By Mary Chan
Larger than life, the figure of former world leader Mikhail Gorbachev will loom over the University of Calgary Thursday night. Yet in his shadow lie more stories, personal accounts, of lives affected by one single man.
One such life is that of Nele Astravas. Born in the former Soviet Republic of Lithuania, she immigrated to Canada in 1977 and now resides in Calgary. She is active in the Canadian Lithuanian community in this city, and still has many relatives in Lithuania. For her, Gorbachev’s visit brings back many memories of the movement for Lithuanian independence in 1990 and 1991.
"Ten years ago, Lithuania gained independence," she recalled. "At that time he was in power. He had an opportunity to challenge Lithuanian people who sought independence."
On March 30, 1990, Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union after 50 years of Soviet control. It was the beginning of a very tense period in the small
"There were embargoes, closing of borders, expulsion of foreign journalists, so nobody would see," Astravas said. "They said it was an internal matter. During this period, from March 1990 until the highest point, January 1991, it was a curfew all the time. They wanted to press the Lithuanian government to call off independence. After so many attempts, they saw that they cannot do that. Lithuanians would not go back."
On Jan. 13, 1991, Soviet troops were sent into the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where people were demonstrating. Anywhere from eight to 15 people were killed, hundreds injured.
"I think many countries, and myself and my family, we didn’t expect that he would come with the tanks into Lithuania," Astravas said. "We still thought that Gorbachev was a nice and polite man. And even though in the beginning he said the army did it by themselves without consulting him, I don’t think so. The man who is in charge is always giving the orders. There’s no question about it."
Meanwhile in Canada, the Lithuanian community was organizing demonstrations, writing letters to politicians and collecting signatures for petitions, asking the Canadian government to support a free and democratic Lithuania.
"We got very big support from Canadian people," said Astravas, who was involved with the Calgary movement. "We sometimes had people in the crowds [during demonstrations] who didn’t speak Lithuanian or have anything to do with Lithuania."
SOS Lithuania, a North American movement intended to convince Canada and the U.S. to recognize Lithuania’s independence, was established.
"In the very beginning, in Toronto, there was established a hotline and information centre regarding events in Lithuania," said Astravas. "In every city we had a small centre, coordinators. So we got lots of attention; world attention and media attention, local and national."
For Astravas, it is important that the western media provide a balanced view of Gorbachev, not just as a man who opened that part of the world to the West.
"If media is independent and not biased, they should remember all those facts from the late ’80s and ’90s," she says. "Western media is looking at him as a historical figure who tried to reform a collapsing Soviet Union. In a way, I think they are right because he started
perestroika and glasnost and he should get credit for that, even from Lithuania. But at the same time, we cannot forget what he did regarding some human rights."
Astravas will be sitting in the audience Thursday night as Gorbachev speaks to the Calgary community. She says she will be there for two reasons.
"He’s a historic figure," she said. "For me, as a Canadian- Lithuanian, he is probably more than an ordinary leader because of the Lithuanian history and events. He reminds me of all those tragic events."
Astravas also wants to see if 10 years has altered his views of the events surrounding Lithuania’s push towards independence.
"I also would like to hear or see if he’s still the same Gorbachev he was 10 years ago," she said. "Does he finally realize that small countries have a right to exist, have a right to sovereignty, to basic rights of people? Is he ready for the challenge to answer the questions he might get about that period of time and is he ready to discuss and evaluate his orders, his behaviour? I think he has the opportunity to evaluate himself after 10 years.
"Can he face the challenge and answer the questions?"