The 30th Anniversary of the Baltic Way

On August 23, 2019, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, which took place in 1989 as a peaceful protest against the Soviet regime. The Baltic Way was formulated as an unbroken human chain from Vilnius to Tallinn, and videos from that period show how multiple generations of people, from the elderly to the very young, organized themselves into a remarkable display of solidarity—it’s even more noteworthy when you consider how this movement happened before the internet. Back then, it was radio that played the greatest role in getting people out to show unity—a part of the commemoration in Vilnius’s Cathedral Square in 2019 involved a huge installation of period radios donated by Lithuanians.

We’re in the midst of a climate crisis, politicians are fanning the flames of racism and hatred, and it’s difficult to read the news without feeling like we’re all doomed. Only those who participated in the Baltic Way can say what they were feeling on that day, but ultimately the message for us in 2019 is one of hope. That is why people gathering together to remember this event is so important: if they had stayed apathetic, there might not have been the impetus for further actions that enabled Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to declare themselves independent countries. As a movement, the Baltic Way made international headlines and contributed to the collapse of the USSR.

Installation of radios from 1989 for the 30th Anniversary of the Baltic Way in Vilnius

Installation of radios from 1989 for the 30th Anniversary of the Baltic Way in Vilnius

Inspiring doesn’t begin to describe the movement. The Baltic countries like to remind people that they are small nations, but in this case, they achieved something great, without violence, and with people power only. Of course, media coverage of the event was also an important aspect, something that the 30-mile-long human chain established in Hong Kong, inspired by the Baltic Way, benefited from. And peaceful protest has a deep impact. It’s more effective than violent protest—violent protests have a higher failure rate than non-violent ones. Another example, which helped to bring down the Berlin wall, is the Monday demonstrations that happened in East Germany between 1989 and 1991.

The Baltic Way is an aspect of Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian history that is sometimes overlooked in favor of these nations’ medieval history, but it’s integral to their characters today. Independence is relatively “new” in these nations and isn’t taken for granted. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet countries to declare independence, with other countries following its lead. This recent history is more than a fact in a textbook, and while the Baltic Way was not solely responsible for these countries being able to break away from the regime, it’s reflective of what people can do when they come together for a cause they believe in. It takes only a small percentage of people to unify in a way that results in progress.

Today, the Baltic states are countries that regularly occupy top travel destinations lists, make their mark in Europe through innovation and a strong start-up culture, and maintain a strong identity even as they become more Westernized. Though sometimes they chafe at the way they are still linked given that they sometimes try to disassociate themselves from their Soviet past, they still have the ability to come together when it counts, just as they did 30 years ago, whether it be to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine or celebrate achievements that set the course of history.