VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — LITHUANIA was already in the grip of the Soviet Army when hardliners in Moscow attempted to seize power late in August. Since an aborted coup in Vilnius in January and the attack on the broadcast tower that left 16 dead and 500 wounded, Black Berets and paratroops had been on a rampage in the small Baltic republic. A dozen customs posts were burned, and in late July seven customs agents were found executed in a gangland-style murder. As the Soviet coup began on Aug. 19, more key buildings across Lithuania were taken by Soviet forces. When the coup failed in Moscow, Lithuanians celebrated not only the triumph of democracy in Russia, but also witnessed the release of their own nation. In 28 days - under one moon - Lithuania went from a captive in a union in disarray to a full member of the United Nations. Freelance writer John Budris was in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, during these historic days. Following are excerpts from his reporter's notebook.
Tuesday, Aug. 20 10 p.m. Lithuanian Parliament Moscow coup is under way In the halls of the Parliament it is so dark I have to paw my way around walls of stacked sand bags. Though I can't see him, I hear a guard slipping a shell magazine into his rifle. A father and son, both members of the volunteer militia, pose for a picture. The father holds a shotgun - about a 20-gauge - perfect for shooting partridge. The son holds a bunch of gladioluses. A hunting knife is tied to his belt. Not far away are Soviet tanks. The concussion alone from their blank shells shattered the windo ws of two city blocks during the January attack on the [Vilnius] Radio and TV. The father gives me his wife's name and address. President [Vytautas] Landsbergis and the civil defense director speak to the men in what appears a farewell ritual. They pause and pray. A priest gives a blessing. Parliament deputies and staff stand in their own ranks. During the Bloody Sunday attack in January, which left 16 dead and 500 injured, Landsbergis ordered the women to leave. m a dictator tonight - you must listen to me" he said chuckling, one of the aides told me. He made no such suggestion tonight. A woman addresses the men. Her grandfather was a partisan who hid in the woods and fought against the Soviets after the 1940 occupation. "We are like them," she tells the men, looking straight at a uniformed woman militia volunteer. Intelligence sources inside the Soviet Internal Ministry units confirmed that an attack is scheduled - to be coordinated with the siege on the Russian Federation Parliament, says the director. The plan, he says, is to take Moscow and then Leningrad, Tallin, Riga, and Vilnius. They break and watch Moscow on CNN. Two Americans rehearse whipping their blue passports out of their pockets - flashing hopeful shields against kalashnikovs [machine guns]. A bodyguard of Landsbergis's says that they are ready to fight, and only a miracle will keep the Soviet forces away. His white shirt is stretched tight from the bulletproof vest underneath - the kind LA cops wear. "It was worse in January. But we are ready to fight - to die. Those kind of decisions are already made." The OMON or Black Berets took the telephone and telegraph in the afternoon. International lines are out. Upstairs a translator sits on a couch in a darkened hall. "It is a pity that I don't have a gun as I would shoot," she says. "Those who would shoot us, those who would run us down with tanks, they are not people. People could not do such a thing. So if they should come, and I have a gun, I would shoot, by all means. To just be killed would serve no purpose." Outside driving rain extinguishes campfires, but tens of thousands keep singing - as they did in the January snow.
Wednesday - Aug. 21 4 a.m. - Inside Parliament CNN delivered good news. The Russian Parliament held. In the drizzle and gray dawn, Landsbergis leaves to speak to the thousands surrounding the building. "Lithuania will be free," he tells them. A couple well past 70 tug at his sleeve. By early evening, coup organizers both in Moscow and Vilnius are fleeing. The Black Berets release the telephone and telegraph center, but Landsbergis is warned by two Soviet commanding officers to disarm the volunteer militia. He refuses. Near midnight a special-assignment Soviet hit squad raids the Parliament and kills a young militia guard who came back early from vacation.
Thursday - Aug. 22 At the Vilnius Radio and TV seized on Bloody Sunday The OMON left last night, and the remainder of Internal Ministry troops are moving out now - 222 days after their tanks rammed through the 10,000 singing civilians who had surrounded the center. One troop truck speeds around a corner nearly hitting bystanders. At the rear of the building, Soviet troops hurriedly load trucks with boxes. A Lithuanian official from the Radio and TV asks the several thousand to "show their highly evolved culture. Do not shout. Do not whistle. Say goodbye with the contempt of silence." They sing hymns instead. A group of ethnic Poles spreads a Solidarity banner and sings along. "We were there at the tower in January," they tell me. One elderly woman says to me, "This is the happiest day. It is happier than the day I was released from Siberia. Then it was one person being freed. Now our whole nation is being freed." The center is looted and vandalized beyond repair. What was not stolen was doused with acid. Fire extinguishers were emptied on broadcast panels. Walls are knocked to the floor by battering rams. The smells of putrid food and urine are left like calling cards. With gallows humor, one radio director says, "The Japanese made fun of our equipment. I suppose we no longer have this problem." Another official who wears a red sweater says he will give it to the departing Internal Ministry forces. "They can use it as a flag somewhere else," he says. In one of the studios, a poster of Yeltsin has the eyes and mouth cut out. A photograph of Gorbachev is impaled with a pair of scissors. But inside a drawer is a note written by one of the Soviet soldiers: "We are for Lithuania's independence and will obey Yeltsin." "After all this time when I come into this building I can still feel no joy. Months ago archive tapes were being sold in Byelorussia in bulk by the kilo and our video equipment surfaced in Moscow's black market, but I never thought the ransacking would be so bad. Only yesterday they were broadcasting Moscow propaganda," said radio director Nerius Malukevicius. Equipment was later found in the abandoned Communist Party headquarters. By the following day the KGB had begun to abandon headquarters. With the Communist Party outlawed and its property nationalized, local party officials fled under the protection of the military. The monument of Lenin fell. It was a scene repeated across the Baltics.
Friday - Aug. 23 At KGB Headquarters in Vilnius The Lithuanians sing. So they sing in front of the KGB headquarters. One man tells me in heavily accented but fine English: "My father-in-law was tortured in that building. Sentenced to 25 years in Siberia. Who knows how many screams came from those windows." When Lithuanian officials inspect inside they find two newly built cell blocks for 150 prisoners. "I suppose they figured they would be successful in this coup," he says. A wire-service photographer smiles, pleased with her picture of the cells. "Ho w can anyone smile at anything in here?" asks a Lithuanian translator.
Evening at the Parliament: At Parliament 200,000 gather to hear Landsbergis. People are everywhere there is a space. But there is tangible quiet. The speeches begin but stop when there is a call for a doctor. A woman collapsed - apparently of a heart attack. Until medical help arrives a hymn is sung. Bonfires burn across the Baltics tonight with an ironic light on the 52nd anniversary of the deal between Hitler and Stalin, which consigned the Baltics to the USSR. The KGB and Communist Party are on the run. The flower market stays open all night.
Saturday - Aug. 24 Morning outside the Parliament A young militia volunteer leans his hunting rifle against a piano that yesterday barricaded a window. He plays Bach and Billy Joel. The square is surprisingly clean after so many thousands gathered in it last night. The only litter are puddles of hardened candle wax. A pile of the works of Lenin - leather-bound - lies at the foot of what was once his monument. Children paw at them and eat ice cream. A stout grandmother is helped up to the base. Raising her arm like Lenin toward KGB headquarters, she poses for my picture and giggles before the police kindly ask her to get down. Some people pick up bits of torn-down Lenin, cement ballast that filled the cavity of the bronze shell. An American photographer says "Do you realize the fortune I'd make if I could get enough of this to Chicago?" A Lithuanian filmmaker lifts a mineral-water toast but speaks to me in Russian: "To victory," he says and winks, "Just in case." After five decades of Soviet rule, Lithuanians have learned to conserve and portion everything - even optimism.
Beginning with Iceland, 50 nations and republics recognized the independence of the Baltics in the days that followed. The Black Berets were ordered out of Lithuania and, in principle, Moscow agreed to an evacuation of Soviet forces from Lithuanian territory. Terms of the withdrawal will be negotiated. "Lithuania is an age-old European nation, ending our eighth century, whose neighbors have twice crossed us off the map during the last two [centuries]. But today, like the mythical phoenix, we are born again from ashes," said Landsbergis at the United Nations on Sept. 17 - 28 days after the failed coup.