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).
The two ideological arch-enemies promised to refrain from attacking one another, and to not interfere in the territorial ambitions that each had regarding other countries. In secret protocols to the pact — which the Soviet Union denied for half a century — they divided up the nervous neighbors sandwiched in between them. The USSR would have rights to the Baltic States and eastern Poland, western Ukraine and Bessarabia (today’s Moldova), while Hitler would take the rest of Poland.
In essence, the pact gave Hitler the security he needed in the east to invade Poland. One week later, on Sept. 1, 1939, he did just that, starting World War II . Less than a year later, in 1940, the Soviet Union formally annexed the three independent Baltic states. The commemorative events included a race between Vilnius and Tallinn following the same path as the original Baltic Way, and the simultaneous singing of the 1989 song “The Baltic is Awakening” in all three Baltic capitals. Lithuanian pilots flew over Riga and Tallinn and dropped flowers at key locations. The three Baltic prime ministers — Estonia’s Andrus Ansip, Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis and Lithuania’s Andrius Kubilius — signed a declaration pledging to raise consciousness in the rest of Europe to openly evaluate the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes — Stalinist and Nazi.
The commemoration took place at a time of increased tensions between the Baltic countries and Russia. Russia has objected to Baltic reinterpretations of history, which have cast the Soviet Union’s WWII role to be as much occupiers as they were liberators.
This past May, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev formed a commission to “defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny Soviet contribution to the victory in World War II.” Concurrently, legislation was prepared that would give teeth to this commission’s findings, calling for such “falsifiers” in Russia to receive anything from penalties to five years imprisonment.
The draft legislation states that Moscow also reserves the right to take measures against those outside her borders who the commission considers guilty of such transgressions. These measures include expelling foreign diplomats and imposing economic sanctions and transport blockades. Many observers believe that Moscow intends to target the Baltic States.
Ina Navazelskis is in Lithuania researching a book on the continued relevance of World War II on life in the Baltic region.