Vienna, January 13 – In advance of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet massacre of Lithuanians today, the Russian embassy in Vilnius expressed its “condolences to all the victims and their relatives” but insisted that the Russian Federation is not responsible for “alleged Soviet atrocities” in Lithuania in January 1991.
Instead, the Russian embassy said, Lithuania should “leave history lessons to the historians” because “any other approach would lead us to excessive politicizing, the escalation of tensions and thus hamper Russian-Lithuanian dialogue,” a statement that like so many Russian ones in the past seeks to have it both ways (en.rian.ru/world/20110112/162117844.html).
And while many in Russia and the West are likely to agree with that argument, the reality is that Moscow is not prepared to “leave history lessons to the historians” but rather continues to insist that it has the right to impose its own version of events on everyone else and to attack suggestions by others that there may be more accurate accounts.
On the one hand, in this case as in so many others, the post-Soviet Russian authorities routinely insist that their country is within its rights to take credit for anything Soviet they want to take credit for, such as the role of the USSR in the defeat of Hitler during World War II and the Soviet space program.
But on the other, they also continue to argue that they should not be held accountable for anything Soviet that they do not want to be and that they are the sole judge of what those things are, a position many in the West are reluctant to challenge or increasingly to support challenges to that notion by others.
That reinforces the danger that both Russians and others are slipping into a kind of history in the passive voice regarding Soviet actions, a history in which “mistakes were made” but no one is responsible and one which encourages those who supported such actions to take them again and denies their victims closure and everyone else the lessons of the past.
On this, the last “round” anniversary of these events when almost all the principal players are still alive, there are indeed many unanswered questions about what happened in January 1991 in the Lithuanian capital, but precisely because of that, it is important to remember both what happened and who has done what to reveal or conceal that past.
And that is especially important because January 13, 1991, was truly a day “the universe changed,” a day when it became obvious to almost everyone that Moscow had lost any chance of holding on to the three occupied Baltic countries or even the 12 union republics of the USSR unless it returned to the kind of Stalinist brutality few mercifully had any stomach for.
At the start of 1991, three events converged out of which the Vilnius tragedy came: the Baltic drive for independence was not only intensifying but becoming a model for other nations controlled from Moscow, the world was focused on preparations to expel Saddam Hussein from Iraq, and Mikhail Gorbachev, after a period of liberalization, was moving to the right.
One should remember that only two months earlier, Eduard Shevardnadze resigned as Gorbachev’s foreign minister warning that a dictatorship was coming, although he did not specify whether this was what Gorbachev personally wanted or whether Gorbachev was being forced in that direction by others.
However that may be, on January 6, Gorbachev ordered the introduction of Soviet forces into Lithuania and five other republics ostensibly to enforce the Soviet military draft but in fact as a show of force to crush the national movements there. On January 8th, the 76th Airborne Division based in Pskov were flown into Lithuania.
On the night of January 13th, Soviet forces moved to capture the television tower and other communications facilities. Lithuanians came out in large numbers, and at the TV tower, the paratroopers fired into the crowd, killing fourteen people outright and wounding directly or indirectly 600 other Lithuanians.
Lithuanian courts have attempted to bring those immediately responsible to justice. In 1999, they tried and convicted six former Soviet soldiers for their involvement in the January 1991 crimes. But Lithuania has not been able to try 23 others because, prosecutors say, “all the suspects have taken refuge in Russia and Belarus and these countries refuse to extradite them.”
The Soviet actions in Vilnius sparked popular outrage around the world, with large demonstrations in most world capitals, even though most Western governments were restrained because they very much hoped to keep Moscow within the coalition against Saddam Hussein, a coalition that some American officials represented the true end of the Cold War.
But there was another event on January 13th in the Baltic states that very much deserves to be remembered. On that day, Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic, flew to Tallinn in order to sign agreements with the representatives of the three Baltic states recognizing their independence.
In the event, the Russian leader was able to sign these accords with only two of the three because the Lithuanian representatives were unable to come from Vilnius. But while many forget, it is these documents which Estonia and Latvia view as major steps toward the recovery of their de facto independence.
Yeltsin, however, did more than that. He issued a call, broadcast into the Soviet Union first by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and then other outlets, to Russian officers and men not to obey illegal orders to fire at unarmed civilians and freely elected governments as Soviet forces had just done in the Lithuanian capital.
From Moscow’s perspective, that was an act of sedition, and many believed that Yeltsin had just signed his own death warrant. In order that he would not be lost in an airplane “accident” on his way back to the Russian capital, the senior Soviet commander in Estonia provided him with a car and driver to take Yeltsin by land back to Leningrad/St. Petersburg.
That commander was Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev, who later served as president of Chechnya and against whom Yeltsin, in his capacity as the first president of the newly independent Russian Federation, launched an unsuccessful war but a successful assassination attempt.
The history of January 13, 1991, is thus complicated. But that is all the more reason for encouraging the broadest possible discussion of it now rather than dismissing it as something of only academic interest as the successors to the authors of the tragedy in Vilnius are currently trying to do.