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The many layers of The Baltic Way

In 2009, the Baltic States remember a 1989 event that marked a moment in 1939.

Women with Lithuania's national colors painted on their cheeks gather before the start of the Baltic Run in Vilnius, Aug. 22, 2009. More than 15,000 people from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia participated in the 373-mile relay from Vilnius and Tallinn to Riga to commemorate the Baltic Way human chain that took place on Aug. 23, 1989. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

VILNIUS, Lithuania — On an overcast Sunday in Vilnius an elderly woman swept stray leaves and petals from bouquets near a plaque in front of the building that was KGB headquarters for over half a century. The names of dozens of people who had been killed inside the imposing 19th century building have been carved on eye-level stone blocks at its foundations.

“Read what it says here,” she told a passerby, “and then you will understand everything.” The plaque commemorates one Petras Vizbaras-Vapsva, a young Lithuanian who, while being interrogated in the building in 1953, fell to his death three flights below onto the spot just beneath the plaque.

It had been unveiled the day before as one of the commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way, a seminal event that sent an unmistakable signal in 1989 that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia wanted out of the old Soviet Union. On Aug. 23, 1989, at 7 p.m., more than two million people stood along 375 miles of a highway linking the Baltic capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Holding hands or lighted candles, they formed a human chain, demonstrating that political independence from the Soviet Union was the desire of the mainstream of their societies, not just fringe elements as Moscow claimed at the time.

Within a year and a half, all three countries formally declared their independence. By September 1991, the world’s governments recognized that independence.

The Baltic Way’s “meaning and significance cannot be overestimated,” said newly-elected President Dalia Grybauskaite on Aug. 23, 2009, in an address before a special session of Parliament. “It was the victory of freedom over fear, mistrust and isolation.”

The 1989 Baltic Way was overwhelmingly jubilant, a high point in the independence process. “It showed that we could be unified and together,” said Irena Veisaite, 82, former chairman of the Open Society Fund in Lithuania and a Holocaust survivor who remained in the country after World War II ended. “In these troubled times, we sometimes forget that we were capable of such unity.”

Yet the event 20 years ago marked the 50th anniversary of an event that was anything but a jubilant occasion for the Baltic countries. On Aug. 23, 1939, their fate was decided by a non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (after the names of the foreign ministers who signed it).