Gorbachev had to have known about the January 13 Vilnius assault

The case of the January 13

I reread the sentence that the Lithuanian prosecutors asserted Gorbachev was not aware of the intended military assault in Vilnius on January 13, 1991 because of the “available evidence” several times. This left me scratching my head as my research to date demonstrates quite the opposite, that Gorbachev had to have known about not only the preparations to unleash violence in Vilnius that fateful night, but intended to do so as a purposeful gambit to solve the political Baltic Question with direct military measures. His gamble failed as Gorbachev completely misunderstood the nature and widespread support for the Baltic republics to re-establish their independence. As Lithuania was the point of the Baltic spear to break away from the Soviet Union by completely declaring their independence outright and without qualifiers, Estonia and Latvia did so with qualifiers of being in transition, Lithuania was the target and example to be made.

The key to understanding how the military could not have acted on its own or just overstepped its boundaries leading to the tragedy of January 13th without Gorbachev’s knowledge is to examine the movement of the 76th Guards Airborne Division from Pskov in Russia to Lithuania on January 7, 1991 as ordered by Defence Minister Gen. Dmitri T. Yazov. Of course Defense Minister Yazov reports directly to Gorbachev. Unlike other Soviet Army units in military districts of the Soviet Union, the elite Soviet paratrooper divisions known as “Vozdushno-Desantnye Voiska” (VDV) “blue berets” were, and remain, directly controlled from Moscow under the Minister of Defence outside of the standard military district chain of command. As such, the 76th Guards Airborne Division was not under the command of the commander of the Leningrad Military District in Pskov or the commander of the Baltic Military District in Vilnius, let alone the local Vilnius garrison commander Gen. Vladimir Uskhopchik.

The chain of command and authorizations from a Soviet private in the field to Moscow were distinct and clear. Any deviation from this chain of command, whether the issuing live ammunition let alone mobilization, had the harshest of repercussions. The actions in Vilnius took at the least a month of pre-planning that negates any spontaneous reaction from a local garrison commander to help The National Salvation Committee (NSC) in a coup to overthrow Landsbergis’ legitimately elected government.

The purported reason to order and move the 76th Airborne Division from Pskov to Vilnius was to round up Lithuanian draft deserters. This is puzzling as its sister division, the 7th Guards Airborne Division was already located in Lithuania and had been there since 1948 and had a history of specialized purpose missions such as leading the assaults in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. When “special purpose missions” were needed, you see the use of these elite paratrooper VDV forces under the direct command of the Kremlin who were also used for the violence in Tblisi and Baku. They have served the same purpose for Russia in Chechnya, Georgia in 2008, and recently in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Once the 76th airborne division was re-located, Gorbachev issued the threat on January 10, 1991 to issue direct presidential rule in Lithuania unless the Supreme Council “immediately and completely reestablish the validity of the constitutions of the USSR and the Lithuanian SSR. At 11:45 a.m. on January 11, 1991 commander of Vilnius military garrison Gen. Uskhopchik informed the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania about the commencement of military “exercises” in Vilnius. As the potential and actual violence transpired, Gorbachev refused to receive Landsbergis’ numerous phone calls. The timing, actions, and reactions make it clear and obvious this was not a case of the Soviet military acting on its own.

The recently published and translated to English diary of Gorbachev’s foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernyaev is very revealing on this matter. Chernyaev was loyal to Gorbachev to the end, staying with Gorbachev during his isolation at Foros right up to the December of 1991 resignation. The bloody and violent night of January 13, 1991 shook Chernyaev deeply when he contemplated resigning and had no doubt that Gorbachev did not just know about the events, but even ordered it. Gorbachev’s press office head Vitaly Ignatenko confided to Chernyaev privately that Gorbachev did indeed know about and ordered the crackdown in Vilnius.

What possible available evidence does the Lithuanian prosecutors have that could lead to the conclusion of Gorbachev being unaware of this violent coup attempt? Naturally, given the orders emanated from the Kremlin, there would not be any such evidence of orders in Lithuania at the time let alone now even if they were in writing and not just verbal. I attempted to get information for my own research from the Lithuanian prosecutors, but was told they could not even reveal without any names simply the ranks and units of the accused in this court case. Perhaps there is something lost in translation, and I am still scratching my head.

Joseph Enge
American Ph.D. history doctoral candidate
University of Tartu, Estonia

I am open to any and all information from Lithuania on this matter and additional details regarding the Soviet military in Vilnius in January of 1991 as there is no doubt much that has not been revealed let alone available in English.

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