Friday 23 August 2013

The Baltic Way

To me, the Baltic republics are rather romantic places.  The red arrow on the map shows just how close I got to them.  Three years ago I went on a visit to NE Poland and we took a trip out in the woods picking mushrooms (as you do in Poland).  At one point we looked over a little bridge at the Lithuanian border post. It had armed guards, so I didn't feel I had the chutzpah to go and ask if I could step across the line for a jape.

The republics are each about the size of Ireland and combined comprise 175, compared to Ireland-the-island's 84,  The population in "Baltica" is about 6.2m now (compared to 6.4m on I-t-i).  So my Irish readers will easily imagine just how difficult it was to achieve the happening I am about to describe.

On 23 August 1939, the foreign ministers of Soviet Russia and NSDP Germany, Molotov and Ribbentrop, signed a pact that divvied up Eastern Europe between their two empires. Exactly 50 years later in 1989 as the Soviet empire started to heave and shake and rumble, the local independence movements created the Baltic Way - a human chain of people holding hands from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius and all 600km in between.  On dit que 2 million people were actually holding hands at 7pm that night as a powerful gesture of solidarity.  600km is 600,000m so either there were kinks (or very small children) in the line or there was no need to stretch out your hand because everyone was standing shoulder-to-shoulder (mine are 50cm wide) or there weren't 2 million adult people taking part.  But  that is definitely in the right order of magnitude and even if only 1 million Balts took a day off work to participate that is a hugely impressive logistical achievement.  The Baltic SSRs collapsed the following year and were reborn as independent republics.

When I say that we in Ireland can imagine how difficult it would be to herd 2 million Kilkenny cats into an unbroken line, I rather understate the case. Because to the logistical difficulties you have to add the fact that  the SSRs in 1989 were police-states.  For example, 75 people were arrested and banged up in chokey for trying to hold a sympathy event in Moscow that day.

Here's another arresting fact.  When the protests were held there were far more people people living in the Baltic SSRs than there are today:

Area Pop 1989 Pop 2011
Estonia 1.6million 1.3million
Latvia 2.7million 2.0million
Lithuania 3.7million 2.9million
1.8 million people (nearly a quarter of the population) have left their Baltic homes over the last 20 years.  And it sometimes seems as if fully half of them have come to Ireland.  To which I say fáilte, tervitama, sveiktsveiki!

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