Jan. 13, 1991 's the day that changed the world

  • 2010-01-21
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

FLAG VS. TANKS: On Jan. 13, 1991, people with their bare hands tried to stop Soviet tanks near the Vilnius TV tower.

VILNIUS - Several ages ago, Lithuania was just a European regional superpower with an empire that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but from 1989-1991, it was for the first, and probably the last time one of the main global players, according to Lithuania’s most authoritative historian, Edvardas Gudavicius.

Twenty years ago, the events were rapid. In 1988, the Lithuanian democratic movement Sajudis (“Common Movement” in Lithuanian) emerged. Under its pressure, in 1989, the Lithuanian Communist Party, led by Algirdas Brazauskas, split from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was the only local communist party which dared to do so in the USSR. In January 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Lithuania, begging local communists to come back to his herd, but he received just an ironic rejection. On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian parliament, dominated by the anti-communist Sajudis, proclaimed reestablishment of Lithuania’s independence.

The independent Lithuanian Communist Party was in parliamentary opposition but it, though trembling a little bit, supported reestablishment of independence and other main goals of the Sajudis. The other two Baltic countries, having complicated political and ethnic internal situations, proclaimed only a transition towards independence in 1990. Then, the rational Estonians had a popular saying, “We’ll fight for our independence until the last drop of Lithuanian blood.” The Kremlin refused to recognize Lithuanian independence and imposed an economic blockade on the country.

From 1989 to 1991, some 75 percent of the Kremlin’s agenda was occupied by the issue of Lithuania and the other Baltic states. The Kremlin tried to create pro-Moscow movements in the Baltics by fueling chauvinist feelings among the local ethnically Slavic minorities. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and velvet revolutions in the so-called socialist countries was not a major interest for the Kremlin anymore - it concentrated on preserving of its own empire. Russia’s democrats also understood that their country’s future would be decided partially in Vilnius. The Russian democrats, with hundreds of tricolors of independent Lithuania, often demonstrated in Moscow. Then the Kremlin created the pro-Moscow separatist movements in Transdniestria of Moldova as well as South Osetia and Abkhazia of Georgia, which are still used by Russia today. The Russian minority in Lithuania is very small. This is why the Kremlin tried to inspire a separatist Polish movement in Vilnius’ surroundings, but the local communist Polish nomenclature’s intentions were weakened by the pro-Lithuanian position of then already democratic Poland. 

On Jan. 10, 1991, Soviet President Gorbachev issued an ultimatum to Vilnius urging it to recognize the USSR’s rule in Lithuania. The Lithuanian parliament, led by Vytautas Landsbergis, refused to obey. On Jan. 11, 1991, Soviet troops stormed the Press Palace, where the majority of Lithuanian newspapers had their headquarters and printing facilities. Thousands of unarmed people started to hold vigils near the parliament, TV tower, and the Radio and Television headquarters. The Kremlin sent elite Soviet army forces to Lithuania, such as the Alpha group, which was used for the first time in 1979 when the Soviets stormed the presidential palace in Kabul, marking the beginning of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. 

On the night from Jan. 12 to Jan. 13, after beating nearby standing civilians, Soviet tanks and soldiers occupied the Radio and Television headquarters. TV journalists were turned out to the street without letting them collect their personal belongings. The Soviet army also seized the TV tower. During those attacks, 14 civilians were killed and some 1,000 injured. The majority of casualties took place near the TV tower. However, everybody understood that the main target for the Soviets was the parliament.

Everybody who stood very close to the parliament remembers the smell of freshly-made Molotov cocktails. They were made by the parliament’s defenders. In case of Soviet attack, the parliament defenders after a short fight would probably set the building on fire. On Jan. 12, 2010, during the sitting of the parliament’s defenders, Major General Arvydas Pocius, current chief of defense of Lithuania and former parliament defender back in January, 1991, reminded listeners of that night nineteen years ago. Then, in the parliament building, the armed men were preparing to fight. “We prepared the Molotov cocktails. Some men brought some hunting and sport rifles as well as some guns which were preserved from the post WWII guerilla war. Some men could not stand the nervous pressure and went home. I don’t condemn them though I do not envy them. Maybe they thought about their children,” Pocius said. He emphasized that the main factor in the parliament’s defense was the unarmed civilians surrounding the parliament outside.

Anatol Lieven in his book The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence quoted one of the parliament’s defenders who stated the following, “The intention is not to win, because we all know that this is impossible; the intention is to die, but by doing so to make sure that Moscow can’t tell any lies as they did in 1940. To make sure that the whole world knows that Lithuania was prepared to fight for her freedom.”

The Soviet army refused plans to storm the parliament only because of the crowds of civilians. The Lithuanian State Security Department recorded the talks between the Soviet officers who said that “there is too much meat” near the parliament. This “meat” stood near the parliament for many days after January 13. The parliament was covered with posters comparing Gorbachev to Saddam Hussein.  The timing of the Soviet aggression on Lithuania was not coincidental because then the world’s attention was focused on the conflict with Iraq, after it attempted to occupy Kuwait. The surroundings of the Lithuanian parliament were protected by anti-tank concrete barricades and trenches. Special constructions were also erected to prevent Soviet military helicopters from landing on the roof of the parliament. Lithuanian TV, which moved to other buildings in Vilnius and Kaunas, was re-broadcast from the parliament’s roof until the collapse of Soviet communism in Moscow in August, 1991.
Later, Gorbachev explained the January events in Vilnius in his usual manner of lies, “At that time in Lithuania two equal forces stood in front of each other - bourgeois nationalists and the working people. And if our paratroopers wouldn’t have interfered, nobody knows what could have happened.”

Now, those days still cause very intimate memories as well as thoughts about the country’s current situation. Psychologist Robertas Povilaitis is the son of Apolinaras Juozas Povilaitis, who was shot dead by the Soviets near the TV tower on Jan. 13. The son of the hero, speaking in the parliament exactly 19 years after the tragic death of his father, gave the most impressive speech of the commemoration of events surrounding the Soviet aggression against Lithuania of January, 1991. That speech was very different from the current official rhetoric of politicians. “We became doubtful about the values of open society. The Soviet regime, as well as all other totalitarian systems, hated those who were different. Now we can notice the return backwards. Tolerance became a curse word. Societies which accept non-conformity have much more happy people,” Povilaitis said.

He pointed out the global suicide statistics to the current Lithuanian leadership. During 20 years of independence, 25,000 Lithuanians committed suicide. Povilaitis added that homicide statistics are also extremely high in Lithuania. During 20 years of independence, 7,000 Lithuanians were killed. “By looking at the Internet comments, we’ll understand that not only the Soviets were cruel,” he said. Indeed, the intensity of hate-speeches in comments on the Lithuanian Internet can be compared only to other post-Soviet countries. Povilaitis compared the aggressiveness of relations inside Lithuanian society to the aggressiveness of the Soviets. He emphasized that the country’s independence is not a value in itself. It should be a tool for freedom of individuals. “Everything that is done not in the name of state is met with suspicion,” Povilatis stated. Politicians and the Catholic Church dignitaries, who are partially responsible for such a sick psychological situation in the country (and partially are the product and victims of it), were forced to applaud at the end of the speech - if not for the heroism of people similar to the speaker’s father, they would not be sitting in the parliament of an independent Lithuania.