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20 years since the collapse of communism in Moscow

  • 2011-08-24
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

THE LAST VICTIM: On Aug. 21, 1991, Soviet soldiers opened fire near the Lithuanian parliament, killing Lithuanian soldier Arturas Sakalauskas. Twenty years after, near the monument to Sakalauskas, which is situated close to the parliament, Lithuanian troops marched, paying tribute to his sacrifice.

VILNIUS - The world media marked the 20th anniversary of Communist hardliners’ unsuccessful Moscow coup of Aug. 19-21, which buried Soviet communism. BBC World showed its interview with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, presenting him as enlightened pro-liberal dissident, although the people of the Baltics and Russia are better informed –  Gorbachev, then based in Crimea, to a bigger or lesser extent, was behind that coup and, as usual, was wavering and waiting to see who would win - Vadim Pugo, son of the high-standing putsch activist, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo (the latter shot himself after the putsch’s failure), spoke about it to Russia’s Pierviy Kanal TV last week.

The wave of diplomatic recognitions of the Baltic governments from all around the world started immediately after the failure of Moscow coup. Finally, on Sept. 6, the USSR, living its last months, also recognized officially the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

During the coup, Egidijus Bickauskas, diplomatic representative of independent Lithuania in Moscow back in 1991, got an invitation from the U.S. ambassador in Moscow to hide in the U.S. embassy, but Bickauskas rejected the American proposal because he was sure about the coming victory of Lithuania and its Russian allies. The Russia of Boris Yeltsin (who, unlike Gorbachev, was elected in a nationwide election to the post of Russia’s president) already before the coup recognized the independence of Lithuania, and even the fact of the Soviet’s illegal annexation of Lithuania in 1940, by signing the Lithuanian-Russian treaty of July 29, 1991 (it is the only treaty of Russia with a Baltic country with such condemnation of Soviet annexation and, therefore, it is the only international treaty hidden from contemporary Russian youth studying diplomacy in Moscow). The treaty was ratified by the Russian parliament soon after the failed communist coup of August 1991.

Twenty years ago, during that surrealistic coup, Lithuanian soldiers mostly stayed with MPs inside the parliament, ready for defense in case of Soviet attack, while thousands of Lithuanian civilians, as they did a few months earlier during the Soviet military aggression in January 1991, surrounded the democratically elected Lithuanian parliament forming a live human shield against possible attack of Soviet tanks. Just the mood was gloomier, and there were no more incidental people in the crowd at the first day and night of the strange coup because everybody knew what they could expect, due to the lesson of January 1991. Thousands of democrats in Moscow also learned the Mahatma Gandhi-style January lesson from Vilnius and formed a similar human shield to defend the Russian parliament and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet army tanks had no courage to drive over the Russians. Even the KGB’s Alpha group, which was famous for its bloody stormings of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul in 1979 and - on the order of the fresh Nobel Peace Prize winner Gorbachev (Alpha veterans speak about such an order) - on the TV tower and TV center in Vilnius in January 1991, refused to storm the Russian parliament. 

“Estonia proclaimed its independence! Latvia proclaimed its independence!” Vytautas Landsbergis, head of the Lithuanian state, appearing in the window of the Lithuanian parliament shouted to the crowd standing under his office’s window outside and cheering such news. While Lithuania had declared re-establishment of unconditional independence on March 11, 1990, Estonia and Latvia settled for a transition period to full independence in 1990. It was the Moscow coup which pushed Tallinn and Riga to make up their minds. Estonia declared independence on Aug. 20 and Latvia signed legislation ending the transition period on Aug. 21, hours before the coup unraveled.

Only three civilians were killed by Soviet army soldiers in Moscow during the August coup. On Aug. 21, 1991, when people already were starting to celebrate the coup’s failure, five Soviet soldiers approached in their truck, loaded with explosives, and opened fire at the Lithuanian military post on Gostauto Street (the post was on the truck’s route towards the Lithuanian parliament), killing Arturas Sakalauskas, a soldier in the Lithuanian army, which was formed in January 1991, and consisted of poorly armed volunteers. At the moment of his death, Sakalauskas was wearing civilian clothes and was unarmed, because there were not enough Lithuanian military uniforms and guns for all the volunteers and Sakalauskas was sharing his uniform and gun with several other colleagues.

Eleven Lithuanian soldiers were wounded during that exchange of fire, according to Col. Arunas Dudavicius, who was the chief of the unit of Sakalauskas back in 1991.
Sakalauskas was the last victim of the half-a-century-long Soviet terror in the Baltics. He is buried in the cemetery of his native town of Alytus. His grave is next to the grave of Antanas Juozapavicius, who became the first officer killed in the Lithuanian army of volunteers after the independence war’s battle against the Red Army in Alytus in 1919.

Twenty years after the failed coup, on Aug. 21, the mother of Sakalauskas, Genovaite Sakalauskiene, and Landsbergis were the main speakers at the conference in the Lithuanian parliament to commemorate the events that took place 20 years ago. Sakalauskiene expressed pride in her son’s patriotism and said bitter words about a Lithuanian prosecutor having pro-communist sympathies (according to her), who allowed a Soviet soldier, who was injured during the exchange of fire at the post at Gostauto Street and who was a suspect in the killing of Sakalauskas, to go back to Russia after his treatment in the best hospital of Vilnius.

Landsbergis analyzed the reasons for the coup of Aug. 19-21. The reason was the following: the new treaty of the Soviet republics was scheduled to be signed in Moscow on Aug. 20. The new confederation, under this treaty (fierce political rivals, Soviet President Gorbachev and Russian President Yeltsin, took part in its preparation) would replace the USSR, leaving some symbolic functions for Gorbachev as the head of the new confederation. The treaty was supposed to be signed by leaders of nine republics (the three Baltic countries and three republics of South Caucasus had no intention of participating in it, according to Landsbergis).

“The signing of the treaty was scheduled for Aug. 20. It is why Aug. 19 was chosen. […] Gorbachev knew that there would be no signing of the treaty, and left for Crimea,” Landsbergis said. He said that Gorbachev, starting perestroika, wanted just to modernize “the kingdom of zombies,” seeking to make the USSR more competitive vis-a-vis “the naive West,” but he lost control of that process. Landsbergis said that his main hope for Lithuania’s liberation from the USSR’s claims was Russia’s pro-Western democratic movement, not cowardly Western leaders. During the August coup, Landsbergis and Yeltsin coordinated their activities via the phone. Landsbergis expressed his pity that Russia missed its chance to become a normal democratic country after the collapse of communism there in August 1991.