Issue Nº 11 - The Chain

The Baltic way

On 23 August 1989, around a million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians expressed their desire for independence by joining hands to create ‘The Baltic Way’, a human chain that extended for over 690 kilometres from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius. 
Text by Kai Lobjakas

fancy pants
On 23 August 1989 my friend and I sat carelessly dangling our feet on the stairs of her grandmother’s old timber building in Kantreküla, an oddly named district of Viljandi. I was wearing light-blue patterned pants sewn by my mother from a fabric she had received from my great aunt, who in turn had received it from her brother, my great uncle in Adelaide, and was probably meant for a fancy dress. My friend wore a wide-legged, light-lavender, polka-dotted fabric, presumably meant for bedlinen. We were passing the time, waiting for the call to join a very special and symbolic event about to start.
That event was the ‘Baltic Way’ human chain, a political initiative to support Estonian independence. We were living through that process as teenagers. It was late summer and we had become accustomed to the endless political occasions, so we were in a light-hearted mood. I think it was the first time I had been away from home for such a gathering without my parents or family. Against all odds, my father, who usually took such events pretty seriously, had only allowed me to go because I would be staying with good family friends.
It might seem odd that my friend and I have such vivid memories of the outfits we were wearing at the time. But such identity-building details are definitely important in the life of a teenager. All the more so since opportunities to wear anything contemporary were so limited that you pretty much had to make it yourself. To a young person growing up in a highly standardized environment that offered very few choices, fabric from a great aunt’s closet, a fragment from abroad, cut from a different pattern, meant a chance to create something exceptional and to sense a possibility of change. Within five years we would also be able to choose from a much wider variety of items, just like people elsewhere, but whether that made us any happier is another matter. Most probably it did, for a short period at least.
Recalling our experience of the event through material details shows our lack of anxiety at the time. The process of regaining our national freedom had gradually become a somewhat ordinary affair during that so-called ‘Singing Revolution’ period, which had begun two few years previously, in 1987. By 1989 we did not consider it anything special: it had become an everyday reality, especially in the summertime. All the same, at the age of 14 we were becoming keenly aware of the deeper significance of the events unfolding and their far-reaching, life-changing potential. There we sat, waiting to join the gathering, which was scheduled to start at 7 pm, one of the largest and most memorable human chains ever created in history, extending all the way from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius.
As it turned out later, the event made headlines everywhere. Two million people formed a human chain. The eyes of the world were on the Baltics.
In contemporary Western domestic spaces the carpet is seen as a common piece of furniture, but unlike the chair, table or sofa, the carpet is often used to frame a living space and domestic ritual, the act of eating, or being together. The Western use of carpets started when the rug arrived in Europe, following conquests and trade with the Middle East, in the 13th century. Under the foot of the Virgin or on the church altar, a special place became dedicated to oriental carpets in Western culture.
Wealthy European leaders and merchants, who understood the power of the carpet’s symbolism by displaying them in their homes, often on tables as an indication of status and power, gave birth to a genre of painting, the 17th-century ‘still life’, where exotic food, birds and precious objects, placed on top of luxurious oriental carpets, would suggest complex allegories bound to life and death.
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
A section of the Baltic Way on the motorway linking Latvia and Estonia, 1989. Photo Aivars Liepinš

secret protocols
The organizer of the event in Estonia was the Rahvarinne, or ‘Popular Front’, a political movement that grew out of a civic initiative. It was the largest mass movement of the 1988–1993 period and a legal opposition founded to support the process of perestroika. Its initial objective was to secure the independence of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) and the creation of a Self-Managing Estonia (IME).

On 13 and 14 May a joint meeting of the Popular Fronts from all Baltic States took place in Tallinn. Known as the Baltic Assembly, it led to a joint statement to the effect that incorporating Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the USSR had been achieved by force and had resulted in the loss of their independence after annexation by the USSR.

By the late summer of 1989 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was an increasingly dominant theme in Estonia. Signed 50 years previously on 23 August 1939 by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, this non-aggression agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union enabled the two powers to partition Poland between them. It also included three secret protocols that defined the German and Soviet spheres of influence across central Europe and led to the annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. By 1987, dissident circles were demanding that the Soviet authorities admit the existence of these protocols, which would have meant acknowledging the illegitimacy of the authority of the ESSR.

Edgar Savisaar, one of the founders of the Popular Front, recalls that the main issue then was how to unhook our republic’s wagon off the USSR train. “We wanted to perform a subtraction operation in political mathematics. To do so we had to remind the world of the act of adding up in 1940, and simultaneously to bring out into the open the dividing operation carried out in 1939, which resulted in the Soviet occupation of Estonia for half a century.” In 1989, supported by the perestroika rhetoric and the politics of glasnost, the issue of historical truth had become more topical than ever.

To draw attention to the attempts by the Baltic republics to re-establish their independence, it was decided on 15 July to organize a continuous human chain, on 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, all the way from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius. There is no consensus about who exactly was the author of the idea. As the Lithuanians recall, Estonians initially considered the idea to be slightly ‘baroque’, perhaps on account of the sheer scale and expected number of participants, a view that may reflect a slight difference in mindset and approach to things in the different countries. 

Several larger and smaller events and demonstrations similar to the chain had already been staged in the preceding years, though they mainly related to humane or nature protection issues. In 1983 a human chain involving between 40,000 and 80,000 people in Berkshire, Britain, protested against the siting of American Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. In 1986 around 6.5 million people joined Hands Across America, a charity event to highlight poverty and raise 50 million dollars, a target that was almost reached. Smaller human chains had even been deployed in Estonia before August 1989. And locals were used to standing in line for different reasons; that was a familiar condition for citizens of the Soviet Union.
3. Bhojraj, Portrait of Prince Muhammad Buland Akhtar at Prayer, c. 1700 –1750. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 Kersti Pai Family, Baltic Way, Estland, 23 august 1989. Courtesy Võrumaa Muuseum

Six weeks
The Popular Front had to move fast and consider hundreds of details to ensure the event passed off safely. Planning began in mid-July. The analytical phase was extremely short and, as the Popular Front member Andrus Öövel has recalled, “Five decisions were needed in three minutes, and four of them had to be right.” There were just six weeks to pull it off. The plan was relatively primitive in terms of design but well-considered, and luckily it has been documented.

First it was necessary to decide on the message, format and structure of the event to ensure that the energy generated on the day would not dissipate but would have maximum impact. Aspects that required consideration included participants, weather, transport, connections, medical support, security, logistics and opposition. Small areas of responsibility supported by a wider network of ministries were set up. The whole undertaking was overseen by Popular Front regional support groups. The making of posters and other communication material, including the messages along the chain, was entrusted to participants, who could take the initiative and apply their DIY skills. Badges designed initially for the so-called Black Ribbon Day in 1986, an event organized by Markus Hess, an émigré Esto­nian in Canada, were prepared in advance. Support cards bearing relevant dates of the 1939 pact and the Popular Front logo, designed by the architect and politician Ignar Fjuk, were sold at the event. Eugen Päss, a Popular Front team member, surveyed the route and calculated the precise number of kilometres, turns, ascents and descents, and type of transportation required. After driving the 211-kilometre distance back and forth in a VAZ 2103, a 1970s Soviet-manufactured car and the only available vehicle with an odometer that could measure distances of 100 metres precisely, he drew up the Estonian stretch of the route in detail.  Päss compiled a legend based on a method used in car rallies — location of bus stops, large buildings, stones, lampposts and phone booths, towers, natural sights and so on — with arrows to indicate where participants could or should stand. His document contained more or less everything and ran to 50 pages. The route was divided into sections of a few kilometres in length that needed to be covered by people. Acquaintances copied and distributed the legends to the regional supervisors.
The calculations indicated that the human chain from Tallinn to Ikla, on the border with Latvia, would need approximately 200,000 people, and the whole chain would require 700,000 people. Some 700 people were needed for every kilometre; this and the weather became the chief concerns.  Estimates of the actual number of participants vary significantly. More people than expected turned up, and they were standing up to three rows deep along certain stretches. While the final number of participants seems to have increased over time, the earliest estimates ranged from a few hundred thousand to two million, though it was impossible to be precise. It is believed that there were about 200,000 people in Estonia, 600,000 in Lithuania and 280,000 in Latvia, so the total probably fell between one and two million people.

Sections were marked out the day before the event. It was planned to use the tricolour of the Estonian national flag on the ground, but stomping on it was deemed too symbolic an act, so instead they used the acronym of the 1939 treaty: MRP. Hundreds of kilograms of white chalk were used for that.
7. Philip Henry Delamotte, Alhambra and Court of Lions, Crystal Palace, Sydenham, c. 1859. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Preparatory phase of the Baltic Way, 1989. Handwritten diagram of the route in Tallinn divided into 11 sections with distances, people responsible and expected number of participants noted by Henn Karits, Popular Front board member
Baltic Way route Tallinn – Riga – Vilnius, 1989. Signed by Popular Front board member Lembit Kolk
The chain was planned so that people were spaced at five-metre intervals, always with eye contact and within hearing distance to one another, and with ribbons to cover any vacant positions. A local ‘placer’ supervised each kilometre to ensure no large gaps opened up. Most participants arrived in groups from gatherings held in towns and cities. Vehicles parked on the right side of the road, with people lined up down the middle of the road. Every 20 kilometres there was a traffic militia, ambulance and security personnel provided by the Popular Front. Initially the idea was to allocate positions to people as they arrived.

Although regional organizers asked people to wear national costumes, the reality was different and provided a much more varied overview of everyday style in contemporary Estonia. There were VAZ and Moskvitch cars, Ikarus buses, fine pressed suits and A-shaped dresses, tracksuits and plastic bags. Among others items, bags bearing the logo of Rock Summer (designed by Ilona Gurjanova), a music festival with international performers that for many of us heralded our arrival in a new world, were a natural part of the chain.

Radio Message
The whole event was managed via radio connection, and participants were asked to take along transistors or pocket radios. After the signature sound and opening announcement, the selected keyword for the day of protest, translated as ‘freedom’, began to spread along the line from the Tall Hermann Tower in Tallinn to the Gediminas Tower in Vilnius. 

The chain began to be formed at 6:30 pm; 15 minutes later everyone was supposed to be ready, and at 7 pm sharp thousands of people joined hands for 15 minutes. Concern about the lack of activity faded quickly. The number of participants grew rapidly as many unregistered people joined the chain, and the idea of a connecting ribbon was soon forgotten. There was no formal plan for what was to follow the event, so it simply transitioned into a soft summer evening spent together. In 2009 the Baltic Way was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

Der Spiegel of 28 August 2022 ran the headlines: ‘The door thrown wide open!’ and ‘Socialist republics of the Baltics revolting: Independence or war-time laws?’ And The Washington Times a few days later: ‘Will the Bear end the truce?’ It did not really. We did well, even the weather was fine, and national independence continued for a little more than 30 years. The illusion lasted until 24 February 2022.
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