en

The Baltic Way

Date:
23.08.1989

The Baltic Way or Baltic Chain (also Chain of Freedom, Estonian: Balti kett, Latvian: Baltijas ceļš, Lithuanian: Baltijos kelias, Russian: Балтийский путь) was a peaceful political demonstration that occurred on August 23, 1989. Approximately two million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning over 600 kilometres (370 mi) across the three Baltic states –Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR, republics of the Soviet Union.

The demonstration originated in "Black Ribbon Day" protests held in the western cities in the 1980s. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The pact and its secret protocols divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and led to the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940. The event was organised by Baltic pro-independence movements: Rahvarinne of Estonia, the Tautas fronte of Latvia, and Sąjūdis of Lithuania.

The protest was designed to draw global attention by demonstrating a popular desire for independence for each of the entities. It also illustrated solidarity among the three nations. It has been described as an effective publicity campaign, and an emotionally captivating and visually stunning scene. The event presented an opportunity for the Baltic activists to publicise the illegal Soviet occupation and position the question of Baltic independence not as a political matter, but as a moral issue. The Soviet authorities in Moscow responded to the event with intense rhetoric, but failed to take any constructive actions that could bridge the widening gap between the Baltic states and the Soviet Union. Within seven months of the protest, Lithuania became the first of the Republics of the Soviet Union to declare independence.

After the Fall of Communism, August 23 has become an official remembrance day both in the Baltic countries, in the European Union and in other countries, known as the Black Ribbon Day or as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Background

Baltic stance

The Soviet Union denied the existence of the secret protocols to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, even though they were widely published by western scholars after surfacing during the Nuremberg Trials. Soviet propaganda also maintained that there was no occupation and that all three Baltic states voluntarily joined the Union – the People's Parliaments expressed people's will when they petitioned theSupreme Soviet of the Soviet Union to be admitted into the Union. The Baltic states claimed that they were forcefully and illegally incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Popular opinion was that the secret protocols proved that the occupation was illegal. Such an interpretation of the Pact had major implications in the Baltic public policy. If Baltic diplomats could link the Pact and the occupation, they could claim that the Soviet rule in the republics had no legal basis and therefore all Soviet laws were null and void since 1940. Such a position would automatically terminate the debate over reforming Baltic sovereignty or establishing autonomy within the Soviet Union – the states never de jurebelonged to the union in the first place. This would open the possibility of restoring legal continuity of the independent states that existed in the interwar period. Claiming all Soviet laws had no legal power in the Baltics would also cancel the need to follow the Constitution of the Soviet Union and other formal secession procedures.

In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, tensions were rising between the Baltics and Moscow. Lithuanian Romualdas Ozolas initiated a collection of 2 million signatures demanding withdrawal of the Red Armyfrom Lithuania. The Communist Party of Lithuania was deliberating the possibility of splitting off from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On August 8, 1989, Estonians attempted to amend election laws to limit voting rights of new immigrants (mostly Russian workers). This provoked mass strikes and protests of Russian workers. Moscow gained an opportunity to present the events as an "inter-ethnic conflict" – it could then position itself as "peacemaker" restoring order in a troubled republic. The rising tensions in anticipation of the protest spurred hopes that Moscow would react by announcing constructive reforms to address the demands of the Baltic people. At the same time fears grew of violent clampdown. Erich Honecker from East Germany and Nicolae Ceauşescu from Romania offered the Soviet Union military assistance in case it decided to use force and break up the demonstration.

Soviet response

On August 15, official daily Pravda, in response to worker strikes in Estonia, published sharp criticism of "hysteria" driven by "extremist elements" pursuing selfish "narrow nationalist positions" against the greater benefit of the entire Soviet Union. On August 17, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union published a project of new policy regarding the union republics in Pravda. However, this project offered few new ideas: it preserved Moscow's leadership not only in foreign policy and defense, but also in economy, science, and culture. The project made few cautious concessions: it proposed the republics the right to challenge national laws in a court (at the time all three Baltic states had amended their constitutions giving their Supreme Soviets the right to veto national laws) and the right to promote their national languages to the level of the official state language (at the same time the project emphasised the leading role of the Russian language). The project also included law banning "nationalist and chauvinist organisations," which could be used to persecute pro-independence groups in the Baltics, and a proposal to replace the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR of 1922 with a new unifying agreement, which would be part of the Soviet constitution.

On August 18, Pravda published an extensive interview with Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, chairman of a 26-member commission set up by the Congress of People's Deputies to investigate the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols. During the interview, Yakovlev admitted that the secret protocols were genuine. He condemned the protocols, but maintained that they had no impact on the incorporation of the Baltic states. Thus Moscow reversed its long-standing position that the secret protocols did not exist or were forgeries, but did not concede that events of 1940 constituted an occupation. It was clearly not enough to satisfy the Baltics and on August 22, a commission of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR announced that the occupation in 1940 was a direct result of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and therefore illegal. It was the first time that an official Soviet body challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet rule.

Protest

Preparation Demonstration in Šiauliai. The coffins are decorated with national flags of the three Baltic states and are placed under Soviet and Nazi flags.

In the light of glasnost and perestroika, street demonstrations had been increasingly growing in popularity and support. On August 23, 1986, Black Ribbon Day demonstrations were held in 21 western cities including New York, Ottawa, London, Stockholm, Seattle, Los Angeles, Perth, Australia and Washington DC to bring world wide attention to human rights violations by the Soviet Union. In 1987, Black Ribbon Day protests were held in 36 cities including Vilnius, Lithuania. Protests against the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact were also held in Tallinn and Riga in 1987. In 1988, for the first time, such protests were sanctioned by the Soviet authorities and did not end in arrests. The activists planned an especially large protest for the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1989. It is unclear when and by whom the idea of a human chain was advanced. It appears that the idea was proposed during a trilateral meeting in Pärnu on July 15. An official agreement between the Baltic activists was signed in Cēsis on August 12. Local Communist Party authorities approved the protest. At the same time several different petitions, denouncing Soviet occupation, were gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures.

The organisers mapped out the chain, designating specific locations to specific cities, towns, and villages to make sure that the chain would be uninterrupted. Free bus rides were provided for those who did not have other transportation. Preparations spread across the country, energising the previously uninvolved rural population. Some employers did not allow workers to take the day off from work (August 23 fell on a Wednesday), while others sponsored the bus rides. On the day of the event, special radio broadcasts helped to coordinate the effort. Estonia declared a public holiday.

The Baltic pro-independence movements issued a joint declaration to the world and European community in the name of the protest. The declaration condemned the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, calling it a criminal act, and urged declaration that the pact was "null and void from the moment of signing." The declaration said that the question of the Baltics was a "problem of inalienable human rights" and accused the European community of "double standards" and turning a blind eye to the "last colonies of Hitler–Stalin era." On the day of the protest, Pravda published an editorial titled "Only the Facts." It was a collection of quotes from pro-independence activists intended to show the unacceptable anti-Soviet nature of their work.

Human chain The chain connected the three Baltic capitals – Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. It ran from Vilnius along the A2 highway through Širvintos and Ukmergė to Panevėžys, then along the Via Baltica through Pasvalys to Bauska in Latvia and through Iecava and Ķekava to Riga (Bauska highway, Ziepniekkalna street, Mūkusalas street, Stone bridge, Kaļķu street, Brīvības's street) and then along road A2, through Vangaži, Sigulda, Līgatne, Mūrnieki and Drabeši, to Cēsis, from there, through Lode, to Valmiera and then through Jēči, Lizdēni, Rencēni (et), Oleri, Rūjiena and Ķoņi to Estonian town Karksi-Nuia and from there through Viljandi,Türi and Rapla to Tallinn. The demonstrators peacefully linked hands for 15 minutes at 19:00 local time (16:00 GMT). 

Later, a number of local gatherings and protests took place. In Vilnius, about 5,000 people gathered in the Cathedral Square, holding candles and singing national songs, including Tautiška giesmė. Elsewhere, priests held masses or rang church bells. Leaders of the Estonian and Latvian Popular Fronts gathered on the border between their two republics for a symbolic funeral ceremony, in which a giant black cross was set alight. The protesters held candles and pre-war national flags decorated with black ribbons in memory of the victims of the Soviet terror: Forest Brothers, deportees to Siberia, political prisoners, and other "enemies of the people."

In Moscow's Pushkin Square, ranks of special riot police were employed when a few hundred people tried to stage a sympathy demonstration. TASS said 75 were detained for breaches of the peace, petty vandalism, and other offences. About 13,000 demonstrated in Moldova which was also affected by the secret protocol. A demonstration was held by the Baltic émigré and German sympathizers in front of the Soviet embassy in Bonn, then West Germany.

Most estimates of the number of participants vary between one and two million. Reuters News reported the following day that about 700,000 Estonians and 1,000,000 Lithuanians joined the protests. The Latvian Popular Front estimated an attendance of 400,000. Prior to the event, the organisers expected an attendance of 1,500,000 out of the about 8,000,000 inhabitants of the three states. Such expectations predicted 25–30% turnout among the native population. 

According to the official Soviet numbers, provided by TASS, there were 300,000 participants in Estonia and nearly 500,000 in Lithuania. To make the chain physically possible, an attendance of approximately 200,000 people was required in each state. Video footage taken from airplanes and helicopters showed an almost continuous line of people across the countryside.

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Sources: wikipedia.org

    Persons

    Name Born / Since / At Died Languages
    1Loreta  AsanavičiūtėLoreta Asanavičiūtė22.07.196713.01.1991en, lt, lv, pl, ua
    2
    Armands Saulkalns20.04.196328.04.2013de, lv
    3Jānis  KrūmiņšJānis Krūmiņš26.06.195520.04.2021lv
    4Aleksandrs DemčenkoAleksandrs Demčenko06.01.195412.02.2020lv, ru
    5
    Hugo Saulkalns05.05.1935lv
    6Janis FreimanisJanis Freimanis06.04.193525.06.2006en, lv
    7Mikhail  GorbachevMikhail Gorbachev02.03.193130.08.2022de, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru
    8
    Alma Vārpiņa10.12.1924lv
    9Visvaldis LācisVisvaldis Lācis12.03.192418.04.2020lv
    10
    Arvīds Kaparšmits30.03.192306.11.1998lv
    11Eduards  BerklavsEduards Berklavs15.06.191425.11.2004en, lv, ru
    Tags