Remembering the Baltic Way


Three Nations United in the Face of Repression

The Baltic Way catapulted the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian cause into the world headlines. On August 23rd, 1989, up to two million people joined hands in a north-south human chain to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the deal between Hitler and Stalin which had carved up Eastern and Central Europe, and consigned the Baltic states to decades of ruinous and brutal foreign occupation. It united three countries that under Soviet occupation shared a common fate, but little else. It remains an inspiration to this day – pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong plan their own linked-hands demonstration on the anniversary, this Friday. But it had another effect too.

In 1989 I was living in Prague. In Poland, Hungary, and even in the Soviet Union, the world was turning upside down, with free speech, mass demonstrations, proper elections, and the dismantling of the communist monopoly of power and wealth. But in the then-Czechoslovakia, the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 had deep-frozen politics, while a pervasive and vindictive secret-police state ensured it stayed that way.

I was visiting friends on August 23rd. The BBC News broadcast led with the Baltic Way. We were all gripped. I was no stranger to the Baltic cause. I knew about the handful of surviving embassies in foreign capitals, maintaining de jure statehood for countries that seemed to have vanished from the map. I knew about the mass deportations under Soviet rule, the extermination of Jews and others under the much briefer Nazi occupation, the destruction of national culture, and the slow genocide caused by discriminatory housing policy which favored migrants from the Soviet Union over locals. I also knew of the astonishing rebirth of opposition, pro-independence sentiment in the past year. Even possession of the old pre-war national flags incurred life-ruining punishment. And here, on television, were Estonia’s blue-black-and-white, Latvia’s maroon-white-maroon, and Lithuania’s yellow-green-red, waving fearlessly along mile upon mile of roads.

My friends’ minds were on something else. “They are so beautiful and so brave,” said Marta. She was pretty brave herself, risking her job to collect signatures for the opposition “Několik vět” (A Few Sentences) petition. Being friends with me – a dangerous foreign correspondent – was brave too. Their young daughters’ education chances could be blighted forever at the stroke of a bureaucrats’ pen. So too could the jazz band that Ondřej, her husband, ran on the margins of the official music establishment.

But the spiteful repression of the Czechoslovak authorities had its limits. Even at the height of the Stalin era, it did not feature the mass repressions that took place across the border to the east. Your children’s education might suffer, but they would not be taken away from you. You might be beaten, but fatalities were rare. The case of the philosopher Jan Patočka, who died under interrogation in 1977, was horrifying because it was so unusual. Resistance in the Baltic states, by contrast, or anywhere else under direct Soviet occupation, required a different level of courage.

And that, for Czechs, was embarrassing. The revolutions of 1989 had many causes: dissatisfaction at backwardness, bureaucracy and isolation, contempt for the dinosaur regimes installed by the Kremlin, anger at the crimes of the past, and more. But in the case of the Czechs, another factor was at play. It was shameful for a country that had once been the most educated, democratic, and industrialized part of Central Europe, to be a laggard, bracketed along with Hoxha’s Albania and Ceausescu’s Romania. Czechs and Slovaks hated that. So they followed the Baltic Way – the path blazed by three small, brave countries that got there first.

August 21, 2019