On Aug. 23, 1989, as the Soviet Union was weakening, the gesture was a powerful expression on the part of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians that they were not giving up on their independence even after decades of Soviet occupation.
"People holding hands can be stronger than people holding guns," Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said in a reflection made Friday on Twitter. Others also recalled the powerful emotions and sense of possibility that many people experienced then, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"We felt that the gates of heaven were opening for us and shapes of a new society could be seen in the horizon," said Audrius Stonys, a film director who was 21 at the time. Said teacher Sonata Kazlauskiene: "I will never forget that feeling of unity that was flying in the air."
The Baltic News Service recalled Friday that then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said Moscow "started realizing very clearly that the three Baltic nations were moving toward political independence." "It was not a one-day random event," said Vytautas Landsbergis, who led Lithuania's drive toward independence and served as its first president. "It was a climax of events and also a leap forward that ultimately led to full independence."
The celebrations come as the inhabitants of the three nations — and many beyond — worry about Russia's renewed ambitions to influence the region. "We must remember the courage and dreams of the participants. But let it also be a reminder that freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted," Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said in a statement.
The main commemorations are taking place in Vilnius, the capital of the southern-most Baltic country, and along the Lithuania-Latvia border, with a relay-race and an exhibition. More than 150 events were planned on Vilnius' Cathedral Square, the main square of the Old Town.
A five-story high art installation made up of some 2,000 old radios recalls the analog technology used then to organize mass protests. In the evening, thousands are set to join a much smaller version of a human chain, stretching from Vilnius' historic square toward Riga, Latvia.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda is also to serve as host of a concert in central Vilnius. In the Latvian capital of Riga, the three Baltic prime ministers will lay wreaths at the foot of a freedom monument.
The chain has inspired others, including a 2008 human chain in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Five years later, the "Catalan Way" created a of 400-kilometer (250-mile) long human chain in support of secession from Spain.
In Hong-Kong, protesters planned Friday to form a 40-kilometer (25-mile) human chain to demand more freedoms from China, saying it was inspired by the "Baltic Way." The Baltic countries declared their independence from Russia in 1918 but were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940. Friday's events also marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a secret agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that led to the occupation of the Baltic states and Poland.
The Baltic nations remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.