It was the greatest protest action in the USSR. It was the most significant peaceful demonstration in European history. It was the longest human chain in the world.
August 23, 1989 is the date, that become a milestone for the future of the Baltic states. This day, at 19:00, over two million inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined their hands and demonstrated the solidarity of the Baltic people in the struggle for independence and against the Soviet occupation. The human chain was 675-kilometer long and connected three Baltic capitals: it started from Castle Toompea in Tallinn, and led to Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, through Riga and the Daugava River. It was inscribed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest human chain in history. But more important, this peaceful action drew attention of the world community to the Baltic issue and made possible the independents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It was an unprecedented act of solidarity, which gathered together people of all ages and professions.
Baltic Way was organized by patriotic forces of three countries, which for years had struggled for independence. It was the Rahvarinne of Estonia, the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Sajudis. The Baltic independence movement was launched in the 1980s and was directed against the Soviet occupation. In that time the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of the 1939 year was made public and it became known that the occupation of the Baltic states was a result of the collusion between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It meant, that the Baltic states hadn’t joined the Soviet Union voluntary and the Soviet power was forcible and illegitimate.
It resulted in a wave of political protests, which took place in all the Baltic countries since the 1987 year. This series of demonstrations was called “The Singing Revolution” since all the protests were peaceful, and the participants sang folk and patriotic songs. Songs played an important role in this struggle, they become a symbol of freedom as for fifty years of enforced Russification all patriotic songs were banned, as well as all national symbols and flags. During the Singing Revolution, in November 1988, the declaration of Sovereignty of Estonia was adopted.
On the 23 of August was the 50th anniversary of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the patriotic forces of the Baltic states decided to organize the human chain, which had to connected Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The idea was realized in five weeks. The fact was that the territory of the Baltic states is not evenly populated, and some locations might be unfilled. People from big cities should be moved to less inhabited territories to make the human chain continuous. The campaign was supported by local governments; patrol services helped to organize the transport of demonstrators.
The organizers couldn’t predict, how many participants will take place in the demonstration. It was expected one person per 10 meters, and no one could have foreseen that so many people would participate in the action.
The demonstrators drove by their own, some of them were taken by public transport. Due to the heavy traffic congestion, not all the participants were able to reach the destination by 7 p.m. Those who didn’t get at their location on time, remained at current places and organized their own small chains, sang songs, and lit candles.
Approximately half a million of the Latvians, 700 000 of the Estonians and a million of the Lithuanians participated in this protest.
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had severe consequences for the history of the Baltic states. Thousands of ordinary people become the victims of the Soviet regime, a lot of them were killed or exiled to Siberia. The participants of the Baltic Way lit candles with black ribbons and paid tribute to the memory of all victims of the Soviet power.
This unprecedented campaign was widely covered in the press and become known all over the world. In solidarity with the participants of the Baltic Way, political demonstrations were held in Moscow, Tbilisi, Berlin, Stockholm, in Toronto and Melbourne. The Soviet government strongly reacted against the Baltic Way and blamed its participants in “nationalist hysteria”. But the Baltic issue couldn’t be ignored anymore. It was a turning point of the history, and the independence was just a matter of time.
Soon after that, in March 1990, the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania was declared. The independence of the Republic of Latvia SSR was declared in May 1990. There were still many obstacles ahead and such tragic events as the shooting of peaceful demonstrators near Vilnius TV Tower and Lithuanian Seimas. And finally, in 1991 the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was fully restored and recognized by USSR. And the 23 of August has become one of the brightest moments in the history of three nations.
Nowadays the anniversaries of the Baltic Way are celebrated in all three countries. There were erected some monuments, dedicated to this demonstration. To commemorate the events of the Baltic Way, in 2013 a memorial plaque and an exhibition of photographs have been opened in the building of European Parliament in Brussels.
In 2019 will be a grand celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, when people joined their hands for their freedom, for their dignity, and for their future.