VILNIUS – For the first time, Lithuania has so solidly marked the anniversary of the invasion of Soviet troops into Lithuania, on June 15, 1940. According to Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviviene, some 150,000-250,000 Soviet soldiers entered Lithuania on that day. On June 15, a special session was organized in the parliament to commemorate that sad day which shocked Lithuania 70 years ago. It was attended by President Dalia Grybauskaite. The next day the session was followed by conference of historians in the parliament. During both events the consequences of the Soviet invasion were emphasized.
“Now we can notice the lack of trust in democracy because the communist occupation left its traces in the people’s psyche,” Julius Sasnauskas, Catholic priest and Soviet-era political prisoner, said in the parliament adding that it is quite weird that Lithuania used to commemorate, on a state level, the first mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia on June 14, 1941, but the date which took place a year earlier and which caused those deportations was somewhat forgotten on the state level.
“According to scientists, if not for the Soviet occupation, Lithuania would now have five million inhabitants – the same size of population as Norway, Finland or Denmark. Lithuania’s standard of living would be the same as in those countries. There would be no such emigration from Lithuania as it is now,” Parliament Speaker Irena Degutiene said during the June 15 sitting in the parliament.
Earlier on that day, she went to the Uta village of the Varena region to pay tribute to Lithuanian border policeman Aleksandras Barauskas, who was killed by the Soviet army on that day 70 years ago. Barauskas was the first victim of the USSR’s aggression in Lithuania. He rented a flat in a wooden house just 100 meters from the border with the USSR. At 3:40 in the morning, 20 Soviet soldiers crossed the border and attacked that house where Barauskas was sleeping with his wife and children. This attack was carried out before the time limit of the USSR’s ultimatum demanding allowance for the mass entrance of the USSR’s troops ran out. The Soviet soldiers hit Barauskas’ head with a sword, and afterwards shot him. After that action, the Soviet soldiers went back to the USSR, just to return after several hours, together with a mass invasion of Soviet troops. Barauskas died when his colleagues were transporting him to a hospital. His daughter, Ona Marija Brasiuniene, took part in the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of her father’s murder in Uta. On June 15, 1940, her father had no idea about the secret Stalin-Hitler deals and the Soviet ultimatum to Lithuania.
On Aug. 23, 1939, the USSR and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, with secret clauses assigning spheres of influence in Central Europe and the Baltic Sea area. Later in 1939, the city of Vilnius was occupied by the Red Army during the Soviet invasion into Poland and the Soviet-proposed Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Pact transferred Vilnius and one-fifth of the Vilnius region to Lithuania in exchange for stationing 20,000 Soviet troops within Lithuania. In 1940, Stalin presented the ultimatum to Lithuania. The ultimatum demanded to form a new pro-Soviet government and admit an unspecified number of Soviet troops. Lithuania accepted the ultimatum, as effective military resistance was impossible with Soviet troops already within the country.
“President Antanas Smetona was in favor of armed resistance. He was supported by Defense Minister Kazys Musteikis, Education Minister Kazimieras Jokantas and National Audit Office Chief Konstantinas Sakenis. They were in the minority and the ultimatum was accepted,” Defense Minister Jukneviciene said about the last meeting of the Lithuanian government before the Soviet invasion, at the commemoration ceremony in the village of Uta. Smetona left Lithuania immediately after that meeting, in fear that he could be forced by the Soviets to justify the occupation. Smetona died in Cleveland, USA, on Dec. 9, 1944, during a fire caused by unknown reasons in a house where he lived.
On June 16, historians from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland presented their findings about the Soviet aggression against the Baltics. The majority of those facts are well known. However, some interesting findings still take place. For example, according to Polish historian Krzysztof Tarka, during WWII, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt had the intention to agree officially with the Soviet annexation of Finland and the Baltic states with one condition to Stalin: those citizens of Finland and the Baltics who do not want to live under the Soviet rule should have the right to leave the USSR. However, advisers in the White House convinced Roosevelt not to do this, and the U.S., as well as the rest of Western democracies (with the exception of Sweden and Finland) never recognized the Baltics as a legitimate part of the USSR. Tarka made his finding studying documents of the diplomatic service of the Polish government, which moved to work in London when the Nazis and the Soviets divided Poland among themselves.
On June 15, Lithuanians also demonstrated that they remember not only their own history’s wounds. On this significant day, officially called in Lithuania as Occupation and Genocide Day, a square in the Uzupis district of Vilnius was officially given the name of Tibet Square. The artsy community of Uzupis was pushing the Vilnius municipality to do this for a long time, but the Vilnius municipality tried to avoid it because of fear of China’s reaction. However, the Uzupis’ bohemians were so persistent that the municipality surrendered and Vilnius Vice Mayor Gintautas Babravicius took part in the opening ceremony, enriched with various rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.
On June 15, the Lithuanian parliament, using the symbolism of the date, on the initiative of Vilija Aleknaite-Abramikiene, MP of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, made amendments in the Criminal Code stipulating criminal penalties for those publicly justifying, denying or playing down international crimes, as well as crimes committed by the USSR and the Nazis against Lithuania.
A total of 68 MPs supported the amendments to the Criminal Code. Five lawmakers voted against the bill while 32 abstained. In line with the amendments, those justifying or denying the aggression by the USSR and Nazi Germany against Lithuania, as well as cases of genocide of the Lithuanian people, and “grave crimes committed in 1990-1991 against Lithuania and its people” will face criminal prosecution. Those violating the law will face a fine or a prison term of up to two years only in case they justify, deny or play down the crimes “in an insulting way” or if such actions “result in the violation of public order.”
Considering the late Senator’s complete record requires digging into the USSR’s archives.
Picking his way through the Soviet archives that Boris Yeltsin had just thrown open, in 1991 Tim Sebastian, a reporter for the London Times, came across an arresting memorandum. Composed in 1983 by Victor Chebrikov, the top man at the KGB, the memorandum was addressed to Yuri Andropov, the top man in the entire USSR. The subject: Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“On 9-10 May of this year,” the May 14 memorandum explained, “Sen. Edward Kennedy’s close friend and trusted confidant [John] Tunney was in Moscow.” (Tunney was Kennedy’s law school roommate and a former Democratic Senator from California.) “The Senator charged Tunney to convey the following message, through confidential contacts, to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Y. Andropov.”
Kennedy’s message was simple. He proposed an unabashed quid pro quo. Kennedy would lend Andropov a hand in dealing with President Reagan. In return, the Soviet leader would lend the Democratic Party a hand in challenging Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. “The only real potential threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations,” the memorandum stated. “These issues, according to the Senator, will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign.”
Kennedy made Andropov a couple of specific offers.
First he offered to visit Moscow. “The main purpose of the meeting, according to the Senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.” Kennedy would help the Soviets deal with Reagan by telling them how to brush up their propaganda.
Then he offered to make it possible for Andropov to sit down for a few interviews on American television. “A direct appeal … to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. … If the proposal is recognized as worthy, then Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. … The Senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as coming from the American side.”
Kennedy would make certain the networks gave Andropov air time–and that they rigged the arrangement to look like honest journalism.
Kennedy’s motives? “Like other rational people,” the memorandum explained, “[Kennedy] is very troubled by the current state of Soviet-American relations.” But that high-minded concern represented only one of Kennedy’s motives.
“Tunney remarked that the Senator wants to run for president in 1988,” the memorandum continued. “Kennedy does not discount that during the 1984 campaign, the Democratic Party may officially turn to him to lead the fight against the Republicans and elect their candidate president.”
Kennedy proved eager to deal with Andropov–the leader of the Soviet Union, a former director of the KGB and a principal mover in both the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring–at least in part to advance his own political prospects.
In 1992, Tim Sebastian published a story about the memorandum in the London Times. Here in the U.S., Sebastian’s story received no attention. In his 2006 book, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, historian Paul Kengor reprinted the memorandum in full. “The media,” Kengor says, “ignored the revelation.”
“The document,” Kengor continues, “has stood the test of time. I scrutinized it more carefully than anything I’ve ever dealt with as a scholar. I showed the document to numerous authorities who deal with Soviet archival material. No one has debunked the memorandum or shown it to be a forgery. Kennedy’s office did not deny it.”
Why bring all this up now? No evidence exists that Andropov ever acted on the memorandum–within eight months, the Soviet leader would be dead–and now that Kennedy himself has died even many of the former Senator’s opponents find themselves grieving. Yet precisely because Kennedy represented such a commanding figure–perhaps the most compelling liberal of our day–we need to consider his record in full.
Doing so, it turns out, requires pondering a document in the archives of the politburo.
When President Reagan chose to confront the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Empire that it was, Sen. Edward Kennedy chose to offer aid and comfort to General Secretary Andropov. On the Cold War, the greatest issue of his lifetime, Kennedy got it wrong.
Peter Robinson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former White House speechwriter, writes a weekly column for Forbes.