Lithuania: 26 September - 2 October 2016

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Pro-Kremlin media distorts the events of 13 January 1991 in order to advance Russia’s foreign policy goals among a new generation born after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Event: On 16 September in Kaliningrad, Galina Sapozhnikova, a journalist for the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, presented her book, “Who betrayed whom? Telling all about the Lithuanian conspiracy: how the Soviet Union collapsed and what happened to those who wanted to save it.” Sapozhnikova claims  that Lithuania’s independence was the result of a deal between the United States and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and that those who think differently face prosecution in Lithuania. She focuses on the period after March 1990, when Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union and the following months when the Soviet Communist Party reacted harshly.  

Sapozhnikova adds that she herself would be sued in Lithuania for writing the book, which was translated into Italian and presented in the Italian Senate. In response, Lithuania sent a protest note to Italy. Pro-Kremlin, Russian-language websites, and have all extensively promoted Sapozhnikova’s book; has offered a Lithuanian version as well. 

The false fact or narrative: Sapozhnikova claims in her book that the events of 1990-91 in Lithuania were not a movement for Lithuania’s independence, but the result of a deal between the United States and Gorbachev, whom many Russians blame for the fall of the USSR. She also says Lithuania is today intolerant of its political opponents, as shown by the fact that Lithuania sentenced the organizers of the January 1991 coup to jail. Yet she presents no proof or arguments to support that statement.   

Reality on the ground: On 13 January 1991, the Soviet Army assaulted the Vilnius radio and TV tower and the Seimas (Parliament), killing 14 civilians defending the tower and injuring 700. In 1996, six members of the Lithuanian Communist Party were sentenced for their involvement in these events. In 2016, the court—presented with 700 volumes of testimony given by 500 victims—opened hearings on what happened and brought charges against 65 people who were allegedly involved. Sixty-three of the 65 indicted will be tried in absentia since they live in Russia or Belarus, both of which have refused to cooperate with Lithuania on the case. In 2015, Lithuania declared Sapozhnikova persona non grata.   Lithuania’s State Security Department, in its 2014 report, charged that Sapozhnikova had established “Format A-3,” an international media club in Tallinn and Moscow, to promote the “political and ideological preferences of Russia in the Baltic states.”
  • Denying and falsifying facts, 
  • presenting opinion as facts; 
  • promoting conspiracy theories and creating context.  

Audience: The primary target is young people born after the fall of the Soviet Union who might be swayed by the Kremlin’s version of events, as well as Russian-speaking minorities in Lithuania, other Baltic states and the West. Lithuania’s Russian-speaking audience is mixed and includes many ethnic minorities such as Russians, Poles, Tatars, Jews, Belarussians, Ukrainians and others, as well as Lithuanians whose second language is Russian. 

Impact and analysis: Sapozhnikova’s version of events meets a Kremlin disinformation campaign goal: framing the Lithuanian independence movement as a conspiracy between Gorbachev and U.S. leaders. Her book is an example of a Kremlin disinformation strategy that seeks to spin key historical events in order to advance its current political agenda—a view that may resonate among younger Lithuanians and Russians with no memory of the January 1991 events or the Soviet regime itself.