The Baltic States and the End of the Cold War

by Kaarel Piirimäe (Volume editor) Olaf Mertelsmann (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 356 Pages
Series: Tartu Historical Studies, Volume 6


This book examines the role of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the downfall of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. It includes groundbreaking, archives-based research on important facets of the Soviet collapse like, for example, politics of history, Soviet Atheism, economic reforms, the military and the use of force. The authors place the Baltic struggle for independence in the context of international politics, analyzing interlinkages with the Warsaw Pact countries, the activities of the Baltic diaspora, small-state diplomacy and strategic and security-related questions from the end of the Cold War and into the 1990s.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface (Kaarel Piirimäe)
  • Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the End of the USSR and the Cold War (Kaarel Piirimäe)
  • Reception and Historiography of the MRP in (Soviet) Russia – Historians and Their Responsibility (Jan Lipinsky)
  • An Economic Innovation as an Icebreaker: The Contractual Work Experiment in Soviet Estonia in 1985 (Juhan Saharov)
  • Atheism as an Intellectual Project in Soviet Lithuania: Assumptions, Objections, and Transformations (Justinas Dementavičius)
  • Informal Social Networks as the Precondition for Mass Mobilization: The Case of Kaunas in the Late Soviet Period (Rytis Bulota)
  • Glasnost Policy Reaching Estonia: Fear and Hope in the Protest Letters of Estonian Residents during the Campaign against the Phosphorite Mines in 1987 (Olev Liivik)
  • The Wind of Change in Cultural Diplomacy: Estonian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s (Triin Tark)
  • Spillover of Revolution: The Baltic Republics and Czechoslovakia 1988–1989 (Luboš Švec)
  • Latvian Diaspora’s Involvement in the Latvian State Independence Renewal Processes 1989–1991 (Kristīne Beķere)
  • The Baltic Diaspora and Restoration of Baltic Independence – the Latvian Contribution (Eduards Bruno Deksnis)
  • The Baltic Independence Struggle and Danish Diplomacy 1988–1991 (Lars Gronbjerg)
  • Why the Soviet Coercive Use of Force in the Baltic Republics Failed in 1990–1991 and Led to the End of the Soviet Union (Joseph Enge)
  • Gorbachev’s “Last Trench Line”: Estonian Diplomacy toward the East and the Soviet Crackdown in the Baltic States in January 1991 (Kaarel Piirimäe)
  • Competing Narratives at the Start of Estonia’s Security-Building Process in 1991–1994 (Holger Mölder)
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

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This book is the result of two complementary research enterprises. The idea to study the end of the Cold War in the Baltic region, and also part of the funding for research, came from the project “Reimagining Futures in the European North at the End of the Cold War” (REIMAG) financed by the Academy of Finland from 2013 to 2017. I wish to thank Kimmo Rentola, Juhana Aunesluoma, Suvi Kansikas, Pertti Grönholm, and all the other members of the REIMAG team for continuing support and encouragement. The other impetus came from “Estonia, the Baltic States and the Collapse of the Soviet Union: New Perspectives on the End of the Cold War,” a project financed by the Estonian Research Council from 2015 to 2016 (PUT683). This was a smaller undertaking and focused more specifically on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (whereas REIMAG centered mostly on Finland). There was also a small supplementary grant awarded by the Contemporary History Foundation at the University of Tartu, which contributed towards the cost of editing. I would like to thank both the Estonian Research Council and the University of Tartu for support.

Most of the work for this volume was based entirely on the authors’ enthusiasm and hard work, often unpaid. We did not organize a conference to discuss all the contributions, which was a handicap because much of the work on individual papers had to be completed by correspondence. It required a lot of diligence and good will on the part of the authors and referees. However, we did meet with a smaller group of researchers and doctoral students at the University of Tartu to review and debate each other’s papers, which I believe added much to the results of those individual research pursuits. I am grateful to Joseph Enge, Juhan Saharov, and Triin Tark, doctoral students at the University of Tartu, my colleague Olaf Mertelsmann, as well as to Olev Liivik and Holger Mölder, faithful members of the “New Perspectives” team, for the success of those workshops.

Last but not least, I would like to thank Olaf for volunteering to becoming involved with this project, which has been out of the scope of his research and assuring that the upshot of the efforts would fit smoothly into the publication series Tartu Historical Studies with Peter Lang. I am also grateful to Joe for helping out with the grammar and the specifics of American English.

Kaarel Piirimäe

January 2018, Tartu

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Kaarel Piirimäe,

with a contribution by Olaf Mertelsmann

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the End of the USSR and the Cold War


This introduction will, first, give a short overview of the history of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania since 1939 as a general background to the events of the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Second, it will summarize the main arguments of all the chapters included in the volume. Third, the introduction will make some general remarks about the specific contribution that this book will make to the research on the end of the Cold War, the Baltic countries, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Non-aggression (the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, hereafter MRP), including a secret protocol that divided the Baltic countries into Soviet and German spheres of interest. Following the MRP and the German–Soviet occupation of Poland, Moscow threatened Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with military invasion and forced them to accept the stationing of Red Army garrisons on their territories. In 1940, they were occupied and then annexed by the Soviet Union. Sovietization, meaning the restructuring of the society according to the ongoing societal experiment in the Soviet Union, began immediately. Following the German occupation of 1941–1944/45, and “liberation” by the Red Army in 1944/45, Sovietization started again. During Stalinism, the Soviet state used massive violence, deportations, nationalizations, and forced collectivization. Everyday life for the majority of the population changed radically. Malnutrition was widespread in the 1940s; the standard of living reached pre-war levels only in the mid-1960s.1

Life “normalized” after the death of Stalin in 1953. People began to return from camps and places of deportation, and the population adapted to the realities of the regime. In some respects, the Baltic republics were turned into model ← 9 | 10 → republics of the Soviet Union, where, for example, ideas of economic reform could be tried out before implementation in the rest of the Soviet Union. Despite all this, the USSR remained a heavily militarized and repressive dictatorship. To the Baltic nations, as to many other nationalities, the Soviet occupation brought mass immigration, central exploitation of resources, and suppression of national cultures and languages.

In other respects, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were different from most of the other territories. Memories of independence, idealization of the inter-war years, better contacts with the West, cultural differences vis-à-vis the rest of the Soviet Union had the result that the Baltic republics were often regarded as the “Soviet West” or “Soviet abroad.”2 For example, protests in support of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 swept through the streets of larger towns.3 The proximity to Finland and Helsinki’s special relations with Moscow allowed the development of tourism between Finland and Estonia since the 1960s. The state tried to control the flow of visitors both ways, but this was not always possible.4 The ideological conformity and allegiance of the Baltic republics to the Center in Moscow remained questionable, which came to the fore with the mobilization of historical memory and the rise of national movements in the final years of the Soviet Union.

Initially, the Baltic republics were slow in rallying behind Gorbachev’s calls and initiatives for reform. However, soon the Balts became innovators for the entire process of glasnost and perestroika. The idea that Soviet republics should become self-managing economic units within the USSR was first published in an Estonian newspaper in September 1987. Estonia was also the first, on November 16, 1988, to declare sovereignty, meaning that it could veto all-Union legislation if it did not suit the republic’s interests.5 ← 10 | 11 →

In 1989, representatives from the Baltic republics virtually revolutionized the political scene in the USSR by taking a publicly oppositional stance at the Congress of People’s Deputies and aligning with democrats in Russia and other republics critical of Gorbachev’s government. Soon words such as “empire,” “immigrant,” “Soviet-occupied country” became commonplace in public discourse.6 By now criticism was also turned against the shortcomings of perestroika that had previously been regarded as almost sacred.

The Lithuanian Communist Party was the first party in the Union to split from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) at the end of 1989. On March 11, 1990, this was followed by the declaration of independence by the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet, which directly challenged the unity of the Soviet state. Estonia and Latvia declared “provisional independence” on March 30 and May 4, 1990, respectively. The Baltic states were also the first to bring their dispute with the Center to the international arena through effective public diplomacy and by embryonic state diplomacy. This resulted in the “Baltic crisis” becoming an important issue in international affairs causing Gorbachev considerable loss of prestige. It cost him some of the benefits that he had hoped to reap from ending the Cold War peacefully.

Why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were different from most of the other Soviet republics is the central theme of this volume. Terms are important. Because in the 1990s the Baltic nations could, despite some domestic opposition and also skepticism abroad, establish state continuity with the pre-war states, arguing that Soviet annexation had been illegal, we can speak of the “Baltic states” even for the 1980s, but not, for example, of Ukraine or Georgia as “states” in the same period. We also use the terms Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian “Soviet socialist republics,” but only when referring to Soviet institutions that oversaw Moscow’s policies locally. Those institutions were de facto administrating the countries, but their authority was very limited as the most important questions ranging from security, military and foreign affairs, and key sectors of the economy and finance were directly managed by central organs of the Union.

Moscow naturally tried to convince foreign and domestic audiences that the Baltic countries had joined the “family of Soviet nations” by their free will in 1940. Furthermore, the Soviet Union deliberately engaged in an effort to rewrite the history of the beginning of the Second World War, most importantly the history ← 11 | 12 → of the MRP of August 23, 1939. Although there was no direct causal connection from the MRP to the annexations of August 1940 – as demonstrated by the Finnish example – the MRP proved to carry great symbolic and moral significance and was used by Baltic dissidents and the Baltic diaspora as a vehicle to argue for restoration of independence.

The chapter by Jan Lipinsky explores the historiography and the reception of the MRP and its secret protocol in Russia in the Soviet and the early post-Soviet periods. Although the secret protocol had been published a long time ago in the West and its authenticity proven beyond doubt, Soviet and later Russian historians engaged actively in denying some of the facts and in justifying the decisions of the Soviet government. The author also asks about the responsibility of historians in such questions under any political regime.

In addition to their different history as independent countries until 1939–1940, the Baltic republics were different from the rest of the Soviet Union because of their relative prosperity, and proximity to Western and Nordic cultural influences. The living standards of Estonia and Latvia were the highest of all the union republics from the end of Second World War until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lithuania was lagging behind the two neighbors, but closed the gap in the 1970s and the 1980s.7

As Juhan Saharov shows in his chapter, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia was also a laboratory for trying various economic reform projects before they could be applied elsewhere in the USSR. One of the more interesting examples was the experiment of “contractual work” in single enterprises where workers had the right to establish contractual work units. The concept was developed in Estonian conditions in 1979–1984, also borrowing ideas from Hungary in 1983, so several years before it could be eventually applied in practice in the first year of Gorbachev’s rule in 1985. The architects behind the project were a handful of Estonian and Russian economists who struggled for years to get this idea through the party structures. The journey of this project gives us a wider perspective for understanding how oppositional thinking was carried out not only outside but also inside the Soviet institutions. Saharov suggests that it is also possible that gradually the “contractualist” way of thinking was extended from single enterprises to larger economic units and finally to the level of republics-center relations. This may have led to the idea, first expressed in 1987, that Estonian relations with ← 12 | 13 → Moscow could and should also be established on a contractual basis. In November 1988, Estonia declared itself sovereign. It took two full years until, in late 1989, Gorbachev finally accepted the suggestion that a new “union treaty” should also be negotiated between the center and sovereign republics.

The Baltic states were different from the rest of the Soviet Union for the visible Western influence, something that struck foreign visitors. A British consul visiting Tallinn, the Estonian capital, in 1981, with other members of the Helsinki diplomatic corps observed:

At the same time, the diplomat warned against harboring illusions that the Soviet system could in any way be superior to the capitalist one: “If Estonia is the best the Soviet Union has on offer after more than 60 years of struggle toward glorious socialism, then the Republic is a living indictment of their system.”9

It was not only the city, the landscape, and shops but also the people who were found to be different from “ordinary” Soviet citizens. Another British diplomat, the first secretary and cultural attaché John K. Gordon of the Moscow embassy, met the Estonian writer and future foreign minister and president, Lennart Meri, and his father Georg, the same year:

His own views were strongly anti-Soviet, and pro-British; his last gesture of the evening was to play me a recording from “Voice of America” of Churchill’s funeral ceremony [in 1965]. The strong impression I received was of a determined and talented family who have occupied a pre-eminent intellectual position under both pre-communist and communist regimes and who are waiting for (as they see it) the tide of history to restore independence to their country. In my experience this type of intellectual is not uncommon in Hungary (and I would assume also in Poland and Czechoslovakia); but is probably a rare animal – at least outside the Baltic area – in the USSR?10

Although Gordon added a question mark to his observation, he was right. Meri and many other intellectuals of the pre-war generation (born in the 1920s–1930s) in the Baltic countries were different from the “last Soviet generation” described ← 13 | 14 → so well by Alexei Yurchak.11 For them, the Soviet reality was not normal. They had seen life in a free and independent country and wanted to have that life back. In this regard, the Baltic states had more in common with the East-Central European countries than with the rest of the Soviet Union that with only a few exceptions (Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, Bukovina, and Bessarabia) had been subjected to the Bolshevik Revolution since 1917.12

The reports of Western observers capture the paradoxes of Soviet society in the Baltics. On the one hand, they were supposed to be model republics demonstrating the benefits of the Soviet system, even as they remained far behind Western living standards. On the other hand, they were also distinctly un-Soviet, therefore indirectly representing an indictment of the Soviet revolution.

An important aspect was the different religious backgrounds – Lutheranism in Estonia and Latvia13 and Catholicism in Lithuania. Justinas Dementavičius uses Lithuania, the only Soviet republic with a dominant Catholic population, as a case study for his chapter on atheism as an “intellectual project” within the Soviet Union. In the post-war years, representatives of the Catholic Church had participated in armed resistance (which in Lithuania was more intense than in Latvia and Estonia) and later in peaceful opposition, and therefore church–state relations are of special interest in this case. First, the chapter analyzes practices and discourses of the state regarding the church. Second, it explores Catholic samizdat and attitudes toward the state and finally the deep changes occurring during perestroika when religion returned to public life.

One should note in this connection that Soviet dictatorship was never as totalitarian as many authors would like to have it.14 In this volume, the term “totalitarianism” should always be read in quotation marks. There was the intent, but never really the practice of totalitarianism in the sense of how state control ← 14 | 15 → had been envisioned by theoreticians of totalitarianism in the 1920s–1930s and imagined by later scholars.15 Rytis Bulota shows in his chapter that there was no “atomization” of the Soviet man as described by Hannah Arendt. Bulota demonstrates convincingly how important informal social networks for mass mobilization in Lithuania were. More than three hundred interviews with former Sąjūdis activists and members of opposition networks in Kaunas provide the necessary source material.

In a limited way, the Soviet state had always allowed their citizens expression of their opinion. One of the formally accepted options was letter writing to authorities or official media. In the absence of free media, this was also one of the few channels for the regime to figure out what people were thinking and what they viewed critically. Reports on the sentiments of the population compiled by the secret police and accounts of postal censorship were other channels. In his contribution, Olev Liivik focuses on the analysis of letters that were sent, in 1987, to the official media to protest against plans to mine phosphorite in Estonia. The arrival of glasnost and the beginning of national mobilization are usually seen as the processes that led to the start of environmental protests. Liivik shows convincingly that letter writing was triggered not only by ecological concerns but also fears of extensive ethnic Russian immigration as labor force.

The Baltic states did not gain independence by the end of the Cold War, which is usually dated to 1990. Nevertheless, they benefitted from the end of tensions. The republics were able to extend their autonomy in external relations after Gorbachev introduced his “new thinking” in foreign affairs at the XXVII Congress of the CPSU in 1986.

Gorbachev’s idea of a “common European home” was strikingly pro-Western, and the approach suited Baltic inclinations and interests perfectly. Furthermore, the new thinking envisioned the increase of the role of union republics in Soviet diplomacy; it gave them new possibilities to engage with foreign countries in their region directly.16 By 1988, the authorities of the Estonian SSR had introduced a program for tapping economic and intellectual resources of the Estonian diaspora for improving the image of the Soviet Union abroad and helping Estonia reform.17 The following year, in April 1989, it further decreed the founding and financing ← 15 | 16 → of the Estonian Institute, an independent organization promoting cultural and economic relations with foreign countries.18 The ostensibly non-governmental Estonian Institute was not hampered by non-recognition policies that had not allowed for official contacts between most of the Western countries and the Baltic republics throughout the Cold War. The Institute, directed by Lennart Meri, would later become an embryonic foreign ministry.

Against the background of the changing international climate, Triin Tark analyzes the transformation of Soviet institutions that had used cultural diplomacy for ideological purposes. As she demonstrates, the Estonian Friendship Society, which had been a tool in the Soviet ideological struggle with the West, was eventually unable to adapt to the “democratization” of contacts with foreign countries. It could not survive the pressure of citizen diplomacy and the challenge of new institutions, such as the Estonian Institute. The main problem for the Friendship Society, according to Tark, was that it had always been directed by command from above, and therefore was ill suited to the new idea of cultural diplomacy as people’s diplomacy resting on initiative from below.

It has been argued that the revolutions in East-Central Europe were managed transformations from the top by communist elites who had lost faith in the values of Marxism-Leninism.19 As we have seen, the Estonian case demonstrates that it was the old Soviet nomenklatura that willingly went along with Gorbachev’s new thinking and opened the country to foreign influences, eroding the very system on which its political power had been based. By 1988, the Estonian SSR was no longer a tool of the imperial center suppressing local populations. The communist establishment, at least communists with ethnic Estonian roots but also some of non-Estonian origin, shifted allegiances from the empire to the re-emerging nation. They “jumped on the nationalist bandwagon.”20

Even before the emergence of nationalist mass movements, local apparatchiks effectively engaged in a nation-building process helping devolve power from the center to the republic. It was engrained in Soviet nationalities’ policy and the structure of the USSR that elites from the republics would demand more ← 16 | 17 → influence.21 In Estonia, this manifested most conspicuously in the Sovereignty Declaration of November 1988. In Lithuania, it culminated in the Lithuanian Communist Party’s separation from the CPSU in 1989.22

It is still open to question to what extent Baltic communists influenced “fraternal” communists in the Warsaw Pact countries. We have not been able to research that aspect thus far. Bruno Saul, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Estonian SSR from 1984 to 1988 remembers that his counterparts in Hungary and eastern Germany appeared genuinely shocked by the “liberalism” of the Baltic republics.23 Nonetheless, most narratives about the end of the Cold War infer that the Revolution of 1989 supposedly spread from East-Central Europe to the Soviet Union.24 Few scholars have recognized the bidirectional nature of the influences, between the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic states.25 It is often overlooked that the Baltic Revolutions peaked in 1988, when most of East-Central Europe, Poland exempted, experienced no organized opposition movements.26

It is therefore most timely that Luboš Švec has researched the interesting “triangle of relations” between the conservative “normalization regime” in Czechoslovakia, Soviet perestroika leadership, and the Baltic republics. He shows that reports on perestroika in the Baltic states appearing in the official Czechoslovak press since 1988 presented a breath of fresh air in the extremely closed society. Even as the most anti-Soviet and critical articles and journals appearing in the Soviet Union ceased to be distributed in Czechoslovakia, the traditional hierarchy still existed; most of the articles that had been published in the Soviet Union could be translated and reprinted in the satellite. This had the result that Czechoslovak readers could follow debates about Soviet history, Marxism-Leninism, nationality questions and other problematic issues in the Soviet society. ← 17 | 18 →

Even as the conservative general secretary Miloš Jakeš began to suppress the press, there developed contacts between Czechoslovak dissidents and Baltic independence movements, creating a potential base for future relations after the breakdown of the Soviet bloc. The Estonian writer Arvo Valton was the first Soviet author to visit and meet Vaclav Havel in Prague. The new leaders of democratic Czechoslovakia would support the aspirations of the Baltic states after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, adding to the spillover of revolution from East-Central Europe to the USSR.

As we have seen, the Estonian nomenklatura saw the need to encourage the diaspora to join in its effort to reform the country in the spirit of perestroika. However, after decades of propaganda and subversive covert operations by the Committee for State Security (Komitét gosudárstvennoi bezopásnosti – KGB), there was a lot of distrust on the side of the Estonians abroad toward communist authorities, which was impossible to allay in one stroke.27 Indeed, distrust of official organs among the diaspora was one of the reasons why the administration of the Estonian SSR decided to establish the non-governmental Estonian Institute.

In this volume, we have included two analyzes of the Latvian case. In Latvia, the Latvian Popular Front and Latvian diaspora organizations engaged in a series of negotiations and meetings starting in early 1989. Gradually, this led from nearly total suspicion and distrust, particularly pronounced on the side of the diaspora, to full political cooperation between the homeland and the diaspora. As Kristīne Beķere shows, the result was neither obvious nor easy, as the two sides had to overcome not only years of mutual suspicion but also differences in cultures and mentalities that had manifested after fifty years of separation by the “iron curtain.” The only common thread, Beķere argues, was Latvian identity, and that thread was thin indeed.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Historians Perestoika Security Diaspora Diplomacy Totalitarianism
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 355 pp.

Biographical notes

Kaarel Piirimäe (Volume editor) Olaf Mertelsmann (Volume editor)

Kaarel Piirimäe is an Associate Professor in Contemporary History at the University of Tartu and a Senior Research Fellow at the Estonian War Museum. Olaf Mertelsmann is an Associate Professor in Contemporary History at the University of Tartu.


Title: The Baltic States and the End of the Cold War