August 21, 2015

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the battleground of the Soviet Union

Mihail Meltyuhov’s latest book is a thorough piece of research that aims to demonstrate how the Baltic States are merely territories that a world power needs to ensure its security. This angle is hidden in the title: not countries, but a battlefield, a stretch of land where constant fighting should take place in the name of a powerful country. When you read the book more thoroughly, at times this first impression is confirmed, then it becomes doubtful again, and sometimes it even disappears. Meltyuhov is a serious historian. But history is often written by the victors and, for Russia, the end of World War II in Europe is the greatest, not to say the only, victory in its history.

This long book was published last year in Moscow by the publishing house Algoritm. It is no exaggeration to say that anyone who speaks Russian and wants to understand the actions of our neighbouring country should get this book—even if only for the purpose of confirming or confuting the words in the previous paragraph. Written not by a historian but by a journalist and someone interested in eastern policy, this review of this serious historic research cannot be an in-depth scientific analysis. I therefore focus on the more fascinating parts of the book.
It seems to me that the intelligence services of the independent Baltic States, especially that of Estonia, have always caused headaches for our eastern neighbour. Meltyuhov’s book also discusses this topic. But what is a battlefield without intelligence intrigues? The chapter “Прибалтика в международных отношениях осени 1939–весны 1940г” (“The Baltic States in International Relations between Autumn 1939–Spring 1940”) mainly describes the international situation right after the beginning of World War II, including the economic difficulties in the Baltic States caused by the devaluation of the pound sterling (to which the national currency in the Baltics was tied) and their actions in the League of Nations. But a few pages are dedicated to the Estonian intelligence agencies and their ties to the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA). It also mentions how western European intelligence agencies lost interest in Estonian intelligence after Soviet military bases were established in Estonia. On 10 January 1940, the RSHA noted that “there are serious concerns that Estonian intelligence might be working only for the Soviet Union”. Nevertheless, the cooperation between the intelligence agencies continued. After the war, the leaders of the Abwehr admitted that Estonian intelligence had contributed valuable information about Red Army garrisons. The Abwehr was also interested in Latvian and Lithuanian intelligence agencies, but “their cooperation was not as fruitful”.
Meltyuhov also notes how the Estonian and Latvian intelligence agencies aided the Finns during the Winter War. It was radio intelligence from Estonia and Latvia that enabled the Finns to destroy several Red Army divisions.
The Finnish boys and Polish soldiers are also discussed in terms of the cooperation between the battlefield countries. Naturally, the Soviet Union was greatly concerned by Estonian men joining the war in Finland. Meltyuhov claims that the official number of Estonians fighting on the Finnish side was 58 and that these were Estonians already living in Finland before the Winter War started. However, the BBC announced in January 1940 that there were 2,000 Estonian volunteers fighting for Finland. On 10 January 1940, the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Vyacheslav Molotov, sent an inquiry on this issue to the Estonian ambassador, August Rei. Rei replied on 4 March that there were no Estonian volunteers in Finland, and apparently Molotov was content with this answer.
Regarding the Finnish boys, one episode described by Meltyuhov stands out. This is the story of how Estonian left-wing labourers changed their attitude towards the Red Army soldiers. Meltyuhov discusses how Estonian communists hoped for the Red Army’s help in overthrowing the government but were quickly disappointed. “Upon seeing the negative attitude of the military, even the most dedicated communists spat on the Soviet soldiers and changed their mind, and former friends became enemies overnight.” Soviet intelligence was forced to announce on 29 January 1940 that “the recruitment of volunteers to Finland continues; also, anti-Soviet activities in Estonia and Latvia have resumed”.
This is only a small example of how thoroughly Meltyuhov describes the onset of the events of June 1940, one of the many interesting pieces entwined with dry numbers and long lists. But the main topic—the return of the Baltic States to “the friendly family of Soviet peoples”—is just as thorough. The chapter that describes this is titled “Поющие революции” (“Singing Revolutions”). Meltyuhov describes Lithuania’s mentality as divided. The communists admitted openly that, sooner or later, the Soviet Union needed to occupy Lithuania to strengthen its position against Germany. Other Lithuanians, however, were depressed, according to the author. The attitude of the Latvians is also described as controversial. However, Meltyuhov begins his description of the situation in Estonia with how the Red Army was received in Izborsk and Pechory. At 2 pm on 17 June 1940, military commanders were sent a message that “the people of Izborsk and Pechory welcomed us with flowers, hoorays and slogans saying ‘Спасибо Сталину!’ (“Thank you, Stalin!”)”. Meltyuhov ends this chapter with an episode from Narva: “Despite a ban, Zavyalov, the battalion commissar of the political government of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, made an appearance at a Narva gathering and stressed that the Red Army had not come to occupy Estonia but to ensure peace and security in the country”.
A research piece of this scope is not an end in itself. It has a life (and an impact) of its own. Meltyuhov’s book provided another opportunity for the portal to claim that the Soviet Union did not occupy the Baltic States in 1940. Meltyuhov’s interview of 11 March 2014 has been quoted numerous times. He is one of the best-known historians in modern-day Russia whose narrow field of research focuses on the Stalin era. But again, history is the story of the victors, or at least of those who consider themselves such. It impossible to overlook the fact that the cover of Meltyuhov’s book, designed by B. Protopopov, has Tallinn’s Bronze Soldier as the cover boy.
Last year Algoritm published another book concerning Estonia’s history, “Западное приграничье. Политбюро ЦК ВКП(б) и отношения СССР с западными соседними государствами 1928–1934” (“West Border Region. Politburo of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks and the Relations between the USSR and its Western Neighbouring States during 1928–1934”) by Oleg Ken and Alexandr Rupassov. This is a collection of documents from the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from the years in which the superpower policies of the Soviet Union took on their final form, and they are accompanied by a short commentary. This, along with Meltyuhov’s monograph, forms a set that help the understanding of what took place in Russia 70–80 years ago and what is happening there now.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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