Shadows of the Past in Russia and the Baltic Countries
No. 3 2005 July/September


sustained discussion with Russian officials about the prevailing
situation in the Baltic States leads to an evaluation of the events
of 1939-1940, 1944-1945 and thereafter. Russia’s interpretation of
what happened in these periods differs profoundly from that of
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These differences influence the
present relationship between Russia and the Baltic


 In the time when I dealt with
Baltic-Russian relations (1991-1998), Russian politicians and
diplomats liked to point out that Russia “gave” the Baltic States
their independence in 1991, referring to the fact that Russian
recognition was decisive in making other countries recognize them.
This was true. They also recalled the close cooperation that
existed between Baltic and Russian democrats during the last years
of the Soviet Union. They were right in doing so. Russian
representatives also used to point to Boris Yeltsin’s trip to
Tallinn on January 13, 1991, just hours after the massacre at the
TV-tower in Vilnius, and they underlined how decisive that visit
was for the Baltic peoples’ struggle for independence. Again, they
had a point.


following independence, argues Russia, the Baltic countries failed
to acknowledge Russia’s generosity; instead they turned to Western
organizations like the EU and NATO. Furthermore, Estonia and Latvia
refused to grant all ethnic Russians living in their countries
automatic citizenship.


1992-1994, during the protracted negotiations concerning the
Russian troop withdrawal – which I followed closely when I worked
at the Swedish prime minister’s office – Russian officials
insisted, with genuine conviction, that the Baltic States should be
grateful that the withdrawal was taking place at all.


sentiment was understandable in some ways. Many Russians, and not
only red-brown Soviet nostalgics, were disappointed and even
personally insulted by many Baltic policies after 1991.
Additionally, it is a fact that Estonia and Latvia (with the
exception of the prewar independence period) had been part of
Russia since the early 1700s; Lithuania (with the exception of
Memel-Klaipeda) had been Russian since 1795.


feelings, however, are irrelevant from the perspective of
international law. And from the perspective of the Baltic peoples,
to hear the Russian view that they should be grateful for their
freedom is incomprehensible – even outrageous and politically
unseemly. I used to point out to Russian diplomats that Baltic
independence is a right, not a favor. What is a right cannot be
given as a gift, by Russia or anybody else. One may rejoice that an
aggression has ceased, but should not also have to thank the
offender that it has stopped. 


argument frequently heard from the Russian side was that the Baltic
States should be grateful for the material progress that was
achieved during Soviet rule. They should appreciate that it was the
Soviet Union that built the New Harbor in Tallinn, Estonia; the oil
terminal in Ventspils, Latvia; and the motorway from Vilnius to
Klaipeda in Lithuania.


February 1, 1999, the Speaker of the Russian Duma, Gennady
Seleznev, remarked at a press conference: “I do not know where
Latvia would be now, in what backwoods of Europe, if the whole of
the Soviet Union had not helped Latvia and Estonia


That the
living standards of the subject peoples were raised during foreign
rule is an argument that has always been used to justify
imperialism. That does not make it any more valid. In the case of
the Baltic States, the argument is easy to refute since there are
statistics concerning their living standards in the interwar years.
It shows, for example, that in 1938 Estonia had about the same
living standards as Finland. That was, to put it mildly, no longer
the case by 1991. No one denies that some material progress was
made during Soviet rule – it would have been strange indeed had
there not been any – but the important point of principle is that
the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians would have liked to make
the decision to build – or not build – the various ports and
motorways on their own initiatives. And in point of fact, aside
from some still useful infrastructural projects, Soviet rule in the
Baltic States resulted in mind-boggling environmental damage; a
huge destruction of capital in the countryside due to
collectivization; and a systematic attack on Estonian, Latvian and
Lithuanian culture.




It is
often said that the People’s Congress of the Soviet Union condemned
not only the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which ultimately led
to the Baltic States’ losing their independence, but also the
Soviet annexation of the Baltic States in 1940.


It is
correct that in December 1989 the People’s Congress debated the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the secret protocols. A commission led
by Alexander Yakovlev – then one of Gorbachev’s closest advisors –
reported to a plenary session about its investigations on the
matter. The main issue was whether the protocols had existed or the
persistent rumors about them were merely an “anti-Soviet


commission reported that the originals of the protocols had not
been found in the Soviet archives; nevertheless, a number of
factors indicated that the copies the commission did have in its
possession were genuine. The Congress adopted a resolution in which
it concluded that the protocols had been in contravention of
international law. It condemned them and declared them “illegal and
invalid from their signing.” The People’s Congress also stated that
since the protocols were secret and had never been referred to
parliament for ratification by the Soviet citizens, they did not
“in any way reflect the will of the Soviet people who do not bear
any responsibility for this plot.”


But the
People’s Congress never linked the protocols to the annexation of
the Baltic countries. This was because its mandate only concerned
the year 1939, while the stipulations of the protocols were fully
implemented with regard to the Baltic countries only in 1940, that
is, when these states were occupied. Deputies from the Baltic
States suggested that a new commission be formed to investigate the
events of 1940-1941, but this proposal did not gain


Thus, the
Soviet People’s Congress condemned the secret protocols, but it did
not express any opinion about their consequences. Nor has the new
Russia been able to bring itself to do so. Instead, even as this is
being written in 2005, the official Russian line is to deny that
the Baltic countries were ever occupied. Instead, the official
Russian view is that they were incorporated in the U.S.S.R. “in
accordance with agreements,” implying that their adherence to the
Soviet Union was voluntary and legal.




nothing indicates that Russia is coming to terms with its own
history concerning the Baltic States, or anywhere else for that
matter. Like other large countries, Russia finds it difficult to
understand the perspective of the smaller ones.


It is
worth pondering why the new Russia is unable to admit the Soviet
occupation of the Baltic States. Russia, after all, claims to have
broken with the evil traditions of the Soviet Union. It should not
then be difficult for Russia to condemn, or at least to recognize,
what happened in the Baltic countries more than half a century


probable reason why Russia still has not done so is that it is
simply very difficult and painful to confront the past, especially
the Soviet past. 


What then
connects the former Soviet Union with today’s Russia – a country
that has emerged from the remnants of the U.S.S.R. and refuted (at
least in its early years) the entire system represented by the
Soviet empire? Is Russia responsible for the past actions of the
Soviet Union in the Baltic States? The question is complex –
legally, morally and psychologically; but some things are


To begin
with, it is impossible to deny the fact that the Bolshevik coup
d’état of 1917 happened in Russia (even though it was a Russia
very different from that of today).
Second, it is a fact
that in many cases (not all, of course, but only when it suits it)
Russia regards itself as the legal successor of the Soviet Union.
For the people who were ravaged by the Soviet Union there is a
psychological link between the U.S.S.R. and today’s Russia, a link
so strong that it has become a political fact. Furthermore, the
Soviet Union was Russian in the sense that it was ruled by
Russians, or by representatives of other peoples whose thinking was
Russian (such as Stalin’s). Russians were placed in positions of
authority in the Communist parties of all Soviet republics;
Russians dominated the armed forces; and the Russian language and
Russian culture were favored all over the Soviet Union, threatening
to sweep aside those of the occupied states.


In the case of Germany, no one denies
there is such a link, least of all the Germans themselves. Today’s
Germany is a democratic state that has nothing at all in common
with Hitler’s Germany. Yet, the Federal Republic of Germany has
spent many years and billions of D-marks to indemnify, and in some
cases, reconcile with, nations devastated by Nazism.


One reason this happened is that the
international community clearly demanded that postwar Germany come
to terms with its own history. The world asks the same thing of
Japan. But for some reason such claims are seldom directed at
Russia, except by the Baltic States. At the very least, we should
ask Russia not to deny its own history. To admit facts is not
necessarily to assume guilt. Today’s Russians are not responsible
for the crimes of their forefathers. But if and when they deny the
truth they assume a co-responsibility.


That official Russia has refused to
admit the facts about Soviet rule in the Baltic States can hardly
be interpreted as anything else but an implicit recognition that
Moscow actually believes there is a link and a responsibility.
Facts for which one is not responsible should not be hard to admit.

Coming to terms with the past which I
have in mind is what Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung
(“mastering the past”). This can be done in many different ways –
from explicit statements of political leaders to silent gestures.
Russia, in fact, did both during its first years, if on a minor
scale. This concerned Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia (still a
single nation at the time). There were even some gestures made
toward the Baltic States.

In the preamble to the treaty of July
29, 1991, in which Lithuania and the Soviet Russian Republic (a not
yet independent Russia) recognized each other, there was a
reference to the Soviet Union’s “annexation in 1940 which infringed
on Lithuania’s sovereignty.” In an article by Russian Foreign
Minister Andrei Kozyrev published in the International Herald
Tribune (14-15 August, 1993) there was also a mention of “Stalin’s
crimes” and “the secret protocols which in 1939 laid a foundation
for Stalin and Hitler to decide the destiny of the Baltic


When on April 30, 1994 Boris Yeltsin
signed the troop withdrawal agreement with Latvia, he made a short
speech mentioning “the repressions in Latvia” and the “violent
expulsion to Siberia of a not insignificant part of its
inhabitants.” But he also hastened to deny that Russia or the
Russian people carried any responsibility for what had happened.
And on February 25 this year, during a visit to Slovakia, President
Putin said: “We respect the opinion of those people in the Baltics
who consider that the tragedy of the Baltic States’ loss of
independence was connected to the end of the World War


statements – and similar ones made by Mr. Putin around May 9, 2005
– are the only ones of regret or recognition that have so far been
made by official Russia concerning the Soviet Union’s past in the
Baltics (at least that I know of).  It
really isn’t much.


Today, few
Vergangenheitsbewältigung efforts are made in Russia, but in
the long run they are inevitable. These will be difficult and heavy
steps to take, but to ask for them is not to demand too much from a
great nation. At some point in the future Russian leaders will have
to explain to their own people the damage the Soviet Union did to
the peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, their cultures,
economies and environments. Until that happens, relations between
them and Russia will never be completely normal. Russia must at
least show that it understands what took place there under Soviet


Single gestures or statements will not
suffice. Some things will have to be said and written many times,
over many years. Consider how long it has taken Germany to
normalize its relations with Poland, France, Norway – and


Russia’s mastering of the past is also
necessary to clear the air between the native inhabitants of the
Baltic countries and the Russian-speaking part of their
populations. That would help the Baltic peoples to accept the place
of Russian culture and the Russian language in their


Perhaps even more importantly, Russian
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is necessary with regard to Russia
itself. Russia cannot become a normal European country without
admitting the immense crimes that Communism committed against the
Russians themselves.


The task of mastering the past is
Russia’s, and only to a very small extent can it be influenced from
the outside. But it is important, not least for our self-respect –
that outsiders do what little we can, that is, to never let the
current Russian view of history stand unopposed.


These questions are painful for many
Russians, not only for the official representatives of Russian
policies, but also for average citizens. Discussions about them
easily become heated. But to shy away from the debate would be
mistaken: the one thing at which Russian representatives are
masters is to scent weakness; it is scorned in Russia as much as
toughness is respected.


Russians must learn to live with their
past while the Balts must learn to live with their present.
Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian politicians, for their part,
should give the democrats in Moscow and St. Petersburg a clearer
appreciation for the support they received from them in the
pre-1991 period. Estonians and Latvians should also recognize the
important role that Russian culture has played in their countries
in the past and will play in the future.

In any case, relations will not
normalize of themselves. How could Baltic leaders trust a neighbor
who refuses to admit that the annexation was an annexation and
nothing else?  


Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania must
critically examine their pasts as well. The authoritarian regimes –
of Päts, Ulmanis and Smetona – during the 1920s and 1930s are
obvious objects for such scrutiny.


Baltic leaders have taken positive steps
in recent years to confront the truth about local complicity in the
Nazi extermination of particularly Latvian and Lithuanian Jewry.
But there are probably more bitter truths to confront on that


Difficult questions must also be asked
about the cooperation that the Soviet Union received from a number
of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians after the occupation. For
most people there was, of course, no other choice but to cooperate.
The Baltic States were constituent parts of the U.S.S.R. and the
Soviet system pervaded every part of society. Up to a point,
cooperation was to the benefit of Estonians, Latvians and
Lithuanians. It mitigated the effects of Moscow’s rule and it
preserved memories, cultural sites and environments that would
perhaps otherwise have been destroyed, and the sheer existence of
which later – during the independence movement of the late 1980s –
were crucial sources of mental and political sustenance.


 The first
stages of the struggle for freedom were carried out almost solely
within Soviet structures. Some local Communist leaders in the
Baltic countries deserve respect for their contributions to that
struggle. Seen in this way, both collaborators and dissidents were
necessary for the survival of the small Baltic nations. But it is
equally true that there was a limit beyond which cooperation with
the Soviet system became a betrayal of one’s own culture, language
and history – and a betrayal against fellow Estonians, Latvians and


With regard to these questions, an
outside observer finds himself in territory where he does not have
the right to judge – especially someone who, like the author of
this paper, grew up in secure Sweden.