January 13, 1991. Months after Lithuania declared independence, Soviets leave their bases and move to occupy the Radio and Television building, the TV tower, as well as the parliament. Journalists working for LRT today were at their desks when the first shots were fired.
This story was originally published on January 12, 2020.
“When we heard that tanks were moving towards the TV tower [...] we ran outside [...] to try and reach the tank column,” remembers LRT radio journalist Audrius Matonis. Outside, “we saw another column of armoured [vehicles] and trucks” next to the building of present-day LRT. “The events started unfolding there and now.”
Lithuania became the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990, and on January 8, 1991, Moscow sent in the military to reestablish control.
On January 11, the Soviets seize various institutions, including the National Defence Department and the Press House, injuring protesters who interfered. Following the attacks, large crowds of people gather around the main institutions in Vilnius.
In the early hours of January 13, 1991, the newly independent Lithuania faced its first casualties.
Just after midnight, Soviet tanks start to fire blank rounds around the TV tower in Vilnius, shattering windows in nearby buildings and inflicting shrapnel injuries and hearing damage to the hundreds of unarmed protesters that encircle the tower.
High-intensity lights aboard the tanks circle around, maiming civilians nearby.
Minutes later, the tanks drive into the crowd. Scores are injured and two men are crushed and killed by the tanks.
Loudspeakers on Soviet armoured personnel carriers transmit propaganda messages, calling out for “brother Lithuanians to go [home] to your parents and children,” and proclaiming “the nationalist and separatist government overthrown”.
Around the same time, the Soviet military surrounds the Radio and Television Committee building, the offices of present-day LRT.
Soldiers fire live rounds into the building and over the heads of the civilians gathered outside. One person is shot and killed.
Still inside, a crew of journalists continues the live broadcast. Footage shows Soviet soldiers walking the same corridors used by LRT today, and the broadcast is interrupted.
Bernadeta Lukošiūtė, who was broadcasting live with Algimantas Sadukas, recalls the last moments when “we reported everything that we saw, there was no time for thoughts”.
Lukošiūtė’s colleague, Zina Sesickienė, calls out that they’re no longer on the air. “We sat illuminated by the lights of the control panel,” recalls Lukošiūtė. “She said, Betute, leave the studio because they will start shooting.”
Outside, a passer-by offers Lukošiūte a lift home. The man in the driver’s seat says: “My son was already asleep when the television broadcast was interrupted, I woke him up to show [that] someone can simply come in and trample on everything.”
From 0:22, you can hear Janina Mecelicaitė-Mateikienė's shaking voice, as she reports surrounded by explosions and shots fired by the Soviet soldiers. She talks to eyewitnesses outside the Radio building and people at a local hospital who were crushed by tanks next to the TV tower. "The scenes will stay with me for the rest of my life," said a man at the hospital.
Outside the occupied building, Lithuanian Radio journalist Janina Mecelicaitė-Mateikienė records the scenes unfolding in front of her.
“02:15, tanks are around the television, the radio and television building is currently surrounded by soldiers,” she says in shaking voice as shots and explosions roar nearby.
“The Lithuanian radio is silent,” she says, before an explosion shakes the air.
“[They] are pointing the barrel at the people,” she shouts outs, and calls for her colleagues.
She speaks to two women outside, as shots continue to ring out. “Injured people are carried away, soldiers are shooting with automatic rifles, that’s horror, I don’t how to explain it,” one of the women says. “They’re animals [...] but the people still shout that they’re for Lithuania and that’s it.”
Another man says that people are being “ushered home to their wifes” and a message broadcaster in Russian proclaims that “the parliament has been toppled”. Scores outside are injured.
Meanwhile, a small studio in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, takes over the broadcast. Spurred into the spotlight, Vidas Mačiulis remembers how radio journalists like Mindaugas Patašius had to suddenly adapt and address the nation.
“What could we do?” recalls Mačiulis. “The song Laisvė (Freedom) was probably aired some 50 times.”
“But this is what inspired everyone. Everyone waited for what will happen next,” says Mačiulis.
By the time the night is over, hundreds are injured and 14 are killed. The Soviet soldiers opt not to storm the parliament building guarded by a large crowd and concrete barricades. Armed Lithuanian defenders are also inside.
It took another 27 years for the night to conclude when in March 2019, Lithuania sentenced 67 Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed that night.
Dmitry Yazov, 94, the former Soviet defence minister, was sentenced to ten years in prison in absentia.
Russia has meanwhile opened a criminal case against Lithuanian prosecutors and judges that handed down the ruling.
Read more: EP resolution calls on Russia to quit prosecuting Lithuanian judges