HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

How the Baltic nations’ ‘chain of freedom’ seemed impossible at the time

By Ričards Umbraško

“I remember your dad was 14 when the Baltic Way took place,” my grandmother told me on the phone recently. “We lived in a village so we had to drive to get to the highway where the actual Baltic Way happened. There were multiple small bonfires along the way where people stood, and you could hear helicopters flying above our heads – possibly from Estonia to film the formation.”

There are hundreds if not thousands of stories just like this one. But thirty years later, from Tsuen Wan to Kwun Tong and beyond – Hongkongers will recreate the Baltic Way on Friday as a sanguine solidarity message in opposition to the extradition law, police violence and as a plea for international support.

Baltic Way

Baltic Way. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Kusurija.

A Tallinn-based Hong Kong startup entrepreneur, who wished to remain anonymous, proposed the human chain idea on Hong Kong’s Reddit-like LIHKG forum. Activists are now turning the idea into reality – the pro-democracy stunt is set to take place in Hong Kong on August 23, the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way.

Arguably one of the most peaceful, yet powerful demonstrations in the history of the 20th century, the Baltic Way proved what then seemed impossible – that even after 49 years of oppression, tyranny, and despotism, people like my grandmother and 2 million others believed in the right of self-determination and universal suffrage. No Pravda article or Politburo resolution could stop the national sentiment that had been on the rise for years – and once an opportunity came, the inevitable was doomed to happen.

The human chain connected all three of the Baltic capitals, stretching over 675 kilometres from north to south. At precisely at 7pm local time, protesters linked their hands for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, on the countries’ borders, symbolic funeral ceremonies were held with people holding candles among pre-war national flags decorated with black ribbons in memory of the victims of Soviet terror.

There is an uncanny resemblance between the events 30 years ago and what is happening in Hong Kong at the moment. A nation at a crossroads, pushed to choose between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, between being independent or being “mainlandised.” It really does echo the gloomy days of Soviet occupation with a hint of emotionally captivating and visually stunning scenes like the Baltic Way.

July 1 2019 Monday democracy march

July 1 march, 2019. Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

The people of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia will commemorate the event this Friday. But this time – unlike the previous years – we will have the people of Hong Kong on our minds.  A sense of brotherhood, unity, and a common goal will once again prevail in the Baltics on this day, but several thousand kilometres away and five time zones ahead, in Hong Kong, the Chain of Freedom, as the Baltic Way is often called, will have become one of the main driving forces behind the pro-democracy movement.

We understand how important international support is when it comes to important issues like these. This is why the Baltic states have historically stood against tyranny and supported democratic ideals and other nations’ rights to be autonomous – whether it is Kosovo, Catalonia, or Hong Kong.

No other movement has inspired so many to strengthen their right to seek independence and be a positive example to other countries striving to renew sovereignty like the Baltic Way. With dozens of other solidarity demonstrations supporting the Baltics taking place all over the world in 1989, we look back after 30 years and see how strong we as a nation have become. And hopefully, there will be a time when the people of Hong Kong can do the same.

There’s a popular proverb in Latvian – “good things come to those who wait.” For Hongkongers, there’s no time left to wait now. Civility can wait; the fight for democracy cannot.


Ričards Umbraško is a political activist and writer based in Riga, Latvia. His work has been published in several major Latvian national weeklies and dailies, and he worked with several pro-democracy projects.

How the Baltic nations' 'chain of freedom' seemed impossible at the time