The Baltic Republics of the Soviet Union:
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

By Joseph Greer




The Soviet Union can be said to have started during the revolutions of 1917: first in February with the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, and the emergence of the Provisional Government, which had a largely democratic view toward government, then in October, when the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, Trotsky, and other educated leaders of the proletariat, took power in the Bloody Revolution and began the government of Soviet Russia. They by no means had an immediate acceptance and there was civil war in Russia that lasted until 1920. As the Red guards (Bolsheviks) and the White armies (anti-Bolsheviks) fought, the power slowly shifted from the early power of the Whites, to the Red guards growing ability to organize their troops. During these months, the Red guard pushed to retain control of Russian lands, including Finnish lands, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. At the same time, though, the Germans had hastened war on the Eastern Front and by the end of 1917, controlled all the Baltic lands.

Having lost the war to the Germans, the Soviets reluctantly signed The Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty on March 3, 1918. Written into the treaty by the Russian delegation was the premise that all countries which had previously been deprived of their freedom, would be allowed to seek popular governments of the people and have their independence. (Tarulis, p.13)

These points in the treaty were meant to take the Baltics and other territories out of German hands, while the Soviets continued to follow the Marxist principles of independence of peoples. More importantly, Lenin and others believed that the Baltic lands and Estonia in particular would choose to join the Soviets after they were free. The German plan to gain lasting control of the Baltics moved ahead with early declarations made by a "carefully selected united provincial government," which "unanimously passed a resolution asking the Kaiser to Place Estland and

Livland under his personal protection." (Kirby, p. 263) The emerging Baltic states chose to submit their own Declarations of Independence; Lithuania in February 1918, Estonia in February 1918, and Latvia in November 1918. (Kirby, p. 263-5) The Germans however, continued to control the Baltics until the Armistice of November 1918.

When the General Armistice was signed, the Germans were forced to withdraw their troops and this left the Baltics open to continued fighting with the remaining German forces, the Red guards, and other interested countries. The wars for the occupation or independence of these countries continued for another couple of years.

In 1920, Soviet Russia concluded peace treaties with the Baltic states: on February 2, 1920, with Estonia; on July 12 with Lithuania; on August 1 with Lithuania, and finally on October 14, with Finland. This did not end border issues between these countries, but by the end of 1921, the countries of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were officially recognized by most of western Europe. The relative independence of the Baltic Nations lasted until 1939, when events leading to World War II occurred.


The Years of Tribulation: World War II and Post-War Stalinism

On August 23, 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets, now under the leadership of Stalin, signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression pact between the Soviets and the Nazis. The Secret Protocols, which were signed over the next month, divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, "in the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas." (Suziedelis, p. 92-98) Later in the same year, the Soviets forced the hands of the Baltic Nations and signed individual Pacts of Defense and Mutual Assistance with each government. The pacts allowed garrisons of Soviet troops into the Baltic countries, while they maintained their autonomy. This basic premise of the pacts was soon abandoned, as war broke out in Europe, with the invasion of Poland by Germany.

The Soviets issued ultimatums that the Baltic nations set up pro-Soviet governments and used the presence of the military to force the action. The Soviets quickly set up People's Governments in each of the Baltic nations. Smetona of Lithuania left soon after the formation of this new government and was considered to have resigned. Päts of Estonia and Ulmanis of Latvia complained about the situations, retaining their official titles as Presidents of the two countries, but with little actual power. By July 1940, Päts and Ulmanis were forced to resign and were deported to the USSR. Soviet style elections were set up and all opposition candidates were required to announce and declare their platforms within approximately three to four days. Opposition candidates were declared invalid by the election commissions and communist leaders were elected. (Misiunus/Taagepera, pp. 21-28) The new governments met and passed resolutions to apply for membership in the USSR. In early August, the Supreme Soviet met and deliberated on the applications and within five days had accepted the applications of the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Following annexation of the countries as republics of the Soviet Union, came the Sovietization of all aspects of life in the Baltics. Appropriation of industry and business affected the middle class, which was a small percentage of the population. Collectivization of agriculture affected a far greater percentage of the population. Larger farms were taken, leaving smaller farms for the original owners. Much of this land was given in small farm plots to peasants. A few kolkhozes were established during this early Soviet period.

Bookstores and presses in the Baltic republics were taken over, which allowed the Soviets to control the materials that were printed. Churches were allowed to exist, but the clergy and the churches themselves were highly taxed. Much of the liturgy and documentation of the churches was destroyed.

Deportations and executions began early in the arrests of former political leaders of the Baltic States. The deportations increased in late 1940 and into 1941, before the invasion by the German army. The figures are stated to be around 85,000 throughout the region. (Misiunus/Taagepera, p. 354)

In June 1941, the Germans began their invasion of the Baltics and advanced through most of the region in 17 days. (Misiunus/Taagepera, p46) The heavy deportations that had taken place in the Baltic republics had weakened the ability of the region's people to defend themselves. More importantly, the peoples of the Baltic republics did little to hinder the advance of the German invasion, seen by many as a way to break away from the Soviet Union and return to their independence. By the end of August 1941, most of the Soviet armies had retreated or had been killed. The Baltic region was once again under German control.

In 1942, Germany had begun to lose the war, and began a slow, painful retreat. The Soviet armies again advanced into the Baltic region in 1944. After the fall of Germany's military center in Belarus, the Soviets were able to advance against the retreating German armies and by October 1944, the Soviet armies had regained most of the Baltic republics. The deaths during the German occupation and the reentry of the Soviet armies have been counted to be close to one million. (Misiunus/Taagepera, p. 354)

Non-native communists imported from Russia controlled the Communist Parties of the three Baltic republics. The native communists were ousted from power and many disappeared during the purges of the party. The native communists who were allowed powerful positions within the party were for the most part, those who returned from years in Russia. These returning leaders were heavily russified and could be counted on to give support to the government of the Soviet Union. The main resistance to the return of Soviet power came in the form of the Forest Brothers, who fought a guerilla war against the Soviet armies. These wars continued until 1953, but were largely over by 1949 when most of the partisans were infiltrated and executed.

The return to collectivization was slow at first, as the land needed to be restored following the war. As the farms became more productive, the landowners reluctantly gave up their lands to the kolkhozes (collective farms). The land that was held by larger farmholders was taxed heavily, and in 1949, many of the kulaks (wealthy farmholders) were deported. The land was immediately placed into the kolkhozes and farmed by several families.

The transplantation of the indigenous peoples of the Baltics continued through deportation and mandatory service in the army, where many 'undesirables' died. Many people disappeared and were never spoken of again. Most who were deported were sent to Siberia, or to the labor camps. Here a person's body could be broken, if not their spirit. The labor camps served as a meeting ground for people with alternative ideas. This was to play a major role in later years as the government eased its stance on alternative ideas. This began with the death of Stalin in 1953.


The Thaw: Nikita Khrushchev and Post-Stalinism

During the years that followed the death of Stalin, many changes took place. From 1953-56, there were temporary leaders of the government and the Communist Party. These interim years saw a beginning to the break away from the Stalinist form of government. Most of Stalin's associates were thrown out of their positions of power. In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist Party and the changes took on an even greater scope. In 1956, at the 29th All-Union Party Congress, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and the way in which he handled domestic issues. Khrushchev outlined the issues of Stalin's need to be the big man in the government and illustrated that the Soviet Union needed to return to its roots as a government of the people. Much of what had been forbidden was allowed, within certain bounds: freedom of speech, but not blatantly anti-Soviet; freedom of cultural identity, as long as it reflected the greater Soviet identity; and a relative freedom of movement within the Soviet Union.

Most of the labor camps were shut down and the people who had been held there were allowed to return to their homes, as free and rehabilitated citizens of the Soviet Union. These former prisoners found that there was a new freedom in their homelands. Cultural expression flourished during most of Khrushchev's period.

The thaw in the political arena held until 1958, when the climate shifted again. The government saw that people were pushing issues too far and a purge of the local communist parties occurred. Leaders in all three countries were moved out of their positions, but most noticeably in Latvia, where Deputy Chairman Berklavs was removed and most native Latvians were replaced.

Following World War II, and the following decades, the tensions between the Soviet Union and the West continued to build. The race to build and stockpile arms and to gain leads in technological and scientific breakthroughs moved at a furious pace.

In 1962, Khrushchev was caught in one of the great moments of the cold war. The Cuban missile crisis defined the strength of two nations and the leaders of those nations. Nikita Khrushchev followed the pressures of the international world and of his own government at home, and withdrew the attempted placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in the hands of communist Cuba.

The political fallout of the crisis, along with a faltering Soviet economy, finally led to the removal of Khrushchev from power in 1964. His successor., a leader of the group that ousted him, was Leonid Brezhnev.


The Years of Stagnation: Brezhnev and the Decline of the Soviet Union

Leonid Brezhnev was the first secretary of the communist party from 1964 to his death in 1982. His leadership can be described as one of continuing the status quo. The economy of the Soviet Union continued to decline slowly through all of his years.

The build-up of nuclear weapons within the Baltic republics continued at a staggering pace. The eastern bloc of nations was seen as a barrier against the west and much of the military strength of the Soviet Union was concentrated in the republics of the west.


The Break-Up: Gorbachev

After Brezhnev died in 1982, the Soviet Union saw another transitional government, similar to the period following the death of Stalin. First to take power was Andropov, who held his position for 18 months. He tried to implement a few changes, many of which were based on revolutionary ideas. His leadership was hindered by two main factors, the first being that he was ill during much of his time in power. The second factor, and probably the more important factor, was that his ideas were just too much for the conservatives of the Communist Party. Andropov was soon replaced by Chernenko. His time as the leader of the Soviet Union lasted for little more than one year and can be characterized as a time of backtracking on many of the reforms of Andropov.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. His leadership lasted until 1991, when the Soviet Union was disbanded. Soon after taking power, Gorbachev implemented two major new programs. The first was called Glasnost, which means openness. The premise of Glasnost was to allow the open discussion of the Soviet Union by the peoples of the Soviet Union. This boils down to the idea that citizens could criticize specific people or policies of the Soviet Union, if it was for the better of the Soviet Union.

The second program that he implemented was Perestroika, which means restructuring. This program was designed to implement changes in the economic structure of the Soviet Union, a freeing up the sovereignty of the republics and the people to make new changes to create a more sound Soviet economy.

These two programs were meant to strengthen the Soviet Union. What they lead to was a change in the spirit of the people and the freedoms which were granted were pushed to test the leniency of the government. This testing was met with enough openness, that people continued to test and finally, the opposition movements became so strong, that the government could no longer hold itself together.

There was an attempt by some of the former powerful leaders to perform a coup against the Gorbachev government, but at the same time a new leader emerged from within Russia, a man by the name of Boris Yeltsin. He led a popular movement to bring down the Soviet Union and finally the coup failed. Gorbachev, working in concert with this new government, created the mechanism whereby the government of the Soviet Union could be peacefully dismantled.

Meanwhile, in the Baltic republics, the people held demonstrations: non-violent marches, and song festivals that presented only native songs. The parliaments of the three republics voted for varying degrees of independence from or within the Soviet Union.


Commemorating the victims of the soviet rule



Soviet Special Police Forces (OMON) created to smash Baltic independence movement


Finally, I present a poem which states the general feeling of the peoples of the Baltics, a desire for self determination, but a recognition of the fact that few people outside of the Baltics know where, or who they are.

Third Elegy

Strange to hail from almost anonymous shores
in overexplored Europe where the Baltic
still hides a lunar side, unilluminated
except for subjugations, annexations
which continue unabated for centuries.
Non problem for anyone to name the Nordic countries
from Iceland to Finland,
but how about the Baltic ones?
Surely one and the same language
is spoken here? If not Russian,
at least something akin to German?
You will never guess unless we unravel
the skein of Indo-European and Finno-Ugric
language families, ponder Babel
to clear up the Baltic,
and who has time for such marginal myths?
We persist with the subsoil. Grass is another
favored metaphor (trampled upon, it springs back),
or limestone cliffs filed away by gales
yet undefiled, withstanding millennia.
It is strange to hail from the dark side of the moon
while supposedly we inhabit the same planet.
There are Third World pockets inside Europe
one tends to overlook, anonymous shores
marked with an x or a mental question mark.
If only you incline in the Baltic direction,
you begin to hear the dirge of a beehive
and perceive in underwater outline
an amber chamber built with pollen of grief.

(Ivask, p. 11)




Video file:

Baltic Way / August 23, 1989




Ivar Ivask, The Baltic Elegies, World Literature Today, 1990

David Kirby, The Baltic World 1772-1993: Europe's Northern Periphery in an Age of Change, Longman Group Limited, 1995

Romuald J. Misiunas and Rein Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence 1940-1990, University of California Press, 1993

Saulius Suziedelis, Editor, History and Commemoration in the Baltic: The Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1989, Lithuanian American Community, 1989

Albert N. Tarulis, Soviet Policy Toward the Baltic States: 1918-1940, University of Notre Dame Press, 1959


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