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Today is International Black Ribbon Day; also celebrated as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism in Europe. While it is a day highlighting a dark part of history, more than anything else, today is a celebration of the human spirit, about unity and about how amazing things can be achieved by joining hands and standing together (quite literally, in this case).

Joining hands to overcome hardship (and to solve mathematical problems!).
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Black Ribbon Day originated in the 1980s, as a annual series of demonstrations, held on 23 August in various western countries to highlight crimes and human rights violations in the former Soviet Union. The date marks the anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes – an event described by President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament as “the collusion of the two worst forms of totalitarianism in the history of humanity.”

Starting with initial participation of western countries only, it spread to the Baltic states in 1987, and in 1989 culminated in a historic event known as the Baltic Way. The Baltic Way, also referred to as the Baltic Chain, the Chain of Freedom and the Singing Revolution, was a peaceful demonstration involving almost two million people joining hands to form a 600km long human chain across the three Baltic states (Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR), to protest against continued Soviet occupation.

The Baltic Way was meant to highlight the Baltic states’ desire for independence and to show the solidarity between the 3 nations. It proved an effective, emotionally captivating event. Within 6 months of the protest, Lithuania became the first Republic of the Soviet Union to declare independence, with Estonia and Latvia following in 1991.

Now you may be wondering why I’m discussing International Black Ribbon Day and the Baltic Way on this blog. Well, besides it being an opportunity to celebrate the strength of the human spirit in overcoming adversity, what caught my attention was something small and (almost) unrelated that grew out of it – the Baltic Way Mathematical Contest.

This maths contest has been organised annually since 1990, in commemoration of the Baltic Way human chain demonstrations. It differs from most other international mathematical competitions in that it is a true team contest. Teams, consisting of 5 secondary school students each, are presented with 20 problems, and they have four and a half ours to collaboratively solve these.

Initial participation was limited to the three Baltic states, but the competition has grown to include all countries around the Baltic Sea. Germany participates with a northern regions team, and Russia with a team from St Petersburg. Iceland has a special invitation for being the first state to recognise the independence of the Baltic States, and guest countries (including Israel, Belarus, Belgium and South Africa) have been invited in particular years, at the discretion of the organisers.

From people joining hands to overcome political hardship to students teaming up to solve complex mathematical problems, today truly is a day to celebrate strength in unity.

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