[by Liz Owerbach]
Moving poetry, ceremonial sashes, professional actors, a choir dressed to the nines: this Lithuanian scene was not, as one might expect, a night out at the theater, but rather the opening of the Third Congress of the Sajūdis movement on December 14th, 1991 (Lieven, 109). The elaborate and dramatic nature of this political event was intentional, signifying the deliberate effort of post-Soviet Baltic leaders to revive a unique nationalist identity in their people.
Formed in 1988, the Sajūdis – or the Reform Movement of Lithuania – was the key force advocating for Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union. With the musicology professor Dr. Vytautas Landsbergis as its chair, the Sajūdis movement fought a physical, political, and economic battle with Moscow to achieve autonomy. Though the Lithuanian parliament voted unanimously for independence on March 11, 1990, Moscow refused to recognize this decision. The USSR launched an economic blockade, obstructed Lithuanian attempts to garner Western recognition, and even attempted a coup in Vilnius in January 1991. This effort left thirteen dead and hundreds wounded at the hands of the Soviet Army. After a second failed coup attempt in August 1991, the international community recognized Lithuanian independence, thereby legitimizing its existence as a sovereign state (“Lithuania: The Move Towards Independence”).
The gathering of the Third National Congress at the Sports Palace in Vilnius was a key event after independence, and the perfect opportunity for Lithuanian leaders to evoke a sense of national grandeur and pride. The theatrics began at the start of the meeting. In a surprise opening, professional actor Kestutis Genys approached the microphone, placed one hand on his heart and one on his breast and exclaimed, “Today we have come back to our Lithuania, our conscience, our blood…through all the years of the empire of hell we never faltered” (Lieven, 109).
As the ceremony continued, there were even more blatant references to the “empire of hell,” emphasizing a clear dichotomy between the malevolent Soviets and the virtuous Balts. Midway through the meeting, radical nationalist Antanas Terleckas usurped the microphone in the middle of a colleague’s speech and exclaimed “Why do you use this filthy Soviet term ‘organ’, when you could use the proper Lithuanian word ‘institution?'” (Lieven, 118). When former Chairman Dr. Landsbergis took the stage, “flanked by two uniformed paramilitary officers, who saluted as he was draped in the ceremonial sash of Chairmanship,” he directly linked Lithuania’s glorious past to its political present. “Sajūdis has stood for the old, pure, honest Lithuania, not the dependent colony,” he exclaimed, “Sajūdis is the expression of the spiritual rebirth of the whole nation” (Lieven, 257).
To further emphasize the glory of Lithuanian reemergence, the entire ceremony was bound together by theatrical and religious pageantry. A choir, outfitted in traditional Lithuanian dress, sang patriotic anthems between speeches. In an attempt to connect Lithuania’s Catholic roots to its resurgent future, prayer also frequently punctured political presentations during the day. Those gathered in the Sports Palace sang the national anthem, paid homage to those killed in the January 1991 attempted coup, and listened to a “beautiful memorial lament” in their honor-all events where the audience rose to their feet to pay proper tribute. There were at least nineteen standing ovations in all (Lieven, 109-110). The Third National Congress in 1991 was an event that embodied the conscious effort of the Lithuanian leadership to re-establish a national identity in the post-Soviet era. From the political and religious rhetoric, to the elaborate costumes and pageantry, this Congressional meeting was much more than its name implied: it was a way to demonstrate Lithuania’s cultural glory and total independence from Russia.
- Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 109.
- “Lithuania: The Move Towards Independence, 1987-1991.” Country Studies. JAN 1995. Library of Congress. 1 Mar 2009 http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+lt0014).