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On This Day: “Baltic Way” Human Chain Formed to Protest Soviet Rule

Last updated: February 15, 2023

August 23, 2011 05:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On Aug. 23, 1989, two million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined hands on the Vilnius-Tallinn road in protest against illegal Soviet occupation.

A Peaceful Protest

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania took part in the “Baltic Way” protest against Soviet rule on Aug. 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which allowed for Soviet occupation of the Baltic region.

Roughly two million people from the Baltic countries formed a massive human chain that spanned 430 miles through the capitals of all three nations. They held hands and carried signs during the peaceful protest.

“The demonstration, during which the word ‘freedom’ was passed on along the human chain, was organized by the popular fronts of the three countries to draw the world’s attention to the common fate that the three countries had suffered,” according to the Baltic News Service.

Following the protest, the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee released a statement on “Baltic nationalism.” Excerpts from the statement were printed in the New York Times on Aug. 27, 1989: “The current situation in the Baltic republics is the cause of increasing concern. Developments there affect the vital interests of the entire Soviet people, our entire socialist motherland.”

The Baltic Way was part of the larger struggle known as the “Singing Revolution,” a group of protests that took place between 1987 and 1990, which helped in the effort to regain of independence for the Baltic states in August 1991.

The Singing Revolution got its name because, during many of the peaceful protests that took place during those years, protestors would gather in town squares to sing national songs and hymns that had been banned during Soviet rule.

UNESCO provides a photo gallery from the Baltic Way protest on its Web site.

Historical Context: Occupation of the Baltic States

Sources in this Story

  • Central Europe Review: Ten Years After
  • Estonian Embassy in Washington (Baltic News Service): Baltic Way to be nominated for UNESCO’s Memory of the World register
  • The New York Times: Excerpts From Soviet Statement on Baltic Unrest
  • Tallinn-Life: The sound of freedom …
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact
  • RIA Novosti: Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the USSR (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact)
  • The BBC: Russia denies Baltic ‘occupation’
  • Time: Lending a Helping Hand

The Baltic Way protest took place exactly 50 years after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany divided areas of interest in Eastern Europe as part of their non-aggression pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, on Aug. 23, 1939.

The deal gave the Soviet Union a sphere of influence over the four Baltic countries: Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. While Finland had the strength to defend itself and retain most of its territory, the other three countries were overpowered by the invading Soviet forces. By August 1940, all three were under Soviet control.

In the decades following World War II, the Soviet Union denied that the pact existed because it would have been an admission that its occupation of the Baltic countries was illegal.

“Thus a protest against that very event was tantamount to a declaration of renewed independence,” the Central European Review explains about the Baltic Way protest. “By publicly attacking the mechanism that led to that illegal annexation, the Baltic peoples made it clear to Moscow that there would be no returning to the status quo.”

The Soviet Union did not admit that the pact existed until Dec. 24, 1989, four months after the Baltic Way protest. Though the Russian government and Russian historians admit that the pact was illegal, they have justified it by arguing that it was part of the Soviet Union’s defense against Hitler.

Furthermore, the Russian government continues to insist that its control of the Baltic states was legal. “There was no occupation. There were agreements at the time with the legitimately elected authorities in the Baltic countries,” declared Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin’s European affairs chief, in 2005.

Related Topic: Hands Across America

A few years before the Baltic Way demonstration, Americans displayed the power of standing hand-in-hand to bring attention to the struggles of the nation’s hungry and homeless.

On May 25, 1986, seven million Americans held hands over 4,124 miles across the country for about 15 minutes in a long-planned event called Hands Across America. Participants, many of whom brought decorations and signs as well as sang during the event, paid $10 to reserve a place in line, and the proceeds were donated to local charities that fought hunger and poverty.

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