A massive public demonstration 15 years ago opened the doors to independence for the three Baltic states
On 23 August 2004, the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, celebrated the 15th anniversary of one of the most unique events in their histories. The Baltijos Kelias (Baltic Road) helped to open the door to the restoration of their independence.
This event 15 years ago was a milestone in the struggle of the three states towards the elimination of the legal and political effects of their occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940.
Of course, people in other countries have all but forgotten the Baltic Road, even though it was widely covered by the press and television at the time. It was then that the Lithuanian word Sąjūdis was first pronounced by reporters from other countries. Sąjūdis was an informal group of people, from all walks of life and with different beliefs, who gathered together, just like the Popular Fronts in Latvia and Estonia, and called on others to support this event.
Television stations from many countries broadcast news footage shot from the sky. A human chain was formed by people of the three nations standing on the roads leading from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn and holding hands. They also showed flowers being thrown out of planes flying over the demonstrators.
The chain was almost 600 kilometers long. It was made of people standing shoulder to shoulder, young and old, men and women. Almost a third of the entire populations of these three countries turned up. It was a magnificent sight, a manifestation of unity and solemnity that is very rarely achieved and shown in this way.
Sometimes it is referred to as the national revival; some call it a miracle. People debate whether it could be repeated, here or anywhere else. Could it? A miracle, by definition, is a one-off event that does not occur again in the same form, and cannot be repeated on demand.
Such an event creates an illusion of a different reality. It gives rise to new beliefs that over time become commonplace. It encourages the aspiration to freedom among those who witnessed it. This way, the energy that was hidden deep inside suddenly breaks out, and changes the history of nations and of all mankind, and starts living a life of its own.
What kind of energy did the Baltic Road generate? What did people standing on the roads linking Tallinn with Vilnius give each other through their hands? Here are some historical facts that might make it easier to answer these questions.
The anniversary of the Baltic Road coincides with the 65th anniversary of another important event, the signing of what is called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret protocols by which two of the world’s dictators divided Central Europe between themselves and opened up the way for the annexation of the Baltic states and the partition of Poland. As a result, these countries were annexed by making it look like an act of free will.
The pact was kept secret from the people of the occupied countries. It remained hidden even after the beginning of Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika in the late 1980s. Soviet propaganda used all the methods it could to convince people that the three countries were not annexed, but joined the USSR in 1940 of their own accord, through free elections. The elections were organized with the help of collaborators, and it was clear from the very outset that they would be neither free nor fair.
Eventually, the text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was published, and circulated in samizdat form. This gave a certain legal basis to the dissident movement and justified the drive for independence. It gave good cause to demand that the occupation of Lithuania be recognized as a violation of international law, and a secret deal struck by the two dictators.
The anniversary was a reason to hold rallies and stage protests. An open declaration by dissidents in the Baltic states was signed, and the first attempts to hold protest demonstrations were made. After all, one of the most important goals of the Sąjūdis movement was to put pressure on the Soviet regime, which was still quite powerful at the time. On 23 August 1988, a massive demonstration condemning the pact, with more than 200,000 participants, took place in Vilnius.
Another massive commemoration of the pact was the Baltic Road, which took place in 1989. Even today, people sometimes ask how it could have happened. Why did the strong repressive structures of the Soviet regime allow such massive protest actions, which brought to the fore something that had been hidden for so many decades?
The Baltic Road, however, was an event attended not by some political group or a bunch of prejudiced or misguided people (these were labels that the authorities used when they found themselves in awkward situations). This human chain was created by people with various beliefs and from various backgrounds, starting from Sąjūdis activists, former members of underground organizations, deportees and freedom fighters, and ending with rural and urban residents, Soviet officials and members of the Communist Party, which was still active at that time. It was an all-inclusive reconciliation and repentance, an impressive bringing together of peoples and nations.
The repressive regime had, over a long period of time, perfected its techniques of suppressing and persecuting dissidents, setting people against each other, intimidating and dispersing small gatherings, and cracking down on the press, among other forms of reprisals. But this was different.
The Soviet authorities for the first time had to face something they were not prepared for, and which they could not have foreseen. They acted in the belief that the fear instilled in people over the course of many decades by way of repressive means was still strong.
But on the Baltic Road, instead of a motley crowd, they met people who were united under one common goal: to force the Soviet Union to revoke and redress this historic injustice.
A human shield of some two million people linking the Baltic states from Tallinn to Vilnius was created, and no one dared to break it. It was no longer possible to resort to brutal repressive actions. The regime had lost the moral war.
Even though Kremlin leaders, and Mikhail Gorbachev himself, claimed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact did not exist or could not be found, it was later “discovered”, and at the end of 1989, at the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, it was declared null and void. For Lithuania and the other Baltic countries, this decision opened the way to independence, which was soon declared.
If it were not for the Baltic Road and the display of people’s unity, the histories of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and even that of Russia, would probably have been quite different.
The event was a defeat for the repressive structures. All that was left of them was military force, which was used in Vilnius on 13 January 1991 to seize control of the television and communications facilities.
Although these attacks resulted in bloodshed, brute military force was in the end helpless against the human shield of united people. It is worth mentioning that the policy of responding to brute force by nonviolent means was later used during the abortive coup in Moscow.
The Baltic Road and other public gatherings were a unique and nonviolent form of resistance that made a strong impression even on those who used violence. The title the “Singing Revolution” most accurately describes the events of those days, because in moments of danger people always started to sing. It seems that, for the Soviet forces, these songs and flowers in demonstrators’ hands were much more frightening than guns.
People were united behind the Sąjūdis principle: to refrain from responding to violence with violence, and not to shoot back, even when being shot at. Not a single shot was fired at Soviet army soldiers, not a single one was killed; although, beyond doubt, there were many attempts to provoke such a reaction, because it would have given the authorities an excuse to use military force more openly.
After all, this was what happened later in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Moldova.
Hence, the Baltic Road was a rehearsal for a peaceful and, I should say, romantic liberation, which for many people became an unforgettable personal and historic experience. The date was declared one of the country’s commemorative days, on which black ribbons are attached to flags.
This year, however, we remembered mostly the Baltic Road, and not the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Some suggested that black ribbons were no longer relevant because the defeat suffered 65 years ago eventually turned into a victory.
Sometimes dates come together in highly symbolic ways. On 23 August in 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in Moscow. On the same day in 1988 a rally was held in Vilnius. One year later the Baltic Road was held. The attempted coup in 1991 in Moscow also occurred at around the same time, and that meant the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The victory was won by the people, a nation united by one common goal. It seemed that it was the people that led a group of more prominent figures, and it was the people who shielded them from the dangers so that they could go all the way without being afraid.
The Singing Revolution did not even have a leader or a leading party. Revolutions sometimes result in power being usurped by dictators or other hostile authorities.
In Lithuania this did not happen. The country is continuing to strengthen its democracy.
It was the most majestic and breathtaking event I have ever taken part in, and I will probably never again witness anything like it in my life. And maybe that is for the better.
We do not want another annexation or a situation in which we will have to form a human chain again. The miracle has already occurred. The gap between the present and the past has been bridged.
To a large extent, this was possible thanks to the Baltic Road, one of the most important victories in our history.