23 AUGUST 1989

The demonstration to oppose the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP) was held on 23 August 1989. The main event on the protest day was to be the forming of a gigantic human chain reaching across the three countries. The human chain passing through central Estonia was to be lined up by seven o’clock in the evening. As the transportation and managing of hundreds of thousands of people and vehicles was expected to take time, an early start had to be made. For planning purposes, the route of the Baltic Way was divided between the then administrative districts, and sections of those districts were, in turn, assigned to larger organisations, who were to send their people there. For the most part, people arrived in the chain in organised convoys made up of both public transport and private cars. Prior to forming the convoys, speeches were given and meetings held in many district centres.

Two of the five known Estonian monuments dedicated to the Baltic Way – in Käru and Särevere – were opened on the same day, a few hours before the chain was formed.

Those who came from further away had to start driving early. In Kuressaare, the capital of the island of Saaremaa, the corner stone of a War of Independence monument to be restored was inaugurated at 1 pm and the convoy set out for the ferry from Kuivastu at 1:45. A meeting of great symbolic significance was held in Hirvepark, Tallinn, where just two years earlier the question of the secret protocols of the MRP had for the first time been brought before the public.

To give the Baltic Way organisational adhesion and boost a sense of unity among the participants, there was a three-hour live broadcast on Estonian Radio titled “Me hoiame ühte” (“We keep together”), starting at 5 pm. In the broadcast, patriotic songs were played and poems read, there were live broadcasts from various sections of the Way and traffic information was provided to facilitate the movement of the vehicle convoys arriving at the Way. Indeed, traffic had turned into a major problem on the day, as the large number of participants exceeding the expectations of the organisers hopelessly clogged the route of the Baltic Way and the roads leading to it. Coordinated through a live radio broadcast, the main programme of the day began at 7:00 pm. After a moment of silence in mourning, Marju Lauristin and Arnold Rüütel spoke; the Russian historian Vassili Kulish commented on the MRP secret protocols. This was followed by the high point of the broadcast and the whole event: the passing on, from mouth to mouth, of a keyword. The word was “Freedom” and it began to move from both ends towards the centre simultaneously. At 7:30 pm, the dispersal of the Baltic Way began.

More thematic popular meetings were held in various places later the same evening. People in northern Estonia headed to Rapla; southern Estonians, along with a large number of Latvians, headed to the Estonian-Latvian border between Nuia and Rūjiena, where the main event of the protest, “Kurjuse hävitamine” (“Destruction of Evil”), took place. After hearing speeches by Estonian and Latvian politicians, slogans symbolic of totalitarian regimes were burnt in bonfires. As people have recalled, the slow ride back home in traffic jams, amidst bonfires and candles lit along the side of the road in the evening darkness, greeted by the friendly smiles and waves from complete strangers, turned out to be the most memorable part of the day for many.

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