VILNIUS - The 15th anniversary of the Baltic Way-the unprecedented human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius in the dying days of the Soviet Union-was celebrated on Aug. 23 in the Baltic capitals.
On that date in 1989, 1.5 million people in the three Soviet republics joined hands along the main road running the length of the region. The event, which then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed "national hysteria," was widely credited with inspiring and emboldening the Baltics to eventually declare independence.
"Even today when I start to talk about it, I get so filled with emotion that it's difficult for me to express myself," said Genute Vaisnoriene, secretary of Sajudis, the organization that led Lithuania to independence.
In honor of the momentous event, organizers in Lithuania and Latvia created a replica Baltic Way that spread out over their countries.
In Lithuania, a bouquet of flowers was passed along 50 stops from Vilnius to Birzai in the north.
Passage of the bouquet, which began its journey in Vilnius' Cathedral Square, was accompanied with ceremonies and speeches by the country's spiritual leaders.
"Today's memorials remind each one of us that it is not difficult to come together in a society united by the ideals of freedom and unity," said Cardinal Audrys Juozas Backis.
As the bouquet made its eight-hour northward journey, each town it passed through greeted it differently. In Anyksciai, some 70 kilometers north of Vilnius, a 400-year-old gun was fired to announce its arrival.
The replica human chain was restarted in the Latvian border-town of Grenctale, where it continued on to Riga.
That same evening, a concert was held at Riga's Freedom Monument to mark the anniversary, with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga giving a keynote address to onlookers.
Latvian Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said in his statement that "never before had the Baltic states been so united in hope and belief than during the Baltic Way. Never before had the Baltic states been so united in victory of justice as in August 1991 when they recovered their independence and received support from democratic countries."
Commemorations in Estonia were more muted, yet all three Baltic heads of state-including Estonian President Arnold Ruutel-shared telephone calls to congratulate one another on the anniversary.
While less impressive than the event that inspired it, the replica Baltic Way provided the neighboring states with an opportunity to reflect on their shared struggle to break free from occupation.
"We managed to repeat the fantastic atmosphere of the original Baltic Way. Every stop was overwhelmed with young people holding flags-people were so elevated, so spiritual, which made the atmosphere very warm," said Angonita Rupsyte, an organizer of the 2004 Baltic Way who also participated in the original demonstration.
The memorials also gave pause to Baltic leaders to reconsider the shifting context of their countries' histories.
Aug. 23, 1989, was originally chosen as the date to stage the Baltic Way due to its ignominious distinction as the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union that carved Eastern Europe up between the two totalitarian powers. The Baltic states fell in the Soviet realm of influence, and the pact enabled Soviet forces to invade Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940.
The anniversary also renewed calls for Russia to issue an apology to the Baltic states for the 1940 invasion and subsequent occupation, particularly by former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar in the Wall Street Journal Europe last week.
At a special session of the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament), Conservative MP Andrius Kubilius proposed changing the designation of Aug. 23 from "Black Ribbon Day," as it is now officially called, to "Baltic Way Day," a move that would shift in focus away from the dark history of WWII to the positive events at the end of the century.
The Seimas will soon consider Kubilius' proposal.