The Baltic Way was the biggest protest rally in the Baltics and an important stepping stone towards independence from the USSR. Thirty years later, it still stands as a unique example of Baltic solidarity and the power of peaceful protest.
In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev's Glastnost policies opened space for grassroots movements to emerge in the Baltic states. Lithuanians took inspiration from the popular fronts in the Baltic neighbours and, after sending a delegation to Estonia, registered its own Reform Movement – Persitvarkymo sąjūdis or, simply, Sąjūdis – in March 1989.
Historian Česlovas Laurinavičius, of the Lithuanian History Institute, says that cooperation among the Baltic nations started from the very beginning once they decided to seek independence from the USSR.
“There was organic communication in the beginning and, starting in spring 1989, the Baltic Assembly was organizing regular meetings among the leaderships of the Sąjūdis and the Baltic fronts,” Laurinavičius tells LRT.lt.
To draw attention to their cause, the Baltic reform movements were looking for an occasion to show that they had the determination and popular backing.
As it happened, the year 1989 was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression treaty, better known as the Moloto-Ribbentrop Pact, which included secret protocols by which the USSR and Germany divided up Central Europe into their respective zones of influence. The USSR had denied the existence of the secret protocols until 1989.
“In summer 1989, [commemorating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact] became one of the key issues for the Sąjūdis,” Laurinavičius says. “There was also a sense of indifference from Moscow and the West.”
The Baltic Assembly met in July in Pernu, Estonia, and decided that the three nations will show their solidarity by forming a 675-kilometre human chain connecting their respective capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.
“What was needed was a unique action to shake the world,” says Laurinavičius who studies Lithuania's independence movement. “There were a number of meetings, but it is quite unclear who came up with the human chain idea. Both Estonians and Lithuanians claim it's theirs. It must have been a collective decision and it started taking shape in early August.”
The short preparation period was both an exigency and a strategy. It left little time for the inert Soviet bureaucracy to respond, says one of the Baltic Way organisers, Arūnas Grumadas.
“The fact that the idea emerged so late, a month and one week before the action, meant that the [state] structures had little time, too. The Lithuanian administration won't do anything on their own, they have to turn to Moscow, coordinate things there, and so they did not have enough time for coordinating,” Grumadas told LRT TV programme Savaitė.
In fact, there were no serious attempts from the local or Moscow authorities to stop the action, he says. Amateur pilots were forbidden to fly, but otherwise, Grumadas reckons, Lithuanian communist authorities silently condoned the Baltic Way by refraining from interference.
The Lithuanian Radio, formally still under the authority of the Communist Party, played a crucial role in coordinating the action. The local police, aviation, medical authorities also helped out.
Logistics was a challenge. Grumadas, one of the men in charge of it, recalls how the organisers were barred from using radio frequencies, and so relied on announcements on the public radio and two small planes supplied by a local cooperative for coordination.
The plan in Lithuania was to have the human chain start at the foot of the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius and continue 200 kilometres north to the Latvian border. About half of the chain was to stretch along a highway, with one lane closed off for it. Symbolically, people were to stand facing west, with their backs turned to Moscow.
The organisers estimated that an uninterrupted human chain from Vilnius to the Latvian border necessitated at least 300,000 people, almost a tenth of the total population.
The entire stretch was subdivided into 50 sections, with local councils in charge of transporting people to each of them.
People were encouraged to bring candles and ribbons to bridge possible gaps in the chain. However, the fears proved unfounded – some 800,000 Lithuanians joined hands at 19:00 on August 23. Estimates vary, but it is believed that up to 2 million people took part in the Baltic Way.
The action was significant in many ways. First, it drew the world's attention to the Baltic states' ambitions to gain freedom.
“[The world] reacted: the media covered it, with a lot of photos. Moscow responded with threats, sometimes completely crazy ones. But we heard encouragements from Western countries and that in a way restrained Moscow,” Laurinavičius says.
Lithuania was also preparing for an election to its Supreme Council the following year, the first that would be open to non-communist candidates. The Sąjūdis campaigned on a platform of full independence and won the election by a landslide. On the second day of its first session, March 11, 1990, less than seven months after the Baltic Way, the Supreme Council declared Lithuania an independent country.
“The Baltic Way was a referendum,” Grumadas believes. “At least I am convinced that it gave an impulse, even an obligation, for the newly-elected Supreme Council to immediately restore independence.”
Later, documents recording the Baltic Way were added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in 2009 in recognition of their value in documenting history.