VILNIUS, U.S.S.R., JAN. 11 -- Reporters arrived at the entrance to the Lithuanian publishing house moments after Soviet army paratroopers stormed the building. Within seconds, we were ducking for cover as a Soviet colonel fired a burst from his automatic rifle at Lithuanian activists who had drenched him with a fire hose.
Most of the bullets ricocheted harmlessly off the concrete wall directly over our heads, but one of them caught a member of the Lithuanian national guard on the side of his head. Five minutes later, Tomas Luksis staggered out of the building, his face covered with blood and the flesh hanging loose. As the Lithuanian crowd chanted, "Fascists! Fascists!" at the Soviet paratroopers, he was bundled into an ambulance and rushed to a hospital.
What we had just witnessed were the first live shots fired by Soviet security forces during the year-long conflict between Moscow and Vilnius over Lithuania's drive for independence. The revolution that began so peacefully with democratic elections in the three Baltic states that were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 under a secret deal with Nazi Germany had suddenly turned violent.
The day began with peaceful rallies in front of the parliament building, both for and against President Vytautas Landsbergis. It ended with hundreds of Lithuanian activists preparing molotov cocktails in the hallways of parliament and being sworn in by Landsbergis as "soldiers of the Republic of Lithuania."
I arrived at the Lithuanian parliament shortly after 10 this morning to find two rival crowds besieging the building. In a way, they symbolize the political forces that are now struggling to control this small republic of 3.4 million people. To my right, backed down Gedaminas (formerly Lenin) Avenue, were several thousand Russian, Polish and Ukrainian workers waving red Soviet flags and chanting slogans for direct rule from Moscow. On my left, blocking their way toward parliament, was a much larger crowd of Lithuanians, waving the green, yellow and red Lithuanian tricolor and chanting, "Laisve! Laisve!" (Lithuanian for freedom).
The rival crowds shouted at each other across a thin cordon of Lithuanian policemen, indistinguishable from Soviet militiamen except that they sport the symbols of the Lithuanian state on their hats. At one point, some Russian workers started singing "The Internationale," the Communist anthem, but were drowned out after a few bars by hoots and jeers from the Lithuanians.
The main grievance of the Russian-speakers was a recent Lithuanian government decree that had raised prices on basic food items six- or seven-fold without making clear how people would be compensated. The decree was swiftly withdrawn by the Lithuanian parliament on Tuesday, but it triggered allegations of discrimination and demands for fresh elections.
"There will be clashes, but we cannot give up now," said Valentin Marmul, a Byelorussian who works for a Vilnius insurance company. "I no longer feel secure in my job. My Lithuanian boss can fire me at a moment's notice, not because I don't do my job properly, but just because he doesn't like my face."
On the other side of the police line, all the talk was of the injustices suffered by Lithuania after its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. Under former dictator Joseph Stalin, Lithuania lost one-eighth of its population through summary executions and deportations. For almost a half-century, any public expression of Lithuanian national sentiment was a criminal offense.
"We are a small nation that is part of a huge empire," said Romas Nakauskas, an engineer who had responded to radio appeals from Landsbergis to defend the parliament building from attack. "The only way we can survive is by struggling for what we believe in. Our political leaders may have made mistakes, but that doesn't make the cause of Lithuanian independence any less dear to us."
Inside the parliament building, Lithuania's new prime minister, Albertas Simenas, was holding his first news conference. The bearded 40-year-old economist promised to make sure that workers were properly compensated for any price rises. But he also accused "our large neighbor from the east" of deliberately creating instability in the republic to create a pretext for direct rule from Moscow.
Suddenly Audrius Butkevicius, the 30-year-old head of Lithuania's National Security Department, a fledgling defense ministry, burst into the room. He had just been informed that Soviet troops had seized his headquarters, beating up people inside. Wire service reporters rushed for the phones. The rest of us rushed for the door.
As several of us drove toward the National Security Department on Cosmonauts Avenue, we saw four light tanks drawn up outside the publishing house, their gun turrets pointed menacingly toward the building. The front door had just been smashed in by paratroopers, but they were still not completely in control of the building. Suddenly, muddy water began pouring down from somewhere above us, drenching the paratroop colonel.
Something inside the colonel snapped. Grabbing a Kalashnikov rifle from one of his soldiers, he sprayed the building with bullets for about 10 seconds. He then retreated to his tank, surrounded by angry Lithuanians asking whether he had orders to shoot unarmed people. "I have the right to defend myself," he replied grimly.
The crowd outside the press building grew and fresh army reinforcements arrived. Some Russians shook the hands of the soldiers, thanking them for coming to "restore order," but the vast majority of onlookers was hostile. Teenagers started screaming "Fascists!" and "Bastards!" at the soldiers, who looked on grim-faced, waiting for orders from the enraged colonel. A large tank exploded a deafening blank to frighten the crowd and more shots were fired into the air.
At one point, it seemed as if the paratroopers were preparing to clear the square in front of the publishing house by force. They lined up in front of their tanks, facing the crowd with bayonets fixed and assault rifles pointed upward at a 45-degree angle. A cheer went up from the crowd as several dozen Lithuanian policemen, who are loyal to the parliament, formed a line in front of the publishing house. Foreign journalists and television cameramen stood to one side, waiting for a bloodbath to begin.
Then, suddenly, the moment of tensest confrontation passed. The soldiers received fresh orders and ran off on the double, pursued by jeers and whistles as they retreated to a side entrance of the building.
A little farther along Cosmonauts Avenue, a similar drama had been taking place. A column of tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks arrived at the headquarters of the National Security Department. On the first floor, employees organized a rudimentary defense of barricades and molotov cocktails. When the troops stormed in, they fired some explosives and escaped through a second-floor window.
By the time I arrived, the building was being guarded by four large battle tanks and a company of troops, identifiable only by the black panthers on their helmets. A group of women was blocking the path of one of the tanks, singing Catholic hymns and waving Lithuanian flags. "What do they want from us, little Lithuania?" said Gerda Ohekoseviciute. "If they want to go any further, let them drive over us."
A soldier shrugged his shoulders when a Lithuanian asked what he was doing. "I'm carrying out my orders. If you were in my place, you would do the same thing. If I was a Lithuanian, I would probably be standing where you are."
Down below in the street, a 19-year-old draft resister was giving an interview to American television. "We stayed up all night, defending the building," said Andrius Kandratas, who joined the National Security Department last fall to avoid conscription into the Soviet army. "When we saw the soldiers breaking in the door, we set off a few of our bombs and then we fled."
At the other end of Cosmonauts Avenue, huge crowds had gathered around the 1,000-foot television tower, widely rumored to be the next building the army might attack. Inside, activists dressed in assorted uniforms were preparing makeshift barricades of furniture. In interviews, they acknowedged that they would not be able to hold out for more than five minutes if they came under attack.
"The point is not to defend the building against paratroopers. We know we can't do that. The point is to make some token resistance in order to show the world that we are not surrendering voluntarily," said the director of the television tower, Leonas Ignatavicius.
"It was like this in 1940 when the Soviets annexed Lithuania the first time," said his assistant, Pranas Vecutis. "I was a 12-year-old boy then and I still remember the sight of those tanks. What else can you expect from a system that is built on force? The regime has become a little more flexible, more concerned about world opinion. But nothing has really changed."