Baltic Independence

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the last to enter the Soviet Union as union republics and the first to leave. Out of the turmoil of war and revolution, they emerged as independent nation-states, formally recognized as such by the Soviet government in 1920. Twenty years later, they lost their independence when they were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. In the wake of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the three republics were placed under German rule, but the return of the Red Army in 1944 led to the re-imposition of Soviet power. Sovietization entailed the collectivization of agriculture, industrialization, and cultural and educational development within strictures laid down by Moscow. In Latvia and Estonia, it also meant the absorption of substantial numbers of ethnic Russians who comprised the majority of industrial workers. Yet, in other respects these most geographically and culturally western republics remained the least Soviet, and in 1991 their popularly elected governments declared independence from the USSR with overwhelming support.

Political independence, the dream of many in the Baltic region who long chafed under Soviet rule, was made possible thanks to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. The issue that first galvanized popular protest was the environment, with major demonstrations against the expansion of polluting industries occurring in Riga in November 1986 and Tallinn in the spring of 1987. In the course of 1988, as glasnost took root, the monolithic unity of the Communist parties in all three republics crumbled and those in the reform wing gained key positions in the state and party leaderships. Also in 1988, reformist and populist forces, including Communists outside and within the republican establishments coalesced into so-called popular fronts: Sajudis in Lithuania, the Popular Front for the Support of Perestroika in Estonia, and the Latvian Popular Front. These organizations agitated for restoration of pre-Soviet national emblems, more republican control over economic affairs, the publication of the “secret protocols” of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, limitations on immigration from the other Soviet republics, and a vaguely defined political “autonomy.” The popular fronts proved extremely effective in heightening national sentiment by sponsoring mass song festivals and, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1989, a human chain linking hands across the three republics.

Already by late 1988 in Estonia and mid-1989 in Lithuania and Latvia respective republican Supreme Soviets declared the “sovereignty” of their laws. In November 1989, they issued declarations condemning the “military occupation” of their countries and renouncing their incorporation into the USSR. The next, fateful step was taken by the newly elected parliament (Sejm) in Lithuania, which on March 11, 1990 declared the republic an independent state. The declaration provoked Moscow to impose economic sanctions and was suspended in June, but tensions remained high. Spurred on by their nationalist president, Vytautus Landsbergis, Lithuanians engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience, and on January 11, 1991 Soviet MVD troops opened fire on a crowd in Vilnius, killing fourteen. Five days later, similar violence occurred in Riga, leaving five dead. The emergence of National Salvation Committees, consisting primarily of ethnic Russians and pro-Moscow Communists, signaled a last-ditch attempt to reverse the tide of independence. But beleaguered by economic and political breakdown throughout the USSR, Gorbachev had neither the will nor the means to prevent the Baltic republics from breaking away. In the aftermath of the failed coup of August 1991, the Estonian and Latvian parliaments joined Lithuania in declaring their country independent.

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