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Watch the new interview with Vytautas Landsbergis, who led Lithuania back to democracy and freed his country from five decades of occupation by the Soviet Union.


Vytautas Landsbergis was born in the 1930s, when Lithuania was an independent nation.  In 1939, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin agreed to a secret pact that divided the Baltic States and much of Central Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  During World War II, Lithuania passed between Nazi and Soviet occupation.  With the Allied victory, Stalin abolished the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and declared them to be part of the Soviet Union.  During fifty years of subjugation to Moscow, the dream of independence never died.


Landsbergis pursued a career in music, eventually becoming a professor of musicology, a prolific writer, and a key figure in Lithuanian culture.  After the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in 1985, Landsbergis and other intellectuals organized the independent civil society organization Sajudis, which means “movement” in Lithuanian.  As in other parts of the communist world, many of the leaders of the Lithuanian dissident movement came from the arts.


Gorbachev began efforts to implement reforms of the communist system, but Landsbergis describes how his agenda diverged from Gorbachev’s.   Speaking of perestroika, Gorbachev’s policy of restructuring communism, Landsbergis said, “Yes, we are for perestroika, but for perestroika to the end, which is the free will of nations inside of Soviet Union and how they wish to live.” And while Sajudis initially voiced support for Gorbachev’s reforms, it soon went public with its true goal:  the restoration of Lithuanian independence and democracy.


Landsbergis and his colleagues used nonviolent tactics to advance and publicize their cause.  Perhaps the most noteworthy event was the 1989 “Baltic Way” demonstration where an estimated 2 million people formed a human chain across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to peacefully protest their countries’ subjugation to the Soviet Union.


In his interview, Landsbergis described a conversation with Gorbachev, saying, “Let’s ask the people how they wish to live.  Who elected you?  You are not elected by the people.  Let us have genuine free elections, competitive elections.  And finally they agreed.  The elections were the first achievement.  And the next achievement was democracy.  And democracy was our way to independence.”


Learn more about how Vytautas Landsbergis’s steadfast leadership and commitment to the restoration of Lithuanian independence and democracy changed the course of history.  Watch his Freedom Collection interview here.


Lindsay Lloyd is Program Director of the Freedom Collection.