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Documentary : Standing Up to the Wrath of Gorbachev : A Lithuanian family faces the Kremlin's threats with calm, even with humor. They fear the future, but even more they fear the thought of a homeland that is not free.

April 24, 1990|ESTHER SCHRADER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VILNIUS, Soviet Union — In the Kaspariunene household, a crowded but impeccably neat apartment nine floors up in a concrete-block building on the outskirts of Vilnius, 17-year-old Ruste is singing a song of the Lithuanian countryside. For a moment, thoughts of an economic blockade of her homeland fade as her clear soprano fills the room.

"For me, songs are the top of my life," said Ruste, the shy middle child of a close-knit family. "It is just in my bones. When all the family is together singing, it is the best for our strength. If they turn the lights out, I can still sing. Instead of crying, I just sing."

The day a reporter met Ruste and her family, it was sunny and bright, and neither the drab closeness of their apartment nor the possibility of a shutdown of electricity or heat dampened the family spirit.

The Kaspariunenes are just one family in this republic of 3.8 million people, but they appear typical of many in tiny, feisty Lithuania. They are calm and sober and they work desperately hard. They are proud and reserved and fiercely loyal to their homeland. And while they are concerned about the Soviet government's tightening of the economic screws on Lithuania, they are determined to survive and to help take their nation peacefully out of the crumbling Soviet Union.

If this family of five is any example, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev will find that it will take tremendous economic force to crack the Lithuanians' resolve.

The Kaspariunenes are marked by the sufferings of their people--grandparents deported to Siberia in Stalin's time; shortages of nearly everything at one time or another; the kind of life--as is true throughout the Soviet Union--where buying meat can take eight hours, where some days it seems as if nothing works right and where it is the simple struggle of daily life that wears one down.

The family believes that Lithuania's only way out is to follow the program of the nationalist movement now leading the republic's government. They fear the consequences, but even stronger is their resolve that their children will not have to live the same difficult lives as they did. They are willing to gamble, they say, for the future of Lithuanians to come.

"We've been in the Soviet Union for 50 years, and all this time our nation was getting worse and worse," said Rasmutis Kaspariunene, 49, an engineer in an electronic research institute. "After this life we've had the last two years (since the republic's independence movement was founded), it would be too traumautic to stay in the Soviet Union. People couldn't stand it. They have gotten too much fresh air.

"Even if the soldiers will put us down, our children will have had this breath of fresh air," Rasmutis said. "They will rise up again in the future."

A poll released Friday by the Gallup organization found that kind of determination widespread in Lithuania. The poll, conducted in Vilnius earlier this month, found that four out of five citizens see their future in an independent democratic state outside the Soviet Union. Among people of Lithuanian descent, that figure was even higher--89%.

Now the Soviet authorities have cut oil and gas supplies to the breakaway Baltic republic, but during breakfast last weekend it was clear that for Kaspariunenes, as for most Lithuanians, the fear of losing material goods is secondary to the tension of not knowing what may happen next.

They were exhausted from nearly a month of watching television anxiously for news of the latest building seizure by Soviet troops or of other military activity. They were worried that the confrontation between Soviet soldiers and civilians here last week could herald the beginning of a wider outbreak of violence. But with shops still stocked as normal and factories still running, the economic sanctions themselves did not yet seem real.

The Kremlin crackdown was the topic of musing and conversation rather than panic. The family's apartment was brightly lit, after all. The family car parked nearby was filled with gas. Outside was the hazy warmth of spring, and inside the family was eating a hot breakfast, cooked--with little regard for fuel shortages--on three burners of the gas stove.

"It's hard to imagine it now when we still have things," Ruste's sister Giedre said of the economic sanctions. "We don't notice it now. Besides, what should we do? Shall we begin beating the soldiers or quarrelling with them? It won't last forever. For a short time we can overcome anything. Talking about it won't help."

Giedre, long blonde hair in a braid down her back, is a third-year student in biology at Vilnius University and a studious, practical woman of 20. She says that the blockade is a frequent topic when she and her boyfriend meet their friends in the ancient courtyards and dark cafes of their school's 16th-Century campus.

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