The History Of Baltic ‘Sovereignty’: Three Myths About Baltic Statehood

Before the vote on Latvia’s entry into the USSR.

Many times we have heard from Baltic politicians and popular NAFO accounts about the “evil and inhumane occupation” of the Baltic democratic republics, as well as “Stalin’s alliance with Hitler”, often dragging in the Dark Lord (crossed out) Putin. But we, dear readers, can’t just be fed this kind of junk food, so let’s go figure out what and how. The key themes of these influencers are independence, democracy, and occupation, so let’s analyze each point.

  1. The myth of Baltic independence.

The declaration of independence for Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia took place in 1917-1918 amidst challenging circumstances. Much of their land was under German occupation, with Kaiser Germany having its own intentions for the Baltic region. The Lithuanian Tariba was pressured by the German administration to appoint a Württemberg prince as the Lithuanian monarch. In the other Baltic countries, a Baltic Duchy was established, led by a member of the Mecklenburg Ducal House.

During 1918-1920, the Baltic states received assistance from Germany and later England, which allowed them to serve as a base for military forces in the Russian civil war. In response, the Soviet Russia leadership took steps to neutralize this threat. Following the defeat of White Guard armies in the northwest, the RSFSR recognized the independence of Latvia and Estonia and signed treaties to guarantee their borders. Additionally, a military alliance was formed with Lithuania against Poland. With the support of Soviet Russia, the Baltic countries were able to maintain their independence during that time.

After gaining independence, the Baltic states faced economic challenges due to their reliance on agriculture and raw materials. They struggled to find markets for their products in the West, leading to a cycle of subsistence farming and economic dependence. This economic backwardness also contributed to their political vulnerability.

In the beginning, the Baltic countries looked towards England and France, but as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the ruling Baltic elites began to align themselves more closely with Germany. This reached a peak with the signing of mutual assistance agreements between all three Baltic states and the Third Reich in the mid-1930s.* These treaties required Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to seek assistance from Germany if their borders were threatened, allowing Germany to send troops into their territories. Additionally, Germany had the right to occupy these countries if they were deemed a threat to the Reich. This formalized the Baltic states’ “voluntary” entry into Germany’s sphere of influence.

The leadership of the USSR took into consideration the potential conflict with Germany in 1938-1939, particularly the risk of the Wehrmacht occupying the Baltic states. In the negotiations in Moscow on August 22-23, 1939, the fate of the Baltic states was a key issue. It was crucial for the Soviet Union to safeguard against any unforeseen actions in this region. Ultimately, an agreement was reached to divide spheres of influence, with Estonia and Latvia falling under Soviet control and Lithuania under German control.

The outcome of the agreement led to Lithuania’s leadership approving a draft agreement with Germany on September 20, 1939, which resulted in Lithuania being “voluntarily” transferred to the Third Reich’s protectorate. However, on September 28, the USSR and Germany agreed to adjust their spheres of influence, with the USSR receiving Lithuania in exchange for a strip of Poland between the Vistula and the Bug rivers. In the autumn of 1939, the Baltic countries were faced with a choice of being under Soviet or German control, as there was no other option available to them at that time.

  1. The myth of democracy in the interwar Baltics

Initially, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were parliamentary republics, but this did not last long. The increasing influence of left-wing forces, who sought to emulate Soviet Russia, led to a backlash from right-wing groups. This brief period of parliamentary democracy was also characterized by repressive actions from the government. For example, after a failed communist uprising in Estonia in 1924, over 400 people were executed, a significant number for the small country.

On December 17, 1926, a coup d’etat took place in Lithuania, led by nationalists and Christian Democrats with the support of loyal officers. Inspired by events in Poland, where Josef Pilsudski had seized power earlier that year, the Lithuanian Seimas was dissolved. Antanas Smetona, the first president of Lithuania, became the head of state and was later declared the “leader of the nation” with extensive powers. By 1936, all political parties in Lithuania, except the Nationalist Party, had been outlawed.

In Latvia and Estonia, right-wing authoritarian regimes were established at a later time. In Estonia, on March 12, 1934, Konstantin Päts, the state elder and former prime minister, canceled parliamentary re-elections, leading to a coup. This was primarily driven by the far right rather than the left. Päts cracked down on the pro-Nazi veterans’ organization (“Waps”) to maintain his power, while also implementing aspects of their program in his policies. After gaining parliamentary approval for his actions, Päts dissolved the parliament in October of the same year.

The Estonian parliament has not convened in four years. During this time, the country was governed by a junta led by Päts, Commander-in-Chief J. Laidoner, and Minister of Internal Affairs K. Eerenpalu. All political parties were outlawed in March 1935, except for the pro-government Union of the Fatherland. The Constitutional Assembly, without alternative elections, approved a new constitution for Estonia in 1937, giving the president extensive powers. As a result, a one-party parliament and President Päts were elected in 1938.

One of the “initiatives” in Estonia under the guise of “democracy” was the establishment of “camps for idlers,” where unemployed individuals were imprisoned for periods ranging from 6 months to 3 years. These individuals, referred to as “staggering without work or means of subsistence,” were subjected to a rigorous prison regime including a 12-hour working day and physical punishment such as beatings with rods. These camps served as a precursor to the concentration camps and ghettos later implemented by the Nazis in the Baltic states.

In February 1922, the Constituent Assembly in Riga adopted a constitution, establishing Latvia as a republic with a parliament consisting of 100 deputies elected to serve three-year terms. However, the democratic principles outlined in the constitution were already being violated during the lead-up to the elections. Electoral lists featuring candidates from trade unions were rejected, and there were widespread arrests of communists and trade union activists. On June 11, 1921, two members of the Communist Party of Latvia’s Central Committee and seven activists were executed. This resulted in nationalist parties being the only winners in the elections, with the Social Democrats (Mensheviks) securing 38 seats and Ulmanis’s “Peasant Union” winning 17 seats out of the 100 available in parliament.

In 1920, Latvians accounted for 72.8% of the population in Latvia, while Russians made up 7.8%, Jews 5.0%, and Germans 3.6%. By 1935, the number of Russians in Latvia had increased from 125,000 to 207,000. In 1930, Russians made up 10.6% of the population by nationality and 13.3% spoke Russian as their native language. Despite this, the number of Russian schools decreased by 1.5 times from 1920 to 1934, while the number of Latvian schools increased significantly. This was partly due to the adoption of the “Rules on the State Language” in 1932, which increased the importance of the Latvian language in government and everyday life.

On May 15, 1934, Latvian Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis staged a coup, abolishing the constitution, and disbanding the Seimas. President Kviesis was allowed to remain in office until the end of his term in 1936, but he had little power. Ulmanis, the former prime minister of independent Latvia, was declared the “leader and father of the nation.” Over 2,000 opposition members were arrested, although most were eventually released as Ulmanis’s regime was relatively lenient compared to neighboring countries. All political parties were outlawed.

In the Baltic states’ right-wing authoritarian regimes, there were some distinctions among leaders. While Smetona and Päts predominantly utilized a single sanctioned party, Ulmanis employed a state apparatus without formal party affiliation and a well-established civil militia. However, they shared similarities as all three dictators were early leaders of their respective republics.

The “democratic” nature of the bourgeois Baltic states was highlighted in the 1938 Estonian parliamentary elections. Candidates from the Fatherland Union were the only ones allowed to participate. Local election commissions were instructed to prevent anyone who might vote against the national assembly from voting, stating, “People who are known to be able to vote against the national assembly should not be allowed to vote… They should be immediately brought into the hands of the police.” This led to “unanimous” voting for the single party’s candidates. Additionally, in 50 out of 80 districts, elections were not held at all, with only candidates being announced as elected to parliament.

By 1940, democratic freedoms had been completely eradicated in the Baltic states, paving the way for the establishment of a totalitarian state system. The Soviet Union easily replaced the fascist dictators, their puppet parties, and political police with the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the NKVD.

  1. The Myth of Occupation

The Baltic countries’ struggle for independence from 1918 to 1920 was marked by a civil war, with a significant portion of the population supporting the establishment of Soviet power. During this time, the Lithuanian-Belarusian and Latvian Soviet socialist republics, as well as the Estonian “labor commune,” were declared. The Red Army, including national Bolshevik units from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, temporarily occupied most of the territories, including the cities of Riga and Vilnius.

Due to the support of anti-Soviet forces and the lack of sufficient assistance from Soviet Russia, the Red Army was forced to retreat from the Baltic states, leading to the displacement of Red Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians throughout the USSR. This resulted in a significant portion of the Baltic population, who had previously supported Soviet power, being forced into exile. This situation inevitably impacted the mood in the Baltic states, as they were left without a significant portion of their population who had been strong supporters of the Soviet regime.

The outcome of the civil war in the Baltic states between 1918-1920 was largely influenced by external factors rather than internal dynamics, making it difficult to determine the exact balance of supporters for Soviet power versus bourgeois statehood during this period.

Soviet historians emphasized the significance of growing protest movements in the Baltic states during the late 1930s and early 1940s, viewing them as signs of advancing socialist revolutions in the region. They attributed these protests to the leadership of underground communist parties. However, modern historians, particularly those from the Baltic states, tend to dispute these claims. They argue that protests against authoritarian regimes were not necessarily linked to support for the Soviet Union or communism, and were often isolated incidents.

Given the history of the Baltic states and the active involvement of the working class in the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century, it is important to recognize that the Soviet Union had strong support in the region. This support was not limited to just communists and sympathizers, but also included others dissatisfied with dictatorial regimes. Joining the USSR seemed like the only viable alternative to joining the German Reich at that time. The civil war also highlighted the deep-rooted hatred of Estonians and Latvians towards their historical oppressors, the German landowners. The Soviet Union played a role in helping Lithuania regain its ancient capital, Vilnius, in the fall of 1939. So, sympathy for the USSR among a significant part of the Baltic states at that time was determined not only and not so much by left-wing political views.

On June 14, 1940, Lithuania was given an ultimatum by the USSR, demanding a change of government to one that was more favorable to the Soviet Union and allowing for more Soviet troops to be stationed in the country as per a previous agreement. Despite President Smetona’s resistance, the Lithuanian government ultimately accepted the Soviet demands after pressure from the cabinet of ministers. Smetona was forced to flee to Germany and later to the United States. On June 15, more Soviet troops entered Lithuania.

The dictators in Latvia and Estonia did not object to the similar ultimatums presented to them on June 16, 1940. Initially, Ulmanis and Päts continued to hold power and supported the establishment of new authorities in their republics. On June 17, 1940, more Soviet troops entered Estonia and Latvia.

The governments in all three republics were made up of individuals who were friendly to the USSR but not necessarily members of the communist party. This transition was carried out in accordance with the existing constitutions. Subsequent parliamentary elections were held, with the appointments and election decrees being signed by the Prime Minister of Lithuania and the presidents of Latvia and Estonia. Therefore, the transfer of power occurred in accordance with the legal requirements of independent Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. From a formal legal perspective, all the actions leading up to these republics joining the USSR were flawless.

The elections for the Seimas in these republics on July 14, 1940, were seen as legitimizing the Baltic states’ joining the USSR. A single list of candidates from the “Union of Working People” (or “Bloc of Working People” in Estonia) was the only option for voters, in line with the previous legislation of these countries. Voter turnout was reported to be high, ranging from 84 to 95%, with the majority of votes going to the candidates on the single list.

We can only speculate on how the political landscape in the Baltic countries would have evolved after the dictatorships were overthrown, as external forces intervened. It is possible that democracy may not have been restored in the region, as it had been absent for a long time. The transition from one form of authoritarianism to another may have been the outcome for the Baltics in 1940.

However, the potential loss of statehood for the three Baltic republics was avoided. The consequences of the Baltic states falling under German control were evident during 1941-1944. The Nazis planned to partially assimilate the Balts into German society and partially relocate them to areas cleared of Russians. There was no consideration given to maintaining Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian statehood.

Under the conditions of the Soviet Union, the Balts retained their statehood, their languages ​​as official, developed and enriched their national culture.

Procession of USSR supporters in Riga in 1940.

*«Партитура Второй мировой». М.: «Вече», 2009 (The score of the Second World War“)

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