He talked back to the KGB
Washington — You have to wonder which demanded the most courage from this tough Lithuanian patriot. Living through the 15 years in forced labor camps?
Standing up to his secret police interrogators?
Or making his final escape?
Walking, running, crawling, swimming -- it took Vladas Sakalys 20 days to cover the 373 miles to freedom. The most dangerous part was crossing the heavily patrolled Soviet border, with its guards, dogs, electrified fence, barbed wire, and a lake.
In some ways, the men of the KGB, the Soviet State Security Committee, must be happy to be rid of Vladas Sakalys. Resistance is written all over his Nordic features. Don't push me around. Don't try to be nice to me. Either way, there will be no compromise. That is what the piercing blue eyes, the compact body, and the no-nonsense look seem to say.
When he decided to escape from the Soviet Union, Sakalys was with his family. It was in May of this year, and he was enjoying a respite from prisons and forced-labor camps. But when the authorities threatened to throw him -- for the fourth time -- into such a camp, he decided that it would be too much of a burden, not just for himself but also for his wife and two young children.
He had been interrogated by the KGB about the signing and dissemination of petitions protesting the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and suspected the secret police were following him. He dodged the policemen, went underground, and a month later left Lithuania on his journey to freedom.
Sakalys was carrying a map from an atlas which didn't even warn him that he would have to cross a lake. All it really told him was that he would have to head north toward the northwestern tip of the Soviet Union and then west. If the guards, and the dogs, and the fence didn't get him, he would reach Finland.
Vladas Sakalys (it is pronounced "Shahkahlees") looks a bit out of place in Washington, D.C. It has been more than four months since he crossed the Soviet border into Finland, leaving behind him his family and a life of interrogations and labor camps. But he looks as though someone had just fished him out of one of those cold northern lakes, dried him off, and given him the first suit they could find.
It is a dark blue suit with white pinstripes which Sakalys is wearing, and the trousers appear to be about a size too small. The collar of his white shirt is crooked.He knows that to talk to people in the West, these are the clothes he must wear. But you can tell from the way he wears them that he is not used to such things and doesn't much care about them. Of overriding importance to him are the comrades he left behind to carry on the struggle against the Soviets. That is what he would like to talk about.
Sakalys is impressed with the affluence which he has seen in the two months which he has spent in the United States. He had expected the standard of living to be high, but the reality surpasses his expectations.
He is to be granted political asylum here and one day may seek citizenship. But he looks like a man searching for Americans who are as tough as he is and not finding them. He does not think that the West has the good sense or the will to resist Soviet aggression. He thinks the Soviets will invade Poland.
"The Soviets will come to Poland," he says matter-of- factly, arguing that no matter how limited the independence which the Polish workers have achieved, the Soviets see that independence as undermining their system.
"In Lithuania, everyone is waiting to see how it will end in Poland," he says.
He predicts that the Polish workers will resist the invasion but that the Soviets will crush them.
And what will the West do?
"The West will not move even a little finger," he says.
To many people in the West, Lithuania is nothing more than a vague memory -- one of those small lands which the Russians swallowed after World War II. But to Vladas Sakalys, Lithuania lives. It is a culture, a language, a religion -- and a will to resist.
Located on the western side of the Soviet Union with borders on Poland and the Baltic Sea, Lithuania is about the size of Belgium and Holland combined. More than three-quarters of its population of 3.4 million is estimated to be Roman Catholic.
The church says that virtually no religious literature has been openly published since 1945. But Lithuania is rich in underground literature of all sorts.
In 1960, people in the seaport city of Klaipeda built a church with their own hands and at their own expense. But despite the official permission orginally granted for building this church, the local authorities later began to raise objec tions and impose requirements. They seized the church, tore down the steeple, and converted the church into a concert hall.
Soon the people were fighting to get it back. Over the years a remarkable thing happened. The protesters prepared a petition and in 1979 sent it to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. It was signed by an extraordinary number of people -- 143,000 of them -- a number unheard of for protest petitions submitted to the Soviet leadership.
Given such widespread resistance, men and women like Vladas Sakalys do not consider themselves "dissidents," as they are known in the West. They consider themselves Lithuanian patriots trying to get the Soviet authorities to live up to the rights supposedly guaranteed by the Soviet constitution and legal codes.
Vladas Sakalys does not have an advanced education in the usual sense. After completing primary and secondary school, he spent so much time in jails and labor camps that there was little opportunity for formal training. But through home study and on-the-job training he did learn about the fabrication and repair of eyeglass lenses and became a licensed optician. In addition to speaking Lithuanian, he has learned to speak Russian, Polish, and Latvian, and has a rudimentary knowledge of English and German.
Most important for his work in the human rights field, he has learned the Soviet laws. You might call him a labor camp lawyer.
Sakalys has never known anything but resistance. He was born during the war and Nazi occupation. He grew up witnessing a guerrilla movement against the Soviets. To crush the resistance, the Soviets deported several hundred thousand Lithuanians. Sakalys's wife was born of deportee parents in Siberia; his uncle was a guerrilla whom the Soviets executed.
But his was a divided family. Sakalys's father -- he never speaks of his father -- was a Commmunist official. His father abandoned his mother, and he has disowned his father.
Sakalys's first encounter with the secret police came in 1955, when, at the age of 13, he was arrested for putting up a poster demanding "Russians, get out of Lithuania!" The police beat him, questioned him for three days, and finally turned him over to school authorities for futher punishment.
His first imprisonment did not come until six years later. In 1961, he was sentenced to six years in jails and forced- labor camp for "disseminating slander" against the Soviet government and for membership in anti-Soviet underground organizations. That was followed in 1971 by four more years in jails and labor camps. His last sentence was for five years, and he was released from his last labor camp term on May 1, 1978.
On May 30 of this year, Sakalys was arrested for interrogation about the signing of petitions against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Soviet violations of human rights.
It was at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon of that day that three men of the KGB came to the home of Sakalys in Vilnius, packed him into a car, and drove him to the security police headquarters.
This is the way Sakalys recalls the scene:
On the wall in the almost bare interrogation room are pictures of Lenin and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, first chief of the secret police.
Sitting at a desk in front of Sakalys is a round-faced man wearing a gray suit and tie whom Sakalys refers to sarcastically as "an old friend" -- Maj. Vytautas Pilelis, a Lithuanian and a 20-year veteran of the KGB. The two had met once before when Pilelis was only a lieutenant. Since then Pilelis has gained weight. His hair has grown thin.
"Sit down and give your name," Pilelis says, as though they were meeting for the first time.
Sakalys sits down, but he does not give his name.
Instead he begins to challenge and question in his own way, citing the Soviet legal codes at every opportunity as his authority.
"Please show me your documents so that I will know whom I am talking with," he tells the interrogator.
The KGB major is not pleased. He begins to curse -- in Russian, of course. It is a better language for cursing than Lithuanian. He also begins to pound the top of his desk.
The rules of the game allow the interrogator to move about, pound the desk, make a threatening fist. The man in the chair in front of him, on the other hand, is required to stay put and is not even allowed to cross his legs.
"You have been invited to a government office," Pilelis says. "You know very well who invited you here."
"Your office has a bad reputation," Sakalys says, managing to stay cooler than his interrogator.
"There were chiefs of this agency who were shot for working with the imperialists," he continues, insulting the KGB man with a reminder of the execution, among others, of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's main hatchet man and chief of secret police.
Major Pilelis decides that it is time to threaten.
"People such as you can be taught, and some of them have been taught," he says.
"Threats are of little interest to me," Sakalys responds. "I only want to see your documents.
"And please don't shout at me," Sakalys continues. "You may think that you're an important person, but you're not. . . . I'm important, because without me, there would be no questioning.You can be replaced. You're nothing more than a clerk."
"What are you play-acting for?" Major Pilelis says, toning down his attack. "It won't get you anywhere."
The KGB man does finally show Sakalys his identification papers, and he gets to the point: He wants to know what Sakalys knows about the cases of Antanas Terleckas and Julius Sasnauskas, two among 45 Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians who signed a 1979 declaration opposing the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states.
Sakalys was also a signer of this "Baltic Declaration," but he tells the KGB man he can say nothing about the case until he knows what the charges are all about. He asks to see the file on the case.
The KGB officer decides it is time to threaten again.
"There have been some smart people," he says. "Some have been as smart as you, some smarter -- but they all got straightened out in the end."
Sakalys counters with a demand that a complete record of the interrogation be kept.
"Don't tell me what to do," Pilelis says.
"You must obey the Soviet laws,' Sakalys responds. "In this particular office, people seem to get used to forgetting and dishonoring the laws."
"Yes, I know how well you abide by the laws," Pilelis replies, trying sarcasm.
"How good that you, too, know about the laws," Sakalys says.
Pilelis has prepared "minutes" giving his version of the interrogation and asks Sakalys to approve them with his signature.
Sakalys refuses on the grounds that the document states his nationality incorrectly. It says that he is a citizen of the Soviet Union.
"My citizenship is Lithuanian," he declares. Pilelis's time is up. It is now the turn of a KGB lieutenant colonel known as Vytaukas Kazhys. Another "old friend" of Sakalys, the well-nourished Lithuanian colonel is wearing a dark blue suit. His thinning hair is brushed straight back.
In 1969, Kazhys had brought Sakalys out of a forced labor camp to see if they could make him a bit more cooperative. In the presence of Kazhys, several men had ben Sakalys over a chair and beat him with their fists and boots. Sakalys recalls that one of his tormenters at the time, a Russian named Shenin, kept saying: "This isn't beating. It's only an education."
Kazhys opens this time with a soft approach.
"How do you happen to be here?" he asks.
"Perhaps you could explain that to me," Sakalys replies.
"I really don't know," the colonel says.
"Well in that case, why don't you contact the office that surely must know -- the KGB?" Sakalys asks, still in a mood to be sarcastic.
Kazhys gets to the point. The world is threatened by war, he says, and it would help lower tensions if Sakalys would renounce his signing of the Baltic Declaration.
Sakalys refuses, and the interrogator switches to a hard line.
"There will be a war, and you won't see the first day of it," he tells Sakalys.
"And you won't live to see the last day of it," Sakalys fires back. "The funeral bells have rung for this empire."
In an attempt at intimidation, Kazhys mentions that two other Baltic nationals already under arrest are going to be committed to mental hospitals.
"Under Soviet law, only a doctor, only a psychiatrist, can decide that," Sakalys says.
"Don't be naive," says the colonel.
"Thank God the conveyer belt of arrests has begun moving," Kazhys continues. "And you will be next. . . . You are guaranteed 10 to 15 years."
"Do whatever you like, but please don't arrest me," Sakalys says, sticking with sarcasm.
He is released pending a final arraignment, which would, of course, mean 10 to 15 more years in prisons and labor camps.
Only two days after that interrogation, on Sunday, June 1, Sakalys decides he must escape. He assumes that he is being followed by the KGB men who keep his mother's house under surveillance. But he knows the narrow, twisting streets of Vilnius well and slips in and out of alleyways and courtyards until he is sure they have lost him. He goes into hiding in the countryside, and on June 26 heads north by train.
Sakalys travels on the trains at night, sleeps in overhead luggage racks, and pretends to be a drunk in order to avoid conversations and questioning. During a stop in Leningrad, he buys food, a rucksack, a knife, and a pocket mirror.
From friends in the labor camps, he knows something about the region of Karelia where he is heading. He disembarks at Idel, north of Nadvoitsy, and proceeds on foot toward the border. Ahead of him lie the dogs, the guards, the electric fence, and something he did not expect, the icy waters of a lake.
But first there is a 35 mile-wide uninhabited zone which no one is allowed to cross without a permit. That is the easy part. He has to stop once to allow military traffic to pass, but makes it unscathed to the next of these Dante-like circles of testing: a 10 mile-wide no-man's land. Here there are roving patrols of two to three men with dogs.
At one point, as he is reaching the top of a hill, Sakalys hears the sound of pebbles being tossed into a pond. He takes cover and sees three soldiers with a dog. One of the soldiers is soaking his feet in the pond. Fortunately for Sakalys, the wind is blowing toward him and away from the dog, so that he is not detected. He knows that if he is captured he is in for rough treatment. Those who have tried and failed to cross the border say that at a minimum the border guards are likely to knock a man's teeth out and possibly break a few ribs before sending him back to labor camps.
Next he is confronted by the electric fence. It is eight feet high, but he is prepared. Placing his feet on the insulators and propping himself up from behind with a dead tree limb, he works his way up the fence and then over it.
His next obstacle is the lake, too wide at this point for him to swim. He chooses to move north, knowing that a Soviet garrison house will be ahead of him. It is 5 a.m. and time is getting short. He decides he must squeeze past the garrison house and then find a better place to cross the lake.
The area has been cleared of vegetation and is carefully raked so that Sakalys's foot prints are showing everywhere. He smooths over the prints with his hand and pours moth flakes over them as well. He pours enough to repel the dogs but not so much, he hopes, that the Soviet border guards will detect the smell.
He walks boldly through a courtyard praying that the men inside the garrison are asleep. To one side is the lake, to the other the electric fence. Somewhere to the west is Finland.
At this point, the lake is dotted with islands. Sakalys straps his shirt, trousers, and jacket over his head and proceeds to swim from one island to another. He comes within 150 yards of what looks like a guardhouse on stilts. No one stirs. A patrol boat appears in the distance but it is moving against the morning sun and he can't make out its color. It circles around and he sees that the color is red. A Soviet patrol boat. But it doesn't see him and moves away.
Sakalys comes out of the water and finds that there are three barbed wire fences and another area cleared of all vegetation to be negotiated. As he struggles over the fences helped by another old tree limb he hears dogs barking. They are too late. Sakalys is now in Finland.
But this is not the end of the ordeal. Finland can be a trap as well. The Soviet Union has an agreement with the Finns whereby they are supposed to return to the Soviets any persons who enter Finland illegally from Soviet territory.
Sakalys must make his way by stealth across Finland.He has calculated that his best chance lies in finding an isolated farm, and this is what he does. He encounters an old Finnish farmer and speaks to him a few words of the Estonian language. It has similarities to the Finnish language.
The old man gives Sakalys a map, a pound of butter, and three pounds of bread. Sakalys takes up his journey again, traveling west toward Sweden. He moves only at night, staying close to, but never on, main roads. But on the sixth day of his trek across Finland his food runs out.
For four days, Sakalys is without food and kept from sleeping by rain and cold.
It is on the 10th day of his journey across Finland that he reaches the Swedish border. He does not realize that there is no checkpoint and that he can cross the border freely. He chooses an isolated spot to make the crossing and plunges into a river marking the border. Weak from a lack of food, he has only one thought in mind: "Never look back." The rapids nearly carry him away, and it takes an hour for him to reach the other side. He claws at mud-covered rocks and pulls himself ashore. Half walking, half crawling, he makes it to a clump of trees and collapses -- free at last.