Thirty years ago this week, on August 23, 1989, more than 2 million citizens of the Baltic republics of the U.S.S.R. engineered one of the most dramatic and successful mass protests in Soviet history. Men, women, and children linked hands in a continuous human chain more than 400 miles long that they called the “Baltic Way,” connecting the Estonian capital of Tallinn in the north with the Latvian capital of Riga in the center and the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in the south.
They were protesting what was then the 50th anniversary of one of modern history’s most brutal and cynical backroom deals—the secret agreement made 80 years ago on August 23, 1939—by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to divide Eastern Europe between them on the eve of the Second World War. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (named after Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop) divided Poland, giving Hitler a free path to go to war against it 10 days later and Stalin the green light to invade Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in May and June of 1940.
The three young Baltic states were stripped of their national identities and incorporated by terror and force into the U.S.S.R. in the summer of 1940. Stalin’s secret police murdered many of the Baltic government, business, and cultural leaders. Thousands of others were sent to the Soviet Gulag prison system east of the Ural Mountains. Against their will, three independent nations were imprisoned as puppet republics of the Soviet Union for more than half a century until they liberated themselves in September 1991, just before the Soviet empire itself disintegrated.