RIGA - Chains are usually a very negative symbol in human affairs. However, one particular chain in recent Baltic history is remembered with deep affection, and it celebrates its 20th birthday this week.
On the evening of August 23, 1989, over 2 million people joined hands in a continuous line from Tallinn to Riga and then on to Vilnius. This "Baltic Way" brought a huge emotional boost to the region's emerging independence movements and a welcome dose of global attention for the cause.
This joyful coming together was based on darker events, as a commemoration of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which Hitler and Stalin carved up Eastern Europe between them. This deal saw Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania swiftly occupied by the USSR, and they remained under its dominance for the next half century.
Despite totalitarian media control and draconian penalties for anyone questioning the official views of history, Balts never gave up hope of restoring their countries' independence. Following the easing of restrictions under Gorbachev's glasnost policy, demonstrations in the Baltic States continued to grow in size and boldness. The next big step, the Baltic Way was conceived as a way of drawing world attention to the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet treaty.
There are literally millions of stories of how people came to be standing on the highways and streets on that day 20 years ago. For Aina Jakovica, the long road began as a member of an illegal youth group in Latvia at the end of the war. The memory of some of her classmates being imprisoned by the Soviets for ten years for these activities left a bitter taste that she never forgot.
Today she works at the 1991 Barricades Museum in Riga, an institution highlighting Latvia's independence movement. Commenting on one of its exhibits, a mock up of a typical kitchen in a Soviet communal apartment, she recalls the mixture of personal and national frustration that many felt at the time.
"We were forced to live in these conditions, and to be in this country, the Soviet Union, that we didn't want to be in," she said. "For 50 years we were kept in the dark, Moscow controlled what you could say and how you could say it."
In spite of these privations, she says that on trips to other parts of the USSR, people always remarked on how they regarded the Baltic region as the most Western and advanced part of the enormous state. And this sense of separateness was nurtured in Baltic hearts. It was a natural progression for her to be standing in Old Riga during the Baltic Way, linking hands with the people next to her when the city's ringing church bells gave the signal.
"I had goose bumps all over, it was an incredible feeling," Jakovica remembers.
Squabbles over fishing rights and margarine imports between the three Baltics in the decades since have not negated the need for unity between them, she believes. She recently welcomed a group of 40 Lithuanian students to her museum and considers them her "own children." But she admits that the economically divided Latvia that emerged after independence was not what people dreamed of back in 1989, and the current recession makes her fearful of the future.
Despite the turbulent financial times, there are plans to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way in style. Frederikas Jansonas was just 17 when he stood in the line near Ukmerge, north of Vilnius. Today, he is the spokesperson in Lithuania for "Heartbeats for the Baltics," a 24 hour relay run starting simultaneously in Tallinn and Vilnius on August 22 and finishing in Riga on August 23. Each participant will cover 1 km of the route and have their heartbeat measured as proof that the sense of national identity is still going strong. A few days prior to the start, over 7,500 runners had signed up, including the three Baltic presidents.
"This is a unique opportunity to show ourselves and the world that in difficult times we stick together," says Jansonas. "This time we will not be hand in hand, but shoulder to shoulder with the person running next to you in a show of unity."
The original event reached out to the world beyond, attracting Western headlines for the Baltic struggle. According to Marika Valk, the Baltic Way was a powerful inspiration to the peaceful revolutions that later broke out in Eastern Europe and Russia. Valk's husband was one of the leaders of Estonia's Popular Front and an organizer of the human chain. She and her family joined it at the Estonian-Latvian border.
"What our nations have done is great, and as little countries we have to be together and remember our history," she urges.
Valk will not be running in the relay. But as the General Secretary of the Estonian National Commission for UNESCO, she plays a different role in maintaining the spirit of 1989. This year, a collection of documents from the Baltic Way was added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register, a list of historical archives of great significance to humanity. Anne Frank's diaries and the Magna Carta are some of the other prominent inclusions. This honor was granted to the Baltic Way for encouraging democratic movements throughout the USSR and setting a vivid example of achieving freedom in a peaceful way.
In what has been a difficult year for many people in the region, this is a great achievement they can be proud off and should draw strength from.