Vilnius Diary

Sean Maguire

It is ironic that the Baltic Republics will regain their independence as a result of a last act of suppression on the part of the dying dinosaur which has controlled them for over fifty years. The collapse of the coup in Moscow allowed Latvia and Estonia to make the unilateral declaration of independence that Lithuania made in March 1990. The troops withdrew from the television tower in Vilnius and the hated Interior Ministry troops, the Black Berets, retreated to barracks, where they were disarmed and guarded by other Soviet forces. Suddenly the Republics could begin to act like nations: visitors arriving at Riga and Vilnius airports without Soviet visas were greeted by smiling ladies seated at trestle tables, happy to brandish a newly-cut stamp that permitted you to enter their country.

Unfortunately for the appetite of Western television audiences, the newly-arrived correspondents, the ink still drying on their Baltic visas, failed to discover people dancing in the streets. There were no mad hooplas of joy, no exultations over victory. The Baltic Republics understand – and fear – the irony in their success. The power of Moscow evaporated, and that enabled them to seize their prize. But the lack of even a symbolic showdown makes independence intangible. The Soviet Union accepts Baltic nationhood with a gesture of weary dismissiveness but the feeling here is that this represents a temporary submission. Any feelings of joy are swamped by apprehension of what will happen when the bear comes back from licking its wounds.

I was told that the Lithuanians are not given to uncontrolled exhibitions of emotion. Their national stereotype, it was said, is imperturbability. A freedom rally was held in Vilnius’s central park a fortnight after the Moscow coup. It was billed as a political event. I found beer tents and market stalls and the scaffolding, sound systems, bright lights and electrical paraphernalia of a Western rock concert. The artists may have worn national costume but the tempo was pure MTV. This was a populist display on the part of the state. President Landsbergis spoke and went early, leaving the music to the huge crowd which kept growing right up to the final firework display. Only during the national anthem did I get the feeling that there was some connection with recent events. It was sung solemnly and without a cheer at its end.

One of the American-educated Lithuanians who run their Parliament’s press office told me she saw no need to celebrate since her people were only regaining the independence they had temporarily lost. Her attitude to the Soviets was one of nonchalant defiance. For real emotion she told me to go out to Medininkai, the border post between Lithuania and Belorussia where seven Lithuanian border guards were murdered by unknown assailants to the intense embarrassment of Gorbachev.

I went there one month after the killings. The Lithuanians showed no reticence in their grief. Men and women cried together at the makeshift shrine behind the shabby border hut where the guards had been gunned down. They sang long slow hymns and folk songs and it was hard not to become part of the communal crying. Their grief seemed to be for more than seven border guards. The depth of emotion I had looked for in joy I found in sorrow. The mourners were calling on a collective memory of the occupation of the Baltics by the Germans in World War Two and the remoulding of the region by Stalin after the Soviet ‘liberation’.

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