Monday, August 26, 2019

The Baltic Chain and Radio

Today Hong Kong is trying to "unshackle" itself from China. On August 23rd in 2019 supporters of their pro-democracy movement linked hands across the island, creating human chains on both sides of the city's harbor that they stretched for almost 25 miles.

These protests were inspired a a similar, but much larger historic protest, in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. On Aug. 23, 1989 approximately two million people joined hands forming a chain 419 miles long. (some estimates say 1.5 M) It stretched from Tallinn in Estonia, through the Latvia capital Riga, to Vilnius in Lithuania.

The protest was referred to as the "Baltic Chain" or the "Baltic Way" or even the "Chain of Freedom."  The Soviets called it "nationalist hysteria" driven by "extremist elements" promoting anti-socialist and anti-soviet agendas. Were outsiders were exploiting nationalism with the goal of independence? Well that last bit turned out to be true.

Coordinating two million people is no small feat. They disseminated information through regional organizations like the Latvian Popular Front, the Reform Movement of Lithuania, and the Popular Front of Estonia and via clandestine broadcast services, like Radio Free Europe, VOA and the BBC despite Soviet jamming efforts.

President Gerald Ford strongly supported funding for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe in speeches in 1974. These broadcasts were elevated to a new status in November of 1983 when they were incorporated into a separate Baltic radio division called the Baltic States Service of Radio Liberty. For more on that please read Jonathan Conde's 2018 masters thesis [LINK].

The Baltics had largely industrialized Post-WWII under the Soviets. They post 1968 moved directly into commercialism. In 1967 the Estonia Stereo was developed at Tallinn Radio-Electronics. It was the first stereophonic radio set in the whole USSR, [model Estonia-005] and it was manufactured at the Red RET plant in Tallinn between 1969 and 1973.  Between 1971 and 1972 car sales in Estonia quintupled. But the media was still strictly controlled, and the internet was decades away.  As Peeter Vihalemm wrote in his paper Media Use in Estonia, "During the period of glasnost, when the multi-party system did not yet exist and the underground centers were weak, the media was the main mechanism of mass mobilization " [LINK].

The Book Estonia Life Stories by by Tiina Kirss and Rutt Hinrikus gives the story of Asta Luksepp. 
"Before leaving I stopped by at home and adjusted the radio to the right wavelegnth for my mother.  We gathered at the market square in Elva... Our assigned place in the chain was between Nuia and Viljandi. We kept driving toward Latvia until it was 7 o'clock. We stopped the buses and joined other folks from Vorumaa. There were so many people that we could not fit in one line, so we formed parallel chains. We were all moved to tears. We had radios along, and thus could follow the orders coming from Tallinn."
So what radio stations broadcast the signals and the events? According to Peeter Vihalemm, most of them.  "...the two-million-person demonstration “Baltic chain”, organised on 23 August 1989, the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, was not only directly broadcast on all radio and TV channels in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but it was also organised and managed with the assistance of the media."  The weakness of the Soviets in this moment and the popularity of the independence movement is hard to overstate. The Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians expected reprisals and for the most part... they did not come, not that day anyway.

The reprisals came when Estonia made the big move for independence and started printing up their own Estonian Passports, then declared independence on August 20th 1991. Moscow sent in the tanks.  Thousands of citizens the Tallinn radio and TV tower to prevent it's use for Soviet propaganda. Radio operators jammed the elevator and threatened to turn on the oxygen-removing fire-suppression system on the soldiers. Bullet holes dating from the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 are still visible at the base of the tower.

While the people of Hong Hong fight their own fight, in Lithuania they commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way with a radio art installation. It was conceived of by two young artists, Viaceslavas Mickevicius and Ieva Makauskaite who worked with Lithuanian national broadcaster LRT.
The radio installation, entitled "One Wave" is made up of more than 2,000 old radios that will play a trilingual song known to be the anthem of the Baltic Way entitled "The Baltics are waking up". According to EuroNews, Mickevicius, who was 5 years old in 1989, wondered how they managed to organise the protest. "It appeared that the main role was played by the radio. Special radio broadcasts helped to coordinate the rally," said Viaceslavas Mickevicius, one of the two artists.

No comments:

Post a Comment