In 1989 from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius some 2 million Balts held hands in protest of the Soviet occupation of their countries and to demonstrate their hunger for freedom. Expectedly, the 15th anniversary of the unprecedented event was celebrated this week on Aug. 23, which was chosen because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany divided spheres of influence in Eastern Europe - land for the taking in a rapacious expansion of empires. The Baltic states, to be sure, were not the only ones affected; Poland and Bessarabia (today Moldova) also fell victim to the nefarious protocol.
The 360-mile human chain occurred a little more than a year before independence was granted, and it was only in 1994 that Russian troops left the Baltic states. Moldova has been less fortunate, as their breakaway region Transdniestra still quarters Russian soldiers. The Balts drive for independence was marked by nonviolent protests; armed revolt was not an option, and crackdowns ensued in Vilnius and Riga during a struggle for power in Moscow.
The Baltic Way is still relevant today. Another human chain of one million people held hands on Feb. 28 of this year across the island of Taiwan to both protest missiles aimed at the island and to remember the massacre in 1947. This event reportedly drew its inspiration from the 1989 demonstration in the Baltics.
The Baltic Way was a major step toward independence, but it also marked the illegal incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, and the circumstances that preceded the Soviet invasion of 1940. Unfortunately, many are still blind to that fact. The Russian language daily Telegraf, on its front page, lamented the fact that Latvians and Russians are divided now, while they were "united for freedom" 15 years ago. The article failed to mention why the Baltic Way occurred on Aug. 23 to begin with, which leads one to question ethnic minorities' knowledge of history.
When the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were made public, they shocked many in the Soviet empire. The Great Patriotic War, it seemed, was fought only after things went awry in the friendship agreement with the fascists. Not surprisingly, faith in Soviet ideals was dealt a mortal blow by the revelation. Yet even today there are many who deny that the Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union, many even living in the Baltics themselves.
The Balts have come a long way in those 15 years. They are now embedded in the NATO security alliance and are member states of the European Union. They have growing civil societies and maturing democracies. Yet pressure from Russia, both public and private, has continued unabated and the Balts' relationship with the EU's largest Eastern neighbor are the worst in the union. To counteract some of the damaging rhetoric from Russia, the Baltic states should draw on the experience of cooperation during the end of Soviet communism.