Behind the Iron Curtain

Soviet Estonia in the Era of the Cold War

by Tõnu Tannberg (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 431 Pages
Series: Tartu Historical Studies, Volume 5


During the Cold War, Estonia lay behind the Iron Curtain. Even in the grip of Soviet rule, the country underwent many important developments. This volume brings together fourteen papers on the political, economic, and cultural history of Estonia during the Cold War. Their topics range from international relations and the border regime to tourism and the media. The papers are based on extensive archival research and make use of many previously unexamined documents. The resulting book offers new insights into the history of Estonia and of the Cold War on a local level.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • The First Diplomats of Soviet Estonia on the Eve of the Cold War: The Creation of the Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in 1944
  • National Self-Determination, Modernization, and the Estonian-Soviet Propaganda Contest in the Early Cold War Era
  • The ESSR Council of Ministers: An Ethnicity-Based Organ of Power for the Union Republic’s International Administration?
  • The “Estonian Affair” in the Context of Late-Stalinist Party Purges
  • The Economic Impact of the Early Cold War on the Estonian SSR
  • Cold War Show Trials in Estonia: Justice and Propaganda in the Balance
  • Images of the Enemy and the Hero in Stalinist Estonian-Language Textbooks
  • KGB and Stasi Traces in Historiography: A Case Study of the Literature on the Estonian Prewar Military Intelligence Service
  • The Press in Soviet Estonia: A Tool of a Closed Society
  • Cold War-Era Germany and Eastern Europe in the Reports by Karl Selter, Ludvig Jakobsen, and Elmar Reisenberg to the Estonian Consulate General in New York
  • Finnish Foreign Tourism in the Estonian SSR during the Cold War, 1955–1980
  • The Communist Party’s Fight against “Bourgeois Television” 1968–1988
  • (Anti)-Religious Aspects of the Cold War: Soviet Religious Policy as Applied in the Estonian SSR
  • Regulation and Control of the Border Regime in the Estonian SSR
  • List of Contributors

← 6 | 7Tõnu Tannberg


Upon emerging victoriously from World War II in 1945, the Soviet Union quickly established itself in Eastern Europe and subjected the regimes in that region to its almost complete control. Wartime cooperation with the Western countries disintegrated, and in its place, a new confrontation between the world’s superpowers developed—the Cold War. The Western powers were unable to contain Moscow’s program for expansion, and thus this confrontation persisted until the end of the 1980s, significantly affecting worldwide developments. The Soviet Union and its satellites, along with the Baltic countries that were once again occupied in 1944, were sealed off behind the “Iron Curtain.”

Cut off from the Western world, Estonia was subjected to the extensive Sovietization of community life and the muzzling of intellectual and spiritual life, the suppression of resistance, the implementation of repressions and the introduction of a Soviet-style command economy in the postwar years. The “thaw” following the death of Stalin brought a partial easing of the regime (a modification of the policy of violence and other such measures), economic progress, more active relations with the Western world, an increase in the standard of living, and improvement in people’s living conditions. Yet this did not mean that the Soviet Union was prepared to relax control over its spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, as the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising (1956) and the Prague Spring (1968) corroborated.

In the mid-1950s, it was understood in Estonia as well that the “white ship of salvation” that Estonians awaited, meaning hopes for liberation from Soviet rule, would not come and that the Soviet regime was becoming entrenched for a long time to come. This in turn perpetuated a split among Estonians: Estonians who had escaped to the West during the war could not return to their homeland, and thus after the war, the energetic expatriate Estonian community became the bearer of the continuity of the independent Republic of Estonia. The continuation of the annexation paved the way for adaptation to the regime yet did not mean its uncritical acceptance. This was verified by the mass movement for liberation that gathered momentum in the late 1980s and culminated in the restoration of independent statehood in 1991. Thus ended the half-century-long political, economic, and cultural isolation of Estonia from the Western world.

← 7 | 8The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the transformation of the former bipolar world into a unipolar world removed the confrontation of the superpowers from the stage of history. The phenomenon of the Cold War became history, the research of which, however, has expanded exponentially since 1991. In fact, we can even speak of a boom in the research of the Cold War—referred to as the “new” history of the Cold War. However, research work conducted on the Cold War to this point has focused almost entirely on analyzing the actions of the two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. It is only in recent years that major attention has been directed at the Cold War’s regional scale.

The establishment of Moscow’s hegemony and its later functioning in the Eastern Bloc satellites and the Baltic countries reoccupied at the end of World War II was a complex, multifaceted, and at times even contradictory process that has not yet been studied sufficiently in the context of the Cold War.1 In order to advance research on this topic, the University of Tartu Institute of History and Archaeology initiated research in 2009 on the separately financed topic “Estonia during the Cold War Era,” the objective of which was to apply contemporary academic standards, relying primarily on previously unused archival material, in examining the different aspects of the Estonian SSR’s political, economic, and cultural development and its contacts with the rest of the world on the other side of the “Iron Curtain” within the framework of the confrontation between the superpowers. This book has also been published within the framework of this separately financed topic, bringing 14 articles together in one volume and examining various aspects of the history of Soviet Estonia on the background of the Cold War.

The outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in the summer of 1941 laid the foundation for an alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western countries against a common enemy—Nazi Germany. Yet alongside cooperation, both sides started thinking ahead quite early about the organization of the postwar world, for which the founding of a new international organization was envisioned. Naturally, both the Soviet Union and the Western countries were interested in ensuring that their word in particular would carry weight in the postwar world. In this situation, Moscow launched a rather unexpected initiative. In early 1944, it passed legislation prescribing the creation of people’s commissariats for foreign affairs in the USSR’s republics, changing the constitution in the process and ← 8 | 9delegating issues of defense and foreign policy to the Soviet republics. This was primarily motivated by Moscow’s wish to squeeze all of its Soviet republics into the planned international organization (later named the United Nations) in order to seize control of it. Tõnu Tannberg’s article “The First Diplomats of Soviet Estonia on the Eve of the Cold War: The Creation of the Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in 1944” describes the creation of these people’s commissariats in the Union republics and Moscow’s plans, based on the creation of the Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and in a broader international context. Moscow did not get its wish, due to the opposition of the Western countries. Yet as a founding member of the United Nations, the Soviet Union gained veto power and thus no longer needed all its Soviet republics to have UN membership (the Ukrainian and Belorussian SSRs were nevertheless included as members of the UN alongside the Soviet Union). Since the Soviet Union had gotten its way in the form of its right of veto, Moscow no longer had any need to provide the people’s commissariats for foreign affairs in its republics with actual “content.” This meant that relevant communication with foreign representatives on foreign policy was not delegated to the Soviet republics. The people’s commissariats for foreign affairs in the Union republics (ministries from 1946 onward) remained in operation, and they were used in the arena of the Cold War, where the Baltic question also started playing an important role. Dealing primarily with the expatriate question and producing propaganda became the primary tasks of the Estonian SSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kaarel Piirimäe’s article in this collection, “National Self-Determination, Modernization, and the Estonian-Soviet Propaganda Contest in the Early Cold War Era,” is dedicated to the propaganda battle between expatriate Estonians and the Soviets in the postwar years.

In carrying out Sovietization, Moscow emphasized staffing the Soviet republic’s organs of power with trustworthy officials loyal to the regime, or to use Soviet phraseology, cadres. The “question of cadres” was particularly topical for Moscow in territories captured in 1939–1940 and later reoccupied. Two articles in this collection examine this theme. Olev Liivik’s article “The ESSR Council of Ministers: A Nationality-Based Organ of Power for the Union Republic’s International Administration?” explores the ethnic composition of the Estonian SSR Council of Ministers (the Council of People’s Commissariats until 1946)—the government of the Soviet republic—in the 1940s and 1950s and the regional background and origin of its members. This study reveals that one of the central institutions of power in the Estonian Soviet republic was Estonian in terms of ethnic composition (the proportion of the native nationality was over 75 percent), where Estonians from the Soviet Union rose to the forefront starting in 1947. The blatant ← 9 | 10preferential treatment of Estonians from the Soviet Union was a cornerstone of the cadre policy of the central authorities in Moscow and at the same time a signal that there were no plans to “internationalize” the administration of the Union republic with non-Estonians. The promotion of functionaries with a Soviet background to leading positions in the Soviet republic helped to dislodge Estonians with a “bourgeois” background and exacerbated the power struggle in the Estonian SSR’s political elite, which culminated in the “Estonian Affair” and the replacement of the Union republic’s leadership in the 1950s. Meelis Saueauk’s article “The ‘Estonian Affair’ in the Context of Late-Stalinist Party Purges” explores Party purges that took place in the postwar years in the Estonian SSR in comparison to similar actions in the Soviet Union (the “Leningrad Affair”) and in Eastern Bloc satellites (including the “Kostov Affair” in Bulgaria and the “Rajk Affair” in Hungary) and highlights the differences as well as commonalities in how repressions were carried out.

Because the Estonian SSR remained behind the “Iron Curtain,” it was denied a market economy. Instead, a Soviet-style controlled economy was introduced, leading to major changes in society, particularly in the postwar period, during the initial part of the Cold War. Olaf Mertelsmann’s article “The Economic Impact of the Early Cold War on the Estonian SSR” thoroughly dissects this theme. The author describes in detail how the Estonian SSR’s economy was affected by Sovietization, postwar reconstruction of the economy, and meeting the needs of the armament industry. He also analyzes the reorganizations carried out in the Union republic in the context of changes that took place in Europe.

After Germany’s defeat, the international community could not overlook the question of punishing persons guilty of war crimes. Crimes had been committed during the war on a massive scale against both civilians and prisoners of war, especially on the Eastern Front between the Soviet Union and Germany. The victors jointly established an international military tribunal. Germany’s higher state officials and military leaders were tried at the Nuremberg Trials (and the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials), charged with starting World War II and committing war crimes. Fissures that developed between the Allies, and the development of the Cold War, politicized the trial of Nazi criminals, affecting their investigation and the prosecution of suspects throughout the world. Meelis Maripuu’s paper “Cold War Show Trials in Estonia: Justice and Propaganda in the Balance” demonstrates how Soviet judicial institutions and the trial of crimes internationally not subject to statutes of limitations as a whole were used to achieve the political aims of the Soviet regime. More specifically, this article considers show trials held in the occupied Baltic countries in the early 1960s, highlighting their ← 10 | 11general organizational scheme, domestic and foreign policy aims, propaganda media coverage, manipulation of witnesses, and discrediting of expatriate circles.

Karin Veski and Anu Raudsepp continue to examine the theme of Cold War ideological confrontation using the Sovietization of the Estonian SSR’s educational system as an example in their article “Images of the Enemy and the Hero in Stalinist Estonian-Language Textbooks.” This article examines more precisely the occurrence of images used in Stalinist propaganda, that of the enemy and the hero, in postwar original Estonian-language textbooks in the late-Stalinist Estonian SSR. The authors argue that the images of the enemy and the hero evolved into obligatory elements in textbooks (they were considered most frequently in textbooks on Estonian language and literature). In place of the image of the internal enemy (kulaks, bourgeois nationalists, etc.), the image of the foreign enemy rose to the forefront in the postwar period—first fascism and then the image of the United States. Military heroes and heroes of labor were the most prominent Soviet heroes. Soviet patriotism also became a running theme in textbooks.

The security organs (KGB) were very important as backing for the communist regime, carrying out varied tasks from carrying out repressions to shaping public opinion. The secret intelligence agency made its presence felt in all spheres of totalitarian society, including by trying to influence the treatment of the past in the regime’s favor through its propaganda literature. Ivo Juurvee’s article “KGB and Stasi Traces in Historiography: A Case Study of Literature on Estonian Prewar Military Intelligence Service” demonstrates how the propaganda publications by the Estonian SSR KGB operative Leonid Barkov (which did not cite their sources) were cited in the Soviet press in the 1960s to allege extremely close intelligence cooperation between the Republic of Estonia and Germany just before World War II. The article also shows how this allegation was disseminated internationally with the assistance of Julius Mader, an operative of the GDR intelligence service. Barkov’s “studies” were meant to counterbalance the memoirs and collections of articles published by expatriate Estonians; during the 1960s in particular, both the Estonian SSR KGB and East Germany published copious propaganda literature on the corresponding themes.

Estonia was one of the most hotly contested arenas in the Cold-War-era propaganda war due to its location along the border and its cultural differentiation. The press had a distinct role to play in establishing ideological control in Soviet society. In addition to domestic propaganda (rearing the new Soviet man), the press was also used as a means of waging ideological struggle in the confrontation between the superpowers. Tiiu Kreegipuu’s paper “The Press in Soviet Estonia: A Tool of a Closed Society” is dedicated to dissecting these themes; the author ← 11 | 12reaches the noteworthy conclusion that, despite everything, the Soviet regime did not manage to gain complete control over the media. To a certain extent, the Soviet media system did indeed function as an effective propaganda weapon in the Cold War and as a means for rearing homo soveticus, yet at the same time, it contradicted Soviet ideology. In this way, the press played a role in undermining the regime, contributing to the evolution of various strategies for adaptation and double-thinking in society.

One of the most important means of expression for the expatriate Estonian community was political action that relied on various expatriate organizations. The “foreign policy struggle,” whose main objective was to inform the public and politicians in the expatriates’ host countries about the situation in occupied Estonia and to influence public opinion in Western countries, was one part of this political action. Memoranda were drawn up in the name of these objectives and sent to influential politicians, makers of foreign policy, and international organizations of world powers. Regardless of differences of opinion between expatriate organizations and top leaders (the Consulate General of the Republic of Estonia located in New York did not recognize the Estonian government-in-exile formed in Sweden in 1954), the main result of their action was that most Western countries did not recognize the annexation of the Republic of Estonia by the Soviet Union de jure. Vahur Made’s article “Cold-War-Era Germany and Eastern Europe in the Reports by Karl Selter, Ludvig Jakobsen, and Elmar Reisenberg to the Estonian Consulate General in New York” expands the examination that has been conducted to date of the expatriates’ foreign policy struggle. The article considers the activity of Selter, Jakobsen, and Reisenberg, who represented Estonians in West Germany during the years of the Cold War. The piece analyzes their views of international and European politics, which differed fundamentally from the basic notions of Estonia’s foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. While major European countries served as models and sources of support in the interwar period, the United States and NATO were seen as Estonia’s primary allies during the Cold War.

Living behind the “Iron Curtain” nevertheless did not entail the Estonian SSR’s complete isolation from the rest of the world. The softening of the Soviet regime after the death of Stalin also brought an increase in interaction with other countries. The encouragement of cultural diplomacy became important for the Kremlin, uniting different spheres of culture and society from the mass media, fashion, consumerism, and ways of thinking to foreign tourism and international exchange programs in the arts and in scientific matters. Both sides in the confrontation cultivated this kind of soft policy in the Cold War.

← 12 | 13Estonia’s neighbor Finland was an important “window to the West” for Estonians during the Cold War years. Finland had become a capitalist country that was friendly towards the Soviet Union after World War II, a kind of bridge between East and West. The Tallinn-Helsinki ferry line that opened in 1965 brought numerous foreign tourists to the Estonian SSR for the first time. Western consumer culture and consumer goods appeared in the Estonian SSR primarily through these tourists. Oliver Pagel’s article “Finnish Foreign Tourism in the Estonian SSR during the Cold War, 1955–1980” provides an overview of how the pleasure trips of Finns began, highlights the main points in this process, and analyzes the growth in tourism to Estonia and the social background of the tourists. This study ends with the year 1980, when the sailing regatta of the Moscow Olympic Games was held in Tallinn and the Olympia Hotel opened, which was accompanied by an increase in the number of foreigners in the Estonian SSR.

From an ideological viewpoint, the “bourgeois television” of the Republic of Finland, which could be watched uninterrupted in northern Estonia since the 1960s and provided people with independent information about world events, posed a great risk to the Soviet regime. While hundreds of jamming stations were built in the Soviet Union beginning in the 1950s to obstruct Western radio broadcasts, the obstruction of Finnish Television was more complicated. Marek Miil’s article “The Communist Party’s Fight against ‘Bourgeois Television’ 1968–1988” provides a comprehensive overview of how and why the Communist Party implemented measures in an attempt to reduce the influence of Finnish TV in the Estonian SSR in the context of the Cold War’s ideological struggle. Since it was impossible to prevent the reception of Finnish TV in the Estonian SSR, the Communist Party focused instead on exposing “bourgeois propaganda” in Soviet mass media and developing Soviet television programming as the way to keep the people of Soviet Estonia away from independent, uncensored information. The Party did not, of course, succeed in this; the author also analyzes the reasons why it lost the war against “bourgeois television.”

Formal religious freedom was preserved in the Estonian SSR, but in practice, believers and congregations faced all manner of direct and indirect obstructions. The reduction of the church’s influence in society was attempted by disseminating atheist propaganda and inculcating various secular customs. Atko Remmel outlines the actions of the Soviet regime and different strategies for subjugating the church to its control in his paper “(Anti)-Religious Aspects of the Cold War: Soviet Religious Policy According as Applied in the Estonian SSR” The author demonstrates that the implementation of state policy on religion was not particularly effective in the Estonian SSR. It was mild compared to several other ← 13 | 14regions of the Soviet Union, and particular campaigns “on the religious front” frequently depended on the discretion of local officials. Soviet policy on religion directed a great deal of attention at new secular Soviet ceremonies and managed rather effectively to graft new rites into society, thus relegating church ceremonies to the background and marginalizing religious life. The church did indeed lose its traditional moral and balancing position in the daily life of Estonians, but despite repression and propaganda, the church remained essentially the only public organization in the Estonian SSR over which the authorities could not assert full control. Thus, the church also filled the role of a distinct kind of spiritual opposition in Soviet society.

The passport system and the border regime were important instruments of Soviet rule. Control was secured over the movement of people (both domestically as well as abroad); contacts with the world abroad were reduced to a minimum; and the “anti-Soviet element” was prevented from leaving the state. Indrek Paavle’s article “Regulation and Control of the Border Regime in the Estonian SSR” analyzes the functioning of the border regime established in Estonia since 1940 and the legislative framework that remained mostly unchanged until the end of the Soviet era.

As the editor of this collection, I hope that the articles published here prove to be thought-provoking for the reader and, even more importantly, inspire further research on these topics. I thank my esteemed colleagues Dr Olaf Mertelsmann and Dr Atko Remmel, whose assistance in the final phase of preparing this collection of articles for publication was invaluable.

This volume was published with the support of specific financing from the Ministry of Education and Research of the Republic of Estonia for the theme “Estonia in the Cold War Era” (2009–2014) and the “Estonian Military History in the World in the Context of Developments in Military Affairs” project of the Ministry of Defense.

1 Important collected works of recent years include: John Hiden, Vahur Made and David J. Smith (eds.), The Baltic Question during the Cold War (Oxon-New York, 2008); Olaf Mertelsmann (ed.), Central and Eastern European Media under Dictatorial Rule and in the Early Cold War (Frankfurt, 2011); Olaf Mertelsmann and Kaarel Piirimäe (eds.), The Baltic Sea Region and the Cold War (Frankfurt, 2012).

← 14 | 15Tõnu Tannberg

The First Diplomats of Soviet Estonia on the Eve of the Cold War: The Creation of the Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in 1944

Abstract: In 1944 Moscow launched a rather unexpected initiative: it passed legislation prescribing the creation of people’s commissariats for foreign affairs in the USSR’s republics, changing the constitution in the process and delegating issues of defense and foreign policy to the Soviet republics. This was primarily motivated by Moscow’s wish to squeeze all of its Soviet republics into the planned international organization that became the United Nations as separate, independent states in a bid to seize control of it.

Moscow’s surprising announcement that people’s commissariats for defense and foreign affairs were to be established in the republics of the Soviet Union reached the West in early 1944.1 While the Soviet Constitution of 1936 placed the international relations and defense policy of the Union republics entirely under the jurisdiction of the central government, now—at the beginning of 1944—amendments were adopted delegating some defense issues and part of international relations to the Union republics. This decision was handed down at the VK(b)P CC Plenum on January 27,2 and a few days later, on February 1, 1944, the USSR Supreme Soviet drew it up as a legislative act in accordance with the motion by People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Viacheslav Molotov. Molotov also gave a vague speech at a session of the Supreme Soviet that cast no light on what lay behind the decisions.3 Other speakers were also rather at a loss, including Chairman of ← 15 | 16the Estonian SSR Supreme Soviet Presidium Johannes Vares, who also praised the announced changes in his speech, apparently without having any information on the Kremlin’s actual plans.4 What prompted this expansion of the “independence” of the Soviet republics was primarily Moscow’s wish to force all of them into the United Nations (UN) and thus to seize the reins of that new international organization. Another, lesser factor was Moscow’s wish to tilt in its own favor the “Polish question” and the “Baltic question,” which were on the international agenda at that time.5 Yet, the UN question was nevertheless of overriding importance.6 This plan of Moscow’s nevertheless came to fruition only partially—alongside the Soviet Union, the Belorussian and Ukrainian SSRs gained membership in the UN. Yet since the Soviet Union gained veto rights as a founding member, it was no longer necessary to force all the Soviet republics into the UN. The Polish and Baltic questions were also resolved favorably for Moscow in relations between the great powers. The people’s commissariats for foreign affairs created in the Union republics in 1944, however, continued to function and became Moscow’s foreign policy tools in the postwar period—under the conditions of the Cold War.

← 16 | 17The Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs was officially created in the autumn of 1944, after the Red Army had reoccupied most of Estonian territory. On October 20, the EC(b)P CC Bureau approved historian Hans Kruus as the Estonian SSR People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, after which the staffing of this new agency began. Yet the relevant preparations actually began in the early spring of 1944.

The reorganization of the union-wide People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs into Union republic people’s commissariats naturally raised the question of staffing. Where could suitable people be found to work on the planned Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and the people’s commissariats of other Soviet republics? There were, in fact, two aspects to this question. First, a suitable person was needed to serve as people’s commissar, and second, people were needed to work as officials in the people’s commissariats. It was the task of the Union republics’ leaderships to find those employees, but the diplomatic preparation of the selected persons was to take place in Moscow at the Higher Diplomatic School of the USSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

The objective of this article is to examine in more detail the prologue of the creation of the Estonian SSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in the context of the aforementioned question of staffing, focusing primarily on three questions: 1) Why did Hans Kruus not become the Estonian SSR people’s commissar for foreign affairs in the spring of 1944? 2) How did “diplomats” start being trained for the planned people’s commissariat? and 3) Who specifically were those new Soviet “diplomats” with whom that new kind of foreign policy had to start being cultivated? The creation of people’s commissariats for foreign affairs in the Union republics of the Soviet Union in 1944 has thus far not been thoroughly researched.

This article relies primarily on materials from the Estonian National Archives, published documents, and topical literature. Letters from Hans Kruus and Aleksander Aben to Nikolai Karotamm, the leader of the Communist Party in the Estonian SSR, that are kept in his personal collection and that have thus far not attracted the attention of researchers merit particular attention.

Finding suitable persons to fill the positions of people’s commissar was, of course, of overriding importance to Moscow and naturally to the leaderships of the Soviet republics as well. Candidates for the future people’s commissars for foreign affairs in the Union republics were summoned to Moscow in March 1944. They were interviewed individually in the VK(b)P Central Committee and in the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, where they met with Deputy People’s Commissars for Foreign Affairs Andrei Vyshinskii, Maksim Litvinov, and other top officials of the People’s Commissariat. Thereafter the USSR People’s ← 17 | 18Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Viacheslav Molotov, received them to explain the tasks of the Union republic people’s commissariats that were being established in the postwar period. Some time later, however, all the selected future people’s commissars were officially assigned by Molotov for training at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs as state servants (starshii referent) in various departments, where they started familiarizing themselves with everyday diplomatic work. Two hours had to be spent every day on learning foreign languages.7

Hans Kruus had also begun training in Moscow at the USSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and was supposed to become the Estonian SSR people’s commissar for foreign affairs in the spring of 1944. Kruus’s candidacy for this position was logical in every respect. At the end of 1943, Nikolai Karotamm had even recommended him for the position of USSR deputy people’s commissar for foreign affairs. Karotamm argued that the Baltic question would emerge on the agenda in the international arena one way or another in the final phase of the war and after the war, and for this reason an appropriate expert would be needed. “This comrade would, for one thing, be the proponent of the will of the peoples of the Baltic republics in relation to certain diplomatic undertakings. It seems to me that the fact that there is a representative from the Baltic republics among the Soviet Union’s leading diplomats, who would everywhere and in all respects defend the restoration of Soviet power in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and their incorporation as part of the Soviet Union according to the free will of their peoples, would be somewhat important for British and American diplomats,” wrote Karotamm. He considered Kruus the most suitable candidate to serve as that “comrade.”8 After such a proposal, it would have been difficult to see anyone else in the position of the Estonian SSR’s people’s commissar for foreign affairs.

Yet Kruus nevertheless did not become people’s commissar in the spring of 1944. A letter from Baltic expatriates signed by Magnus Kolk, Julijs Venters, and Peter Bulaitis, the chairpersons of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian societies active in London, to the British newspaper The Manchester Guardian, published on April 1, 1944, proved to be a stumbling block for Kruus. In the letter, the representatives of the Baltic expatriate organizations mentioned that Kruus had been negatively disposed towards the Soviet Union in his writings published in ← 18 | 19the prewar Republic of Estonia, especially in the context of the Estonian War of Independence (1918–20).9 This was enough to prompt the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to terminate the training of Kruus. This also meant that he was initially not accepted in the Kremlin as the Estonian SSR’s people’s commissar for foreign affairs. In fact, the letter to the editor was a reaction to a letter that appeared in the same newspaper on March 24, 1944, justifying the occupation of the Baltic countries in 1940. And this letter was signed by Kruus along with his “fellow comrades” Liudas Gira and Jānis Sudrabkalns.10 This letter was intended as a clear statement of the position of representatives of intellectuals from the Soviet Baltic Union republics to justify the events of 1940.11 From Kruus’s explanation to the Soviet Deputy People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vladimir Dekanozov, it turns out that this letter was an initiative of Moscow’s information agency TASS. In his own defense, Kruus also noted that he received only the rough draft of the text to read. He also tried to justify his earlier works, claiming that Andrei Zhdanov had been aware of them as early as 1940.12

Kruus himself described that situation, which was delicate for him, to Karotamm as follows: “Comrade Strunnikov13 summoned me to his office yesterday and informed me that it would nevertheless be better if I were to ‘discontinue’ my training at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. And specifically in connection with the positions I had publicized back in those days that the The Manchester Guardian has now quoted. He said that he had discussed the matter with Viacheslav Mikhailovich,14 who was of the same opinion. He did say that this ‘discontinuation’ does not yet mean a final decision concerning my candidacy. ← 19 | 20That decision will apparently come later. I was left with the impression that the decision is nevertheless more final than Comrade Strunnikov would have led me to believe in trying to inform me in an understated way.”15 He added: “I will attend the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs for another couple of days, as we agreed with Comrade Strunnikov, and that will evidently be how I end my career as ‘minister of foreign affairs.’”16

The emergence of the question of Kruus on the agenda in this manner demonstrates that the Baltic question was a sensitive issue for the Kremlin and that it did not wish to draw international attention to it. Kruus himself also wrote to Karotamm: “Yet in the foreign service, the USSR will have to take many various exceptional circumstances into account since it is surrounded by such a large number of enemies. The enemy side could initiate various provocations against my person in connection with the foreign service, which would make my situation in that position more difficult and, first and foremost, would harm our common cause.”17


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Political history Cultural history Economic history
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 431 pp., 8 tables

Biographical notes

Tõnu Tannberg (Volume editor)

Tõnu Tannberg is Professor of Estonian Contemporary History at the University of Tartu and Research Director at the National Archives of Estonia.


Title: Behind the Iron Curtain
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