Thursday, January 13, 2022

January 13th is Freedom Defenders' Day in Lithuania: Remembering the successful nonviolent defense of Vilnius from Soviet tanks, and the 14 who died

 Remembering Lithuania's Freedom Defenders.

Group of Lithuanians block a Russian tank outside of Press House in Vilnius two days prior to attack by Russian forces on the TV tower during which 14 people died, January 1991. REUTERS/Peter Andrews

Lithuania has a long and important history. Today is one of those days that require remembrance. Vilnius has designated January 13th as Freedom Defenders' Day, in honor of the Lithuanian civilians who stood down Soviet forces in Vilnius. This was a non-violent victory over brute force that Putin, and other dictators would like to rewrite and disappear from the history books. This is why it is so important to remember.

On January 11, 1991 Soviet tanks had stormed Vilnius to stop Lithuanian independence taking the National Defense Department and the Press House. Crowds of Lithuanians gathered around important national institutions to block the advance of the Russian tanks. On January 13th the Soviet invaders attacked the Vilnius TV tower killing 14 Lithuanians and wounding many more. It did not have the desired effect. 

31 years ago on January 13, 1991, Lithuania declared its intention to be an independent state. Decades later the courage and sacrifice of those who were killed and wounded, nonviolently defending the Vilnius TV tower continue to be remembered and honored.

The President of the Republic of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda today paid homage to Freedom Defenders that "stood unarmed against Soviet tanks defending independence and freedom."

Lithuania's history stretches back many centuries, and its people are distinct and separate from their Russian neighbors.  

The present day territory of Lithuania has been populated all the way back to 12,000 BC.  Between the 5th and 8th centuries tribal groups arrived, among them were the Lithuanians. The name Lithuania first appeared in 1009 in a written account of the St. Bruno Mission. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Magnus Ducatus Lithuaniae) appeared in world maps, on July 6, 1253 with the coronation of Mindaugas, ruler of  a unified Lithuania. Over the next five hundred years Lithuania would prosper and achieve great things, but in 1795 this Baltic state was occupied by Tsarist Russia, and would reappear on the map of Europe 123 years later on February 16, 1918.  Restored Lithuania 100 described the events  that led to this Baltic country rejoining the family of nations in the midst of World War One.

On 16 February 1918, 20 courageous, determined and trusted representatives of the Lithuanian nation signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania “re-establishing an independent state, based on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital city, severing all previous links with other states.” Having withstood the fight for independence against Bolsheviks and Polish invaders, Lithuania sealed its parliamentary democracy in the Constituent Assembly (Steigiamasis Seimas) in 1920.

This new period of freedom would be short lived. On June 15, 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in the midst of the Second World War. The Soviet Union had allied with Nazi Germany on August 23, 1939 in a "non-aggression pact" that plotted the conquest and division of Poland and carved up spheres of influence that placed Lithuania in the Soviet sphere.  

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945 the Soviet Union consolidated its Eastern European empire and reaffirmed its annexation of the Baltic states, including Lithuania. Forty four years later the nonviolent movement that had emerged years earlier in Poland at the Gdansk shipyards, along with new Soviet leadership reluctant to engage in new blood baths to maintain its rule, led to the beginning of the unraveling of the Soviet empire that on August 23, 1989 resulted in mass nonviolent protests across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that became known as the Baltic Way.

However, Soviet designs on the Baltic states did not end in 1989, and if not for those Lithuanians who defended freedom 31 years ago on January 13, 1991 the world would not be observing three decades of Baltic independence. These nonviolent moments in 1989 and 1991 changed world history and these freedom defenders are rightfully remembered and celebrated.

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