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Suing Gorbachev 31 years after the USSR’s collapse, a group of Lithuanians sought to hold its last leader to account

Source: Meduza

Suing Gorbachev 31 years after the USSR’s collapse, a group of Lithuanians sought to hold its last leader to account

Source: Meduza
Boris Yurchenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Aliide Naylor. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Writing for The Beet, journalist and author Aliide Naylor tells the story behind a lawsuit filed against the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, just eight months before his death. Thirty-one years after the USSR’s collapse, a group of Lithuanians sought to hold Gorbachev accountable for the January Events in 1991, when Soviet troops carried out a lethal crackdown in Vilnius, almost a year after Lithuania reasserted its independence. Against the backdrop of glowing eulogies from Western leaders, this lawsuit recalled that Gorbachev’s legacy is nothing if not contentious, especially in countries that struggled to gain independence from Moscow. Indeed, those who describe the USSR’s demise as “bloodless” are papering over quite a bit of bloodshed. 

This article was first appeared in The Beet, a new email dispatch from Meduza featuring original reporting on Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get our next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Ramunė Grudzinskienė was 32 years old when Lithuania’s independence struggle boiled over in 1991, and she still remembers it like it was yesterday. A strong community spirit and sense of simmering optimism prophesized that finally, this time, Lithuania would succeed in severing the shackles of the USSR. “The general mood of the nation was very high,” she told The Beet. “We shared sandwiches and tea with strangers.” 

Her brother, Gintaras Žagunis, was a border guard at the time. During the January Events, he and his squadmates were guarding the Government House in Vilnius, which he said he would “defend to the death.” Gintaras survived the night — but 14 others were not so lucky. 

On January 11, Soviet military units seized a handful of Lithuanian institutions, injuring pro-independence protesters in the process. Overnight on January 12-13, Soviet troops and the KGB special ops “Alpha” squad stormed the Vilnius TV tower, firing blanks at demonstrators and driving tanks into the crowd, crushing civilians. Seamstress Loreta Asanavičiūtė, the only woman killed in this violence, was just 23 years old. Another 700 people were injured. 

“It was minus 30 degrees Celsius [minus 22 Fahrenheit] when we buried the January 13 victims, but the streets through which the funeral procession took place were full of people,” recalled Ramunė. “We all stood for as long as we could. I also stood, the heat of the candle warming my frozen hands, thanking God that my brother was not hurt.”

Her relief was short-lived. In May 1991, Gintaras was killed while guarding a border post in Lithuania’s southern Dieveniškės appendix. 

“Border posts were attacked all the time. Officers were mocked, beaten, and shot at,” Ramunė said. “Lithuanian officials were helpless in avoiding unnecessary conflicts with Soviet provocateurs.”  

The last time she saw her brother was from the window of a bus. He was walking down the street in Vilnius. Had she known what was to happen, she would have stopped to talk to him. The loss permanently scarred her family.  

“Until her final day, my mother mentioned him all the time, [preserving] his memory. I also buried my mother a year ago,” she said. 

‘The responsibility falls on him’

Ramunė and her mother are just two out of scores of Lithuanians who suffered personal tragedy at the hands of the Soviets. When the USSR’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, died on August 30, the outpouring of admiration confused her. “I don't quite understand the praise,” she said. 

Saulius Urbanavičius was just 17 years old when he watched his friend Ignas Šimulionis die on January 13, 1991. “We sat together at the school desk,” he recalled. “These events affected me. I have sacrificed my whole life to work for my country.” Saulius went on to join Lithuanian law enforcement, ultimately becoming the director of the country’s Special Investigation Service and receiving a state award. 

Saulius has mixed feelings about the Western response to Gorbachev’s death. Although he acknowledges that Gorbachev initiated Perestroika, Saulius also believes that he ordered the killings of civilians in Vilnius — something Gorbachev always denied (and at one point even claimed to have slept through), but which Lithuanians are eager to prove. 

Earlier this year, eight months before Gorbachev died, one group of Lithuanians took things a step further. Relatives of four of the victims killed at the TV tower in 1991 attempted to sue the former Soviet leader, filing a lawsuit with the Vilnius City District Court on January 13, 2022, in a symbolic effort to commemorate their lost loved ones.

They wanted to right the wrongs of the past, said plaintiff Robertas Povilatis, who maintains that Gorbachev lied when he claimed to have been unaware of January 13’s events until the day after the bloodshed. 

“We have different documents that show Gorbachev was informed about the military already doing harm in Lithuania,” Robertas said. “He knew the military was doing this aggression, and he didn’t issue any statement or any request to stop that operation, and this is where his responsibility comes [in],” he said. “This is what we tried to show, to prove, in this lawsuit.” 

Soviet troops attacking pro-independence protesters in Vilnius. January 11, 1991.
Andre Durand / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Robertas has meticulously tracked all the instances of Lithuanian, Canadian, U.S., and NATO officials — among others — making either public statements or contacting Gorbachev’s office privately to discuss Soviet violence in Lithuania in the days leading up to what would become known as Bloody Sunday. 

Even Lithuanians who might not have spent time assessing the validity of Gorbachev’s claims of ignorance feel that as head of state, he ought to shoulder the blame. “I understand that one person cannot rule the whole country, that there is a whole team, but he is the leader of that team, so all the responsibility falls on him,” said Ramunė. 

Robertas himself was just 14 when the Soviets killed his father, Apolinaras Povilaitis. He doesn’t like talking about it, but he is eager and determined to obtain historical justice if actual justice is out of reach. 

“It was a pity to see this glorification of Gorbachev,” Robertas said shortly after the Soviet leader’s death. “He is seen as a hero by many people.”

Rectifying the public perception of Gorbachev’s legacy is a major part of Robertas’ battle. “I think the most important thing for me was to raise these questions. When the [Vilnius] court accepted the lawsuit, I think that sent a very serious message; that the court of [...] an EU country decided to look into Gorbachev’s responsibility in those killings,” he said. 

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, independent Lithuania’s officials moved quickly and started investigating more than 60 people involved in the repressions of the early 1990s. The process slowed, but the country ultimately convicted 67 people in absentia in 2019 — including former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov. (Yazov was 94 years old when he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the January 1991 crackdown.) While Gorbachev was not a suspect in this criminal case, he was summoned to testify as a witness. However, he never appeared in court, prompting the civil litigation. 

It’s unlikely that Robertas ever realistically expected his legal action to conclude with Gorbachev appearing in a Vilnius court. In the end, the lawsuit was terminated at the beginning of September, after Gorbachev died.

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Extreme measures’

Una Bergmane, a Latvian postdoctoral researcher at Helsinki University, also casts doubt on Gorbachev’s account of the January Events. “Gorbachev writes about it in his memoirs, arguing that the whole attack was planned behind his back,” she said in emailed comments to The Beet. “But that is just not convincing if we look at how events unfolded at the time.” 

In Latvia, the West’s positive commemoration of Gorbachev roused similar distaste and was “upsetting on a very personal level” for many, she added. 

As in Lithuania, Moscow used force against the hundreds of thousands of civilians who took to Riga’s streets in January 1991 to protect Latvia’s newfound independence from the Soviet Union. They erected barricades to protect political and communications infrastructure. Six people, including a high school student, were killed in the ensuing violence, mere days after the civilian deaths in Lithuania. 

Some of the protesters saw their role as part of a greater, perhaps international movement, having heard about deaths and deception further afield. 

Ivars Kalada had personal experience with the Soviet authorities’ deceit: in 1986, the state sent him to Chornobyl under misleading circumstances to help contain the fallout from the nuclear disaster. The government told him that he was being deployed for a 45-day-long training exercise, Kalada told local media. “That’s why we participated in the Baltic Way and the Barricades,” he said. 

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The Chornobyl disaster killed 31 people immediately, and many more suffered the long-term consequences of radiation exposure, which the UN estimates had the potential to cause another 4,000 eventual deaths. Officials didn’t evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat until the USSR — headed by Gorbachev — was ready to acknowledge the accident (following Moscow’s initial attempt to cover it up). 

That same year, Soviet security forces violently suppressed mass youth protests in Kazakhstan. In the days-long marches against the local Soviet leadership, known as Zheltoqsan (“December,” in Kazakh), at least 150 demonstrators died (although estimates vary wildly, and the official toll only acknowledges three fatalities).

“Archival documents show that [Gorbachev] knew, and he and the party took extreme measures to suppress the rallies with special forces riot police that flew directly from Moscow,” said political sociologist Diana T. Kudaibergenova, a lecturer at Cambridge University. “Gorbachev’s involvement in that tragedy is clear to a lot of Kazakhstani citizens.” 

Three years later, in what Georgians know as the April 9 tragedy, clashes between the Soviet authorities and pro-independence demonstrators left 21 dead in Tbilisi.

This string of bloody clampdowns makes Gorbachev’s alleged unawareness about the suppression of Lithuania’s pro-independence protests all the more suspect. To have been oblivious to these military actions, Gorbachev would have had to be not sleeping, but comatose, Robertas said. “If he was not in a coma, he knew [about] all developments and allowed them to happen.”

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Story by Aliide Naylor. Edited by Eilish Hart.

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