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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Lithuania Under Communism

Despite their own unceasing propaganda, party leaders never fully trusted the population. In the 1950s, LCP First Secretary Antanas Sniečkus complained that allowing deportees to return from Siberia created problems for his administration of the republic. The returnees faced official discrimination in both work and housing. The police now expressed concern that persons who a decade earlier might have joined the partisans were now advancing to responsible posts, possibly even joining the party and engaging in subversive activities. The authorities demanded greater vigilance, and while under constant pressure to conform to the regime’s standards, Lithuanian citizens had to accustom themselves to living in the constant presence of agents and informers.

Although the Soviet constitution promised considerable freedom to the population, in practice the constitution was not the law of the land. The power, the wishes, and the decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were superior to the constitution. The constitution, for example, declared that Union Republics like Lithuania had to right to secede from the Soviet Union, but party rules did not allow discussion of such a possibility. Ultimate authority lay with the First Secretary, or General Secretary, of the CPSU, and not with the formal chief of state or prime minister. In turn, the First Secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party was the local political boss of Lithuania.

Protest, resistance and dissidence took various forms in Lithuania, both organized and individual. There were protesters who objected to the Soviet system altogether, and there were protesters who just demanded reform of the existing order. The centralized Soviet system could not control absolutely every movement. Since any deviation from Moscow’s orders could be considered resistance, even the LCP, Moscow’s fundamental agent in Lithuania, on occasion might disobey while at the same time it reinforced its control over the republic.

There could be both public and private acts of protest. A young man might hang out the banned national tri-color flag, yellow-green-red, and thereby risk a jail term. Underground activity, especially after 1970, could involve writing critical texts and secret publishing – this could result in deportation to a prison camp. In the most shocking act of protest, Romas Kalanta, a young man 19 years of age, torched himself in the center of Kaunas on Sunday morning, May 14, 1972. Among his last words were “Freedom for Lithuania.” Demonstrations by Kaunas youth followed, resulting in arrests and severe beatings by the authorities.

In these activities, the Catholic Church, which had a legal existence in Soviet Lithuania, played an important role as a focus for national consciousness. The Lithuanians constituted the major group of Catholics in the Soviet Union, and national feelings and religious beliefs intertwined closely.

As a legal institution the church demanded that the regime observe the freedoms promised by the constitution. The constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, but the regime severely restricted religious practice – watching church attendance, limiting the activity of priests, and controlling admission to the priests’ seminary in Kaunas, the only legal Catholic seminary in the Soviet Union. At considerable personal risk, Lithuanians signed a number of mass petitions demanding their constitutional rights as religious believers. The government demanded that the church condemn such agitation, but some church officials secretly supported it.

In 1972 individual church officials began an underground publication entitled The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, which, despite some arrests, appeared irregularly for the next 17 years, eventually totaling 81 issues. While the Chronicle focused mainly on religious questions, soon other underground publications arose to deal with secular, political matters.

When Soviet leaders, after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, began to consider reforming their system, which they themselves now spoke of as suffering from “stagnation,” Lithuanians found space in which they could raise public complaints. In the cause of protecting the environment, they were able to protest projects such as drilling for oil off the republic’s Baltic Sea coast. They were able to organize groups to preserve historical sites. Such actions, now legal, could easily assume national coloring. Concern about the official program of “bilingualism” introduced into schools to prepare children to speak Russian caused Lithuanians to rally to the cause of preserving their language, obviously a major element in Lithuanian national consciousness.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s slogans of perestroika and glasnost’, and “a state run by laws,” opened the way for Lithuanians legally to organize themselves as a national movement. In June 1988 intellectuals in Vilnius proclaimed the establishment of “The Movement for Perestroika in Lithuania,” which eventually became known simply as “Sajudis,” the Lithuanian word for “movement.” Under the banners of perestroika and glasnost, Lithuanians could now discuss long forbidden topics.

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Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Vilnius
Communist Rule:  1940-1941 / 1944-1990
Status:  Independence restored - 11.03.90
Victims of Communism: