KLAIPEDA, Lithuania -- In the central square of this old port city, as in the central squares of thousands of other Soviet cities, stands the obligatory statue of V. I. Lenin striding vigorously into the future.
But for nearly six months it has been flanked by a pair of armored personnel carriers.
A soldier with a Kalashnikov submachine gun slung across his back shivers in Lenin's shadow. Two more soldiers and two Ministry of Internal Affairs troopers police the perimeter of the monument. The rope fence bears signs in Lithuanian, Russian and Polish politely explaining that anyone attacking the "guarded object" will be shot.
A similar exercise in surrealism can be seen down the street, where a cannon mounted on a pillar pays tribute to the liberation of Lithuania from the Germans by Soviet troops in 1945. Ever since the new, pro-independence City Council voted last fall to "move" the two monuments, the Soviet military has maintained a guard here, too, to keep the order from being carried out.
"We fully control the situation. We are fully in charge of what happens in this city," insisted Vytautas Cepas, the dynamic mayor of this city of 210,000 people on the Baltic Sea and a key figure in Lithuania's Sajudis independence movement.
Ah, so those are your personnel carriers parked around the city center, a journalist inquired.
Mr. Cepas blushed, stammered and acknowledged that not everything was in the hands of the city fathers.
"Military power comes from Moscow," he said. "All we can do is protest."
The stand-off in downtown Klaipeda captures the limbo that is Lithuania today.
It is not just the will of a small, proud people against the military might of a superpower.
Such a standoff would be very simple and probably very brief. What prolongs and complicates the Lithuanian predicament is that the superpower is crumbling economically and is confused politically, unwilling to use its might to crush democracy and unwilling to let democracy rule.
Last March, the just-elected Lithuanian Parliament voted unanimously to restore the state independence of the republic, crushed by the Soviet Army in 1940.
On Saturday, 90 percent of voters participating in a referendum endorsed Lithuania's status as a "democratic, independent republic." Moscow loyalists called for a boycott, but the turnout was an unprecedented 84 percent -- so 76 percent of Lithuania's 2.6 million registered voters spoke out for independence.
Anticipating such a result, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had in advance declared the vote "legally invalid."
Hence the paradoxes of a land neither at war nor at peace, neither altogether occupied nor entirely free.
Soviet troops still occupy the main Lithuanian television and radio facilities in Vilnius, the capital, which they seized in an assault Jan. 13 that left 14 people dead.
But 10 minutes after Vilnius TV went off the air, Kaunas TV went on the air. Working from the considerable broadcast facilities in Lithuania's second-largest city, as well as from a temporary studio in the Parliament building in Vilnius, the pro-independence Lithuanian leadership has managed to broadcast around the clock on radio and about 11 hours a day on TV, reaching most of the republic's territory.
Far from soft-pedaling their positions, the Lithuanian newscasters have repeatedly shown footage of the troops' violence and routinely refer to Soviet "crimes" and "human rights violations" in the republic.
Lithuanian radio one recent day broadcast a collection of Gorbachev jokes, such as the one about the Soviet president visiting Lithuania, telling a little boy he's the man who sends all the good things to the republic.
"Mama, mama!" the boy says, running toward his house. "Uncle Bronius from America has come!"
Algirdas Kauspedas, a 37-year-old former rock music star who now is head of Lithuanian television, said Soviet forces could halt all free broadcasting without difficulty, perhaps even without killing anyone. But they haven't chosen to do so.
"We think the front line in a battle for power in the highest echelons of the Soviet leadership runs through our TV and radio offices," Mr. Kauspedas said, sitting in the Kaunas office he has occupied since paratroopers took over his Vilnius office.
In most of the republic, the claim that independence has been achieved is reflected in the confident and calm feeling on the streets. There is bitter opposition to independence, but it is confined to relatively small numbers of ousted Communists and those ethnic non-Lithuanians who fear discrimination.
Especially in Kaunas, where non-Lithuanians are few, the feeling of normalcy is almost complete. A Soviet paratrooper division -- one that helped invade Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 -- has its headquarters in the city. But its relations with city officials are businesslike, almost cordial, according to both sides.
True, its officers say they would obey orders to seize the Lithuanian Parliament or shoot demonstrators or virtually anything else their commanders said to do. But they had no part in the Vilnius attack -- elite KGB troops and soldiers from Russia conducted that assault.
They naturally repeat the official Kremlin line and seem to want to believe it. But in a long interview one recent evening, several officers appeared genuinely disturbed by the events of Jan. 13, resentful that they were being blamed for what they had not done, and suspicious about the identity of the troops involved.
"We have met the Soviet military officers here and agreed that if we respect each other, we can reach agreement on problems that arise," said Gintaras Pukas, 40, a lawyer and chairman of the Kaunas City Council. "But they don't decide anything here. We know that. That's worrisome."
It is worrisome partly because when any military officer, from any country, looks at a Soviet map, he swiftly concludes that the Baltic republics are strategically crucial. Further proof is the quality of the road leading inland from Klaipeda -- a U.S.-style highway in a land of potholes and dirt roads.
Klaipeda is the only ice-free Soviet Baltic port, virtually irreplaceable for trade or military planning, officials say. This may be why both a Lenin statue and a Soviet tank on a pedestal could be removed in Kaunas last year without a peep, but the same objects in Klaipeda are being guarded with fierce diligence.
But if Soviet rule is an immovable object, Lithuanian determination to achieve real independence feels like an irresistible force.
Mr. Cepas' predecessor as Klaipeda's mayor, Alfersas Zalis, served for 21 years and might be expected to be a loyal tool of the Soviet regime. He is not. He says he served without illusions, doing what he could to boost Klaipeda's Lithuanian population and build up its Lithuanian culture and always secretly nourishing the goal of independence.
"Twenty years ago, the few people who spoke loudly about independence were in prison or in psychiatric hospitals," said Mr. Zalis, 61, now a member of the Lithuanian Parliament. "We did what we could in the conditions that existed. But we never changed our goal."