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Film review: Mr Landsbergis

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s epic documentary film Mr Landsbergis (2021) is over four hours long, and without commentary apart from that provided by the questions Loznitsa asks Vytautas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian music professor who – some would say – brought down the Soviet Union. The film tells the story, through remarkable archive footage, of the first nation to declare its independence from the USSR, beginning the cascade that ended with the abolition of the Soviet Union in December 1991. That nation was, of course, the Republic of Lithuania – illegally annexed and occupied by the USSR in 1940 under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – which fiercely resisted occupation and never surrendered its claim to exist as a sovereign nation. The film tells how, as the thaw of Perestroika began, Lithuanians began to talk openly of independence and discuss how best to achieve it.

Although Landsbergis provides the film’s only commentary, the film is not so much his personal story as that of Lithuania in the years 1988-1991; rather than a story told by Landsbergis, it is a story told by the footage itself, intercut with Loznitsa’s questions to the former Lithuanian leader.

Close to the start of the film, Landsbergis offers a searing moral analysis of the Soviet Union (and, indeed, the Russian Federation that succeeded it):

It is may be one of the greatest mistakes humankind has ever made, and that mistake is all too evident within Russia and the former USSR: the belief that power over something is the supreme value; power over the little people, but first and foremost power over territories, over domains. And such an organisation, which calls itself ‘a state’, exists solely to expand its territory and remain invincible. They proclaimed this in their anthems and wherever else they pleased. ‘Invincible, everlasting, we shall rule forever, and Lenin will live forever’. All this nonsense is forever, and you must forget about everything else, because ‘everything else’ is evil; and if you serve evil, even in your mind, then you are already an enemy. Whose enemy? Our enemy. And since we are the people, that makes you an enemy of the people. If you think differently, if you don’t toe the party line, you aren’t just an enemy of the state, you are an enemy of the people … This is a fundamental lie. And this Empire of Lies, which still flourishes today, is founded on such complete falsehoods.

The first half of the film chronicles the period from the foundation of Sąjūdis (the Lithuanian independence movement) in 1988 to Lithuania’s declaration of independence on 11 March 1990. Loznitsa is unflinching in portraying the internal divisions within Sąjūdis over the best way to advance its agenda within the new atmosphere of Perestroika. The fear that Gorbachev might be replaced by a more hardline leader, and that Perestroika would come to an end, was clearly an ever-present fear; and Lithuanians were rightly concerned about Gorbachev’s motives. Was the new climate of free expression just a trap so that those most actively opposed to the Soviet occupation would publicly expose their identities? These were not unreasonable concerns, but the momentum for independence was also unstoppable.

Central to the Lithuanian independence movement was the insistence that an independent Lithuania would not be a new state, but simply the reinstatement of the Republic of Lithuania created in 1918 and illegally occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940. It was this occupation – and the role of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – that set the Baltic states apart from the other constituent nations of the USSR; and indeed the United States had never recognised the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic republics. However, the crucial event for advancing the Baltic independence movements occurred not in Vilnius, Talinn or Riga but in Moscow, where an official investigation into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concluded not only that the pact really had existed (something hitherto denied by the regime) but that it had been one of Stalin’s crimes. While damnatio memoriae of Stalin was nothing new, the nullification of the pact had profound political consequences for the Baltic states. What possible reason for the occupation could there now be, if the USSR itself now repudiated the original basis of that occupation?

Gorbachev turned instead to economic arguments in an effort to retain the Baltic nations in captivity. On his visit to Lithuania, he is shown arguing with Lithuanians and assuring them that it was only in the Soviet sphere of influence that the Lithuanian economy could survive. Yet the moral bankruptcy of the late Soviet Union emerges even in his own words: ‘You couldn’t have said this before, could you? You know what would have happened to you’, Gorbachev remarks to one Lithuanian who challenges him, chillingly reminding all Lithuanians of the deportations to Siberia. The idea that the Soviet Union could admit its crimes and wallow in its own moral bankruptcy while at the same time asking Lithuania to remain part of the Union was a defining illusion of the period; Gorbachev, and Soviet officials like him, were incapable of imagining a world without the Soviet Union. What they failed to see was that, with the adoption of intellectual freedom under Perestroika, Communist ideology was being dissolved; and without Communist ideology, the USSR could not exist. The archive footage of the People’s Congress of the USSR, struggling to acclimatise itself to the concept of free discussion and flailing against historical necessity, is some of the most fascinating in the film.

Lithuania’s outlook as an independent country was indeed dire, economically and politically. There was little appetite for the break-up of the Soviet Union in the West; the end-game of Glasnost and Perestroika, as Margaret Thatcher’s government saw it (for example) was some sort of modernised, westernised USSR becoming a trading partner of the West – not the apocalyptic scenario of the USSR’s total collapse, with all the dangers that entailed. Decades of Soviet policies of centralisation left Lithuania economically crippled and scarcely ready to support itself. There was no guarantee that anyone would recognise a self-declared Lithuanian state; what Lithuania was doing, no-one had ever done before. In purely material terms – which were the only terms in which Soviet ideology encouraged people to think – Lithuania’s defiance of the USSR was madness.

Yet the message of Loznitsa’s film is perhaps precisely this – that history, at least sometimes, is not determined by purely material considerations, but by the human spirit. Just three months after Mr Landsbergis was released, Loznitsa’s own country of Ukraine proved this to be true by resisting Russia’s full-scale invasion, against all odds. Yet the situations of Lithuania in 1990 and Ukraine in 2022 were also very different. On the one hand, Lithuania confronted the Soviet Union without an army and without arms, with nothing but nonviolence to fall back on. On the other hand, the Soviet Union of 1990 was a diffident power uncertain of the reason for its own existence, unlike the monstrous engine of extreme nationalist ideology that is the Russia of Vladimir Putin. It was this Soviet diffidence that created the window for Lithuania’s assertion of its own independence, although the months that followed 11 March 1990 must have been terrifying; Lithuania was free in spirit, but the Soviet Army remained. Tanks and armoured vehicles prowled the streets threateningly, and the fledgling government found itself forced out of government buildings as Moscow attempted to impose direct rule.

Moscow’s attempted economic blockade of Lithuania ended in farce when it was undermined by the corruption of Soviet officials themselves, while a military parade through Vilnius in November 1990 to mark the 73rd anniversary of the October Revolution was similarly shambolic, serving only to expose the firmness of Lithuanian opposition to the USSR. Yet a hardening of Soviet attitudes came with the realisation that 1991 would see Lithuania create its own currency, opt out of the Soviet economy, and redouble its efforts to achieve formal diplomatic recognition from foreign governments. The USSR’s ‘special operation’ in January 1991 was calculated to crush Lithuania and occupy it once more. Lithuanians had no means of resisting beyond forming large crowds around key buildings and putting up makeshift barricades. As Landsbergis describes the events of 13 January 1991,

[The Soviets] probably thought that the crowd would disperse. Obviously. They were very well equipped and had military superiority. They fired into the air or at the ground, but then started firing straight ahead when the crowd didn’t disperse. Tanks were used to crush people. People should have run away when they saw the level of violence. But they did not budge, they kept blocking the way, dragged people out from under the wheels, all the while cursing the attackers as fascists …

The Lithuanians’ refusal to budge – the act of physical disobedience that cost 14 people their lives that night – made it impossible for Gorbachev to continue the operation. This was not how it was supposed to happen, and the Soviet leader was desperate to preserve some shred of plausible deniability and salvage his reputation as a peace-loving reformer. However, the film makes clear how close Lithuania came to losing everything in August 1991 when hardliners attempted a putsch against Gorbachev – Soviet commanders in the Baltic were willing to seize control of the independent republics (where Soviet troops were still stationed, of course).

Loznitsa’s decision to concentrate solely on the story of Lithuania means that the wider Baltic context is missing from this film – which makes it unusual, since the story of the Baltic independence movements is often told together. Furthermore, there are some aspects of the story emphasised more than others – and the events at the TV Tower of the night of 13 January 1991 are not covered in much detail. There are numerous points in the film when it would not be clear what is going on to someone unfamiliar with modern Lithuanian history, and there is no captioning of prominent individuals who appear in the film so we know who they are. This may be because the film was aimed at a Lithuanian audience (although Loznitsa interviewed Landsbergis in Russian) and therefore the audience would be expected to know. Or it may be that Loznitsa made the directorial decision that such niceties as captioning would interrupt the flow of the film. Either way, the film is a monumental achievement in the compilation and interpretation of archival film of a crucial event in 20th-century European history, interpreted by the man who was at the centre of those events.

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