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Published: 22 august 2012 14:26

The New York Times reporter Bill Keller: Gorbachev quietly admired Lithuanians but was irritated by them

Buvęs Sovietų Sąjungos lyderis Michailas Gorbačiovas
AFP/„Scanpix“ nuotr. / Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Bill Keller, a well-known American journalist who reported for the New York Times on the first anti-Soviet rally in Vilnius 25 years ago, reminisces that the majority of Lithuanians did not expect independence to be declared three years later.

The American reporter who followed closely the Baltic states' fight for freedom said in an interview to BNS it helped Americans evaluate Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies.

Gorbachev himself quietly respected Lithuanians but could not disguise his irritation over their independence aspirations and their attitude towards him, says Keller who later became executive editor of the New York Times.

- Could you share your memories of the rally 25 years ago? How did you get to Vilnius and what was journalists' work like at the time?

- It's been a long time and my memory is a little faded but I remember that the demonstration was in the old town of Vilnius by St Anne Church. It was pretty small compared to the protests that would come later. A lot of people were still afraid of what the authorities would do. I remember that the government had set up various free concerts and entertainments to distract people away.

You ask a good question - how did we get there - because in August of 1987 there were very strict limits on where correspondents could travel. I don't remember exactly how we got there but I think at that point we must have gotten permission so in a way our presence there was a gesture of some kind by the government or at least the sign that they wanted to show a gentler side.

At the time we took the demonstration as an early sign that Gorbachev was reluctant to use force although he did authorize force at the number of places around the country later.

Moscow, and Gorbachev in particular, seemed to have a very complicated relationship with the Baltics and with Lithuania. I think there was a part of him that quietly admired the Lithuanians, for their determination and for their culture, but he got extremely impatient with the fact that people in the Baltics rightly wanted their freedom. Sometimes when he would talk about the Baltics, there was a special quality of irritation in his voice - "why can't these children wait until the time is right." He wanted to be regarded as a savior by people in the Baltics, and that was not going to happen.

1987 was just the beginning of a very long course but it was quite moving to see it. I spent a lot of time in Lithuania, probably more than in any other Soviet republic. I was always slightly skeptical of how the Baltic states would succeed as independent countries because they didn't have a lot of natural resources, their biggest market was Russia. But I never doubted the determination or the moral authority of Lithuanians.

- In your story about the rally at the time you said "only a handful of dozens interviewed said they saw the gathering as part of a real struggle for independence from Soviet rule." Did you believe at the time that independence would be announced less than three years later?

- Things moved very fast by the Soviet standards in those few years. It was very clear that - and I said that in the story - that if the question of independence had been put to a vote in Lithuania, it would have passed. If Lithuanians had been given a choice, they would have chosen independence right then. But I don't think most Lithuanians expected to be given a choice any time soon.

I didn't know what to expect but the Lithuanians I interviewed, I think, would have not predicted that they would have their independence so soon.

- Could you describe what the foreign media presence was then? Did it grow over the following years?

- The interest in the Baltics grew a lot over the years. Also, as time passed, we had more and more freedom to travel. I wish I could remember exactly whether we had to argue for permission or whether it came easily to go in 1987.

But later on, it became quite easy and by the time of the assault on the TV tower, correspondents were travelling from Moscow to the Baltic republics without even informing the government. It became easier, and it became a bigger story, as independence began to seem like a real possibility.

- Was there a big interest in and response to your stories from the Baltics among reader of the New York Times?

- It is hard to say, it was before the internet. Now we have all these tools for measuring how many people read the article, how many share it on the social media. Back then, you didn't really know how interested people were.

There was clearly a lot of interest among the Baltic immigrants in the US. Lithuanian Americans, Latvian Americans, Estonian Americans even back then had pretty lively communities in the US and they, of course, were very interested.

But for most Americans the Baltics were one way of testing whether Gorbachev was for real, whether what he was trying to do was genuine and whether the Soviet Union itself could really change.

- After you left the Moscow bureau in 1991, have you closely followed developments in the region? Could you describe changes over the last 25 years?

- In 2003, I came back to do a piece for the New York Times Magazine travel issue. It's the only time I have been back. But it was really interesting to see how these three republics have become normal European countries. I know since then the Baltic republics have had economic troubles like the rest of Europe. But that's a sort of normal European thing now too. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia get less attention now than they did when they were pursuing their independence because back then they were in the middle of this huge global drama. But that's a sign of normalcy too that Lithuania is not always in the newspapers.

***

Keller and his then wife Anne Cooper were the only American reporters observing the rally on 23 August 1987 that shook Lithuania. The next day, an in-depth article about the demonstration was published in the New York Times. According to Keller, 500 people took part in the rally.

Keller, who worked at the New York Times Moscow bureau since 1986 and later headed it between 1988 and 1991, would later produce reports from Lithuania. He was also present at the TV tower in Vilnius during the 13 January 1991 massacre.

Keller received a prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his articles about the collapse of the Soviet Union. He worked as executive editor at the New York Times between 2003 and 2011.

The journalist, 63, still writes commentaries for the daily and has over 41,000 Twitter followers.

Despite the ban of the then Soviet administration in Lithuania, a rally to mark the anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was staged near Mickevičius Monument in Vilnius on 23 August 1987. The pact and its secret protocols divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and led to the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.

The fist anti-Soviet rally was organized by the Lithuanian Freedom League.

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