Uncovering the layers of accountability and exploring potential motives behind the tragic events of Bloody Sunday in Lithuania.
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Exploring legal and criminological insights into Lithuania’s Bloody Sunday

Uncovering the layers of accountability and exploring potential motives behind the tragic events of Bloody Sunday in Lithuania.

This article has been written by third-party authors independent of The Academic. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of The Academic, and solely reflects the opinions of the article’s authors.

The events of January 13, 1991, and the ensuing criminal case are closely related to the liberation of Lithuania from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). On that fateful day, the Soviet government used military force to disrupt Lithuanian independence (declared on March 11, 1990), killing 14 unarmed civilians and injuring hundreds more.

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For comparison, it’s worth noting that the preceding events in Baku and Tbilisi share similar characteristics. On all three occasions, USSR spokespeople insisted that the USSR acted in self-defence, citing the alleged civil disorder as justification for violent intervention by Soviet troops.

Following the Tbilisi massacre, USSR’s foreign ministry spokesman said that the clashes were sparked by “die-hard nationalists, extremists, and political adventurists who are abusing democratization to the detriment of USSR’s new policy of openness and of our very society”. These events exhibit a Rashomon-like quality, with facts and interpretations varying wildly depending on the source.

What is even more noteworthy is the emergence of the “Tbilisi-syndrome” – an unwillingness to engage in violent operations. It is recognised that the events in Tbilisi, Baku, and Vilnius in 1991 contributed to the refusal of soldiers to suppress demonstrations during the August Coup.

How do we prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity? We need to study the mindset of those soldiers who disobey explicit or implicit orders.

Salomeja Zaksaite

The verdicts of the first and appellate courts

The Lithuanian courts in both instances determined that all 67 accused persons acted in accordance with the directives of the highest authorities of the USSR and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). They sought to reintegrate Lithuania into the USSR and organised a military operation for that purpose, during which they recklessly used force against Lithuanian civilians, resulting in fatalities and injuries.

In principle, the verdicts handed down on March 27, 2019, and March 3, 2021 did not significantly differ. However, upon appeal, 14 of the convicts received slightly harsher sentences, while two others saw more lenient sentences, and civil lawsuits were resolved.

Credit. Midjourney

Criminological assessment of war crimes and crimes against humanity

War crimes and crimes against humanity are relatively new topics in criminology, posing significant challenges for the interpretation of these crimes using conventional criminological theories.

One proposed explanation for such behaviour is the theory of “angry aggression”. This theory suggests that people engaged in violent operations, such as the military forces of the USSR in the context of the January 13 incident, experience a persistent state of anxiety and arousal. Consequently, they tend to perceive various actions as threatening, constantly anticipate danger, and react aggressively, even to perceived threats.

This heightened state of arousal triggers the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, which suppresses rational thought processes. Instead, energy is directed towards preparing the body to attack or defend itself against perceived threats, rather than engaging in critical reflection on explicit or implicit orders.

The ambiguity of directives to kill and challenges in command responsibility

The conceptual problem of a manifestly illegal order is relevant in this criminal case: it is plausible that there was no direct order or pre-arranged criminal intent to kill people before the events of January 13. Consequently, it is difficult to establish a specific motive for the killing.

Understandably, such an argument, commonly raised by defence attorneys, may not be entirely accurate, but it cannot be ignored. Had there been a specific intent to kill, there would probably have been far more victims. Moreover, it is possible that the “Tbilisi syndrome” had already influenced Soviet soldiers. The key lesson drawn from the Tbilisi massacre of 1989 was that the use of army troops in internal political disputes was detrimental to the prestige and integrity of the military.

Additionally, then-commander Gorbachev’s elusive personality adds another layer of complexity to the picture. Egor Kuznetsov, an assistant to one of Gorbachev’s chief aides, later recalled that in cases like Vilnius, Gorbachev would direct the armed forces to “restore order” but would not authorise any specific violence-related activities. Instead, he would tell the military leaders to work things out for themselves.

Concluding insights

The background details of the criminal cases are frequently “circumcised”. For instance, the sentencing does not indicate if the offender thought the victim was “deserving” of punishment or a lesson, even a brutal one. Perhaps convictions, including those in political cases, would not have been possible otherwise.

In the January 13th case, the Lithuanian judgements are a big step forward, but they don’t “solve” all the problems surrounding the case. One thing that is missing is clarity about what the military and political leader (i.e., Gorbachev) is responsible for.

As for the recommendations for future research, it is advisable that policymakers consider both the cognitive and emotional components of carrying out the explicit or implicit order. Besides, it would be prudent to focus on the mindset of those soldiers who disobeyed orders. More generally, it would be helpful to understand the mentality of those people (about 33 percent) who weren’t ready to apply lethal doses in the well-known Milgram experiment. Then, the manifestation of the enigmatic “Tbilisi syndrome” would become clearer.

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Journal Reference

Zaksaitė, S. (2023). Lithuania’s “Bloody Sunday”: a criminological and legal approach. Crime Prevention and Community Safety25(1), 47-61. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41300-022-00166-w

Salomeja Zaksaite received her degrees in law, a master’s in 2008, and a PhD in 2012, from Vilnius University, Lithuania. Her PhD thesis was titled “Cheating in Sports: Prevalence and Prevention Problems.” From 2013 to 2015, Ms. Zaksaite worked on the project “Postdoctoral Fellowship Implementation in Lithuania”. Currently, she is a Senior Research Fellow at the Law Institute of the Lithuanian Centre for Social Sciences. Salomeja Zaksaite has written a large number of scientific and practical publications and carried out interdisciplinary research. Her scientific interests include criminology, sports law, human rights, crime, and art studies.