On Wednesday, 14 December 2011, Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz – Professor of History and current holder of IWP’s Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies – delivered the eighth in a series of biweekly brownbag lectures on the “Intermarium: The Lands on the Edge.”
Lecture no. eight focused on the Baltic States, i.e. the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which regained their independence due to the implosion of the Soviet Union.
The Baltics are a political, rather than an ethnic, concept. The ancestors of the Balts-proper – the Lithuanians and Latvians (and also the now extinct Prussians/Borussians and Yatvingians) – were the last of the Indo-European groups to arrive in Europe during the great migrations (German: Vőlkervandrung). While Lithuanian and Latvian languages are related, the Estonians speak an Ugro-Finnic tongue akin to Finnish, and very distantly related to Hungarian. In terms of religion, the Lithuanians are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic whilst the Latvians and Estonians generally profess Lutheranism.
As late as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Baltic peoples were the last Europeans to cling to native pagan beliefs. It would be the Northern Crusades that eventually brought the Baltic lands into the Western European orbit. During the thirteenth century, the ethnically German Teutonic Knights – invited by a Polish prince to help protect his realms against Borussian raids – and the Sword Brethren gradually subdued what later became East Prussia, Latvia, and Estonia, wiping out the original Prussians in the process. The Teutonic Knights soon turned on Catholic Poland as well.
The only Baltic entity posing a serious obstacle to Teutonic expansion was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Lithuanians had built a powerful and extensive domain by fanning out from their core area of Samogitia to acquire lands in Orthodox Ruthenia stretching all the way to the Black Sea and to the west of Moscow. Their conquests were facilitated by the Mongol yoke, which had laid waste to much of Rus’. Consequently, the locals often welcomed the Lithuanians. Yet, in spite of these significant territorial acquisitions, Teutonic pressure continued unabated. Thus, the Lithuanians eventually joined forces with the Poles (1386), which allowed the two united polities to crush the might of the German Knights during the fifteenth century. The Lithuanians were thus spared the fate of their Borussian cousins.
The personal union with Poland entailed a voluntary baptism of Lithuania. The Samogitian core now converted to Catholicism while the Ruthenian lands remained Orthodox. Concurrently, the Lithuanians lords (boyars) benefited from the rights which Polish nobles enjoyed. For the succeeding four centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian personal union, upgraded to a federation in 1569, was one of the most powerful states in continental Europe (for more information on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, please click here too review lecture no. three). The Commonwealth also came to control modern-day Latvia (Livonia) and parts of Estonia after defending the lands from Muscovite aggression. During the seventeenth century, the Swedes made inroads in Livonia, while the Muscovites – now under Peter I – pushed them out during the early eighteenth century.
The destruction of the Commonwealth as a result of the partitions during the late eighteenth century brought the conquest of the Baltic lands by the Romanov Empire. Russian rule coincided with the rise of modern nationalism – often oriented around the peasantry – and the crystallization of Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian national identities grounded upon ethnicity. Thus, the Lithiuanian/Samogitian folk nationalists came to view the Poles (“Polish lords”) as their primary enemies whilst the Latvians and Estonians focused their enmity on the Baltic German landowners – the heirs of the Sword Brethren who also happened to exercise great influence in the Russian Imperial court in St. Petersburg.
Not surprisingly, the three independent Baltic republics – which arose following the First World War, in the wake of the collapse of the Russian and German empires – organized themselves along the ethnonationalist principle. This included affirmative action in all its forms (such as punitive taxation) on behalf of the ethnic majority. Hardest hit were the landowners, who were mostly of German, but also Polish, and Russian ethnic background. Some discrimination of Jews also occurred. Even so, the difficulties faced by ethnic minorities in the prewar Baltic states (and other countries of the greater Intermarium) were inconvenient irritants at best when compared with their plight in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.
In addition to ethnonationalism, the interwar period also witnessed a crisis of parliamentary democracy and the concomitant rise of totalitarian and authoritarian challengers. Like other European states, the Baltic states experienced a bout of dictatorships as well. Lithuania’s presidential rule lasted the longest (1926-1940), while Estonia’s authoritarian period was the shortest (1934-1938) and was followed by a reestablishment of parliamentary democracy. In this context, it is important to remember that the Baltic “dictatorships” were rather mild and, in essence, amounted to presidential rule by decree.
The independence of the Baltic states was secured by the Polish victory over the Soviets in the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1918/1919-1921. Consequently, it came to an end soon after the German-Soviet invasion, destruction, and partition of Poland in September 1939. In accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Baltics fell to the Soviets, who proceeded to station troops in the three republics and, in June 1940, to occupy and incorporate them into the USSR. Even so, the United States never recognized the annexation of the Baltic states. They could thus retain their embassies and lobby as legal governments.
Sovietization brought mass murder, collective terror, and large-scale deportations to the Gulag. The Balts chafed under the yoke and, not surprisingly, welcomed the German invasion of 22 June 1941 as a “liberation” or, at the least, a “lesser of two evils.” Guided by their racial theories, the Nazis certainly viewed the Balts as somewhat superior to the “subhuman” Slavs, though still inferior to the Germanic ethnicities. Accordingly, the German occupation of the Baltic states was less bloody and onerous that of Poland, Belarus, or Ukraine. The Jews – slated for complete extermination – suffered most, and collaborationist native auxiliaries assisted the Germans in the Holocaust. In fact, in Estonia – a land least tainted by anti-Semitic sentiments – the locals helped annihilate the Jews simply to ingratiate themselves opportunistically with the new masters. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that most Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians did not behave in this manner.
The Balts indeed fielded SS divisions. This fact is often utilized against the Baltic peoples by their detractors, the post-Soviet Russians in particular. Yet, as Dr. Chodakiewicz emphasized, the issue was far more complex. While many of the NCOs had indeed been involved in the Holocaust in some manner, some 85 percent of the Baltic SS volunteers joined in 1944, i.e. after the massacres of the Jews. This influx of men was guided first and foremost by a desire to resist the Red Army, which was lumbering irresistibly westwards at the time. Last but not least, the Germans only allowed such non-German volunteers to fight in the ranks of the SS.
As the Soviets recaptured the Baltic states, they initially encountered fierce resistance, including a partisan war waged by the Forest Brothers. Eventually, however, resistance proved futile and the vast majority of the population resorted to accommodation to survive. Some even collaborated actively, which led to the gradual domination of the local communist parties by the dominant ethnicities. For example, ethnic Lithuanians came to be overrepresented in their republican CP. The local Poles, on the other hand, were underrepresented. In Latvia, meanwhile, the Soviet center implemented a massive purge of the local CP’s national Bolshevik faction. This meant that the Latvians were least equipped to provide a native alternative to Muscovite Communism.
Nevertheless, resistance became increasingly vociferous and emboldened as the Soviet system demonstrated increasing signs of implosion and decomposition. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost’ – contrary to the Soviet despot’s intentions – provided channels for the population to voice its grievances. Resistance manifested itself in three ways. Faith provided an important vehicle, as did the struggle for human rights and conservationism. In addition, the Balts fought the battle for historical memory by secretly sharing stories about their family and national history with their children.
Against this background, glasnost’ generated a split with the republican CPs between Muscovite centralizers and national Bolsheviks. The latter sought a “native road to communism” modeled on Władysław Gomułka’s “thaw” in the Polish People’s Republic in 1956. It is important to understand that their promotion of “sovereignty” was not tantamount to supporting freedom and independence. The national fronts established by patriotic anti-communists to regain independence soon found themselves infiltrated and dominated by the local national Bolsheviks, who intended to utilize them as vehicles for a grand deception operation. In Lithuania, the national Bolsheviks captured the Sajudis front of Landsbergis whilst the Estonians under Mart Laar succeeded in keeping their national Bolsheviks at arm’s length. In the end, the implosion of the Moscow center allowed the three Baltic republics to regain independence. The local communists, meanwhile, officially severed their ties with the CPSU and attempted to reinvent themselves as autonomous social democrats or liberals.
During the post-communist period, the Baltic states struggled with many problems inherited from the Soviet system. A numerous Russophone minority nostalgic for the Soviet Union and oriented towards Moscow constitutes a centrifugal force, especially in Estonia and Latvia. The Baltic states grant citizenship to anyone willing to learn their respective languages, but the Russian minority often complains of discrimination. Even so, the Russians, particularly in the countryside, enjoy a higher standard of living that the natives. Many work for Russian filling stations and benefit from Russian investments.
The Poles, meanwhile, constitute a large fraction of Lithuania’s population, and are clustered in the countryside around the capital of Wilno/Vilnius, constituting about thirty percent of the city’s denizens as well. Gorbachev even attempted to employ the tactic of national divide et impera by toying with an idea of an autonomous Polish republic in the region. The Lithuanians have sought to turn their Poles into ethnic Lithuanians through various forms of discrimination, such as repressing Polish-language education, or penalizing Polish sings with fines and even imprisonment. Not surprisingly, such policies have backfired, although they have not produced any reactions from Poland, where the Lithuanian minority’s activities are unconstrained.
Finally, the KGB agentura continues to undermine the independence and security of the Baltic states. The most common relationship with the bezpeka involved enrollment in the KGB reserves. To date some, mostly inactive, KGB collaborators have been revealed. Yet, the post-Soviet services are actively recruiting another network of agents, targeting the younger generation in particular. Because the Baltic states are members of NATO and the EU, Soviet and post-Soviet assets constitute a serious concern. One way the West has attempted to resolve this issue was simply to buy the agents off. What the Westerners forgot was that the job of the chekists was to deceive. Many gladly accepted the bribes without intending to switch sides.
In spite of the many challenges they faced, the Baltic states were the most successful post-Soviet republics in overcoming many elements of their Soviet ballast. Of the three, Estonia constituted the greatest success story because of its leaders’ willingness to jettison the communist past.