Under the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty on Mutual Assistance signed 75 years ago — on October 10, 1939 — the USSR transferred Vilna and its county to Lithuania. Lithuanian politicians are unitedly silent about the particular consequences from this period of "the Soviet occupation." They also seem to forget that contrary to today, Lithuanian's population and territory were growing fast during that period.
Their silence is certainly indicative of ulterior motives. Having been a show window of socialist achievements when still being a Soviet republic, Lithuania has turned into an EU colony rather than an accomplished and prosperous state during the 23 years of its independence. The inability to resolve urgent socio-economic issues by the country's elite, has led to misleading horror stories about "the Soviet occupation" to its population, the denial of which is punishable by law.
On the occasion of the anniversary ignored by Lithuanian authorities, it is worth recalling the territories which Lithuania acquired during its "occupation." Indeed, no other ‘occupied' country has managed to receive so much before.
History of Lithuania's losses before the war
Soon after the end of World War I, the German troops left the territories that belong to Lithuania today. Immediately after their departure, various political forces tried to fill the vacuum of power. As a result, the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic with Vilna as its capital, was established in February 1919.
Subsequent events developed at breath-taking speed. Polish troops seized Vilna on April 19. The Red Army ousted the Polish troops from Vilna at the peak of the Soviet-Polish war a year later. In July 1920 the Russian Federation recognized Lithuania's independence and transferred to it Vilna with the adjacent region for the first time.
The defeat of Mikhail Tukhachevsky's armies near Warsaw had grievous consequences both for the Russian Federation and Lithuania. Head of the Second Polish Republic Jozef Pilsudski, who spent his childhood in Vilna, was eager to see it and the adjacent territory as part of Poland. Warsaw conducted a complicated operation with this aim in sight. The division under the command of another native of the Vilna County — Gen. Lucjan Żeligowski — feigned a riot on October 8, 1920. It occupied Vilna without experiencing any resistance from the Lithuanian authorities or their troops.
Pilsudski officially distanced himself from the ostensibly self-constituted action by Żeligowski. However, on October 12 he had already told French and British diplomats that "his feelings were on Żeligowski's side." Consequent attempts to settle the conflict diplomatically in 1921 failed. Lithuania severed diplomatic relations with Poland, and elections for the transitional parliament of Central Lithuania took place on January 8, 1922. On February 20th, it passed a decision to include the Vilna County into the Second Polish Republic.
On March 15, 1923 the conference of Paris-accredited ambassadors of Britain, Italy and Japan, chaired by a French Government representative, established the Polish-Lithuanian border, reaffirming that the Vilna County was part of the Second Polish Republic. In a note dated April 5, 1923, the Soviet Government declared to Poland its refusal to comply with this decision. As each side held its own stand on the issue, it is not surprising that Warsaw subsequently maintained poor relations not only with Moscow but also Kaunas (the then Lithuanian capital) throughout the period between the two world wars.
Until the start of World War II, the Vilna County was a bone of contention between Lithuania and Poland. Warsaw sought the restoration of diplomatic relations with Lithuania for over 15 years in the hope that this would compel it to accept the loss of Vilnius. Having lost patience, Warsaw staged another provocation, when on March 11, 1938, a corpse of a Polish frontier guard was found on the Polish-Lithuanian demarcation line. Kaunas offered Warsaw the option to set up a joint commission for inquiry into the murder, but Poland bluntly refused this proposal and blamed Lithuania for it without providing any evidence. The aim of the provocation became clear on March 17 when Warsaw faced Kaunas with an ultimatum demanding restoration of diplomatic relations and the removal of Vilna's status as the capital from the Constitution. The threat of Polish invasion compelled Kaunas enough to accept these terms.
Exactly a year later, Lithuania faced a new threat. In March 1939, Nazi Germany demanded that Kaunas surrender Klaipeda and the Klaipeda (Memel) County. Lithuania had no power to resist this request.
Record of Lithuania's acquisitions
Lithuanian politicians and journalists have criticized the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of August 23, 1939 for many years, even though Lithuanians have fewer reasons than anyone else for such a reaction. Lithuania received a chance to retrieve the Vilna County after the Second Polish Republic ceased to exist on September 28, 1939.
Red Army units entered Vilna on September 19. A considerable part of the Vilna County was included into the Byelorussian SSR. This decision may look strange today but at that time it did not. Some Belorussian politicians made claims of control of Vilna as early as in 1919. The main point is that the county's population was not Lithuanian either in 1919 or twenty years after.
The USSR and Lithuania signed a treaty on mutual assistance on October 10, 1939. The USSR received an opportunity to establish military bases in Lithuania and transferred the Vilna County and Vilna to Lithuania. The city was renamed Vilnius and proclaimed the capital of Lithuania. Indicatively, the leaders of Soviet Byelorussia were unhappy about this decision because they had interests in Vilna as well. However, the then "leader of nations" made a different decision.
Lithuanian troops entered Vilnius on October 27. The welcome ceremony for them was officially staged a day after, and while Lithuanians jubilated, they also faced the hostile looks of angry Poles. Lithuanian historian Česlovas Laurinavicius wrote on one account that — "Lithuanians hoped that having lost their state, the Poles would humbly submit to their domination, whereas the Poles, on the contrary, hoped that Lithuanians would cede the initiative to them, not just because they considered themselves a more civilized nation than Lithuanians."
He went on to write that — "By and large all authors who study Lithuanian rule in Vilnius consider it nationalist and fairly tough. The ‘Lithuanization' of the Vilnius County was primarily imposed by policing methods. For instance, they monitored what language people spoke in the streets to prevent them from speaking Polish. Those who did not know Lithuanian were dismissed from their jobs. The ruling was brutal also because the authorities expelled not only war refugees but also ‘newcomers' whom they did not consider indigenous population of the county. Incidentally, people from the Vilnius County were ousted not only into other regions of Lithuania, but also to Germany and the USSR by agreement with these countries. As a result, not only war refugees but also many of those who lived in the county during Polish rule lost their citizenship."
Before long the State Security Department of the Lithuanian Ministry of the Interior and Gestapo signed a secret agreement under which Lithuanian secret services started transferring Polish underground members and all other Poles they wanted to get rid of to their German colleagues. One can imagine what kind of ‘warm welcome' awaited these Poles in Hitler's Third Reich.
Lithuanians lost another chance to own their capital when Nazis entered Vilnius on the second day of the Great Patriotic War. The city was liberated from the occupants three years later, on July 13, 1944. It is worth reminding Lithuanian school pupils and university students that this was done by the Red Army rather than Lithuanian Forest Brethren.
It was no one other than Josef Stalin, who is being criticized so much by the Lithuanian authorities and nationalists, returned to Lithuania its capital for a third time after the expulsion of Nazis and their accomplices.
He also gave Lithuania Klaipeda and the Klaipeda County, although he could have refrained from this. German knights established Klaipeda in 1252. It was called Memel and belonged to Prussia for many centuries. Klaipeda became part of Lithuania only in 1923. In merely 16 years, the Third Reich chancellor returned Memel to Germany with the consent of the Lithuanian Government. So when Eastern Prussia became part of the USSR after the war, Stalin could have easily retained Klaipeda and its county in the Russian Federation, but he decided to give it over to the Lithuanian SSR.
Stalin gave additional presents to Lithuania, as was the case with the Druskininkai spa. In October 1940, he transferred Druskenini that was part of the Byelorussian SSR, to Lithuania. This was the same lot in Sventsyany and the Godutishki (Adutiskis) railway station with nearby villages that previously also belonged to the Byelorussian SSR.
PS. To establish why Comrade Stalin was so incredibly generous to Lithuania, remains an important scholarly task. Our Lithuanian colleagues should have long studied this issue to find the truth. Otherwise, the true puzzle of the consequences of "Soviet occupation" would never be solved…
Oleg Nazarov, PhD (History), member of Rossiya Segodnya's Zinoviev Club