The Baltic states followed a unique trajectory following the October Revolution, breaking free from Bolshevik power and enjoying two decades of independence. When Sovietization finally arrived, the region’s peoples responded by leading double lives. It was a tactic that ultimately played an important role in hastening the Soviet Union’s demise.
During the late-Soviet era, in the 1970s and 80s, festive celebrations of the October Revolution would occur across the Baltics every November, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union. In schools, pupils like myself studied the life of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in great detail, and dutifully learned to sing catchy tunes celebrating the Red Army’s exploits during the Civil War.
Such outward expressions of loyalty to the Soviet system helped mask deeply held attachments to indigenous languages and culture, as well as an understanding of how a democratic society should function. In the relative privacy of their own homes, the peoples of the Baltics kept the memory of the inter-war republics of the 1920s and 30s alive. They cherished and idealized the concept of independence like a lost paradise.
For the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the October Revolution produced bourgeois-nationalist armed resistance that proved capable of thwarting the Bolsheviks and enabling the emergence of independent Baltic republics in 1918. Soviet Russia recognized the existence of the three Baltic states de jure in peace treaties signed in 1920.
Even as late as in December 1919, the Red Army tried to break the Estonian ‘bourgeois’ military resistance, but did not succeed. Estonia did receive military help from England during its War of Independence (1918-1920), as well as help of volunteers from Finland and the rest of Scandinavia. However, the local population, including an officer corps seasoned by the experiences of World War I, bore the brunt of the fighting.
An important factor leading to the independence of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1918 was that during the 19th century the titular nations matured culturally, politically and economically in a way that they became ready for national self-determination. In 1917, the appeal of redistribution and collectivization, the main ideas underpinning Bolshevism, held comparatively little appeal for the peoples of the Baltics, where peasants yearned for private ownership of broken-up baronial estates.
In the late Middle Ages, Lithuania had been a pillar of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. Meanwhile, what now comprises the territories of Estonia and Latvia had its own multiple Teutonic crusader states. Thus, when independence arrived in 1918, it was also built on a ‘German’ cultural-political foundation in Estonia and Latvia, and, in Lithuania, inhabitants could draw upon the traditions developed during the kingdom’s glory days.
Civil society quickly took root in the region following independence. Estonia’s minority legislation of 1925, for example, was praised in the League of Nations as one of the most liberal in the world at the time. Meanwhile, the Baltics experienced rapid economic development.
The Baltic experience of inter-war independence played a crucial role in the unraveling of the Soviet experiment. Amid the perestroika reforms initiated by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Baltic intellectuals seized on an opportunity to organize and cast Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union as both illegal and illegitimate.
The Baltic independence movements that emerged in 1987 quickly posed a serious challenge to the Kremlin because they were grounded in well-formulated legal arguments that attracted mass support from members of the titular nations. The central argument was that the Baltic states never lost their status as subjects of international law following their illegal annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940.
One of recent history’s big ‘what ifs’ is would the Soviet Union still exist today if Gorbachev’s Kremlin had found a way to distinguish between the historic case of the three Baltic states (illegal annexation) and other Soviet republics, thus allowing the Baltic states to restore their sovereignty in a well-managed manner? As it turned out, Gorbachev’s failure to solve the Baltic riddle played a critical role in prompting the failed coup against him in August, 1991, which, in turn, precipitated the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The Baltic states have generally thrived during the post-Soviet period of independence, but many in the region are again worrying about new threats of subordination amid the growing geopolitical competition between great powers.
In contemporary Russia, the majority of the population has approved of President Putin’s aggressive policies towards Ukraine. Moreover, there is a growing tendency among Russians to idealize the pre-Bolshevik Russian empire, its tsars, wars, generals and symbols (for example, the extensive use of the ribbon of St George). In addition, Russian leader Vladimir Putin in early 2016 characterized the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policy as a disaster. “They planted an atomic bomb under the building that is called Russia,” Putin lamented.
The concern in the Baltics today is that a combination of such rhetoric and rising nationalist/imperialist sentiments in Russia can lead to further action in which the Kremlin attempts to address the perceived wrongs of history.
In the late 1980s, the Baltic states had their own successful state continuity claim; now some influential people in Russia refer to the continuity of the pre-1917 Russian Empire as a legal-political concept. In this way, the specter of the October Revolution of 1917 continues to haunt both Russia and the Baltic states.
Lauri Mälksoo is Professor of International Law at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, a think tank based in Tallinn. During the academic year 2017-2018, he is fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Russian Approaches to International Law” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Illegal Annexation and State Continuity: the Case of the Incorporation of the Baltic States by the USSR” (Brill, 2003) and co-author of “Russia and the European Court of Human Rights: the Strasbourg Effect” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).