Thirty years since the Baltic Way – a momentous plea for freedom

, by Gabrielė Čiunkaitė

Thirty years since the Baltic Way – a momentous plea for freedom

Today marks thirty years since the Baltic Way – a peaceful demonstration where Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood hand in hand all the way from Tallinn to Vilnius to show their passion for freedom. On 23 August 1989, about 2 million people opened up their hearts and turned their backs to the Soviet Union to protest against the suppression of their cultures, languages and national identities. Even though 30 years have passed, the memory of the events still stays fresh in these nations‘ minds.

Call for independence from the Soviet Union

The demonstration originated in Black Ribbon Day protests held in Western cities in the 1980s. The date of the Baltic Way was the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, whose secret protocols divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and led to the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.

Organised by Baltic pro-independence movements (Rahvarinne of Estonia, the Tautas fronte of Latvia, and Sąjūdis of Lithuania), the protest was designed to draw global attentionIt illustrated solidarity among the three nations, and created an emotionally captivating and visually stunning scene. The event presented an opportunity for the Baltic activists to position the question of Baltic independence not only as a political matter, but also as a moral issue.

Soviet authorities responded to the event with intense rhetoric, but failed to take any constructive actions that could bridge the widening gap between the Baltic republics and the rest of the Soviet Union. Within seven months of the protest, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence.

Aldona Vareikiene, secretary of Sąjūdis and a famous writer from the Klaipeda region, says the thought of talking publicly about the Baltic Way back in 1989 was scary. “Back then the communist party held the power over our city Gargždai, yet we found people who were ‘loyal’ communists and participated in organising the event for independence.”

On the thirtieth anniversary, reconstructions of the human chain were organised across the Baltics. At an event in Gargždai in the west of Lithuania, one volunteer said: “I was yet to be born when the Baltic Way took place in 1989, but I always felt respect towards my parents who decided to be a part of it. They talk about it as if it happened yesterday; memories still fresh in their heads. It was scary then, to come out and speak about being free. You could’ve simply gotten arrested and silenced for the rest of your life. Yet these brave people didn’t even blink when asked to take that kind of responsibility. I am so inspired by all of the unity, I would do the same any day”.

Momentous display of unity, plea for freedom

Every year, many people celebrate this day with true passion and understanding, love, and respect. Though small-scale human chains are created on this date every year, the thirtieth anniversary is special. Society clearly understands the significance of remembering the people who decided to risk their lives in their desire to seek the one thing all human beings need – freedom. These two million people did not fear the consequences as they showed that they would not give up fighting for their freedom, for their culture, the people, the language – and most important, they would not give up on their homeland.

At today’s anniversary event in Gargždai, whenever participants spoke about what happened thirty years ago, tears of joy filled their now wrinkled eyes. “The power of unity is indescribable. It is a force that cannot be broken”, one said to me.

In the afternoon, some 500 locals in the town of 15,000 people joined hands as Lithuanian music blasted from speakers. In that moment, with my eyes closed, I felt only love and… unity. I felt as though I was a part of something bigger than me, bigger than all of us – our homeland. Its power, its greatness, its beauty.

After the remembrance event, I spoke with people who took part in the Baltic Way in 1989. They said that it was a precious memory they will hold forever in their minds. “We stood and sang all the songs we would sing in protests. I remember the joyful faces and when we held hands. I thought electricity was running through all of us. It felt as if time stopped and for a brief moment: I felt this feeling of warmth fill my body, completely taking over me. Everyone breathed the same desire to seek freedom. We weren’t well-educated, yet felt the need to be free, to create a better future for next generations. The Baltic way wasn’t a one-time project, it was the whole country’s volition”, said Tomas who joined the anniversary event today.

Another participant, called Marta, said: “I was only twenty-four when it happened. Me and my friends decided to take the risk; we didn’t know what could happen, we just knew we wanted to be free. It was very hard to even get a spot to park a car, since everyone was there – sick, disabled, young, old, even children. I don’t remember much from it – just this joyful, happy feeling inside my heart.”

Smiling, she added: “Without doubt, I would do it all over again”.

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