The Baltic Way, sometimes also called the Baltic Chain, was a peaceful political demonstration on 23 August 1989. In fact, it was one of the largest political demonstrations in European history. About two million people joined hands to form a human chain of about 690 kilometres (about 430 miles) across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which at the time were occupied by the USSR and regarded as three ‘republics’ of the Soviet Union. The Baltic Way protest marked the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP). What was ostensibly non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany also included a secret additional protocol with which they divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. The MRP had led to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, and to the Soviet invasion and occupation of the Baltic countries in June 1940.
Towards the end of the Cold War, the Baltic liberation movements made the condemnation of the secret protocol of the MRP a major focus of their activism, and the Baltic Way protest was a high point of these efforts. It was organised jointly by pro-independence organisations in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The protest had several purposes. One was to further solidarity between the three nations, another was to put pressure on Moscow. Last, but not least, it was meant to demonstrate to the international public that, unlike what the Soviet propaganda was claiming, and as Western sceptics were likely to believe, the Baltic desire for independence was not just embraced by small circles of nationalists but was supported by a large majority of the local populations.
The Soviet authorities responded to the event with public threats but did not immediately crack down on the liberation movements. In fact, in December 1989, the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies accepted, and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the report condemning the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Seven months after the protest Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence.
Today, 23 August is an official day of remembrance in the Baltic countries, in the EU and elsewhere, known as the Black Ribbon Day, or the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.
But the Baltic Way has also been emulated in form. In February 2004, more than one million people in Taiwan linked hands in protest against Chinese military threats. Another example was the Hong Kong Way, held in Hong Kong on 23 August 2019, on the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. On that occasion, about 210, 000 people formed a 50 km long chain, demanding government accountability and democratic reform. The Baltic Way continues to inspire around the world.
Comment: Okay. This post is pure self-indulgence, but it also marks two important anniversaries. This article was written by Mart Kuldkepp, an Estonian Associate Professor of Scandinavian History and Politics at University College of London. When the Baltic Way protest occurred, I was still in the States but already knew I was soon heading to Germany as an Army clandestine case officer. I saw it as being back in the fight just as I was earlier in my career as an ODA commander in 10th SFG(A).
The song on the video is “Laisvė” written and sung by Eurika Masytė. It became an unofficial anthem for Lithuania’s part in what became known as the singing revolution in the Baltics. It always brings chills to my soul and tears to my eyes.