The area in front of the Vilnius’ TV tower is unremarkable, except for a group of wooden crosses that stand in contrast to the futuristic form that serves as their backdrop. But what happened there on the morning of January 13th, 1991 is forever etched in the memories of Lithuanians all over the world.
It’s the sight where thousands of citizens convened in the days following the Act of the Reestablishment of the State of Lithuania to stand guard against Soviet militia that descended upon the city in the wake of Lithuania’s refusal to follow Moscow’s order demanding the restoration of the constitution of the USSR. And it’s the place where thirteen of the peaceful protesters were killed and hundreds more injured during Mikhail Gorbachev’s last ditch attempt to keep Lithuania and the other Baltic nations under the Soviet thumb.
After taking over the National Defense Department, on the morning of January 13th, a column of Soviet tanks rolled into the area in front of the Vilnius TV tower, firing at random into the crowd and running over unarmed bystanders who had formed a human defense shield. The last image transmitted on Lithuanian television that night was of a Soviet soldier running toward the camera and turning it off.
Shortly afterward, a small TV station in the nearby city of Kaunas began broadcasting, asking anyone who was able to pick up the signal to re-transmit the broadcast in as many languages as possible to let the world know that Soviet militia were killing unarmed Lithuanians. Sweden answered the call and began re-transmitting. The next day, the tanks retreated, but it would take several more months before Mikhail Gorbachev let go of the reins for good. (Though Iceland was the first country to recognize Lithuania as a sovereign country, in February of 1991.)
We visit the TV tower on our last day in Vilnius, and though I remind my children why it’s hallowed ground, after an obligatory photo session in front of the memorial, they do what they are programmed to – they run along the stone wall, shrieking, and then jump off.
If not for the granite slab with its tribute to the victims, if not for the wooden crosses put up in their names, one could hardly know that this place is where years of silent oppression finally came to a head. I try hard to imagine it as it might have looked on a cold night in January, but I can’t. There are neither spirits nor demons here, not even the slightest trace of blood.
It’s a hot blue summer’s day, after all, and we’re in a young-old county. The concrete column of the Vilnius TV tower, where we’ll go later for drinks, is unequivocally Soviet. But the stoic wooden crosses, those are 100% Lithuanian.Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)