As the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse in 1989, Baltic nations made history. Millions of Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians protested by forming a human chain. Their demand was independence.
A failed German-Soviet pact
In the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on August 23, 1989 — the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that ultimately saw the Baltic states fall under the auspices of the USSR — almost 2 million people formed a human chain. It stretched across the Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Nations annexed by the USSR were now demanding freedom.
A calculated risk
The human chain in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius ran 600 kilometres (373 miles) long. People could sense change on the doorstep — but nobody knew how Soviet leaders would react. What is clear is that the Baltic nations found strength in unity
The power of the people
The response was overwhelming: People from all walks of life — men, women, children, young and old — took to the streets. Even local communist politicians took part: Neighbors brought food and local law enforcement halted traffic. At 7:00 p.m. sharp, some 2 million people held hands for 15 minutes, forming the longest human chain in history. The images were a global sensation.
A flashpoint in history
Fifteen minutes of “freedom” has been remembered by history as the Baltic Way. During the human chain, flags forbidden by the Soviets were waved defiantly, and folk songs were sung well into the night. Suddenly the hope of independence became a reality for three Soviet republics.
Moscow on the defensive
In 1989, the Baltic states combined had a population of around 8 million people, 2 million of whom took to the streets to protest. Moscow did not employ force, but did try to downplay the human chain. In the long run, the Soviet Union was unable to quash the Baltic states’ yearning for freedom. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania regained independence in 1991.
One twirl for a miracle
A tile in the pavement of the Cathedral Square in Vilnius, Lithuania is embossed with the word “Stebuklas,” which means “miracle.” The human chain between Vilnius and Tallinn also ended here. The site is imbued with mysticism: Anyone with a wish can stand on the stone while twirling around in the hope that it will come true
Setting the stage for resistance
Human chains were a well-known form of protest even before the so-called Baltic Way. In 1983 in Germany, an estimated 400,000 protesters involved in the peace movement took to the streets to oppose US missiles being stationed in the country. People in southwestern Germany locked arms, forming a 10-kilometre (6-mile) human chain.