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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

30 Years Ago, My Country Declared Independence from the Soviet Union. Today, It’s a Testament to What Freedom Can Do

On March 11, 1990, the tiny country of Lithuania unilaterally declared independence from the Soviet Union, the largest empire in the world.

Thirty years ago, on March 11, 1990, Lithuania unilaterally declared independence from the Soviet Union. More precisely, it declared that the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, enabled by secret agreements between the Soviets and Nazi Germany, was unlawful, and restored the independent Lithuania of 1918. Latvia and Estonia soon followed.

This set off a chain of events that, together with the Fall of Berlin Wall (1989) and an attempted military coup in Russia (August 1991), led to dissolution of Soviet Union.

Just like that, the evil empire was no more. 

A Living Testament to Freedom

I was 9 at the time, so I could not comprehend the scope of the geopolitical and historical changes happening. Actually, I doubt many adults did, either. But one thing was clear: Lithuanians wanted freedom, independence, and less Russia in Lithuania. These were the maxims that trumped all other concerns. If anyone ever doubted the power of ideas, this is yet another testament to the power of belief.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Soviet Union, threatened to ruin Lithuania’s economy. This was not an idle threat. Many people worked in factories producing parts and components for trucks or missiles that only the Soviet Union would use (some would even say that this was a deliberate plan by central planners to tie the captive republics to the Soviet Union). And it’s not like Soviet consumer goods were of a quality that would make them competitive on international markets. Many of those factories did close; many people did lose their jobs.

Another threat was an economic blockade of Lithuania that started a month after the declaration of independence. Russia cut off supplies of oil, natural gas, and many industrial raw materials. The message from the Soviet Union was clear: renounce your freedom and annul the declaration of independence or face the consequences. Even some Western democracies jumped on the bandwagon, advising the young country to be “reasonable.” Gorbachev was the “good” Soviet communist after all.

The Soviet army was stationed in Lithuania, and Lithuania did not really have a formal army of its own. How the Soviets dealt with people who sought freedom was painfully clear from what happened to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968: military intervention, tanks, and battles in the streets. Moreover, Lithuania was actually part of the Soviet Union, while Hungary and Czechoslovakia, at least on paper, were independent countries. Not that paper and treaties ever mattered to the Soviets, but still.

Finally the Soviets were gambling on local communists, local Russian speakers, and disaffected members of society to rise up and quash the attempts to recreate “bourgeois-capitalist” Lithuania. Sure, there were attempts, with the help of the Soviet army, to organize a coup nearly a year later in 1991. Sure, there were local communists who spent hours and hours spewing communist nonsense on airwaves while sitting in TV studios occupied by Soviet Army troops. But this was a major miscalculation by the Soviet hardliners. People hated communism and the Soviet Union with a passion.

I am not talking about an abstract dislike, but a guttural hatred, spawning from rather recent memories of the 1950s: the country pillaged, at least 10 percent of the population deported (or worse). Freedom fighters shot and dragged to the town square so communists could spot who would shed a tear. The sympathizers too would be arrested, interrogated, and deported or worse. Organized resistance to Soviet occupation ended in 1953, but the memories still lived.  So with all that in living memory, when the window of opportunity for independence opened, no amount of persuasion or threat could stop it. 

Thirty years later, Lithuania is very different: more free, more prosperous, and more secure than it has ever been in the past 300 years. It shed the hammer and sickle and the planned economy, melted statues of Lenin into cans for Coca-Cola, and things could not be better.

That is what freedom can do. 

  • Zilvinas Silenas is the former president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).