Vilnius TV Tower, Lithuania


lithuania's towering embrace

a soviet symbol is reborn


Sometimes the most interesting things to be seen are not the key landmarks, or the largest buildings, but the small and easily-missed; things which are emblematic of a place without knowing it, emblems and symbols which characterise a nation and culture that only the foreign eye can see. Some of the most dramatic and telling sights I have seen up until this point have been the shocking, the grim, the unrefined and the wild. I call these 'anti-attractions'. Indeed, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has an academic centre researching 'Dark Tourism'. Some things are so grim that they become utterly fascinating, acting as a touchstone into the heart of a place: its problems, its deficiencies, its painful stories...

All three Baltic countries feel very different: Estonia is full of old-town charm, Latvia is edgy and urban, Lithuania quite moody. Whilst all Baltic countries have their crosses to bear following their occupation by the Soviets, it appears that Lithuania has the heaviest. This is how it feels, anyway. Travelling outside of the immediate capital Vilnius, it is Soviet apartments aplenty: some of the grimmest scenes I have ever seen. Apartment buildings of decaying concrete, covered in graffiti and surrounded by overgrown grass. It is actually quite impressive: perfect dilapidation. In the Karoliniskes district of Vilnius, a place synonymous to Lithuanians as being the main place where the events of 1991 unfolded, you will find the Vilnius TV Boksta - or TV Tower. It soars 326 metres above Vilnius and is a classic cosmic communist construction with its UFO-style disk and red and white striped antenna. State sponsored architects drew their inspiration from the space race with America, one of the few areas where Russia and America were on an equal footing. It was a strength that would result in some amazingly bizarre cosmic constructions across all republics of the USSR.


when the soviets attacked

The tower holds an oxymoronic place in the Lithuanian psyche being a classic symbol of USSR occupation but also the scene of where Lithuanians fought for freedom against Soviet tanks, which were sent in in 1991 to take control of broadcasts. In the early hours of January 13th, Soviet tanks and soldiers encircled the tower, firing live rounds into the crowds that had gathered there. Fourteen Lithuanians laid down in front of the rolling tanks at the foot of the tower. The tanks simply rolled on, flattening and killing them. In the chaos, broadcasts ceased from the Vilnius tower. In a bid to inform the world of what was happening, transmission switched to a little-used studio in Kaunas, Lithuania's second city which I also visited during my trip to the country.

In the small studio, used once a week for a light-hearted family programme, a lowly technician appears calling for anyone who can help to communicate to the world, in as many different languages as possible, that Soviet tanks were killing unarmed people in Lithuania. Within an hour, the studio fills with university professors broadcasting in several languages. It is gripping to watch, even though it is in Lithuanian with no subtitles. The technician speaks quickly into the microphone, checking his watch to read out the time live, so as to convince viewers this is no recording. He gasps for breath whilst, at several points, looking close to tears. Camera angles switch wildly, microphones crackle, hands appear from off camera passing on notes to be read out in broken foreign tongues, and telephones ring on set. Lithuania's call for help to the world from the Kaunas studio can be watched here. This clip is infamous in Lithuania and is captivating in its simplicity.

Back in Vilnius, the dramatic assault by Soviet troops at the foot of the tower continued (it can also be seen by clicking here). Gorbachev later claimed that at the time he knew nothing of the attack by Soviet forces on Lithuania, claiming that communist hardliners within the party had ordered the assault without him knowing. Considering the coup against Gorbachev happened only months later, this is very likely to be the case.


Memorialising the Fight to Save the Boksta

Today, a series of crosses and a marble memorial can be seen at the foot of the tower commemorating those that died in the Battle for the Boksta - the sight at which Lithuania fought and won independence from the USSR and the point in time when the USSR's grip of the Baltics began to weaken.  Since these events, the tower has been embraced by Lithuanians more so than ever. Every year the tower is turned into a huge Christmas tree. In 2011, it also became the world's biggest basketball hoop during the European Basketball Championships - Lithuanians are Basketball mad, by the way. You can see images of the tower dressed in this way, here. Embracing former foes in this way is, undoubtedly, an important part of the healing process and the need to look to the future. Formerly a reminder of Soviet expansion and technological prowess, the tower has become a symbol of Lithuanian independence. It is no surprise, therefore, that the tower is now decorated and celebrated in this way by Lithuanians: a reclaiming and re-branding of a dark symbol. The TV Boksta has been brought in from the cold and points to the Lithuanian future, no longer the Soviet past. The TV Tower, at first, seems an odd place to visit as a tourist passing through the city. It is, however, a fascinating touchstone for understanding all that Lithuania stands for and holds dear. This tower is the point at which a crumbling communism and a growing Lithuanian desire for freedom intersect, the place at which Baltic countries shifted from east to west. The Battle for the Boksta in Vilnius was the precursor to the dramatic reunification of Europe and the final fall of the USSR. It was at this place that some of the first shots across the USSR boughs were made making it one of the best, and arguably the most idiosyncratic, dark tourism attraction.


Photographs of the Vilnius TV Tower, including on the far right, the Hill of Crosses which commemorates the battle for freedom which took place here.



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