The following article is a second part about the Singing Revolution in the Baltics. To read the first part please click here.
When Lithuania declared its independence in March 1990 the Soviet Union imposed several economy blockades, cut the energy supply to the country and spread false propaganda to encourage Polish, Russian and Ukrainian workers to protest against the new government. On the 9th January 1991 the Soviet government decided to send special army forces from the nearby barracks of Pskov to the capital Vilnius. Among the troops were counter terrorist groups and paratroopers. The official explanation during all actions was that the military had to ensure the constitutional order and protect the citizens of the Soviet Union. On the 11th January military troops advanced and seized several important buildings like the National Defense Department or the Press House Building and used ammunition to scare of civilians. At the same time military forces all over the country stormed several important buildings like TV stations, railway stations and defense departments. The phone calls by the new leaders of Lithuania to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, were not answered. The phone rang in Moscow, but Gorbachev didn’t pick up the phone. On the next day and throughout the night the Soviet forces tried to capture more and more important buildings. But the civilians started to protest and block of buildings, radio stations, the Supreme Council, the parliament and the Vilnius Television Tower with their bodies. The soviet military showed especially interest in the Television Tower as the tower made it possible to broadcast from the events to foreign countries and at 1 am in the night from the 12th to the 13th January soviet tanks and soldiers attacked the TV tower with sharp ammunition. The civilian crowd tried to block of the road, but the tanks drove straight through and over the standing humans, while they were shooting at them. But in the end the military was successful and the last moment that was recorded, was a soviet soldier running towards the camera to turn it off. Only minutes later a technician from Kaunas sent a radio message out to all people to come as fast as possible to the radio station to tell in as many languages as possible what is happening in Lithuania so the world can find out about the atrocities. Shortly after this message several professors arrived and started to broadcast on dozens of languages about the events in Vilnius and despite a threatening call by the Soviet Military they proceeded to broadcast. By 4 am a Swedish news station heard the messages and immediately sent all the given information via media. When the sun rose up in Vilnius more than 50.000 independence supporters gathered in front of the Supreme Council. The crowd started to prepare anti-tanks barricades, to sing and to pray together for the independence. The attack and the 13th January 1991 is today called Bloody Sunday in Lithuania, as 14 Lithuanians died and one Soviet Officer was shot due to (most likely) friendly fire. When the world found out about the events in Vilnius, Gorbachev defended the events as a defense action for the workers and intellectuals of Lithuania who felt threatened by the nationalist government. Furthermore he claimed that it were the protestors who shot first. In the upcoming elections on the February 4, 90% of the voters decided for the independence of Lithuania. Russia and the former commander of the counter terrorist group still claims that they received their weapons only after the incidents at the Television Tower and that they have not used any fire arms during their actions. Though the video footage of the attack tells a different story.
Only a bit later than Lithuania, Latvia declared its independence on the 4th May 1990 and once again the Soviet Union did not recognize the independence straight. Just like in Lithuania the people and the government were afraid of the soviet military. A series of anonymous bombings that occurred in December let the fears grow even more. On the 2nd January 1991 military forces (OMON=Special Purpose Mobility Unit) which was stationed nearby Riga, seized the Press house in Riga. The workers were allowed to continue as long as they write only pro-soviet news. On the 7th January several military troops entered Latvia and on the 11th January armored vehicles and armed soldiers were seen on the streets in Riga. When people heard about the incidents in Lithuania and especially about the Vilnius Television Tower, the radio stations called for a demonstration on the Riga Cathedral square, where on the 13th January around 700.000 people gathered together. Soviet helicopters observed the demonstrations and dropped leaflets with warnings over the crowds to return back home to stay safe. The activists of the Popular Front called for the constructions of barricades in the city to make it impossible for tanks to drive through the city and the Supreme Council decided to stay together in the building for the night to be safe. Trucks, agricultural machines, lumbers and construction vehicles were brought from the suburbs and from the surrounding rural areas to the city to block the streets to the most important buildings. On the 14th January people gathered in the city, among them not just men, but women, children and elderly. Together they prepared to perceive a nonviolent resistance to protect their independence. At this moment the people already knew about the incidents in Vilnius and about the people who died as human shields against the Soviet soldiers. The international press, aware of what has happened in Vilnius, arrived with approximately 300 foreign journalists in Riga. The Soviet military has attacked in Lithuania as a first step TV and radio stations to prevent journalism and broadcastings in order to cut off Lithuania from the rest of the world. As Latvia learnt from the actions in Lithuania, the government took care that television and radio broadcasts were protected just as much as the telephone connections to other countries. People stayed at the barricades day and night. They organized meals together and found nearby sleeping places like schools or close flats of protestors. Bonfires were made to keep the people warm; Food and drinks were provided by public and private institutions. People brought warm clothes from home and shared it with other people. Shifts were installed and when people had to go to work or home they were replaced by other people. The first attack occured on the 14th January in which 117 cars were burned. A night later the military attacked a militia academy in Riga. On the 16th January the soviet troops attacked the Vecmilgrāvis bridge leading straight to Riga, where the first protesting person was killed. A day later the Communist Party of Latvia, at this stage still alive, called the new independent state as a rebirth of fascism. On the 20th January the OMON forces attacked the Latvian Interior Ministry and two policemen, a child and two cameramen were killed. The Latvian government used the time to establish a special guard for the barricades that would allow to protect civilians and after a funeral for the victims of the barricade fights most defenders were sent home. However, the barricades were not further attacked. Two months later, in march 1991, the Latvian citizens voted for the full independence from the Soviet Union. Most of the military forces that have fought in Riga were later sent to Transnistria and the commander of the military forces in Riga, Vladimir Antyufeyef was granted the position as Minister of Security. In 2014 he appeared in the Donetsk People’s Republic as deputy prime minister.
Estonia declared its independence on the 20th August 1991 and was therefore way later than the other two Baltic States. The time was helpful as on the same day an ultra-conservative communist group tried to take control over the Soviet government in Moscow. For several hours it was not clear who was in charge of the Soviet Union. But nevertheless the Soviet Union also tried to attack the newly established government. Already on the 21th August tanks and soldiers were driving to the TV tower in Tallinn. But their attempt was unsuccessful as the staff was already prepared. They disabled the elevator, so the soldiers would have to run up the over 1000 stairs in full gear. Furthermore the Tallinn TV tower had an oxygen-removing fire-fighting system which would kill everyone inside if it would have been triggered. The radio operators threatened the soviet soldiers with the use of it, if they would attempt to attack the tower. The soldiers confused and without orders from an even more confused government in Moscow, withdraw and Estonia gained its independence without bloodshed.
One of the most important songs of the “Singing Revolution” is a song that calls for a wake up of all three nations. It has three verses; the first one is in Latvian, the second in Lithuanian and the third in Estonian. The days in which all Baltic people had to fear Soviet tanks and Soviet bullets, the days in which they were called fascists for demanding independence and the days when singing defeated brute force are still not forgotten in the Baltics. However, the similarities to some situations in Europe today are reminding most people in the Baltic States of their past. The memories are still fresh, but are these memories also that fresh in the west?