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United against the Empire - Documentary digs into centuries-deep roots of Ukrainian-Lithuanian friendship.

The roots of the friendship between Ukraine and Lithuania go back centuries. It especially grew stronger in the last 70 years, as both nations stood side by side while pursuing freedom and fighting against the Soviet Empire. However, this friendship has not ceased since the Soviet Union’s collapse: rather, Lithuania remains one of Ukraine’s main friends and supporters.

The documentary UA-LT For Your and Our Freedom by the director Larysa Artiugina reveals the aspects of the two nations’ friendship. It contains newsreels and interviews with prominent Ukrainians and Lithuanians who observed this friendship from the inside. They include Soviet dissidents, Ukrainian and Lithuanian politicians, diplomats, activists, and journalists.

Director Larysa Artiugina. Photo: UA-LT For Your and Our Freedom

At the presentation of the film, Artiugina admitted that during her work on it she discovered more and more stories about Ukrainian and Lithuanian relationships and just could not pass them up.

“Only now have I started to realize why these stories are so important to me. Because they give me the strength to continue fighting against Russian aggression, against the occupant. It gives me the strength to compare. The war has lasted in Ukraine for seven years. Lithuania was occupied for much longer. And Lithuanians did not give up. And I have this feeling that now we also can’t give up. Because it is our common fight.”

The team started to work on the project with no funding. Then ordinary people supported it with donations. Later, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation also provided funds for the creation of the film.

Following the screening, Euromaidan Press presents an overview of the crucial periods of the Ukrainian-Lithuanian friendship reflected in the documentary.

The deep roots of the friendship

Levko Lukianenko, a Ukrainian politician and Soviet dissident. A shot from the UA-LT For Your and Our Freedom documentary

In the film, the speakers mention that the common Ukrainian-Lithuanian history started almost 1,000 years ago, probably even before the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (13-18th centuries) which Ukraine was part of for two hundred years.

However, as mentioned by Petras Vaitiekūnas , Lithuanian diplomat and a signatory to the Lithuanian Restoration of Independence Act, the two hundred years of the common history created a very positive image of Lithuanians in Ukraine, as well as Lithuanians having very positive feedback about Ukrainians in Lithuania.

Yevhen Dykyi , commander of the Ukrainian detachment during the defense of the Lithuanian Sejm in 1991, adds that Ukrainians used legal systems based on Lithuanian statutes up to the 18th century.

“All the same, we all saved the core, our common European mindset of free people and people of law, not of lawlessness.”

The documentary makers also managed to film Levko Lukianenko , a Ukrainian politician and Soviet dissident, who unfortunately died in 2018.

In the film, he agreed that having almost 1000 years together made Lithuanians and Ukrainians closer to each other.

However, the main focus of the documentary is how Ukrainians and Lithuanians united in their fight against the Soviet Empire first, and then against the Empire’s successor Russia.

Soviet labor camps as a place for the two nations to meet

Vakhtang Kipiani , Ukrainian journalist and founder of the Press Museum, notes that Ukrainians and Lithuanians started to get to know each other in the Soviet Gulags after World War II. Before that, the two nations belonged to different states and contact between people was limited.

“At the beginning of the 1950s in Siberia, Lithuanian prisoners and partisans met Ukrainian ones. Lithuanian deported families met Ukrainian ones. Priests from the banned Lithuanian Catholic church met priests from the Ukrainian Greek Uniate Catholic church. The process of interpenetration started.”

Lukianenko remembered that he was taken to such a concentration camp in 1961. There he got acquainted with other Ukrainians, and then Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Lithuanians became some kind of example and source of inspiration for Ukrainian dissidents. Lukianenko remembered that the Lithuanians had a small library, where he found books underlining the meaning of the language for the state. Lukianenko noted that before being occupied by Moscow in 1940, Lithuanians had had 20 years of independence, during which they retrained the whole nation. Unfortunately, Ukrainians did not have these 20 years.

“The meaning of the language for the state is huge. It was written in two books. Different authors. But the topic was the same – the role of the language in asserting the state. I thought: I wish Ukrainians had had 20 years. What could have been done, how it would have been possible to educate Ukrainians and return historical knowledge to the people.”

Lithuania inspired Ukrainians in their path to independence

Kipiani stresses that Lithuanians’ influence on Ukraine’s political agenda was huge – like an iceberg, only the tip of which was visible. Many initiatives and ideas suggested by pro-Ukrainian politicians and artists were in fact taken from Lithuania.

Lukianenko in his turn remembers a conference in 1989 which he attended in Estonia after his exile. The activation of the fight against Russia was discussed there.

“It was a revelation. They [Lithuanians] suggested dividing independence into sovereignties – economic sovereignty, political sovereignty. We came from that conference with a new strategy.”

Kipiani describes how Lithuanians created the idea of restoration of independence. When in 1988-89 in Lithuania and other Baltics republics the movement of so-called civil committees was unfolded, they were focused on the idea that they did not build something new, but restored what was liquidated by the Red Army and NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR) in 1939-40. Therefore, it was decided that those who were citizens of Lithuania as of 1940, became the citizens of future free Lithuania.

“It was a Lithuanian example presented to us. That you do not have to fight for a new state. You fight for the state which Bolsheviks with the help of local collaborators liquidated in 1940,” Kipiani says.

Lithuanians supported Ukraine’s movement for independence not only with words

The help Lithuania provided to pro-Ukrainian movements was not only about ideas. In the late 1980s, the Lithuanian organization Sąjūdis aimed to seek the return of independent status for Lithuania. In the then Ukrainian SSR, the People’s Movement of Ukraine, a pro-Ukrainian civil-political movement, was established.

Mykola Porovskyi , one of the founders of the People’s Movement of Ukraine and a former Ukrainian MP, says that Sąjūdis provided lots of support to his movement in preparation for its congress. For example, a large part of the documents for it was copied from the First Congress of Lithuanian Sąjūdis and printed in Lithuania.

Vaitiekūnas says that Sąjūdis started to establish international relations, immediately realizing that the movement towards freedom is crucial for all the republics of the Soviet Union.

“Figuratively speaking, we thought that you can not cook a tasty and good soup in one part of the cauldron. ”

Many representatives of democratic movements from all over the Soviet Union came to the First Sąjūdis Congress. Those from Ukraine showed Vaitiekūnas the outlets they printed. He asked how many issues they printed.

“They said five, six, seven. I asked – thousands? They said, no, issues.”

After this, Vaitiekūnas invited them to print thousands in Lithuania.

“They did not believe it was possible. But some dared to come, and we printed thousands of issues.”

An issue printed in Lithuania for Ukraine. Taken from the Ukrainian Press Museum

Vaitiekūnas says that in total they published 51 issues for 25 cities.

“And the total circulation, taking into account the materials that we published for the elections in Russia, in Ukraine [in 1989 elections of people’s deputies were held across the Soviet Union], some particular materials — probably exceeded several million. Did it have some influence or did it not? How would you estimate it?”

Soviet police pursued volunteers transporting issues from Lithuania to Ukraine. Some were arrested. For security reasons, the articles in the dissidents’ printed materials had no bylines. Vaitiekūnas did not write them down as well. So the names of those who fought on the information front against the Soviet Union remain unknown.

The turning point in Lithuania: how a small republic won over the Empire

Barricades near Lithuanian Seimas, 1991. Photo: M.K. via Wikimedia

In 1991 in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, a tragic event changed the course of history and made a huge contribution to the Soviet Union’s fall.

In March 1990, Lithuania left the Soviet Union and declared its independence. Almost a year later, in January 1991, the Soviet military made an attempt to return Lithuania to the Union. Justifying it by alleged calls of Lithuanians to put the situation in the republic in order, the Soviet government started to return its control — Soviet troops and special forces began to seize strategic objects in Vilnius.

Soviet tanks in Vilnius, 1991. Photo: uk.wikipedia.org

They attempted an assault on the Vilnius TV center, TV tower, and other buildings. As a result of the seizure of TV and Radio broadcasting centers, 14 Lithuanian civilians and one officer of the special forces died, and hundreds were injured. Expecting a Soviet assault on the Lithuanian parliament, Lithuanians organized its defense. However, eventually this worst-case scenario was prevented – Soviet forces did not start their assault.

The Vilnius events resonated with Ukrainians as well.

Dykyi remembers that on 14 January, the day after the Vilnius tragedy, people gathered in Kyiv’s central square in support of the Lithuanian people. They also collected money, food, and medicine. Dykyi, in a group of the members of the Ukrainian students union, decided to support Lithuanians directly in Vilnius.

“Back then, Lithuania was the first. It was a kind of icebreaker that broke the ice of the entire Soviet empire. And Lithuanians succeeded back then more than anyone. If they were suppressed and crushed by tanks, no one else would just have a chance. If Lithuania had been suppressed back then, Ukraine would not even have tried to squeak. And we understood it perfectly.”

Ukrainian photographer Valeriy Myloserdov captured the events in Vilnius in 1991.

Dykyi admits that 30 Ukrainians in Vilnius would not have influenced the military situation much, but from the political point of view, it was crucial.

“It was essential to demonstrate that it was not just the business of the Lithuanian people, but that there is the solidarity of all those who were against the Soviets, communism, and this Empire. To show that it was not Lithuanians, but that it was a common cause for our and your freedom.”

Porovskyi in a group of Ukrainian MPs also came to Vilnius a few days after the tragedy to demonstrate by their presence their support to Lithuania before the whole world. They also contacted the Ukrainian diaspora in different countries calling people to come to protests near Soviet embassies.

Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov concludes that Lithuanian independence was provided by the fact that Ukrainians also decided that they were to leave the Soviet Union. Ukrainians’ desire for independence lived with the fact “that Lithuania, a small country, challenged Moloch”.

“The empire will not release anyone peacefully. And the sooner we understand this, the better for us. If you truly defend your ideas, the empire will try to crush you. Such a miracle that Lithuania had in 1991 when we lost 15 people, won the war with the Soviet empire, and what we achieved in 3 years in a fairly peaceful way, is probably a unique case in the world,” Sakalas Gorodeckis , a Lithuanian politician, says.

Vytautas Landsbergis, the first Head of Parliament of Lithuania after its independence declaration, and Sąjūdis movement leader, summarizes that Lithuanians still value the contribution Ukrainians provided to their country in 1991. Nowadays, it is Lithuania that helps Ukraine in its fight against the aggressor.

Lithuanians were the first to help Ukraine during the Euromaidan Revolution and Russia’s war

In 2013, almost a quarter of a century after the events in Vilnius, Ukraine experienced another turning point in its development, the Euromaidan Revolution. The role Lithuania played for Ukraine back then cannot be underestimated. The historic Eastern Partnership Summit took place in Vilnius. There, Ukraine was about to sign the EU Association Agreement. But it did not, as then-president Viktor Yanukovych and his government chose another course for Ukraine preferring to remain in Russia’s area of influence.

People at Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv after the Vilnius Summit. Photo: Euromaidan support Facebook group (ww.facebook.com/leftmaidan)

“When we heard about the meeting on the EU Association Agreement, it dawned on us that if we lose Ukraine, we lose it again for a century. No one talks about these coincidences. But the turning point happened in Vilnius. Not somewhere in Brussels, London or Moscow. It happened here, in Vilnius, ” Sakalas points out.

Emanuelis Zingeris , a Lithuanian politician, a signatory to the Lithuanian Restoration of Independence Act explains that the EU is a guarantee for a more or less calmer life.

In terms of its leadership in the EU that year, Lithuania wanted to suggest this calmness in the Association Agreement with Ukrainians.

Zingeris goes back by describing that he decided to organize a simultaneous and large-scale conference of parliamentarians.

“Just in case, if that great intellectual Yanukovych would say no, and if for him Putin would be more important than the whole European Union — then, they [parliamentarians] would say something. There were Mustafa Dzhemilev, Borys Tarasiuk, Petro Poroshenko, and Vitali Klitschko . And then Klitschko in such a boxing voltage said ‘No, we declare the president’s impeachment.’ He said it in Vilnius.”

The events of the Euromaidan followed next.

Haroldas Daumantas , the head of the support group for Ukraine in the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union remembers that when Maidan started it took less than a week for Lithuanians to organize a trip to Kyiv. He also says that during the heated phase of Maidan, he joined a group of medics and since then started to help Ukraine and provides support for the frontline until today. Also, Lithuania continues to support Ukraine in its fight against the aggressor.

Vaitiekūnas stresses that it is crucial to help Ukraine now and to stop Putin.

“To give you money for reforms and arms. To finally stop and persuade President Putin that the price he pays for some actions in Ukraine will be higher than what is acceptable. He can do it, but we can increase the price to the unacceptable.”

Lukianenko in the film stressed that Ukraine is fighting for its independence.

“Because Lithuanians and Ukrainians have the same enemy, help to Lithuanians against Moscow is help to Ukraine. The help of Lithuanians to Ukraine against Moscow is strengthening the independence of Lithuania.”

Landsbergis in his turn concluded:

“There is a temptation to think that it [the war in Ukraine] is far away and will not touch us. If Europe betrays Ukraine, it betrays itself. Like winning some time to one or two generations.”

The documentary team is preparing other projects to share the research they have made on the Lithuanian-Ukrainian relationships, as a significant part of it was not included in the film.

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