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Interviews Algirdas Brazauskas. Last meeting with a pragmatic revolutionary

Lithuanian politician and ex-President Algirdas Brazauskas was a Communist leader, who became a reformer of considerable prominence, a Western-style social democrat, and finally a statesman, European-style. Here is an interview with this pragmatic leader, only shortly before he died in cancer in June 2010.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 17, BW 2010 vol III:3
Published on on September 21, 2010

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Lithuanian politician and ex-President Algirdas Brazauskas died on June 26, 2010, at the age of 77. He was a Communist leader, who became a reformer of considerable prominence, a Western-style social democrat, and finally a statesman, European-style.

My last meeting with this jovial and down-to-earth politician, who alongside his adversary (and perhaps the brother of Lithuanian History somewhere in the Phenomenology of Spirit), Vytautas Landsbergis, helped to restore this country’s independence. At the same time, in the spring of 2009 he and Landsbergis also helped bury Mikhail Gorbachev’s dream of reforming the Soviet system while still retaining power over a vast geographic area in Europe.

My intent was to follow up with a second interview as part of a broader work on the fall of communism in Central Europe, but this was not to be. Algirdas Brazauskas passed away in his home after a long battle with cancer.

The Lithuanian revolution began in earnest in the summer of 1988 at a general meeting of the Academy of Sciences on June 3, when 36 people, all but one belonging to the intelligentsia, were appointed to spearhead a movement in support of Gorbachev’s reforms.

The movement soon became known by its abbreviation, “Sąjūdis”. The group included Landsbergis, as well as 17 members of the Lithuanian Communist Party.

In the summer of 1988, Lithuania’s Communist Party was led by old-school politician Ringaudas Songaila. As dictated by Soviet tradition, he was flanked by a second secretary sent from Moscow, Nikolai Mitkin, who was even more dogmatic than Songaila.

At a meeting of the Party’s Central Committee in October of that year, supporters of reform within the party made their move. Songaila was deposed and soon thereafter Mitkin was forced to return home. Fifty-six-year-old Algirdas Brazauskas was named the new leader of the party.

The first time I met Brazauskas was a few months after he took office as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Mitkin was already gone. The interview was held at the Vilnius Party Central. Also present was the Central Committee secretary for culture and ideology, Valerijonas Baltrunas, who had for many years been active within the central party apparatus in Moscow. Brazauskas sat directly across from me, Baltrunas to my right.

When I asked the new party leader whether he could imagine that fully free democratic elections for a Lithuanian parliament could be held in the near future, Western-style with several parties, he was initially silent for a while. Then he said:

“I don’t want to answer that question today. I know I cannot say what I really think. But come back in six months, maybe a year, and maybe I can give you my answer.”

“Alright”, I said. “But may I publish this as your answer?”

“No, absolutely not! That is impossible!”

At this point, Valerijonas Baltrunas, who had already been constantly scraping his feet under the table in disapproval of Brazauskas’s simple and straightforward answers to my questions, suddenly interrupted the interview.

Algirdas Brazauskas leaned back, laughed loudly in the characteristic manner I later came to know, threw both arms out across the table and said:

“Mr. Editor! Publish it!”

At this point I realized that the Lith-uanian Communist Party had a leader who was more than just another party satrap in the Soviet Empire.

Valerijonas Baltrunas had begun his Communist career as head of the Lithuanian Komsomol. When Brazauskas took over as leader of the Communist Party, the young Algirdas Kumza sat as leader of the Lithuanian Young Communists and was soon included in the political circle. I met Kumza for the first time the day after my first meeting with Brazauskas.

“I am occupying this chair for one reason only,” Algirdas Kumza said to me. “To do everything I can to make sure this reprehensible political system goes to hell. I hate it. ”

To this day, Algirdas Kumza belongs to my circle of Lithuanian friends. His signature appears with those of Algirdas Brazauskas and Vytautas Landsbergis on the document declaring an independent state in March 1990, which at that time was acknowledged in the West only by Iceland.

Final approval of this liberation came when Boris Yeltsin, the morning after he stopped the coup in Moscow in August 1991, telephoned Vytautas Landsbergis and informed him that he had given orders to suspend the new troop movements toward the Baltic states.

From the summer of 1988 until Yeltsin assumed power, the Lithuanian revolution, led by its two foremost proponents, Vytautas Landsbergis and Algirdas Brazauskas, was under way.

The former was a romantic and hard-core principled revolutionary, while the latter was a pragmatist who realized that Lithuanian history had caught up with modern times, and was therefore able to free himself from his political past as a high functionary of the Communist Party, realign himself, in his own way, in the spirit of the revolution, and aided by his party’s withdrawal from the all-Soviet Communist Party, sever ties to Moscow with a final bloody blow.

After the victory, Algirdas Brazauskas became the Lithuanian man of the people — even more so than Vytautas Landsbergis. In 1993, he was elected president of the country by a wide margin and during his five years as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006, led Lithuania into both NATO and the European Union.

About Algirdas Brazauskas’s role in Lithuanian history, Vytautas V. Landsbergis, musician, author, and son of Vytautas Landsbergis, stated: “There would have been no success in the fight for independence of Lithuania if not for the actions of my father, leader of the national movement Vytautas Landsbergis, and Algirdas Brazauskas. The lack of one of them would have been deadly for the independence fight.”

The interview:

Peter Johnsson: You were elected to be the first secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party in October 1988, just days before Sąjūdi’s first Congress.

 How did you become the person to take leadership of the party?

Algirdas Brazauskas: In a way, I suggested it myself because of my background and persona. Don’t misunderstand me. Although I had held key positions in both the party and the government for many years, I had never really devoted myself to politics. My background was different. I’m a trained engineer and economist with a doctorate in cybernetics. I had worked for twelve years in the ministry of planning, where I was vice chairman with the rank of minister. During those years I essentially did no work at all within the party apparatus. My field was economics. So, when I was nominated for a position in the party central committee, it was also to be responsible for economic issues. I was the first secretary of the central committee’s economic commission. Politics and propaganda were one and the same. And I was never directly involved in such matters.

Then 1988 came and Sąjūdis was formed. The event had been preceded by the first small dissident movements, environmental protests. However, 1988 was the start of something new. Many of the founders belonged to the Communist Party. The avowed aim was to support perestroika. Sąjūdis was highly active during the summer and enjoyed strong popular support from the start. The party apparatus did not know how to handle the situation. All those “politicians” and “ideologues” with their ties to Moscow and the KGB were paralyzed.

Songaila, the first secretary, was totally out of touch. He and the other ideologues had nothing to say to the people. And back in the city, mass rallies were underway: first 30,000, then 50,000, even 100,000 people. Someone from the party had to speak to the nation! That became my task. The others had nothing to say. Nor did I know what I was going to say. But there I was, standing on the stage. Before me the Lithuanian people. And there, above our heads, the Lithuanian national flag. What I said the first time? I cannot even remember. But the mood was palpable. I probably said what was expected of me. I was warmly received. Flowers! Loads of flowers! In my generation, I may have been the only person in the party leadership to experience this. I’m not saying that the others were bad people. Many of them are still alive. But they were unable to grasp the spirit of the times, the mood of the people, of artists, intellectuals, of all creative people. I went to them and spoke freely as I have for decades, traveling around the country, from Klajpeda to Vilnius, thousands of miles each year, to speak with ordinary people at construction sites and in offices. If I had any fame in the country, it was not as a great politician but as an ordinary person. It was in this role that I attended the big meeting in Vingis Park on July 9, 1988 and it was as an ordinary person the summer of 1988 that I climbed up on the political stage.

PJ: Then autumn came along with the decision to change the party leadership?

AB: The first attempt to depose Songaila had already occurred in August after the security police had violently quelled a demonstration outside the cathedral. It took until October before the change was accomplished.

PJ: Were you the only candidate?

Algirdas Brazauskas: No, I don’t think so. No, there were others. But Sąjūdis supported me. Talks with Sąjūdis preceded the election. That’s a fact.

PJ: Was Gorbachev informed about the election?

AB: I believe that at the time Gorbachev was far removed from this issue. It would be a mistake to think that he handled all issues. He was surrounded by the party central committee and all these people who gossiped about each other as best they could. They didn’t have much to say about me.

PJ: And when did you first get to know Mikhail Gorbachev?

AB: After my election to be the first secretary of the Lithuanian party. It was in Moscow, during a meeting of the Politburo. They didn’t know much about me. Of course people here had informed them and Gorbachev. But they did not have much to say, either positive or negative. From the business department? Of course. At that time I was probably also a comfortable candidate in Moscow’s eyes, a neutral politician.

PJ: Gorbachev’s perestroika had been going on for several years. For many politicians, this led to a reassessment of old ideas. When did you realize that radical changes were necessary?

AB: When it comes to the need for economic reforms, I can’t really say that I underwent any revolutionary change. I was an economist, without ideological blinkers, and I had viewed these issues differently for a long time. I also understood from the very first days in 1985, when Gorbachev launched his perestroika, that it would extend down to the bottom. The bureaucratic apparatus took such stupid decisions and then Gorbachev was ordered to sign them. These bureaucrats applied glasnost and perestroika as if they thought they could accomplish anything at all within the framework of the Soviet Union. I saw all these piles of paper with extensive plans for how to develop micro-electronics, microbiology, the aviation, automotive, and defense industries, and everything else. It was one huge economic chaos. But no real plans ever existed.

PJ: So, you never believed in Gorbachev’s perestroika?

AB: No, I didn’t. Why not? Because I had seen how it worked for more than twenty years. During those years, I had participated in so many discussions at seminars and conferences at the Economic Academy in Moscow. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t know anything before, or that we all had blinders on our eyes. We already had an idea of what the economy required. But there was an old unshakable foundation: the central committee. Gorbachev came to power in 1985. But what happened next? For three or four years, he sat there with the same central committee. I had worked with this conservative bureaucracy since 1977, for eight years before Gorbachev took office. And he continued to work with it! No, I did not believe it.

PJ: And when did you begin to believe that it was possible to create an independent Lithuania?

AB: It’s hard to say. Of course it all started with us in 1987. That was when we saw the first signs of a dissident movement. It involved environmental issues related to financial investments. We also discussed the situation among ourselves, within the party. But that we would be able to achieve complete freedom  no, I never even considered the possibility back then.

The fall of 1988 was key to the process. I knew many of the leaders of Sąjūdis. We asked ourselves what had to be done. The issue of sovereignty and independence was raised publicly, though mostly between the lines, at the Sąjūdis Congress in October. It was held just days after I was elected to be first secretary and I attended the congress and gave a speech. I was already then between a rock and a hard place. My role was to calm things down, while saying that we must find a solution, a path forward, but one in which we avoid bloodshed. There was no shortage of radicals who sought conflict.

From those days onward, a plane was always ready and waiting for me at the airport. I traveled to Moscow so many times to explain and inform. I flew to Gorbachev, I met with the Politburo special commission for the Baltic States, I met KGB head Viktor Chebrikov, later his successor, Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, and Alexander Yakovlev from the Politburo. Incidentally, Yakovlev was the calmest and most human person in this group.

In Vilnius, at the same time, representatives of the Soviet Communist Party central committee were seated and both Moscow and Riga sent delegations to find out what we did.

 Constant meetings, constant accusations. I saw my task as discussing, persuading, and avoiding unnecessary confrontations that would only make our situation worse.

PJ: And what did Gorbachev say in the fall of 1988?

AB: In 1988 he had not yet said anything special. This situation changed in 1989. We had a long meeting in February where I informed him that we would restore the old national anthem and that we would draft a new constitution. Although he was mildly irritated, the general tone of this meeting was also friendly. When he commented that the national anthem did not mention socialism, I asked him how in the world Vincas Kudirka, who wrote the song in the late 1800s in connection with the Lithuanian national awakening, could have been thinking about socialism.

Shortly thereafter, for the first time Sąjūdis established the goal of restoring independence to Lithuania. Earlier, we had all concentrated more on sovereignty and economic autonomy.

PJ: After which Moscow appointed a commission chaired by Vadim Medvedev to investigate what happened in the Baltics?

AB: It included Chebrikov, Yazov, and Kryuchkov, six people in all. Three times I had to defend my position. Six people on one side of the table, with me alone on the other. Three, four, five-hour long hearings with accusations of nationalism and separatism and suggestions that I ought to get tough, especially against those who were members of both Sąjūdis and the Communist Party. They understood nothing of what was going in Lithuania.

From June that year, everything happened quickly. The starting point was Gorbachev’s decision to convene a people’s congress. That was the turning point. The Soviet Union began to disintegrate. For us, it opened new opportunities. Within the Lithuanian party demands were being heard to liberate the party from Moscow. At the congress in December, we reached two decisions: to create an independent Lithuanian party, and to set a political objective of making Lithuania independent and democratic. That was 1989! Try to imagine what this meant at that time.

PJ: And the reactions from Moscow and Gorbachev?

AB: They were shocked and did not know what to do with us, whether they should shoot us, put us in jail, or let us go!

PJ: So Gorbachev was never consulted about the decision?

AB: No. They knew very well what was going on within the party and that we were preparing such a decision. KGB and GRU spies were everywhere, as were commissions from the Central Committee in Moscow. They monitored everything that happened, at meetings, on the radio and television, what was written in the newspapers. They took note of everything. They had their eavesdropping devices inside my office. They knew everything. It was readily apparent almost every time I was in Moscow. They referred to material in front of them and asked why at one meeting I had said this and on a different occasion, that. Or asked: why did he say this? How would I know that, I answered.

PJ: The decision to break with the Soviet party was taken December 20, 1989. What happened next?

AB: Already during the first day of the congress, before the resolution was adopted, Gorbachev called me and offered me all the help I would need to stop the decision. I understood what that meant. This time his tone was clearly threatening. I gave him a definite no to any form of assistance. Instead, we hastened our work with the resolution so it could be adopted as soon as possible. Our congress had no more than adjourned on December 22, when we were summoned to a meeting in Moscow on December 24.

PJ: On Christmas Eve?

AB: Yes, Christmas Eve. Actually, the meeting convened at noon on December 25. The entire central committee was assembled, 350 people, including all of the generals with their gilt-edged shoulder straps. Gorbachev began with a long speech in which he accused us and me personally for the decision. Then, for two hours, I defended myself on the stand. They expelled me from the party. Was I afraid? When you walk into this type of situation you feel no fear. Instead, you think of how to get out of it.

PJ: Were threats made?

AB: Of course, threats were made. Conditions were set. Then they said we would get all the help needed to establish order in Lithuania, financial aid, military assistance.

PJ: But the plenum reached a different decision?

AB: Yes, the decision was that Gorbachev would travel to Lithuania, accompanied by a commission, after the Orthodox Christmas, and investigate, discuss, and try to set things straight. Gorbachev’s first meeting in Vilnius was with representatives of Lithuanian intellectuals: scientists and scholars. I sat on the stage, he stood at the lectern. Gorbachev to Lithuanian intellectuals: “Do you really want to leave the Soviet Union?” “ Yes!!!,” everyone shouted from the floor. Gorbachev turned to me and asked: “Why aren’t you saying anything?” And I said, “What can I tell you, when everyone here has already given you a clear answer?”

All this took place in the open.

PJ: Did he realize at that point that it would be difficult to “rebuild” perestroika-socialism in Lithuania?

AB: I think he understood that we had chosen another path. Though he told me that it was important to fill the Union with new content, the union treaty should be different. But I said to him: “Mikhail Sergeevich, and where is this new content?”

If they had earlier been able to propose a confederation to us, a different basis for the economy, sovereignty; in short, proposed something new and not just generally talk about perestroika and glasnost…

I don’t know what Gorbachev himself thought was possible. He played the role of initiator of change. But he himself did not achieve anything. He had no idea of what was going to happen. I had lengthy discussions with him about this. Here in Lithuania we not only had an idea, but a course of action. Hundreds of thousands of people attended mass rallies to demand freedom, sovereignty, independence, and a new economic order. And we had a political party that stood behind this movement. It is hard to imagine what would have happened otherwise. I can’t imagine that Lithuania would have gained independence without support from the party. Civil war would have erupted.

PJ: Gorbachev visited Lithuania in January. In March, just two months later, the Parliament adopted its declaration of independence. You voted in favor.

AB: Yes. At the end of March, Soviet soldiers occupied the party headquarters in central Vilnius. Moscow still had a small faithful Communist Party under the leadership of Mykolas Burokevivicus. Although he did not have many members, he did have the support of an army  a couple of divisions. We were already an independent state, but a foreign army that governed itself was present in the country, with its commanders in Riga who took their orders from Moscow. Here in Lithuania, General Varennikov, commander of the Soviet land forces, was almost constantly on the scene. I talked to all of them as deputy prime minister in the new government, with General Varennikov and Colonel Kuzmin, who was head of the Soviet Army in the Baltics. I tried to persuade them not to involve the army in politics. Several of the military leaders concurred, but when ordered to station paratroopers in Kaunas, obviously they complied. The army acted according to its own principles.

PJ: And the attack came on the night between January 13 and 14, 1991. Fourteen people died here in Vilnius. Who gave the order? Gorbachev?

AB: Obviously there was a political decision, an order. But I do not believe that Gorbachev could have given orders use live ammunition on people or to run them over with tanks. To this day we still do not know what the order was, or what reason it contained to motivate the attack. I do not know if General Varennikov himself was present. I think it was intended as a further show of force. When the attack came, I was nine kilometers from Vilnius. I immediately got out of bed, dressed, and drove in to the government building. I called everyone I could, generals and colonels, Kuzmin and anyone I could get hold of, ministers in Moscow. I bawled them out, I screamed at them, and told them to stop paralyzing our lives. Kryuchkov called me on the phone. When I told him that people are dying under the tanks, he replied that he knew nothing about it and I told him I did not believe him. 

PJ: Did you try to call Gorbachev?

AB: No, I did not call him. Landsbergis came to me and said that he had tried to call, but he never got through.

PJ: Was there a risk of civil war?

AB: Not at that point. The country was unified. It’s true, there was a small party that was faithful to Moscow. But they had minimal support. This occurred in 1991. The conflicts within Lithuania were already over. But the ending could have been much worse, a great tragedy, if the army had tried to seize parliament.

PJ: And why didn’t they push their attack further?

AB: I don’t know. They could have taken us hostage. Apparently they lacked the authority to take decisions. Perhaps they were afraid of all the people. Not only was parliament surrounded by hordes of people. Every square in the city was filled with people. They came from all over the country and stood there, day and night. From all walks of life, everyone was outraged and defended themselves.

PJ: During these crucial years, two people played key roles in Lithuanian politics: Vytautas Landsbergis and Brazauskas Algirdas. Weren’t they both, each in their own way, instrumental in helping the country regain independence?

AB: In principle, yes. The goal was the same. They each had many ideas, many thoughts. Landsbergis was a romantic; in some ways his task was easier. He could take his case to the people and say exactly what he wanted and what he thought; he could speak anywhere. My situation was different. I was responsible for the country. Not only was I leader of the Communist Party, I was also Speaker of Parliament. All power rested in my hands. I had to be a realist and maneuver in the political scene. My task was to move forward to independence in a rational and well thought-out manner, with as few losses as possible. Any other strategy would have resulted in bloodshed.

PJ: And yet perhaps Landsbergis’ romanticism was also necessary?

AB: And I do not deny that it was necessary. It was necessary. But it was not enough in itself. Society also had to function  three million people who needed food, electricity… I once asked all the romantics if they knew the trolley schedule. They never thought about such matters. And what would have happened if all the electricity had been shut off? If all the trolleys suddenly stopped running one day? Romantics should not be compared with realists. Landsbergis and I met regularly. He visited me when I was a party leader. We drank coffee and cognac, and when we wanted to talk without the KGB eavesdropping, we went walking in the park.

PJ: And what about Boris Yeltsin….?

AB: I could write a whole book about him.

PJ: He was the one who definitively rescued Lithuanian independence?

AB: Yes, yes. Prior to that, Russia had not yet recognized the Lithuanian State.  ≈

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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