Unknown January

  • 2011-02-02
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - This entire January in Lithuania was marked by the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet aggression of January 1991, when unarmed crowds of Lithuanians stood up in front of Soviet tanks and paratroopers, stopping them from occupying the Lithuanian parliament, although 14 civilians were killed and some 1,000 injured when, on Jan. 13, 1991, the Soviets stormed the TV tower, the TV center and other buildings in Vilnius. There are still traces of the Soviet bullets on one of the buildings of the Lithuanian Defense Ministry, situated on Virsuliskiu Street 36 in Vilnius, as well as in the ceiling inside of the public TV center on Konarskio Street. The events of 1991 are still understood differently by Vilnius and official Moscow. In 2007, a monument to the Alpha group, the elite Soviet commandos who took part in the Soviet aggression in Vilnius, was unveiled in Moscow – the inscription on it reads, “Vilnius. January 1991 - the A group.” That January in Lithuania changed world history. The USSR would still exist if not for that January of 1991. This year’s commemorations put a light on some not very well known facts which will be included into the history books.

According to Andrew Eiva, a Lithuanian-American who happened to be an incidental and voluntary adviser of the defenders of the Lithuanian parliament in January 1991, (earlier, this graduate of West Point served in the U.S. Green Berets and instructed mujahideens in Afghanistan in the 1980s), at the beginning of January 1991, he told the Lithuanian State Defense Department that a Soviet military attack was being prepared because large numbers had been painted on the Soviet tanks stationed in their base in Vilnius – the numbers are needed for coordination of the military operation from the air.

One of the questions for historians was as follows: why did the Soviets not use helicopters for landing on the parliament’s roof. The answer could be as follows: on the eve of Jan. 13, a powerful laser, constructed by Lithuanian scientists, was placed on the roof of the Lithuanian parliament. Everybody who 20 years ago stood in the crowd near the parliament remembers that weird blue ray searching the skies from the roof of the parliament. The Lithuanian State Defense Department passed disinformation to the Soviet KGB, saying that the laser can hit enemy planes and helicopters. The disinformation worked well – Moscow took it seriously and Pravda, the central newspaper of the Communist Party of the USSR, published an article about the new secret weapon of Lithuania.

The anti-tank mines, which demonstratively were buried by the Lithuanian parliament defenders in the field near the parliament after Jan. 13, were also fakes, aiming to discourage further Soviet tank attacks.
It is still a mystery for analysts why, on the eve of the Soviet aggression, the Soviets allowed Western journalists to come to Lithuania. According to Audrius Butkevicius, who was the Lithuanian defense minister in 1991, the Kremlin expected that the local pro-Moscow Poles and Russians would manage to provoke clashes with defenders of Lithuanian independence and the Lithuanian parliament would be taken, with a little help from the Soviet army, which would act as a ‘peacemaker’ in front of the Western TV cameras.

Mikhail Pustobayev, who as a Soviet army major served in a heavy transport aircraft unit which transported the Alpha group to Vilnius, says that the aggression organizers in Moscow wrote the schedule according to Moscow time. The Soviet army acted according to Moscow time, while the Vilnius region’s local Slavic pro-Moscow people, who, according to that plan, were supposed to start acting first, allowing the Soviet army to ‘stop the clashes,’ were acting according to Lithuanian time and, therefore, they waited in their buses in Vilnius for too long. This misunderstanding with time zones resulted in the fact that the Soviet army started to act first, and the world’s TV cameras showed to the West the naked Soviet army aggression near the Lithuanian TV buildings, and this was one of the reasons for stopping the aggression plan in the middle of it. Pustobayev left the Soviet army, publicly protesting against the January 1991 aggression, and he was an honorary guest in Vilnius during the 20th anniversary commemorations in Vilnius.

Regardless, the main factor which prevented the Soviet army attack on the parliament was the huge crowd of civilians who gathered around the building, intending to stop the tanks with their bodies. According to Zigmas Vaisvila, who became a deputy prime minister on the night from Jan. 12 to Jan. 13, the Soviet army planned to use some special gas against these people, but the number of people was too large – thousands of civilian corpses would be bad for the international image of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev.

A question for historians also was, from were did the Lithuanian soldiers, who were situated in the Lithuanian parliament, get their guns. The answer: one of the sources of supply was the security service of the Lithuanian central bank.
“It was a day that entered world history as the inevitable start of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual victory of independence, freedom and democracy for the Baltic States,” wrote Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, in his congratulation letter on the occasion of the 20-year anniversary of Jan. 13, 1991.

“In terms of their geopolitical importance, the January events compare to the fall of the Berlin Wall, since it was after these events that the wave of freedom moved further to the East,” Lithuanian Parliament Chairwoman Irena Degutiene stated. However, while the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was attended by many of the world’s top state leaders, including Gorbachev, who orchestrated the aggression against Lithuania in January 1991, the commemoration of the 20th anniversary in Vilnius was attended only by the Latvian president, chairpersons of the Latvian, Hungarian and Swedish parliaments, deputy chairperson of the Czech Senate, deputy chairpersons of the parliaments of Estonia, Poland, Finland and Norway, vice prime minister of Georgia and the Lithuanian-origin U.S. Senator Richard Durbin.

Such a low-key attendance could be partially blamed on Lithuanian officials’ poor public relations, but the main problem is the fact that world leaders are somewhat ashamed of their countries’ cowardly behavior during the Vilnius events that January and, therefore, they prefer to forget that Jan. 13, 1991, was a much more important event than the fall of the Berlin Wall, the achievements of the Solidarity movement in Poland and other internationally widely celebrated events – because the USSR would survive all these events. It was Jan. 13, 1991 that killed the Soviet empire.

“The next day after that night, some 400,000 people came out to central Moscow to protest against the killings in Vilnius, and this was the biggest protest in Russia’s history,” Yury Afanasyev, founder of the Moscow-based Russian State University for the Humanities, said in the Lithuanian parliament on Jan. 13, 2011. Afanasyev emphasized that Lithuania and Russia, during the many ages of both states’ history, were and still are completely different civilizations, but in January 1991, the pragmatic interest of Boris Yeltsin coincided with the interest of Lithuania.