But they did more than kill 14 Lithuanian demonstrators. They destroyed three assumptions that underlay what many in both Moscow and the West saw as the emerging post-Cold War world.
First, this shooting and the reaction of Lithuanians to it suggested something that many had thought impossible: that Lithuania and her two Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia were in fact going to be able to escape from Soviet occupation and recover their national independence in short order.
Second, the Vilnius shooting pointed to something many had assumed could not happen: that the East European revolutions of 1989, revolutions that ended Soviet domination of that region, could and would spread via a Baltic bridge into the Soviet inner empire, leading to its disintegration and to the appearance of 12 new countries on the map of the world.
And third, it demonstrated something many world leaders were unwilling to acknowledge: that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was not prepared either to negotiate in good faith with the ever-growing number of popular movements his policies had allowed to emerge or to reimpose order through the massive application of force.
None of these developments or conclusions was immediately apparent either in Moscow or in Western capitals, both of whom were focused on the imminent start of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But all of them together soon meant that the unthinkable became the conventional wisdom and the impossible was transformed into the achieved.
A week before the shootings, on January 6, 1991, Gorbachev had dispatched Soviet security forces into Armenia, Moldova, western Ukraine and the three Baltic countries nominally to enforce Soviet military draft laws but in fact as a show of force against the pro-independence and anti-Moscow political movements in all six places.
Throughout the following week, tensions between these Soviet troops and the populations they had been sent to control continued to rise, nowhere more sharply than in Lithuania. Then on Saturday night, January 13, the Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd in the Lithuanian capital. And that country's leader Vytautas Landsbergis was convinced that Gorbachev planned to kill or imprison his entire government.
Soviet documents released later showed that such were in fact Moscow's intentions, but the kind of crackdown Landsbergis feared did not happen. On the one hand, one group of Soviet troops lost their way - it hadn't been supplied with the necessary maps - and never made it to the parliament building where the Lithuanian government was rapidly assembling a crowd. Moreover, the presence of Western journalists and diplomats in the parliament building guaranteed that any such action would be reported to the entire world.
And on the other hand, the Lithuanians showed a resolve that Soviet commanders were apparently not prepared to challenge, and Western leaders reacted sufficiently to convince Gorbachev that, despite all the understanding these governments had shown to his, they would find it very difficult to deal with Moscow were there to be a Soviet version of Tiananmen Square in the Baltic countries.
After the Soviet troops fired on the crowd, it did not disperse as many might have expected. Instead, they began to sing an old Lithuanian hymn, and thousands of Lithuanians rushed to parliament square as a sign to Moscow that it would have to be prepared to kill far more than 14 of Lithuania's citizens if it wanted to block that country's national movement.
And even though Western leaders were working closely with Gorbachev in the international alliance against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, most of them were appalled by what the Soviet leader had done or at least was associated with. As he traveled to the Middle East for the last round of pre-war talks, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker spoke for many when he issued from his airplane a tough statement condemning what Moscow had done in Vilnius.
Moreover, the events in Vilnius suggested that despite 50 years of Soviet occupation, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had remained part of Europe and were thus in a position to become the bridge over which the ideas of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe spread into the Soviet Union.
A few Soviet officials understood this - including Gorbachev's reformist adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev - and hoped to allow the Baltic countries to go their own way, much as the East Europeans had. Gorbachev was unwilling to do that lest Soviet republics follow the Baltic lead, but by trying to hold on to them after they had signaled that they wanted to leave, Gorbachev in fact created a situation in which the Baltic revolution spread to the entire Soviet Union.
And perhaps most importantly of all, the killings in Vilnius that January night a decade ago and the killings of seven Latvians by the Soviet Black Berets in Riga a week later destroyed much of the faith many Soviet citizens and many Western leaders had in Gorbachev, and ever more of both groups began to ask whether he could in fact succeed in his policy of trying to liberalize the Soviet state.
For many in both places, Gorbachev as a result of Vilnius appeared too willing to rely on a show of force rather than engaging in negotiations with his political opponents but more unwilling than his predecessors to use the amount of force that might have been necessary to suppress them totally.
Many who reached that conclusion decided that Gorbachev's days in power were now numbered. Those who wanted to move toward a political solution, like the massive crowds of Russians who protested against the Vilnius action in the streets of Moscow, increasingly turned to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin or to the leaders of the non-Russian republics. Those who wanted more force - including senior officers in the security services - became the leaders of what was to be the last act of the Soviet system, the failed coup of August 1991.
The world of January 2001 was in many respects defined by that night in Vilnius a decade ago, in a confrontation between a frightened government and a people whose faith in the rightness of their cause meant that they were prepared to sacrifice themselves in the name of freedom.