Holding hands. It’s a simple act that usually signifies love, friendship, or caring. But on August 23, 1989, the simple act of holding hands freed six million people in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

On that fateful day in 1989, more than two million people joined hands in a human chain that began in Tallinn, Estonia, stretched 430 miles across Latvia, to Vilnius, Lithuania. The date was chosen to focus the world’s attention on the day in 1939, exactly 50 years prior, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This secret agreement was created during the early years of World War II, when Germany and the Soviet Union were allies. Not only did it pledge non-aggression between the signatories, in a blatant violation of international law, it detailed how Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania would be divided between the two countries. The Baltics were given over to the Soviet Union.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Baltic Way footsteps tile is located in Cathedral Square, where the human chain began

In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Baltic Way footsteps tile is located in Cathedral Square, where the human chain began

With Russian influence neatly tied up, Germany invaded Poland eight days later, starting World War II. The Soviet Union subsequently invaded Estonia and Latvia on June 16, 1940. Though the Soviets switched to the side of the Allies after Germany attacked them in June of 1941, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact essentially remained in effect. The Soviet Union continued to occupy Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania throughout and following the war, all the while denying the existence of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The Baltic Way tile in Tallinn, Estonia, sits atop a hill overlooking Freedom Square

The Baltic Way tile in Tallinn, Estonia, sits atop a hill overlooking Freedom Square

During the waning years of the Soviet Union, a strong pro-independence movement emerged in the Baltic States, and the idea for the Baltic Way (also known as the Baltic Chain) was born. Exactly 50 years from the date that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, two million people stood shoulder-to-shoulder along highways and in fields, holding hands and singing for their freedom. Their demands were simple: admit the secret protocol of the Pact and restore the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Soviet officials were not amused by the Baltic Way. Three days later the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued the following statement: “Matters have gone far. There is a serious threat to the fate of the Baltic peoples. People should know the abyss into which they are being pushed by their nationalistic leaders. Should they achieve their goals, the possible consequences could be catastrophic to these nations. A question could arise as to their very existence.”

Closeup of the Baltic Way tile in Riga, Latvia, which is prominently displayed in front of Freedom Monument

Closeup of the Baltic Way tile in Riga, Latvia, which is prominently displayed in front of Freedom Monument

Worried that the Soviets might send troops to stamp out dissent, the three countries jointly issued a declaration to the United Nations that they were under threat of aggression and asked that an international commission monitor the situation. Under the scrutiny of the UN, and with pressure to cease and desist coming from the U.S. and Germany, the Soviets did an about-face. On December 24, 1989, they finally acknowledged the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and declared the agreement to have been illegal. Full independence was granted by Moscow to all three countries in August of 1991.

Unfortunately, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia began taking a harder line. Moscow once again insisted that its control of the Baltic States was legal. In 2005, the Kremlin’s European affairs chief, Sergei Yastrzhembsky declared, “There was no occupation. There were agreements at the time with the legitimately elected authorities in the Baltic countries.”

Though such tough sounding rhetoric might seem alarming, residents of the Baltic States seem to feel no threat from their huge neighbor to the east. A large percentage of the tourists who visit the Baltics are Russian, and I heard as much Russian being spoken in the streets as I did Latvian, Lithuanian, or Estonian. Every local person I spoke to about the issue said that Russian aggression was a non-issue.

In Vilnius, a second tile commemorates the Baltic Way. Also located in Cathedral Square, it is engraved with the word Stebuklas, which translates to "miracle." It is said that the wish of anyone who stands on it and twirls around three times will be granted.

In Vilnius, a second tile commemorates the Baltic Way. Also located in Cathedral Square, it is engraved with the word Stebuklas, which translates to “miracle.” It is said that the wish of anyone who stands on it and twirls around three times will be granted.

Today, one of the most visible signs that Baltic citizens will never again bow to aggression lies embedded in the pavements of the three capital cities. In 2013, identical tiles containing the impression of a set of footprints were installed in prominent public locations. In Vilnius, where the idea for the memorial emerged, the tile sits in the center of Cathedral Square. In Riga, the footprints were placed in front of the Freedom Monument. I had to search a bit harder in Tallinn, where the tile has been tucked away in an obscure corner atop a hill in the upper Old Town. Still, the hill overlooks Freedom Square, an appropriately symbolic location.

Tourists in Vilnius twirl around three times on the Stebuklas "miracle" tile in hopes that their wishes will be granted

Tourists in Vilnius twirl around three times on the Stebuklas “miracle” tile in hopes that their wishes will be granted

Interestingly, in Vilnius, where the idea for the commemorative tiles was born, two different tiles have been laid in Cathedral Square. The second is engraved with the word Stebuklas, which translates to “miracle.” It is said that the wish of anyone who stands on the tile and twirls around three times will be granted. When the crowd of tourists cleared, I seized my opportunity. I closed my eyes tight, made a wish, and twirled around three times. I figured it couldn’t hurt. After all, the Baltic Way had proved so powerful that it freed three countries. My wish was tiny in comparison.

When the first of the tiles were dedicated in Vilnius, Mayor Arturas Zuokas, said, “The footprints of those people who stood here 24 years ago in the Baltic Way will remain for all time.”  Let us hope that the same can be said for their independence.

Holding Hands, the Baltic Way