[by Geniya Derevyannykh]
The dissolution of the Russian Empire followed by the collapse of Germany, with a significant help from the West, allowed the Baltic States to establish their independence as early as 1919 (Misiunas and Taagepera, 8). This independence, however, was short-lived as the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939; this Pact divided the Baltic States, with Estonia and Latvia under Soviet control and Lithuania under German control (Misiunas and Taagepera, 15). Nonetheless, in this short period of independence an enduring sense of national identity and the desire to preserve it “through maintenance of an independent state” (Misiunas and Taagepera, 42) was deeply rooted in the souls of the Baltic peoples. Their “stubbornness and endurance” coupled with an unyielding patriotism led to the formation of a strong partisan movement and a decade-long resistance to German and Soviet occupation (Lieven, 5).
Throughout Soviet occupation of the Baltic States in 1940-41, which was followed by German occupation in 1941 until 1944, many guerrilla groups were formed. None of them endured as strongly as the post-war partisan group of the Forest Brothers, who emerged in response to the second Soviet occupation in 1944. The Baltic people experienced in and bitter from the years of experience of Soviet occupation, formed a very strong opposition lasting almost ten years. Originally, these groups consisted of “soldiers, who served in German forces [and those who] collaborated with Germans” during their earlier occupation in fear of Soviet retribution, as well as of “patriotic Balts in general” (Lieven, 88). In Lithuania, priests played a major role in the resistance, fueled by fear that the clergy would be abolished under the Soviet atheist state. Later this movement was joined by people facing deportation under the Soviets, as well as peasants facing collectivization (Lieven, 88). Forests served as refuges and bases for these groups, giving rise to their name – Forest Brothers.
The ultimate goal of the movement was to resist Soviet occupation long enough for the West to intervene. The Forest Brothers’ main strategies were to maintain their positions, reduce local Communist control, and to punish anybody who displayed even the slightest degree of sympathy for the Soviets by destroying their property and even killing them.
Lack of weapons and difficulty acquiring ammunition led to many passive-resistance efforts, such as “disrupting the administration and social structuring [of] the occupation forces” (Misiunas and Taagepera, 86) by robbing and burning office buildings, where the administration operated, as well as utilizing the press. This ranged from mimeographed pamphlets and anti-Soviet flyers to well-organized periodicals such as Laisves Varpas (The Bells of Freedom). These publications contained local and foreign news, information acquired from “the administrating offices of the occupation regime,” as well as warnings, guidance and encouragement for the population (Misiunas and Taagepera, 85). Additionally, partisans produced fake Soviet documents, as part of their disruptive activities that would grant favorable treatments for Baltic people. One of the more successful operations was carried out during the Soviet elections of 1946-47. As the Soviet powers launched propaganda and threats to ensure full participation in the electoral processes, the Forest Brothers in return destroyed communication channels, attacked “armed guards at polling stations” and confiscated passports from local voters (Misiunas and Taagepera, 87). Combination of these activities proved disastrous to the elections as only a fraction of the population was actually able to cast their votes.
Even though weapon supplies were limited, the Forest Brothers managed to form a few small but efficient militant groups that effectively undermined the functions of local Soviet administrations. In Lithuania Forest Brothers were able to conduct 17-day officer training programs about once a year with an average class of 70 officers (Misiunas and Taagepera, 85).
The Baltic people were confident that eventually the West would intervene; meanwhile, the local population provided strong support for the resistance movement, villages for example supplying an adequate amount of food and clothing. However, the Soviet powers took the Forest Brothers’ resistance very seriously and sent military forces led by highly qualified command staff to crush the movement. As it became apparent that support from the West would never come and the Soviet regime gained strength and momentum, more people lost faith in the Forest Brothers and turned towards Communism. This ultimately led to a drastic drop in food supplies and other amenities necessary for the resistance movement. In desperate attempts to turn things around, partisans raided local villages, accused peasants of collaboration with the enemy, and dealt out brutal punishments. The Baltic people found themselves being terrorized from both sides: Soviet and local partisan groups. The Soviet military’s superiority and growing animosity of Baltic people towards the resistance led to a total collapse of the Forest Brothers by 1955. This resistance did, however, see some positive outcomes; during its operation the Forest Brothers provided protection for the local people against raids by Russians, which were dealt by the Soviet administrations with leniency at best, if not ignored completely. Also, heavy partisan activities in Lithuania deterred Russians “from moving to that republic” (Lieven, 89), and even slowed down collectivization in some areas, such as in Varena district in Lithuania. Where surrounding forests were partisan strongholds in Lithuania, only three percent of all farms were collectivized by 1950. In Estonia, the partisan stronghold of Haanja was only thirty percent collectivized by July 1950 (Misiunas and Taagepera, 99).
Since the Baltic States’ independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Forest Brothers have become a symbol of true national heroism for their fight against Soviet occupation of Baltic people. Today they share a similar idolization from the Balts that other Soviet partisan groups received for their resistance against the Nazis in Russia. Many books, documentaries and art works have been dedicated to the Forest Brothers, and to this day the Forest Brothers remain a major topic in the discussions of post-war Soviet occupation. In the activities of partisan movement were included not only disruptive actions against occupation but also intimidation, often violent and brutal, of local populations to deter them from cooperating with the enemy and to ensure their support for the resistance movement. Taking that fact into consideration, it can be quiet problematic to turn such partisan groups into national heroes. However, history proves us time and again that it is not impossible.
- Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New York: Yale University Press, 1994).
- Romuald J. Misiunas; Rein Taagepera, Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940-1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
- Images from website http://www.estonianarms.com/PhotosPartTwo.asp