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.
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.
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.
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.
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.