“Soviet tanks rattled onto Klaipėda’s streets with paratroopers on top clutching their rifles”

January 1991

It’s been 25 years since the bloody events of January 13, 1991, but for three former Klaipėda councilmen they remain etched forever in their memories. “Some of the names have faded away and some of the ill-famed sites have been brought down, but the recollections of that tragic night are still very vivid, as if we lived through it recently,” said the men, Vytautas Lupeika, Benonas Launikonis and Dionyzas Varkalis.

Even though Klaipėda was 300 kilometres away from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the probability of seeing a repetition of the Vilnius TV Tower massacre in the Lithuanian seaport was very big, they said.

“As the outpost of the Soviet empire’s western borders, Klaipėda had a ramped up military presence. With the news on the Vilnius TV Tower attack out, the Soviet military division in Klaipėda went out with bravado on patrol displaying their military might: the tanks would speedily rattle towards the Lenin Monument [where Atgimimo Square now is] and spin around with the paratroopers atop the hatches and ready for anything. There was a sense of imminent danger,” said Benonas Launikonis.

With the anticipation that something terrible could happen to the fledgling independent state, Klaipėda, led by the-then city Council chairman Vytautas Čepas, had been preparing for the worst for quite some time.

“The menace was real and tangible all over the place. I was told to take care of the city’s call centre stations if anything horrible happened. There was a wide understanding in the Council that, if the Soviet troops were given the order to take over power in the country, they would start it by seizing the means of communication,” Vytautas Lupeika, a former Klaipėda Councilman and one of the big names of Sąjūdis’ Klaipėda affiliate back in the 1990s, told The Lithuania Tribune.

Together with some volunteer city defenders, he visited the city’s telephone exchanges on the night of January 13, 1991 – around seven or eight of them – scattered all over Klaipėda, to observe the workers’ mood and instruct the employees on how to behave if the communication facilities were forcibly taken over by Soviet troops. Among the first facilities to have been occupied by the Soviet military in Vilnius in 1991 was a telecommunication centre in Vilnius.

“To tell the truth, some of the staff were disloyal to the restored state of Lithuania – I could easily see it just by looking at some of the faces. Most of the workers were non-Lithuanians,” Lupeika said.

Part of the call station personnel seemed confused and agitated, he said: “In one calling station, we found its supervisors sipping cognac and playing chess. I could not fight the hunch that they were in an elevated mood because of what was happening in Vilnius,” he said.

Some of the city’s communication centre heads had swiftly left for Russia after the old Kremlin apparatchiks-led coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the crumbling Soviet Union, failed in August of 1991, he said.

Where Klaipėda University campus is now situated, there was a division of Soviet troops stationed, led by the notorious general Ivan Chernych in the 1990s.

“After the January 13 events in the capital, some Soviet tanks left the site of deployment and rattled onto Klaipėda’s streets with the paratroopers on top clutching their rifles,” Lupeika remembered.

Possible bloodshed was averted by Vytautas Čepas, the council chairman, who rang up Chernych and urged him to get the tanks back in their garrison.

The former Klaipėda councilman said he sometimes still cannot grasp how lucky Lithuania – and Klaipėda – were to have avoided serious bloodshed in the city.

“Soviet troops in Klaipėda were omnipresent: besides the division where the University campus now is, there was a howitzer regiment in Giruliai and an armoured combat vehicle division where the cardboard plant now stands,” Lupeika said. “We were all very lucky indeed.”

The reminiscences of the night for Benonas Launikonis, another Klaipėda councilman of the term, are about the reinforcement of the-then City Council’s Hall in Liepų Street.

“We literally were encaged, not leaving it for days. Volunteer women would bring us food and we would eat in the hall. If I am not mistaken, I spent three whole days and nights in it – convening and discussing with the other councilmen what actions should be taken while assessing the ever-changing situation in Vilnius,” Launikonis told The Lithuania Tribune.

Along with the others he had built concrete and steel barricades on the street to deter Soviet troops from an attack on the Council Hall. The defence of the city’s other key sites was stepped up too.

“I was so excited that I do not even remember how I left it. I remember though that, on my way to the Council Hall, I was stopping the passers-by and agitating them vehemently to join the city volunteer defenders gathering at the City Council Hall, Sąjūdis Office and other key locations,” Launikonis said.

He had just spent a number of days in Vilnius, where Sąjūdis, Lithuania’s national movement for change, had instructed the delegates from all over the country on how to deal with the situation in the regions.

“I clearly remember the spirit of the meeting: there were fierce calls for reinforcement of defensive capacities locally and we were given advice on how to act in a worst-case scenario,” the former councilman remembered.

Having come back home, he shared the instructions with the members of Sąjūdis’ Klaipėda affiliate, as well as the city Council’s chairman V. Čepas and Marijus Eidukevičius, another local stalwart.

The news that the Soviet tanks rolled over the defenders of the Vilnius Television Tower crushing them to death found him at home.

“There were thousands and thousands Klaipėdians ready to confront the aggression. Thank God, all the lives were spared. Not in Vilnius, alas,” the Sąjūdis member regretted.

Now in retirement, he still is an active member of the Lithuanian Sąjūdis Council and is preoccupied with the organization of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of January 13.

Dionyzas Varkalis, a third former Klaipėda City Council member at the time told The Lithuania Tribune: “That night I was on duty in the Council. We had a duty schedule drawn up for all the councilmen and my hours had me in the Council Hall from noon to midnight.”

Varkalis recorded all the TV and radio programmes he watched or listened to, as well as most of the meetings he had participated in: “I did it in order to document the ongoing history and for the sake of future generations had anything terrible happened to us then,” he said. “I still have several dozens of cassettes with the records.”

When the attack on Vilnius TV Tower commenced, he rushed to secure the archives as well as the other valuable documentation that could have been confiscated by the aggressors.

“I packed up everything in a hurry and transported it to safe locations,” the former councilman remembered.

After the tragic events in the Lithuanian capital, he received a call from Vilnius, asking him to inspect a TV tower in Giruliai, a settlement on the outskirts of the city.

The entrances leading to the Council Hall that night were speedily barricaded, and Varkalis is still amazed at the patriotism of the volunteers.

“There were thousands of people ready to go to any lengths in resisting the aggressor. The feeling of patriotism was overwhelming. It is incredible to know that this history has happened in my lifespan,” he said.

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