Lithuanians have adopted the forget-me-not as a symbol of their defiance to Russian tanks rolling into Vilnius in 1991 in an attempt to squash the re-establishment of their state. No country had yet recognized Lithuania’s renewed sovereignty, which had been declared 10 months earlier. Gorbachev had cut off oil and gas during winter, even threatened to shut down communications, as this breakaway republic was reflecting badly on his glasnost and perestroika.
Nobody in the Baltics or the other Soviet states bought Gorbachev’s reconciliation attempts. They had been down this road before with Khrushchev. The Soviet premier was hoping the world’s attention would be focused on the Persian Gulf, where the US was leading a coalition in an attempt to free Kuwait from Iraq, but when news broke of the tanks in Vilnius, and the “singing revolution” that was taking place in this remote Baltic country, attention quickly turned to the North.
Lithuanians sang well into the night of January 12, huddled around fires in front of the parliament, where they had established a barricade to keep the Soviet forces out. My wife held back her tears as she recalled that moment the tanks’ barrels turned on them at eye level. The older people locked arms together and began singing hymns as if this would be the end. She lost hearing in one ear as the result of the blanks the tanks fired on the crowd. Eventually, the tanks retreated and made their way to the communications tower, ending transmission in the early hours of the following morning.
For whatever reason Gorbachev lost his nerve, and called off his army. I suppose he would have a hard time reconciling the suppression of Lithuanian independence with that of the peacemaker he had projected himself to the world. He had won the Nobel Prize the year before. Lithuania’s leaders had effectively used his own words against him.
Recognition of Lithuania quickly followed suit. Iceland was the first country to acknowledge Lithuania in February, followed by many countries throughout Eastern Europe. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until September that the United States recognized Lithuania. The Soviet Union was forced to accept the situation that same month, as its once formidable empire dissolved before its eyes.
The last three commemorations have been most interesting as Lithuania has chosen to share this special night with Ukraine, which has been mired in civil war in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions since 2014. Jonas Ohman, a Swede living in Vilnius, started a relief fund 3 years ago. His efforts were being honored last night. In Ukraine, they call him panda, maybe because of his sad down-turned eyes. They also greatly look forward to his yellow van delivering clothing and other supplies to the embattled regions, as well as badly needed supplies to the front line.
Lithuania has also been very active in providing medical and food relief to Ukraine. A special bond has formed between the two countries that was made all the more palpable by the videos shown during the music-ladenh telethon. It is the kind of fraternity Eastern Europe needs right now as Russia tries to influence elections and steer these countries back toward its sphere of influence.
It has taken much longer for Ukraine to finally break free from Russia’s influence, only to find itself embroiled in war. Like many Eastern European countries, there is a sizable Russian-speaking population, who still regard Ukraine as part of Russia. Even Gorbachev has said he can’t imagine Russia without the Ukraine. But, their forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014 has driven these two countries irrevocably apart.
The war is confined to the Black Sea regions, so Ukraine continues to function as a normal nation state, but there seems to be no resolution in sight to the ongoing conflict. Russia would like to claim these regions, as it would provide them with a land bridge to the Crimea. At the very least, the Kremlin would like to see Donetsk and Luhansk become semi-autonomous territories much like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, which it “liberated” in 2008. Lithuania similarly stood by Georgia during that time. Unfortunately, Georgia never got back these territories, and it is unlikely Ukraine will get back its territories either, as many Ukrainians have fled the region, leaving it pretty much to the Russian nationals.
It is during moments like these that you realize just how fragile boundaries are and how easily they can be remade. NATO doesn’t want to risk open hostilities with Russia so it refrains from any sort of military retaliation. But, it has mobilized forces throughout the Baltic states fearing that Russia may try to cleave off Russian-speaking enclaves like Narva in Estonia or Daugpilis in Latvia in the name of protecting minorities. Lithuania is not immune either, as there is a sizable Russian population in Klaipėda, near the border with Kaliningrad.
Emotions have been at a fever’s edge ever since Trump was elected, since he offered no assurances the US would protect the Baltic states in the event of an attack. No one wants confrontation with Russia, but at the same time no one wants to see happen in the Baltic countries what has happened in Georgia and the Ukraine. The worry is that Trump will withdraw American soldiers and no longer conduct war exercises in the Baltic region, which to this point has served as an effective deterrent to Russia’s imperial ambitions.
One can argue that evoking Russia’s lost empire is overstating things. The Kremlin claims it has no territorial ambitions beyond what it considers to be legitimately its own, as it determined to be the case in Crimea. But, history would tell us otherwise.
The freedom songs that were so popular back in the late 80s and 90s take on a special resonance this time of year. The most evocative of these songs is Laisvė, sung here by Eurika Masytė, who wrote the song at the height of Lithuania’s bid of independence. The country has a very rich folk song heritage, which likewise carries extra weight when remembering the events that transpired that bleak January back in 1991.