Baltic States

Dealing with the Past in the Baltic States [Frederick Corney]

When Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania declared their independence from a crumbling Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, they immediately set about seeking recognition by, and future membership in, the signature organizations of the new Europe: the United Nations (UN), and the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the European Union (EU). Over the course of the decade after 1991, then, the Baltic States economically and conceptually turned away from Russia and towards Western Europe. At the same, the Baltic States were engaged in a difficult process of crafting a useable narrative from their past experiences. They had over the centuries experienced periods as colonies of the Danes, the Swedes, and the Russian Empire. They inaugurated their first period of independence in 1918, only to be annexed by the USSR in 1940. During World War II, they were occupied by the Nazis. They spent over six decades (1944-91) as satellite republics of the USSR.

All of these eras generated experiences that might be invoked or suppressed in the crafting of a new national narrative after 1991. Traditional Baltic folklore became a mainstay of the new Baltic ‘awakening.’ The ‘rediscovery’ of the Estonian epic poem Kalevipoeg (The Son of Kalev), the mythic Latvian figure of Lāčplēsis – the Bear-Tearer or the Lithuanian Perkunas (Sky-God) were intended to symbolize the heroic persistence of the nation in the face of foreign threats. Key historic events like the defeat of the Military Order of the Teutonic Knights by the Poles and Lithuanians at the Battle of Gruenwald (Tannenberg) in 1410 and the end of the Northern Crusades were the stuff of legend that could suit well the grand tales that small – and large – states often tell about themselves after independence.

Their first period of independence saw both democratic and authoritarian periods of governance, and generated visions of past behavior that did not always fit well into the perceived current needs of the post-1991 Baltic States. While the first period of independence between 1918 and 1940 (especially the early years of this period), was embraced not surprisingly as a model for the present state, the rise of interwar fascist organizations and the existence of Baltic SS units under German occupation were more troublesome. The former example generated the Freedom Monument in Riga, the latter example generated the controversy over the Estonian war monument in Tallinn. The war years provided material for tales of heroism around the partisans of Lithuania who formed the Forest Brothers, but also memories of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that were highly controversial for a new state in political, economic, and cultural flux. The period of Soviet domination offered its own encounters with the past in terms of all kinds of accommodation and dissidence vis-á-vis the dominant Soviet power. All of this, of course, had profound implications for the nature of Baltic citizenship in the post-1991 era. Such issues were tackled in formal and institutionalized, and often problematic, ways, such as the establishment of new museums to re-narrativize the pasts of the individual states, but also in seemingly quaint and benign ways, such as the Baltic song contests, and in ceremonial forms like the periodic Baltic Congresses.

The post-1991 heroicizing narratives of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania aspired to produce a stout foundation for the future steps of these fledgling independent states, but they were shot through with myriad contradictions, omissions, and inconsistencies. They are no less powerful for that though.

National Identity in the Baltic Region [Sarah Argodale and Liz Owerbach]

All nations contend with the creation of a national identity, to help join their peoples and solidify the legitimacy of their existence. Stable countries owe their security to a well-defined national history. The tenacity of America, for instance, has much to do with its developed and explicit narrative on what being “American” means. Many nations, however, do not have the luxury of a standardized identity. In the case of the Baltic States, a long history of dominance by outside forces has slowed the development of a mature national story. These infant countries must navigate their muddled history in order to strengthen their present existence. The legacy of Germanic and Polish occupation, followed by Russian, German, and finally Soviet colonization, has created a dilemma for the Balts. They must decide how to treat each aspect of their history, what to emphasize and what to ignore, in their search for nationhood.

The reality of German and Polish occupation and then assimilation with the Russian empire, have naturally left sizable blemishes on Baltic history. Prior to conquest, present-day Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia consisted of several small tribes that practiced pagan religions (Lieven, 59). These groups did not have written languages, and therefore little historical records remain of their traditions and culture (Lieven, 40). German conquest in Latvia and Estonia and Polish control of Lithuania, changed the structure of Baltic society. Both groups brought religion to the Baltics, Protestantism and Catholicism respectively, which provided a set written language. The more developed Western conquerors also helped foster Baltic education, which allowed for the creation of a Baltic intelligentsia (Lieven, 45). This educated class continued to flourish when the Baltic nations became part of the Russian Empire.

The period of Russian control in the Baltics was steeped in contradictions. On one side, the Baltic intelligentsia was strengthening and beginning to construct a Baltic national myth and identity. On the other side, vast numbers of Russians were immigrating to the Baltics, turning the Balts into minorities in many parts of their territory and advancing the Russification of the area (Lieven, 50). As Lieven notes, “Despite the Baltic blood shed by the Russian Empire, the last decades of Russian imperial rule had been years of great prosperity and social progress for the national intelligentsias.” (Lieven, 55). When the Baltic States gained independence from Russia after the Revolution, the newly formed nations struggled greatly with defining their past under the Empire.

The strong connection between the Balts and the Russians is demonstrated by the fact that a majority of the Balts wanted autonomous status within the USSR after the revolutions of 1917 (Lieven, 57). Strong national groups, however, were able to mobilize the population towards complete independence. The period between 1918-1940 is legendary in Baltic history as a time absent of foreign incursion. The national movement that advocated separation from Russia gained strength, as leaders were elected on pro-Baltic platforms. This conflicted greatly with the multi-ethnic makeup of the Baltic countries, setting the foundation for anti-ethnic minority ideologies. In all three Baltic states, parties emerged that advanced ideas like anti-semitism, and in all three cases, leaders created authoritarian governments to prevent the spread of anti-ethnic sentiment (Lieven, 69). The present-day glorification of this time in the democratic Baltic is ironic in that democracy only existed briefly and was quickly replaced by strong authoritarian nations. These governments were able to stem nationalist sentiment and keep control of the population, until Soviet and German invasion in the 1940s.

The brief German occupation and decades-long Soviet conquest of the Baltic were instrumental in constructing national identity. The foreign invaders became “the other”, the body from which Baltic leaders consciously strove to separate themselves. This initially led to a culture of rebellion and dissent. Beginning with the German invasion of 1941, dissent movements cropped up in all three Baltic States. These movements were largely lead by the intelligentsia, with the exception of the instrumental role performed by Catholic priests in Lithuania (Lieven, 86-87). The dissent movement gained momentum in 1944, when the Soviet forces began reestablishing control in the Baltics. Estonia, for instance, assembled a force of 38,000 volunteer fighters to push back the Red Army (Lieven, 87). Dissent expanded in other ways; in Lithuania, the Forest Brothers transformed themselves into a highly organized movement, complete with their own newspapers and training programs for new recruits (Lieven, 87-88). While the revolt reached peak violence in the early 1940s – with grave atrocities committed on both sides – resistance continued throughout the entire Soviet period. This was largely characterized by “spontaneous outbreaks of public anger,” protests such as the 1972 youth riots in Lithuania where thousands rioted and about half the participants were arrested by the Soviet government (Lieven, 104). The three republics, sometimes independently and sometimes united, never relinquished the spirit of dissent.

When the Baltic States finally achieved independence in 1991, they were left with indelible footprints from the Soviet legacy. Soviet economic planning had led this once highly agrarian society to a dependence on heavily-regulated industry, a dependence that Lieven argues caused a permanent decrease in Baltic quality of life (Lieven, 64). Soviet life also left behind a lingering depression, an inability to escape from a world where “the only way to improve your life was to compromise yourself completely” (Lieven, 83). The memory of Stalin’s terror was still very near to the Baltic conscience, and some advocated for a “Nuremberg trial for Bolshevism” (Lieven, 99).

Yet, despite the lasting effects of rule by “the other”, the Baltic leaders of the post-Soviet period chose not to emphasize the Soviet-era culture of dissent. Though monuments to dissidents sprang up in the 1990s, these honored the partisans of the early 20th century, not the Soviet-era Baltic leadership (Lieven, 90). In addition, a variety of factors – including political extremism, bitterness and disillusion, and personal neuroticism – excluded former dissidents from participating in post-Soviet politics (Lieven, 107). The Baltics chose to overlook the Soviet period, and instead reached far back into their history to identify elements of ancient culture in order to reconstruct a truly “Baltic” identity.

The new Baltic leadership embraced Johann Gottfried Herder’s concept of the necessity to tap into an “incommunicable national spirit and culture” in order for a nation to survive (Lieven, 113). In Latvia and Estonia, this meant the revival of secular traditions; in Lithuania, it necessitated an increased emphasis on the church. All three nations embraced folksong and dance festivals, a ritual that emphasizes traditional, even pagan-inspired dress and music, and attracted Baltic citizens from all walks of life. (Lieven, 112). Neo-pagan influence also seeped into Baltic politics, as leaders often used antiquated rhetoric to paint the Balts as peaceful and egalitarian people (Lieven, 116). The Baltic cultural revival can also be seen in the renewed emphasis on the Epic. These ancient tales were often reworked by the intelligentsia; by writing in actual historical figures and reshaping dialogue to favor democracy, the intelligentsia aimed to connect a Baltic “spirit” of the past with Baltic progress of the present. These epics were meant to give the Baltic people a “sense of history”, a history of an all-encompassing Baltic spirit that was uninhibited and unchanged by the Soviet period.

The story of Baltic national identity is a complicated one. From Polish and German conquest to Russian imperial rule, brief independence to Soviet domination, the Baltic people have struggled with the concept of identity, eventually opting to consciously construct a national spirit using ancient elements from the past. The preservation of this old identity turned new is yet to be validated, as the Balts must constantly choose what to recognize from their complex past.

Competing Ethnicities in the Baltic Region [William S. Lacy and Vadim Shneyder]

As historian Anatol Lieven remarks, contemporary Baltic politics center on the issue of Baltic nationality, and “the great defining features [of Baltic political thought] are attitudes to history, nationality and . . . culture” (Lieven, 215-216). Related to this is the search by post-Soviet Baltic governments for models upon which to base their policies. The default position for Baltic politicians has been a return to the ideological foundation of the “First Republics” of the period 1918-1940, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This creates problems when defining the roles of minorities within the Baltic political context, as the ideal of states coterminous with the three Baltic nationalities problematizes both the situation of those minorities presently residing in the Baltics – principally the Russian community – and Baltic attitudes towards the role of minority peoples in the history of the region.

The Baltic Germans

The Baltic Germans were first seen during the crusades of the medieval period. As their efforts to convert the local populations predominately failed, they transitioned into what they saw as a civilizing role within the Baltic States. This was especially true under the Russian Empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where, “the Baltic Germans did indeed play a ‘civilizing’ role, above all in the fields of state administration and law” (Lieven, 134). The Germans’ view that they were a civilizing force contributed to their surprise at the emergence of Baltic national movements. They viewed the Balts simply as peasants who spoke different peasant dialects, much akin to the Bavarian peasants, and not as separate nationalities. To the Germans it seemed that these nationalities were rising out of the same structures and groups they had helped to develop. This raises some questions about the nature of Baltic nationalities and the argument that they are constructed rather than primordial. Today however, the Baltic Germans are an almost non-existent group, residing mostly abroad and disappearing quickly.

The Lithuanian Jews

The Jewish population has historically played a central role within the Baltic states. Their history dates as far back as the fourteenth century when they were invited by Grand Duke Gediminas to settle in the area (Lieven, 141). Until 1940, the European Jewish population viewed the Baltics, specifically Lithuania, as a safe haven from the violence and persecution that had been prevalent throughout the region. In 1940 this changed dramatically with the emergence of ethnic violence and pogroms as a backlash against perceived Jewish participation in the Soviet state. This has created an unbridgeable schism between the Baltic nationalities and the Jewish population. For this same reason, the rise of Baltic nationalism in the 1980′s created a considerable amount of nervousness within the Jewish population. This history is equally problematic for the Baltic national movements which are trying to create a guiltless national consciousness. Some of this suppression can be attributed to the Soviet regime but is still prevalent today. One example, the refusal to construct Jewish monuments in Vilnius is nicely summed up by Lieven, “The construction of Jewish monuments in Vilnius would remind people of a different truth – and could have implications for the whole Lithuanian view of its national past, concentrated at present on mono-ethnic images and traditions” (Lieven, 157). As the Baltic states work to fully establish their nationalities within the context of the state, they will be forced to come to terms with those minorities and the issues of the past which do not fit into their current view of history.

The Lithuanian Polish Minority

The status of the Polish minority within Lithuania has always been an interesting one. While seeking to honor and preserve their Polish roots, they rarely felt as if they had an actual home within the Polish state. When many Poles were deported to communist Poland by the Soviets after WWII, they felt as if they had been exiled even though they had been returned to what was ostensibly their ancestral land. While they maintain a Polish heritage, their connection to Lithuania itself is extremely important. In a more modern context, right wing parties have tried to propagate the idea of a “Polish menace” in order to shore up support for their nationalist policies. This stems partly from their view that the Polish minority aren’t actually Polish, but rather Polonised Lithuanians. Regardless of whether they are actually Polish or Lithuanian, the threat of their secession and subsequent annexation by Poland is extremely unlikely. Not only is the Polish minority content with their position within the Lithuanian state (assuming their rights as a minority are still safeguarded) Poland could not mount a bid at annexation without Germany demanding the return of territories in Western Poland. In light of this, there is very little fear of conflict between the state and the Polish minority within Lithuania and any claims to the contrary should be closely evaluated with an eye to the political goals of those propagating these ideas.

The Baltic Russians

The original Russian presence in the Baltics, originating in the Middle Ages, consisted of small numbers of merchants, and later, with the expansion of Lithuanian territory, of larger pockets of Russian settlement. Following the incorporation of the Baltic region into the Russian Empire under Peter the Great, the Russian influence grew both in absolute scale and in significance. Greater numbers of merchants and administrators settled in the area and communities of Orthodox Old Believers, opposing 17th century reforms in the church and fleeing Peter’s westernization, sought refuge in the area.

Industrialization brought increasing numbers of Russian workers to Baltic factories. Following the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1917, the Baltics became home to large numbers of Russian emigres. The incorporation of the Baltic republics into the USSR according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1940, led to the liquidation of most of this original Russian population. Stalin-sponsored industrialization and resettlement after the end of World War II encouraged millions of Russian workers to migrate into the Baltics, diffusing the local population and sowing the seeds of future inter-ethnic tension.

Following the declarations of Baltic independence and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the new Baltic republics inherited enormous Russian minorities: 10% of the population in Lithuania, 34% in Latvia, and 30% in Estonia (Lieven, 432-434). These minority populations were in many cases isolated from the local majority by ignorance of the language and geographic isolation. For the Baltic independence movements, driven by nationalist rationale, the Russian minorities posed a dual problem. On one hand, they were palpable reminders of Russian and Soviet domination, if not active agents of Russian cultural imperialism. On the other hand, they were obstacles to the ideal of linguistically and ethnically homogeneous Baltic nation-states oriented toward the countries of Western Europe.

Although large numbers of Baltic Russians supported the declarations of independence and “only a small minority of local Russian-speakers were persuaded actively to oppose independence” by loyalist factions (Lieven, 191), the nationalist ideologies of the new regimes led to the institution of restrictive citizenship laws. In Estonia and Latvia, where the Russian minority was large enough to threaten the homogeneous national ideal, automatic citizenship was extended only to the descendants of Russians who lived in the First Republics (before 1940) and those Russians who could demonstrate adequate knowledge of the local language. Russians who settled during the Soviet period were labeled “colonizers.” The consequent disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the Baltic Russian population has neutralized pro-Russian political opposition and facillitated the intensification of nationalist policy and rhetoric in Estonian and Latvian politics. In contrast, Lithuania instituted the “Zero Option” – granting automatic citizenship to all people resident at the time of independence, and the brief tenure of the nationalist government under Vyatutas Landsbergis was followed by a more traditional-conservative reaction and the election of Algirdas Brazauskas of the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party.

Given the continued exclusion of Russians from political participation in Estonia and Latvia, it remains to be asked why active Russian protest has been so rare. The Baltic Russians’ weak sense of identity qua Russians is a likely explanation. The Baltic Russians, largely proletarian in background, lack a local intelligentsia to articulate their grievances. Many lack a sense of common identity with the present Russian state or their own Soviet past (Lieven, 178). Consequently, the notion of persistent and widespread ethnic tension in the Baltics, seemingly presupposed by nationalist Baltic politicians and perpetuated by some authors, seems exaggerated at best.

The centrality of the minority question in Baltic politics originates in the nationalistic basis of the independence movements and the governments that established each of the three “Second Republics.” Motivated in their struggle against Soviet rule by the perception that the Soviet Union and the Baltic Russians threatened the survival of the ancient Baltic cultures with Russification, the Baltic nationalists constructed their political positions around matters of language, culture, and history. If the principal reason why the Baltics needed to separate from the Soviet Union and minimize Russian influence was because each linguistically delineated nation should have its own state in order to protect its integrity, then the basis of policy in those states had to be the preservation and promotion of Baltic cultures. As Lieven notes, some of the first voices of anti-Soviet dissent were ostensibly ecological in nature, but in the context of Baltic politics, Green Parties lie on the ideological Right, and the protection of the land goes hand-in-hand with ideas about the health of the nation (Lieven, 220).

If the principal aim of the Baltic political parties was to secure the future of Baltic cultures, the means chosen to accomplish this was a return to the political past of the first period of independence (1918-1940). Baltic policymakers looked to the precedents set by the authoritarian nationalist First Republics in selecting the course for the Second Republics of the 1990s. The resultant feedback loop, where the preservation of the nation necessitates the construction of the ethnically and linguistically homogenous state, and the only extant model for the state is the nationalist and anti-democratic position of the 1920s and 1930s, makes the position of the Baltic Russians precarious and complicates the Balts’ engagement with the role of non-Baltic peoples in the histories of their own cultures. In the case of the Baltic Germans and the Jews, both virtually extinct, the problem is easier to ignore, but for Poles and Russians, it has immediate political implications.


Works consulted

  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

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