By late evening of August 21, 1991, the Neo-Stalinist Putsch in Moscow was falling apart. I was a 25 year-old American-Lithuanian, and I’d been living in Lithuania since January 1991, and over the months had witnessed the crazy slow collapse of the Soviet Empire first hand. Working for the Lithuanian Parliament in Vilnius, in the InfoBureau (Press Office) as a spokesperson, I’d experienced every emotion possible; however, I was not prepared psychologically for what occurred in Vilnius in the final hours of the Moscow Coup.
I arrived for work at the Lithuanian Parliament building on August 19th and hadn’t left my post manning the phones at the InfoBureau. I received calls from journalists trying to get information, as well as Lithuanian citizens providing info on Soviet troop movements and seizures.
During the three days of the Putsch, while all eyes were on Moscow, Soviet troops were active throughout Lithuania preparing to overthrow the Lithuanian government, led by Vytautas Landsbergis. We were barricaded inside the Parliament building, preparing to be attacked. Soviet troops seized dozens of buildings and transmission towers throughout the country. Checkpoints and armed patrols harassed citizens. In the evening of August 19th, one hundred Soviet tanks prepared themselves on the other side of the Neris River from the Parliament building, with their gun barrels pointed at us. We thought we were going to die. They didn’t shoot. Every few hours a new threat arrived as me and my co-workers tried to get information out to the world, since it might be our last chance.
At one point, the InfoBureau fax operator, Arvydas, called me into the fax room, “I want to show you something on the telex machine.”
I stood over him as he continued, “I programmed shortcut messages just in case things get crazy—in case I can’t get messages out. We also might not have time before our power gets shut off to send any last minute messages. I made things simple. You remember how to work this thing?”
It was a Russian telex machine, with a Russian keyboard, but he taught me how to send out press releases months ago. I replied, “Yeah, hit the pre-programmed message number. Then the send keys like you showed me and it goes out to all our telex numbers at once.”
“Right,” he continued, “Now, message #1 is ‘We are surrounded.’”
I don’t like where he is going with this, I thought.
“Message #2 is ‘We are under attack.’”
I bit my lip.
“Message #3 is ‘We are dead.’”
I realized, when the bullets started coming at us, Arvydas planned to stay at the telex machine and hit message #3 himself before he dropped dead. And he expected me to send out the message if he was killed before doing so. There was no time to thing about such things.
“Okay, I understand” I said, “I can handle it if I have to.”
As I turned to leave, a Lithuanian volunteer guard appeared in the fax room doorway blocking me and addressed Arvydas, “Do you want a weapon? A pistol?”
“Uh, no. I’ll be all right,” he said shocked.
The guard disappeared before I could tell him I’d like a gun. Women were told to leave the building, but many of us remained. I thought it was rather sexist that I wasn’t offered a gun, not that it would be much help against tanks.
When Soviet military helicopters flew over the building, we thought paratroopers were going to drop down on the roof. And we thought we were going to be killed again. My nerves were shot. Some time during the blur of the three days I, along with a group of co-workers and volunteer guards, received last rites from a Catholic priest. Even Landsbergis told me in the middle of one night as I delivered a fax to him, in a fatherly way, “May God be with you.” It didn’t look good for any of us.
During each minute of the Coup we believed the Soviet military would finally attack Parliament, and everyone inside was prepared to defend the building. By late evening on August 21st, it was clear the Moscow Coup was failing even though we didn’t have much information. The rumor was that the Coup leaders were on the run, attempting to escape by plane. There was confusing information about the Soviet military withdrawing, but we still had reports of them seizing structures. Along with my co-workers, including my boss, Rita Dapkus, except for about 2.5 hours of sleep, I’d been awake for about three days straight (powered by Nescafe and cigarettes and anxiety). I didn’t want to be napping when the Soviets attacked us, so I just stayed awake.
At 10:45 p.m. on Aug 21, I was doing my job, staring out the fourth floor window speaking on the phone with two journalists at once, one from the London Times and the other from Reuters. The phones were ringing off the hook, and I had to be efficient. They didn’t mind I held two headsets to my ears and provided them with a quick run down of updates.
Unarmed citizens continued guarding the building, just in case the Coup was not officially over. There were about 5000 people outside. The TV Tower, occupied since January 13th, loomed on the horizon—a faint light emanated from its offices on the lower floors.
As I talked simultaneously into both phone handsets, several flashes of light and explosions erupted outside. Gunfire rattled the windows.
We’re under attack! I screamed in my head.
My mind tried to understand what I was seeing.
Light continued to flash to my right—at our street entrance checkpoint.
A Soviet military Jeep zoomed past the checkpoint alongside of the river in front of the Parliament building, right past my window.
People outside ran toward it.
Multiple flares shot into the sky, which reflected in the river below.
The Jeep made a u-turn and headed back toward the checkpoint.
Two flashes of light.
People running everywhere.
An ambulance whizzed past toward the checkpoint.
“What was that!” the journalists yelled over the handset.
“Gunfire!” I said, “I think a Soviet miltary jeep broke through our checkpoint! I gotta go! Call me back in fifteen minutes.”
Arvydas was ahead of me as I ran out of the office. I followed him through the maze of obstacles, sandbags, Molotov Cocktails and past volunteer guards mobilizing for an attack.
I didn’t know why our instant impulse was to run toward the gunfire. We weren’t the only ones. A large crowd surrounded the action.The gunfire and explosions just ended. It smelled like fireworks. Our volunteer guards had quartered off the area and were keeping people back. Citizens shouted and yelled. The scene was chaotic. Several Parliamentarians were already outside and motioned the guards to allow Arvydas and me through.
A few feet away, a young man dressed in green fatigues screamed in pain as he was lifted onto the ambulance stretcher. His backside was covered in blood. He turned to us and screamed as he was gently placed face down on the stretcher. The fear in his eyes left an imprint in my mind. He looked confused and shocked this was happening to him. His bright eyes met mine as he released a long, silent cry. I didn’t know if he was a Lithuanian volunteer guard or a Soviet soldier. It didn’t matter. My heart filled with compassion for him. None of us wanted this. I had to look away.
I asked the Parliamentarian what happened.
“An OMON jeep drove past the first checkpoint, threatening the volunteer guards with their weapons,” he said.
As he spoke I noticed other injured young men in uniform placed in another ambulance.
“The Lithuanian guards tried to block the vehicle. But it broke through the checkpoint,” he continued.
I couldn’t help but look back at the first young man. He shouted in pain as he was lifted into the ambulance. He glanced back at me.
“The Lithuanian guards shot two flares. The jeep turned around and headed back toward the checkpoint.”
The doctors tried to hold the crying man down as they attempted to treat him.
“Gunfire was exchanged at this point. We don’t know who shot first.”
The bloodied young man finally calmed down.
“One of our volunteer guards was shot and one of theirs was shot. Two OMON were arrested. One OMON escaped.”
After we gathered enough information, to ensure we’d be able to inform journalists calling in about what occurred accurately, Arvydas and I returned to the InfoBureau and informed our co-workers as we awaited further details.
Concerned citizens throughout Vilnius who heard the gunfire echo across the city or saw the flares called panicking, “Are you being attacked? Do we need to come to help defend the building?”
After everything that had occurred in Lithuania, from the tragic events of January 13th and the murders at Medininkai, ordinary citizens were still willing to defend the Parliament building with nothing but their bodies. I spoke to many brave citizens that night assuring them it was over—after these never-ending months of threats, that they could finally sleep peacefully that night.
At three in the morning, a Lithuanian Security official came up to the InfoBureau to provide us with an update on the information of the attempted provocation.
The Lithuanian guard who was shot was Arturas Sakalauskas. He was 19 years old. It was his first day on the job. The Soviet soldier who was shot was a member of the KGB spetznaz special task force. He was armed with the same type of weapon that was used in the murders of the customs workers at the Medininkai post on July 31st.
By then, we learned Gorbachev was on his way to Moscow. We finally believed the Coup was over, and this incident was a rogue KGB group of individuals demonstrating a final show of power. The Parliament was no longer under a threat of attack.
Rita gave me permission to take a nap. I collapsed onto the sofa in the hallway. Someone else was snorning away on another sofa. I pulled off my cowboy boots and was out before my head hit the cushions.
I woke up at 7:00 a.m., feeling relieved.
It was over.
After all these months, I wasn’t afraid of a pending attack or any more bloodshed in Lithuania.
The worst was over.
After freshening up as best as I could, considering I was wearing the same clothes for four days, I cheerfully returned to the InfoBureau to check in with Rita.
“Don’t get too happy yet,” Rita said bringing me back to reality, “Landsbergis and Butkevicius have issued an ultimatum that if the Soviets don’t withdraw from the buildings occupied since January that we’ll forcibly re-take them.”
The troops seemed to be withdrawing from the buildings they seized during the Putsch, but there were still twenty-nine Soviet military occupied buildings throughout Lithuania since January 1991. Even though the Neo-Stalinist Coup d’Etat was over in Moscow—as long as the Vilnius TV Tower and other buildings in Lithuania were occupied by Soviet forces, a Coup d’Etat was still in effect in Lithuania. Was Gorbachev ready to allow Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to become free and independent nations?
Visions of Lithuanian volunteer guards battling tanks with old hunting rifles and sticks entered my mind.
“What do you mean by, ‘forcibly’?” I asked Rita to clarify.
Another co-worker interrupted us to inform us that, Arturas Sakalauskas, the young Lithuanian volunteer guard posted at the checkpoint had died. The two other guards who were injured were going to survive. Only one Soviet soldier was injured while others were in custody.
I wondered who I saw loaded onto the ambulance, was it Arturas or a KGB soldier? Part of me didn’t want to know.
The mood at the Parliament building was one of pending doom, again. Another young Lithuanian defender had given his life. But this time, it was different. We used to sit in uncertainty waiting to react to Soviet military actions. Now, Lithuanian were going to be taking matters into their own hands. We weren’t waiting for the West or Yeltsin to help us.
Landsbergis called USSR General Moisejev and informed him if Soviet troops did not withdraw from the buildings that were seized by the Soviet military since January by 1:00 p.m. today, August 22, that Lithuanians, both citizens and volunteer forces, will take the buildings themselves. He left that open to interpretation.
Volunteer soldiers mobilized and were running through the hallways of Parliament preparing for the consequences of our ultimatum….
[Look for Part II next week - of how the drama of the Soviet troop withdrawal at the TV Tower played out]
Next time you are in Vilnius and visiting the Lithuanian Parliament building, be sure to take a stroll behind the building along the street parallel to the river and parking lot. You will find a small memorial to 19 year-old Arturas Sakalauskas, the last Lithuanian victim of the fifty-one year Soviet occupation.
Read more in the special LTUworld.com issue: