TALLINN/RIGA (Reuters) -- Runners left Estonia for neighboring Latvia to start events marking the 20th anniversary of a 600-kilometer human chain that showed Balts' wish to regain their independence from the Soviet Union.
As the region is now deep in recession, the August 23 anniversary of the Baltic Way, in which more than 1 million people linked hands in one of the biggest mass protests seen in the former Soviet Union, is a reminder of more hopeful days.
Arguments also continue with Russia over interpretation of past events related to World War II and its aftermath.
The start of the run in Tallinn will be followed by athletes leaving the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in the evening.
The run, to be made by members of orienteering clubs in stages to ensure continuity, will end in Latvian capital Riga on the evening of August 23, the actual day of the anniversary. Latvian President Valdis Zatlers will join the final stage.
"Working together in earlier generations we were able to restore our independence. We proved that we could stand up for ourselves," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told a crowd at the start of the run in Tallinn.
"We have survived before and today, despite our economic problems, we will survive in the future too," he added.
People have been invited to join at whatever stage they wish and for whatever distance. More than 12,000 have signed up in Latvia, about 800 in Estonia and almost 700 in Lithuania.
The 1989 chain stretched from Estonian capital Tallinn, through Latvian main city Riga to Lithuanian capital Vilnius and in some places was several people deep.
The date of August 23, 1989 was chosen as the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which the Balts say led to their occupation by the Soviet Union and rule for 50 years.
The human chain was a call for the Soviet leadership to acknowledge secret protocols to the pact on spheres of influence and to restore the Baltic states to independence.
"It was our protest, the feeling was one of unity," said Lithuanian Mintautas Daulenskis, who drove with his wife and two daughters to take part in the human chain close to Vilnius.
"We didn't even think about not going, we had to."
The contrast between the idealism of 1989 with current economic reality is particularly true for Latvia, where the government is dependent on a 7.5 billion-euro ($10.7 billion) rescue led by the European Union and International Monetary Fund and has cut pensions and public-sector wages.
"I find hypocritical such official or semi-official events that do not reflect the real situation, but which are drawn like a curtain over this situation," wrote a commentator in the daily newspaper "Neatkariga Rita Avize."
The Baltic, and largely Western negative view, of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is challenged by Russia.
Russia's foreign intelligence service said in a recent report of declassified documents that the pact prevented the Nazi occupation of the Baltic area and its transformation into a bridgehead for the attack on the Soviet Union.
Displaying different takes on history, Estonia in 2007 also moved a World War II Red Army memorial from the center of Tallinn to a military cemetery, sparking anger in Moscow.