DEMOCRACY – One Defining Moment

Events of January 13, 1991, Vilnius, Lithuania

In 1939 Lithuania was an independent country, but a Secret Protocol, an addendum to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also known as the “Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” was signed in Moscow on August 23rd in 1939.  It sealed Lithuania’s fate by making it a Soviet-occupied country for the next 50 years.  This Secret Protocol re-shaped the borders of Eastern Europe as Germany and the USSR established their “spheres of influence” in these territories.  On September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland, thereby launching World War II and Stalin occupied and annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The Secret Protocol became public for the first time during the Nuremberg Trials held in Germany in the late 1940's.

Emboldened by the promise of reform - “perestroika” announced by Gorbachev in 1988-1989, people of the Baltic States rose up in peaceful protests and established mass democratic reform movements.  Condemnation of the Nazi-Soviet pact was the focal point of their struggle to reassert themselves as independent nations.

In 1989, Gorbachev recognized that there had been a secret protocol in 1939 and admitted that the Republics had the constitutional right to leave the USSR. Lithuanians embarked on the journey to re-establish their independence peacefully and constitutionally and Lithuania became the first nation in the former USSR to run a multi-party election on February 24, 1990, to democratically elect a parliament, to vote for and proclaim its independence on March 11, 1990, and to re-establish de jure the continuation of the Lithuanian State after 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Gorbachev became concerned that other republics would follow and put mechanisms in place to make secession impossible. Lithuania faced an economic blockade, a psychological and propaganda war and had to meet his requirement for yet another referendum on the question of secession from the USSR.

By January 1991, while the world was focused on the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the Kremlin sent tanks and armed troops into Vilnius to quell the uprising. United in song, civilians faced a defining moment – to give in or to fight for their freedom.  Unarmed, they decided to defend their freedom with their lives. Early Sunday morning (1:35 am) on January 13, 1991, 14 innocent unarmed civilians were killed and over 500 were injured by Soviet tanks and storm troopers. These lives were not lost in vain – Lithuania persevered and eventually took its place among the democracies of the world as the independent Republic of Lithuania.

DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI

IT IS SWEET AND HONOURABLE TO DIE FOR ONE’S COUNTRY

Victims of the January 13th Soviet assault:

Vidas Maciulevičius, Apolinaras Povilaitis, Loreta Asanavičiūtė, Rolandas Jankauskas, Ignas Šimulionis, Alvydas Matulka, Vytautas Koncevičius

Titas Masiulis, Vytautas Vaitkus, Virginijus Druskis, Algimantas Kavoliukas, Rimantas Juknevičius, Alvydas Kanapinskas, Darius Gerbutavičius

Events in Lithuania

January 10, 1991

Following the election of a new non-Soviet government on February 24, 1990, the parliament or Seimas of Lithuania, on March 11, 1990, re-establishes the independent Republic of Lithuania and re-instates its constitution.  In January of 1991, Gorbachev demands the restoration of the constitution of the USSR in Lithuania and the revocation of all laws contrary to the Soviet constitution.

He warns that military intervention to quell the unrest in Lithuania could be possible within days.

Lithuanian officials demand that Moscow not send in armed troops but receive no reply from Gorbachev.

Special Soviet military units, a counter-terrorism team and paratroopers are already stationed in Lithuania as of January 8-9.

Using Soviet special forces, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, the Soviets' plan is to occupy government buildings, seize communications facilities and arrest the non-Communist government.

In response to increased Soviet military activities, people from Vilnius and from all over Lithuania are called to protect and encircle the main strategic buildings: the Supreme Council – the parliament (Seimas), the Radio and Television Centre, the Vilnius Television and Communications tower and the main telephone exchange.

January 11, 1991

On January 10th, Head of the Supreme Council and first head of state of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis is presented an ultimatum to comply with Gorbachev‘s request by a deadline of 15:00 hours on January 11th.

Soviet military units begin seizing key buildings: National Defence Department, Vilnius’ main Publications House, and the Vilnius railway station.  The Soviets allow the use of live ammunition against civilians.

January 12, 1991 

Crowds surround the main government buildings in Vilnius.  They are unarmed, display signs of protest, sing patriotic songs that had been banned by the Soviets for 50 years. They chant „Lietuva, Lietuva, Lietuva“ (Lithuania,Lithuania, Lithuania) and pray.

A column of Soviet military vehicles leaves the military base and heads toward the city centre.

January 13, 1991

A second column of military vehicles leaves its base and heads for the Vilnius Television and Communications tower.

1:25 am Soviet troops arrive at the tower and fire blank rounds

1:50 am Soviet tanks and soldiers encircle the tower.  Soldiers fire live ammunition overhead and then into the civilian crowd.  Tanks drive through lines of people.  Fourteen people are killed, most are shot but 2 are crushed by the tanks.  One Soviet Alfa unit member is killed by friendly fire.  Vytautas Landsbergis broadcasts to the nation calling on the people to offer no armed resistance, and states that Lithuania will be free.

2:00 am Soviet tanks surround the Radio and Television Communications building.  Soldiers fire live ammunition over the heads of unarmed civilians.  The live TV broadcast is suddenly terminated. Paratroopers move into the building and remove everyone they find inside.

2:30 am  A small TV studio from Kaunas goes on air unexpectedly and tries to broadcast events as they are unfolding in as many languages as possible in an effort to reach media around the world.

Large crowds (20,000 during the night and over 50,000 by morning) gather around the Supreme Council Building – the parliament (Seimas).  People build anti-tank barricades around it and surrounding buildings and set up defences inside the parliament (Seimas). The crowd prays, sings, and shouts pro-independence slogans.  Despite the columns of military trucks and tanks in the vicinity, Soviet military forces retreat instead of attacking.

Although occupation and military raids continued for several months following these attacks, there were no large, open military encounters after January 13th.

Three videos depict the events of January 13th, 1991.
Warning:  The middle video below contains scenes of violence.
Each video is in English and Lithuanian.

To ensure communication of unfolding events, by 2 am January 11th, TV transmission was hastily arranged from Kaunas. This excerpt confirms that the broadcast was received by many countries including Canada.

In Canada

Lithuania -  a fledgling democracy where ordinary citizens face a defining moment as their peaceful protests are met with violence.  Canada - an established democracy where ordinary citizens use the tools of democracy to voice their outrage: gathering in demonstrations, petitioning their government, lobbying parliamentarians, utilizing media communications effectively and organizing into working groups to support a variety of initiatives such as fund raising, humanitarian aid, sending volunteers to Lithuania.

In Canada - The Lithuanian Canadian Community

Based on the foundation laid by over 50 years of continuous political lobbying by the Lithuanian Canadian Community (LCC) and its local chapters across Canada, their efforts culminate in this unique historical moment in January, 1991. As events in Lithuania evolve at a very fast pace, LCC recognizes that minute by minute reporting of events as they unfold is required. LCC's National Executive establishes the Crisis Centre in Toronto as a central hub of activity. Information is received through phone calls, letters and faxes from Lithuania, the Information Centre in New York, the World Lithuanian Community and from the LCC Lobby Office in Ottawa. The information is immediately disseminated to politicians, the media, to concerned individuals and most importantly, it is analyzed and turned into calls for action from the National Executive to the LCC Chapters and the Canadian Lithuanian Youth Association.

National Executive Response


Documents are in English and Lithuanian.

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Lithuanian Canadian Community Chapters Respond

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In Canada - The Crisis Centre in Toronto

List of the DEad
Information from Germany via telephone
Call for demonstration at US consulate
Notice od Day of Mouring
News summary

EPSON MFP image

Letter to Brian Mulroney
Open letter in support of Lithuania
Lithuania Needs support now petition
Supporting organiozations
Petition to Canadian Parliament

Although born in Canada, a deep love, respect and sense of duty towards my parents’ homeland, Lithuania, was instilled in me at a very young age. I had always felt the obligation to somehow contribute to Lithuania’s fight for freedom. Lithuania’s Independence Day, February 16th, was sacrosanct in our family and never to be missed.

After March 11 1990 when Lithuania established its independence, hope was finally on the horizon. I stepped up when the Lithuanian Canadian Community ramped up its efforts to keep Lithuania in the limelight. Consistent contact with government officials and the media was so important at this time.

The KLB Crisis Centre was in Toronto. So, even after a full day of work teaching, I decided to spend much of my free time there assisting in any way required. This was very important to me. Lithuania finally had a chance and I could play a role.

On January 13th, I received an urgent phone call from Darija Deksnys, the director of the Crisis Centre. She begged me to come in immediately as Vilnius was under attack. At this point details were still sketchy but Soviet tanks were rolling in! As more and more information was gathered about the grisly events at the TV tower I felt myself thrown into a surreal world. The two of us spent the whole night fielding phone calls from those who were getting information via short-wave radio accounts or organizing an important press conference to take place in the morning.

All newspapers, television stations and radio stations attended the press conference. This was now considered a world news event and Lithuania was in the forefront.

A few days later, during a massive demonstration at Toronto City Hall, I felt compelled to wear my Lithuanian national costume! The fluttering flags of so many nations demonstrating their solidarity with Lithuania were a sight I will never forget!

After having heard about Lithuania all my life, I felt that “this was it”! January 13th was the determining moment where not only I, but also many others, stepped up to help Lithuania fight its fight in a concrete and meaningful manner. The Crisis Centre now became the hub of very, very busy activity.

Cohesively working towards one common goal, various groups took on projects from organizing massive postcard writing campaigns to the Prime Minister of Canada, to planning various ways to keep Lithuania’s name in the media. The campaign “S.O.S Lithuania” was continued. A group of teachers decided to harness the momentum by preparing a handbook about Lithuania for teachers to educate students across Canada. Due to the events of January 13th so many tried to find ways in which to help Lithuania.

January 13th is a date few Lithuanian-Canadians will forget! What was happening in Lithuania was beyond believable and those horrifying events left a huge impact.

Laima Beržinytė-Šeškuvienė
Crisis Centre Volunteer
Toronto, Canada

In Canada - The Government

Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada (centre)

Joe Clark, Canada's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

Richard Johnston, Bill Blaikie and Bob Rae, Canadian parliamentary delegation to Lithuania

Richard Johnston, Ontario MPP

Iain Angus, MP and Michael Wilson, Minister of Finance and Minister of International Trade

Toronto municipal politicians beside massive petition

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Cdn govt News release Jan 11 1991
Letter Pauline Browes and Jesse Flis
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In Canada - The Press

Media attention to the events in the Baltic States had increased since 1989 and grew in March, 1990, when Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union.  As events unfolded in January of 1991, coverage of events in Lithuania filled television channels and newspapers nationally as well as locally and included in-depth investigative reports and interviews with key figures in Lithuania.  Additionally, there was a focus on the reaction and efforts to aid Lithuania in the Lithuanian Canadian community throughout Canada.

 

Key newspaper articles document the events of January, 1991 and show the reaction in Canada.

 

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1991 01 10 Toronto Sun
1991 01 11.1 Globe and Mail
1991 01 11.2 Globe and Mail
1991 01 12.1 Toronto Star
1991 01 12.2 Toronto Star
1991 01 13.6 Toronto Sun
1991 01 13.2 Toronto Star
1991 01 13.8 Toronto Star
1991 01 14.2 Globe and Mail
1991 01 14.62 Toronto Star
1991 01 14.72 Toronto Sun
1991 01 14.3 Globe and Mail
1991 01 14.66 Toronto Star
1991 01 14.67 Toronto Star
1991 01 15.51 Toronto Star
1991 01 16.2 Toronto Star
1991 01 16.3 Toronto Star
1991 01 17.2 Globe and Mail
1991 01 21 Globe and Mail
1991 01 21 Toronto Star
1991 01 22 Globe and Mail
1991 01 22.91 Toronto Star
1991 01 22.2 Tėviškės žiburiai
1991 01 22.4 Tėviškės žiburiai
1991 01 22.5 Tėviškės žiburiai
1991 01 22.7 Tėviškės žiburiai
1991 01 26 Toronto Sun
1991 01 27 Toronto Sun
1991 01 29.2 Tėviškės žiburiai
1991 01 29.4 Tėviškės žiburiai

Television Media

Sample transcripts from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation interviews with Canadian Lithuanians and a list of broadcasts for January, 1991.

APacevicius

Transcribed from an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1991

Algis Pacevicius, President, Canadian-Lithuanian Community, Toronto, Ontario

The President (of Lithuania Vytautas Landsbergis) conveyed to me his feeling of profound disappointment in the Western governments – actually, the governments of the World.  Although he is very encouraged by the statements of support that Lithuania and the new government are getting from all sources, he feels that the Western governments and the governments of the world could go one step further.  They could make that important step – that is to grant full diplomatic recognition to the new government of Lithuania…. Canada’s response has been relatively strong.

  They called in the Soviet ambassador’s assistant, I believe, yesterday in Ottawa and indicated to them that trade relations and relations in general between Canada and the Soviet Union would be in jeopardy depending on what happens in Lithuania.  I think that was a very very strong statement.  I think that the fact that the External Affairs Minister met with the Soviet representative personally is rather profound.  On the other hand, with respect to the question of diplomatic recognition, the External Affairs Minister said that they’re reserving their judgement on that at the present time….

…I think that the Western governments are very very careful at this point in time, but we are still confident that they will do the right thing and that one government, hopefully Canada, will take that moral step and that moral stand and will give full diplomatic recognition to Lithuania immediately.  Interviewer: this puts the most progressive Soviet government in a difficult situation. Let’s turn that around a little bit.  Mr. De Klerk in South Africa, he’s enacted a lot of reforms.  He’s a liberal.  If we were saying let’s not go too quickly, let’s not take the chance of defrocking him, he wants to, let’s say, bring in a 5year or a 10year plan for apartheid, nobody’s going to listen.  They’re going to want apartheid finished TODAY, because it’s a moral question, it’s a question of principle.  And that’s exactly what’s happening in Lithuania.  It’s a moral question.  It’s a question of principle.  There should be no delay and it should happen immediately.

…The Soviet Union, I think, has been watching very keenly as to how the world reacts.  They watched very keenly as to how Senator Kennedy reacted yesterday when President Gorbachev indicated to him that force will not be used unless lives are in danger.  Before that it was just simply “force will not be used”. Now he added that little, I think significant, few words “unless lives are in danger”.  President Landsbergis says this is a clear signal that they are getting ready to orchestrate an incident, provoke violence and then come down very very strong and use force.  Now, the result of that could be disbanding Parliament, arresting the leaders of the government, and the President of the Soviet Union invoking his executive powers putting in a Soviet-controlled government.

…The West has to show Mr. Gorbachev very very clearly that there’s going to be a high price to pay if he interferes with the actions that the Lithuanians have taken in Lithuania.  This is something we have to remember about the Declaration of Independence.  It came about as the result of a process that began in Moscow.  Everything that was done followed the letter of the law.  What kind of a signal is that sending out to the other republics – every one of them wants independence.  If they do as the Lithuanians do, peacefully and democratically and constitutionally, they’ll be crushed.   On the other hand, maybe they’re sending out a signal that violence is the only way for them.

Karla Gruodis

Transcribed from an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1991

Karla Gruodis, Canadian student in Vilnius

…A lot of [Lithuanian] people probably didn’t understand the legal complexities of what has happened in the Parliament and then they were also apprehensive about what would happen next. Now in the last week there is a real shift in people’s reaction and if there’s one thing that’s happening as a result of this increased military presence and this real pressure that is being put on Lithuania, is that people are going to be mobilized to this cause even more than ever before, I think.  They might not show it outright, but I think each person or almost every person will feel even more strongly than ever that they don’t want to be part of…to live in the Soviet Union…

Interviewer: how did you end up there? I actually came here to study and about halfway through my stay here, which started in September, I was approached to edit an English newspaper that started coming out and that’s been my main work since then… Interviewer: there’s other Canadians with you? Yeah, there’s actually about half a dozen Canadians in Vilnius, quite a lot.  In fact, when all the students who are now helping out and doing various things in relation to what is going on here, when we’re all together, …sometimes it looks as though there are more Canadians than Americans which is rather odd but very nice.  Most of them are people I’ve known for a long time.

Interviewer: Moscow wants foreigners out – have you heard about that and does it apply to you?)  We heard about that a couple of hours ago.  It actually asked all foreign citizens to leave Lithuania and then said this includes diplomats, foreign correspondents and businessmen, so clearly it includes us.  However, this is when the situation gets interesting and it will be very telling what happens on this issue because the people who are here, including myself, consider that they are in Lithuania not the Soviet Union, so what does an order from Moscow mean?  What we will see in the next couple of days is whether or not Moscow is really serious about that or if that’s just another one of its tactics to make people uncomfortable, to get people worried or whether or not there will be some kind of attempt to implement it.  If the Soviet government actually gets to the point of forcing us to leave, then that will be a very very bad sign.  That will be a clear sign that some kind of major  use of violence is ahead because that’s what the Soviet Union has done almost every time it’s used force in a large way.  They just got rid of all the foreigners.  They did the same thing in Baku, in Armenia.  There’s very few journalists in Tbilisi last April, in Georgia.  So that will be a very very bad sign.  I hope, I’m hoping it won’t get to that. That in fact this is just another empty threat or empty order from Moscow.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation List of programs January, 1991
PROGRAM TITLE:SUNDAY REPORT
TITLE FULL:CANADA LITHUANIA
SYNOPSIS:The Lithuanian community in Canada is in a state of shock after hearing news of Soviet forces firing on unarmed civilians in Vilnius.
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-13 - 22:00:00
 
PROGRAM TITLE:CBC WEEKEND
TITLE FULL:LITHUANIA REAX
SYNOPSIS:THOUSANDS OF LITHUANIANS ARE MOURNING THEIR DEAD FOLLOWING THE BRUTAL CRACKDOWN BY THE SOVIET ARMY THIS WEEKEND.13 PEOPLE ARE REPORTED DEAD AND 100 INJURED.THE ACTIONS HAVE OUTRAGED LITHUANIANS IN TORONTO.
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-13 - 23:03:36
 
PROGRAM TITLE:CBC AT SIX
TITLE FULL:BALTIC CONCERNS
SYNOPSIS:THE SOVIET CRACKDOWN ON LITHUANIA BROUGHT FEAR TO CANADIANS FROM THE BALTIC REGIONS. REGINA HICKLSZABO SPOKE TO COMMUNITY LEADERS TODAY
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-14 – 18:37:07
 
PROGRAM TITLE:CBC AT SIX
TITLE FULL:TORONTO PROTEST
SYNOPSIS:OVER 1000 BALTIC CANADIANS ARE PROTESTING OUTSIDE THE AMERICAN CONSULATE AT THIS HOUR DEMANDING A TOUGH US RESPONSE TO THE SOVIETS BRUTAL REPRESSION OF FREEDOMS IN LITHUANIA.
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-15 - 18:42:33
 
PROGRAM TITLE:CBC AT SIX
TITLE FULL:LITHUANIAN FUNERAL
SYNOPSIS:IN LONDON ONTARIO LAST NIGHT THERE IS OUTRAGE AT THE SOVIET CRACK DOWN IN LITHUANIA.PEOPLE THERE HELD A VIGIL FOR THE 14 PEOPLE THAT WERE KILLED IN THE MASSACRE ON SUNDAY.
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-15 - 18:43:17
 
PROGRAM TITLE:CBC WEEKEND
TITLE FULL:LITHUANIA MASS
SYNOPSIS:TODAY IN TORONTO, A CHURCH SERVICE WAS HELD TO REMEMBER THE VICTIMS OF LAST WEEK’S VIOLENCE IN LITHUANIA
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-20 – 23:00:00
 
PROGRAM TITLE:CBC WEEKEND
TITLE FULL:LATVIAN FLAG
SYNOPSIS:THE LATVIAN FLAG WAS RAISED TO HALF MAST AT CITY HALL TODAY IN SIMPATHY WITH THOSE KILLED A WEEK AGO IN CONFRONTATIONS WITH SOVIET TROOPS.
BROADCAST DATE:1991-01-27 – 23:11:14

On February 7th, 2021, the Toronto Chapter of the Lithuanian Canadian Community hosted our presentation.  After learning about the Lithuanian Museum Archives of Canada, the audience heard about the curation of the digital exhibition, “Democracy - One Defining Moment”.

We invite you to view the presentation:  DEMOCRACY - One Defining Moment

The Lithuanian Museum-Archives of Canada gratefully acknowledges the sponsorship and support of the Lithuanian Embassy in Canada for this virtual exhibition.