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Baltic Way: One man's memories of the 600-km human chain calling for independence from Soviet Union

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Linas Jegelevicius
Linas Jegelevicius
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How I barely squeezed into the Baltic Way

To forget some things are harder than others and some events just happen to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, writes Linas Jegelevicius, telling his personal memories of the Baltic Way human chain, which saw two million people form a massive human chain on August 23, 1989, to call for independence from the Soviet Union.

For me, a child of the Soviet era, my adolescence overlapped with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for glasnostj (openness) and perestroika, the restructuring through political and economic reforms of the ailing Soviet economy, as well as the simultaneous rise of the Lithuanian national movement, Sąjūdis, that wiped away the Soviets in 1990 with the proclamation of the restoration of Lithuanian independence.

Frankly, if it was not for Sąjūdis, I would have perhaps risen to the high ranks of the Lithuanian Communist Party – the factual governor of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania – after having become the leader of the Komsomol organisation (the membership preceded joining the ranks of the Communist Party) of the secondary school in Alytus, a blue-collar city in southern Lithuanian. This was a huge achievement for an 18-year-old mulling a bright future.

But I did have my share of doubt about the system, to tell the truth. Alongside my father, I had clandestinely listened to the Voice of America, the BBC, the forbidden radio channels barely heard due to the incessant clatter (the KGB was distorting the passage of radio waves). I had heard quite a few stories by my incredibly-intelligent-yet-very-little-educated grandfather – an ordinary Soviet kolkhoz worker – about interwar Lithuania and the Soviet occupation in 1940. I had laughed at the sneers of my uncle Juozas made about the Soviet fishing line and the bobbers – he was lucky to receive the stuff from his American relative in Chicago – but in the years leading to the early 1990s, only a good handful of anti-Soviet resistance participants clamorously questioned the-then Lithuania’s status-quo while the majority questioned things silently or had put up with them. Many of the former ended up in Soviet labour camps or defected to the West in the best scenario. Neither seemed a good option for me, a brilliant Soviet schoolchild.

It was the Sąjūdis, which like a humongous tsunami was rolling through Lithuania – and the town of Alytus, too – tearing away the walls, reviving the history, sparking national feelings and raising both the nation’s and each individual’s conscientiousness to absolutely new levels.

There were multiple Sąjūdis meetings in Alytus – having gulped down so much freedom instantly I, like many others, felt dizzy and was becoming increasingly rebellious. That is how I now explain my exhortation to oust the Soviet-style school principal at one of the gatherings. I got into real trouble after that with the school’s authority despite the fact that I had become the schoolchildren’s Sąjūdis leader.

The old-school principal feared the national movement horribly, yet was eager to teach me a lesson for my actions! If honestly, there indeed was an element of erratic behaviour during my last years at the school, which was owing to the never-before-experienced freedoms!

Ahead of August 23, 1989, there was a new wave of excitement sweeping through the local Sąjūdis groups. There was this undeniable feeling of approaching something immensely huge!

Alytus Sąjūdis was inviting all Alytusans to participate in the Baltic Way and – there were buses booked to go to central Lithuania to join it. But I was seething with individualism – I wanted to have the Baltic Way my own way, so in the early morning of August 23 I rushed to the local bus station to catch a bus to Vilnius, which was the epicentre of the events. How disappointed was I to find the Vilnius-bound bus terribly crammed: many were going to Vilnius to participate and witness the much-talked-about event on their own.

I was lucky to be able to squeeze into the bus – but what a twist of travesty! – squeezing into the Baltic Way in Vilnius appeared to be even harder! There were tonnes of people in Lithuania's capital and the excitement brimmed with commotion, with the mottle throngs of people desperately trying to find a spot in the Baltic Way in the cradle of Sąjūdis, Vilnius.

The problem was evident – there was no room for all the people to be linked in the already curvy human chain in Vilnius. With the clock ticking the last hour till the event, there was in the crowd this clearly tangible, lingering, overwhelming, fright, one similar to missing the last boat or plane before a calamity strikes, of being left disconnected from the human chain.

I clearly heard excited voices of Sąjūdis representatives, calling the “redundant” people to jump on the buses nearby and go to “patch up” people-scarcer places of the Baltic Way in the eastern Vilnius district.

I was nearly trembling out of elation and fear of being left out from the chain, but I knew it very well: I wanted to be in it in Vilnius! I had travelled to Sąjūdis meetings before and I had planned my life in Vilnius, so going for the Baltic Way somewhere else made no sense to me.

As there still were a whole lot more people at the foothill of Gediminas hill, the main landmark of the Lithuanian capital, gripped with the same apprehensions, a Solomonic decision was found: bends were allowed in order to get all the excessive people in the line.

Hooray!

Needless to say, I was over the moon to be finally able to clasp hands with the others in the curvy stretch of the Baltic Way in its most coveted spot, Vilnius!

Long live the Baltic Way memories that still stoke so much enthusiasm and joy. How great it feels to have been a part of the history that will never ever repeat itself.

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