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Lithuania urges the world to stand up against Russia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We report now on a bid to hold Russia accountable for an invasion - not the invasion of Ukraine but earlier military action in Lithuania. That Baltic nation, once part of the Soviet Union, was last occupied by Russian troops in the 1990s. But for many Lithuanians, it's like it happened yesterday. And that shapes their view of events today. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: For years, Lithuania and its neighbors along the Baltic Sea have warned the rest of Europe about the dangers posed by Russia. And for years, says Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Lithuania was ignored. Instead, she says, she and her predecessors were called paranoid, accused of exaggerating Russia's threat to the world.

PRIME MINISTER INGRIDA SIMONYTE: This is a situation where you would want to say, I've told you so. But there is very little amount of sort of happiness of being right.

SCHMITZ: Lithuania's long-troubled history of Russian occupation goes back hundreds of years, with the last episode culminating in 1991. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, and Lithuania was the first of the Soviet states to declare independence.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In a move reminiscent of past Soviet leadership, Moscow today launched a military crackdown in the Baltic Republic of Lithuania in an attempt to stop the drive for independence there.

SCHMITZ: American news reports from January 13 of that year captured the moment that Soviet troops attempted to retake the capital, Vilnius.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tanks crushed cars like flimsy toys. We saw one driver dead, trapped inside. Soldiers used nightsticks, smoke bombs and, at last, live ammunition.

SCHMITZ: Soviet soldiers killed 14 Lithuanians that night, including Apolinaras Povilaitis. His son Robertas was 14 at the time.

ROBERTAS POVILAITIS: For Lithuania, that was a turning point.

SCHMITZ: Povilaitis now works as a psychologist and runs a hotline for children who need help. He says after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world made a big mistake. The West failed to hold Moscow accountable.

POVILAITIS: The Soviet regime was not assessed internationally as a criminal regime, so they continued. And some names changed, some people changed. But this repressive culture, the aggressive government, continue.

SCHMITZ: On January 13 of this year, the 31st anniversary of the Soviet crackdown, Povilaitis filed a civil lawsuit against Mikhail Gorbachev for the death of his father. At the end of March, a Lithuanian court accepted the case and is now starting procedures against the former Soviet leader. Povilaitis says Russia's war in Ukraine is just the latest example of why the world is overdue in holding Russia's leadership accountable for what he calls decades of crimes against humanity.

POVILAITIS: Those who were taking part in this war should receive some consequences. And if that does not happen, so Russia will continue being Russia as it is now.

SCHMITZ: And Povilaitis isn't the only one here taking action. In April, an artist filled a pond in Vilnius with red dye, transforming it to the color of blood, and then a swimmer from Lithuania's Olympic team swam through it. The pond was in front of the Russian Embassy, and the performance was captured in an eerie video. Thirty-three-year-old Neringa Rekasiute was the artist behind this. She says Russia's war in Ukraine has brought Lithuania's deep-seated feelings about Moscow to the surface.

NERINGA REKASIUTE: I guess we kind of impersonate this struggle because we really want to be in the West, and we are finally. And now something like that is happening for Ukrainians. And for us, it's like, at the same time, reliving our own history.

SCHMITZ: And in reliving that history, other Lithuanians are also preparing for the worst. The Lithuanian Riflemen's Union is a state-supported paramilitary organization that trains citizens how to use a gun. Fifty-year-old photographer Paulius Zavadskis never thought he'd pick one up, but he decided to join the union after Russia invaded Ukraine.

PAULIUS ZAVADSKIS: (Through interpreter) I need to learn how to shoot because if, God forbid, I would have to use a gun, then I know what I'm doing. We see how fragile everything is around us. Honestly, what the Ukrainians are doing now, they're giving us time to prepare.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: On March 11, Lithuania's Independence Restoration Day, Zavadskis graduated from basic training and took the Rifleman Union's oath, alongside hundreds of others, including the prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, who had also just completed the course. Simonyte says there was a debate recently about whether Vladimir Putin is aiming to recreate the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire. In either scenario, she says, Lithuania would once again be under threat.

SIMONYTE: Of course, that might mean not a direct occupation. That might mean to have, you know, a puppet government. Like, you know, why do you need to take the country onto your budget? It's very expensive. But you can have a proxy in the countries, especially in countries that are integrated into Western markets and where you can also make business.

SCHMITZ: Simonyte's government has officially declared Putin's Russia a terrorist state. And she says Lithuanians, the Baltic States, Europe and the rest of the world need to be more vigilant.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Vilnius.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGEY CHEREMISINOV'S "SEVEN LIGHTS" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.