Thirty years ago tomorrow (January 13), Soviet forces fired at unarmed Lithuanians in Vilnius, killing 15 and thereby accelerating the recovery of the full independence of the Baltic countries as well as the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Both the details and the broader lessons of those events are beginning to be forgotten as those who were involved pass from the scene and a new generation, born too recently to remember, has risen to take their place. The details are important not only because they show that what actually happened is not what Moscow wants people to believe. The story also highlights the key role played by other non-Russians in forcing Mikhail Gorbachev to back away from a Soviet Tiananmen as well as the importance of their ability to attract support from the ethnic-Russian majority and the West. But even more important are the three-decade-old lessons from Vilnius that apply to those who continue to oppose Moscow’s repressive policies today.
On this “round” anniversary, Moscow historian Boris Sokolov provides many of the details that show what occurred in Vilnius in January 1991 was not some accident in response to Lithuanian provocations, as Moscow and its supporters still claim, but rather the result of a ramified plan Moscow had developed (Graniru.org, January 11, 2021). Under the cover of looming military action in the Middle East (Desert Storm would begin on January 17, 1991), the Kremlin decided to restore full Soviet control over Lithuania—something it had lost following the Sąjūdis (Reform Movement of Lithuania) election and Vilnius’ declaration that the republic was reclaiming its de facto and not just de jure independence.
Six days before the fateful day of January 13, 1991, Sokolov recounts, Moscow sent units of the KGB’s elite Alpha Group into Lithuania. It then introduced military units from Pskov, which were also put under KGB control. And on January 10, Kazimira Prunskienė, who was later shown to be working with the KGB, resigned as Lithuanian prime minister, sparking the kind of political crisis Moscow hoped to exploit. Communists in the Lithuanian capital organized a national salvation committee and demanded the restoration of full Soviet control. The following day, these forces seized media centers in Vilnius; and on the night of January 12–13, Soviet forces fired on the crowd around the Vilnius television tower and dispatched armored units toward the Lithuanian parliament building, where more than 50,000 people had assembled. Many expected these forces would attack the gathered demonstrators, but the order for that never came. Apparently, Gorbachev concluded he did not want on his head the enormous bloodshed that would have resulted.
As important as it is to remember the events of January 13, 1991, it may be even more important now to remember what happened next. Namely, Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) leader Boris Yeltsin immediately flew to Tallinn, met with Estonian and Latvian leaders (the Lithuanians could not make it there), and then issued a joint statement recognizing the sovereignty of all three Baltic countries. On his own, Yeltsin called on Russians serving in the Soviet forces not to obey illegal orders to fire on citizens exercising their rights to demonstrate and seek independence.
Not surprisingly, many Soviet officials and their supporters were outraged. Members of the KGB-organized, counter-revolutionary organization Inter-Movement (Interdvizheniye) challenged Yeltsin in Tallinn. And as Galina Starovoitova, then an advisor to the RSFSR president, recalled in an interview she gave to Robert Seely, who reproduced it in his book The Russian-Chechen Conflict 1800–2000: A Deadly Embrace (Abingdon, 2000), “Yeltsin received a warning that the aircraft due to fly him back from Tallinn to Moscow would meet with ‘an accident.’ ” Yeltsin’s advisors decided that he would not risk flying but instead would take a car back to Leningrad (today St. Petersburg). The Russian leader, however, “had no car at his disposal.” The needed vehicle was supplied by General Dzhokhar Dudaev, then commander of the Soviet air base at Tartu, who had already said he would not allow the introduction of Soviet forces into Estonia. He later became far more well-known as the first president of independent Chechnya. Dudaev would ultimately end up assassinated on the orders of the Russian leader whose life he had saved.
While this was happening in Tallinn, hundreds of thousands of Russians spontaneously gathered in Moscow’s Manezh Square to denounce what the Soviet central government was doing, holding up placards that read, among other things, “Gorbachev is a murderer” and “Forgive us, Lithuania.”
No one must forget all this. But likewise, no one must forget the five key lessons that history offers for the present. First, as Vilnius showed, the Cold War was not just about Communism but also about rolling back Soviet Russian imperialism, a fact many now prefer to forget because that task is far from completed. Second, Lithuanians demonstrated the kind of courage and commitment that no level of armed force can defeat. Others who oppose Moscow can show no less. Third, non-Russians then and now have achieved the most when they have cooperated with other non-Russians. The events of January 1991 would have turned out entirely differently had a Chechen general not done what he did. Fourth, the non-Russians also found greatest success when they were able to find common cause with those many Russians who understand that freedom is indivisible, however much some of their leaders in 1991 or now insist otherwise. And fifth, the January 13 events in Vilnius demonstrate that the West can play a powerful role in helping those who aspire to such freedom and need not be put off by Moscow’s bombast or short-term calculations. Neither then nor now is the Kremlin in a position to ignore Western opposition to its most repressive actions. Thirty years after Vilnius, remembering that reality is perhaps the most important lesson of January 13, 1991.