The fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 has come to symbolise the end of the Cold War, as the hated barrier between East and West Germany was broken apart, and long-divided friends and families once again came together. A few months earlier, the creation of another kind of wall likewise showed the power of citizens to force change through unity. On 23 August, two million citizens of the Baltic states – over a quarter of the collective population – joined hands. Together, the Baltic Way (also known as the Baltic Chain) stretched unbroken across 600 kilometres: from Tallinn on Estonia’s northern coast; through the Latvian capital of Riga; all the way to Vilnius, near the southern border of Lithuania.
The protest marked a moment of communal catharsis in a region that had suffered many years of occupation and tyranny. The date was chosen as the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, when just prior to the outbreak of World War II, Nazi Germany agreed to pass the Baltic states to the Soviet Union, as part of a secret agreement to respect each other’s plans to invade their respective “spheres of influence”. For the next half-century, the Soviet regime refused to acknowledge their collusion, insisting that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has willingly joined the union. By coming together to form the Baltic Way, demonstrators rejected this false history, reclaimed their free will and demanded independence.
The gesture received support on both sides of the Iron Curtain, with people joining hands in solidarity from Leningrad, Moscow and Tbilisi to Melbourne and Toronto. The Baltic Way forced Gorbachev’s government finally to admit that the three countries had been forcibly subsumed into the USSR as a result of the Nazi-Soviet treaty; although the citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would have to wait another two years to gain full independence.
In each of the countries, the Baltic Way is now memorialised through commemorative sculptures. Most striking is The Road to Freedom, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. In 2010, sculptor Tadas Gutauskas initiated a collective art project to create the monument, in keeping with the cooperative spirit of the Baltic Way. The 60-metre-long wall is constructed from 20,000 bricks in the colours of the Lithuanian flag, each one contributed by a member of the public and stamped with the individual’s name. Among the bricks, hollowed silhouettes of life-size figures recall the men, women and children who joined hands in 1989.
The monuments in the other Baltic states are more modest in scale. In Käru in central Estonia, three large boulders linked by a heavy metal chain represent the protesters in abstracted form. The choice of materials perhaps symbolises the resilience of the citizens and the eternal, unbreakable spirit of the three Baltic states. Situated in a small borough rather than a major city, the monument is a reminder that the human chain stretched through towns and villages and across open fields, bringing together citizens from all corners of the countries.
In all three capital cities, smaller plaques – easily overlooked – also delineate the path of the Baltic Way. On a hill overlooking Freedom Square in Tallinn; in front of Freedom Monument in Riga; and in Cathedral Square in Vilnius; a pair of footsteps imprinted on a red granite tile marks the spot where protesters stood to form the human chain. Installed in 2013, the matching sculptures represent the ongoing unity of the Baltic countries since gaining independence, and their mutual commitment to resisting outside aggression at a time when that independence appears under threat.