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Human chain formed in Lithuania
The Baltic Way or Baltic Chain (also Chain of Freedom, , , , ) 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 across the three Baltic states – Estonian SSRmarker, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR, republics of the Soviet Unionmarker. 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 organized by Baltic pro-independence movements: Rahvarinne of Estonia, Popular Front of Latvia, and Sąjūdis of Lithuania. The protest was designed to draw global attention by showcasing popular desire for independence and solidarity among the Baltic states. It has been described as an effective publicity campaign, emotionally captivating and visually stunning scene. The event presented an opportunity for the Baltic activists to promote their view of illegal Soviet occupation and position the question of Baltic independence not as a political matter, but as a moral issue. 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 six months from the protest, Lithuania became the first of the Republics of the Soviet Union to declare independence.


Baltic stance

A stone with Lithuanian inscription "STEBUKLAS", which means "miracle", at the Cathedral Square in Vilnius, where the Baltic Way started
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 Trialsmarker. 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 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 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 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 up 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 Germanymarker and Nicolae Ceauşescu from Romaniamarker 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 little 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 the 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 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.



In the light of glasnost and perestroika, street demonstrations had been increasingly growing in popularity and support. Since 1986, protests were held each year on August 23 in all three Baltic states. 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 who and when advanced the idea of a human chain. It appears that the idea was proposed during a trilateral meeting in Pärnumarker on July 15. An official agreement between the Baltic activists was signed in Cēsismarker 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 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 previously uninvolved rural population. Some employers did not allow workers to take off from work (August 23 fell on Wednesday), while others sponsored the bus rides. On the day of the event, special radio broadcasts helped to coordinate the effort. Estonia declared 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 – Vilniusmarker, Rigamarker, and Tallinnmarker. It ran from Vilnius along the A2 highway through Ukmergėmarker to Panevėžysmarker and then along the Via Baltica through Pasvalysmarker, Bauskamarker, Rigamarker, Ainažimarker, Pärnumarker 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 Squaremarker, 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 Squaremarker, 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 Moldovamarker which also was affected by the secret protocol.

Measure Estonia Latvia Lithuania
Total population (1989) 1.6M 2.7M 3.7M
Indigenous population (1959) 75% 62% 79%
Indigenous population (1989) 61% 49% 80%
Most estimates of the number of participants vary between one and two million. Reuters News the following day reported that about 700,000 Estonians and 1,000,000 Lithuanians joined the protests. Latvian Popular Front estimated the attendance of 400,000. Prior to the event, the organizers expected attendance of 1,500,000 out of about 8,000,000 total population. 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, attendance of 200,000 was required in each state. Video taken from airplanes and helicopters showed almost continuous line of people across the countryside.


On August 26, 1989, a pronouncement from the Central Committee of the Communist Party was read during the opening 19 minutes of Vremya, main evening news program on Soviet television. It was a sternly worded warning about growing "nationalist, extremist groups" which advance "anti-socialist and anti-Soviet" agendas. The announcement claimed that these groups discriminated against ethnic minorities and terrorized those still loyal to the Soviet ideals. Local authorities were openly criticized for failure to stop these activists. The Baltic Way was referred to as "nationalist hysteria." According to the pronouncement, such development would lead to an "abyss" and "catastrophic" consequences. The workers and peasants were called to save the situation and defend the Soviet ideals. Overall, there were mixed messages: while indirectly threatening the use of force it also placed hopes that the conflict could be solved via diplomatic means. It was interpreted that the Central Committee had not yet decided which way to go and left both possibilities open. The call to pro-Soviet masses illustrated that Moscow believed it still had a significant audience in the Baltics. Sharp criticism of Baltic Communist Parties was interpreted to signal that Moscow would attempt to replace their leadership.

President of the United States George H. W. Bush and chancellor of West Germanymarker Helmut Kohl urged peaceful reforms and criticized the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. On August 31, the Baltic activists issued a joint declaration to Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Secretary-General of the United Nations. They claimed to be under threat of aggression and asked to send an international commission to monitor the situation. Almost immediately after the broadcast the tone in Moscow began to soften and the Soviet authorities failed to follow up on any of their threats. Eventually, according to historian Alfred Erich Senn, the pronouncement became a source of embarrassment. On September 19–20, the Central Committee of the Communist Party convened to discuss the nationality question – something Mikhail Gorbachev was postponing since early 1988. The plenum did not address the Baltic states in specific and reaffirmed old principles regarding the centralized Soviet Union and the dominant role of the Russian language. It did promise some increase in autonomy, but was contradictory and failed to address underlying reasons for the conflict.


The human chain helped to publicize the Baltic cause around the world and symbolized solidarity among the Baltic peoples. The positive image of the non-violent Singing Revolution spread among the western media. The activists, including Vytautas Landsbergis, used the increased exposure to position the debate over Baltic independence as a moral, and not just political question: reclaiming independence would be restoration of historical justice and liquidation of Stalinism. It was an emotional event, strengthening the determination to seek independence. The protest highlighted that the pro-independence movements, established just a year ago, became more assertive and radical: they shifted from demanding greater freedom from Moscow to full independence.

In December 1989, 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 March 11 1990, within six 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.

This protest was one of the earliest and longest unbroken human chains in history. Similar human chains were later organized in many East European countries and regions of the USSRmarker and, more recently, in Taiwanmarker (228 Hand-in-Hand Rally). Documents recording the Baltic Way were added to UNESCOmarker's Memory of the World Register in 2009.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Anušauskas (2005), p. 619
  2. Senn (1995), p. 33
  3. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 336
  4. Senn (1995), p. 91
  5. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), pp. 317, 326
  6. Senn (1995), p. 30
  7. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 330
  8. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 334
  9. Senn (1995), p. 66
  10. Anušauskas (2005), p. 617
  11. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 326. Full text
  12. Alanen (2004), p. 100
  13. Anušauskas (2005), p. 618
  14. Alanen (2004), p. 78
  15. Senn (1995), p. 67
  16. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 347
  17. Laurinavičius (2008), pp. 351–352
  18. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 352
  19. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 350
  20. Senn (1995), p. 69
  21. Senn (1995), p. 70
  22. LaurinaviÄŤius (2008), p. 361
  23. Senn (1995), p. 155
  24. Senn (1995), p. 78


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