In 1989, there was a Wall and a Way.

One came down and the other rose up. The wall was named after the city of Berlin, and it extended way beyond the steel and concrete barrier that split Germany during the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was the visible portion of the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since Churchill popularized the phrase in 1946. Ronald Reagan went to Berlin in 1987 and challenged Gorbachev to ‘take down this wall’. Gorbachev never got around to it, but in 1989 the German people took the wall down themselves. 1989 was a momentous year in world politics, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was one if its most momentous events.

But two months prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, on August 23, 1989, far behind the Iron Curtain, two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians joined hands on the highways that linked their countries in a massive demonstration for national independence. They called it the Baltic Way. This human chain stretched for over 600 km from Tallinn, Estonia in the north, through Riga, Latvia, to Vilnius, Lithuania in the south. Like the Berlin Wall, the Baltic Way had a significance that far exceeded the actual kilometers it covered.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought a crashing conclusion to a year that brought down the Iron Curtain and dismantled Soviet influence in Central and Eastern Europe. If you’re old enough to remember 1968, you probably loved 1989. This was the year that Poland’s Solidarnosc won the national elections, Hungary re-declared itself a democratic republic, the Communist government of East Germany resigned, the Romanian people overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu, and Czechoslovakia went through a Velvet Revolution that led to the election of Vaclev Havel as president. All in one year,1989.

If the end of the Berlin Wall meant the end of Soviet satellite states in Europe, the Baltic Way demonstration across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet influence within the Soviet Union. From Stalin to Gorbachev, national protest against Soviet rule had always been unthinkable. Or so everyone thought. That thinking seemed justified when in February 1989, Georgian demonstrators took to the streets of Tblisi and Soviet soldiers fired on them, killing 20. But six months later, when two million Balts defied Soviet authorities to hold an unsanctioned and unprecedented show of peaceful force, the Soviet authorities did nothing. Mahatma Ghandi would have been impressed.

Moscow did condemn the massive Baltic demonstration, and in the next two years the use of Soviet force did take lives in Vilnius and Riga. But by then the genie was out of the bottle and the Baltic States were on their way to independence. In August of 1991, just two years after the historic 1989 Baltic Way demonstration, the three Baltic States restored their sovereignty and rejoined the world community as independent countries again.

This year we mark the 20th anniversary of the tumultuous events of 1989. BBC, CNN and countless other global news networks and international organisations will mark the memories and moments, while their experts discuss the turning points, and historians reflect on the ironies. One of those ironies is that the Baltic Way itself was marking a special anniversary. August 23rd, 1989, was the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This was the infamous Stalin-Hitler agreement in 1939 that led to the eventual occupation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and served as a blueprint for erecting the Iron Curtain across Europe.

In August 1989, the Baltic people started taking down their part of that Soviet Curtain. In November 1989, the German people did the same. The Baltic Way was a like a giant arrow that struck the Berlin Wall from within. To many of us baby boomers who lived through the Cold War, the stunning geopolitical convulsions of 1989 came unexpectedly. Especially if you worked in Washington, London, or Brussels. But if you lived in Riga, Prague, Budapest, or Berlin, you knew it was time for a change.

Each of us who lived through those years will remember them differently. But for me, the image is pretty vivid. In 1989 we proved that wherever there’s a
wall, there’s always a way.