Today is the anniversary (1989) of the Baltic Way or Baltic Chain (also Chain of Freedom; Estonian: Balti kett, Latvian: Baltijas ceļš, Lithuanian: Baltijos kelias, Russian: Балтийский путь), a peaceful political demonstration protesting Soviet rule in the Baltic States and part of the Singing Revolution. 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 — linking the capital cities of the three states. Organizers used banned radio broadcasts to co-ordinate timing. Singing banned songs and joining hands (and not guns) ended Soviet oppression.
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 by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union denied the existence of the secret protocols of 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 – supposedly the People’s Parliaments expressed the people’s will when they petitioned the Supreme 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 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 jure belonged 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 Army from Lithuania. The Communist Party of Lithuania was deliberating the possibility of splitting off from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On 8th August 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.
On 15th August, 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 17th August, 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 emphasized the leading role of the Russian language). The project also included law banning “nationalist and chauvinist organizations,” 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 18th August, 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 22nd August, 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.
In the light of glasnost and perestroika, street demonstrations had been increasingly growing in popularity and support. On 23rd August, 1986, Black Ribbon Day demonstrations were held in 21 western cities including New York, Ottawa, London, Stockholm, Seattle, Los Angeles, Perth, and Washington, DC to bring worldwide 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 15th July. An official agreement between the Baltic activists was signed in Cēsis on 12th August. 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 organizers 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, energizing the previously uninvolved rural population. Some employers did not allow workers to take the day off from work (23rd August 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.
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 offenses. About 13,000 demonstrated in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic 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.
There was an immediate push back from Soviet authorities, of course, both within the Baltic States and from Moscow. You can read the details elsewhere for yourself. The upshot is that by December 1989, the Congress of People’s Deputies accepted and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the report by Yakovlev’s commission condemning the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. In February 1990, the first free democratic elections to the Supreme Soviets took place in all three Baltic states and pro-independence candidates won majorities. On 11th March 1990, within seven months of the Baltic Way, Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence. The independence of all three Baltic states was recognized by most western countries by the end of 1991.
The earliest mention of the food and agriculture of the Baltic people (Aestii) and related customs comes from Tacitus circa 98 CE: “they cultivate grain and other crops with a perseverance unusual among the indolent Germans.” Faint praise, to be sure. My experience of Baltic cuisine has run to dumplings, potatoes, sour cream, and tons of dill. The region has had many influences from Slavic and German to French, each being given their own twist from area to area. I’ve given a number of recipes here from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, so you can do a search for something that appeals. Here is a video on how to make kugelis, a Lithuanian potato pie that is the national dish: