Hands Across the Baltics: The Story of the Baltic Way

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on The Baltic Way.

By Ian Cata

In 1986, between 5 and 6.5 million Americans held hands for 15 minutes in an attempt to create a human chain across the United States. The event was known as “Hands Across America” and aimed to raise money for poverty and hunger.[1] Three years later, two million Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian citizens joined hands, not to raise money, but to protest the illegal occupation of their countries by the Soviet Union.

Image depicting enthusiastic participants of the Baltic Way.[2]

Taking place on August 23rd, 1989, the event became known as The Baltic Way. The date it occurred was very intentional as it was the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact. Within the pact, there was a secret agreement that divided Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Romania into “spheres of influence” between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. This secret agreement led to the Soviet Union invading Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940. During this time the Soviet Union set up puppet governments and held mass deportations of alleged “enemies of the state”. During Operation Barbarossa (the Nazi invasion of Russia), Nazi Germany occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. When the tides of the war turned in 1944, the Soviet Union reoccupied the three Baltic countries and ruled over them until 1991.[3]

During the Nuremberg trials, the secret agreement within the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was revealed. The Soviet Union immediately denied it, claiming that the three countries had joined the Union willingly.[4] Regardless of the denial, it soon became public opinion in the Baltic states that the secret agreement was further evidence that they were forcefully entered into the Soviet Union and that the occupation they were under was illegal.

As the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was coming near, tensions between the Soviet Union and the Baltic states were rising. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union attempted to ease these tensions by publishing potential new policies that offered some concessions to the Baltic states like the ability to promote the national language to the official state language and the ability to challenge national laws in court.[5] On August 18th, just days before the protest was to take place, the chairman of a commission set up by the Congress of Peoples Deputies in the Soviet Union (the highest body of state authority in the Soviet Union at the time) to investigate the alleged secret pact made in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, admitted that the secret agreement was indeed real. He condemned it but also claimed that the pact had no impact on the states’ incorporation into the Soviet Union. The denial of illegal occupation even with the admittance of evidence just added further fuel to the fire and the planning of the human chain continued.[6]

Planning began on July 15th, when the idea for the chain was proposed in a meeting among three pro-independence groups from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.[7] Organizers began mapping out the chain and incentivized attendance by offering free bus rides, Estonia declared a national holiday, and on the day of the event, radio stations helped coordinate the chain with special broadcasts.[8][9][10] On August 25th, two million Baltic citizens held hands in a continuous link across all three countries, connecting the three capital cities of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, and spanning 430 miles. Because the chain in the “Hands Across America” was not contiguous, the Baltic Way chain also known as the “Chain of Freedom” became the longest contiguous human chain in recorded history.[11] It was estimated that around 400,000 Latvians, 700,000 Estonians, and 1,000,000 Lithuanians participated in the protest.[12][13] The population between the three countries at the time was approximately 8 million, meaning that a quarter of the entire Baltic populace participated in the protest.

[1] Wolf, Buck. “Great Shakes: ‘Hands Across America’ 20 Years Later.” ABC News. ABC News Network, May 23, 2006.

[2] Šmidchens, Guntis. “A Chain of Friendship: Reflections on the Baltic Way and Inspiration for Belarus.” Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 16, 2020.

[3] Fitzpatrick, Brian. “Russia Reveals ‘Secret Protocol’ Carving up Eastern Europe in 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.” National Post, August 24, 2019.

[4] Stokes, Richard L. “SECRET SOVIET-NAZI PACTS ON EASTERN EUROPE AIRED.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 22, 1946.

[5] Laurinavičius, Česlovas; Vladas Sirutavičius. Sąjūdis: nuo “persitvarkymo” iki kovo 11-osios. Part I. Lietuvos istorija (in Lithuanian). Vol. XII. Baltos lankos, Lithuanian Institute of History, 2008.

[6] Remnick, David. “Kremlin Acknowledges Secret Pact on Baltics; Soviets Deny Republics Annexed Illegally”. The Washington Post, August 19, 1989.

[7] Anušauskas, Arvydas; et al., eds. Lietuva, 1940–1990 (in Lithuanian). Vilnius: Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos tyrimo centras. 2005.

[8] Alanen, Ilkka. Mapping the Rural Problem in the Baltic Countryside: Transition Processes in the Rural Areas of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Perspectives on Rural Policy and Planning. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 2004.

[9] Lodge, Robin. “More than Two Million Join Human Chain in Soviet Baltics”. Reuters News, August 23, 1989.

[10] Dobbs, Michael. “Baltic States Link in Protest ‘So Our Children Can Be Free’; ‘Chain’ Participants Decry Soviet Takeover”. The Washington Post, August 24, 1989.

[11] Wright, Helen, and Silver Tambur. “The Baltic Way – the Longest Unbroken Human Chain in History.” Estonian World, August 24, 2022.

[12] The Latvian Popular Front.

[13] Lodge, Robin. “Human Chain Spanning: Soviet Baltics Shows Nationalist Feeling”. Reuters News, August 23, 1989.