American reporter remembers Lithuanian independence struggles

Ann Cooper from NPR was among those who reported on Lithuania's struggle for independence from the USSR from its "wobbly" beginning to its successful outcome.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Lithuania
American reporter remembers Lithuanian independence struggles - NewsMavens
Ann Cooper, YouTube

Why this story matters:

Many in the West and other regions think that the USSR collapsed because it was losing the economic and arms race with the US, and then all those ethnicities constituting it suddenly found themselves independent.

Despite the efforts of international correspondents at the time, it is not widely known that after Lithuania declared independence in 1990, the USSR was still around, and still clinging to its superpower status.

In January 1991, people started reporting the movement of military equipment into the newly declared state's territory, and on January 13, 1991 it became apparent what the tanks had rolled in for -- to stage a coup against the breakaway republic.

As I found while reading books on the matter for a piece on people's memories in my home town, the formal excuse was the refusal of Baltic men to be conscripted to the Soviet army. The USSR authorities were masters of spin, and they could have spun the clashes between Lithuanian civilians and tanks in a more favorable way had the situation been the same as in the decade before. Yet, as Ann Cooper of NPR sensed, Perestroika had opened a window for information to flow, and for people to shed their fears.

The people who had made their small but brave contribution to withstanding the attempted coup are repeatedly honored on each anniversary. From engineers building emergency radio transmitters to volunteers standing vigil around strategically important buildings, various groups are duly acknowledged for the coordination of their efforts.

Yet it is never enough to stress the importance of journalists in the events and their aftermath. In addition to local journalists risking their lives in Vilnius that fateful night, the work of foreign correspondents like Ann Cooper of NPR was crucial in letting the world know that, despite Perestroika, decolonization efforts were still being crushed in the Baltics, and that perhaps, in Cooper's words, Nobel-winning Mikhail Gorbachev wasn't such a peacemaker after all.

In this Lithuanian podcast, produced in English, Ann Cooper shares the memories of her work as a Moscow correspondent for NPR, where she first heard about the protests challenging the Soviet narrative of "liberation" after WW2, and then went along with other foreign correspondents to report from the clashes of that dramatic night. A journalism teacher today, the American also shares her views on the direction journalism has taken.

Details from the story:

  • Ann Cooper moved to Moscow in 1986 as a correspondent for NPR. She remembers the heavy surveillance, and a gradual change in press freedom under Gorbachev.
  • She first came to Vilnius to follow the first anti-Soviet rally in 1987, surprised that the Soviet media announced it in advance and that there had been no immediate crackdown. She later found out that her informants had been detained, spied on, and dismissed from work.
  • The veteran journalist remembers January 13, 1991, in Vilnius as one of her most dreadful experiences, observing the movement of the tanks towards the TV tower and rushing to send her recordings to her editor -- and for the world to hear.
  • Cooper currently is a professor in Columbia Journalism School in New York.
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