Brainstorms and broomsticks – recording how Estonians celebrated the Baltic Way

Around 100 people visited the Europeana 1989 Baltic Way collection days at the Estonian National Library in the capital city of Tallinn on 30-31 August, sharing a total of approximately 150 items.

In addition to many photos and printed materials, a contributor brought in a handmade blue, black and white Estonian tricolour flag mounted on a broomstick, while another person arrived bearing an old Sony portable radio.

Both items had been present at the Baltic Way demonstration in 1989 – the longest human chain in history and a peaceful demonstration for independence.

Radio brought to Tallinn Europeana 1989 event, Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu / National Library of EstoniaRadio brought to Tallinn Europeana 1989 event, Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu / National Library of Estonia

According to one account, people continued to mark the Baltic Way in a variety of ways after the actual event.

For example, a ‘green chain’ was arranged at Rohuküla harbour as a follow-up, involving participants from the islands of both Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. One man invited his friends to his summer cottage in Kiisa, where he shared beer he’d brewed in his brand new kettle to mark the occasion.

One woman brought a pretty light-coloured dress that she’d worn while expecting her first child on the stretch of the Baltic Way demonstration on the big road that circles the city of Türi. Also belonging to this category was a brown coat that had ‘taken part’ in the Baltic Way.

The Tallinn House of Scientists contributed a set of minutes from a meeting that had been held to discuss the events of August 1989, to include the matter of participation in the Baltic Way. Another of their documents reflected brainstorming related to the 1989 legislation on citizenship.

Memorabilia brought to Tallinn Europeana 1989 roadshow, National Library of Estonia

Memorabilia brought to Tallinn Europeana 1989 roadshow, Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu / National Library of Estonia

Frank Drauschke, one of the organisers of Europeana 1989, contributed his photos of the era. Drauschke, then a young East German, had been hitchhiking in the Baltic States during 1989 and took part in the Baltic Way.

A woman who had worked as a tourist guide at the Hotel Viru told the story of how she’d taken a group of Germans to participate in the Baltic Way.

A panel discussion that took place on the first of the collection days revisited the background of how the Baltic Way came about. Estonian MEP and Europeana 1989 National Ambassador Tunne Kelam advocated the idea of gathering people’s memories and encouraged the public to participate.

Historian Küllo Arjakas spoke of the planning that went into the preparatory phase of the Baltic Way. He had with him a set of original meeting notes from the Estonian city of Pärnu that contained interesting details about a meeting of Popular Front members from all three Baltic countries as they laid the groundwork for the huge coming demonstration in which a huge number of people linked hands.

Panel discussion at Tallinn Europeana 1989 event, Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu / National Library of Estonia

Panel discussion at Tallinn Europeana 1989 event, Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu / National Library of Estonia

Filmmaker Peeter Simm, whose documentary film ‘The Baltic Way’ was shown during the collection days, related stories about the making of the film. Simm happened to see a young man emerging from a forest path with a fishing pole on his shoulder, decked out with an attached Estonian flag. Simm had not been prepared to record the spontaneous event, and asked the young man to retrace his steps so that he could be filmed. Then a Russian TV crew appeared, and the lad had to walk out of the woods a third time. Later the Russian crew said that this is typical of Estonians, who always take the most direct route to their objective.

Press photographer Peeter Langovits, who worked for the Estonian news agency ETA, which was a TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) subsidiary at the time, recalled how he had covered the Baltic Way while on assignment. One of his photos had captured a red flag on which the hammer and sickle was equated with a swastika. TASS refused to disseminate this particular picture, but somehow it reached agencies abroad anyway and was eventually offered to TASS for commercial distribution.

Recently, on 23 August of this year, Langovits took photos of marathon runners in Vilnius, Lithuania, who were participating in a race dedicated to the memory of the Baltic Way. Lithuanian runners were also bearing the Estonian national flag. TV reporter Andres Raid spoke emotionally of his memories, noting that he’s never subsequently seen a sparkle in the eyes of his countrymen quite as intense as back then on the day of the Baltic Way.

Europeana and The Estonian National Library teamed up during the collection days with the Estonian Museum of History, which shared its existing materials and also gained new material during the Tallinn collection event. The UNITAS Foundation was also present, gathering life stories for its Kogu Me Lugu project.

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has taken part in and contributed to Europeana 1989 so far!

By Juri Estam, Action Consensus PR.

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