This summer, Peter and I took a long trip around the Baltic, visiting nine countries. We started in Finland and finished in Sweden, having circled around the south of the sea. We were fascinated by the story of the Baltic Way, an event of immense importance to the three small republics to the east of the sea.
On Wednesday, August 23, 2017 the world celebrated the 28th anniversary of the Baltic Way. Many people in Western Europe may be unaware of the significance of this amazing event in the dying days of the Russian Soviet regime.
On that day in 1989, over two million people joined hands to form a human chain 675.5km long. This human chain connected Tallinn to Riga and Vilnius, the capital cities of the three Baltic republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which at that time were constituent republics of the Soviet Union. The guide for our tour was Vilma Jankute, a Lithuanian who as a young girl played her part in that chain for freedom.
The date of August 23 also marks Black Ribbon Day or, more prosaically, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, and 1989 significantly marked the 50th anniversary of the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which divided Eastern Europe between Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. On that awful day dawned for the eastern half of Europe the half century of occupation by Stalinist and Nazi forces.
Under this treaty, the USSR sphere of influence included Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Eastern Poland and Romania; Germany’s sphere was Western Poland. In 1940, the USSR occupied the three Baltic states, maintaining at the time that they had voluntarily joined the Soviet Union.
Because of the secretive nature of the USSR, it was not possible within the USSR to denounce the pact until it had been officially acknowledged by the Soviet regime, which did not occur until December 1989. At that point, the three republics, and even their communist republican governments, began to denounce the illegality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Soviet Russia and the Federal Republic of Germany agreed.
In the light of this sea change in Russian politics, popular support for street demonstrations had been growing. On August 23, 1986, Black Ribbon Day demonstrations were held in 21 western cities to bring worldwide attention to human rights violations within the Soviet Union. In 1987, Black Ribbon Day protests were held in 36 cities including Vilnius and, in 1988, for the first time, such protests within USSR did not end in arrests.
In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, tensions were rising between the Baltic capitals and Moscow.
Romualdas Ozolas, the Lithuanian politician and activist, initiated the collection of two million signatures demanding that the Red Army withdraw and a Lithuanian commission of 26 members deemed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret protocols were genuine and, therefore, that the occupation in 1940 was illegal. This was the first time that an official Soviet body had challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet rule.
By then, the Estonians in early April and the Lithuanians on June 3 had created Popular Front combinations of reformers. That summer, at the Baltika Song Festival, the three national flags were flying for the first time under Soviet rule.
It is unclear how the idea of a human chain originated, but it seems that it was first proposed in Pärnu on July 15, 1989 during a meeting between representatives of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. An agreement was signed in Cēsis (Latvia) on August 12 and, at the same time, hundreds of thousands of people signed several different petitions denouncing the Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics.
Estonia declared a public holiday for August 23, 1989 and the Baltic pro-independence movements issued a joint declaration to the world, declaring the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact illegal and accusing the European Community of not providing support for “the last colonies of the Hitler-Stalin era”. The way to freedom had begun.
Some employers provided transport, others denied their workers a day off. But on the anniversary of the secret pact, demonstrators triumphantly linked hands for 15 minutes at 7pm local time, connecting the three Baltic capitals with a charge of human energy.
This protest was one of the earliest and longest unbroken human chains in history. In Vilnius, about 5,000 people gathered in Cathedral Square, holding candles and singing national songs. Elsewhere, masses were held and church bells rang. Leaders of the Estonian and Latvian Popular Fronts gathered on their mutual border to set fire to a giant black cross in a symbolic funeral ceremony. The protesters held candles and national flags decorated with black ribbons in memory of the victims of the Soviet terror, while at the same time Soviet radio denounced nationalist hysteria.
On March 11, 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence, followed by Estonia (August 20) and Latvia (August 21), and on September 17, 1991 the three joined the UN, thus cementing their independent status.
The story of the escape of these three minute states from the clutches of their massive eastern neighbour is very moving. Their non-violent protest through the Baltic Way showed both immense courage and national solidarity and for those of us who have enjoyed political freedom all our lives, these are sobering thoughts.
By Lynne Booker