Separate status within the Soviet Union did not interest us, so we did not share its international obligations.
By the mid-1980s not many people still believed that Estonia would ever become independent again; and if there were some in Estonia who believed, there were none in the rest of the world. The situation was quite depressing. Immigration was threatening to make Estonians a minority in their own land in about 20 years. The Russification campaign initiated by Karl Vaino was pushing the Estonian language further back into the kitchen and village. The example of other Soviet republics clearly demonstrated what would become of Estonian-language education as a result of this process. It would be available in a few schools for up to four classes as in Byelorussia, Kazakh SSR, Udmurtia and so on. The oral defence of theses in Estonian was already no longer an option.
But if people were losing faith, they had not lost hope. The empire only needed to falter slightly for faith in the possibility of freedom to be restored—and not gradually, but basically overnight.
The rest of the world had also pushed Estonia into oblivion. The policy of non-recognition was only evident in some scarce quotes by a few US politicians, especially when they needed to criticise the Soviet Union. But the policy did not mean that Estonia was printed in a different colour or hatched on the world map like other occupied areas—for example the territories of Palestine and Namibia.
However, 25 years after the restoration of independence we see that what seemed impossible was more a normal event than a coincidence. The fall of the communist colossus allowed some nations who had never dreamed of a state to establish one. Despite top global political scientists and Sovietologists who believed in the everlasting Soviet Union, it could never persist. The entire post-World War II political and economic architecture paved the way for a “geopolitical disaster”, to use the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Bipolar World—A Temporary Balance
The bipolar world born from the rivalry between the countries that won WWII and the desire to dominate the world could be maintained through a balance, but only a temporary one. This balance was recognised since other options were either unattainable or too potentially disastrous. After the Soviet Union had obtained a nuclear weapon, the Cold War became cemented as the only way to avoid the “end of the world” to which a global nuclear war would inevitably have led. However, this did not mean that both sides did not constantly attempt to change the balancing point and achieve predominance.
It was clear even before the end of World War II that the world that would emerge as a result would not satisfy the Western democracies or the Soviet Union. Dividing the world into spheres of influence between the winning world powers, as was intended by the founding of the UN, was not considered a permanent solution even at its foundation. The re-division of the world began even before Germany and Japan had surrendered. With the Marshall Plan and the founding of NATO, the West was able to establish a bastion in Europe to hold off the possible Soviet advance. But by this time the Soviet Union had secured control everywhere the Red Army had reached in battle. The Berlin Blockade was a way for Moscow to test the West to see to what extent it would compromise, and the reaction sent Moscow a clear signal that there would be no more yielding.
The next step would heat up the Cold War. All parties silently acknowledged this balance, and the price was the West not helping Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 (as well as, probably, the fact that the Soviet Union allowed neutral countries—Austria, Finland and Sweden—to exist). This, however, did not end the re-division of the world and created new hotspots outside Europe. The Soviet Union had begun arming the Chinese communists as early as 1945 and supporting North Vietnam in 1946, and it interfered directly in the Korean War in 1950. By 1949 and 1953 respectively, continental China and North Korea were in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. Vietnam was destined to 30 years of civil war, which in the mid-1960s became essentially a war between the Soviet Union and the US on Vietnamese soil. The deepest point of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world has never been closer to its end than in 1962.
Since Cuba gained independence [in 1902], the US had treated the island as an object of special interest. When Fidel Castro overthrew the dictator Batista and became one himself, Washington took a sympathetically neutral stance. But when Castro’s maverick behaviour began to irritate the Americans, they considered it their right to replace the regime in Cuba. They had already reserved such a right on the American continent in the 1820s with the Monroe Doctrine. The situation changed drastically when Khrushchev and Castro agreed to play the so-called “Soviet card”. The Soviet Union offered Cuba security guarantees and in return was allowed to locate its nuclear missiles on the island.
Soviet nuclear missiles only 150 km from the US southern border would have completely altered the balance of power, and in the event of a nuclear war the Soviet Union would have had an immense advantage. Washington realised that this could tempt Moscow to strike a first nuclear blow, considering that the US would no longer have had time for a counterstrike. It was probably the most difficult decision of President Kennedy’s life to accept the possibility of nuclear war in a situation in which Moscow did not yet hold the advantage, rather than risk the one-sided destruction of the US. Moscow realised that the US was unable to accept the situation just as it realised that, if Moscow did not back down, nuclear war and the destruction of the Soviet Union would be inevitable. Moscow did back down. But the Cuban Missile Crisis changed the world. World powers never made direct nuclear threats again, and began instead to look for ways to reduce tension and disarm.
Balance of Power Within the Blocs
When we think of a bipolar world, it is justifiable to talk about the Soviet and American blocs. But, in fact, the picture is somewhat more complicated. The US had almost no political role in pre-war Europe. During the onset and first years of World War II the main players were the UK, Germany and the Soviet Union. The US was included after the Tehran Conference [in late 1943], and France in the final stages of the war. The inclusion of France did not have any significance in the war but Stalin hoped that France would counterbalance the US and the UK. In addition, at the beginning of the Cold War it was the UK that formed Western policy, rather than the US. The role of the Americans grew significantly in Europe with the Marshall Plan and the founding of NATO, and it cannot be denied that there were quite a few times when the British and French were concerned about this change in the balance of power.
Interesting stakes were placed in several conflicts outside Europe. In the 1948 Arab–Israel War the British and French felt that the UN resolution had to be followed. The Soviet Union supported Israel and the US tried to remain on the sidelines. The Suez Crisis, however, created a situation in which the UK and France tried to overthrow the Egyptian government using Israeli arms, but they were countered by the US, which blamed its allies for continuing colonial policy; in addition, the Soviet Union had changed sides and was now backing the Egyptian dictator Nasser. Moscow caught the biggest fish from these muddy waters by gradually making allies in the Arab countries. By the beginning of the 1970s, the Soviet Union had close ties with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya and South Yemen. The US had also shifted position in the 1967 War by supporting Israel. The UK and France no longer had an independent global political role as major powers, and the US obtained a clear leading position in the Western hemisphere. It should be noted that the UK’s and France’s position was also weakened by the re-emergence of Germany, which became the biggest economic power in Europe in the mid-1960s. Germany’s increasing power was one of the reasons British prime minister Margaret Thatcher opposed German reunification so strongly a few decades later—she was afraid the geopolitical balancing point would once again shift towards the German–Russian end of the axis, leaving the UK on the periphery.
One cannot talk about allies in relation to the Eastern bloc. Countries incorporated in the Warsaw Treaty Organisation were all unambiguously satellite states. But not everything in the Eastern bloc went according to Moscow’s wishes. In countries with a Red Army presence everything was organised according to Moscow’s diktat through coups, military interventions or electoral manipulation. But in Yugoslavia and Albania communists had come to power without the direct help of the Red Army, and this gave them a major opportunity for independent decision-making. As a result, Yugoslavia refused to recognise Moscow’s orders in 1948 and Albania in 1961. After Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union’s relations with the People’s Republic of China also began to cool, leading to public opposition and almost war in the mid-1960s.
At first, Moscow did not plan to establish the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, but after the uprising in East Germany in 1953 the Kremlin realised that this discontent would not remain unique and that it needed a legitimate mechanism for suppressing uprisings in satellite states. In 1955 it concluded the so-called Warsaw Pact. In military terms and as a counterbalance to NATO, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation was insignificant. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968 clearly demonstrated why the Warsaw Treaty Organisation was necessary.
De-escalation and Disarmament
By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the leaders of the superpowers had realised that there could be no winners in a global nuclear war and a local nuclear conflict would inevitably grow into a global one (the doctrine of mutual assured destruction—MAD). Common sense would question the point of an arms race if it exceeded the economic capacity of the countries involved and no longer gave an advantage. The world’s powers do not always follow common sense, but the Soviet Union’s need to direct resources elsewhere, as well as internal pressure in the Western countries, forced them to consider disarmament.
Several countries attempted to use the de-escalation initiative to step out of the shadow of the Americans. In 1966 French president Charles de Gaulle visited Moscow. In the same year France left NATO’s military structure, which was seen by Moscow as an opportunity to divide the Western countries through de-escalation. Willy Brandt, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, was eager to pursue appeasement. When visiting Poland, he apologised for the wartime atrocities and the Holocaust committed by Germany, and recognised the German–Polish border and the existence of the German Democratic Republic, which many considered a betrayal of the Federal Republic and the Soviet Union saw as a weakness. The West withdrew its support from Taiwan and in 1971 the People’s Republic of China was given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In 1972 US President Nixon visited the Soviet Union as well as the People’s Republic of China and two documents limiting the arms race were signed in Moscow.
The landmark event of de-escalation was the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which took place in Helsinki in 1975 with NATO, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation and neutral countries participating. The Helsinki Accords declared that state borders could be not changed by force and the parties promised to ensure human rights. The Soviet Union interpreted this as the West recognising that the Baltic States were a part of the Soviet Union (which it clearly did not), and interpreted the human rights provisions selectively: Jews and Volga Germans were allowed to relocate to their home countries but political prisoners were not released. Following the Helsinki Accords, the issue of human rights became the main US tool in criticising the Soviet Union.
One of the reasons the US agreed relatively quickly to implement the de-escalation policy was the apparent strength of the Soviet Union. The latter had been successful in developing its arms, and had beaten the Americans in the Space Race by being the first to launch a manned craft into outer space. Khrushchev’s boast that the Soviet Union would overtake the US in ten years and that it would live under communism by 1980 made some smirk, while others shivered.
The Soviet Union’s international position improved considerably in the 1960s and 1970s. A large number of new countries had emerged after the colonial empires fell apart, and Moscow was relatively successful in winning them over. By the mid-1970s the Soviet Union had established a presence on all continents apart from Australasia. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Arab countries created an oil crisis that multiplied the price of oil. This brought great additional revenue for the Soviet Union as an oil producer. In 1975 the Americans capitulated in Vietnam and the entire country fell to the North, controlled by Moscow. The Kremlin considered the countries of the Third World as its prospective satellites, and in cases where taking advantage of internal disputes and arming preferred parties in civil wars was not enough, it took to military intervention either directly or with the help of other satellite states such as Cuba (e.g. in Ethiopia and Angola). In the mid-1970s the Soviet Union was at the peak of its power. But for how long?
At the end of 1979 a new political factor, which did not fit in the bipolar world and which became an entirely new force—extreme Islam—appeared on the world map. The Islamic Revolution in Iran was there to stay and triggered a chain reaction. The Iran–Iraq War showed that not all power struggles could be directed by the US or the Soviet Union.
The Real Soviet Union
In 1977, following much uproar and wide “public discussion”, a new Soviet constitution was adopted. When it was made public, however, it was clear that the changes were merely cosmetic. The expression “country of the working people” had been replaced with “general nationalism” and the infamous Section 6 had been added, specifying the directing and leading role in society of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If there was anything surprising, it was the fact that the section had not been included before. The political party’s role was legalised for the first time in the Soviet Union’s legislation. In other words, it was as if the Communist Party had not been legal before, let alone been a state authority. It was probably realised in the corridors of power that when the economy and public order were out of control, the role of the party might be contested. It therefore tried to increase its legitimacy by ruling out democracy.
The second thing done in 1977 was the introduction of new passport regulations. Previously, many citizens did not have passports but one could not leave one’s home collective farm without one. In other words, people were attached to the land. So what brought about the liberation of people from “serfdom”? It was probably a labour shortage. Despite building communism and the “growth of well-being”, the birth rate had fallen while cities and the industry needed new workers.
But this was not the full extent of the problems. The demographic crisis had another side—the birth rate in Islamic regions was continuously high. Russians had become a minority in the Soviet Union. Muslims tended to be the majority in the army, including among non-commissioned officers. Although local Central Asian satraps were eager communists on the outside, they were not intrinsically socialist, contrary to Lenin’s thesis. They respected Islamic customs, even those that contradicted Soviet order, such as bride-money, polygamy and sharia. The community’s power structure was based on a personality cult. Only the form was socialist. It was thought that the Russian language would turn Central Asians into atheists, but it did not. Although the Soviet Union spoke of the equality of peoples, it was actually a Russian empire based on the supremacy of Russians without which the country could not have existed in such a form. The West did consider the Soviet Union a Russian state but it did not comprehend the unequal status of different nationalities within it. Moreover, often the West did not understand that there were other nationalities besides Russians living in the Soviet Union. But the KGB was aware of the situation and saw it as a threat to the future of the Union.
The Soviet Union had become a hostage to Marxist-Leninist ideology. Communist dogma, which the Chinese and Yugoslav communists were able pragmatically to overlook, really hindered the Soviet Union’s development. Economic decline, lagging behind in technology and an extremely centralised decision-making mechanism were manifested in the form of food and commodity shortages in the lives of ordinary people. A provisioning programme and five-year efficiency plans signalled the approach of the end.
In addition to economic problems, there was a leadership crisis. A change of blood in the Soviet administration had always been related to palace coups that either destroyed the former administration or removed them from power (the latter humane practice was introduced by Khrushchev). The administration that came into power in 1964 led by Brezhnev had reached an age where they were unable to lead the country, but they did not want to hand power over to the younger generation or were simply afraid that it would bring substantial reshuffling in the lower levels of the party and administration. As a consequence, Soviet leaders died one after another. But a new leader in the Soviet Union always implied unpredictability and uncertainty. The entire world watched with interest and anxiety to see what ideas the new leader would bring to the Kremlin steering wheel.
In his final years in power, Brezhnev did not do very much. Stagnation was dragging the huge country towards an abyss. Much was expected of his successor, Andropov. As the head of the KGB, he was well aware of the actual state of affairs and gave Western leaders an impression of a sophisticated, presentable man who enjoyed Western customs (he loved whisky) and knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, all of this was true apart from the last: he did not know how to lead the Soviet Union out of the crisis. He did not realise that in order to loosen the bureaucratic grip there needed to be more freedom, fewer restrictions and more initiative; in other words, elements of a market economy needed to be introduced. He chose the exact opposite route, trying to overcome the crisis by strengthening the controlled economy and firm rule and tightening the screws in the so-called North Korean method. Unfortunately, the economic system could not be reorganised this way, nor the administration changed. Andropov’s methods further strengthened bureaucratic bodies and the country was led towards an even deeper crisis. After Andropov died in suspicious circumstances, the conservative Politburo managed to stage another comedy and helped another veteran to power. Chernenko was too weak even for a handshake. Only after this did the youngest member of the Politburo, 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, get the chance to obtain power.
The Soviet Union was in irreversible stagnation; it could not be patched up with cosmetic reforms, and had to be reorganised from the bottom. Anyone who had any understanding of society could see this in 1985—including Gorbachev, whose brisk initiatives unnerved the bureaucrats who, nevertheless, did not lose hope that everything would continue on the same old path as it always had. Gorbachev, however, started to tear down bureaucracy and to allow private initiative, although with very timid steps and insufficient radicalism. But most importantly, he permitted free media and criticism—up to a point. The result was a mess, in which no one actually wanted to change the system (Gorbachev said “more socialism means more democracy”); only the consequences of the system could be criticised, not the system itself (questioning the rightness of Soviet power and socialist choice was not allowed); changes were still mainly cosmetic, but the authorities no longer fought opponents with repression, instead allowing them to act under control (i.e. limited opposition was permitted). This weakened the country’s options to ensure order but it did not reform the economy. The appearance of waffle-bakers and candyfloss-sellers on the streets was a significant economic innovation. Legalised small entrepreneurship created the economic basis for rackets (and the mafia) in which former KGB people, militiamen and servicemen saw a much more profitable activity than in serving state power structures.
In fact, Gorbachev continued to believe that the slogans of perestroika (restructuring), uskorenie (acceleration) and glasnost (openness)and the fight against alcohol were enough to achieve developed socialism. The fact that he did not really have the power or the will to change the system was not seen by the Western leaders, who considered Gorbachev a miracle man who would reshape the Soviet Union into a prosperous Western-style country.
End of the Bipolar World
In the 1980s the Soviet Union’s international position constantly weakened and its reputation worsened. The state of its economy no longer enabled it to play the role of superpower. However, there was no readiness to retreat from this position. The invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 unambiguously qualified as madness, which resulted in a mindless waste of resources and loss of human life for the Soviet Union, without a chance to enforce permanent control and a stable government in the country. The global consequence was a major contribution to the formation of Islamic radicalism.
When the Polish administration was no longer able to control its labour movement, the Soviet Union was prepared to invade and restore “order” using the same methods as it had in 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Marshal Jaruzelski’s coup was an easier option for Moscow, but it was a halfway house; its price was the recognition of a legal opposition in one of the satellite states. But imagine what an invasion of Poland would have meant, especially for the Soviet Union itself. What if Poland had resisted and the Soviet Union had ended up with a war on its Western front similar to the one in Afghanistan?
A change of power in two key Western countries, the UK in 1979 and the US in 1981, led to much more resolute treatment of the Soviet Union compared to the previous decade. The West had realised that the Soviet economy could not sustain the role of global gendarme. President Ronald Reagan set out on the course of displacing the Soviet Union as a world power. Reagan began to use sharp anti-communist rhetoric that was critical of the Soviet Union. He began to support the fight against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan with modern weapons, and determinedly repelled the Eastern bloc’s attempts to extend its sphere of influence (e.g. the US intervention in Grenada in 1983), something that had earlier only resulted in diplomatic protests.
Economic measures, however, turned out to be more important than rhetoric. Reagan reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia and several other oil-producing countries on reducing the price of crude. This also lowered the price of oil exported from the Soviet Union and considerably reduced the USSR’s foreign exchange. Secondly, he ended the de-escalation policy, named the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” whose aim was to destroy the free world, and announced the Strategic Defence Initiative (the so-called “Star Wars” programme). The Soviet Union lacked the resources to respond but tried to create something similar. It has been assumed that this is what ruined the Soviet Union for good. It has also been assumed that there was no “Star Wars”, that it was a bluff, a computer game created to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev at least understood that opposition to the West, a costly and dead-end war in Afghanistan and even keeping the satellite states in its grasp by force was not feasible for the Soviet Union. He chose to improve relations with the West. Since he was seen as a liberal for whom the West had been waiting for decades, he became Thatcher’s and Reagan’s poster child. He pulled the troops out of Afghanistan (leaving a power vacuum filled by the Taliban). The signal that, from then on, the satellite states needed to manage on their own and that Soviet tanks would no longer come to save socialism led to the collapse of local power pyramids.
Gorbachev’s actions were increasingly viewed in the Soviet Union as surrender. Democracy came bloodlessly and painlessly everywhere except for Romania, where opposition resulted in bloodshed and the execution of President Ceaușescu. The journey to the European Union and NATO began. In July 1991, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation officially ceased to exist.
In August 1991 the Baltic States restored independence, and on 1 January 1992 the Soviet Union ceased to exist and 12 independent countries emerged from its ruins. This was the end of the Cold War and a bipolar world.
The Soviet Union ceased to exist due to its own internal conflicts, ideological dogmatism, economic decline and rigid bureaucratic administrative structure. External factors may have contributed to the dissolution, but they did not cause it. Contrary to the suggestion by Soviet and Russian propaganda, the West never wanted the Soviet Union to collapse—rather, it tried to keep it together at all costs. The West was terrified of the potential consequences of the demise of the Soviet Union—such as civil wars, loss of control over nuclear weapons, and mass emigration.
Despite the non-recognition policy, the Baltic States’ desire for independence only caused them a headache. In the 1970s the US looked for ways to end the policy politely and harmlessly so that the West would receive something in return. Since this did not work, the policy lasted until the Baltic States restored their independence. The West wanted the Soviet Union to be liberalised and to respect human rights and the rule of law, but never understood that these processes would inevitably cause the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Estonia’s Choices—Was There Only One Option?
It was clear that in the glory days of the Soviet Union there was not much that could be done in Estonia to regain independence. Let us honour the dissidents who upheld the vision of freedom at the price of their own, and the expatriates who kicked the heels of the Western authorities and reminded them constantly that the Baltic States were still occupied. The loosening grasp of the empire provided an opportunity to gradually take matters into our own hands.
The Phosphorite War. The Hirvepark Meeting of 1987. The proposal for a completely self-governing Estonian SSR. Celebrating the Treaty of Tartu and the anniversary of the republic in 1988. Heritage Protection Days, Tartu Popular Music Days, the joint plenary meeting of the Creative Unions, the Popular Front of Estonia. The Estonian National Independence Party, nocturnal song festivals, Estonian Citizens’ Committees and the Congress of Estonia, the Baltic Way, free elections in 1990 … The list is long. Each of these was a brick laid in the wall of regaining independence. The Estonian way was moderate radicalism. On the one hand, provoking violence was not condoned, and on the other, people did not give up on the ultimate goal—the restitution of independence.
In addition to civil activism, the national decisions and administrative steps on the way to restoring independence were also significant. First, there was a clear commitment to legal continuity: Estonia was an occupied state, and independence had to be restored and the occupation ended. Separatism within the Soviet Union was not our goal, so we did not share its international obligations. Second, our state’s independence had been recognised before (in the 1920s), and we had the still-valid Treaty of Tartu with Russia and diplomatic representation in the form of a consulate-general in New York. Third, we had a legally defined citizenry, who had the mandate to decide the future of the Estonian state. And fourth, the authorities of the Estonian SSR were not legitimate but they were able to act in the name of regaining Estonia’s independence. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs fulfilled this task brilliantly. The cooperation of the Supreme Soviet and the Committee of Estonia ensured that on 20 August 1991 Estonia’s independence was restored on the basis of legal continuity, identical to the country established in 1918 and occupied in 1940.
On radicalism. Moderately
Tiit Pruuli, entrepreneur
Radicalism is very difficult to measure—even more so than finding the balancing point on the scale of right wing to left wing or between intelligence and ignorance.
When considering the restoration of Estonian independence, we find significant obstacles on the Tallinn–Moscow line, dramatic domestic political elements, and complicated periods in foreign policy. But it was not “moderate radicalism” as Mart Nutt claims; rather, it was a good dose of pragmatism, even radical pragmatism, if you like.
The most major radical step, aside from less important details, was the programme of Estonian self-government. Until that point, we had been in the last carriage of the perestroika train.
We used the institutions and infrastructure of the occupying state in their broadest sense until the very last moment and even beyond. We used them with the cleverness of Old Barny and stinginess of a granary-keeper [characters in the popular modern Estonian novel Rehepapp known for their cunning and parsimony—Tr.].
It would have been radical if the Estonian Congress had enforced the constitution of 1938 in 1990, declared itself the highest power and taken on the tasks of the electoral body stated in subsections 46 (3) and 46 (4) of the Constitution. This is what some Tartu “radicals”, including me, recommended.
Things could have turned radical if the chauvinist Intermovement had executed any of its threats.
There are more examples but all are examples of “what might have been”.
We tried carefully to understand the West’s warning that Mikhail Gorbachev’s boat should not be rocked too hard.
If we are to talk of any radicalism in the Baltic States’ fight for freedom, we might do so in the case of Lithuania. In my opinion, Estonia’s method was not radical by any standard. It was balanced in a peasant-like way with a significant contribution from Mart Nutt, a great politician who has sometimes been called a national radical.
The Miracle Did Not Come Out of Nowhere
Rein Veidemann, literary scholar
Mart Nutt has presented a very readable summary of the causal background that led to the dissolution of the Soviet empire and I have read his views, in different words, on this topic in several texts, of which there are now dozens. One of the miracles of Estonia regaining independence was, indeed, that it happened despite the fears and unwillingness of the West. However, as countries that, unlike the Baltic States, did not have statehood before (and which were recognised as international subjects equally with Estonia) emerged from the ruins of the empire, it is clear that it was not relevant for the West whether self-determination and independence occurred on the basis of legal continuity or in the form of secession.
Of course we could not count on this at the end of the 1980s. Two tactics therefore emerged: the gradual road to independence of the Popular Front and the restitution strategy of the Estonian Committee. In 1990–1, neither was realised to the full. The proposal adopted at the first session of the Estonian Congress to start negotiations immediately to end the annexation of Estonia was laughed off in Moscow, and the act on Estonian national symbols adopted by the Estonian SSR Supreme Soviet on 8 May 1990 was used to implement the so-called existential sections of the 1938 Constitution, which meant that we had (re)established the Republic of Estonia. The resolution on the national independence of Estonia adopted as a social pact during the putsch on 20 August 1990 by the then Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia sealed earlier resolutions on independence and applied for diplomatic recognition for the restored state.
I would like to stress that the ideal of an independent and free Estonia was not hopelessly lost even in the years of Soviet occupation. It lived on in culture. This is the only explanation for its explosive re-emergence in the 1988 Singing Revolution.
How Was Independence Restored?
Kaarel Piirimäe, historian
Restoring Estonia’s independence was made possible by four parallel processes: (1) the reorganisation and dissolution of the Soviet system, (2) the crisis in communist ideology, (3) the end of the Cold War opposition, and (4) the dissolution of communist federal states. There was an almost simultaneous fifth process—the intensifying economic and political integration of Europe and, in a broader sense, the “shrinking” of the world as a result of globalisation and the information revolution. The latter brought down the Iron Curtain, and thus enabled dissident movements to emerge and events in the Baltic States (the Baltic Way, the crisis in January 1991) to be covered by the international media.
We should not focus so much on why we were able to restore independence. Ukraine and Turkmenistan also became independent, even though they had voted to stay in the Soviet Union in the memorable March 1991 referendum with 71 98 percent respectively. In those and many other former Soviet Republics, the wording used the independence card to maintain power and gain personal riches (remember Viktor Kingissepp’s [communist revolutionary—Tr.] quote, “For whom independence, for whom oppression”), but we managed to turn our society decisively towards the West. Independence and nationalism did not become a fig leaf to cover up corruption. Therefore, the more important question is how we managed to build a European country.
Here it is definitely important to avoid a black-and-white, teleological view of history. On the one hand, there was nothing inevitable or normal in Estonia turning towards the West. We also had post-Soviet authorities that were East-oriented or favoured a neutral position between the East and West. On the other hand, by the mid-1980s we already had the knowledge and prerequisites to apply Western management models. In terms of culture, the Iron Curtain had been ragged since the 1960s. The most important factor was probably the “restoration mindset” (Vello Pettai), which was especially strong in Estonia and was expressed in heritage protection, religious movements (moral reform), the Estonian Congress, legal continuity, etc. Paradoxically, the attempt to return to the past was the key for Estonia stepping into the future. Perhaps this is the “moderate radicalism” that Mart Nutt writes about?
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.