History of the Baltic states

In view of the importance national questions have assumed in the discussion about the breakup of the USSR and the future development of this vast region of the world, it is appropriate to take a closer look at the historic context of the struggle for independence of small nations and of the three Baltic lands-republics-states in particular. The following article appeared in the Sept. 22, 1989 issue of the Bulletin of the Workers League, the Trotskyist party in the US.

Independence movement in the Baltic republics of the USSR

The movement for independence for the three Baltic republics of the USSR, though national in appearance, has an undeniably class- based character. One hundred years of history attest to the lack of independent, supra-class, moral, religious, national-patriotic, cultural, racial or ethnic roots of this movement.

History of the Region

The three nations as well as Finland and Poland were parts of the Tsarist Empire, that "prison of nations", as Marxists called it. The provinces of Courland and Livonia were doubly oppressed since the local Baltic German landed nobility, remnants of the medieval Teutonic Order of Knights, and old Polish nobility still owned huge landed estates, controlled the local administration on behalf of the Russian Tsar, enforced outmoded feudal prerogatives, and in alliance with the Russian tsarist officialdom imposed russification and enforced conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Revolutionary movements were strong and popular during both the 1905 and the 1917 Revolutions. The Lithuanian Social Democratic Party was founded in 1895, the Estonian Social Democrats formed a party in 1905, the Latvian Social Democratic Party was formed in 1904 and in 1906 joined the Russian Social Democratic Party and its majority supported Lenin and the Bolshevik faction.

At the time, and indeed until well into the First World War, most bourgeois tendencies of the Baltic provinces were against any sort of national independence, any kind of autonomy or radical restructuring of the Russian Empire. Their most far-reaching aspirations were for some local self-government, abolition of feudal privileges and the use of national languages (Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian) and native religion, Roman Catholic or Protestant, in schools. It fell to the Social Democrats to formulate the demands for national liberation, cultural development, ethnic equality, self- determination of the subject nationalities of the Russian Empire. In 1903 a Latvian Social Democrat Mikelis Valters put forward the slogan of a secession from the Russian Empire. Self determination was firmly supported by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

During the 1905 Revolution, uprisings, strikes and revolts broke out in the three provinces. The more highly industrialized Latvia and Estonia saw the setting up of Workers' Soviets in Tartu, Tallinn, Riga. Peasants rose in armed revolts against the big landed estates, burned manor houses and fought pitched battles against the Cossacks. After the defeat of the Revolution, tsarist retribution was especially harsh: 908 persons were summarily executed, hundreds were sent to jail, thousands were deported to Siberia.

During the First World War, Lithuania was overrun by the German Army, which set up a local administration based on the Baltic German nobility, with a view to eventual annexation into the German Empire. The German High Command promised to distribute the best land in the three provinces to demobilized German soldiers and officers.

October Revolution

As the war and destruction progressed, the social antagonisms grew. Eruption of the February Revolution in Petrograd opened floodgates of mass political activity. Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were formed all over Russia and in the Baltic provinces as well (with the exception of Lithuania, where the German High Command ruthlessly suppressed all forms of Socialist and revolutionary agitation). Bolsheviks began to dominate the Workers' Councils in the major industrial centers of Latvia and Estonia and among the soldiers of the Lett (Latvian) and Lithuanian Rifle Regiments. By September — October, Bolshevik slogans of Peace and Land prevailed in all the major city and town Workers' Councils of Estonia and Latvia. It is perhaps understandable, why Kerensky in August 1917 decided to withdraw troops from Latvia which led to German occupation of Riga and suppression of the Workers' Councils in central Latvia.

In Lithuania the situation was somewhat different. The workers' movement was suppressed by the German military. The local bourgeoisie attempted to make all sorts of deals with the occupiers. A bourgeois council Taryba went so low as to petition the German Kaiser to send Duke Wilhelm von Urach of the Wurttemberg dynasty to be the new King of Lithuania. As a result of the various intrigues in the Reichstag and among the different German ministries, these "democrats" ended up actually declaring him King of Lithuania, Mindove II. Lithuanian bourgeois refugees to Petrograd and to the West for their part petitioned the Kerensky and the French and British government for a promise of autonomy after the war.

As far as the bourgeoisie of the three Baltic provinces was concerned, independence became a vital necessity only with the success of the October Revolution. Local workers' councils quickly took power throughout Estonia and unoccupied part of Latvia, Red Guard units were formed at the major factories and Soviet governments were formed in Tallinn and in Riga (in the latter, after the withdrawal of the German Army). Far from seeking independence, as in the past, revolutionary Estonian and Latvian workers saw their liberation in a strong union with the Soviet government of Petrograd. In these conditions, the bourgeoisie of these provinces frantically searched for powerful saviors from abroad. They did not care very much, about these saviors' attitudes on Baltic independence, as long as they would assist in suppressing the revolutionary Workers' Councils, the Red Guards, and the peasant risings.

The bourgeoisie accepted help from the Kaiser and the White Guard Freikorps, from the Finnish White troops of Mannerheim, from the Russian tzarist generals who still advocated a "single and indivisible" tzarist autocracy, from the British Navy, which dominated the Baltic with the surrender of Germany in November 1918, from the Swedish government, which looked to these provinces for cheap labor, in short from any adventurer, brigand, torturer and gentleman robber, who would agree to fight the Reds, of whatever nationality.

Various bourgeois assemblies of varied undemocratic representation sent emissaries throughout Europe pleading for help to fight the local Red Guards and the Soviet Red Army. These ad hoc committees were eventually recognized by the victorious powers as the governments of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and military and financial help was provided to put these governments on their feet. Among the armies of fourteen countries attacking the Soviet Republic were delegations from the three Baltic right-wing governments. The provinces were used by both the tzarist generals like Yudenich and by the British to attack and harass the Red Army.

As the Civil War in Russia swung back and forth, there were also outbreaks of it in the three provinces. However, the Red Guards were defeated with German, Finnish and British help and the weakened Soviet government had to acquiesce to the temporary (so it was then assumed) victory of the bourgeoisie in the Baltic. Armistice, and then peace treaties between the Soviet and the three Baltic governments were concluded during 1920.

Immediate Post-War reconstruction

As the Polish-Russian War swung back and forth, the three brand new governments helplessly waited for its outcome. When the Red Army was halted before Warsaw and in exhaustion had to sign an unequal peace treaty with Pilsudski, the Baltic governments gained a lease on life.

Because of the weakness of the native bourgeoisie immediately after the setting up of the three Baltic states, the new governments needed tremendous agility and caution vis-avis the population at large. The peasant masses, in their majority landless and impoverished pushed for social transformation, for land distribution, expropriation of the rich, etc. Although Communist parties were weakened by the Civil War and the exile of many activists to Russia, these began to grow anew. In this situation, the patriotic Social-Democratic parties came to capitalism's rescue. Capitalism was stabilized, but at the cost of mass expropriation of the old semi-feudal gentry, progressive taxation and social, health, educational and cultural expenditures by the new states.

In 1918, 58% of all arable land in Estonia was estate-owned, while two thirds of the rural population owned no land. Due to the law passed in 1919, 96.6% of the estates were broken up and divided among the peasantry. All estates of over 50 hectares were expropriated and the land divided among the landless native peasantry. Similar situation obtained in Latvia and Lithuania and similar capitalism-saving, land re-division measures were adopted there. In this way, the new governments gained a measure of public acceptance and social support.

We should make a special note that due to the historic domination of German nobility, the majority of expropriated estates were German-owned. The governments conducted a virulent anti- German campaign, to hide the class nature of these measures and to arouse nationalism among the toiling masses. In fact anti-German, anti-Polish (in Lithuania) and anti-Russian propaganda became a mainstay of these three regimes.

Communist putchism

The communist movement in the in the three Baltic states, as well as in Poland, Finland, and throughout Europe was further weakened due to errors and mistakes in the leadership of the Comintern. The revolutionary situation in Germany in 1923 was missed and the German Communist Party held back by the Zinoviev leadership. Then after the economic and political situation was stabilized with American economic aid and the bourgeoisie recovered, the same central leadership of the Comintern decided to speed up events artificially and encouraged the Communist parties in Bulgaria and Estonia to stage armed risings in a bid for power. Both risings were ruthlessly suppressed and Bonapartist right-wing governments came to power in Bulgaria and Estonia. In Estonia drum-head court martials sentenced hundreds of workers to death and life at hard labor. General Laidoner assumed de-facto control of the government as martial law was imposed.

As the Dawes and Young plan breathed some life into war-torn Europe, a temporary stabilization led to right-wing victories in all three countries. The previously sizable Communist and Social- Democratic parties lost votes and membership; all three countries became more agrarian, as a result of radical land distribution. All the same, the economic conditions for the hundreds of thousands of small farmers were generally precarious, they were always under tremendous economic pressure. This instability was reflected in the absence of large liberal, democratic center parties. Instead, parties of the far right of a nationalist-chauvinist or extremely conservative-religious nature tended to grow on this soil of small- nation harvest-to-harvest pressure cooker.

Political Instability

All three regimes were generally unstable. Due to the way these states were carved up out of the Russian Empire, borders were ill-defined, sizable ethnic minorities lived in all three states; the three states had continuous border disputes. In addition Lithuania had on-going border disputes (which sometimes grew into armed conflict) with Poland over the Vilnius (Vilna) area and with Germany over the Klaipeda (Memel) area. While the Communist parties were proscribed, many small parties — social-democratic, populist, bourgeois-radical or conservative, nationalist, traditional, religious, ethnic-based — all competed for attention and votes. The stay in power of an Estonian government averaged 8 months and 20 days during the years 1919-1934. The other two states were somewhat more stable.

While the original constitutions were generally bourgeois- democratic and vested major legislative and executive functions in proportionately elected parliaments (with the understood proviso of intermittently jailing Communists, Anarchists, revolutionary trade unionists, etc.), the 1924 Estonian communist putch gave the bourgeoisie the pretext to drastically curtail civil rights, impose more restrictive constitutions, increase police powers. Estonia went the furthest with the imposition of martial law, suspension of the constitution and the ascent of General Laidoner to de-facto dictatorial power, but somewhat similar processes occurred in Latvia and Lithuania.

Even when the martial law expired and parliaments assembled again, the new constitutions greatly narrowed their power vis-a-vis the government ministers, the police forces and the armies. Power and theoretical cohesion of the Comintern weakened following the suppression of the Estonian putch, and the eruption of the bolshevization campaign led by Bukharin and Stalin from Moscow. Proper lessons of the failure of 1924 were never drawn.

Bonapartism and Fascism

Fascist movements mirrored on the Italian model were established in all three states in the late twenties. Extremely nationalist and chauvinistic, they advocated restrictions of minority rights, denounced class struggle and called for unity between the national bourgeoisie and the working class, bans of trade unions and working class political parties and organizations.

Estonian fascist party was organized in 1926, it set up veterans' organizations and military groups. At first these were content to harass workers' meetings, German, Jewish, Russian and other minorities, but soon they began demanding that the government turn more power over to them as the "true representatives of the nation"; they began to plot against the parliament and organize cells in the army and the police. In 1934, the right-wing government of Pats, concerned that the fascists would become more useful to the big bourgeoisie than the traditional conservative politicians, and using a discovery of a right-wing arms cache as a pretext, suspended the constitution and the democratic rights, censored the press, dissolved the parliament, proscribed both the fascists and the working class parties, arrested worker militants and set up a government-by-decree. That was to be the final chapter of "democratic, independent" Estonia. In the economic sphere, a Chamber of Labor was set up to replace independent trade unions and a rigid state control over the national economy was established.

In Latvia a similar development took place: a number of fascist groups were organized to harass German and Jewish minorities and workers' parties, press and cultural organizations. In March of 1934, Prime Minister Ulmanis declared a state of emergency and, although the constitution was not formally abolished, he governed by decree from then on. Saeima, the local parliament was ignored and stripped of all power. Press was severely censored, elections were rigged, and in February 1938, the seven remaining Communist delegates to the Saeima were arrested and all pretence of democracy disappeared. A National Economic Council was set up as the trade unions were abolished and strikes banned. This corporative body a-la-Mussolini was to direct the capitalist economy, supposedly standing above classes.

Lithuania underwent a similar process. It was the least industrially developed of the three states and agriculture predominated in the economic life of the country. While workers' movement was weak, the main disputes in the late twenties were between the traditional conservative-ecclesiastical circles around President Smetona and the more radical-right Prime Minister Voldemaras. Smetona won out, arrested Voldemaras and set up a one-party state based on the small Nationalist Party, the army, the home guard and the youth organization, Young Lithuania. In 1936 the constitution was changed (it was changed five times between 1920 and 1936, continuously abridging democratic rights and increasing the power of the President) to confirm this de-facto one party dictatorship.

The end of independence

The Versailles Treaty arrangement of Europe broke down with the emergence of aggressive Fascist Germany and Italy. The post- war French and British designed system of alliances and small "independent" states of Central Europe became progressively weaker. To facilitate Hitler's turn eastward against Soviet Russia, the French and the British, with US support, gave Hitler the green light to expand his domination of Central Europe.

In 1936 the yet unarmed and weak Germany reoccupied the previously demilitarized Rheinland and regained control over its well developed heavy industry and agriculture. In March 1938 came the turn of neutral Austria, which joined Germany in an Anschluss. Then Czecho-Slovakia was first dismembered, then given to Hitler completely by the "peacemakers" Chamberlain and Daladier. The whole Little Entente creation of France (Roumania, Hungary, Czecho- Slovakia, Poland) was thus turned over to Hitler to facilitate his moves to the East.

With the collapse of Republican Spain (abetted by the "neutrality" of Great Britain and France) Hitler and Mussolini secured their western flank. At the same time, Stalin destroyed the fighting capacity of the Red Army in the bloody purges of 1936-39. The summer of 1939 witnessed the final collapse of the small nation- states of Central Europe.

Stalin's policy from 1935 to 1939 had been to appease Britain and France and attempt to set up a system of mutual military treaties as a defence against Hitler. However, Britain and France encouraged Czecho-Slovakia and, later on Poland to refuse Stalin's practical proposals for a common defence against Germany. Stalin, terrified of Hitler and conscious of the terrible weakness of the Red Army (a result of his forced collectivization campaign and the mass purges), decided to appease Hitler instead.

With the infamous Non-aggression Pact, Stalin and Hitler defined their spheres of influence in Europe, partitioning Poland, allocating Estonia and Latvia (later Lithuania as well) and a part of Roumania (Besarabia) to the Soviet Union. Hitler in return got the major part of Poland, an open hand in the rest of Europe (Hungary, Roumania, Bulgaria, Greece, etc.), and some extremely favorable trade deals with the USSR.

The fate of the three Baltic mini-states was sealed. Stalin quickly demanded and received permission to set up military bases in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, He organized mass pro-Soviet political parties (partly from Communist exiles in the Soviet Union who escaped the Purges and partly from genuine worker- revolutionists), and by the summer of 1940, after fake plebiscites, Soviet governments were established in all three states, and these, promptly called for incorporation into the USSR.

German secret documents revealed after the war, that Hitler had already advanced plans for German infiltration and seizure of these three states. German Nazi parties were already in place in all three states, German Army and Navy were ready to move, and Britain and France were ready (as with Czechoslovakia and Poland), to issue strong verbal attacks at Hitler.

Trotsky at the time correctly evaluated the developments. He insisted that the main strength of the USSR was its proletarian character, its appeal to the working class of Europe. He warned time and time again, that simple gains of space and time accomplished little and were outweighed by the loss of the moral authority of the USSR in the eyes of the workers, that the progressive effect of nationalization and the expropriation of the capitalists in Eastern Poland and the Baltic states was far outweighed by the illusions this created in the progressive role of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The main political criterion for Trotsky and for us remains the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the growth in its capacity to defend past gains and to gain new victories.