On January 13, people in Luthuania mark the Freedom Defender’s Day. On the same day in 1991, it wasn't only the ethnic Lithuanians that fought for the country's independence, with Russian and Polish-speaking minorities making a significant contribution to the freedom movement.
Lithuania’s Department of National Minorities has published a set of 32 historical postcards and a video talking about the contribution of national minorities to the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.
“Peaceful coexistence and respect for people of various nationalities, languages, and religions is a unique Lithuanian asset,” Vida Montvydaitė, head of the department, said in the video.
The video talks about Lithuania’s national minorities taking part in the Baltic Way on August 23, 1989, when two million people joined hands in a human chain that connected Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Poles, Russians, and Armenians, who lived in Lithuania at the time, as well as members of the Dačija Lithuanian Community of Moldovans-Romanians, also joined hands in the Baltic Way.
By participating in this event, the Interethnic Coordinating Association “sought to demonstrate that Lithuanians and national minorities share a common goal of restoring an independent democratic state” and to deny lies about ethnic discrimination in Lithuania, according to the video.
“Over the past 30 years, the national minorities have taken an active part in various events, sometimes even more active than the so-called majority,” Šarūnas Liekis, a historian, said.
Failed idea of autonomy
The video also draws attention to an important meeting in a majority Polish town Šalčininkai in 1989.
An idea of Šalčininkai and Vilnius territorial autonomy was floated by the Soviet leadership in 1988. However, it did not receive wide support aming Lithuania’s Polish community.
On September 16, 1989, Šalčininkai residents met with the people’s deputies of the Soviet Union. During the meeting, signatures were collected to protest against the proposed autonomy of Šalčininkai.
The resolution of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the LSSR officially rejected the idea of Šalčininkai and Vilnius districts’ territorial autonomy on September 21, 1989.
In 1990, Russian-speaking citizens of Lithuania also sent a letter to the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, stating that the restoration of Lithuania’s statehood is taking place without violence and discrimination.
In the letter, Lithuania’s Russian speakers wrote that they did not need the Soviet military to protect their rights. The best support would be the unconditional recognition of the sovereignty of the Republic of Lithuania, they wrote.
“The Soviet Union put great effort into dividing society in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They especially played with the emotions of Russian speakers and other minorities, saying that they were losing their motherland Soviet Union,” said Montvydaitė, head of the national minorities' department.
“Therefore, the fact that the national communities addressed the Soviet leaders […] and the fact that they did it voluntarily is very important even today,” she added.
Russian Cultural Centre's role
The Russian Cultural Centre was the first Russian public organisation in independent Lithuania, which supported the statehood of the country in every possible way.
On January 13, 1991, the proclamation of the Russian Cultural Center to the people of Lithuania was prepared. It spoke about the tragic events near the TV tower in Vilnius.
The centre also urged Lithuanian Russians to take part in the procession in memory of the dead on January 16.
During the January events, members of other national communities also expressed their support for Lithuanian independence, distributed public statements, and stood guard outside Lithuania’s parliament and TV Tower with their national flags.