried to dissociate himself from the events in Vilnius, but he failed miserably. The organizers of the Committee for National Salvation felt that he betrayed them by not proclaiming presidential rule. This all may well have affected the misbegotten Moscow putsch of August 1991. At this point 21 in my writing of this memoir, however, I must remind myself that I am writing a memoir, not a political history. I wanted to record my activity, a personal story, through that incredible week in Vilnius twenty years ago. For more commentary on Gorbi – or Landsbergis – I urge the reader to look elsewhere.
One last rather humorous note on this period. A few days after my return to Madison, the receptionist in the Wisconsin History Department told me that a New York Times correspondent had just called to check on a report that I had died in Lithuania. She told him that she had just seen me that morning and that I was alive. “Not in tomorrow’s first edition,” came his response. To my knowledge the Times has not yet reported my demise.
When I met Saudargas in Bonn, he immediately asked whether I had any photos. When I said that I didn’t, he rather scornfully asked why not. I did not explain to him, but in 1988, I had decided that I could not write notes and take pictures at the same time. Sensitized by years of criticism as the world’s worst imaginable photographer, I decided then that my strength – whatever it might be – lay in words rather than pictures. I had already lost one camera in travel, and therefore it was an easy decision to carry a notebook rather than a camera.