Participants in the events of 30 years ago shared their memories with the Russian Voice of America Service
On January 13, Lithuania celebrates the Day of Freedom Defenders. 30 years ago on this day, Soviet paratroopers and soldiers of the special forces of the KGB of the USSR «Alpha» with the support of tanks they stormed the Vilnius TV Center. The collision of the Soviet military with the defenders of the television center led to human casualties. It is generally accepted that it was the failure of the special operation in Vilnius and the similar events in Riga that followed a few days later that made the impending collapse of the USSR irreversible..
Due to the restrictive measures associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the 30th anniversary of the dramatic and heroic days in the Lithuanian capital is being celebrated virtually. On the morning of January 13, lighted candles were displayed in the windows of many houses in Lithuania for 10 minutes in memory of those who fell for the freedom of the Republic. And on the eve of the memorable date, many Lithuanian and European politicians spoke about this event. Vytautas Landsbergis, who chaired the Supreme Council 30 years ago – The Lithuanian Restoration Seimas said in an interview with Delfi.lt: «We in the Supreme Council assessed that night that this is an undeclared war of the USSR against Lithuania and an attempt on its independence. This must be understood more clearly. We resisted this war, but it was a real war that was not over yet; the power of modern Russia is trying to continue it, attacking Lithuanian judges. This is the reality of our world and this must be consistently explained to people».
The current President of the Republic of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda convinced: «In those bloody days of January 1991, they took responsibility and proved they were citizens – free independent state. Therefore, January 13 will always remind us that civilian power – not fiction and never was. No, she is completely real and capable of changing the world.».
Memorial of the barricades at the building of the Seimas of Lithuania
And the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen believes that the European Union «indebted to the defenders of Lithuania’s freedom, because today’s Europe would look different without their courage. The events of January 1991 played a decisive role in overcoming the fragmentation of the continent. At that time, resistance to the Soviet Union looked almost like a hopeless gesture. However, what happened that night in Vilnius had an echo throughout the world. These events triggered shock waves that eventually destroyed the Soviet empire.».
Correspondent of the Russian Service «Voices of America» talked with some of the participants in the Vilnius events of January 1991.
«In January 91st, we realized that “singing revolution” ended»
Former Member of the Seimas of Lithuania, and now Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania Mantas adomenas (Mantas Adomėnas) recalls that 30 years ago he lived in Vilnius on the street that is now called «13 January street». «Tanks drove along it to the television tower. And from the window I heard the clatter of their tracks on the asphalt – this sound is very difficult for me to forget even today. I put on the trigger and immediately ran out into the street. And then he found himself in the crowd. I stood on the right side, and the tanks drove to the left. And if not for this circumstance, perhaps today you would be talking to someone else.», –he recalls.
Together with his acquaintances, Adomenas went to the building of the television center. When it was reported that the television center had been seized by the Soviet military, the defenders of freedom had the idea that the next target of the invaders could be the Restoration Seim.. «I ran home. As you remember, there were no mobile phones or Facebook back then. Television and radio were taken over, and we got all the news through landline phone calls. And I remember that in our entrance of a five-story Soviet-built building we shared sad news: one dead, second, third… After that, I put on my jacket again and went to the parliament. It was about three o’clock in the morning, there was no transport, and I went on foot. What I was thinking then, I don’t remember exactly. Probably about the end of attempts at democratization, how it ended in due time “Khrushchev thaw”. But I knew I had to resist to the end. And when I saw how many people came to our parliament, it became not so much calmer, but the thought of what would happen to me personally went into the background.», – the story continued by the Lithuanian politician.
Monument near the TV center and TV tower in Vilnius, where the defenders of Lithuanian independence died
Assessing these events 30 years later, Mantas Adomenas notes that for Lithuania «it was, first of all, a tremendous trauma. Because the previous two years have passed under the sign “singing revolution” – peaceful, victorious. There was a commemorative action “Baltic way”, declaration of independence. Of course, it was followed by an economic blockade, but we adhered to the idea that it was necessary to achieve the set goal exclusively in a non-violent way..
And in January 1991, we realized that “singing revolution” ended and blood was shed. But it is important that our then political leaders did not want the feeling of revenge to prevail and our peaceful movement to pass to armed forms, accompanied by blood and the smell of gunpowder. I remember very well that the chief Orthodox priest of Lithuania appealed to all residents of the republic, including Russian speakers, with an appeal to preserve peace in these circumstances..
Memorial of the barricades at the building of the Seimas of Lithuania
And I remember very well that in the most dramatic moments, when it seemed that tanks were about to suppress our freedom, we were very much supported by a gesture of solidarity from the residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, that is – of the then Leningrad, which held one hundred thousand rallies under the slogan “freedom of Lithuania!”. We felt that we were not alone, we believed that history would not repeat itself in a bloody way, as in the early 40s. And it was very important for us», – emphasizes Mantas Adomenas.
Memorial column on the former defense line of the Parliament of Lithuania
«It saved us and even changed history a little.»
Lithuanian journalist, publicist and public figure, signatory «1990 Law on the Restoration of the State of Lithuania» Rimvydas Valatka (Rimvydas Valatka) January 13, 1991 was in the building of the Supreme Council of Lithuania. «True, in those minutes when the group “Alpha” The KGB of the USSR attacked civilians in Vilnius, I was not far from the building of the television center. After all, I was then a deputy of our Diet, and in the evening of January 12 it still seemed that everything had calmed down», – he began his story in a telephone conversation with a correspondent for the Russian Service «Voices of America».
And I recalled one funny episode: a colleague in the Lithuanian Seimas, who happened to be nearby, said that he had a bottle of good whiskey at home, and he did not want the invaders to get the drink, which was in short supply at that time. But it was not possible to sit peacefully at home. «At about twenty minutes after midnight, we turned on the TV and heard the last phrases of the announcer of the Lithuanian television, that the storming of important buildings is expected soon. We quickly got dressed and went to the Diet, with a quick step it took about fifteen minutes. And when I found myself inside the building of the Supreme Council, it was the most disturbing time – the scale of the attack was not known, we did not yet know about the killed and wounded, and over the next hour, data on the number of victims began to arrive. But we were confident that the next target to be attacked by the enemy forces would be parliament. And that we won’t leave here alive», – remembered Rimvydas Valatka.
Interlocutor «Voices of America» also noted that on the morning of January 13, the building of the Seimas was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians who had come here to defend their state independence. «It looked like a large human anthill. – people dragged concrete slabs, rebar, and built barricades. And I could clearly see from the third floor that the coin would have nowhere to fall into this human mass. And I think that this is what saved us and the freedom of our country. And it even changed history a little, because even stupid Moscow generals realized that if they went ahead, a bloody meat grinder would begin, incomparable with the events in Tbilisi and Baku. Our people saved freedom, saved democracy. And I can say that they saved, including me», – recognized by Rimvydas Valatka.
And following Mantas Adomenas, he notes that the Lithuanian defenders of independence knew that they were supported by Russian democrats.. «We even heard that Yeltsin called Gorbachev to stop the disgrace. We knew about the demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And when I think about it – for example, I saw photos on Twitter posted by our ambassador in Moscow Eitvydas Bayarunas – then I ask myself: where have those Russians gone, who then thought the same way as we do? And if I were not an elderly man, but a twenty-year-old youth, I would not have believed that 30 years ago there were so many people in Russia who supported us. And that it also stopped the aggression in those days», – sums up the Lithuanian publicist.
«I’m happy when I think about it»
30 years ago, residents of Russian megalopolises not only went to rallies in their cities, but also traveled to Lithuania to confront the armed Soviet military. Among these people was the then deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR and the Leningrad Soviet of People’s Deputies Yuri Nesterov.
«This was a group of several people. Unfortunately, only two are left alive now – human rights activist Alexander Vinnikov, who was then a deputy of the Leningrad City Council, and me. There was also Jurate Lauciute – in the early 90s, she headed our Society of Lithuanian Culture, and was the Plenipotentiary Representative of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania in St. Petersburg.
We traveled to Vilnius through Daugavpils by train, and then we took a bus. On the way we met a great guy from Kaunas, who then took us back to Leningrad in his car. I forgot his last name, unfortunately, but his name was Gintas.
Stunning then there were meetings with different people», – Nesterov told the correspondent of the Russian Service «Voices of America».
When the Leningrad democrats approached the building of the Lithuanian Seim and unfurled a sheet of Whatman paper with an inscription made in a felt-tip pen «For our freedom and yours», dozens of local residents immediately rushed to them. «They brought us coffee, homemade cutlets, treated us vying with each other, said kind words. And when we came to parliament, we were immediately allowed to speak, and I made a speech. We were filmed by Vilnius TV, and we were able to tell the whole Lithuania what we think about this. Then in Vilnius there was no telephone connection with the outside world, and only from Stockholm, by some miracle, was one journalist able to get through. He asked me not to hang up, because next time I might not be able to get through. And for two hours the phone was answered, and I regularly told what was happening on the streets of Vilnius, where tanks were shooting, and so on..
I’m happy when I think about it», – admits Yuri Nesterov. And he adds: «No wonder we arrived there then! And this act of ours has nothing to do with what the political process later turned into. After all, history has its own logic, and when someone tries to say that we acted wrong then, I try to explain that no one has the power to impose a different route on history..
Of course, I am sorry that not all my dreams and aspirations have come true, but there is not the slightest reason to repent of my actions of that time. After all, there was something in my life that I can tell others about, and among them there will be those who will feel our actions and be inspired by them. And in a generation or two, something new will appear. And if you think about the fact that you do not need to do what your conscience calls for, because the consequences may not be what you expect, then this – vicious logic», – concludes Yuri Nesterov.