Question: How did a line of unarmed people defeat a military superpower literally by hand?
Answer: By forming a human chain across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia
In the late summer of 1989, three nations sick of Soviet rule literally took a stand for independence. In the event known as The Baltic Way (or the Road to Freedom), citizens stood side by side, joining hands in a nonviolent protest that stretched 420 miles long.
The protest’s roots were in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression deal between Nazi and Soviet forces. A secret clause arranged for the two powers to be able to claim control of other Baltic and Eastern European nations. Though both sides denied any such deal existed, neither ever intervened when the other party occupied countries on the list. As a result, long after World War II ended, small nations were controlled by larger ones, especially in the Soviet realm.
In the 1980s, as independence movements began to arise, August 23 (the date the original Nazi-Soviet accord was signed) became a day of protest known as Black Ribbon Day. But none of these scattered protests prepared the U.S.S.R. for what was to come on the 50th anniversary of the signing. In 1989, organizers from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia joined forces to plan the world’s largest human chain: a hand-to-hand wall stretching across all three countries. In advance of the event, they issued a press release declaring the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact “null and void” and admonishing the European and American communities to treat their situation as a "problem of inalienable human rights".
An estimated two million people lined up side by side to join hands late that August afternoon, linking Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn by way of highways and rural routes through the countryside. It was a visual appeal for democracy that couldn’t be ignored and, indeed, made headlines around the world.
The Soviets responded with a dire warning about “the abyss” into which this protest might thrust the three nations, and described “catastrophic” consequences. The official statement ended with the vague but threatening line, “A question could arise as to [the three nations’] very existence." But then the U.S.S.R. did nothing. That official ambivalence emboldened independence forces, which grew increasingly sure that freedom would be theirs. One by one—Lithuania within a few months, followed by Latvia and then Estonia in 1991—the states reclaimed their sovereignty.
Since then, August 23 has become an official day of remembrance not just in those three countries, but across the European Union, a powerful symbol of what people united can do to the change the course of their own history.
The Baltic Way in 12 Fast Facts
- It happened fast: the chain was proposed by leaders of three independence movements in July, with the plan mapped out and agreed to by early August, leaving only two weeks to pull it off.
- The map designated specific towns, villages, and highways between the main cities to make sure the chain could be maintained.
- Protest activism had previously been a city thing, so volunteers fanned out across the countryside to get rural residents onboard.
- Organizers provided free buses for those who did not live near the designated route.
- Some employers provided their own buses for their workers, encouraging them to attend.
- Estonia took it a step further, declaring the 23rd a public holiday, so that no one would miss work.
- Grandparents came with their grandchildren, newlyweds joined the chain, and even babies joined the route, carried by their parents.
- The human chain represented 25% of the entire population of the three nations.
- The official protest only lasted 15 minutes and then everyone dispersed.
- After-protests were held in Vilnius, where locals sang by candlelight; and on the Estonia-Latvia border, where organizers hosted a mock funeral for the Soviet regime.
- Sympathy protests took place that same day in Moscow, Bonn, and Moldova.
- Though the Baltic Way inspired many more pro-independence protests around the region, it remains the largest human chain in European history and fifth largest ever on earth.
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