2019-01-10 Back to list

Remembering 1991: January Events in Lithuania

The events happened in the aftermath of the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania and led to the dissolution of Soviet Union.

Strolling down Laisvės alėja in Kaunas on a sunny January morning in 2019 and having your cheeks bitten by frost seems like the most peaceful thing ever. 28 years ago, the morning of January 13th was very much different from today. What’s now called the January Events took place between January 11th and 13th in the aftermath of the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania (March 11th, 1990, itself very much based on The Act of Reinstating Independence of Lithuania signed on February 16th, 1918).

The capital Vilnius was the centre of the events, related actions took place in its suburbs and cities of Kaunas Alytus, Šiauliai, Varėna, and Kaunas.

Lithuania was the first from the states annexed by USSR to declare its independence from the regime, but the road to freedom was neither fast nor easy. During the January events, 14 civilians were killed and more than 700 were injured as a result of Soviet military action. The action followed economic blockade imposed by the Soviets in 1990. Inflation and other consequences that followed were the reason quite a few people lost faith in the newly re-established independence; protests by Russian and Polish citizens against ethnic discrimination took place, the government could not agree on the most important decisions. All of this formed a pretext for the Soviets to send elite armed forces and special service units to Lithuania. On January 10th, the President of USSR Mikhail Gorbachev demanded a restoration of the USSR constitution and threatened Lithuania with military intervention. On January 11th, he repeated his ultimatum and, starting 11:50 AM Soviet military units seized National Defence Department building and Press House building in Vilnius, the National Defence Department buildings in Šiauliai and Alytus and other important objects.

The Lithuanian Supreme Council (Parliament) held an overnight session, while people from Vilnius and many other cities and towns in Lithuania gathered around the Supreme Council, the Radio and Television Committee, the Vilnius TV Tower and the main telephone exchange in order to protect the objects from seizure. On January 12th, the Soviet military units continued their operations, late that evening the military vehicles started moving towards the centre of Vilnius. Soon after midnight, the tanks started firing black rounds near the TV tower – it caused windows of residential apartment houses nearby to shatter; many people’s hearing was severely damaged by that. Tanks and soldiers then surrounded the TV tower – they drove straight through the people encircling the tower; two Lithuanians were crushed to death and 12 of them were shot. January 13th has been since called the Bloody Sunday. The loudspeakers transmitted the message declaring the “Nationalist separatist state“ was taken down. On 2 AM, tanks surrounded the Radio and Television Committee building in Vilnius, ammunition was fired and live broadcast was terminated.

This is when Kaunas comes into the picture. On 2:30 AM, a TV studio from Kaunas came on air unexpectedly using Juragiai and Sitkūnai transmitters) inviting people that could speak foreign languages to come there and help let the world know Soviet army was killing civilians in Lithuania.  People promptly showed up - some of them helped broadcast the message, the rest expressed unity and solidarity. On 4 AM it became known that a news station in Sweden caught the message and would be broadcasting it all over the world. Soviets, of course, tried to cut that off and called the TV station in Kaunas. 

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The night of January 13th at the Kaunas TV station. Photo by Romualdas Požerskis /  Archive of Kaunas city museum

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The night of January 13th in Kaunas. Photo by Romualdas Požerskis /  Archive of Kaunas city museum

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Broadcasting to the whole world. Photo by Romualdas Požerskis / Archive of Kaunas city museum

Meanwhile in Vilnius, tens of thousands of people continued guarding the Supreme Council building, setting up defence barricades, praying, singing and shouting pro-independence slogans. 

Soon after, meetings of support took place in cities of Kyiv, Tallinn and Riga and elsewhere. Following the first news reports from Lithuania, the government of Norway appealed to the United Nations. The government of Poland expressed their solidarity with the people of Lithuania and denounced the actions of the Soviet army, as did the Supreme Council of Lithuania.

No large open military encounters were held after the January events; the Western reaction was strong enough and put the actions of Soviet Union under magnifying glass. The treaty between Lithuania and USSR was signed on January 31st. On February 4th, 1991, Iceland became the first country to officially recognise the Republic of Lithuania as a sovereign independent state, and diplomatic relations were established between the two nations. A referendum in Lithuania was held on February 9th; 84.73% of registered voters attended and 90.47% of them voted in favour of the full and total independence of Lithuania.

In August 1991, Lithuania’s closest neighbours, Latvia and Estonia (all of us are celebrating our Centennial in 2018!), declared the restoration of independence. Gorbachev resigned as general secretary in late August and the final dissolution of the Soviet Union took place on December 26th, 1991.

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A symbolic fire in front of the Vytautas the Great War Museum on January 12th, 2018. Picture from the archives of Kaunas city municipality

The January Events are commemorated each year by public gatherings around fires, visiting important monuments of freedom and the graves of the victims in cemeteries (Titas Masiulis was buried in Petrašiūnai Cemetery in his native Kaunas, a memorial was designed by sculptor Robertas Antinis and architect Linas Tuleikis), followed by special masses and concerts and marked by candles, Lithuanian flags and, in recent years, by forget-me-nots. “We remember why we’re free”, says the slogan of the forget-me-not movement.

In 2019, bonfires will be lit in the garden of the Vytautas the Great War Museum at 5 PM, January 12th. A memorial mass at the St. Michael the Archangel Church (Soboras) will start at 10 AM on Sunday, January 13th. A concert will be held at the church after the mass, and you're welcome to visit the neighbouring Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery and draw your own forget-me-not. 

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Funeral procession of Titas Masiulis in front the Vytautas the Great War Museum on January 16th, 1991. Photo by Romualdas Požerskis /  Archive of Kaunas city museum


A field of symbolic forget-me-nots in Vilnius in 2017

This is a rather short concentration of the January Events based on information provided by Wikipedia and other public sources. To continue exploring the events, we suggest you watch the documentary “The 13th of January” released in 2001 and published online by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania.


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