February 20, 2020

How Was the Tartu Peace Treaty Reached?

Parikas/Photo Archives
The Estonian representative counts the Russian gold in front of the Soviet representative.
The Estonian representative counts the Russian gold in front of the Soviet representative.

Estonia had a stroke of luck when signing the agreement

On the afternoon of 3 February 1920, a crowd started gathering at the Baltic Station in Tallinn, decorated with flags and spruce. The weather was cold, and the train was hours late. On board was the government, including the prime minister, Jaan Tõnisson, and the board of the Constituent Assembly with its chairman, August Rei. When the train from Tartu came to a halt with the “Estonian Peace Deputation”, as it was called at the time, on board, men removed their hats. The honorary guard of the Tallinn reserve regiment stood to attention and the orchestra began to play an energetic “March of the Pori Regiment”. The prime minister gave a speech, followed by Jaan Poska, the leader of the Estonian delegation to the Tartu peace negotiations.

Poska got into a car and left the station, accompanied by loud cheering. The 54-year-old had successfully completed a significant task. On that wintry evening, nobody could have expected that, just under a month later, the young country’s first state funeral would be his.

The Path to Peace Negotiations

The Tartu Peace Treaty was not signed unexpectedly or overnight. It is hard to pinpoint the beginning of this long journey. Holding peace negotiations with Soviet Russia was a topic that featured in campaigning for elections to the Constituent Assembly in the early spring of 1919. The slogan was mainly used by the left-wing Estonian Socialist Revolutionary Party and Estonian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. The Social Democrats won the elections by a landslide.

Without analysing each step at length, on 31 August 1919 the Soviet Russian government made an official peace proposal on the radio. The first talks were held in the middle of September in Pskov in order for the two sides to get a feel for each other. As there was distrust between the parties there was no progress in the negotiations there. In the early autumn Estonian politicians tried to form a united front with Finland, Latvia and Lithuania to approach the potential peace negotiations with their common eastern neighbour. The four countries had been part of the Russian Empire for a long time, had broken away at different times and for various reasons, and opposed Soviet Russia. Although high-level conferences were held, a common front for peace negotiations was not formed.

Being largely dependent on the arms and food aid of Western countries during the Estonian War for Independence, Estonia always had to take into account the positions of the major powers. The British government was the first to realise that, whether we liked it or not, the continued existence of Bolshevik Russia was a new geopolitical reality. There were also those in London who were in favour of continued military action, in the hope of the Russian White movement succeeding. France and the United States, and their diplomats and senior officers residing in Estonia, gave a much sterner warning regarding the peace negotiations.

The general political and military situation changed course again at the end of October 1919 when the second assault on Petrograd by the Russian White movement, led by Nikolai Yudenich, was repelled. The defeated and increasingly demoralised troops retreated towards Estonia. People had grown tired of the war and there were ongoing strikes at the port in Tallinn, on the railways and in big factories, which interrupted military transport and crucial repairs. The government crisis that broke out at the beginning of November was resolved when the Tõnisson government, which had more support in the Constituent Assembly than the previous cabinet, took office on 19 November. The new government took a huge risk by starting the peace negotiations on its own without the support of the country’s northern or southern neighbours. The former foreign minister, Ants Piip, who had been steering Estonia towards peace negotiations for a long time, was unable to continue in his position as he had differed with Tõnisson while abroad.

On 26 November the government appointed Jaan Poska as chairman of the peace delegation and he drew up a draft proposal consisting of 24 points. Members of the delegation included Ants Piip, Julius Friedrich Seljamaa and Mait Johannes Püümann (or Püümets), representing larger groups (factions) in the assembly; other members included Major General Jaan Soots, Chief of Staff to General Johan Laidoner, Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces. Experts in the field and technical help were also involved, including assistants and secretaries. The last surviving member of the peace delegation to pass away in Tallinn was Püümets, a long-serving sports physician, who died in January 1965 in the middle of Estonia’s period as an SSR.

The opposing delegation was also quite impressive: led by Leonid Krasin, the People’s Commissar for Roads (equivalent to today’s minister of transport), who was assisted by noted employees of the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs and two generals. One of the negotiators was Karl Radek, a member of the Bolshevik Party’s leadership who was later imprisoned in Berlin [after crossing the German border illegally in December 1918 and participating in discussions leading to the foundation of the Communist Party of Germany—Ed.]. With the help of the Estonian ambassador in Berlin, Eduard Vilde, Radek was released and made his way to Finland. From there Radek returned to his home country and was never seen at the peace negotiations in Tartu. There were three Estonians among the Russian delegation’s support staff.

On 29 November 1919 the plenary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party (RC(b)P) decided to turn to the border countries and the Entente countries, which were calling for a truce. This could be seen partly as a sincere desire for peace, but also partly as a move to win time for the revolutionary mentality to grow in European countries to continue the world revolution.

Beginning of the Peace Negotiations

In the late morning of 5 December the negotiations kicked off with rhetorical speeches from the delegation leaders. This immediately brought all the differences to the surface. Estonia’s primary goal was to achieve real peace by exiting the gruelling war with a truce agreement. However, this did not, at least at first, mean a willingness to be tied to Soviet Russia as a country. The eastern neighbour considered the peace treaty an important factor in overcoming diplomatic isolation, eliminating the Russian White North-western Army and achieving the conditions to stop Estonia becoming the base for a future new assault on Petrograd.

In the following days discussions focused on reciprocal military guarantees, the main issues being the disarmament of the North-western Army, the prohibition to form regiments, halting the transportation of foreign troops and arms through Estonian ports, and not intervening in each other’s internal affairs. The Estonian delegation had to take into account the ongoing military activities on the front, where units of the Russian White movement helped the People’s Army to hold the line.

Border Disputes

From 9 to 11 December both parties’ border proposals were discussed and criticised. Estonia’s provisional plan, “Temporary Borders”, drew the border along the Luga River from the middle of Koporye Bay to Jamburg (Kingissepp) and from there to the area surrounding Oudova and Lake Peipus, across the lakes and along the centre line of the Velikaya River. The Russians were taken by surprise: this would leave about 10,000 km2 of native Russian land to Estonia, giving the latter a military base from which to continue hostilities or enabling others to do so.

The initial Soviet Russian plan was not modest either: drawing the border on the Kunda River from Viru County to Rannapungerja and from there across Lake Peipus and the Pechory region along Võõpsu county. However, Krasin conceded, saying that, when the general outlook changed, compromises could be made in future regarding the borders. There was an additional demand not to build defensive structures closer than 10 verst (about 11 km) from the national border. Estonia was surprised: over 90% of residents in Viru County were Estonians.

Both parties started out with unrealistic border plans in order to allow plenty of room for negotiation. The Estonian delegation emphasised the principle of ethnicity, while the eastern neighbour’s delegation prioritised matters of military strategy. The long arguments gradually started to lead to compromises. The second and third border proposals of both parties were discussed and the emphasis was on this being the final offer.

On 12 December both parties announced the need to put the border negotiations on hold and consult their governments. Krasin drove through the front to Pskov and telegraphed Georgy Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Poska and Soots headed to Tallinn as the border dispute had raised concerns among the high-ranking military officers.

However, the peace talks in Tartu were not disrupted, with negotiations continuing over the exchange of prisoners of war, citizenship, establishing consular relations and reciprocal terms to opt for the other country’s citizenship. At the time it was estimated that 200,000 Estonians had emigrated to Soviet Russia in search of better living conditions.

In mid-December, when the situation in Tartu became critical, the Red Army’s leadership tried to promote “artillery diplomacy”. The goal was a big breakthrough on the front and the annexation of Narva. Thanks to the tenacity of the Estonian armed forces, the attacks were repelled, but December 1919 still marks the highest casualty rate in the heroic Estonian War for Independence.

At the same time, the Estonian delegation went to Riga to get more clarity regarding the Entente countries’ attitude towards the peace negotiations and the extent of military aid in the event that Estonia continued war with Bolshevik Russia. There was also discussion of forming a military-political Baltic alliance, which was strongly supported by Poland. The peace negotiations in Riga did not achieve any notable results, being hindered by continued Polish and Lithuanian opposition and a dispute between Estonia and Latvia over the ownership of the city of Valga and its railway station. The French, who attended the negotiations, deemed the continued support of the Russian White North-western Army necessary.

The input received from Krasin was discussed in Moscow at the highest level, involving the head of government, Vladimir Lenin, and the People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, Leon Trotsky. Given the situation, it was considered necessary to make new compromises, demand more transit opportunities, replace the leader of the delegation with Adolf Joffe, an existing participant in the Tartu negotiations, and to propose a fourth border plan. If given new military guarantees, Soviet Russia was to compromise by handing Ivangorod (Jaanilinn), together with the land over the Narva River and Pechory, to Estonia. Chicherin was the most open to compromise, soon giving the Russian delegation instructions to start negotiations on a truce agreement after the border dispute was over. The Soviet Russian leaders also deemed it necessary to start peace negotiations with Latvia and Lithuania, whose representatives were observing the Tartu negotiations.

Armistice Agreement

The high-level negotiations continued on 22 December, when Joffe was willing to move towards compromise on the border issue. In order to resolve smaller issues faster, a separate border committee was formed that only included delegation leaders. Estonia agreed to a discussion on military guarantees and disarmament of the North-western Army. Another small, four-member committee was formed to resolve minor issues and to formulate a wording that met both parties’ expectations. Final disputes flared up again over the military-related demands from Soviet Russia, demanding that Estonia did not station its armed forces closer than 10 verst (11 km) west of the Narva River, including the city of Narva.

On 27 December the course of the peace negotiations was once again discussed by the politburo of the RC(b)P Central Committee in Moscow. Chicherin said it was necessary to compromise over Estonia’s final military-related demand to station its armed forces in the Narva area.

On 29 December agreement was reached in Tartu to form the southern borders roughly according to the battlefront. The Soviet Russian delegation agreed to leave Narva to Estonia, together with a 10-km wide strip of land on the eastern bank of the river. The border thus achieved aligned with Estonia’s military goals. Both parties agreed to the elimination of the North-western Army and the disbandment of the military units in Soviet Russia that consisted of Bolshevik Estonians.

The work of the temporary small committees was done. This led to the 14th plenary sitting (held in public) of the peace negotiations on 31 December. The armistice agreement was ready to be signed and the delegation leaders gave short declaratory speeches, again expressing the hope to reach a peace agreement soon. The truce agreement was signed at around 7.45–7.55 pm, together with the agreements regarding the acknowledgement of the independence of Estonia and border and military guarantees.

The armistice agreement stipulated the end of military activities on the battlefront, to come into effect at 10.30 am Tallinn time (12.00 pm Moscow time) on 3 January 1920. The armistice would last one week, but would be automatically extended, unless either party gave 24 hours’ notice to terminate it.

Peace Negotiations in January 1920

The negotiations continued in Tartu on 1 January, amid occasional exchanges of gunfire and scouting for intelligence on the front.

From now on the priority was the peace agreement and reciprocal economic interests, although these topics had already been touched upon in mid-December without the delegation leaders’ involvement. Since the creation of small committees had brought results, a military committee was formed to discuss the military guarantee agreement along with a financial-economic committee to discuss economic affairs. The military committee comprised generals Soots and Fyodor Kostyayev, the delegation leaders of the economic committee and several other members. The committees worked daily; plenary sittings were held every other day. Towards the end of January, when the drafts were reaching the finishing line, an additional redaction committee was formed.

The emerging topics regarding military guarantees included details on the elimination of the North-western Army and the Estonian division of the Bolshevik Army, the time remaining to move armed forces away from the neutral zone, the preservation or destruction of defence structures and trench lines, and the maximum number of border guards per verst.

The list of economic issues turned out to be quite extensive and included: the property of imperial Russia, including the allocation of securities; Estonia’s role in the creation of Russian national property; how these should be returned, including cultural assets evacuated from Estonia to Russia during the First World War (in 1915 and 1917); how to lay the foundation for mutual economic relations and transit commerce; the free movement of commercial vessels; the Post and Telegraph Convention; building the Tallinn–Moscow railway; the organisation of fishing on lakes Peipus and Pskov; and concessions of extensive forest harvesting in Russia.

Even at this stage there were differences over content and format: whether to define a general list of economic issues and to conclude agreements later on (the Soviet Russian proposal) or to stipulate all the main topics in the peace agreement straightaway (as proposed by Estonia), starting from when and how to calculate Russian sovereign debt and the price of the securities.

The main (and longest) dispute involved Russian gold reserves, starting with the issue of whether Estonia had the right to a share. The Estonian side emphasised that the Estonian people had contributed to the creation of Russia’s riches down the years. Joffe agreed to give Estonia gold in proportion to the country’s population. The first offer was 1% of the Russian gold—about five million gold roubles. The Estonian side pointed out the Estonians’ contribution to imperial Russia’s commercial turnover and demanded 20 million gold roubles. There were additional demands over pensions and for compensation for the railway locomotives and wagons transported to Russia.

Negotiations were held and both sides introduced their calculations; it probably looked like bargaining in an oriental marketplace. Although one party agreed to increase the amount and the other reduced its demands, all the concessions were tied to new economic conditions.

On 13 January 1920 this issue once again reached the politburo of the RC(b)P Central Committee in Moscow. The Kremlin decided to give Estonia 15 million gold roubles and Adolf Joffe had no authority to alter the offer. The Soviet Russian delegation in Tartu emphasised that the money (an estimated 11.4 tons of gold) was primarily an acknowledgement to Estonia and was not based on economic calculations.

Estonia had a stroke of luck given that, on 16 January 1920, the Entente countries decided to end the complete embargo on Soviet Russia, keeping only a few restrictions. A day or two later this international decision, which carried great political weight, changed the tone of the negotiations in Tartu. It became clear to the Estonian delegation that the eastern neighbour would soon find new economic opportunities.

The final draft of the peace agreement was discussed by the governments of both countries at the end of January. The agreement was signed in Tartu at about 12.45 am–1.00 am on 2 February 1920. This was followed by the ratification of the agreement by both sides and the exchange of letters of ratification.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.