August 23, 1989
An apartment complex on the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia
Three teenagers lay sprawled on the fragrant grass, eyes closed, their faces turned to seek the warmth of the late summer sun. Dozens of dingy grey apartment buildings with hundreds of identical rectangular windows formed a monotonous concrete maze. Tiny patches of green lawn dotted the massive Soviet built complex. Residents, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and cheap shoes, scurried along the paths. To home. To work and back home again.
Tina shaded her eyes to gaze up at the blue Baltic sky and watched the tiny clouds scatter out to sea. “Do you think the Soviets control the clouds along with the rest of our country?” Tina asked. “Perhaps with biochemical spray or electronic control?” She thrust herself onto one elbow and shoved her blonde hair aside with the other hand. Her eyes flashed her anger about the Soviet occupation of Estonia as she bit the fingernail on her thumb.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they did,” Reeta replied. She rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin with her hands, revealing nails bitten to the quick. Her brown eyes glinted with annoyance. “They control everything else. What we eat, what we write, how we’re supposed to think!”
“Their days are numbered and they know it,” Marc said as he lay on his back, hands clasped behind his head. “The political rally tonight clinches it. Gorbachev plus glasnost equals the end of the USSR and the beginning of independence in the Baltics.” He opened one blue eye. “Can you believe they finally admitted that there was a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin? Everyone knew they were lying about it for fifty years. And this week they confessed. To the world, no less.”
Tina and Reeta nodded their heads in unison. Everyone knew about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed exactly fifty years ago on August 23, 1939. Millions of lives changed as Russia annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Now, half a century later buoyed by the momentum of glasnost and perestroika, the Baltic people intended to commemorate this anniversary with the largest protest ever planned.
Footsteps pounding on the pavement interrupted their conversation. Tina craned her neck to see four figures strutting along the path. She squinted then frowned when she noticed Vladimir, a Russian boy from their class, stop and glare at them. She always attempted to avoid him since he never missed an opportunity to insult anyone who wasn’t a Communist. Classmates bit their tongues since his father was a high-ranking KGB official and retaliation could be far reaching.
“Are you talking about the Baltic Chain planned for tonight? You think that joining hands and standing in a line is going to change anything. Well, it won’t!” Vladimir curled his upper lip into a snarl. “You Estonians are like fleas on an elephant. The Soviets won’t notice even if there are a million of you.” He pursed his lips as if he wanted to spit on them.
Tina stood up to face him, arms crossed. She didn’t feel brave, only tired - tired of hearing snide comments from people who didn’t see an alternative to tyrannical communist rule. Plus with her friends around, she assumed Vladimir would only spew empty threats. She involuntarily leaned back as he stepped close enough for her to see the dark stubble on his chin. She focused somewhere over his left shoulder. “We don’t care if the Soviets notice,” she said. “But the world will notice when over a million people join hands across three countries.”
“There won’t be a million people,” Vladimir scoffed. “Most people will be too scared to show up. They’re frightened of tanks and rifles and the powerful Russian army.” He took a step back and pretended to have a machine gun bucking in his hand. Tina didn’t flinch. She felt Marc and Reeta stand up behind her.
“Hey, Vlad, you’ve better things to do than talk to those losers,” one of his friends shouted. “Come on, we’re late.”
Vladimir pretended to fire a few more rounds into the air and then ran to join his buddies.
“He’s a bully, just like the Soviets. And the bully gets louder when he knows he’s losing,” Marc said, sitting back down on the lawn. “It’s just a matter of time before we regain our autonomy.”
“And we’re closer than ever. The Baltic Chain will show the world we want our freedom back!” Tina said with enthusiasm. “We’re all going tonight! Right, Marc? Right, Reeta? What time do you want to meet?” She glanced at her watch.
“Let’s meet at five to catch the bus,” Marc said. “It’ll take us a while to get into town, then we need to find a place to stand. And you know what Estos are like. Everyone will be early.”
Reeta remained silent as they chatted. Finally Tina turned to her, “You’re coming, aren’t you?”
Reeta shook her head slowly as she gazed down at her shoes. Finally she said, ”I can’t come. My dad and my uncle would kill me if the Russians didn’t do it first.”
Tina had forgotten that Reeta’s uncle was a high-ranking Estonian Communist. And that meant he supported for the continuation of communism, not independence.
“Can’t you sneak out?” Marc asked. “We need as many people as possible.”
“We know you’d come with us if you could,” Tina said. “We’ll think of you as we’re holding hands.” She cast an annoyed look at Marc. He ought to know that Reeta couldn’t risk coming with them.
“Will you do something for me tonight?” Reeta asked, looking hesitant.
“Of course,” Tina replied. “What?”
Reeta rummaged through her tattered knapsack and pulled out a well-loved scruffy teddy bear. She offered him to Tina and asked, “Could you take him along and pretend it’s me? I’d really like to be there and support you. This is the only way I can think of.”
Marc grinned. “Sure. We need all the people or bears we can get.”
“I’ll take good care of him,” Tina said as she gently placed the bear in her striped cloth shoulder bag.
They continued to talk about the once-in-a-lifetime event. The Baltic Chain called for people to join hands at seven o’clock along the six hundred kilometre stretch of road from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. This fifteen minute peaceful protest planned to show the world a massive demonstration of solidarity for Baltic independence. Momentum had been building for the last few days. Conversation on the streets, in the food shops, at the bus stops focused on the logistics of getting as many people as possible to participate.
With the mid-afternoon sun still high in the sky, Tina and Mark hugged Reeta and hurried home for a snack before their meeting at the bus stop.
Tina rushed across the compound to her building, which was virtually indistinguishable from all the others. The gloomy hallway felt like a cave after the dazzling sunlight. In the dim light of a bare bulb, she pressed the button for the elevator and waited, hoping she wouldn’t have to climb up twelve flights of concrete stairs. The building’s solitary elevator worked intermittently.
Today, the doors opened. Once inside, she felt claustrophobic since the elevator was only slightly bigger than a closet. It chugged up the shaft and bounced to a stop. Before the doors opened, the reek of cabbage and wurst assaulted her nose and she held her breath as she strode down the hallway. As she walked into the small anteroom shared by two apartments, she heard the neighbour’s radio blaring Russian music. She left her shoes in the hallway, found her key and opened the door.
She didn’t expect anyone to be at home Wednesday afternoon. Her parents had given her permission to go to the political protest with Marc and his family since they were going directly from work.
The one bedroom apartment seemed to become smaller with each passing year. Her bedroom, only a few steps from the front door, housed a single bed, a small fake wood desk and real wood bookshelf. The afternoon sun poured onto her faded green bedcover. Tina flopped onto the bed, rolled onto her back and propped Reeta’s teddy bear on her stomach.
“So, what do you think of this independence thing?” she asked the bear. The dream of self-rule in the Baltics had been whispered only amongst trusted family and friends as long as she remembered. But would she be risking her life tonight? What if Vladimir proved right and the Red tanks flattened their hopes?
Maybe life under the hammer and sickle wasn’t so bad. The black market provided most things they couldn’t find in the shops. For a dear price, of course. She’d only savoured a banana once in her life.
A slight breeze flowed through the open window and brought with it the possibility of liberty, as ephemeral and persistent as the smell of the sea.
“No, little bear, freedom is the only answer,” she said, holding the bear’s caramel coloured paws. She rolled up to sit on the edge of the bed, rested him against the pillow and patted his shabby head.
She made herself some toast, downed a glass of milk and changed into jeans. She located a candle and matches to take with her, grabbed a jacket and took a last glance in the mirror.
She drew her long blond hair back into a ponytail and grimaced at her shapeless blue and white t-shirt, baggy jeans and too tight running shoes. Maybe self-government would bring a better selection of clothing in the stores. She pulled the door tight behind her and locked it.
As she pushed the button for the elevator, she remembered she’d left Reeta’s teddy bear on her bed and sprinted back to the apartment.
Bear in hand, she rushed back as the elevator door opened. She stepped in, only to encounter Vladimir and one of his buddies. The elevator door glided shut her before she could back out. She stuffed the bear into her shoulder bag.
Vladimir leered. “You’re in a hurry, aren’t you?” He pushed the stop button, and the elevator bounced gently as it stopped descending.
Tina held her breath and clutched her bag in front of her as she considered her response. She eyed his athletic shoes - Nikes apparently but almost certainly counterfeit.
“My friends are waiting,” she said as she crossed her arms and bit on the fingernail of her right thumb.
“My friends are waiting,” Vladimir mimicked. “What are they waiting for? Do you think a couple of people holding hands along a road are going to make a difference? The tanks will roll in and shoot all of you.” Inches from her face, he reeked of garlic and she noticed his crooked front teeth.
She forced a glimmer of a smile to her eyes and lips as she considered the best way to deal with Vladimir. “Even the Russians don’t have enough bullets to stop eight million people from three countries.” She leaned against the elevator wall. “Even if I don’t go, it won’t stop anyone else from going. The world is going to know that the Baltics want independence from the Soviet Union.” She relaxed her arms and tried to breathe evenly. There was nothing else she could do.
He took a step toward her, his face only inches from hers. Sweat and garlic offended her nose. She held her breath and clenched her fists. She subtly shifted her balance to her left leg. Could she knee him in the groin? Of course she could, but then what?
“We don’t have time to waste on you...now,” Vladimir sneered at her and turned his back. ”Next time. And there will be a next time.” As he pushed the button to resume the elevator, he said to his friend, “They haven’t got a chance.”
Tina continued to hold her breath. Once the door opened, she bolted out of the elevator and dashed outside to gulp the clean air. She didn’t care if Vladimir thought she was running from him, she needed to get to the bus stop.
Running hard, she dodged people as she veered on and off the path. She arrived at the bus stop panting but just in time to leap on the bus with Marc and his family. They settled into seats at the back of the bus. The only advantage of living far from town was getting a seat on the bus.
Her breathing now even, Tina looked out of the grimy bus window. Even this far from the city centre, traffic was heavier than normal.
“Marc, look at all the cars heading toward the city,” she said. “We’re going to make history, I just know it.”
As the bus got closer to the old city centre, hundreds of people filled the sidewalks, walking from all directions, holding candles, some with flowers and many holding the blue, black and white flag high in the air.
Finally, the bus turned onto the main road leading to Riga. Tina gasped as she saw the continuous line of people connected shoulder to shoulder along the road. Young men still wore sunglasses despite the evening light. Old women shuffled along the road, stooped and wrinkled. Small girls carried small bouquets of late summer flowers as their mothers held candles, protecting the flame with cupped hands. Cars parked end to end on the side of the road. Countless Estonian flags of all sizes fluttered in the wind.
Police stood by as the peaceful crowd made room for more and more people. Tina continued walking for a few blocks with Marc’s family until they finally squeezed into a space.
At seven, a hush fell over the crowd.
Tina took Reeta’s teddy bear from her bag and held its tiny paw while Marc took the other one with his thumb and forefinger.
“Now I feel that Reeta is with us,” Tina said. The fresh Baltic breeze rustled countless flags and raised just as many hopes. She felt energy soar along the kilometres buoyed by beating hearts and warm hands. For an instant, the Iron Curtain rippled and parted, showing the world three forgotten countries.
Historical note: August 23, 2008, will be the nineteenth anniversary of the Baltic Chain protest. Just two years after that protest, on September 6, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized Estonia as an independent country. Latvia and Lithuania soon gained their independence, as well.
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