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Putin’s Drive to Rewrite History Snares a Retired Lithuanian Judge

From the January 4, 2024 New York Times, by Andrew Higgins, reporting from Vilnius and Jieznas, Lithuania:

Ainora Kornelija Macevičienė, 70, near the entrance of Vilnius District Court in Lithuania. “I really can’t figure out their logic,” she said of the Russian authorities. “The facts of the case are clear.” Credit: Andrej Vasilenko for The NY Times

When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant last year for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Moscow court launched a surprise counterattack: It ordered the arrest of a 70-year-old retired judge in Lithuania. The judge, Kornelija Macevičienė, was not connected in any way to the case against Mr. Putin in The Hague or to investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Her “crime,” as the Moscow court sees it, was handing down “unjust” guilty verdicts against former Soviet officers, nearly all Russians, for their role in a brutal crackdown against pro-independence protesters who had gathered at a television tower in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, on Jan. 13, 1991.

In a bloody episode that helped seal the demise of Soviet power, 14 protesters — one of them a young woman crushed by a tank — were killed, and hundreds of others were injured when Soviet forces stormed the tower in an abortive last-ditch attempt to prevent Lithuania from escaping Moscow’s grip. After examining copious evidence showing who in 1991 gave the orders to use deadly force and who carried them out, Mrs. Macevičienė and two fellow judges ruled in 2019 that scores of Russians, along with a few Ukrainians and Belarusians, were guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and other offenses.

That has put her in the sights of Russian authorities beholden to Mr. Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about the unjust “disintegration of historical Russia” — a preoccupation that lies at the heart of his military assault on Ukraine.

Setting the historical record straight — as Mr. Putin sees it — hinges on reframing the demise of Soviet power as a tragic injustice in which Russians were innocent victims, never perpetrators, of violent crimes in defense of Moscow’s empire.

And doing that requires overturning, or at least discrediting, guilty verdicts handed down by Mrs. Macevičienė in Lithuania against the former Soviet military and security officers. Mrs. Macevičienė’s verdict was “clearly unjust,” according to an August ruling by a district Court in Moscow that ordered her immediate arrest. Two fellow judges and the lead Lithuanian prosecutor in the Vilnius television tower case have also been declared criminals and placed on Russia’s wanted list for “persecuting” Russians.

In an interview in Vilnius, Mrs. Macevičienė voiced disbelief and alarm that, more than three decades after the bloodshed at the television tower, Russia was now trying to edit out uncomfortable facts and punish her for adjudicating on the events of 1991. “I really can’t figure out their logic,” she said. “The facts of the case are clear.” Saulius Guzevičius, a former special forces commander and an expert on hybrid threats, said Russia’s pursuit in recent months of judges and prosecutors had sharply escalated a yearslong campaign “to rewrite the history of 1991 and discredit us as fascists.” “They are sending us a message: ‘We never forget those who went against us,’” Mr. Guzevičius said. During the Vilnius showdown in 1991, he was part of a security detail assembled by pro-independence activists to protect the Lithuanian legislature.

Under Mr. Putin, Russia has gone to extraordinary lengths to present itself as a guilt-free victim of Western powers and foreign “fascists,” rewriting history textbooks and punishing historians who delve into Moscow’s past crimes. Yury Alexeyevich Dmitriev, an amateur historian in northwestern Russia who found a mass grave containing hundreds of people killed by Stalin’s secret police, was jailed for 13 years in 2020 on what his family dismissed as trumped-up pedophilia charges. Pro-Kremlin historians claimed, against all evidence, that the bodies include many Soviet soldiers killed by Finnish fascists.

Lithuania, dragooned into the Soviet Union in 1940, was the first Soviet Republic to declare independence from Moscow, setting an example in March 1990 that was later followed by Ukraine and 13 others. For Mr. Putin, that process, which resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Lithuania’s efforts to hold accountable those who took part in the 1991 killings in Vilnius began with a trial in 1996 of six Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Soviet military. The case expanded rapidly after a 2010 change in Lithuanian law to allow defendants to be tried in absentia. That opened the way for scores of former Soviet military and K.G.B. officers sheltering in Russia to be charged and judged by a Lithuanian court. Of the 67 defendants convicted in 2019 by Mrs. Macevičienė and fellow judges, only two appeared in the dock: Yuri Mel, a Russian tank commander; and Gennady Ivanov, another Russian officer in the Soviet military.

The others, including the former Soviet defense minister Marshal Dmitri T. Yazov, were found guilty in absentia of using “military acts against civilians prohibited by international humanitarian law” and sentenced to years in jail. Marshal Yazov died in Moscow a few months later at 95.

Vilmantas Vitkauskas, director of the National Crisis Management Center in Lithuania, said that Moscow had no real expectation of getting its hands on Lithuanian judges and prosecutors and was engaged in a “psychological operation aimed at spreading fear and caution” to deter others from trying to hold Russian citizens to account. Among those Russia wants to frighten off, he said, are Lithuanian prosecutors and police officers active in international investigations into war crimes in Ukraine. “They are sending a signal: Don’t mess with Russia,” he said. Russia has also opened criminal cases against three judges and the chief prosecutor in The Hague involved in the case against Mr. Putin.

For Lithuania, a Baltic nation that shares a border with the Russian region of Kaliningrad, getting the facts straight about 1991 is a matter not only of defending the country’s origin story of heroic, peaceful resistance but also of national security. Like other formerly Soviet lands, Lithuania has always had a few citizens who lament the end of Moscow’s rule. But the war in Ukraine has turned what used to be seen as a mostly harmless fringe into a source of serious concern. Russia’s full-scale invasion, justified on the pretext that Moscow had a duty to protect Ukrainians from fascism, has stoked deep alarm in Baltic States that pro-Kremlin groups, no matter how small, could call for help from Moscow. That is what happened in 1991 when a so-called Citizens’ Committee, made up of Soviet loyalists in Lithuania, pleaded for Moscow to intervene to crush “fascists” pushing for independence.

A Vilnius court last year ordered the liquidation on security grounds of the Good Neighbors Forum, a tiny grouping of mostly leftist activists seeking good relations with Moscow and the departure of NATO troops. Erika Švenčionienė, a member of the forum, was charged in December with endangering national security by “helping Russia and Belarus and their organizations to act against the Republic of Lithuania.” In an interview in her hometown, Jieznas, in southern Lithuania, she denied working against her country and accused the West of luring it into needless confrontation with Russia. “We were given Western sweets but they turned out to be very bitter,” Mrs. Švenčionienė said. “I know there is no democracy in my country,” she added.

Algirdas Paleckis, co-founder of the forum, is a former leftist member of Parliament whose grandfather served as the puppet leader of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the 1940s. Before being found guilty in 2021 of spying for Russia, the grandson was at the forefront of a Russia-orchestrated campaign to deny that Soviet military personnel were responsible for the 1991 bloodshed. He insisted that Lithuanian nationalists had secretly sent snipers to the television tower to shoot their own supporters.

As Mr. Putin took an increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic turn over the past decade, Moscow moved beyond defensive denials and went on the offensive, with Russia’s intelligence service collecting confidential information about Lithuanian prosecutors and judges involved in the television tower case.

Among its helpers on the ground was Mr. Paleckis, who was jailed for five and a half years for espionage after he was found to have collected information at the behest of Russian intelligence about where prosecutors lived and other personal data. He denied working for Russia and said that he had been collecting information for a book.

Simonas Slapšinskas, one of the prosecutors targeted by Russian intelligence, said that he was unnerved by an announcement in September by the Russian news agency Tass that he was wanted by Moscow to face criminal charges over his “persecution” of those involved in storming the television tower. He has stopped traveling abroad, he said, and confined family holidays to the territory of Lithuania. “The whole family has had to restrict its movements,” he said.

Mrs. Macevičienė, the retired judge, has also curtailed her travels. She said she was dismayed that Russia would try to overturn well-established facts. Of her own position as a target for Russian revenge, she added, “I don’t know whether to cry or be proud.”

Photographs of the victims of the 1991 events at the Vilnius television tower’s memorial museum.Credit...Andrej Vasilenko for The New York Times


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