Why did the Baltic Way take place?
In 1940 the Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union which had previously agreed upon it with Nazi Germany. The agreement was entered into on 23 August 1939 in Moscow and was entirely secret. This document is called the Hitler–Stalin Pact or the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (by the surnames of the signatories: the USSR Minister for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov and the German Minister for Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop).
At the end of the 1980s the effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were still sharply present in the Baltic states. The occupation continued but the USSR denied the existence of the Pact and continuously asserted that the Baltic states had voluntarily joined the Soviet Union. On 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the inhabitants of the three Baltic states demanded public acknowledgement of the Pact’s secret protocols and the renewal of the independence of the Baltic states.
How did the Baltic Way take place?
At 19:00 on 23 August 1989 approximately two million inhabitants of the Baltic states joined hands forming a human chain from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius. The Baltic Way was organised by the national movements of the Baltic states: the Estonian Rahvarinne, the Latvian Popular front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Sajūdis. The participants gathered in the cities and villages where the campaign was to take place or drove to the less inhabited Baltic territories where the Baltic Way was to wind through.
According to the news agency Reuters, the campaign gathered 700 000 people in Estonia, 500 000 in Latvia and 1 000 000 in Lithuania. According to the official information of the USSR provided by the news agency TASS, the campaign gathered 300 000 people from Estonia and 500 000 people from Lithuania. No information about the number of participants from Latvia was published. The exact number of participants cannot be determined due to the various information sources and the different number of participants in cities and rural areas.
Solidarity demonstrations supporting the Baltic Way took place in Berlin, Leningrad, Moscow, Melbourne, Stockholm, Tbilisi, Toronto and elsewhere in the world.
In what circumstances did the Baltic Way take place?
Since inclusion in the USSR in 1940, the inhabitants of the Baltic states were forced to live under the dictatorship of the Communist Party where freedom of thought and speech was restricted. In 1986 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union introduced the so-called openness policy in regard to environment protection matters and Stalinism crimes. Newly-formed public organisations started voicing their opinions and discontent about the existing situation more openly.
The Baltic Way was the largest and most important campaign of the Baltic states aimed towards regaining their freedom but it was not the first. On 14 June 1986 by the Freedom Monument in Riga the Remembrance Day for the Victims of the 1941 Deportations was celebrated. After that the former political prisoners from the Baltic states agreed upon a joint remembrance campaign on the 23 August in all the Baltic states.
On 23 August 1987 demonstrations with the participation of several thousand people took place in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. The demonstrations in Tallinn went smoothly; however, in Riga and Vilnius strong conflicts with the police arose, resulting in the detainment of several hundred people.
On 23 August 1988 a remembrance campaign took place under the direction of the national movements and gathered several tens of thousands of people. The Baltic Awakening had grown from an enthusiast movement into a movement uniting all three countries.
What were the consequences of the Baltic Way?
The biggest achievement of the protest campaign was getting the USSR to give in to the joint protest of the inhabitants of the Baltic states and admit to all the past crimes. The USSR acknowledged the existence of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and declared it invalid. It was one of the most important steps towards the renewal of independence in the Baltics.
The Baltic Way attracted a lot of international publicity to the joint struggle of the three countries. It gave impetus to democratic movements elsewhere in the world, was a positive example to other countries striving to renew their independence and stimulated the German reunification process.
The Baltic Way proved that faith in democratic ideas unifies the inhabitants of the Baltic states. A sense of brotherhood, unity and a common goal strengthened by such a campaign became an important factor of political participation which led to the renewal of independence of the Baltic states.