Vilnius TV Tower & 13 January Exhibition
The TV Tower and adjoining television centre in Vilnius
were a key location of the violent confrontation between Lithuanian independence supporters and the Soviet
military. In the early morning of 13 January, 14 civilians lost their lives and hundreds were injured in the worst of these clashes, namely when protesters tried to defend the TV centre from being seized by the military.
More background info:
As in the rest of the Baltic region (see Latvia
), a movement striving for independence from the Soviet Union
had been gaining momentum in Lithuania
during the year 1990. The country unilaterally declared its independence, though this was initially not recognized by the outside world, let alone the USSR.
In the wake of that decision, the country tumbled into severe economic difficulty, and politically support for independence was not universal either, especially not on the part of the ethnic Russian population. The Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev
took an uncompromising stand in the case of the Baltics – even though he had previously been extremely lenient in allowing anti-communist movements in Eastern Bloc
countries such as Poland to take over, and what's more: he facilitated the demise of the GDR
and the reunification of Germany
Within its own territory of the USSR
, however, such breakaway ambitions were strongly opposed by the established Soviet leadership. In early 1991 things came to a head. Gorbachev demanded that the Soviet constitution be reinstated in the Lithuanian SSR, the new Lithuanian leadership refused, and eventually the Soviets sent in the military to “restore order”.
Things started to escalate from 11 January when the KGB
and the military went into action in and around Vilnius
. This in turn triggered mass protests and gatherings around the Seimas … and the TV Tower and television/radio centres, as it was expected that the Soviet authorities would want to silence the voice of independence in the media.
And so it came … In the early hours of 13 January, tanks and armoured personnel carriers arrived and began encircling the tower and firing shots over the heads of the amassed protesters. Not much later they fired live rounds into the civilian throngs too. Perhaps even worse, some tanks rolled straight into the crowd as well. Two of the protesters were crushed, including the only female victim to die that night, Loreta Asanavičiūtė. Her story was later made into a TV documentary.
Most victims, however, were shot – and hundreds more were injured. One victim died of a heart attack as a result of the events. And one Soviet soldier was killed by “friendly fire”.
The soldiers broke into the TV centre and managed to cut off the broadcasts. The last minutes were seen live by people across the country.
Despite the attacks, the crowds of protesters did not retreat but grew in numbers and gathered strength. In particular at the Seimas/Supreme Council in the city centre barricades were erected and defended. Eventually the Soviet troops retreated.
The horrors of the attacks on civilians caused international outrage, of course, though initially much less so than the Lithuanian supporters of independence would have wished. Gorbachev claimed he never ordered his troops to open fire (it may indeed have been an unauthorized decision on the part of the commanders on the ground). What really led to the spiralling violence that night may never be fully understood. But whatever the background may be, it was definitely a turning point.
What became almost instantly clear was that Lithuania now had martyrs of their struggle for freedom. Accordingly, their funeral ceremony too became a statement of political determination. Their martyrs' graves at Antakalnis cemetery
became a pilgrimage site. In the wake of the events of 13 January, several streets were renamed after some of the victims. The TV Tower site itself is revered as a symbol of Lithuania's struggle to become a self-determined independent state again.
It did take a while before that reward was reaped, though. For the next few months of 1991 the Soviet leadership still sought to reverse the declaration of independence. But the developments in Lithuania had given those who favoured independence from the USSR
in the other Soviet republics a boost. Not least in Russia
itself, where Boris Yeltsin instrumentalized the event in the Baltics for his own cause against an increasingly weakened Gorbachev.
The final turn of the screw then came after the failed military coup in Moscow
in August 1991, which spelled the end not only of Gorbachev's leadership but also led to the eventual dissolution of the USSR
as such. The newly emerged Russian Federation accepted Lithuania's independence and the rest of the world soon followed suit.
The dramatic events of January 1991 in Lithuania
are generally seen as a key catalyst for this whole sea change in international politics and the final ending of the Cold War
era. And the TV Tower in Vilnius
has become a significant symbol for this.
What there is to see:
The most conspicuous part of the site is obviously the TV Tower itself. At 326 metres (1070 feet) in height it is the tallest structure in Lithuania
and is visible from virtually anywhere within Vilnius
. You can take a lift about halfway up to an observation deck, which also has a revolving restaurant and bar.
The views are good, but what I found especially cool was the quirky, late 1970s interior design. Strangely they don't officially let you take photos of the interior (what are they afraid of?!?), but you are free to take pictures of the views out of the windows. Lots of local visitors ignored the photo restriction, though, and just snapped away, unhindered by the staff … so I did too.
There isn't anything especially dark about this classic tourist attraction of a tower and an observation deck. But at the base of the tower, beyond the foyer where you buy your tickets for the lift up to the observation deck, there's a room that holds a small but powerful exhibition about the events of 13 January (see background
There are photos of the victims and the events that night, as well as various newspaper clippings and documents, including a copy of the Soviet
military command's battle plan for seizing the tower. There are also a few artefacts on display – including an old uniform, various batons, and some broken medals.
There is very little information or interpretation beyond scant labels and the English-language newspaper cuttings. But you get an idea. The photos of the poor protesters whose legs got crushed by Soviet tanks are quite gruesome. Little wonder the general tone of this small exhibition is extremely accusatory.
Outside the tower there are various additional markers and a general memorial plaque which, again, lists the names of all the civilian casualties of that night of 13 January. Furthermore there's a strange monument consisting mainly of a leaning rusty steel cross. In front of the adjacent TV centre facing the tower stands a sculpture of a woman raising her arms to the heavens whilst balancing on top of a bell-shaped base with a relief of a throng of people on it – presumably this is also linked to the tragic evens on 1991 here.
Between the car park and the entrance to the tower's base there is now also an open-air “exhibition” of old TV transmission aerials - only of special interest to those seriously into vintage technology.
The detour to the TV Tower may not be the top priority for a dark tourist in Vilnius
, but it is still a very worthwhile element of the city's overall portfolio, if more for symbolic reasons and historical significance than richness of commodification
a bit out of the city centre of Vilnius
, some 3 miles (5 km) to the west of the Old Town, on a hill beyond a bend in the River Neris.
Access and costs: though out of town, still quite easy to reach by car or taxi; exhibition and memorials free, but a fee (not so cheap by Lithuanian standards) is charged for the lift to the observation desk.
To get to the TV Tower is easiest by car. From the city centre of Vilnius
take one of the main thoroughfares leading west, either the E85 to the south or T. Nartbuto gatve to the north of the river, and then take the main road connecting these two, called Laisves pr. The car park by the TV Tower is on Sausio 13-osios gatve (guess where it's got its name from) just east of the main road. Coming from the north you need to use the bridge across the highway to get to the TV Tower.
If you do not have your own vehicle, get a taxi. It should cost only 6 to 8 euros. Getting there by public transport is also possible (e.g. trolley bus 16 from the train station), but less convenient. For walking all the way there from the centre it may be a bit far. It would take over an hour and part of the way isn't particularly scenic.
Access to the open-air memorials and the aerial collection is free at all times. Admission to the 13 January exhibition at the base of the tower is nominally also free of charge – but it may be tricky to convince the staff that this is all you want to see. They will rather expect you to want to go to the tower's observation desk. You can hire an audio guide (in English, German, Russian, Polish or Lithuanian).
The admission charge for the lift is (in 2018): 8 EUR, various concessions apply.
Opening times of the observation deck and revolving restaurant: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m or 10 p.m.; the exhibition (aka “museum of the struggle for freedom”) allegedly opens an hour earlier, i.e. from 10 a.m., but I wouldn't rely on it too much. To check ahead you can use the contact phone number: +37052525333.
Time required: The exhibition requires no more than 10-20 minutes max, the outside memorials hardly any more, and how long you may want to spend in the observation deck (if you want to go up at all) will largely depend on visibility and whether or not you also want to drink and eat anything in the revolving restaurant (you are not obliged to). One revolution takes 55 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Vilnius
Twelve of the civilians who lost their lives on 13 January 1991 at the TV Tower are buried in Antakalnis cemetery
in the east of Vilnius. So going there and paying your respects would make for the most suitable combination. Also thematically related is the barricades memorial
by the Seimas. And the story of the January events is also part of the Genocide Victims' Museum
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The immediately environs of the TV Tower are not especially attractive – it's mainly drab socialist-era prefab housing blocks, but the riverbanks of the Neris aren't far, which at this stretch are flanked by wooded parkland. You get a good view of all this from the TV Tower's observation deck.
On the other side of the river you can see the huge open-air arena of Vingis Park that not only featured in the Baltics' “singing revolution” but is also a venue for contemporary pop concerts by big international stars (such as Depeche Mode
, who are very popular in the Baltics).
- Vilnius TV tower 01 - from afar
- Vilnius TV tower 02 - closer up with halo
- Vilnius TV tower 03 - old aerials on open-air display
- Vilnius TV tower 04 - memorial by the media centre
- Vilnius TV tower 05 - at the base of the tower
- Vilnius TV tower 06 - on the observation deck with its revolving restaurant
- Vilnius TV tower 07 - view over the city
- Vilnius TV tower 08 - power plant
- Vilnius TV tower 09 - model
- Vilnius TV tower 10 - exhibition about the tragic events of 13 January 1991
- Vilnius TV tower 11 - Soviet battle plan
- Vilnius TV tower 12 - artefacts of repression
- Vilnius TV tower 13 - Soviet artefacts
- Vilnius TV tower 14 - broken
- Vilnius TV tower 15 - leaning cross memorial
- Vilnius TV tower 16 - plaque at the bottom