Ginte Damusis: We need to realize that Mr. Putin’s ambitions pose a long-term threat that goes far beyond Ukraine.

As a diplomat and former human rights activist, I can’t help but reflect on the lessons learned from the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Manipulated and falsified information is now the most severe short-term risk the world faces. According to the Global Risks Report 2024, over the next two years, misinformation and disinformation will present one of the biggest ever challenges to the democratic process.

Misinformation and disinformation may radically disrupt electoral processes, which could trigger civil unrest and confrontation. As members of the international community, we can already see the damage being done to the international rules-based order, which has promoted global cooperation on peace, freedom and prosperity worldwide for the past 75 years.

Today Mr. Vladimir Putin’s regime mercilessly hunts down the truth and celebrates lies. It threatens to jail those who call what is happening in Ukraine – a war. It brazenly denies documented war crimes and attacks upon innocent civilians. It accuses others of its own sins: faking events and falsifying information.

That’s why the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania is such a fine example of the power of truth-telling. Through the 17 years of its uninterrupted publication, this underground journal has been recognized by democratic governments as an authoritative and reliable source of information. It has been widely-cited by the international press, human rights organizations, academics and defenders of human rights. The Chronicle aptly demonstrated the impact of truth-telling, whatever the cost. And the cost was big: editors and contributors were hunted down by the KGB, imprisoned (or worse) for telling the truth about religious persecution, human rights violations and blatant discrimination. And who would have thought that decades later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR, dissidents, who dare to oppose Putin’s lies and aggression today, would still be hunted down, imprisoned or killed – in and outside of Russia.

As the Cold War raged on in the 1970s and early 1980s, I, as many others, became interested in the Chronicle through the snippets of information I would come across periodically in newspapers, hear over radio broadcasts from the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Vatican Radio, and ultimately from a media-savvy Catholic priest, the Rev. Casimir Pugevicius, former Director of Communications at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who invited me to join his team at Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid, a small humanitarian and human rights advocacy organization based in Brooklyn NY. Our small office coordinated efforts to make the Chronicle more well-known in the world. Under Fr. Pugevicius’ direction, the Chronicle was published in English translation and systematically circulated among decision-makers and opinion-formers in Western institutions – governments, parliamentary committees, bishop conferences, the Moscow press corps and other international media outlets, universities and libraries, human rights organizations, local press and communities with an interest in human rights and Lithuania.

The Chronicle itself was produced by a relatively small and close-knit team of priests, nuns and lay people in Lithuania, who were bless ed by a divine sense of purpose and vision. And &, runs and la peep worked secretly and discreetly, they had no fear of Soviet persecution or imprisonen th. Their heroic efforts were amplified by a wide network of supporters in the free world.

Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid became a central collection point for samizdat publications smuggled out from Soviet-occupied Lithuania. A small staff supplemented by volunteers ioould transcribe smuggled Chronicle issues from microfilm for immediate distribution to the radio services (VOA, RFE-RL, Vatican Radio, the BBC). Chronicle news items would be rebroadcast back to Lithuania. Each issue was translated and published in English translation, then mailed to thousands of recipients, including world leaders, government institutions, journalists, political scientists, human rights activists and others. Some Chronicle issues would actually end up on the desk of world leaders, such as US President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, both of whom were avid supporters of the Chronicle’s mission.

I should note that a strong sense of solidarity and spirit of cooperation abroad helped turn the Chronicle into a major source of information about the human rights situation in Lithuania and other parts of the former USSR. Famous Moscow dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Sergei Kovalev initially facilitated bringing the first issues of the Chronicle out to the West. The Chronicle ultimately established its own channels of communication. Some of the Western counterparts who supported the Chronicle’s truth-telling mission were foreign diplomats and journalists who used their diplomatic pouches or good offices to smuggle the Chronicle abroad. Many tourists were also willing to take the risk of smuggling these samizdat publications to the West. All these actors were bound by the shared belief that the truth was a powerful antidote to the lies and abuses of the communist system.

If someone were to collect all the European press reports and articles based on news items from the Chronicle, it would constitute several thick volumes of information. And this would be in stark contrast to the source itself, which was a rather modest publication. As one journalist commented, the Chronicle itself looks like a dwarf compared to the giant response it generated internationally.

During the Cold War period, foreign governments often relied on the Chronicle’s information for raising Soviet human rights violations in international fora. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act, signed by 35 countries, recognized the inviolability of the post-World War II frontiers in Europe and pledged the signatory nations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to cooperate in economic, scientific, humanitarian, and other areas. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, established to promote dialogue between East and West, provided a platform for democratic governments (as well as non-governmental organizations) to draw attention to instances of persecution, human rights violations, political prisoners. Once again, information culled from the Chronicle served as evidence of non-compliance to the Helsinki Final Act and acted as a catalyst for encouraging compliance.

Today, as we navigate an unstable security environment, sparked by the Russian Federation’s return to imperialism and rejection of the central principles of the post-World War Il and post-Cold War settlements, as well as its flagrant violations of the United Nations Charter and international law, it is worth looking back on the Cold War strategies of the Chronicle editors, human rights activists, democratic governments and free press.

One of the key strategies was to promote the rule of law by encouraging implementation of international standards and agreements as well as encouraging the Soviet government to abide by its own Constitution, legal code and international commitments.

And while it is hard to imagine a return to normal people-to-people outreach and step-by-step diplomacy at a time when Russia has invaded Ukraine and violated every principle of the international system, we can still learn much from the stories told and experiences shared in the Chronicle.

We need to hold firm to our fundamental values and interests. We need to realize that Mr. Putin’s ambitions pose a long-term threat that goes far beyond Ukraine. The Euro-Atlantic community must not waiver on thwarting Russian aggression through sanctions and by arming and financing Ukraine’s defenders.

And we should not underestimate one of our most powerful weapons: universal liberal values. It was these that helped bring down the Soviet regime by exposing the inhumanity of its totalitarian system. We must counter Russian disinformation and promote the flow of real news and information into Russia, so that the people of Russia as well as other regions that believe Putin’s false narratives come to recognize the truth in the long run. Today we can learn from the example of the Chronicle, which described things as they really were and thus acted as a powerful antidote to the Soviet culture of lies during the Cold War.

Speech by Gintė Damušis at the opening of the exhibition „Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania” at the European Parliament in Brussels on 19 March 2024