Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Lithuania: A Problem of Disclosure

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Lithuania: A Problem of Disclosure

Article excerpt

As centripetal forces spun the Soviet Union out of control and, ultimately, out of existence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an unlikely country became the vanguard of those USSR states seeking independence. Through political maneuverings and public demonstrations, Lithuania gained independence and resisted the half-hearted attempts of the Soviet Union to prevent the secession of its Eastern European satellites.

Since then, Lithuania has struggled with its Soviet-era demons. Like the rest of the former Soviet Union, Lithuania had been controlled by the KGB and its predecessors. The KGB's historic power, and its pervasive influence on Lithuanian society (which persists even today), has been a defining feature of the country's tortured path toward democracy.

The First Soviet Occupation

Following the collapse of the Russian and German empires in 1918, Lithuania finally was able to assert its statehood. On February 16, 1918, Lithuania declared its full independence. However, a mere two years later, Lithuania's capital and province of Vilnius was annexed and subsequently controlled by Poland until World War II. Following the onset of the war, specifically the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by Iosif Stalin and Adolph Hitler in August 1939, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were forced to accept Soviet occupation.

In October 1939, Soviet troops arrived on Lithuanian soil. The following May, the Soviet Union delivered a note to the Lithuanian government accusing it of complicity in the kidnapping of two Soviet soldiers. Through these and similar instruments of intimidation, the Soviets forced the creation of a new government led by the Soviet Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs and a quasi-elected People's Diet.

This new government, in turn, began the Sovietization of Lithuania in earnest. A steady progression of laws and edicts gradually eroded national independence. Assaults on the economy devalued the country's currency to a mere fraction of its actual value.1 Financial institutions were nationalized and owners of private property were evicted-their dwellings seized to make way for the incoming Communist bureaucracy. The Lithuanian army was reorganized into the "People's Army," and renamed the Soviet Union's 29th Corps. By December 1, 1940, Soviet laws had formally superceded all statutes once existing in independent Lithuania.

The Soviet authorities paid special attention to Lithuania's social fabric. Primarily an agricultural state when integrated into the Soviet Union, large-scale collectivization of farmlands, both from "wealthy farmers" (those possessing more than seventy-five acres of land) and others, wreaked havoc on internal conditions. In all, twenty-eight thousand landowners-roughly 10 percent of the total agrarian population-were affected by Soviet measures. What land was not given to landless peasants was placed into "perpetual tenure," and its sale, purchase, or transfer prohibited. Despite Soviet rhetoric to the contrary, the purpose of this measure was not to bring social justice to the countryside, but to splinter the Lithuanian farming base and prevent the formation of a cohesive unit of resistance.2

The true horrors for the Lithuanians came in the form of mass arrests and deportations. The NKVD ( secret police apparatus), accompanied by garrison troops, arrived in fall 1939. Its initial operations were limited pending reinforcements. With the arrival of additional troops in June 1940, however, the NKVD launched a wave of terror that resonated throughout Lithuania.

Beginning on the night of July 11, 1940, the Soviets commenced widespread arrests and detentions. On that night alone, at least two thousand individuals received eight-year prison sentences and were immediately deported. By the end of the year, the pace of arrests had reached an average of 200 to 300 per month.3 All social, ethnic, and political classes were affected. Convenient minipurges removed Soviet officials who had fallen out of favor from their posts. …

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