Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost opened the possibility for the people of Lithuania to express their desire for independence from the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia were the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union. They shared a common European culture, although Estonia and Latvia had closer ties to Scandinavia and Germany, whereas Lithuania’s ties were with Poland and Central Europe. In the twentieth century, the fates of the three Baltic States were linked. All three became independent after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and all were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. No other of the national minorities of the Soviet Union had experienced sovereign independence during that time. Lithuania;independence Soviet Union;Lithuanian independence [kw]Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union (Mar. 11, 1990) [kw]Independence from the Soviet Union, Lithuania Declares (Mar. 11, 1990) [kw]Soviet Union, Lithuania Declares Independence from the (Mar. 11, 1990) Lithuania;independence Soviet Union;Lithuanian independence [g]Europe;Mar. 11, 1990: Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union[07670] [g]Baltic States;Mar. 11, 1990: Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union[07670] [g]Soviet Union;Mar. 11, 1990: Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union[07670] [g]Lithuania;Mar. 11, 1990: Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union[07670] [c]Independence movements;Mar. 11, 1990: Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union[07670] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Mar. 11, 1990: Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union[07670] Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Lithuanian independence Landsbergis, Vytautas Prunskiene, Kazimiera

One cannot understand the enduring resentment of the Baltic peoples toward Soviet rule without a knowledge of the circumstances of their annexation and the deprivation of national and human rights that ensued. According to the Secret Protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23 (as amended on September 28), 1939, the territory of Lithuania was put within the “sphere of interest” of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph wanted to incorporate the Baltic States into the Soviet Union for geopolitical reasons, particularly the fact that they provided direct access to the Baltic Sea. In the summer of 1940, immediately after the fall of France to Germany, the Soviet Union demanded the formation of new governments in all of the Baltic States in preparation for annexation. The Red Army rounded up all opponents of Soviet rule in the Baltics; some two thousand political opponents were seized in Lithuania beginning on the night of July 11.

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The compliant governments that emerged from the Soviet-controlled elections that followed requested incorporation into the Soviet Union. During the twelve-month period of Soviet rule before Germany attacked the Soviet Union, thousands of people in the Baltics were executed or deported as “counterrevolutionary elements.” In Lithuania, the number who died or disappeared was approximately 30,500.

Popular resistance to Soviet rule emerged almost immediately after the Red Army liberated the Baltic States from German control, and it continued into the early 1950’s. To pacify the region, Stalin resorted to mass repression, deporting into the interior of the Soviet Union an estimated 600,000 people from the Baltic region. The chair of the Lithuanian secret police estimated that the number of Lithuanians who were deported, were convicted of state crimes, or perished as members of the guerrilla forces was 200,000.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, conditions improved in Lithuania as they did elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Nikita S. Khrushchev’s Khrushchev, Nikita S. policy of relaxation, known as“the thaw,” permitted a rebirth of cultural life in Lithuania, an important element of which included increased use of the Lithuanian language in the republic’s educational system. Economic life improved as Lithuania developed a strong industrial sector. The industrialization of Lithuania relied largely on local labor resources rather than the massive immigration of outside (mostly Russian) workers, such as occurred in Estonia and Latvia. As a result, Lithuania had the highest percentage of indigenous population of the three Baltic republics. Almost 80 percent of the population was native Lithuanian even as late as 1991, compared with Estonia’s figure of 60 percent Estonians and Latvia’s figure of about 50 percent Latvians.

Even though Lithuania prospered in comparison with the rest of the Soviet Union, Lithuanians’ opposition to Soviet rule never ceased. Mass demonstrations against the Communist regime took place in Vilnius in the fall of 1956 and in Kaunas in 1960. In 1972, the self-immolation of a young nationalist protester led to a full-scale riot in Kaunas. Dissident activity increased during Leonid Brezhnev’s Brezhnev, Leonid years in power in the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to the Soviet leadership in March, 1985, changed the political environment throughout the Soviet Union, but particularly in the Baltics. The new atmosphere of glasnost Glasnost (openness) and perestroika Perestroika (restructuring) permitted an unprecedented expression of nationalist sentiment in Lithuania, as in the other Baltic States. In 1988, popular fronts emerged in the Baltic republics proclaiming the idea of national sovereignty.

In the summer of 1988, the Lithuanian Restructuring Movement, Lithuanian Restructuring Movement known as Sajudis, Sajudis made its appearance. From its inception, Sajudis became a central vehicle for the promotion of the idea of Lithuanian economic autonomy, to be followed by total independence. An indication of the organization’s growing authority was its success in the by-elections to fill five vacancies in the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet on January 15, 1989. Sajudis candidates received the most votes in each of the four districts in which they ran. The March-April republicwide elections to the newly created Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies confirmed the general hold of Sajudis on the voters of the republic. Of the forty-two contested districts, thirty-six were won by Sajudis. It was a stunning defeat for the Lithuanian Communist Party and clear evidence that popular sentiment was moving away from economic autonomy within the framework of the Soviet Union to outright independence.

A statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin is removed in Lithuania in August, 1991.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Public pressure moved Lithuania steadily toward a break with Moscow. On May 18, 1989, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet declared the state of Lithuania to be“sovereign” and adopted four constitutional amendments, one of which provided that Lithuanian citizens were entitled to the social, economic, political, and personal rights and freedoms provided for in the Lithuanian constitution as well as those included in universally accepted international legal conventions. An amendment that Moscow found particularly objectionable provided that Soviet laws would be valid in Lithuania only if they were also adopted by the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet or the people in a referendum.

In August, the people of the Baltics dramatically expressed their resentment of Soviet rule by forming a human chain of more than one million people from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius to commemorate the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet agreement that had led to the Soviet annexations. By repudiating the legality of the pact, the people of the Baltics rejected the legality of all the acts that followed from it. A commission formed by the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet to investigate the pact concluded that both the Lithuanian request of July 21, 1940, to join the Soviet Union and the Supreme Soviet law of August 3, 1940, incorporating Lithuania into the Soviet Union were illegal.

Throughout 1989, actions were taken that inexorably pushed Lithuania toward independence. The Lithuanian government passed a law granting Lithuanian citizenship to all persons who were citizens and residents of the Lithuanian Republic prior to June 15, 1940, and to all of their descendants living permanently in Lithuania. One of the most disturbing developments, from the Soviet Union’s point of view, was the separation of Lithuania’s communist organizations from their ties to Moscow. This movement began with the Communist Youth Organization, the Komsomol, which formally ended its subordination to the All-Union Komsomol. Its parent organization, the Lithuanian Communist Party, did the same at a special party congress on December 20, 1989, voting to make itself independent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. No other communist party of a republic had done that before.

In an effort to head off the growing independence movement, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Lithuania in January, 1990, the first time a Soviet leader had done so in half a century. He succeeded neither in reversing the Lithuanian Communist Party’s decision to break from Moscow nor in dampening Lithuanian nationalism.

On February 24, 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic officially to conduct multiparty elections for its highest legislative body, the Supreme Soviet. As expected, Sajudis candidates won control of the legislature, and Communist candidates fared poorly. The elections demonstrated beyond a doubt that Lithuanians wanted independence outside the framework of the Soviet Union.

On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet voted 124 to 0 (with 6 abstentions) to reaffirm Lithuania’s 1918 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. The name of the state was changed to the Republic of Lithuania, dropping the words “Soviet” and “Socialist.” Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of Sajudis, was elected chair of the Supreme Council, as the new parliament was called. Along with the declaration of independence, the parliament enacted a package of acts that denied the validity of the Soviet constitution in Lithuania, reactivated the 1938 constitution of the Lithuanian Republic, and suspended the conscription of Lithuanian youths into the Red Army.

Significance

Few Lithuanians had any illusions that the declaration would bring quick de facto independence. Indeed, the declaration basically set the stage for a long bargaining process. Landsbergis offered to negotiate with Soviet authorities the specific claims of the two sides but noted that he would not revoke, rescind, or suspend the act of independence. Gorbachev’s reaction was hostile. He told the Congress of People’s Deputies that he did not recognize Lithuanian independence. On April 18, the Soviet Union imposed a partial economic blockade on Lithuania that inflicted some economic hardship but failed to force Lithuanian compliance with Moscow’s desires.

The period immediately following Lithuania’s declaration of independence was a difficult one. The Soviet blockade, although not crippling, did have a negative impact on the economy, causing shortages of goods, inflation, and economic disruption. Moscow engaged in a campaign of intimidation, increasing the presence of Soviet armed forces in Lithuania, seizing buildings, and detaining a number of Lithuanian soldiers. Lithuania’s efforts to obtain Western recognition were generally unsuccessful. Governments that were sympathetic, such as that of the United States, were reluctant to do anything that might undermine the Gorbachev administration. Lithuania (as well as Latvia and Estonia) failed to gain admission to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and the Olympic movement. Under strong Soviet pressure, the Lithuanian Supreme Council on June 29 agreed to a one-hundred-day moratorium on its declaration of independence, to go into effect after the start of formal negotiations with the Soviet Union. In June, Moscow ended the blockade.

Compounding its problems with Moscow, the government of Lithuania was divided over political differences between the parliament, headed by Landsbergis, and the Council of Ministers, headed by Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene. In January, 1991, the prime minister resigned over the issue of the government’s decision to raise food prices. Fundamentally, the conflict between parliament and the Council of Ministers lay in differences over a division of duties.

While struggling with these domestic problems, the republic was confronted with a violent assault by Soviet armed forces. On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops stormed the radio and television center in Vilnius, killing 14 people and injuring more than 150. While defending thecrackdown, Gorbachev denied that he ordered it or even had advance knowledge that force was to be used. Nevertheless, the violence in Vilnius created a storm of international criticism. In an attempt to strengthen his position on the issue of holding the Soviet Union intact, Gorbachev scheduled a national referendum on March 17 on the question of whether or not the Soviet Union should survive. Lithuania refused to participate in the referendum because it did not consider itself to be a part of the Soviet Union. Instead, the government of Lithuania chose to hold a poll on February 9 in which the voters were asked, “Do you consider the Lithuanian state as an independent democratic republic?” More than 90 percent of those casting ballots voted yes.

Unexpected political developments in the summer of 1991 led to a rapid collapse of authority in Moscow and the realization of complete independence for Lithuania. On July 29, the Russian Federation formally acknowledged Lithuania’s independence. In August, an aborted coup attempt by conservatives resulted in the collapse of the authority of the Soviet government and the transfer of de facto power to the republics. Lithuania’s leaders took advantage of the situation to take control of their country’s borders and domestic functions.

On September 2, 1991, U.S. president George H. W. Bush, Bush, George H. W. following action by the European Community, extended diplomatic recognition to all three Baltic States. Two days later, the State Council, the Soviet Union’s transitional executive authority, did likewise. Formal certification of Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian sovereignty came in mid-September, when the three states were admitted to the United Nations. Lithuania;independence Soviet Union;Lithuanian independence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landsbergis, Vytautas. Lithuania Independent Again: The Autobiography of Vytautas Landsbergis. Translated by Eimutis Šova. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Firsthand account of the Lithuanian struggle for independence by the new nation’s first leader. Includes map and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Misiunas, Romuald J. “The Baltic Republics: Stagnation and Strivings for Sovereignty.” In The Nationalities Factor in Soviet Politics and Society, edited by Lubomyr Hajda and Mark Beissinger. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. Concise analysis of the Baltic struggle for independence, with emphasis on Lithuania.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Misiunas, Romuald, and Rein Taagepera. The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940-1990. Expanded ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Provides a uniquely fine feel for life in Soviet Lithuania and a good description of the dissident movement. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nahaylo, Bohdan, and Victor Swoboda. Soviet Disunion: A History of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR. New York: Free Press, 1990. One of the best descriptions of the Soviet nationalities problem available. Covers the entire Soviet period and all the major nationalities, providing a useful framework for explaining developments in the Baltics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olcott, Martha Brill. “The Lithuanian Crisis.” Foreign Affairs 69 (Summer, 1990): 30-46. Eminently readable and insightful account of the reasons for and impact of Lithuania’s declaration of independence. Shows that Gorbachev’s opposition to independence for Lithuania was rooted in part on the destabilizing impact a breakaway of the Baltic republic would have on the rest of the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petersen, Roger D. Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Scholarly work focuses on the process through which ordinary people get involved in rebellion against powerful regimes. Presents the case of Lithuania as illustration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vardys, Stanley V. “Lithuanian National Politics.” Problems of Communism 38 (July/August, 1989): 57-76. In-depth study of the interplay among Sajudis, the Lithuanian Communist Party, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the Baltic struggle for independence. Argues that Gorbachev would have been hard-pressed to find a formula that could reconcile Moscow’s resistance to separation with the determination of the Lithuanians to have it.

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