Baltic unity was perhaps strongest during the final decades of the Soviet occupation
The three peoples and states on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea may seem like peas in a pod. All three declared their independence in 1918 and concluded their first peace treaties in 1920, thus achieving international recognition for their democratic republics. Later, their dictators all caved in to Moscow, in the autumn of 1939. The Soviet Army fully occupied all three in June 1940 and the USSR annexed them in early August. German forces seized all three in the summer of 1941, and had mostly withdrawn by summer 1944. Together, they underwent the vagaries of Soviet occupation, from all-out terror to fully-fledged and decaying totalitarianism. They simultaneously put up a non-violent liberation struggle in 1987–90 and saw international recognition of their statehood restored in September 1991. They joined the European Union and NATO at the same time, in 2004.
They look so similar that, when I type “Baltic states” (with lower-case “s”), my spellchecker erroneously changes it to “Baltic States” (upper-case “S”), as if they were a federal state like the US. This illustrates how similar their broad historical features are, from the outside—and it’s much the same from the inside. Instead of “Baltic states”, though, the Estonians would say “Estonia and the other Baltic states”, if not simply “Estonia”—given that those others are all the same, apart from using languages we cannot understand. They are likely to remain parallel mini-universes.
Or will they? Their paths often diverged in the past. Prior to the 1920s no one could consider them peas in the same pod. Differences abounded later, too—some of which would again send them on diverging trajectories.
History is the story of what actually happened, omitting what easily could have happened. Nations take their pasts as predestined; the way events went is supposedly the way they had to go. It is precisely the macro-communality of the Baltic peoples’ recent histories that allows comparisons to be made, so as to discern how some events could have turned out differently. Such awareness helps us to take history seriously, but not deadly seriously.
To treat the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian language areas as a single region would have surprised the world—and those nations themselves—at the dawn of the 20th century. How many Lithuanians even knew that something like “Estonians” existed? And vice versa. They belonged to tsarist Russia, but as disparate parts. Lithuania was the core of a large medieval state that became Catholic and joined Poland in times of greatness and of suffering. Its upper class shifted to Polish, the literacy rate was low, and industry was lacking. By contrast, Latvia and Estonia were “lands without history” prior to conquest by Germany, which later brought Lutheranism (with the exception of Latgale in eastern Latvia, which remained Polish and Catholic), high literacy rates and, indirectly, industrial development. Their upper classes spoke German. Almost inevitably, the Lutheran-imposed literacy would lead Latvian and Estonian peasants to a language-based nationalism. But how could this also arise among the largely illiterate Catholic peasants of Lithuania? They “should” have become Polandised, but chose a separate path.
As parts of the tsarist empire, conditions in the future Baltic states appeared similar during the First World War but were actually diverse. They faced several adversaries, either sequentially or simultaneously. German forces quickly seized Lithuania and western Latvia, but occupied Estonia and eastern Latvia only three years later. Germany favoured independence for Lithuania (as a counterweight to Poland) but, influenced by Baltic Germans, opposed it in Estonia and, especially, Latvia. German forces withdrew from Estonia in November 1918 but dragged their feet in western Latvia and in Lithuania. Again, they supported independence in Lithuania but sabotaged it in Latvia.
Bolshevism was quite popular in the more industrialised Latvia and Estonia, but much less so in rural Lithuania. Regardless, the Russian Red Army occupied about two-thirds of each country. The forces pushing it back were extremely diverse. In Lithuania the task fell mainly to German and Polish forces—Lithuanian sources tend to say merely that the Red Army “was expelled”. The trouble was that the Poles tried to restore the historical Polish-Lithuanian dual state. When the Lithuanians preferred a separate state, some Polish armed groups applied tactics that nowadays would be called hybrid warfare. They seized Vilnius, which Lithuania considered its historical capital, even though only 2% of the city’s population was Lithuanian at the time of the 1897 census.
Compared to its neighbours, Latvia’s territory has been divided up among several states more often. During the First World War, Latvia was again in the worst position. Industrialised as it was, Bolshevism spread in an odd symbiosis with nationalism. Compared to Estonia, Latvia had more Baltic Germans, and interethnic relations were even more acrimonious. Prior to the German invasion, the tsarist authorities ordered the evacuation of western Latvia. Fearing the Germans, almost a million people moved further east, and largely on to Russia. This was a terrible loss for Latvia. For three years the front bisected the country. During the elections for the Russian Constitutive Assembly, only eastern Latvia could participate—it was full of refugees and disappointed Latvian Riflemen. In the midst of such misery, the Bolsheviks garnered 72% of the vote.
When the German empire crumbled, German forces left Estonia but ensconced themselves in western Latvia. The Baltic Germans formed a Landeswehr (National Defence), and German volunteers were recruited to an “Iron Division”. They forced the Latvian national government to seek refuge on a British warship, replacing it with a puppet government. While Estonia saw a contest between a mainly Estonian national army and a mainly Russian Red Army, in Latvia it truly could appear that the White side consisted of Germans and subservient Latvians, while the Red Latvian Rifle regiments were truly “our own boys”. How a democratic Latvia still managed to emerge defies brief description.
Thus, the circumstances in each country differed, even while the starting points appeared similar, as were the outcomes: democratic nation-states. Language and land ownership motivated all of them.
Latvia was devastated during the war more than its neighbours, and the population fell by 32%; recovery was therefore bound to be tough. The proportion of nationals located in Russia (whether earlier emigrants or recent war refugees and Bolshevik exiles) was largest for Latvians and smallest for Lithuanians. Perhaps cued by their Jewish neighbours, the Lithuanian peasants went, rather, to the US. A Soviet-inspired attempted coup occurred only in Estonia (in 1924).
Border issues—with Germany over Klaipeda and with Poland over Vilnius—cast a shadow over Lithuania’s foreign relations. Since Latvia and Estonia (who had few border issues) did not wish to get involved, Baltic cooperation remained weak. Awareness of each other’s existence grew over time, but lack of knowledge of the Russian language among the younger generation impeded communication.
The new peasant republics had to build state institutions from scratch. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was only a distant memory, and the examples of Baltic German autonomy in Latvia and Estonia were so outdated that nothing could be borrowed from them. The skills needed to implement democracy were more established in Estonia and western Latvia than in Lithuania, because their people had already been electing town councils for half a century. Still, all three republics were able to put some substance into their statehood.
In domestic politics, rural parties and land reform loomed. Land reform came earliest in Estonia. In 1920 Latvia expropriated German estates (and the Polish ones in Latgale) without compensation. Estonia made a tiny amount of compensation much later (1926). Land reform was less drastic and slower in Lithuania, where the Polish-speaking landowners were felt to belong to the country.
Within a parliamentary framework the presidency was strongest in Lithuania, and non-existent in Estonia. In Latvia and Estonia, the electoral rules encouraged very small parties, so that the parliaments became seriously split—especially in Latvia, where ethnic minorities received nearly 20% of the vote and participated in governing coalitions. They carried less weight in Lithuania and Estonia. Latvia also had regional parties, especially in Catholic Latgale.
This profusion of parties may have been very democratic, but it made it hard to sustain majority cabinets in Latvia and Estonia. Still, democracy crumbled first in Lithuania—which did have a president and where the number of parties was moderate—caused by the tensions between left and right so common throughout Europe. The Catholic Church was at first a strong political factor, but its influence took a dive when the Vatican chose to support Poland’s interests at the expense of Lithuania’s. When, on top of that, the Social Democrats won the elections, a group of colonels carried out a coup (1926), paving the way for eventual dictatorship by Antanas Smetona. This was the colonels’ first victory, given that Lithuania’s army was established only after the Poles had forced the Red Army out of Lithuania.
When the worldwide economic crisis made democracy less attractive everywhere, Estonia and Latvia also succumbed to dictatorship. When, shortly after a coup led by the centre-right Estonian prime minister Konstantin Päts (12 March 1934), a similar one occurred in Latvia (on 15 May), it almost seemed as if the same cookie-cutter was being used. Karlis Ulmanis—who, like Päts, had been prime minister during the War of Independence—happened to head yet another fragile coalition cabinet. Support for his Farmers Union had been in steady decline. The nationalist Pērkonskrusts (Thunder Cross)—which imitated “swastika” in name as well as in its symbol—was on the rise. The Latvian Social Democrats were perhaps keener Marxists than their Estonian counterparts, and social tensions may have been higher there than in Estonia. When Ulmanis proposed changing the constitution to give more power to the presidency, the parliament rejected it; thereupon, Ulmanis seized power, using means akin to those of Päts. Unlike Päts, however, he did not bother to add the theatre of a new constitution and rigged elections. In Lithuania, following the coup of 1926, the real power passed smoothly into the hands of Antanas Smetona, who had been the main architect of independence.
In summary, what made the Baltic states different from the rest of Europe in the late 1930s was to have as dictators precisely those people who had most contributed to the formation of independent democratic republics 20 years earlier and thus had earned widespread trust. Their dictatorships were rather civilised. Latvia’s may have been the most stringent, while in Lithuania and Estonia the officially disbanded political parties still functioned quietly.
In September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and the Soviet Union joined the attack, Lithuania and Latvia carried out partial mobilisations, in light of their both having a border with Poland. Estonia did not; this may have been why Moscow suddenly presented a demand for military bases in Estonia. Moreover, the first version of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact assigned Lithuania to the German sphere of influence—so Moscow might have felt it overly provocative to start from there. Estonia’s submission certainly demoralised Latvia and Lithuania when their turn came. (Whether their dictators would have been more determined than Päts, had Moscow confronted them first, remains in doubt.) By agreeing to Soviet bases, the Baltic states abdicated all ability to resist. The final blow—total occupation, in June 1940—hit Lithuania first. These sequences made no difference during the following year of occupation. Moscow had already incorporated the Baltic states into the Soviet Union in August, and an ever-accelerating reign of terror began.
The German occupation of 1941–4 made the Baltic states part of Ostland, which also included Byelorussia, separate from the Ukraine and the occupied Russian territories. In addition to German commissars-general, indigenous “self-governments” were appointed. In Lithuania and Latvia, the Germans proceeded carelessly, and some patriots were included who quietly tried to advance their national interests. In Estonia, the Germans had more time for selection. Hence, in 1943 three Lithuanian “councillors” ended up in the Stutthof concentration camp, while all Estonian “directors” behaved themselves. Underground resistance to German rule was strongest in Lithuania, and the attempt to form an SS Legion there failed. (Foreign auxiliaries were formally assigned to the SS because German laws forbade them to serve in the Wehrmacht.) The subsequent post-war resistance to Moscow by the “Forest Brethren” was also most extensive and best organised in Lithuania.
The local administrators in the post-war Baltic SSRs were extremely disparate, and this affected cultural life. In 1950–1, the occupying power removed all domestic Estonian communists from top posts. From 1952 on, almost all top administrators in the ESSR were of Estonian origin who had grown up in Soviet Russia (“Russian Estonians”), plus Russians. Such a complete purge did not occur in Latvia or Lithuania. In Latvia, domestic communists retained their top posts, along with “Russian Latvians”. Lithuania had many purely Russian top administrators, because too few “Russian Lithuanians” were available.
The so-called “Thaw” increased hopes of modest political autonomy among the Latvian domestic communists. They favoured the use of the Latvian language and a more rational way of running the economy. Moscow crushed this attempt in 1959. The administration passed entirely into the hands of placemen from Russia, and for an entire decade the cultural atmosphere remained more stifling than that in Estonia. No such attempt towards autonomy could take place in Estonia, since its administration was already in the hands of “Russian Estonians”.
By contrast, the top administration in Lithuania became more Lithuanian, and hence the national culture faced less pressure. The domestic communists had a keener sense of their limits, and the pool of Lithuanian-speakers in Russia was small. Making use of full Russians was awkward because the influx of Russians into Lithuania remained low compared to Latvia and Estonia, due to the lower level of industrialisation and higher birth rate. In contrast to Lithuania, Russian immigration became an imminent threat to the survival of the Latvian and Estonian nations.
Underground dissident activity picked up in the 1970s, and was strongest in Lithuania, where Catholicism united people, and it even became quite open in the defence of churches.
A common Baltic awareness may never have been stronger than during the final decades of Soviet occupation. Moscow began to tolerate joint Baltic cultural events and, lacking anything better (meaning interaction with the West), full use was made of these openings. Translations of each other’s literature were made and read more than ever before or since. The Baltic dissidents signed joint declarations. The spread of knowledge of Russian as a foreign language enabled Baltic cooperation, in the same way that the acquisition of French enabled Arabic- and Berber-speakers in Algeria to interact.
The return to independence occurred at a similar pace in all three countries. First came the environmental struggle, initiated by the Latvians. Then came the “popular fronts” and the quest for autonomy, spearheaded by the Estonians. The Lithuanians were the first to declare restored independence. A comparison of the details highlights what was peculiar to Estonia and how events could easily have taken a different turn for Estonians.
In addition to a popular front, Estonia and Latvia also developed a more radical national Congress. For several reasons, the popular front in Lithuania—Sąjūdis—did not face such competition. First, the borders of Soviet Lithuania exceeded those of the pre-war republic, as Vilnius was recovered and there were relatively few Russian colonists. Hence, constructing new independence on the basis of Soviet Lithuania offered some advantages. Second, the Lithuanian Communist Party demonstratively seceded from its Soviet analogue, set a course towards independence, relabelled itself “social democratic” at the right time, and hence maintained its popularity. This competition pushed Sąjūdis towards a more radical stance compared to the Estonian Popular Front.
A Latvian Congress was formed, but it remained quite weak in the face of the Popular Front. The stronger grip of “Russian Latvians” on the Latvian CP, and a larger number of Russian colonists, represented a threat that motivated most Latvians to support the Popular Front—its cautious tactics looked more realistic than those of the Congress. By the time independence actually materialised, all three Baltic states saw themselves as continuations of the pre-occupation entities rather than emancipated Soviet republics.
Wars of national liberation are great, but the skills needed to achieve liberation without bloodshed merit even more praise—and they are rare. Estonia re-established its independence without a single casualty. A number of deaths, fortunately fewer than 20, occurred in Lithuania and Latvia when Moscow’s special services carried out tentative attacks.
Following liberation, Estonia was the first to replace the rouble with its own currency, and it made the sharpest turn towards a market economy. This sudden change was painful for many people, but it brought economic growth. One may wonder to what extent a Protestant background and contacts with Finland contributed to such decisions. Latvia and Lithuania have been gradually catching up, but some gaps remain.
Integration of former Russian colonists has been most problematic in Latvia—which has the largest proportion of them—even if the most glaring individual confrontation took place in Estonia (in 2007). Lithuania has far fewer Russians, but tensions persist there with the long-standing Polish population around Vilnius. Even in Estonia, continuing emigration to the West threatens national survival in the long run. Yet what does this say about Latvia, and especially Lithuania, where the outflow is much more extensive?
By Central Eastern European standards, democracy has been surprisingly stable in all three countries, with minor differences. They also face the same security issues. It is hard to explain why Lithuania and Latvia have consistently spent less on their defence than Estonia.
Broadly speaking, the socio-economic differences among the three Baltic states have diminished over the last 100 years, and especially during the last 25. To a lesser degree, so have the differences with their western neighbours. Are they now increasingly like peas in a pod? But in which pod would that be, and in what sense are they similar? It is the European Union and global technological trends that provide the common pod, rather than geographical location. The three Baltic national cultures are developing separately, interacting far less than do the cultures of the Nordic countries. The Baltic states do not stand together, but merely next to each other. They look with fascination to the west and with concern to the east, but not at each other.
This evaluation lacks a long-term perspective as it is based on the last 25 years. Looking back a century from now, differences among the present Baltic states might be perceived that could later become more noticeable. This is the more likely because they pay little attention to each other.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, President of Latvia, 1999–2007, President of the World Leadership Alliance-Club de Madrid
As Estonia celebrates the centenary of its Declaration of Independence, I send my warmest congratulations to the Estonian people for the faith they have kept through all those years in the hopes, dreams and aspirations of their forebears, who were ready to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their country.
I also congratulate you on the courage and determination that allowed you to renew the independence that totalitarian powers had brutally taken away from you. But, above all, I congratulate you on your ability to make the most of this renewed independence. Estonia has not only caught up on lost time, it has moved ahead as a flagship country of good governance, innovation, creativity and openness to the world.
May the next hundred years be a period of peace, freedom and prosperity for your country and mine, and may the Estonian people continue to shine with their talents and accomplishments in Europe and in the world.
Long live Estonia and may it flourish forever!
Dear readers of Diplomaatia
Martti Ahtisaari, President of Finland, 1994–2000
To write this congratulatory note, I read the speech I gave at the opening of the Finnish Embassy in Tallinn on 12 November 1997. I said: “Relations between Finland and Estonia have followed the course of history. Although a political relationship was impossible for many decades, our connection has been durable, like this house.”
Finland turned 100 last year, and 2018 marks Estonia’s centenary. Estonians celebrated our year like it was their own party, which was wonderful to observe. Our relationship is strong, like the walls of Toompea Hill, but it is also full of affection. The Finnish people delight in Estonia’s celebrations. It is important that Finns’ stories about Estonia also get told and recorded.
Estonia has had an incredible journey—a tiger’s leap from the challenges of a new state to a working digital society, as my colleague Lennart Meri described his aim in office. We have been involved in Estonia’s development, as becomes a good neighbour. The result is economic well-being and strong cooperation, millions of citizens commuting across the Gulf of Finland, friendship and partnership. This is what supports history and what the future will be built upon. The EU has played a significant role in our shared path.
We strive for a safe and stable future, taking care of the internal trust in both our societies. Every country must see to this individually. Nations must provide equal opportunities and guarantee equality in realising them for all their citizens. In this way, inequality is avoided and mutual trust promoted. I am happy to see this is considered important in both Finland and Estonia.
I wish our neighbour a very successful next century!
Carl Bildt, Former Minister of State and Foreign Affairs of Sweden
These were truly tumultuous days a century ago. The outcome of the battles on the Western Front in the Great War was still uncertain, although the late entry of the United States into the war had started to shift the balance.
But in the east of Europe turmoil was the order of the day. The Bolshevik coup in St Petersburg had taken Russia into a brutal civil war, the outcome of which was far from certain regarding both power in the state and the form and extent of the Russia that was to emerge.
In Stockholm, attention was devoted primarily to developments in Finland. We had been part of the same country for 600 years until 1809, and as a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire Finland had gradually developed its own state institutions.
But independence didn’t come easily. The Bolsheviks promised independence, but only to support a revolution that should have resulted in the incorporation of a Soviet Finland into the rest of the USSR. A civil war, and support from German forces, eventually secured Finland’s independence.
In Estonia, national forces managed to secure control of the territory fairly early with the help of volunteers from other countries. Neither Red nor White Russian forces managed to wrestle control of the country away from them. In that sense the road to independence was more straightforward for Estonia than for either Latvia or Lithuania.
For Sweden the independence of Estonia, together with that of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, opened up entirely new perspectives of cooperation in the Baltic region, not forgetting the improved position in terms of national security.
But in retrospect we know that relations developed rather slowly during the interwar years. And when Hitler and Stalin joined forces in August 1939 it was obvious that the independent future of all these countries was effectively over. Only Finland managed to survive the ordeal of the years that followed.
When the independence of Estonia was restored in 1991 we were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Support for the democratic development of Estonia became a cornerstone of Sweden’s foreign policy, with equally strong emphasis on the need to integrate the country into all the structures of the wider West. To firmly anchor Estonia in these was obviously important to the future of the country itself, but also to Sweden.
And today Estonia is more firmly anchored in all these institutions and structures—the EU, the euro, NATO—than Sweden is. Its independence is more secure than it has ever been.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.