February 20, 2020

Historian Andrey Zubov: Concluding the Tartu Peace Treaty With the Bolsheviks Was a Moral Mistake for Estonia

The treaty gave Soviet Russia the chance to legitimise itself

In this interview with Diplomaatia, Moscow history professor Andrey Zubov (68) argues that the Tartu Peace Treaty was a tactical victory but a moral mistake that brought about a colossal defeat for Estonia in the long term. Zubov is the editor-in-chief of one of the most thorough Russian-language history collections, Russian History: 20th Century. The idea came from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and many well-known Russian and foreign historians participated in the writing process.

In 2014, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) dismissed Zubov from his position as a professor because he publicly criticised Russia for annexing the Crimea. Zubov has thoroughly researched the emergence of new states after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and gave a presentation on the subject at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow in 2016.


Diplomaatia: For Estonia, the Tartu Peace Treaty is a very important agreement. What is the historical relevance of the Peace of Tartu for Russia? Does it hold any meaning for Russia at all?

Zubov: Russia has an ambiguous attitude towards the Tartu Peace Treaty. And not because people in Russia—except the really mad ones—regret that Estonia became independent. The reason lies elsewhere. The way they see it in Russia, the Tartu Peace Treaty was one of the reasons why the Russian White movement was defeated. Of course, it was the fault of the Whites, not the Estonians.

We know how [Soviet] Russia tried to conquer Estonia, how the Commune of the Working People of Estonia was established in Narva and how they carried out horrible bloodbaths on the Estonian territory they managed to seize. To forget all of this and enter into a peace treaty with a state that had only just committed such atrocities was at least a questionable decision. We must consider the context in which the treaty was signed and under terms that were very beneficial for Estonia. When the three Baltic states and Finland decided to start negotiations with Soviet Russia on 15 September 1919, Moscow dictated much stricter peace conditions. [Russian delegation members] Maksim Litvinov and Adolph Joffe demanded that Estonia make territorial concessions, and refused to return factory equipment and ships that had been evacuated to Russia from Estonia. And then everything went precisely the opposite way: Russia gave Estonia part of today’s Pskov and Leningrad Oblast, which increased Estonian territory by nearly 5%, and 15 million gold roubles [11.6 tons of gold—JP], which was completely unprecedented.


Why so?

The reason was simple: the Bolsheviks were afraid that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would strike together with the [Russian] Whites when the war with Poland began and the White Army would continue to advance from the south. [Zubov is referring to the Russian Civil War, which had reached one of its decisive phases in 1919; although Admiral Kolchak’s forces had been deterred in the east, General Denkin’s troops had reached the town of Oryol, 350 km from Moscow, by October 1919.—JP] In January 1920 General Denkin’s army launched a counterattack by the River Don, while Polish forces prepared to occupy parts of Ukraine. The Bolsheviks wished to sign peace treaties with the Baltic states to avoid the threat of an attack on Petrograd, allowing them to move their forces to the south. [White troops under General Yudenich tried to take Petrograd twice with the help of Estonians during the war between Estonia and Russia.—JP] It goes without saying that if they [the Bolsheviks] had managed to take care of Poland, they would have directed their full force at the Baltic states and occupied everything. However, as we know, this did not come to pass owing to the Poles’ Miracle of the Vistula on 13–15 August 1920. [Zubov is referring to one of the most decisive moments of the Soviet–Polish war of 1919–21—the battle of Warsaw, 12–25 August 1920; Soviet forces were just about to take Warsaw when a Polish counterattack under General Józef Piłsudski forced them to retreat and caused great losses to the attackers.—JP]

This saved the Tartu Peace Treaty for Estonia and maintained it for 20 years. In return, Estonia disbanded the remains of Yudenich’s army under the terms of the treaty. It is plausible that, had the Estonian forces under General Laidoner and the Whites in the south cooperated and launched an attack in the spring of 1920, communist power would have ended in Russia in 1920 and, as a result, Estonia wouldn’t have been occupied in 1939 and 1940. Russia would have been completely different; the world would have been completely different. It turns out that a lot depended on little Estonia back then.

So I think the Tartu Peace Treaty was a tactical and, to a great extent, incidental victory but also a huge strategic defeat for Estonian diplomats in 1920. They committed the moral mistake of making peace with the bandit. As we know, the Estonian nation paid dearly for that moral error later on—both those Estonians who remained in Estonia and those who believed the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Soviet Russia, where they fell victim to the cruel repressions of the 1930s.


It is quite harsh to claim that the Tartu Peace Treaty was the Estonians’ moral mistake.

Unfortunately, it was. It was very beneficial for the Estonians then, but it was an error nevertheless. However, this moral mistake has an explanation. The White generals, Yudenich for example, behaved very unpleasantly towards the Estonian national independence movement. That was the moral error of the Russian White movement. I’d like to recall a rather obscure fact: Grigory Zinoviev, one of the contemporary leaders of the Bolsheviks, later a victim of Stalinist terror himself, called for the destruction of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on 25 December 1918 to break down the barrier that separated revolutionary Germany from revolutionary Russia. He wanted to use the Baltic states and Finland to kindle revolutionary fire in Scandinavia. So, yes—the moral issue [of entering into the Tartu Peace Treaty—JP] is great and modern Estonians must learn to understand it.


You said that the Russian Whites also made a moral error in relation to the Estonians. Do you think that, if General Yudenich had promised Estonia that he would guarantee its independence if it helped the Whites to conquer Petrograd, history could have turned out differently?

Andrey Zubov: “No person in their right mind would honour Lenin with a monument.” Private collection

This is a complex question, since General Yudenich had no rights [to make this promise]. The White movement was trying to act within the laws of the Russian Empire and the borders of the Russian state needed to be approved by the Constituent Assembly. But undoubtedly, he should have provided strong guarantees for supporting Estonian independence and promised to do everything to achieve this. He couldn’t have done anything else—he had no authority to do otherwise. His declarations would have been worthless. There are other circumstances that matter more here, and one in particular: land ownership.

There is no reason to deny that [when the War for Independence started—JP] the Communists were at first welcomed with open arms in Estonia because they offered land. It was only later when people learned of their cruelty that the public attitude changed. Konstantin Päts and Kārlis Ulmanis’ farmers’ parties won [at the first independent elections in Estonia and Latvia—JP] largely thanks to the fact that they gave farmers land. What did the Russian Whites do in the areas they controlled? They started returning land to German manor owners. This is an important detail: the Russian Whites should have made it known they would not reclaim lands that had been given to the peasants but would approve of the redistribution. I think this is an important aspect that people tend to forget.

Secondly, they should have simply supported and honoured the Estonian national independence movement and told them that they’d do everything for Estonian independence. Unfortunately, the imperial hauteur of many White generals turned the Estonian public decisively against them. Thus, one can understand Estonians [signing the Tartu Peace Treaty—JP], but still, if you’d had more foresight, you’d have acted differently and the events of 1939 and 1940 wouldn’t have happened.


So you think that Soviet Russia and Lenin treated the Tartu Peace Treaty as an inevitable but temporary measure from the start?

Of course, without question. They treated it as the Estonians’ foolish error. The Estonians consented to the peace, accepted our gold—that’s very good! We can take our forces to the south where the danger lies, while Estonians, honest people, will start implementing the agreement. At the same time, we will crush the Poles and Wrangel [a Russian White general who was active in the Crimea and South Russia—JP] and do away with the Baltic states once and for all after that. That’s how the Bolsheviks saw it. In 1939, Stalin was basically fulfilling Lenin’s wishes.


Do you think Estonians should thank the Poles for 20 years of independence and peace?

I think that would be fair. Twenty years of Baltic independence was the result of the Miracle of the Vistula. No British squadron off Tallinn could have saved Estonia [if Russia had directed its full forces against the Baltic states after conquering Poland in 1920—JP]. They would have helped the Estonian government to evacuate, saved people. The British wouldn’t have engaged in a war with the Bolsheviks for Estonia’s sake in 1920. But the Poles went to war and saved themselves as well as the Estonians back then.


How is the war of 1918–20 between Estonia and Soviet Russia depicted in Russian historical sources? Is it mentioned at all, it being the first war and one among very few conflicts in general that the Red Army lost?

I’m afraid only a handful of historians [in Russia] remember these events. For many people, even the large-scale conflict with Poland [1919–21] is terra incognita. No one in Russia knows the names of the Russian heroes who fought against the Bolsheviks with Laidoner’s forces. Are they even known in Estonia?—for example, Julius Kuperjanov, who fell in battle near Valga?


Of course Estonians remember Kuperjanov and other Russians who fought for Estonia. A lot has been written about them.

In that case, I am very glad.


Russia always reacts very strongly when the validity of the Tartu Peace Treaty is mentioned in Estonia. Is this solely because Estonia might put forward territorial claims that no person in their right mind would take seriously, or are there other reasons? For example, the fact that no one particularly wants to admit defeat.

Russia forgets that this peace treaty meant the de jure recognition of Soviet Russia. The Entente [the alliance of France, the UK and Italy that supported the Russian White movement—JP] had already de facto recognised the Bolshevik state. Since today’s Russia considers itself the successor of the Soviet Union, the Tartu Peace Treaty has a positive meaning for Russia, as it shows Soviet Russia was already recognised in February 1920, i.e. before Rapallo. [With the Treaty of Rapallo, signed in 1922, the Weimar Republic became the first major state to recognise Soviet Russia.—JP] It provided legitimacy [for Russia] to a certain degree. In that sense, the current powers see the treaty in a positive light. It seems to me Estonia isn’t very pleased about this. [Laughs.]

The territorial issue does get people agitated, but it’s really out of the question after the Helsinki Accords of 1975 regarding the inviolability of European borders. [This was a treaty signed by European, US and Canadian leaders that specified the foundations of today’s global policy, including the inviolability of the borders created after World War II in Europe, except under a mutual agreement.—JP] Reviewing these matters is logical, if we disregard what was done with the Crimea by Russian president Vladimir Putin [in 2014]. At the time the Helsinki Accords were signed, the Crimea was still undoubtedly Ukraine’s, which is why its territorial ownership is not to be reconsidered—just like Ivangorod’s and Pechory’s. All normal Russian people understand perfectly well that no one will start reconsidering the borders [between Estonia and Russia].


Should Estonia erect a monument to Lenin for recognising Estonian independence, as some have suggested—some seriously, some less so?

No person in their right mind would honour Lenin with a monument. If people say such a thing, it proves yet again that Estonia made a moral mistake back then.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.