Winter 1990 – 1991:
Standoff for Freedom in Lithuania and Latvia






In January 1991, hundreds of thousands of people went onto the streets of their capital cities to defend their newly declared independence.

Both Latvia and Lithuania regard the events as a turning point.

They are honouring the protesters who faced Soviet troops, sent to re-impose direct rule from Moscow. And many are also mourning those who lost their lives when the troops attacked.


The days of the Riga Barricades - as they are known in Latvia - began on 13 January 1991 and lasted a week.

About 700,000 people - nearly a third of the country's population - gathered in the Latvian capital, after protesters in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, were attacked by Soviet tanks and paratroopers.

The Soviet troops took over the national TV and radio station, and surrounded the Lithuanian parliament, killing 14 people and injuring more than 100.

In Riga, protesters built concrete barricades all over the city, and the stand-off lasted until 20 January - when Soviet special forces attacked the interior ministry - killing five people.


But eventually, the Soviet troops retreated, protesters triumphed and military rule was not imposed.

Both Latvia and Lithuania regard those momentous events as a turning point on the road to full independence from the Soviet Union.

Full story by Laura Sheeter from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/01/13 16:15:21 GMT




Drapeau animé de Lituanie par Pascal Gross

Lithuania’s Night of Triumph



By Rokas M. Tracevskis, VILNIUS, The Baltic Times   January 18, 2001

Published: 2001/01/18




In January 1991, the Soviet army turned their weapons on an unarmed, peaceful crowd of people who had gathered tightly around buildings of strategic importance with the intention of protecting them with their own lives. The 10th anniversary of those tragic days was commemorated on Jan 12 and 13 with speeches and concerts near the national TV and Radio Center and Parliament.

Both politicians and ordinary defenders of the Parliament, TV tower and less famous institutions spoke about their feelings. This is one of the few issues in Lithuania that doesn't give rise to a cacophony of clashing opinions and arguments.

The Lithuanian Parliament announced the re-establishment of the country's full independence on March 11, 1990. Estonia and Latvia chose a more careful path by proclaiming a transitional period toward independence.

Moscow refused to accept the outcome of the vote and attempted to overthrow Lithuania's government, which by that time controlled the state's political and economic affairs, apart from the Soviet military bases.

On Jan. 10, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issued an ultimatum to Lithuania demanding that it adhere to the constitution of the Soviet Union. Lithuania refused.

On Jan. 13, 1991, Soviet tanks and elite Soviet paratroopers brought in from Pskov, Russia, occupied the TV and Radio Center and TV tower. In the turmoil, 14 people were killed, mostly young students, and more than 700 were injured. Many are still disabled.

Alfa, the most secret brigade in the Soviet army, was also brought in from Russia to take part in the massacre. Alfa had earlier gained a name for itself in the storming of the president's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, which was the beginning of Soviet aggression there in the 1970s.

It was a crowd of tens of thousands of people that prevented the Soviet army from storming the Lithuanian Parliament, said Petras Liubertas, who was vice minister of interior in January, 1991. He held in high esteem the actions of the Lithuanian police, who had stood hand in hand with other Lithuanians in that living wall of protection.

Audrius Butkevicius, general director of the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in January 1991 and later defense minister, commented during the anniversary events that the Mahatma Gandhi-style non-violent defense by the Lithuanians had proved successful. Most Lithuanians agree that a partisan war would have started if the Soviets had succeeded in storming Parliament.

"The use of non-violence stopped the Soviet aggression and Lithuania managed to avoid a partisan war with potentially thousands of victims," said Butkevicius. He had ordered Lithuanian volunteer soldiers to start shooting only if the Soviet troops entered the Parliament building.

An attack on the Parliament would have caused thousands of deaths and it would have been the end of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's nice guy image. The West wouldn't have been able to pretend that nothing had happened.

"There was too much meat around Parliament," Vytautas Landsbergis, leader of the Lithuanian independence movement in January 1991, quoted an unnamed Soviet officer as saying. The Lithuanian Security Service was monitoring the radio conversations of Soviet soldiers on Jan. 13, 1991.

Gorbachev's prestige suffered anyway. On Jan. 12, 2001, CNN reports from 10 years ago about the world's reaction to the massacre in Vilnius were shown on a huge screen near Parliament in Nepriklausomybes Square.

"Gorbachev is a very, very bad man," a Russian woman told a CNN reporter in broken English. A placard with the words "Gorbachev = Saddam" was carried by demonstrators near the Soviet Embassy in Warsaw. Demonstrators in Prague went a step further. They compared Gorbachev to Hitler.

"It's a war. A real war. The Soviet Union against Lithuania," Landsbergis had told CNN.

All these historical images were watched by a crowd of several thousand people who gathered around bonfires in the square as they had done 10 years before.

Norwegian journalist Hans Steinfeld was in Vilnius in early January 1991, when Soviet troops were taking one Vilnius building after other. He was also in Vilnius during the tragedy of Jan. 13.

"Two events blasted away the Warsaw Pact: the Vilnius events and the fall of the Berlin Wall," he told the magazine Antena. "Lithuania was the catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union, not Latvia or Estonia."

Steinfeld's roots are in a Jewish traders' family in prewar Liepaja, in Latvia, but, he said, "Lithuania is my love."

Many journalists and politicians took the opportunity to analyze the events of Jan. 13, 1991. But it is often better to listen to the witnesses and active participants of those tumultuous days.

Bernadeta Lukoseviciute was a Lithuanian Radio journalist in January 1991. She still works there. "Jan. 13 is like roses of blood in the Vilnius snow, which is full of tank tracks," Lukoseviciute said.

Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas was the prosecutor general in January 1991. "Many believed that the Soviet tanks and paratroopers were just putting on moral pressure. But even when the Soviets started shooting and the windows of nearby houses shattered people were not afraid. Many prayed, but nobody left," Paulauskas said.

Nerijus Maliukevicius, the director of Lithuanian Radio back in January 1991, said, "Foreign journalists often ask me about Jan. 13. It's difficult to explain to them in words. Jan. 13 is in the heart."

Landsbergis, now a Conservative MP, was parliamentary chairman in January 1991. It was the highest post in the country at the time. He remembers that he asked the women to leave the Parliament. MPs and Lithuanian volunteer soldiers had already confessed their sins to a priest and were waiting for the Soviet storm.

"The women refused," Landsbergis said. The MPs urged the people gathered around the Parliament to leave on Jan. 13 because of the danger, but the crowd met this appeal by shouting "No!".

Landsbergis called for the extradition of the organizers of the Jan. 13 massacre. He said during the anniversary, "The Lithuanian-Russian treaty signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 states that Lithuania re-established its independence on March 11, 1990. The aggression of the Soviet Union against Lithuania took place a full 10 months later.

"War crimes were committed. Special off-center expanding bullets that rip a victim's body apart were used by the Soviets. These bullets are forbidden by international convention. This is material for the Hague tribunal.

"In 1992, Yeltsin told me, 'We'll extradite them all for you.' But Russia failed to do so." Landsbergis added that Soviet generals active in Vilnius in January 1991 are today Russian Duma MPs or occupy high posts in the Russian army. One is vice minister of defense in Belarus.

"When somebody asks me when they'll be extradited I answer, 'When Russia becomes a democratic state,'" Landsbergis said.

Vytenis Andriukaitis was an MP in January 1991. Now he is leader of the left-wing opposition in Parliament. "We established our state many centuries ago, but Jan. 13 is the crowning event in our desire for freedom.

"Our nation, almost four-million strong, was a single body despite any political differences. This is why the world supported us. As soon as Feb. 11, 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognize Lithuania's independence," Andriukaitis said.

Alicja Grzeskowiak was among a group of Polish senators who arrived in Vilnius several days after Jan. 13 when a second Soviet attack on the Parliament was still expected. Now she is chairperson of Poland's Senate.

In a speech at an anniversary meeting in the Lithuanian Parliament, Grzeskowiak described her feeling of solidarity at the time. "Poland was ready to give some land for a Lithuanian government in exile if an occupation of Lithuania went ahead."

In January 1991, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas was in Warsaw. He had a mandate from the Lithuanian Parliament to create a Cabinet in exile if the Soviets arrested or killed Lithuanian MPs and government members. Leon Bodd was head of Lithuania's Information Center in Oslo. He is now Lithuanian honorary consul general in Norway.

"This is a holy night," Bodd said of the anniversary. "We have to remember the people who sacrificed their lives. Lithuania was the first country to break off from the Soviet Union. Lithuania also brought freedom to other nations. It is a night of triumph."





Drapeau animé de Lettonie par Pascal Gross

The Heroic Struggle for Latvia:

Calendar of Events




By Viktors Daugmalis, RIGA, Barikades/1991

Originally published at:





November 16

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issues a series of accusations against the Baltic Republics from the podium of the Soviet Supreme Council, speaking of the need to conclude a new Union Treaty.


November 17

The chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia, Anatolijs Gorbunovs, and the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Latvia, Ivars Godmanis, meet with Mikhail Gorbachev and refuse to sign the Union Treaty. Gorbachev threatens to institute direct presidential rule and an economic blockade.


November 18

There is a national demonstration in Latvia in honor of the country's Independence Day.


November 19

After a protest from the USSR, representatives of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are banned from participating in an OSCE conference in Paris.


November 21

The Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia sends a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev and the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union, calling on them to halt interference by special OMON troops in Latvia's domestic affairs and political life.


November 23

The Soviet Supreme Council gives the president of the USSR unlimited authority to specify an emergency situation and institute presidential rule.


November 25

The Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party sets up the All-Latvian Public Rescue Committee, and its delegates announce that they have the right to sign the Union Treaty.


November 26

A draft of the Union Treaty is published in the Soviet press, along with statements saying that it can be signed by "authorized representatives".


November 27

Soviet Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov issues an order which says that the armed forces have authority to determine what kinds of monuments can be set up in the Soviet republics. In a televised speech, Yazov threatens to eliminate "those which are ideologically alien". The Latvian People's Front, meanwhile, launches a petition drive in opposition to the Union Treaty, collecting 1,002,829 signatures by December 17.


December 1

The Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party launches a radio station called Sodru? which is based in the facilities of the Biryuzov Political Military Academy in R. The Supreme Councils of the three Baltic Republics call on the parliaments of the world to help them in regulating relationships with the USSR. They also call issue a declaration for the residents of the Baltic Republics, as well as a resolution on national equality.


December 4

The All-Latvian Public Rescue Committee demands that recently installed monuments to Latvian Legionnaires at Code, Vecsaule and D?be dismantled, saying that if this is not done, it will "take relevant steps".


December 5, during the night

Four monuments to the Latvian Legionnaires are blown up.


December 6

The All-Latvian Public Rescue Committee calls for direct presidential rule in Latvia.


December 8

A total of 27 democratic parties and political organizations sign a declaration titled "Unified for Latvia!"


December 10

The first secretary of the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party, Alfr Rubiks, who is also a member of the Politburo, says at a meeting of the Soviet Communist Party that Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev should remind President Mikhail Gorbachev that the observation of the Soviet constitution and all Soviet laws must be ensured throughout the Soviet Union.


December 11

The Latvian People's Front issues an announcement of what must be done before "Zero Hour" (i.e., the institution of presidential rule in Latvia) and thereafter


December 12

A bomb explodes at 3:10 AM outside the public policy center of the Latvian Communist Party at Valdem Street 5 in R. The Communist-controlled press accuses Latvian nationalists of setting off the bomb.


December 13

The chairman of the Soviet KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, speaks on central television about the indivisibility of the USSR.


December 14

The Interfront holds its third congress, issuing a call to the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR to institute presidential rule in Latvia and also announcing a campaign of civil disobedience in Latvia.


December 17

The fourth session of the Congress of People's Deputies is opened in Moscow, and there are bitter debates between democratic and pro-imperialist forces.


December 18

At 2:45 AM, there is an explosion on the grounds of the R garrison's military prosecutor's office at Vai򯤥s Street 1. Ten minutes later, another bomb explodes at the building which houses the Latvian Communist Party's governing committees for the Moscow, Kirov and R districts of the Latvian capital city, at Daugavpils Street 31. Approximately five minutes after that, a bomb goes off at the Lenin Monument in Brbas Street.


December 19

Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov admits that the Soviet armed forces have bombed monuments in the Baltic States. The Supreme Council and Council of Ministers of Latvia denounce attempts to destabilize the situation in the republic through acts of terror.


December 20

Speaking at the Congress of People's Deputies, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze warns of the approach of dictatorship and announces his resignation.

December 21

At an emergency congress, the Baltic Army Association announces that if the Congress of People's Deputies does not implement order in the Baltic region, the army will. Behind closed doors, a plan is worked out on neutralizing Latvia's administrative and power structures during "Zero Hour". All leave is canceled for KGB, army and domestic military officers. It becomes known that the KGB has, on instructions from the Central Committee of the CPSU, developed a plan for a military coup in Latvia.

At 11:22 PM, there is an explosion at the Biryuzov Military Academy at Ezermalas Street 8. Explosions also occur on December 26 and 27 and January 14 and 16, 1991. There are no casualties. The Communist-run press blames all of the blasts on Latvian nationalists.


December 23

Several dozen people who are part of a secret military unit are discovered at a KGB hotel in the Latvian town of J?a. The Supreme Council of Latvia announces that any attempt at a coup in Latvia would endanger peace and security in Europe.



January 2

The OMON forces take over the Latvian Press Building on orders of the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party, thus paralyzing, in part, the publishing of democratic newspapers and magazines. The deputy chairman of the Supreme Council, Dainis ζ, the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, Ilm Bi𥲳 and Interior Minister Aloizs Vaznis seek entry to the building but are turned back at gunpoint. Criminal police officers who have been documenting the taking over of the Press Building are beaten up, and their documents and photo film are confiscated. Their automobile is shot up. The Latvian People's Front calls for a protest demonstration at the building of the Latvian Communist Party.


January 4

In contrast to claims from OMON officers, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo and Mikhail Gorbachev deny knowledge about the taking over of the Press Building. A delegation from the Soviet Interior Ministry, led by Lt. Gen. Solodkov, arrives in R for an inspection visit.


January 7

On Mikhail Gorbachev's instructions, Dmitriy Yazov orders special military units to enter Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the stated aim being to ensure that the military draft proceeds properly. The commander of the Baltic Military Region, Fyodor Kuzmin, affirms to Supreme Council chairman Anatolijs Gorbunovs that the military units have arrived and promises that they will not do anything until January 13.


January 8

The Soviet deputy defense minister for emergency situations, Lt. Col. Achalov, arrives in R secretly to meet with Fyodor Kuzmin and Alfr Rubiks. Achalov has previously been one of the chief commanders of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The board of the Latvian People's Front decides to organize a national demonstration.


January 9

The White House in the United States denounces the arrival of additional Soviet military forces in the Baltic Republics. The government of Kazimiera Prunskiene resigns in Lithuania.


January 10

Mikhail Gorbachev issues an ultimatum against Lithuania, demanding the repeal of all recently approved constitutional acts. An unauthorized Interfront meeting in R calls on the government of Ivars Godmanis to resign. Some 50,000 people attend, and they try to break into the building of the Council of Ministers when asked to do so by military personnel.


January 11

The Latvian Women's League stages a protest in R to oppose the drafting of young men from Latvia into the Soviet army. A closed meeting of the Military Council of the Baltic Military Region is held. It is decided to issue automatic weapons to officers and students at military schools. Military units and armored vehicles increase their presence in the streets of R.


January 12

The Council of the Latvian Popular Front announces a national demonstration for January 13 to support the republic's lawfully elected government. The decision is taken to guard strategically important objects. The presidium of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic calls on the Soviet government to withdraw its extra military forces from the Baltic Republics. Anatolijs Gorbunovs and Ivars Godmanis meet with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow and are given a promise that military force will not be used.


January 13

During the evening, tanks encircle the Supreme Council of Lithuania, and military forces occupy the local television, radio and telegraph facilities. During the event, 14 people are killed and another 110 are injured. At 4:45 AM, the Latvian Popular Front issues a call for people to gather in Dome Square to protect the Supreme Council and other strategically important objects. Dainis ζ reads the announcement on Radio Latvia.

At noon, the Supreme Council meets in plenary session to talk about defense issues.

At 2:00 PM, a national demonstration attracts some 700,000 people to the shores of the Daugava River in R. The Baltic Military District's personnel fly overhead in a helicopter, scattering flyers above the crowd which contain a warning. The chairman of the Latvian Popular Front, Romualdas Ra?calls for the erection of barricades around strategically important objects. After the demonstration, participants march to the Freedom Monument.

Ministers and Council of Ministers employees set in motion the bringing of heavy agricultural and construction equipment, as well as trucks full of logs to R so that barricades can be set up. These orders are implemented during the night and the following day. Barricades are set up in R, as well as in Liep and Kuld.

The chairmen of the Russian, Estonian and Latvian Supreme Councils meet in Tallinn, signing a declaration in which military activities in the Baltic Republics are denounced. The chairmen of the Baltic Supreme Councils call on the secretary general of the United Nations to assemble a meeting of the Security Council and an international conference to talk about the situation in the Baltic Republics.

The chairman of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic, Boris Yeltsin, calls on Russian soldiers and officers to refrain from any military attacks against Baltic civilians and institutions.


January 14

Speaking at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev supports Interior Minister Boris Pugo's view that the Soviet armed forces behaved properly in Vilnius. Fyodor Kuzmin issues an ultimatum against Anatolijs Gorbunovs, demanding the repeal of laws which have been adopted by the Latvian Supreme Council.

At 2:50 PM, OMON forces attack people who are guarding the Vecmrs bridge. Members of the forces shoot at the cars of participants, beat up several people, threaten them with weapons and steal their property.

At 6:45 PM, OMON forces attack people at the Brasa bridge, throwing Molotov cocktails at cars and causing a fire.

At 8:00 PM, there is another attack at the Vecmrs bridge. During the course of the day, 17 automobiles have been burned.

The Svoboda radio station claims several times that there is to be a military coup in Latvia


January 15

During the night, OMON forces twice attack the R branch of the Minsk Military Academy at Ze Street 8. Students are beaten up, facilities are damaged and weapons are stolen. Later, the Interfront gathers some 10,000 people at a stadium in Kri𪢲a Barona Street. The All-Latvian People's Rescue Committee announces that it is taking over power in Latvia.


January 16

Funerals are held in Vilnius for the victims of the January 13 attack. It is a national day of mourning. The Supreme Council of Latvia organizes members of the council to stand duty at the Supreme Council building during the night.

At 4:45 PM, during an attack at the Vecmrs bridge, Roberts M?ks is shot and killed, while two other people are injured.

At 6:30 PM, OMON forces attack the Brasa bridge, injuring one person.


January 17

The American-led Operation Desert Storm is launched to liberate Kuwait. A state of emergency is declared on the barricades in R. A strike committee that has been set up by the Latvian Communist Party declares that a fascist regime is being instituted in Latvia. A delegation from the Supreme Council of the USSR comes to R and announces upon its return to Moscow that it supports the institution of presidential rule in the republic.


January 18

The Supreme Council of Latvia decides to set up a unified national self-defense commission.


January 19

The funeral of Roberts M?ks turns into a people's demonstration. During the night, OMON forces detain and beat up five members of a volunteer national guard unit.


January 20

Some 100,000 people attend a demonstration in Moscow to support the Baltic Republics, calling on Mikhail Gorbachev, Dmitriy Yazov, Boris Pugo and Vladimir Kryuchkov to resign in the wake of the bloodshed in Vilnius.

At 9:07 PM, OMON forces and members of other, unknown military units launch an attack against the Interior Ministry of Latvia. During the battle, militia officers Vladimir Gomanovich and Sergeiy Kononyenko are killed. Near the ministry, filmmaker Andris Slapi򰠡nd high school student Edijs Rieksti򰠡re shot and killed. Cameraman Gvido Zvaigzne dies of his wounds several days later. Injuries are suffered by four officers of the Bauska militia, five participants in the barricades, a Russian journalist and a Hungarian journalist. Casualties are also suffered by the attackers. After the battle, the OMON forces move to the building of the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party.


January 21

The Supreme Council of Latvia calls on young people to go to work in the Interior Ministry system. Anatolijs Gorbunovs goes to Moscow to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev and talk about what is happening.


January 22

Boris Pugo denies that he ordered the OMON forces to attack the Interior Ministry.

A participant in the barricades dies.


January 24

The Council of Ministers of Latvia sets up a Public Safety Department which takes over the guarding of the barricades.


January 25

A national day of mourning. The funeral of the victims of January 20 are held. Most participants at the barricades go home.