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Fighting from the Forest for Freedom

One could castigate Mart Laar for idealizing the Estonian insurgents.  One could also point out that the author eschews footnotes.  But that would be petty:  for Laar, author of War in the Woods: Estonia’s Struggle for Survival 1944-1956, is perhaps the first to describe the forgotten story of the Estonian Anti-Soviet Uprising.

In June 1940, the Soviets occupied Estonia, a small country on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea.  The nation then had a population of 1,134,000, ninety percent of whom were ethnic Estonians.  At the time, the Estonian Communist Party contained a paltry 150 members.  Within a year, the Soviets had killed or deported 21,000 “enemies of the people;”  these were military personnel, police officers, entrepreneurs, clergymen, political activists, prominent citizens, and their families.  The churches were persecuted, private property confiscated, and voluntary associations from the Boy Scouts to cooking clubs were banned.  Thirty-three thousand young Estonians were forcibly inducted into the Red Army.  Lastly, the Communists falsified an election that turned Estonia into a Soviet Republic.

Threatened with arrest and deportation, many Estonians fled to the forest.  That was the beginning of a movement called The Brotherhood of the Forest (metsavendlus).  When, in 1941, the new occupiers, the Nazis, invaded the country and instituted a military draft, some refused to serve under the German banner even against the Soviets.  A number of Estonian Forest Brothers decided to return to their sylvan hideaways.  When the Nazis retreated in the autumn of 1944, the Estonian independence movement established its own authorities.  The National Committee of the Estonian Republic, however, lasted only three days, its existence terminated by the return of the Red Army.  According to Laar, “the Soviet Union transformed Estonia into a huge military base, where several accounts place 100,000 to 150,000 Soviet soldiers on Estonian soil, resulting in a ratio of one soldier for every four adult Estonians.”

Just as in 1940, the Soviets commenced mass arrests and deportations to Siberia.  Among other unfortunates, the Minister of Education Arnold Susi found himself in the same Gulag camp as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.  Soon, mock elections were held; predictably, it was announced that “the people” favored Communist rule.  The author claims that “their goal was to sweep away all traces of the ‘former world,’ starting by destroying monuments and works of art, but also renaming streets and even a city.  The actions of the Communists differed little from those of the Nazis.”  This was the beginning of the second Soviet occupation.

Yet again the forests teemed with “several tens of thousands of people.”  There were about 15,000 Forest Brothers in the south of the country; perhaps as many fought in the north.  Laar claims that an overwhelming majority of the anti-Communist insurgents were children of petty landholding peasants-for instance, the legendary commander Ants Kaljurand, known as “Ants the Terrible.”  Women also fought alongside the insurgents, especially during the latter part of the struggle.  In Estonia’s towns, the so-called “Urban Brothers,” or small political and paramilitary groups, operated.  The groups were composed largely of young people:  Boy Scouts, high schoolers, and university students.

At first, the Estonian insurgents operated in large cohesive units.  They launched attacks on Soviet transports; they freed prisoners; they conducted expropriation actions; and executed Communist agents and collaborators.  Most insurgent units came into existence spontaneously.  About five thousand insurgents subordinated themselves to the largest Estonian guerrilla organization, the League for Armed Resistance (Relvastatud Voitluse Liit-RVL).  The centralization of the military effort had its bright sides (e.g., coordination of insurgent attacks) and its dark sides (e.g., heightened risk of infiltration by Communist agents).  The RVL and other pro-independence organizations hoped that the outbreak of a Third World War was imminent;  they were wrong, and by 1949, the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, had infiltrated and destroyed the central command of the insurgent movement.

Against the anti-Communist guerrillas the Soviets deployed units of the Red Army, militia, and the NKVD, led by Russians and Russified Estonians.  Perhaps the most dangerous were the People’s Defense Groups (Rakhvakaitse).  These were composed of native Estonians under obedience to the Soviet security police.  The anti-insurgent forces were aided by a multitude of local informers, collaborators, agents, and “ambitious leftist intellectuals.”

In time, the number of collaborators with the Communists exceeded the number of insurgents, as the people were afraid of the Communists because the latter liberally applied the rule of collective responsibility.  As punishment for aiding the guerrillas, the Communists burned farmsteads and deported their inhabitants to Siberia.  The Communists also broke up larger farmsteads and gave the land to petty peasants, which temporarily lessened the hostility of the village towards Soviet power.  Even when in 1949 the very land was confiscated from the peasants during a brutal collectivization campaign, the people remained frightened:  as the local Communists made lists of “the enemies of the people,” deportations to Siberia commenced yet again.  This time over 20,000 people were sent to the Gulag on suspicion of having aided the Forest Brothers, a fatal blow for the insurgency.

The West treated the Estonians shabbily.  The western governments became interested in the Estonian cause only in the early 1950s, but by then it was too late. Only the Finns assisted Estonian insurgents, collaborating in cross-border escapes.

Even before the Soviets destroyed the RVL and other insurgent organizations, the Forest Brothers had changed the tactics of their struggle.  They published underground newspapers and leaflets; they painted slogans on city walls:  “Long Live Estonia!” and “Death to the Bolsheviks!”.  The insurgents began digging bunkers in the forests and near friendly farmsteads.  They sharply reduced the number of openly offensive actions; the insurgent activities focused almost exclusively on self-defense.  Communist terror was answered with counter-terror aimed at local secret police agents and their collaborators.  Most were Estonians who betrayed their nation and entered the service of the Communist rulers.  Laar believes that the insurgents killed Communists, not for ideological reasons, but for the manner in which the latter carried out their official duties.  For example, upon his arrival at a new post in a backwoods village, a young policeman inquired of the locals what he could expect from the Forest Brothers.  The peasants answered, “It depends on what kind of human being you are.”  Since the policeman turned out to be decent, refusing to persecute the villagers and largely ignoring the insurgents, he  was allowed to live.

After 1950 the uprising waned.  The Soviet security troops continued to pursue small units of the Forest Brothers and individual insurgents.  They were hunted like wild animals, and their bunkers were destroyed.  According to Soviet sources, by 1947, 15,000 Forest Brothers were killed, arrested, or lured out of the forest under the false pretext of an amnesty.  By 1950 almost 10,000 more insurgents were “neutralized”.  Many insurgents fell victim to treason.  Most often the Forest Brothers would be treated with poisoned vodka by peasants bribed by the security police.

The last large battles fought by the insurgents occurred in 1956.  Afterwards, thousands of Forest Brothers emerged from the underground and took advantage of an amnesty.  Only a few remained in the forest, refusing to accept the Soviet yoke.  They led a simple life subsisting on animals, mushrooms, and wild fruit.

But the secret police, the KGB, did not forget them.  For example, in 1965 the Forest Brother Raimond Molder was caught in a police sweep after wounding two KGB men in battle.  The last of the insurgents, the legendary August Saabe of the County of Voruuma was attacked by the KGB in 1978.  Saabe either died in the struggle or committed suicide.  This last act of the Estonian Anti-Communist Rising occurred thirty three years after the conclusion of the Second World War.  But it was not the end of the struggle.

The author himself is the best proof of that.  Laar was one of the leading Estonian dissidents:  in the Eighties he co-founded the Society of the Estonian Heritage, a clandestine organization consisting of students and young scholars who took upon themselves the task of researching the modern history of Estonia.  They roamed the countryside, collecting oral accounts about the Forest Brothers;  Laar’s work is based on these accounts.

Young activists of the Society, along with their elderly friends who were veterans of the Anti-Communist Rising, constituted the core of the contemporary Estonian independence movement.  Together, they participated in the mass demonstrations starting in 1988; they were the first to fly the publicly-banned flag of Estonia; and they created the Estonian Popular Front and the Estonian Party of National Independence.  In 1991 Estonia took advantage of the propitious international and internal situation and regained its independence.

It was a long fight:  today there are fewer Estonian than there were in 1939.  According to Laar, the Estonians found the strength to fight after so many decades of persecution because of “their retention of close ties between the past and the present by the preservation of collective memory.”  The Estonians believe although the Anti-Communist Rising was defeated in the short run-because it could not have been otherwise without any outside assistance-in the long run, the struggle inspired the independence movement that finally prevailed in 1991.  Therefore “every nation looks upon its freedom fighters, its men and women who have fallen in defense of their land and people, as heroes.”  Woe to any nation which forgets the sacrifice of its best sons and daughters.