Rita replied, “The 1991 August Coup was more scary –because on January 13th, we didn’t expect the Soviet military to attack with the violence they did and kill and injure so many. After January 13th, we understood what the Soviet military was capable of, and feared a similar attack and more bloodshed.”
I often thought about what I witnessed after January 13th, as unarmed citizens continued to serve as human shields and place themselves in danger, knowing what might happen. We have learned the stories of bravery of that fateful night in January, but the bravery continued, with greater strength and unity in the months that followed.
In the upcoming months, I’d like to share some of these stories, of life inside and on the streets of the Lithuanian revolution.
We have learned the stories of bravery of that fateful night in January, but the bravery continued, with greater strength and unity in the months that followed.
As recent events in the Ukraine, now termed “Euromaiden,” are occurring, and we see the dramatic images unfold, it is important to understand the larger context and what is truly at stake. I hope my experiences in Lithuania in 1991 can provide more insight—for understanding of contemporary social movements, and the freedom the Lithuanian people have successfully achieved.
I watched the events of January 13th, 1991, safely from the comfort of my parents’ home in Los Angeles. As the images of the Soviet military attacking unarmed Lithuanian civilians as they seized the Vilnius TV Tower filled the television screen, my parents confronted me, “You can’t think about going now!”
I was to board a plane to Riga, Latvia on January 14th. My grandfather’s friend was to pick me up from Riga and drive me to Kaunas, Lithuania. I’d spent my entire life learning about my ancestral heritage and was raised to believe it was my duty to help preserve it. I’d participated in Lithuanian scouts, Saturday School, folk dancing and was president of the youth association –but I wanted to do more. I wanted to live in Lithuania, experience my culture first-hand, and had decided to move there for several years.
My family and friends attempted to talk me out of going, to wait until “things calm down.” But I thought, What can I do to help in Los Angeles? Isn’t this the time that Lithuania needs help the most? I am nobody special, but I can show up and help somehow.
I’d spent my entire life learning about my ancestral heritage and was raised to believe it was my duty to help preserve it [...] I wanted to live in Lithuania, experience my culture first-hand, and had decided to move there for several years.
I don’t believe many parents would be supportive of their 24 year-old daughter flying into the heart of a revolution, especially a day after 14 people were killed and over 700 injured—but I inherited their passion for the homeland, therefore, they understood why I was compelled to continue with my plans and gave me their blessing.
After landing down on the deserted tarmac of the Riga airport in late afternoon of January 15th, 1991, and undergoing interrogation from Soviet customs officials, I found my ride, Tomas, waiting for me in the waiting hall. He drove from Kaunas to Riga and explained he didn’t know if it was safe to make the journey, but he’d promised my grandfather he wouldn’t leave me stranded, and now we’d have to drive back.
As we departed the airport through the deserted Latvian streets in his LADA Zhiguli, I asked Tomas if everyone was hiding since Moscow had just declared Martial Law in the Baltic states.
“On the contrary,” Tomas informed me, “700,000 Latvian citizens are building barricades in Riga’s city center, preparing for a similar Soviet military action, like what happened at the Vilnius TV Tower.” The bravery of the Latvian people struck me, as they had seen the violence the Soviet military had perpetrated in Lithuania and were aware they may experience a similar attack. (A few days later, On January 20th, Soviet forces would act, seizing buildings and killing three Latvian civilians.)
We drove in silence through the abandoned streets of Riga onto the dimly lit main highway. After an hour, the car entered a brightly lit part of the highway. “This is the border,” he said. A brick customs building was lit up under a bright streetlamp past the forest clearing. The tollbooth was deserted. The structures were dark.
“Where’s the border checkpoint?” I asked.
“This is it. It’s strange that no one’s here. We’re not stopping.” The glare of a shiny object ahead struck my eyes and morphed into a road sign bearing the words: Lietuvos Respublika. My heart skipped a beat as we drove past. I’m here. I made it.
I don’t believe many parents would be supportive of their 24 year-old daughter flying into the heart of a revolution...but I inherited their passion for the homeland, therefore, they understood why I was compelled to continue with my plans and gave me their blessing.
We drove past an abandoned Lithuanian customs post on the other side of the border. The car rumbled through villages and towns between breaks of forest and fields. Snow covered Lithuanian flags glistened in the light of the street lamps. The yellow-green-red flags hung from windowsills, doorways, draped over fences, from tree branches and covered rooftops.
When I visited Lithuania for the first time in 1989, I was swept up with the excitement of the “Singing Revolution.” The Lithuanian flag, banned for four decades but newly legalized, was everywhere: in windowsills and hanging from streetlamps, in the form of stickers on dashboards of cars, on Sajudis billboard notices announcing the next demonstration, and on pins on lapels. After two years the same displays of patriotism met my gaze.
As we drove into larger towns, dozens of people stood around campfires in front of official-looking buildings—some held flags, others, placards. My ride didn’t need to explain what these people were doing out in the freezing snow. I knew they were serving as human shields. These may have been local Lithuanian Defense Ministry offices or radio outposts the Soviet military might target. I thought, Who did they think would see their protest? What would happen if Soviet soldiers decided to seize these buildings? Who would ever know if they were arrested or killed?
An hour past the Latvian border, around 8:30 pm, we reached Lithuania’s fourth largest city, Siauliai. We pulled up to the city center square. Thousands of people surrounded enormous bonfires. Tomas suggested we warm up by the fires, as his LADA didn’t have a heater and the temperature was in the negatives.
—This picture is from January 27, 1991 – at Vilnius Parliament – representative of the brave regular unarmed citizens serving as human shields around the clock against a Soviet military attack. (photo: D.Venckus)
A bonfire raged over our heads. People huddled together, talking. Some were singing silently to themselves. Little kids darted through the crowd. Elderly women clutched rosaries in their faded wool gloves whispering prayers. Others held flags or signs. Standing before the flames, a warm wind brushed across my face as I stared at the faces of uncertainty. A wave of empathy took over my emotions. The revolution was no longer about singing patriotic songs. It was about life and death. Now that I’m here what am I supposed to do? If the Soviets start arresting Lithuanians and send them to Siberian prison camps, I can always leave. These people can’t. Why are they putting themselves at risk?
The revolution was no longer about singing patriotic songs. It was about life and death.
We reached Kaunas at 10:30 p.m. at Tomas’ mother’s apartment near the city center. We barely knocked on the door when Birute opened it and said, “Thank goodness you made it! Both of you!” She wrapped me in a hug. I’d met Birute during my 1989 visit. Her family helped save my grandfather’s family back during WWI. They maintained their friendship throughout the last 80 years—and Birute promised my grandfather to watch out for me, and get me out of the country if it came to that.
Birute gestured toward her living room sofa and a plate of standard Lithuanian hospitality: tasty black-bread-butter-sausage-cucumber-tomato sandwiches.
Birute turned on the television. It was just past 11:00 p.m. She yelled at the screen, “It’s Kasperavicius! What lies do you have for us now?” She explained the Soviet military occupied TV Tower in Vilnius was broadcasting with a new pro-Moscow crew—filling the airwaves with Moscow’s propaganda.
Birute pointed at the TV, “He’s one of the putsch leaders! He’s responsible for the attacks, for the deaths at the TV Tower! They go on the air and broadcast they’ve saved the country from the threat of Sajudis—when it is THEY who’ve brandished weapons and killed innocents!” She shook her fist at the screen and yelled, “LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!”
My head was pounding with the images of the attack on January 13th. Will the people I saw guarding buildings be the next victims? Why did I think this was a good idea? My life of Lithuanian Saturday School and folk dancing and scouts and my family’s love of Lithuania did not prepare me for this—a revolution—but it was what we had dreamed of for over four decades.
This was truly a revolution of the people. The entire country had mobilized, from border to border, in the cities, towns and villages, and each person was doing their part—continuing to serve as human shields, with the complete awareness their lives could be in danger. I kept thinking, They know what could happen? Why are they still out there and willing to stand before tanks?
Eight months later, during the 1991 August Coup, with my own eyes I’d see those same unarmed Lithuanian civilians, run towards Soviet tanks as they approached the Lithuanian Parliament building. And I’d think, They are all going to get killed!
Rita was right, each day after January 13th was scary, because we knew the Soviet military was capable of more bloodshed. Yet, Lithuanians continued, day after day, week after week, stand guard and wait for the Soviets to attack.
How many people would be willing to serve as human shields today?