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Vol 3, No 5
5 February 2001
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Lithuania Independent Again Lithuania Independent Again:
The Auto-
biography of Vytautas Landsbergis

University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2000
ISBN 0295979593
University of Wales, Cardiff, 2000
ISBN 0708314546

Mel Huang

To audiences around the globe, Vytautas Landsbergis personified Lithuania's struggle for freedom, its quest to rightfully restore its cherished independence after 50 dark years of struggle under occupation. For most of the world, however, this charismatic and soft-spoken musicologist who chose to challenge Soviet hegemony head-on soon disappeared from the radar screen after the restoration of Lithuanian independence. The world media's attention moved on to other figures that personified a nation's struggle, while Lithuania and Landsbergis became another fading memory.

For all the CNN footage and sound bites—ranging from the tense moments of the Soviet attack to the chaotic time during the Moscow coup—the world knew little about the man on whom they focused their attention. When Landsbergis visits world capitals, he is showered with as much attention as can be expected for a country that few know and fewer remember. Everyone is curious about 1990-91 and how the country has been transformed since then. But who is this Vytautas Landsbergis?

It was not until the year 2000 that Landsbergis' memoirs were translated and published in English, thanks very much to the work of Anthony Packer and Eimutis Šova and the University of Wales (Caerdydd) Press. Even ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been relatively little academic work on Lithuania available in English. This volume is the first such publication on the life and thoughts of this important figure in the region's history.

First-hand account

The text is a valuable source for those studying Lithuania's road to restored independence during the last years of the Soviet Union. Much of it focuses on the events of 1988 to 1991, with Landsbergis sharing his insights into the dramatic events that changed the world. Landsbergis discusses these events, from the founding of Sąjūdis to the unravelling of the Moscow coup attempt, through his first-hand knowledge and unique perspective on what took place in Vilnius, Moscow and even Washington.

The author's detail in describing these dramatic and chaotic events is stunning, especially in first-person mode. Landsbergis does a good job of conveying his feelings and thoughts at each moment, giving the reader the opportunity to see events unfold through his eyes.

Nearly every instance of communication with Western leaders during that period—ranging from the "be patient" letter sent by François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl in April 1990 to the countless "suggestions" made by Mikhail Gorbachev on how to "resolve" the situation—receives careful analysis in this text. This detailed look at international communications is invaluable in tracing Moscow's reaction to Lithuania, as well as the world's slowly changing attitude towards Lithuanian independence.

One noticeable tone-down in these memoirs is the limited criticism of the US government and the (George H W) Bush administration for its unimaginative and spineless policy towards Lithuania, though Landsbergis does indeed express the frustration and disappointment he felt at the time over the timidity and inaction of Washington.

Political foes

As in most memoirs, many of the events described in this book are infused with hindsight and distance. A large dose of criticism is levied at both ex-Communist Party boss Algirdas Brazauskas and former prime minister Kazimira Prunskienė; though many of the written recollections are most likely accurate, readers familiar with political developments in Lithuania since the restoration of independence are likely to see some of that frustration in Landsbergis' recollections of events leading up to full independence. One particularly interesting passage comes from pages 240-241:

While the ministers were awaiting Prime Minister [Albertas] Šimėnas at the government offices they learned that Algirdas Brazauskas, the former deputy prime minister, had telephoned Kazimiera Prunskienė, who happened to be staying in the country that night, requesting her urgent return to Vilnius. She had subsequently arrived at the government offices early in the morning, where, according to the ministers' account, she had taken it upon herself to declare that the Supreme Council was 'now inoperative and that the government had to take responsibility into its own hands.' She had then tried to browbeat the ministers into deciding to elect a new head of government, and had presumed to sit in the prime minister's chair. These actions had caused the ministers present to protest vigorously, and they had rejected her proposals outright. Pranas Kūris, the minister for justice, had bluntly asked her: 'What the devil do you think you are doing here?' He was of course on very strong ground, as Prunskienė was now only an ordinary deputy, and while she had a place in the Supreme Council, she was no longer in the government.

Landsbergis later concludes that "had these moves been successful the outcome would have been as damaging as any coup d'état," adding that "a government of Brazauskas's and Prunskienė's choosing would have become the only source of authority in Lithuania, and it would have acted exactly as Gorbachev's supporters in Moscow and Lithuania desired."

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Such calculated and detailed criticism of his biggest political foes of 1990 (the two remain his rivals today) gives the account an extra dramatic flare and highlights the divergent views within the Sąjūdis movement. Most of the world thought of it as one movement, led by one man (Landsbergis), but this recollection gives one of the best accounts of the significant disputes within the group, and of how things could have been very, very different with another balance.

Though a few early chapters are devoted to Landsbergis' life before Sąjūdis, most of the book focuses on the dramatic years of the movement and the changes that occurred when they assumed power and won back Lithuania's independence. It would have been nice if Landsbergis had focused more on the earlier years, especially on his real love—music. However, the brevity of the chapter on his main professional attention—the works of the gifted painter and composer Mikalojus K Čiurlionis—in this text will perhaps provide impetus to translate his earlier works on Čiurlionis into English.

A family history

One of the most interesting parts of the book—particularly for students of Lithuanian history—is how Landsbergis chronicles the history of his family. He paints a wonderful picture of his grandparents and their active ties to many of Lithuania's national heroes of the late 1800s and early 1900s who laid the foundation for an independent Lithuanian Republic in 1918. The photos in the book help to accentuate these aspects, and almost seem to set up Landsbergis' life for a messianic duty.

Landsbergis also discusses how World War II and the Soviet/Nazi/Soviet occupation tore his family apart—with only he and his mother remaining in Lithuania after the Soviet return in 1944. His brother Gabrielius and father Vytautas, caught beyond the borders at the conclusion of the war, ended up in Australia.

Though his father returned to Lithuania in 1959, he never again saw his wife Ona, who died in 1957. The elder Vytautas did, however, live to see his son lead his nation to freedom. He died in 1993 at the ripe old age of 100. Landsbergis' recollections of his father are among the most touching, and he aptly notes on page 26 that "my father's story is worth a novel, or more." These brief early chapters show Landsbergis as a person and the importance of family and their influence on him—a facet of his life that should have been emphasised even more in these pages.

The style of writing changes along with the circumstances; the first chapters about his family and early life read easily. In the bulk of the book, however, which discusses the tumultuous Sąjūdis years, the writing is in many places long-winded and dry, and even the most attentive and interested reader may drift off at some point. Perhaps some of the juice was lost in translation (it is not easy to translate feeling and connotation from Lithuanian); at times it almost seems like an endless venting of a past event.

This book should be seen as two volumes in one, the first being an autobiography, which reads as such, the second being a history of Sąjūdis, which works as a detailed academic text. Each is valuable in its own way, but hard to read within one and the same cover.

Despite its shortcomings, the book is a very important source on the life and mind of one of the late twentieth-century's most significant figures. Looking at the events chronicled in this book, one gains even more respect for this already vastly respectable and courageous man. Regardless of what may have happened in the chaotic world of Lithuanian politics that drove away some of his staunchest supporters from the early days, no one can deny that Landsbergis is one of the biggest heroes of the Lithuanian nation throughout its 900+ year history. This book shows the reader what CNN didn't—who this soft-spoken piano man really is.

Mel Huang, 5 February 2001

Moving on:


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Myths and Politics

Bernhard Seliger
Unemployment in East Germany

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The Scourge of Transition

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Dzurinda's Mission

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Going Down Together

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Balabanov's Nationalism

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Forms of Hope

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Vytautas Landsbergis's autobiography

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Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

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Czech Historical Amnesia

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Out of Time

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
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Gain and Loss

Oliver Craske
UK: Not Such a Soft Touch, Sadly


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