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A former Soviet defense minister has been sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Lithuanian court. What for? Why now?

Meduza
Dmitry Yazov. February 22, 1998
Dmitry Yazov. February 22, 1998
Alexander Chumichev / TASS

On March 27, a Lithuanian court sentenced Dmitry Yazov, a former defense minister of the USSR, to 10 years in prison in absentia. He was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of pro-independence Lithuanians during mass protests in Vilnius in January of 1991. In total, 67 people were charged in retroactive cases related to the protests. Here, Meduza explains what happened in Vilnius, what charges Yazov faced as a result, and why the case against him came to a close almost thirty years after the events that sparked it.

Who is Dmitry Yazov?

Dmitry Yazov was the last defense minister of the Soviet Union. He was born in 1924, and by 1942, he was fighting in the Second World War, during which he was wounded twice and received the Order of the Red Star for his service. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Yazov and his motor rifle brigade were sent overseas to defend the communist regime in Cuba in case of an American invasion. In the early years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he commanded the Central Asian Military District, whose territory bordered that of the conflict. In the Perestroika era, Yazov was named the leader of the USSR’s Defense Ministry. In 1990, then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev named him a Marshal of the Soviet Union.

What happened in Lithuania in 1991?

In the late 1980s, Lithuanian advocates for independence from the USSR came to power earlier than their counterparts in other Soviet republics. In May of 1989, Lithuania’s Supreme Council decided that legal decisions made by the central Soviet government would take effect in Lithuania only after being ratified by the republic’s own parliament. On March 11, 1990, a newly elected Supreme Council passed the Renewal of Independence Act, which declared the Soviet occupation of 1940 to be illegal. In the new law, Lithuania proclaimed itself to be the contemporary successor state of the republic that had existed independently from the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s.

Neither the Soviet leadership nor the international community recognized Lithuania’s independence at the time. Moscow responded to the Supreme Council’s move by introducing an economic blockade of Lithuania that limited the delivery of various products, including oil and gas, from other Soviet regions. Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to annex Lithuania’s largest port, Klaipėda, to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Prices in Lithuania rose sharply, and an already painful shortage of many everyday products became even more severe. Stanislovas Žemaitis, a worker from Kaunas, committed suicide by self-immolation on Red Square to protest these and other consequences of Soviet control in his native republic. In July of 1990, the Independence Act was temporarily suspended in exchange for the removal of Soviet sanctions, but after talks between Vilnius and Moscow fell apart before the end of the year, the law was again declared to be active.

A few days later, in early January 1991, the Lithuanian government declared that prices would be tripled in hopes of reducing product shortages. That move led pro-Soviet activists to organize public protests demanding the resignation of the republic’s leadership. Most of the protestors were Russian-speaking Lithuanian citizens, Communist Party activists, and laborers from major Soviet-owned businesses.

On January 11, after Gorbachev demanded that all “unconstitutional acts” be repealed, Soviet army divisions began to occupy Lithuanian government buildings. Members of the republic’s Communist Party formed the Committee to Save the Nation, which was intended to replace the Supreme Council. In retrospect, it appears that the Lithuanian government was unprepared to face such a strong reaction on the part of the Soviet center.

On the night between January 12 and 13, Soviet troops attempted to storm a television broadcast center in Vilnius that remained under the control of pro-independence forces. 14 people were killed during the resulting violence, and one more died of a heart attack. Approximately 900 people were injured. In Lithuanian history, the event is remembered as Bloody Sunday. Ultimately, Soviet forces were unable to quash the resistance movement against them, and the deaths in Vilnius seriously damaged Gorbachev’s authority both in the Soviet Union and around the globe. For example, the editors of the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti unanimously quit the Communist Party and called the events in Vilnius “a crime committed by a regime that is unwilling to leave the stage.”

What were the charges against Dmitry Yazov?

A Lithuanian court has convicted Yazov of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is considered to be the primary leader of the military operation in Lithuania along with the late KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov and the Soviet Internal Affairs minister Boris Pugo.

The day after the storming of the broadcast center in Vilnius, Yazov attempted to explain what had happened to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union. He said “the garrison commander … acted rightfully in accordance with the Charter of Service for Guards and Garrisons when he made the decision to send subordinate units to support the Committee to Save the Nation.” Yazov’s memoirs, which were published after the fact, do not mention his work as the Soviet Defense Minister or his role in the events of 1991 in Vilnius.

One of the central questions surrounding late Soviet military operations in Lithuania has to do with defining Gorbachev’s role. Could military leaders have made a decision as politically important as an armed attack without consulting their commander-in-chief? Gorbachev insisted that the decision to apply military force in Vilnius was made without his consent. However, it is difficult to reconcile that claim with the fact that not one officer lost their job after the deaths of January 13 and with the fact that Pugo and Yazov received Gorbachev’s permission in February to escalate their opposition to continued protests in the republic.

In Russia, one popular version of events holds that Lithuanian separatists, not Soviet soldiers, were responsible for the deaths in Vilnius. Some believe that the separatists opened sniper fire on unarmed opponents before Soviet forces attacked. That idea stems from an interview that Audrius Butkevičius, who led Lituanian pro-independence defense forces in 1991, gave several years later in the late 1990s. In Russia, the interview is frequently interpreted as a confession that it was Butkevičius’s group that killed peaceful civilians on January 13. In fact, Butkevičius admitted that he led pro-independence fighters into the line of fire even though he knew the move would be fatal for them. He never said that his side opened fire first.

Why was Yazov tried in absentia after 30 years? Has anyone else been convicted?

An investigation of the storming in Vilnius concluded in Lithuania in 1991, not long after the attack itself. However, its conclusions could not be applied in court for many years because the vast majority of potential defendants, Yazov included, were located outside Lithuania’s borders. 94 petitions for legal aid were sent to Russia, Belarus, and Germany, but they were all rejected. In 1998, former Communist Party leaders who had remained in Lithuania were put on trial, and for multiple decades, theirs were the only sentences issued in connection with the Vilnius attack.

In 2010, Lithuania redefined the charges issued against Soviet forces. What had previously been called aggression against peaceful civilians and an attempt to overthrow the government became war crimes and crimes against humanity, two charges that have no statute of limitations and can be tried in absentia according to Lithuanian law. While the new charges sped up the legal process related to the violence of January 13, they did not help the Lithuanian government gain international legal support. For example, in 2011, one of the defendants in question, former Alpha Group commander Mikhail Golovatov, was arrested in Vienna, but the Austrian government soon released him. In response, a number of Baltic countries recalled their ambassadors from Austria.

In the end, active trials got underway only in 2016. Charges were brought against 65 people; it is worth noting that Kryuchkov and Pugo, along with many other high-ranking Soviet officials of the early 1990s, had already passed away. Only two people were physically present on the defendant’s bench: Yury Mel and Gennady Ivanov, both Russian citizens and former Soviet officers. Ivanov asserted that he did not participate in the attack on the broadcast center and was responsible in his division for weapons repair alone. Mel also pled innocence in the case.

At the conclusion of the trial, Mel was sentenced to seven years in prison. He is the only defendant in the case who remains under guard. Ivanov was given a four-year sentence, but because he immediately appealed his conviction, he was allowed to go free. The longest sentence in the case, 14 years in prison, was assigned to former Vilnius garrison commander Vladimir Uskhopchik, who lives in Belarus and was convicted in absentia.

What do Russians think about Yazov nowadays?

In August of 1991, Marshal Yazov became one of the leading members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency, or Gang of Eight, a group of high-ranking Soviet officials who attempted to instigate a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. After that attempt failed, Yazov spent a year in a half in the so-called Sailors’ Silence prison in northeast Moscow before receiving amnesty from the State Duma. Soon afterward, even under the Yeltsin regime, Yazov’s political rehabilitation began. He was recognized first as a veteran of the Second World War who regularly received invitations to military parades and then as a military commander and functionary in his own right.

Vladimir Putin congratulates Dmitry Yazov on his 90th birthday, November 8, 2014
Alexey Druzhinin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

In 2008, Yazov was named a general inspector in the Russian Defense Ministry, a role that is typically assigned to high-ranking officers after their retirement. In 2014, when Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated Yazov on his 90th birthday, Putin said he was proud to stand next to the former Soviet officer during an important life event. Yazov actively and publicly defends Joseph Stalin: in 2016, his book Victorious Stalin hit the shelves in Russia.

Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen