We Wanted to Be

Vytautas Landsbergis
The first head of state of Lithuania after the restoration of independence in 1990 from the Soviet Union. He served as the Head of the Lithuanian Parliament, the ’Seimas.’ A professor of music who has been active in Lithuania’s struggle for freedom arena for more than two decades, He served as a Member of the European Parliament for Lithuania from 2004 to 2014.

Photo credit: Zinas Kazėnas


That strange entity “Litua” was first noted in European (German) annals in 1009. It was the definition of a territory just outside the lands of the Ruthenians, today’s Belarus and Ukraine. Undoubtedly, the inhabitants of Litua one millennium ago should be called Lituanians.

They wanted to live, and that’s why they opposed the Tatars from the East (the Golden Horde) and Germans (Teutonic Knights) from the West.

To live meant to be free and stay on one’s own.

Vytautas Landsbergis

In the 13th century, Litua (or Lithuania) was unified by her first king, Mindaugas, baptized, and given the Christian crown from Rome, which was then the highest spiritual and political authority.

In 1323, Gediminas, the great ruler of a large unified state, sat in his capital Vilnia (derived from its river’s name and later transformed into Vilnius), and wrote a letter proudly entitling himself as the King of Lithuanians and Ruthenians. At that time, his dominions already reached as far as Kiev. 652 years ago, his son Algirdas affirmed this status by crushing the Golden Horde in a famous battle at Black Waters, to the south of Kiev. To a great extent, it is due to this fact that Ukraine gained and retained its European link.

In the 15th century, Lithuania, an influential state born on the Baltic Sea shore, extended to the Black Sea as well. She became mighty enough to crush – under the rule of Vytautas and in alliance with Poland (then ruled by King Jagiello, also a Lithuanian) – the common enemy of both, the German Knights of Prussia. With this victory, the 200-year war for Lithuania ended, and the question to be or not to be was answered. However, after the long-lasting danger of German slavery seemed removed, a new one appeared, this one growing from the East. It was Moscow, Moscovia, which aimed to take away Lithuanian rule and annex all Russian state-like entities (i.e. Novgorod Republic) and the Ruthenian people. This started Russia’s 300-year-long thrust or expansion westward, fighting and pushing out the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (called the Republic of Two Nations). This rivalry with Russia ended with the full conquest of both countries, with Russia actually partitioning the formerly large European state and deleting it from the political maps of Europe. All this was finally accomplished in 1795, just a few years after the Republic of Two Nations had adopted its Constitution – the first constitution in Europe! However, the state had no chance to implement this constitution, reform itself and survive.

Not to be! – Such was the sentence issued by then Russia, Prussia and Austria, who divided the historically conjoined lands of Lithuania and Poland between themselves. There followed the darkest 19th century, replete with slavery and serfdom, rebellions and severely oppressive punishments. All forms of Lithuanian print (including prayer-books) and education were banned. Citizens of the small nation had to be forcefully remade into Orthodox Russians, obedient slaves of the Russian emperor.

But then, a unique form of resistance arose in Lithuania: the illegal, underground education of children in their native language and illegal distribution of Lithuanian prints (made abroad), along with the highly risky endeavor of smuggling them across the border into Lithuania…

Lithuania wanted to be, and with her first chance in 1904, she started building her own national society – with legal Lithuanian newspapers, schools, and political organizations – along with programs for national survival and growth. This resulted, along with the opportunities brought by the Great War of 1914–1918, in the establishment of the Lithuanian state based on its ethnic territories.

The Republic of Lithuania succeeded in defending and building itself, in acceding to the League of Nations, and in cooperatively entering the international community. Her will to live and become stronger was evident and fruitful until two bloody dictators, Hitler and Stalin, agreed to attack several weaker Central European and Baltic states with their empires, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.

A new World War erupted and brought new slavery for Lithuania.

Under decades-long Soviet captivity, Lithuania suffered enormous losses of human lives, economy and culture.

Vytautas Landsbergis

The political program of her “sovietization” provided the destruction of national identity and the very dignity of self-minded people. They were supposed to become, while praising the genius, gifted Soviet rulers and adopting pidgin Russian, a new non-national identity of “the Soviet people,” thereby disappearing as a genuine and historical European nation. In other words, was Lithuania not to be anymore?

The Lithuanians resisted the Soviet occupiers via armed combat (in the forests and underground) for more than ten years. This “war after war” subsequently continued in later forms of unarmed, but spiritual (religious and cultural) resistance. “We want to be,” was the feeling and will of Lithuanians – politically a captive nation, but not so in spirit. All that, similar to previous forms of resistance, was not in vain. In the late eighties, when the USSR was approaching its moral, political and economic collapse, genuine political, non-servile, pro-freedom organizations appeared and rose up in Lithuania. The main one, Sąjūdis (an overwhelmingly grassroots movement), proposed an open program of essential changes for Lithuanian society. The intelligentsia helped draft the program, similar to what happened in Poland with the Solidarity movement. The limited reform of Gorbachevist perestroika did not correspond with the aspirations of the Lithuanian Sąjūdis to achieve true democracy and freedom of choice for the nation’s future. No violent means – only political moves, spiritual liberation, and the Singing Revolution – such was the way taken by Lithuanian people, and this way proved victorious. We extended brotherly hands between ourselves, including Communists, and to neighboring nations, including Russians. “All we want,” I said on one opportunity, “is peace and a Peace Treaty.”

The milestones of our way were as follows: true, democratic and competitive elections in February 1990, and the set of legal, constitutional acts subsequently adopted by the Parliament on the 11th of March. Lithuania is independent again!

The Soviets did not want an independent and friendly Lithuania. They attempted to crush us economically (with isolation and blockades) and by military aggression and terrorist means (1991), but our will to live in freedom prevailed. Even more, the gates for all so-called “Soviet republics” were opened, and the evil empire ceased to exist. That was the exact and precisely defined formula adopted in December 1991 in Belovezh by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. On that day, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were already (since September) members of the UNO.

A new chapter of our history with new challenges and achievements, with membership in NATO and the European Union since 2004, was opened.

Vytautas Landsbergis

What about that consistent will to live in one’s independent democracy is relevant today?

It now meets with new challenges, and two of them should be mentioned for Lithuania:

The first one is the aggressiveness of the revengeful and striving-to-restore itself, neo-totalitarian Russian empire, eager to attack and take back its neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine.

The second is the newly realized freedom of choice: where one wishes to live. With the onset of emigration, many Lithuanians are now searching and striving to find new places, perhaps looking for a better life. But what does “better” mean? Material and spiritual conditions – like staying and being in that most special place, your beautiful native country – compete now in their minds and souls. I am sure the will to live and the choice to live in Lithuania will prevail.