I’ve encountered a fascinating history lesson in the past week. Somehow I forgot that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were once full-fledged members of the United Socialist Soviet Republics. Over and over I run into reminders, in the museums, the physical spaces around me, and the memories and stories of the people I meet.
Kaur, my grad student guide through Lahemaa National Park in Estonia, happens to be a history student. His take on Estonian history is illuminating. Like Poland, which I learned a ton about in school, Estonia has been bullied, carved up, and beaten about by outsiders, everyone from the Russians, Swedes, Germans, Poles (a brief time), and Danes. Although the Swedes are remembered fondly for being relatively nice in comparison to the Germans. In short, the German barons and knights who conquered the Estonians through the Livonian Order knights, subjugated the local people to be either serfs or slaves, depending on your take. Kaur prefers slaves – after all, they were property tied to the land, able to be bought and sold. For a couple centuries, while the Hanseatic towns of the German merchants prospered, the Estonians remained poor and subjugated. Kaur mentioned all this to drive an important point of context home – the Estonians abhored the Germans. Maybe even hated. Really, really disliked.
So fast forward to the 20th century. With the chaos of the First World War, Estonia declared independence from Russia in 1918 (by this time they were under the Tsar’s crown). Their independence lasted one peaceful day before they found themselves embroiled in fighting with both the Germans and Russians. Lucky for them, both countries were slightly preoccupied to be sending too many troops to little Estonia.
And so their war of independence ended in 1920 as Russia fell into it’s own civil war and Germany was already long out, defeated and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. Estonia became an independent republic.
Enter Nazi Germany. In the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the Soviets would gain parts of Poland, as well as the Baltics, while Germany took the rest of Poland. Here Kaur stopped and sighed. “What do the American history books say about this?”
“It’s always, ‘And the Soviet Union took over parts of Poland in the east. Stop. No comma. Nothing about Estonia. Only Poland.”
I had to agree. I had never thought about the Baltics in connection with the 1939 secret pact.
In 1940 the Soviet Union took over Estonia, demanding use of their ports for the Soviet navy. In a documentary I watched at the Museum of Occupation and Deportation in Tallinn, an old woman mentioned that the leader of Estonia said in a radio address to his nation that they had no choice, they were few against many, and the only choice to avoid a tragedy of bloodshed was to not resist, saying “We will have to suffer, we have no choice.” The old woman sighs, and says after a pause, “he was right, he was right.”
In Kaur’s telling, he reminds me how much Estonians loathed the Germans to put the next year of Soviet occupation (1940-1941) into perspective. “When the Germans came into Estonia and Nazi soldiers marched into the towns, the people were lining the sidewalks, cheering them as liberators. And we hated the Germans! That’s how bad one year under the Soviets was.” He recounted what his grandmother told him. That the difference between them was a Russian soldier would kick the door down and take what he wanted, while a German soldier would knock on the door and ask to barter.
This also illuminated why so many young Estonians actually joined the German army when the fear of the coming Soviet advance permeated the streets. They chose the lesser of two evils for them. When the Soviets came back into Estonia in 1944, it was the beginning of terror, purges, and deportations of men, woman, and children to Siberia, deep in Russia. Young men took to the woods to resist, forming the Forest Brothers, and targeting Soviet rule. Most of the resistance fighters were arrested, deported, or disappeared by the 1950s.
Fast forward with Kaur’s storytelling to 1991. He was just a young boy and has heard his parent’s stories of the “Singing Revolution” when Estonia broke away from the USSR. Students began to protest by singing national folk songs in gatherings of thousands, a surge begun at a song festival that sparked a frenzy. Four students went up into the TV tower (which frankly looks like a giant shishkebab) and began broadcasting to the world what was happening in Estonia. People crowded around the base to create a human barrier between the 4 brave souls in the tower and the Soviet troops below. Old women served the soldiers cake, everyone trying to keep it peaceful.
Kaur’s father was in Finland at the time. When he heard what was happening, he was so filled with fear of violent repression by the Soviet army that he began trying to get his family out of Estonia.
Two days later, a Yeltsin-led coup in Moscow toppled the Communist government. Suddenly the soldiers at the bottom of the tower, in Kaur’s words, didn’t have a country they were fighting for. “Of course, we don’t know what would have happened if the coup was unsuccessful,” he adds gravely. “We were lucky.”
Of course, independence for Estonia isn’t all sugar and roses. With the fall of the USSR, suddenly there was a dilemma. There’s a large ethnic Russian minority in Estonia who wanted to stay with Russia and who immigrated into Estonia under the Soviet policies of Russification. Many of them are still not citizens of Estonia – “non-nationals” – because they cannot speak enough Estonian (although it’s definately more complicated than that.)
Kaur was balanced enough to mention that the Russians in Estonia think the Estonians are whiners, always complaining about how they are the victim. And he concedes there is a victimhood mentality after centuries of foreign subjugation. But he also thinks they have legit complaints.
So there’s a little history lesson on a region of the world we Americans seldom hear about.
I know I learned alot. And now all the random remnants of the Soviet past make a little more sense.