Decades after thousands of Muscovites marched for Baltic independence, the mood in Russia today is a far cry from the outpouring of support in 1991. What has changed? Aliide Naylor, author of The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front, writes for LRT English.
Thirty years ago this month, following the Soviet military suppression of Lithuania’s independence drive, between 300,000 and 700,000 Muscovites marched on Manezhnaya Ploschad (Manezh Square) in the capital's centre under slogans such as “Freedom to Lithuania!”.
Muscovites threw their weight behind the Baltic republics, aiming to commemorate the 13 Lithuanian civilians killed by Red Army troops. Now, Lithuania’s commemorative events are being presented as evidence of “Russophobia” in the region, used “to whip up an anti-Russian atmosphere in [Lithuanian] society”, claimed Vladimir Simindey from the country’s pseudo-academic Historical Memory Foundation.
To mark the occasion this year, the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation held an exhibition titled “Thirty years since the events in Vilnius in January 1991. Truth and Fiction”, suggesting that the CIA was behind all events in Vilnius. The focus was on a man named Andrew Eiva.
Baltic officials, including current and serving foreign ministers, have often shared images from the mass demonstrations in support of the Baltics in Russia.
His parents were Lithuanian refugees from the Soviet occupation, but in Russia he is described as a US citizen. The exhibition placed a further emphasis on Yuri Mel, a man arrested in 2014 and subsequently sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Vilnius.
Russian state media continue to repeat the tenuous claim that “three quarters of the Lithuanian population did not want any secession from the USSR” and that “the Lithuanian side blames Soviet soldiers without proof”. It is suggested that people such as Eiva may have acted as provocateurs.
“Progressive forces are considered to be trained as agents of the CIA or the United States,” said Victor Mizin, a leading researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow (IMEMO).
Change in perceptions
The generally widespread support for Baltic independence never really subsided in Russia, but the different directions in which the Baltic states and Russia developed have created frictions between Russia and the West, perhaps exacerbated by Soviet nostalgia and pro-authoritarian politics glorified under Putin, as well as language policies in the Baltics prioritising local tongues.
Over the past two decades, perceptions of the Baltics in Russia have shifted towards the negative.
In the year 2000, 47 percent of Russian Levada Poll Centre's respondents viewed the Baltics as “basically good”, and 26 percent as “basically bad”. However, in 2006, the more moderate opinions had already changed significantly, with only 35 percent viewing the countries as “basically good” and 37 percent as “basically bad”. Lithuania in particular was regarded more widely as hostile to Russia in 2020 than it had been in 2013.
However, the Baltics are a minor issue for people who do not reside in the European part of Russia, and most barely think about them at all. As one interviewee from the volcanic Kamchatka region – a 10-hour flight from Moscow – told me during research for my book, “I live very far from Europe and I am not quite aware of the problems of European powers”. Opinions vary widely.
Lithuania offered automatic citizenship to its comparatively small Russian population, so Russian minority issues are less pronounced than, for example, in Latvia. And Russian society has changed too.
“It was another Russia,” said Mizin, remembering the early 1990s. He recalled how exuberant people were at the prospect of significant changes. “Now it’s more conservative, the mood, the ideology, the feelings are quite different from those we witnessed at the time.”
“If anyone told me in 1991 that a KGB officer would become the national leader, […] I would have laughed at them. So you see how much has happened since then.”
Konstantin Eggert, who attended the 1991 protest in support of Lithuania in Moscow, added that Russian society had changed profoundly, and that seeing such massive turnout for a protest would be inconceivable.
“Most people today live in this environment of total cynicism, disconnection, in an atomised society,” he said.
Pro-Baltic demonstrations in Moscow
“I'd seen some manifestations before. But I had never seen anything like that,” said Eggert. “Most of the photos show Manezh Square. But […] parts of Tverskaya Street [one of Moscow’s main arteries] were filled with people [who ] were spilling out in the direction of the Bolshoi Theatre.”
“That was definitely the largest rally I had seen in my whole life,” recalled Leonid Ragozin, a writer who also attended the Moscow rally, and similarly described how the sheer volume of attendees clogged neighbouring streets far beyond the square.
“The flags were really colourful, and they represented pretty much every republic of the Soviet Union. But they were not Soviet flags, these were independence flags, the flags of various popular fronts that were forming in each of the republics,” he said.
In Moscow, the Baltics were generally regarded as the Soviet Union’s window to Europe; a magnet for holidaymakers, workers and others.
“The significance of the Lithuanian events was that it was the first serious bloodshed that was experienced in a context that was familiar to people in Moscow and St Petersburg,” said Eggert.
Prior to the 1991 events in Vilnius, Tblisi and Baku had also experienced significant violence in 1989 and 1990, respectively, but the scale of the reaction in Moscow was markedly smaller.
“It was far away, frankly speaking, they were these Caucasians who always fight among themselves, I think that Lithuania was different,” said Eggert. “Many people took their vacations there, they had friends there, they served in the army there, worked in factories – it wasn’t a complete terra incognita.”
Arguably, events in Ukraine and Belarus in recent years warrant a similar degree of societal support – but Russian society itself has changed drastically since the collapse of the USSR. “The empire is still there. And I think that this is something that, strangely enough, wasn't there in 1991,” said Eggert.
It feels like there is currently a “moral crisis” in society, he added. But “people are extremely wary of what might happen if there is a regime change or a revolution” in Moscow, said Ragozin. “They are aware of the fact that they will most probably lose more than they will gain.”
Regarding Belarus, it is extremely unlikely that the Kremlin will ever let it out of its reach, especially considering the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
“Basically, the post-Soviet is always post-Soviet,” added Mizin.
Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and editor, and the author of The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front.