33 years ago, on January 13, 1991, Lithuania bore witness to an unparalleled demonstration of valour and resilience. On that fateful day, 14 valiant Freedom Defenders were brutally killed by the Soviet army, while nearly a thousand others suffered injuries protecting the strategic institutions of Lithuania. Thanks to Freedom Defenders, while there was a partial loss of control over media, the Soviet army did not occupy the Parliament (Supreme Council), the most important symbol of independent Lithuania’s statehood.
Lithuania’s unwavering pursuit of independence from the Soviet empire, proclaimed on March 11th, 1990, was met with international reluctance to acknowledge its sovereignty. The Soviet machinery, entrenched within the country, sought to crush this quest for liberty. Employing an economic blockade and aligning with local Communist Party efforts to orchestrate a coup d’état, the Soviet Union aimed to quash the emergence of an independent Lithuanian state.
Photo by Andrius Petrulevičius/LRT
The culmination of tensions between Lithuania and the Soviet Union peaked in January 1991. On January 8th, following a failed attempt by pro-Soviet activists to storm the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, Soviet military forces were used to take power. From January 10th to 12th, the Soviet Union encroached on key Lithuanian statehood, strategic and infrastructural facilities, hoping to take full control and restore political power to the Communist Party in Lithuania. The branches of the Department of National Defence located throughout Lithuania were targeted, and the buildings of this institution in Alytus, Šiauliai, and Kaunas were seized. The Vilnius railway junction was captured, and intercity roads were blocked with military equipment. The most important institutions of statehood, located in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, soon became the main targets of aggressors.
Facing the threat to the independence of the country, the Lithuanian Sąjūdis began mobilizing people from all corners of the country to guard strategic buildings in Vilnius. Thousands of people came in well-organised groups from all over Lithuania, flocking from towns, cities, and villages to the capital, taking turns guarding the Parliament. Witnesses of those days remember the determination that united the people to resist brutal force at any cost. Yet, despite the gallant efforts of the defenders, on January 13th, Soviet forces brutally seized control of the Press Palace, the Television Tower, and the Lithuanian Radio and Television building. The Parliament (Supreme Council), the most important symbol of independent Lithuania’s statehood, was protected, and the occupants did not set foot inside the building. Propaganda machinery spun tales of falsehoods to mislead the populace. In response, defenders of Lithuanian sovereignty were armed not with weapons but with prayers and songs. Peaceful resistance was met with the cold-blooded slaughter of unarmed people by bullets and under the tracks of armoured vehicles.
Photo by Andrius Petrulevičius/LRT
Three decades on, the legacy of heroes who perished for Lithuania’s Independence remains an indelible mark of Lithuania’s fight for freedom. Freedom Defenders’ Day stands as a solemn tribute to their sacrifice, a reminder of strength forged in the crucible of adversity. As usual, events commemorating the memory of Freedom Defenders will be organized throughout the whole country.