The protestors huddled around makeshift bonfires, the moisture on their breath visible in the cold air. Those at the front of the barricades armed themselves with hunting rifles and Molotov-cocktails.
It was January 1991 and the city of Vilnius was in the grip of a bitter Baltic winter. Tens of thousands of people had journeyed to Lithuania’s capital by any means possible. They had answered the most important call of their lives.
“The only force which can safeguard the leadership of Lithuania is the people. We are inviting residents of Vilnius and other areas of Lithuania to stand guard tonight and tomorrow near the Parliament,” reads the statement from President of the Lithuanian Supreme Council, Vytautas Landsbergis. “These days could be crucial. Our solidarity and determination are a dire necessity now.”
Twenty years ago this month an estimated 50,000 Lithuanians took to the streets of Vilnius to defend the country’s fragile independence. Breaking from Soviet rule the previous March had not come without repercussions. A blockade had made everyday life difficult and inflation had risen to an unprecedented level. There was tension on the streets and those loyal to the Communist Party began a series of counter-strikes and protests. Something had to give.
Day-by-day the Soviet military presence in the city grew. Key buildings were seized by force, the National Defence Department and the Press House were among the first. Rumours began to circulate that the Parliament building would be next.
“There were two rows of barricades erected made of tractors, trucks and material from nearby building sites,” says Alfredas Girdziusas, who was 43 at the time and working as a photojournalist for the Lietuvos aidas newspaper. “The enrolment of volunteers continued, oath was taken and rifles were handed out,” he says. “There were lots of young people that helped to keep watch and erect the barricades.”
Ruslanas Irzikevicius, who just tuned 17, was one of those younger protestors. “I left home without informing my mother. I took the Lithuanian flag, and had almost no money,” he says. “A truck gave me a lift to Vilnius and when I got there crowds of people were massing around the Parliament building. I spent the next three or four days there, almost without sleep.”
People continued to pour into the city. “You could distinguish those who had just arrived by the state of their shoes. If a person was walking with dirty shoes we would say that this person has been here for a long time,” he says.
To the north of the Parliament events escalated, with tragic consequences. In the early hours of January 13 Soviet tanks and heavily armed combat vehicles reached the city’s iconic television tower, the tallest structure in Lithuania.
Alfredas’ sixteen-year-old son, Renatas was at home. “My younger brother and I were watching the news on television when Soviet soldiers stormed the tower. We watched as a soldier switched the camera off and the live broadcast was terminated,” he says. “It was the last sign for many people to rush to the Parliament.”
At 01:50 the killing began. In an attempt to disperse the large number of pro-independence supporters Soviet soldiers fired live rounds into the crowd, killing ten. Two more protestors were crushed to death by advancing tanks and many more suffered injuries.
One demonstrator was struck in the face with an explosive device causing fatal injuries, another died at the scene from a heart attack. The death of a Soviet soldier, shot in error by Soviet forces brought the total number of dead to 15.
Hours later the news of the killings filtered through to those gathered at the Parliament. Ruslanas, Renatas and Alfredas were among the crowd. “Nobody believed that the soldiers would fire,” says Alfredas. “Moscow’s belligerence and disregard for people’s lives was under-estimated.”
In spite of the danger Ruslanas was prepared to defend Lithuania’s independence, whatever the cost. “There was a feeling of solidarity and resolve. The mood was not of who we were standing against but what we were standing for,” says Ruslanas. “We were ready to die.”
Later that day Soviet forces moved to within striking distance of the Parliament. Surprisingly the tanks retreated, and a repeat of the bloodshed at the television tower was avoided.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev denies he ordered the soldiers to open fire. He did later admit that momentum for independence gathered pace as a result of the killings. “Even if they had been supported before, Landsbergis would now look like a hero in the eyes of the Lithuanians,” he writes in his memoirs.
In the eyes of Alfredas there were many heroes. “Tears were not seen – only hope. We were crying later, when we buried Lithuania’s children,” he says. “The entire country was mourning for them then.”
Sporadic skirmishes between Soviet forces and pro-independence groups continued into the summer of 1991. The scenes at the television tower in the early hours of January 13 were not repeated. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in August released Lithuania from more than 50 years of occupation and the restoration of independence was complete.
Thirteen years later Lithuania was accepted into the European Union. The transition from imposed communism to the Western ideals of the free market has not been easy. The country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and is suffering from an exodus of young, educated people.
Lithuania’s current plight angers Alfredas. “Oligarchs of post-Soviet mentality are in our government, they made their fortune when others were freezing in the barricades. The lands are free of young people and education is not affordable,” he says. “After 20 years we got this, we never expected this 20 years ago.”
Despite the problems, Ruslanas demonstrates the spirit which originally brought Lithuanians together in 1991. “I hope that neither me, nor my children will ever have to be in such a situation again in the future,” he says. “But if the worst came to the worst I know where I would be.”