We arrived at the entrance to the Lithuanian publishing house Friday moments after Soviet army paratroopers stormed the building. Within seconds, we were ducking for cover as a Soviet army colonel let off a burst of automatic rifle fire at Lithuanian activists who 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. 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 yearlong 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 in Vilnius 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 Friday morning to find two rival crowds besieging the building. In a way, they symbolize the political forces that are now struggling to control this tiny country 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 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 anthem of the world communist movement, 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 raised prices on basic food items six- or sevenfold 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, the talk was all of the historic 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.
Inside the parliament building, Lithuania's new prime minister, Albertas Simenas, was giving his first press 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 imposing direct rule from Moscow.