Home > Education, Friends > Lithuanian Independence – January 13, 1991

Lithuanian Independence – January 13, 1991

A Lithuanian-American friend of mine wrote this and I wanted to share it with you. It’s a part of history most people in the U.S. are unaware of and I thought it would be an interesting read for all of you. Her name is Rasa Tautvydas, she was/is a hospitalist and is an amazing woman. Light a candle for her and for the rest of Lithuania on January 13th.

Twenty years ago January 13, 1991 the world witnessed Lithuania’s darkest hour as it struggled to regain its freedom and sovereignty from the Soviet Union.  Eight months later, the USSR as we had known it throughout the Cold War years would no longer exist.  The dissolution of the USSR was long in coming, but Lithuania along with Latvia and Estonia (the three Baltic nations) created the spark that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When I graduated from college twenty years ago,  I had the unique opportunity to work in Lithuania.  Lithuania had declared independence from the USSR on March 11, 1990.  A handful of intellectuals from physicists to musicians played a dangerous but crafty game with the USSR government.  They took advantage of existing Soviet laws and of Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) to regain their country’s independence, an independence lost after forceful incorporation into the Soviet Union after World War II.  It was a peaceful revolution, dubbed the “Singing Revolution” because demonstrations included the singing of national folk songs, an act forbidden under Soviet rule.

In response to Lithuania’s declaration of independence, the Soviet government imposed an economic blockade in June 1990.  By the time I arrived in November, inflation was rising and fewer and fewer goods were available for purchase.  Along with my salary, I received ration tickets for cigarettes, vodka, and toilet paper among other items.  If I saw a long line, I knew that I should get in it too.

The dark days of the fight for independence deepened.  By late December, rumors began to spread that something more serious was about to happen.  Gorbachev wasn’t pleased with Lithuania’s actions, and he was finding that an economic blockade was not enough to stifle the drive for independence.  Beginning in early January, Soviet tanks moved into the capital city of Vilnius along with several other key cities, and  Soviet troops began taking over government and infrastructure buildings.  The Soviet’s ultimate goal, take over the parliament building and regain governance of Lithuania.

Rather than hide, the Lithuanians took to the streets.  Vytautas Landsbergis, a professor of music by training and Lithuania’s newly elected leader, asked the nation to gather outside government buildings and to protect them from occupation.  Busloads of people flowed into the capital.  They came from all over the country and kept vigil day and night despite the frigid winter weather.

Wanting to join the demonstrators, I drove to Vilnius from Kaunas with friends both native Lithuanians and Lithuanian-Americans like myself.  It was January 12, 1991.  Little did we know that in the early hours of January 13, the Soviets would resort to brutal violence against peaceful demonstrators.

We initially stood outside the radio and TV tower, a structure resembling Seattle’s space needle.  Under grey skies and black umbrellas with temperatures hovering near freezing, our voices joined those of over a thousand other Lithuanians.  As a slushy rain fell, we sang songs of loss and longing.  We sang songs of hope.  We sang songs of joy and humor.  Young and old stood defiant in the rain and the cold.

By evening the temperatures dropped, and we drove to the Parliament building in downtown Vilnius, a contemporary architectural structure that contrasted with the Baroque architecture of Vilnius’ old town, the classical style of an adjacent library and the stoic apartments that surrounded the parliament square.  Rock and roll blared from massive loudspeakers perched on the library steps.  The atmosphere felt more like a festival than a vigil: the young flirted and checked each other out; older couples walked arm in arm; others offered hot cups of broth, soup and sandwiches that they had made at home.  The music of folksongs, accordions, fiddles and laughter filled the air.  Young and old danced folk dances.  But by the early hours of January 13, the atmosphere turned somber as news spread that the tanks were coming.

We felt the tanks approach before we saw them, a deep vibration that rumbled up from the ground, through your body and into your heart.  We watched as they rolled down a distant highway.  Then we heard explosions in the distance and the rat-a-tat-tat of machinegun fire.  The radio and TV tower was under attack.

The radio announcers continued to broadcast over the loudspeakers.  The crowd of over 10,000 outside the Parliament building now stood silent. The radio crackled as the announcer, a young woman, described events as they unfolded.  We could hear the guns firing in the background as she told us that she was in the broadcast studio, that she had just locked the doors, that the paratroopers were in the building and running up the stairs.  Then we heard muffled words spoken in Russian and banging on the door.  She continued, “We will continue broadcasting as long as we are alive, this is The Republic of Lithuania radio -.”  Then silence.  The radio and TV tower was occupied.

The silence was palpable, and it was more than the cold of below freezing temperatures that caused me to shiver.   Vytautas Landsbergis then came out again and asked that all women and children leave.  The crowd of ten thousand linked arms and waited for the tanks.  Standing near the Parliament entrance, I linked arms with a Russian woman on one side of me, a Lithuanian on the other.  No one in the crowd left.  Looking over the sea of people standing shoulder to shoulder in the square, I knew there would be no way out when the tanks turned on us.

Then the ground shook, the deep rumble of approaching tanks.  We waited our hands and feet growing numb.  As the darkness of night faded to dawn, the Parliament building remained unoccupied.  The tanks had turned away.  Lithuania remained free.  Much later I learned that the crowd had been too big, even for the Soviets.  As the USSR was learning, the world was watching.  In the aftermath, the world learned that Soviet Special forces had shot unarmed civilians and drove their tanks over peaceful demonstrators.  The final count, 13 dead, and over 600 wounded.

Later in the year, I moved to Vilnius and went on to work at the Parliament building for Lithuania’s Bureau of Information.  There I assisted with English translations.  There would be several more brutal deaths of unarmed Lithuanian border patrol guards as the Soviets made further attempts to re-occupy Lithuania.  By provoking the Lithuanian guards to fight, the Soviets would have an “excuse” to enter the country by force.  The border patrol guards were unarmed for this very reason.  In the end the Soviets could not hold back the drive for national identity and self-governance even in Russia.  On September 6, 1991, the newly created Soviet State Council recognized the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

After fifty years of Stalinist purges, forced labor camps, Siberian exile, secrecy, duplicity, and Soviet stagnation, Lithuania, a small country on the Baltic Sea, stood up to Goliath and won.

In memory of those who have fought and died for freedom and democracy throughout the world, I ask you to light a candle on this January 13, 2011.

Rasa Tautvydas

Winthrop, WA

  1. January 13, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Power to the people of Lithuania!!!

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