Viktor Kogan-Yasny: On the anniversary of Sajudis

posted 2 Dec 2018, 08:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Dec 2018, 08:24 ]

By Viktor Kogan-Yasny 

Viktor Kogan-Yasny is chair of the NGO Right to Life and Civic Dignity and a political adviser to the Yabloko party


When I think back and remember Sajudis, which I saw from its very beginnings when I was in Lithuania in the summer of 1988, I have a number of very different feelings.*

First of all, I remember my youth and that of my friends, the warmth of personal relationships, meeting exciting and interesting people. I remember the beginning of my own public and political activity that is directly linked to Lithuania and Sajudis in particular.

Secondly, I think about Sajudis as an illustration of how an historical window of opportunity can be used to fight successfully for truth and freedom.

Thirdly, it hurts when I think of mistakes that have been made - including by me - that resulted in deaths. I shall always remember those who died. We all share a moral responsibility with regard to those who lie in the Military Cemetery in Vilnius. And I share that responsibility because we failed to consider the situation in January 1991 in enough depth and with enough responsibility in the light of our moral duty.

Fourthly, and finally, when I consider the current situation, I feel sad that a community of people who are so important to me is playing a very small role in the main current political and social developments of today. Moreover, the phenomenon of Sajudis, which was of global significance, has passed into history and in such a manner that I fear not even all Lithuanian school children would immediately understand now what the word means.

Sajudis was a driver of change in the Soviet Union because it fought, above all, for the truth. Gorbachev boldly spoke about the truth, but while he brought the question to the forefront of contemporary discussion and into the realm of political decision-making, he did not himself know the scale of the tragedy of the past that he was opening up, or what to do about it.

Gorbachev opened the window of opportunity, but it was Sajudis that swiftly and demonstratively opened the door. But the window came first, and we must all remember that. I am totally convinced that Gorbachev, who bears major political responsibility for the deaths of people in Vilnius and Riga, does not bear criminal responsibility. And that is why now, almost 30 years on, and against the background of the ‘hybrid totalitarianism’ that characterises Russia’s current political trajectory, it would be appropriate for public figures in the Baltic countries to take a step towards recognition of this truly historic figure, a man who completely changed world politics at the end of the 20th century and who, for all the limitations of his views, put freedom at the centre of the political priorities for a state that until then had prioritised only brutal repression and violence against the individual.

But to return to Sajudis: it fought for the whole truth about history to be made public, not just parts of it, so that each individual, and the country as a whole, should have full freedom. Moreover, everyone without exception whom one met and talked with at that time, despite differences in views about how and to what extent Lithuania should regain its independence - from those who were cautious to those who wanted to crudely ‘smash the system’ - thought that what was at issue was not just Lithuania itself. They were concerned about the whole process of liberation of countries and peoples that, in one way or another, had been part of the USSR, and above all about the liberation of each specific individual from the fetters of the totalitarian system.

That is why we made such good friends, worked out common positions and helped one another in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991 - and even somewhat later. I well remember how Sajudis’ publications were everywhere in Moscow, and for the sake of historical accuracy I will say that there were even more publications by the Popular Front of Latvia. What was not permitted to be published or organised in the Russian Federation was printed or done in Lithuania and the Baltic countries. Moreover, the Moscow archives acted as a source of information about the occupation of the Baltics and repressive measures against the people of those countries. We had to think and act on a very big scale, although in many ways we were naive and rather childish. Very many of us saw Sajudis as the driver of enormous change, change that was global in nature. For me, the ideas put forward by Sajudis chimed very well with the Paris Charter for a New Europe of 1990.

But it didn’t work out that way. And that is not simply sad. It is tragic.


What happened to us?

The tragic barriers of distrust, provincialism and egocentricity are now plain for all to see.

In Russia there is today a neo-totalitarian or hybrid-totalitarian political regime that has generated very considerable difficulties and threats both within the country and outside it. This is no longer a secret to anybody, although even quite recently many, for their comfort, preferred not to notice. I do not want to exaggerate in terms of political assessments, and therefore will say that, as I very much hope, Russian neo-totalitarianism in no way corresponds to the notion of a “global evil.” I would urge everyone to avoid exaggeration and to reject misrepresentations because if we do that we will end up in a dead-end, in terms of our political views, and it will be impossible to make the right decisions. But those who have suffered from this voluntaristic, repressive and provocative regime, from its adventurism and lies, will be no better off if I were to prove in some sense the regime’s ‘moderation’ … But people will always have the right to make exaggerated comparisons. There is nothing to be done about this, and it will always be one of life’s tragic problems.

But the reasons for what happened in Russia and Russian politics do not lie solely within Russia in any sense. I would be so bold as to suggest that one important reason lies in the almost complete lack of a positive example. By the beginning of the 1990s, all the requisite external forces for reform in Russia had disappeared. World politics had become petty and narrow-minded, the ruling idea was that “all the main problems have been solved.” And we have now reached the point where, for all the negative assessments of Russian policy-making, similar threats are appearing in other parts of the world with such frequency that it is quite impossible to say which of them actually represents the greatest danger. And almost all the states of Eastern and Central Europe, even those generally considered exemplars of political and economic reform, as we very well see, have acquired many of the features of what can be termed a “state governed by private interests.” And this is all the more true of those countries that at one time or another formed part of the Soviet Union.


From the 1990s, the West, infected with triumphalism, not only built its relations with Russia in the wrong way (forgetting, among other things, that Russia still has an enormous industrial and military capability, and that social and economic backwardness only served to strengthen the significance of this capability). The West also fell into a deep moral stagnation that in reality led to the replacement of a creative political class by a bureaucracy, to the loss of deep meaning, the replacement of meaning by form. And the next “iteration” of self-confident actors in charge of Western policy completely missed the fact that absolutely “non-systemic” actors are able to come to power and keep it not only in Minsk, Moscow, Dushanbe or Baku.

Nowadays it seems that there simply does not exist anywhere a creative political class capable of developing policy. Why it is like that in Russia, Belarus and Tajikistan, you’ll forgive me if I don’t explain. But it is much worse morally, and perhaps strategically more dangerous, that similar developments can be found in many other countries...

All previous projects of integration, including the most successful, have been based on a conflict between form and content. The integrationary form is confronted by disintegration and atomisation. Forms built on the observance of human rights are confronted by a deep moral crisis in societies that, from the outside, appear to be flourishing.


My dear friends and colleagues Petras Vaitiekūnas, Egidijus Bičkauskas, Georgi Efremov, Nikolai Medvedev, Angonita Rupšytė, Alvydas Medalinskas, Darius Kuolys, Mechis Laurinkus, Asta Skaistgirīte, Algirdas Saudargas, Albinas Januška and others I have forgotten to mention!

To all intents and purposes we were, after all, a united group of people. What should we do now? Simply spend our time remembering the past, each of us “doing our own thing,” and observing the latest slogans and mantras go by?

I think despite all the difficulties in communication and the pressures of everyday life, together we can still do what we did then: speak the truth. And I mean the truth, not merely spouting slogans and condemnation. And in that way ensure that the truth has at least some small influence on the events taking place around us. We must ensure that phobias are overcome, that people and societies find a way of meeting, that ordinary people learn to understand each other and leave behind the habits of mockery and sneering that little by little has come to play such a role in the contemporary course of events. It is difficult. We shall have few allies in our endeavour. But at the very least we must attempt to do this.

26 May 2018

* Sajudis was established on 3 June 1988 with the goal of seeking the return of independent status for Lithuania (trans).