Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians of the Soviet Baltic Republics

Location: Baltic Coast of USSR
Population: Estonians; 1.0 million; Latvians: 1.4 million; Lithuanians: 2.9 million (1979)
% of population: Estonians: 0.4%; Latvians: 0.5%; Lithuanians: 1.1%
Religion: Christian (Estonians and Latvians mainly Protestant, Lithuanians mainly Roman Catholic)
Languages: Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian

It is only as a result of events in the twentieth century that it has become appropriate to speak of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a distinct group of countries. Ethnically the Latvians and Lithuanians are related to each other but not to the Estonians, and historically Estonia and Latvia have had similar experiences while Lithuanian history followed a completely different course until the end of the eighteenth century. All three countries experienced a brief period of independence between 1918 and 1940, a period of great importance in the national consciousness of the Baltic peoples. In June 1940 they were forcibly — and according to international law, illegally — incorporated into the Soviet Union, after Hitler and Stalin together assigned the area to the Soviet “sphere of interest”, in two secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of Non-Aggression of 1939. After a very turbulent period during the war, which included two further invasions by Germany and the Soviet Union respectively, the countries suffered a further period of terror under Stalin. Since these years the Baltic States have existed as republics within the Soviet Union, administered by its highly centralized political and economic system. During this period extensive immigration of Russian workers for Soviet heavy industry has taken place in Estonia and Latvia, and to a lesser extent in Lithuania. The nationality problem, denied by the Soviet authorities until very recently, has resurfaced dramatically since 1987. The Baltic peoples are demanding not just minority rights but a democratic right of national self-determination manifested in some form of economic and political autonomy or even independence. This has aroused fears in Moscow of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and fears among the Baltic Russian communities of minority status. Tensions are growing rapidly, with both Baltic and Russian communities now perceiving themselves as threatened minorities.


Before 1918 only Lithuania had ever enjoyed a period of independence, in the great Polish-Lithuanian State (1569-1795). Otherwise all three countries have been under the influence of one or other of the great regional powers, Germany and Russia. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during which the countries were contained within the Russian Empire, national consciousness developed and later demands for autonomy within the empire. In 1915-1920 the region was the site of intense struggles by both German and Russian forces to establish their influence in this highly strategic region. In the midst of the turmoil all three Baltic countries declared their independence, but following the defeat of Germany in the west in November 1918 and the withdrawal of German forces, the three fledgling nations were submitted to a return of Russian (Bolshevik) forces. After a war of liberation, the whole region was finally cleared of foreign forces by the start of 1920 and each country signed peace treaties with the Soviet Union granting mutual security on favourable terms for both sides.

During the inter-war period both Germany and the Soviet Union were consolidating their power, while the nation-states of Europe, including the Baltic States, remained internally weak and externally divided. In the secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of Non-Aggression in 1939 the region between the two great powers was divided into spheres of influence — the Baltic States fell to the Soviet Union. Eventually on June 17,1940, Soviet troops entered and rapidly consolidated their power by means of highly irregular elections, sweeping changes in the administrative apparatus and the transfer of real power into the hands of Soviet officials. There followed “a period of terror”, with a total of about 150,000 deaths and deportations in the three countries, in an attempt to liquidate national cohesion.

Upon the outbreak of war, revolt against the Soviet system broke out in all three states, which contributed much to the rapid advance of the Nazi armies in the summer of 1941. But the Germans too resorted to tactics of terror, and the region suffered extermination of Jews on a massive scale (about 250,000 died).

The Soviets returned in 1944 and gradually re-established order and maintained it by use of force. Collectivization of agriculture was achieved through mass deportations of farming communities, numbers being counted in hundreds of thousands. Forced industrialization, on the other hand, was a means of bringing in huge numbers of Russian workers. The educated elites fled to the West in large numbers. In Lithuania the Roman Catholic Church suffered particularly, through its intimate association with national consciousness and its widespread popular support. Guerrilla resistance was put down by overwhelming force and massive deportations were used to quell areas of active resistance. Stalinism succeeded in reducing the Baltic peoples to submission, although the national consciousness was never destroyed, as has been illustrated very dramatically in the years since Mikhail Gorbachev took office.

Legal and constitutional position

Lenin had believed that “class” was a greater force than “nation”; with an end to the exploitative relationship between nations, attachment to the nation would gradually and naturally give way to “proletarian internationalism”. Lenin predicted that after an initial flourishing of national culture, nations would experience a drawing together (sblizhenie) and eventual merging (sliyanie). Stalin developed the concept that only the proletariat, whose sole voice was the Communist Party, has the right to national self-determination: the highly centralized Communist Party would therefore express the will of all working people for unity, and would undertake the task of political socialization through education, propaganda, the media etc. The Soviet constitutions have, therefore, been based on the principle of “national in form, socialist in content”: republics retain the right of national self-determination through the right to secede, while the highly centralized Party would guarantee the socialist content and therefore unity. The current Constitution of 1977 reads (Article 27): “The USSR is an integral, federal, multinational state formed on the principle of socialist federalism as a result of the free self-determination of nations and the voluntary association of equal Soviet Socialist Republics.” The stated right to national self-determination is effectively negated by the principle of “socialist federalism”, which guarantees unity and the integral nature of the federation.

The Soviet Communist Party has based the legitimacy of the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union on the claim that the Baltic nations joined voluntarily through the elections of July 1940 (this is why it was so important for the Soviet Union to stage-manage what had the appearance of a democratic process). The official Soviet line has been that Soviet support in overthrowing fascism was granted in response to spontaneous uprisings of the working people, under the leadership of the Communist Party. In reality, the Communists had only a negligible following at that time.

Civil and political rights

In Lithuania and Estonia human rights activity has been greater in proportion to the population than anywhere else in the USSR, and national concerns predominate. There has always been a tension between “ethno-federalism” and a unitary state, and the authorities in Moscow have had constantly to “encourage” the natural developments predicted by Lenin. This was especially the case under Kruschev, who favoured Lenin’s idea of merging and promoted the concept of the “new Soviet person” and of cultural unification at a higher level.

Until the incontrovertible evidence of the period since 1987, the national problem was consistently denied, and the expression of nationalist sentiments in the Baltic countries invariably led to repression. In Lithuania the Roman Catholic Church has suffered particular persecution, acting as a clear locus of national consciousness (in much the same way as in Poland), and vigorously defending human and religious rights.

Language concerns. The 1977 Constitution guarantees “the possibility to use one’s native language and the languages of other peoples of the USSR” (article 36), and “the opportunity to attend a school where teaching is in the native language”. At the same time, the Russian language has constantly been promoted; the 1977 Constitution of the Soviet Union refers to the “Soviet people” with Russian as a “common language”, and in line with this new emphasis, the Brezhnev regime published a decree in October 1978 to encourage the use of Russian as the language of “communication”, “friendship” and “brotherhood”. The teaching of Russian was increased substantially, from kindergarten upwards and on television, and in the 1980s the number of Russian teachers has increased by many thousands. Fluency in Russian is needed for higher education and beyond. The State monopoly of publishing has resulted in a large preponderance of publications in the Russian language.

Demographic concerns. The following population ratios illustrate the demographic situation, comparing figures for national populations before incorporation into the Soviet Union with figures for 1980: Estonia 1939, 92%; 1980, 64.5%; Latvia 1939,77%; 1980,54%; Lithuania 1939,76%; 1980, 80%. The national Estonian and Lithuanian populations have seen an almost zero growth rate in the last half century. The total population, however, has been increasing through immigration of non-nationals.

Over-industrialization of Estonia and Latvia without due concern for local labour conditions has been the cause of labour shortages, necessitating immigration, mainly of Russians. The large military presence in the highly strategic Baltic region has also led to an influx of Russians. The Russian communities are mostly blue-collar and military workers, forming close-knit urban groups. The lack of integration is exacerbated by the fact that the Estonians and Latvians consider themselves in some ways culturally superior to the immigrant Russians who mostly take less skilled jobs.

Baltic nationals have accused the central authorities of deliberate assimilation policies; of the various different nationalities, it is the Russians that have been given special facilities, such as schools and priority housing. Whether deliberate policy or not, the net result is similar, and until very recently the Soviet authorities have shown little willingness to take precautionary measures against such trends.

Economic and social rights

The Baltic region is the most productive of the Soviet Union, and the standard of living is higher than the Soviet average. Agriculture is strong in all three republics compared to the rest of the Soviet Union, and Estonia and Latvia also have a strong industrial base. It would be wrong to speak of a deliberate policy of economic exploitation of the Baltic countries by the central authorities in Moscow. The problems are due rather more to the functioning of the system itself. Like the rest of the Soviet economy, the Baltic economies suffer from the problems of centralization; the greatest economic power lies with the all-union economic ministries based in Moscow — republican ministries remain weak. (Under Krushchev an attempt was made at regional decentralization but this was aborted in the 1960s after complete failure.) Centralization has caused informational overload at the centre in Moscow, and this prevents the central planners from knowing in detail what needs doing in each enterprise in the Baltic area, and what can be done most efficiently. There are also cultural and linguistic barriers, and a natural tendency for the centre to act according to its own interests.

Of particular concern to the Baltic peoples has been the severe industrial pollution, especially around the main cities. Environmental problems have become an issue of national sovereignty because the heavy industries responsible for most of the pollution were mostly installed by the Soviet authorities and are run from Moscow. Territorial control agencies lack the power to stop the powerful central industrial lobbies. Popular environmental protest has grown to huge proportions in the past few years, and some policy changes have been effected as a result.

The people of Estonia and Latvia consider themselves harder workers and better wealth creators than the Russians, and they have a sense that they are being dragged back by their amalgamation with more backward regions of the Soviet Union. It is impossible to say how the Baltic economies would have fared if independent; it is possible, however, to compare them with the Finnish economy. The Baltic and Finnish economies were in a comparable condition at the end of the war, and it is clear that the Finns now enjoy a higher standard of living. There have recently been shortages of food in Estonia, milk and meat in particular, giving rise to considerable resentment being expressed in the press and in the numerous recent demonstrations.

As for participation in politics, the highly centralized Communist Party, directed from Moscow, has been completely dominated by Russians, as have State institutions, especially the military and the interior. Important Party posts within the Baltic countries, for example the persons responsible for cadre selection, have also been Russians. Nevertheless, the lower echelons of the Party and State apparatus within the Baltic countries have had to be staffed by Baltic peoples, and these have shown a persistent, though discreet, tendency to further national interests. In the current climate, this interest has expressed itself openly even at the highest levels, and the federal structure of both Party and State, only nominal in the past, has taken on real significance.

Emigré communities

Baltic emigré communities are well organized and tightly knit. There are various organizations representing the interests of their respective countries. There is a US based umbrella group called the “Baltic World Council”, and in the UK there is an active “Baltic Council”. For many years the Soviet authorities have suppressed the idea of a national identity and culture transcending geographical boundaries, but in recent years, particularly since 1987, cultural ties with the emigré communities have grown very much stronger.

Other minority groups in the Baltic region

Other minorities within the individual Baltic countries (mostly nationals from other Baltic countries, Germans, Jews and Poles) have even fewer national and cultural rights. These communities are small and are very prone to the Russian influence.

Recent events

The situation in the Baltic countries has changed dramatically in the two years 1988 to 1989. Gorbachev has been seeking to create a new foundation for his legitimacy in public consent. The ethos of “glasnost” and democratization that has followed has suddenly given the Baltic peoples a chance at last to express their national grievances, and Baltic society has mobilized on a massive scale. This has manifested itself most dramatically in enormous demonstrations which have taken place on all national anniversaries (1989 and 1990 are the 50th anniversaries of all the events leading up to the Soviet occupation). New associations have been formed, most important of which are People’s Fronts in all three countries (called “Sajudis” in Lithuania). Also important are more radical organizations calling for complete independence, and a burgeoning environmental movement. In 1989 the People’s Fronts began holding joint assemblies to co-ordinate their positions.

The central demand of the Baltic peoples is for sovereignty. Some see this in the form of sovereignty within a Soviet federation, others as independence outside the USSR. There is a trend towards more radical demands as time goes on. The demands for sovereignty cover issues such as the economy, immigration regulations, citizenship and language, foreign policy, control over the military, and independent representation at the United Nations. The debate on the true events of 1939 and 1940 has been one of the most central; on it rests the entire legitimacy of the present order.

The republican Communist Parties, predominantly made up of Baltic nationals, and newly dependent on public opinion as a result of Gorbachev’s policies (especially the advent of multiparty elections), have gone a long way in responding to the national demands. The Estonian Party has gone furthest in this direction, maintaining good relations with the Estonian People’s Front. Their main problem, however, is their simultaneous dependence on the Party in Moscow; the problem increases as popular demands and Moscow’s requirements diverge. There is pressure on the Party in Lithuania, for example, to sever its ties with the Party in Moscow in the run-up to regional elections in the autumn of 1989. The republican Supreme Soviets (parliaments) have been enacting increasingly radical legislation. This has included, for example, declarations of sovereignty, laws enhancing economic autonomy, immigration restrictions, language laws, legalization of national flags, citizenship laws, changing the clocks to Finnish and Swedish time, and especially, the right to veto Soviet legislation if seen to contradict national interests.

The Baltic area, given its comparatively strong economy, could be Gorbachev’s best hope of making a success of economic reform; at the same time the nationality issue makes any attempt at decentralization highly risky. Moscow has granted a very considerable degree of autonomy (including a declaration that the republics could undertake any economic reform they wanted in 1990 without consulting Moscow), but such measures only seem to increase the appetite for more. In the summer of 1989 Moscow began to indicate strongly that it was losing patience; at the time of writing tensions are high as fears of a confrontation grow. The central authorities are beginning to have a very real fear of the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The other main problem is that of the Russians living in the Baltic areas. Not all Russians are against more autonomy, since many stand to gain from it, but Russian movements, made up mainly of workers, have developed in all three countries. New legislation in Estonia in August 1989 restricting the franchise brought about a 10-day strike by Russians. A situation is developing where all the major communities in the Baltic area are perceiving themselves as beleaguered minorities. There is a further danger that the fears of the Russian communities in the Baltic countries will coincide with fears of the (mainly Russian) authorities in Moscow of a complete disintegration of the Soviet Union.