Lithuania’s Stance in the Face of the 1991 Soviet Aggression
On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, expressing the will of the people and asserting their inherent right, declared the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence. Although the Soviet Union was no longer able to do anything about the decisions taken by Lithuania, it continued with intimidation and demonstration of its military power in the hope to destroy the aspirations for freedom by force. The stance of the Lithuanian people was tested during the military aggression of the Soviet Union against the state of Lithuania in January 1991. Thousands of unarmed people stood against Soviet assault troops equipped with tanks and machine guns, and kept guard at the bonfires in Independence Square to defend their state. The major achievement of those days was the unity of the people in the face of danger; of equal importance was the determination of the Parliament to resist and not to give in. The violence against unarmed people and the victims of January 1991 were a wake-up call for the Western world. As a result, Lithuania returned to the European political map, and, from then on, the efforts of the Baltic States to restore their statehood were viewed as a historical necessity.
January 1991 began not only with new hopes but also with new trials. On 8 January, under the pretext of price increase, a thousand-strong pro-Soviet crowd, protesting against the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, attempted to rush into the buildings of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania and overturn the lawfully elected government. With the parliamentary sitting drawing close, the courtyard was filled with several thousand hostile demonstrators, mostly Russian-speaking workers from Vilnius factories and plainclothes officers of Soviet repressive structures. The parliamentary leaders tried to enter into a dialogue with demonstrators, but the aggressive crowd attacked the building of the Parliament, smashed several windows on the façade, and broke the brass door. Several protesters managed to get inside, but the defenders of the Parliament quickly pushed them back and temporarily suppressed their rage with streams of water shooting forcefully from fire hoses. The Parliament suspended the price increase at the sitting shortly afterwards, and the Government that had initiated the price increase resigned in the evening. In light of the growing military threat, Lithuanian residents were called on to stand guard of the restored independence of Lithuania.
On 10 January 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union sent an ultimatum letter to the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, referring to it as the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, and demanding to immediately and completely restore the Constitution of the Soviet Union and the Constitution of the Lithuanian SSR, that is to reinstate the state of affairs that existed before 11 March 1990. The Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania rejected the ultimatum. Next day, the pro-Soviet organisation Jedinstvo held a march towards the Lithuanian Parliament, demanding that the requirements of the Soviet Union be met. However, Jedinstvo came face to face with thousands of supporters of Lithuania’s independence. On 11 January 1991, the Soviet army turned to open violence by blocking communications with Vilnius and starting seizures of buildings of state institutions. People began gathering at these buildings and creating human barricades to guard Lithuania’s independence. They urged the aggressors to wake up to the situation by appealing to the conscience of the Soviet military.
On 11 January 1991, an attempt was made to suppress a free and independent press and restrict opportunities for Lithuanian residents to obtain objective information. In the afternoon, the Soviet military stormed the Printing House and the printing works shedding the first blood. Tanks pointed their cannons and assault troops aimed their machine guns at the unarmed crowd guarding the Printing House. People came under a hail of combat and training bullets, some receiving serious injuries. After the Soviet soldiers had captured the Printing House, publication of the major Lithuanian newspapers ceased for several days. However, as soon as on 12 January, the first edition of the newspaper Free Lithuania appeared in the Lithuanian, Russian and Polish languages as a joint production by the editorial offices of 13 publications. The publishers announced the following: ‘It is our unity, calm and dignity that are the only weapons we can and will always be able to use against the brutal force of the occupants.’
The next step of the Soviet military units was the capture of communication centres, namely, the TV Tower and the building of the Lithuanian Radio and Television in Vilnius. Unarmed people began standing guard at the TV Tower as early as on 9 January 1991. Unaware of the imminent threat, they were crowding the place and warming themselves at the bonfires for several days and nights. On 13 January 1991, 14 unarmed defenders of Lithuania’s freedom sacrificed their lives and nearly 1 000 people received injuries at the TV Tower and the building of the Lithuanian Radio and Television. Commemorative markers are put up to honour the memory of the Lithuanian freedom defenders who died during the Soviet military aggression at the TV Tower. Oak trees are planted in the sites of men’s death, and a linden tree grows in commemoration of the only female victim, Loreta Asanavičiūtė. The streets in the environs of the TV Tower bear the names of the victims. Today, Vilnius TV Tower reminds us not only of the aggression that took place in January 1991, but also of the secured freedom.
On 13 January 1991, one of Lithuania’s most important battles of the 20th century took place, when bare-handed people in Vilnius defeated those who were armed with tanks and machine guns. On the eve, unarmed people continued to keep guard at the Parliament, the TV Tower, and the Lithuanian Radio and Television building. Tension seemed to fade, but immediately after midnight the situation changed. Having taken to the city streets, tanks and armoured vehicles encircled the TV Tower. At about 1.36 a.m. the tanks fired the first shots. A powerful sound and a wave of air knocked some people on the ground, but the crowd of several thousand held out and, carrying flags, stood defenceless against the tanks. The tanks drove into people; assault troops fired machine guns at freedom defenders and beat them with gun butts; explosive packages flew into the crowd; and the flying glass from the TV Tower windows smashed by volleys of shots wounded those beneath. Foreign journalists who worked as military correspondents at the hot spots of the world wondered at the courage of Lithuanians who did not run away from the advancing tanks but rather closed up their ranks.
On the night of 13 January 1991, unarmed people of Lithuania withstood in dignity the brutal attack by Soviet soldiers. Armed assault troops set about the people encircling the TV Tower. The troops were backed by tanks and armoured vehicles driving straight into the unarmed crowd. Despite the threat to their lives, many people rushed to rescue the injured. About 1,000 people suffered traumas of various severity, including gunshot wounds, cuts, bruises, fractures, and hearing loss. That night gunshot wounds or injuries received under tank tracks led to the death of 14 brave, mostly young, defenders of independence, namely, Loreta Asanavičiūtė (23), Virginijus Druskis (22), Darius Gerbutavičius (17), Rolandas Jankauskas (22), Rimantas Juknevičius (24), Alvydas Kanapinskas (38), Algimantas Petras Kavoliukas (52), Vidas Maciulevičius (24), Titas Masiulis (28), Alvydas Matulka (35), Apolinaras Juozas Povilaitis (53), Ignas Šimulionis (17), Vytautas Vaitkus (47), and Vytautas Koncevičius (49) who died of gunshot wounds on 18 February 1991.
On 13 January 1991, the whole of Lithuania witnessed the seizure of the building of the Lithuanian Radio and Television. At 1.53 a.m. journalist Eglė Bučelytė reported about an attack on the building while live on air and informed the members of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania of a summons to come to the Parliament as soon as possible. The television cameras operating in the corridors allowed television viewers to watch the seizure live. The Lithuanian Radio went off-air first; broadcasts from the studio of the Lithuanian Television stopped at 2.09 a.m. For another 8 minutes, the Vilnius TV Tower still kept re-broadcasting footage from Independence Square, where thousands of people sang Lithuania My Dear. After the studios in Vilnius fell into silence, Kaunas Radiophone and the television station in Sitkūnai came into operation at 2.20 a.m., and the Lithuanian Radio started to air from the Lithuanian Parliament at 4.23 a.m. Later, the studio of the Lithuanian Television moved to the Parliament building and renewed broadcasts from mobile television stations installed near the Supreme Council.
On the night of 13 January 1991, some members of the Lithuanian Parliament stayed in their workplaces, while others rushed to the Parliament after hearing a summons to come. Fearing a gas attack, gas masks were distributed to the members. They sat with their coats on, because the defenders of the Parliament poured petrol into bottles in preparation to counter an assault and concurrently ventilated the building. A dismal mood prevailed at the Supreme Council, as the news of the dead and the injured kept coming. In the early hours at about 4 a.m. the Supreme Council started its sitting with 82 members having convened. The parliamentarians unanimously voted in favour of the decisions submitted that night. On those January days and nights, the Lithuanian Parliament defended itself and led the defence of the whole country. Vytautas Landsbergis, President of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania and Head of State, tried to contact the President of the Soviet Union about ending the violence, appealed to the heads of states worldwide, and made active efforts for the world to recognise the aggression against the state of Lithuania.
After the night of 13 January 1991, over a hundred thousand people gathered in Independence Square near the Parliament; some kept guard even on the roofs of nearby buildings and construction sites. If the attack had begun, strong and decisive support of the Lithuanian people to the state would have been very important. It became obvious that any assault against the Parliament would lead to many more victims. Therefore, the aggressor was reluctant to attack the building. The resolve of the Parliament to resist and not to give in counted much, but the most vital achievement of those days was the unity of the people in the face of danger. Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and people of other nationalities – all were present in the Square. Their flags were flying alongside Lithuanian tricolours. The old and the young, men and women, even children stood side by side. A unified stance in the face of escalating violence demonstrated the awareness and ability of Lithuanian residents and political leaders to unite for common goals.
The Parliament building had to be defended at any cost. As early as on 12 January 1991, over a hundred buses and lorries blocked the access to the building. The construction of the barricades around the Parliament started on the morning of 13 January 1991. The defenders enclosed it by steel reinforcing bars as high as about 2.5 meters. In subsequent days, the wall of reinforced precast hollow-core flooring and box culverts surrounded the Parliament. Building blocks and large stones blocked the streets entering Independence Square. Anti-tank ditches were excavated around the buildings of the Parliament. It took an incredibly short time for the fortifications to be erected. To enter the building of the Parliament, a well-protected side entrance next to the current January 13 Memorial was used. People would take their Soviet military call-up papers, military tickets, and Soviet passports and spear them through the reinforcement bars mounted on the façade of the building or bring Soviet medals and orders and nail them up.
The bonfires of January 1991 became a symbol of the secured freedom. In the days of the Soviet aggression, tens of thousands of people, regardless of persistent sleet and below-zero temperatures, stood guard in Independence Square 24 hours a day holding flags, slogans and banners in determination to protect the Lithuanian Parliament. Independence Square, which brought together the entire Lithuania, became a symbol of unity. People from cities and towns all over Lithuania travelled to Vilnius by buses in an organised manner and protected alternately their elected members of the Parliament and of the Government. Keeping guard of the buildings of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania began shortly after a failed attack against it on 8 January 1991. At first, the Parliament was protected by the residents of Vilnius. Later, however, following the invitation from Vytautas Landsbergis, President of the Supreme Council, the people from all over Lithuania started arriving in Vilnius.
In January 1991 and subsequent months, the people who stood guard of the buildings of the Supreme Council were kept warm not only by bonfires but also by a cup of warm tea. Witnesses of those days recall the uniting determination to withstand the brutal force at any cost. The crowd in Independence Square felt that everyone would stand shoulder to shoulder in the event of danger. In those days, people would share with each other whatever they had. Warm tea and broth, bread and sandwiches were available in field kitchens set up in the vicinity of the Parliament building and Independence Square. Various enterprises and individual people from all over Lithuania also brought food to the defenders, who stood on guard in the Square and the building of the Parliament.
The barricades fencing the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania have become a sort of a support and protest gallery. They were decorated by photographs, children‘s paintings, posters, cartoons, and slogans in various languages of the world. The barricades had signs of self-expression and subtle humour. For example, someone attached a banknote of a rouble with a message that it allegedly was a bonus to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. One of the barricades that protected the approaches to Independence Square in Gediminas Avenue featured the inscription Lietuvos širdis, meaning ‘the heart of Lithuania’ and symbolising the Lithuanian Parliament as the epicentre of 1991 events. Official foreign delegations visiting Lithuania would see the Parliament that had turned into a fortress. The January 13 Memorial was subsequently installed at the barricades of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania. It is probably the only monument of the kind in the world testifying to the determination of the people to defend lawfully elected representatives of the nation.
On days of aggression, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania continued with its work. Its security was ensured not only by thousands of people in Independence Square, but also by several hundred volunteers settled inside the building. Immediately after the attempt to storm the Supreme Council on 8 January 1991, the issues pertaining to reinforcement of the internal and external protection of the building had to be addressed. On 11 January 1991, several hundred volunteer defenders of the Parliament, including border guards, customs officers, staff of the Department of National Defence, security officers of the Supreme Council, students and other volunteers, took an oath at a solemn ceremony thus swearing to defend the state of Lithuania and its independence. The oath was administered by Vytautas Landsbergis, President of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, and Audrius Butkevičius, Director of the Department of National Defence. Dissident priest Robertas Grigas blessed the sworn-in volunteers. Most volunteers stood guard for weeks and lived in the Supreme Council barricaded with sand bags and furniture.
The state of Lithuania that restored its independence on 11 March 1990 had no armed forces to resist the aggressor. All those who gathered in the buildings of the Supreme Council on January 1991 and took an oath to defend the state of Lithuania were called volunteers. Some came directly from the street, others were invited by the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sąjūdis, and yet others were posted by already existing institutions as their officers, namely, border guards, customs officers, security officers of the Supreme Council, and riflemen. Following the tragic events, on 17 January 1991, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania passed a law providing for the Voluntary National Defence Service within the national defence system. In the same year, some volunteers fell victim to aggression. Officers of the Republic of Lithuania were killed at border control posts in Krakūnai and Medininininkai; and volunteer soldier Artūras Sakalauskas lost his life while defending the Supreme Council on 21 August 1991 as the Soviet Union was crumbling.
On 8 November 1990, the Border Guard Service was established in the National Defence Department under the Government of the Republic of Lithuania. It was tasked with the protection of national borders. On the decisive days of Soviet aggression in January 1991, Lithuanian border guards were among the first to defend the restored independence. They stood guard of the national border control posts. On 8 January 1991 they helped to repel the attack on the buildings of the Supreme Council, took an oath of allegiance as volunteer soldiers and protected the building of the Government. Gintaras Žagunis, border guard, was among the defenders of the Government building. Once the tension subsided in the capital city, ever new incidents and attacks provoked by the Soviet army and OMON units sparked at the state border. The situation in Šalčininkai District was particularly problematic. On the night of 19 May 1991, Krakūnai border control post of the border station in Šalčininkai was ambushed. The attackers killed unarmed Gintaras Žagunis, Head of the shift of the border control post in Krakūnai. He was the first officer of the restored independent Lithuania to have lost his life for the independence of the State.
The repressive Soviet bodies continued to destabilize the situation in Lithuania and intimidate the public. Even after the Lithuanian Parliament and Government buildings were defended, the Soviet army and special units of Soviet police continued to wage attacks against Lithuanian state institutions, including border control posts and customs on the Latvian and Belarusian border, which were difficult to defend, and played a merely symbolic role of state border control posts. On 31 July 1991, Antanas Musteikis and Stanislovas Orlavičius, customs officers; Juozas Janonis, and Algirdas Kazlauskas, road police officers; Algimantas Juozakas and Mindaugas Balavakas, officers of the rapid response force Aras, were killed at the border control post in Medininkai. Following the attack, Ričardas Rabavičius, customs officer, died of severe injuries in hospital on 2 August 1991. Tomas Šernas, a customs officer, was the only one to survive the attack with serious injuries. This attack was another act of senseless violence by the collapsing empire against the Republic of Lithuania.
Violence against Lithuanian officials in Medininkai was organised shortly after the signing of the Agreement between the Republic of Lithuania and the Russian SFSR, and on the days of the US-Soviet Union Summit in Moscow and the 4th World Lithuanian Sports Games in Lithuania. The act of unimaginable cruelty has received widespread public attention. The funeral of the victims that was held on 3 August 1991, brought together many Lithuanian people, members of the Lithuanian Parliament, and representatives of the Government, various institutions, and participants of the Sports Games. Jack Gosnell, US Consul General in Leningrad; Wolfgang von Stetten, Member of the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany; Dainis Ivans, Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia; and Mart Tarmak, representative of the Republic of Estonia, paid tribute to the victims of Medininkai. Lithuanian officers killed at the border control post in Medininkai were buried next to the victims of the Soviet aggression of 13 January 1991.
When the military coup began in Moscow on 19 August 1991, the same scenario of the January aggression was repeated in Lithuania. The Republic of Lithuania resisted in unarmed and non-violent forms. The people of Lithuania once again came to take guard of the Parliament building. The defence of the building was organised by volunteers from various Lithuanian teams, and the Parliament continued its work by convening an extraordinary session. As the military coup in Moscow was failing, the last clash of Lithuanian volunteers with the Soviet soldiers took place in the vicinity of the parliament on the night of 21 August 1991. Artūras Sakalauskas, a volunteer of the Alytus team, was killed during the resistance, and several more volunteers were wounded by Soviet explosive charges. Artūras Sakalauskas became the last victim who shed to sacrifice his life for Lithuania’s independence in the 20th century.
Once the military coup in Moscow failed, the Lithuanian Parliament and the Government took active steps to ensure control over the territory of the Republic of Lithuania. Lithuania reclaimed the Printing House, the Lithuanian Radio and Television building, and the Vilnius Television Tower, which had been occupied by the Soviets for 225 days. On the evening of 23 August 1991 at about 6.20 p.m., a four-meter-high statue of Lenin was removed in Lukiškių Square. This monument had stood in front of the KGB building since 1952. When being lifted, the monument cracked and the statue broke at the knees. As the monument was taken away from the square, the triumphant Lithuanian people climbed the pedestal and sang patriotic songs. This action marked the end of Lithuania’s freedom struggle against the Soviet Union. On the same day, the statues of Lenin, symbols of the occupation empire, were removed in Riga and Tallinn.
This material was prepared for the exhibition ‘SWORN TO NEVER RETREAT: Lithuania’s Stance in the Face of the 1991 Soviet Aggression’. The exhibition will be exhibited in 2021 in the Great Courtyard of the Seimas. The organisers of the exhibition sincerely thank the exhibition partners for their assistance in preparing the exhibition and for the opportunity to display their photographs. We express our special gratitude and respect to the photographers who stood in the fight for freedom of Lithuania 30 years ago and who now have kindly lent copies of photographs from their personal archives.
Lithuanian Central State Archives
Archives of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania
Lithuanian State Modern Archives
Samogitian Art Museum
Border Guard Museum
Compiled by the Office of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, Unit for Historical Memory of Parliamentarianism
Prepared by Vilma Akmenytė-Ruzgienė, Žydrūnas Mačiukas, Angonita Rupšytė
Photos edited by Andrius Petrulevičius
Translated by Aušra Valančiūtė, Aušra Vėlavičienė