Jul/Aug 2017 Nonfiction

Back to the Baltics

by Peter Bridges

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

On a cold, windless morning in early December 1962, my colleague Robert German and I got off the overnight train from Leningrad and took a taxi to the Intourist hotel outside the medieval walls of Tallinn. My acquaintance—later, exiled in America, my friend—Vasily Aksyonov, the most popular younger Soviet writer, had published a novel two years earlier called A Ticket to the Stars. It was a tale of four restless if not quite rebellious Moscow teenagers who found relative freedom in Estonia. It was as close to a tale of America's Beat Generation as anything that Khrushchev's censors would approve. Aksyonov had done right to set his book in Estonia. As I found in several visits to Tallinn during my two years in our Moscow embassy, although the Estonians had been tyrannized by Stalin's horrendous police state, with many people tortured and killed and thousands more deported to Siberia, they remained a non-Russian, civilized, European people. (I am not saying Russians were not civilized; of course most were.)

Bob German was our embassy's publications procurement officer. He scoured bookstores in Moscow and wherever else a Western diplomat could travel in the USSR, buying books for the Library of Congress and a range of Federal agencies. As for myself, I was one of three political officers in the embassy charged with reporting to Washington on Soviet internal affairs, which meant a range of subjects including what was going on in the Communist Party and the Soviet government; popular support and dissidence in and out of the Soviet intellectual world; and the many non-Russian peoples and nations inside the USSR—like the Estonians. We did not, understandably, want to rely on the rosy reports in Izvestiya and Pravda about the Homeland of Socialism. The Soviets would not let our embassy subscribe to newspapers from cities other than Moscow and Leningrad, but I got a reader's card at the Lenin Library in Moscow and found I could get access to the provincial press there. The Soviet censorship system was pretty thoroughgoing, but at times I came on items of interest missing from the Moscow papers. Nevertheless, we needed to travel if we were to achieve some understanding of what was going on in the USSR.

I did not expect to learn much in Tallinn about the state of affairs in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, beyond what I could glean from published sources; but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Amazingly, I found my first day in Tallinn that the city had cafés, unlike cities in Russia. The first time I walked into a Tallinn café and looked at the decently dressed clientele, I thought I might almost be in Helsinki or Vienna. I remembered how Aksyonov's characters had found a "wonderful" café in Tallinn that even had an Italian espresso machine.

It was acceptable behavior in the Soviet Union to take an empty seat at a table where others were already sitting—and if one did so, the chances were that the other person or persons were not from the KGB. On the other hand, if an American diplomat sat down at an empty table he would quickly be joined by someone who was no doubt a cop.

I recall walking into a café on an afternoon during one of my visits to Tallinn, and sitting down with an Estonian lady—no proletarian but a lady, in her forties and wearing a bourgeois sort of hat. I told her quickly that I was an American diplomat and perhaps dangerous company. No, no, she said, she'd be happy to talk. After a half century, I don't remember all she had to say, other than that some of her family members had been sent to Siberia and that Estonians hated the Russians. It was what I heard more than once in Tallinn.

The Soviet authorities severely restricted the travel of foreigners in the USSR. I never got to Lithuania. To travel to Tallinn, one had to take the overnight train from Leningrad; one could only travel to Riga by air from Moscow. And it was only the capital cities—Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn—that were open to foreigners.

One day, in the Intourist hotel in Tallinn I encountered by chance Georgi Z. Dimitroff, a Bulgarian American professor of astronomy at Dartmouth College whose lecture course I had taken as a freshman. The professor was spending a sabbatical visiting Soviet observatories, and he had just come back to Tallinn from the observatory at the Estonian national university in Tartu, ninety miles south of Tallinn. How he arranged that, I never knew. He told me he had found Estonian nationalism running strong in Tartu. I was not surprised.

One assumes few other Westerners were able to visit Tartu in those years. One who did was Theodore Shabad, Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, who reported in the paper's issue for May 22, 1962, that he had arranged a visit through the official union of journalists in Tallinn. Shabad met with the Tartu university rector, Fyodor D. Klement, and asked him about Russification. The rector, he reported, smiled and said that the student body was Estonian save for a few Russian-language instruction groups, the professors were Estonian, and the curriculum stressed Estonian language, history, and ethnography. That left unanswered the question of how thoroughly the university had been made to comply with Stalin's dictum that in non-Russian parts of the USSR, culture must be "national in form, socialist in content." (Klement was a physicist who had lived in Leningrad until 1951, when he was installed as rector in Tartu. The Soviets had presumably considered him ideologically reliable, but he was nevertheless removed from office in 1970.)

During my tour of duty in Moscow I traveled just once to Riga, together with Raymond Garthoff, who was later ambassador to Bulgaria and who in 1964 came to Moscow to attend a conference. He had a weekend free, and wanted to see Latvia because his wife had been born there. I was happy to accompany him.

In the USSR we traveled usually in pairs, to avoid the possibility of a KGB provokatsiya against a lone traveler. Bob German and Ray Garthoff were good companions; I also enjoyed traveling with an Australian diplomat, Gregory Clark. His Russian was good; so was mine. On one trip a Russian waitress told us she had thought of moving to "your capital." The two of us at looked at one another. Did she mean Canberra, or Washington? No, but...

"Tell us," I said, "Where do you think we come from?"

"Why," she said, "Riga, of course." We were obviously more Western than Russian; Latvian was the most she could imagine.

Ray Garthoff and I spent an interesting weekend in Riga in 1964. On that Saturday evening we went to the Latvian National Opera, a grand 19th century building, to see a Latvian Joan of Arc. There were microphones at each seat that provided simultaneous translation into Russian, but after a few minutes I put them down. I knew the story of Joan, and the Latvian language had a pleasant, mellifluous sound. The story of the maiden who roused her people to oppose the English must, I thought, have meaning for this much-oppressed nation. I was a little surprised that the censors had permitted it to go on. I could only guess what the audience made of it.

On Sunday morning, strolling through Riga, we came on a Catholic church where children were celebrating their first Communion. The boys in white shirts and girls in blue dresses looked like boys and girls making their first Communion at a church on the West Side of Chicago. It was indeed a Western and not an Eastern scene.

Eventually I drafted a thinkpiece on the three Baltic states. Each of the three peoples had a long history of both resistance and subjugation. The Lithuanians had been the last pagan Europeans; they had accepted Christianity only in the 1400s. Lithuania and Poland had together been for a time the biggest European state. The lands that were now Latvia and Estonia had been invaded by Teutonic knights in the 1200s, and for seven centuries the landowners were German and so were the Hanseatic merchants of Riga and Tallinn (which the Germans called Reval). The Estonians and Latvians were reduced to serfdom and servitude. Meanwhile Sweden had overall control—until 1721 when the Baltics were brought into the Russian empire. By the 1800s nationalism was rising in the Baltics, as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, and serfdom had been abolished by 1820, four decades before Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs in Russia. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, carried out a program of Russification but it was too late to extinguish the three nations' linguistic and cultural identities and their urge to European modernity. After the horrendous Great War that saw Estonia criss-crossed by trenches and Tsarism replaced by Bolshevism, the three nations gained independence. Their republics prospered and suffered like other Europeans in the Great Depression, and in the 1930s, again like other Europeans, abandoned parliamentary democracy for one-man rule. Then in 1940 the Soviets had taken them over with Hitler's agreement. In another horrendous great war came the slaughter of almost all Baltic Jews and many non-Jews, the deportation of many thousands to Siberia—and the inflow of many thousands of Russian settlers.

My 1960s think piece concluded that the ultimate peril for Latvia and Estonia was not Soviet tyranny but the population balance. Along with the post-1945 influx of Russians, both nations had low birth rates. (The mainly Catholic Lithuanians were then having more children.) My old copy of The Statesman's Yearbook for 1939 showed ethnic Estonians comprising 88 percent of that republic's population and Russians just over eight percent, while in Latvia ethnic Latvians were 77 percent of the population and Russians not more than 11 percent. Two decades later, in contrast, the Soviet census of 1959 showed that the Russians had grown to comprise 20 percent of Estonia's population, 27 percent of Latvia's. Could two small nations maintain their identities, independent or not, with so many Russians—and the numbers were continuing to grow—in their midst?

It was a question that would come back to me sometimes over the next half-century, especially after the Soviet Union broke up and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia regained independence. In 2004 each of the three countries joined both the European Union and NATO. I was frankly one of those Americans who wanted to see the Baltic republics in the EU but initially questioned whether their joining NATO would contribute to security and stability in Europe. I changed my mind soon, when Putin turned to harsh ways. Still, as late as 2011 I suggested publicly that while Putin was "turning Russia back to totalitarian rule," we might hope to see someday a better security arrangement for the Northern world in which NATO and Russia were not antagonists but cooperated.

That seems impossible now, in the wake of Russia's invasion of a sovereign state, Ukraine, and Putin's continuing belligerence. I am no chauvinist, but it warmed my heart to see on YouTube a contingent from the U.S 4th Infantry Division take part in the Independence Day parade in Tallinn's Freedom Square in February 2017. I thought of that again when, two months later, my wife and I walked across that square. I had decided to return to the Baltics after more than a half-century.

In April 2017 we flew from Rome to Riga on a Boeing 737 of AirBaltic. We spent a weekend in what has long been one of the largest cities in Northern Europe, with a population today of 700,000—and a wonderfully restored Old Town—and the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe.

I had first seen a European city rebuilt after wartime destruction in 1962, when I visited our embassy that was then located in Warsaw's Old Town, Stare Miasto. 85 percent or more of the old buildings in Warsaw had been damaged or destroyed in World War II. The Poles had rebuilt using—along with a certain amount of imagination—a set of 26 paintings of the town in meticulous detail, done in the 1770s by the Venetian artist Bernardo Bellotto.

In old Riga, the overall wartime destruction had not been so great as in old Warsaw but, for example, in the lovely Lutheran church of St. Peter's, whose origin dates to the 1200s and which has a steeple over 400 feet high, we found a photograph of the church in 1945 showing a burned-out roofless shell. The grand 14th-century House of Blackheads, seat of Hanseatic merchants, had been reduced to rubble during the war—and the rubble was cleared away by the Soviets in 1948—and the building was rebuilt only after Latvia regained independence.

Moreover, while Communist regimes spent considerable effort to maintain main buildings, they did not bother much, as I had seen in Prague in 1971-74, with the restoration and upkeep of less important structures that had once been well maintained by private owners. All in all, old Riga in 2017 was now gleaming, far different from when I saw it in 1964. (The scene had perhaps worsened after 1964. A Latvian American, Rita Laima, who moved to Riga in 1980, recalls online "The stench of urine, smashed exquisite tiles, and broken windows and mailboxes in the lobbies of Riga's fabulous art nouveau buildings.....")

In 2017 we took a 12-hour van ride, with a number of sightseeing stops, across Latvia and Estonia from Riga to Tallinn, through a countryside of forests and large fields. The size of the fields was clearly a result of the forced collectivization under the Soviets after World War II.

Before Estonia first gained independence in 1918, most of the land had been in the hands of Baltic German landlords; the average size of their estates, according to the writer Toivo Raun, was 2,113 hectares, over five thousand acres. The thoroughgoing land reform under the first Estonian republic expropriated almost all of the large estates and transferred the land to small farmers, whose average holding by the 1930s was around sixty acres, not including forest land. They were productive farmers; Estonia's largest exports in the 1930s were butter and meat. Today's big fields make for more efficient use of machinery—but agriculture furnishes only nine percent of Estonian exports. No matter, I thought; the country is progressing nicely and the CIA World Handbook shows it is doing well with exports, the main export item now not butter but "machinery and electrical equipment." CEPII, the French research institute, sees Estonia becoming the most productive country in Europe—if, of course, peace holds. And NATO membership is a good guarantee for the Baltic republics; but how good?

As we drove toward Tallinn I recalled how President Trump's close associate Newt Gingrich had said in 2016 that he wasn't sure he'd want to risk nuclear war over Estonia, which after all "is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg." What should that decidedly non-Russian nation, the Estonians, make of that?

More recently, after my visit to Estonia and Latvia President Trump, speaking at the NATO summit meeting in Brussels on May 25, 2017, failed to say explicitly, as it was understood he would do, that we would honor Article 5 of the NATO Treaty—which calls for member states to consider an attack on any one of them to be an attack on them all. He finally stated America's commitment to Article 5 two weeks later, on June 9. Those were no doubt welcome words for the three Baltic republics. Russia is always nearby, and although the three republics are thoroughly western in economics, politics, and culture, the Russian ethnic presence remains heavy.

In Latvia, the ethnic Latvians made up just over half of the population by the time the country regained independence in 1991. That figure has risen to 62 percent, but in Riga the ethnic Latvians are only 44 percent of the city's population and ethnic Russians make up 38 percent, including the city's mayor, Nils Ušakovs. In Tallinn, ethnic Estonians are 55 percent and Russians 36 percent—and in Narva, on Estonia's eastern border with Russia, over 80 percent of the people are ethnic Russians. In addition, prosperous people in Russia have been buying Baltic homes, for vacation getaways, for investment, or conceivably as places to run to if things in Russia should turn really bad. (I found in Riga a glossy magazine all in Russian, offering Latvian properties for sale.)

The Baltic republics are part of what Putin's people call "the near abroad." Not many years ago Dmitri Medvedev, then Russia's President, said that Russia had "privileged interests" there—in other words, that the republics bordering Russia were part of Russia's sphere of influence, a concept that most historians find inimical to peace.

One thinks of Finland, which resisted a Soviet invasion in the Winter War of 1939-40 and which, while it had to surrender ten percent of its territory, has maintained its independence although it has never joined NATO. But comparisons with the three smaller Baltic republics are perhaps not too apt. The three are indeed small, and military experts reportedly believe the Russian army could overwhelm them in two to three days, of course at the risk of nuclear war if NATO and Article 5 came into play.

But one can hope the Russians will lay off, in the belief they will be best served by peaceful links with these progressive and productive places.

Besides, these peoples are tough. In 1980, when I headed the State Department's Office of Eastern European Affairs, the head of the largest Lithuanian American organization told me one day something that stuck in my mind ever afterward.

"You know," she said, "Lithuanians make up less than two percent of the overall population of the USSR—but we are a much higher percentage of prisoners in the Gulag, because we're tough. We resist."

It was only later that I first learned of the Forest Brothers, the anti-Soviet partisans in the Baltic forests who, in reduced numbers, continued their activities for years after World War II. Hopeless, perhaps; but in any event they were tough. Adolfas Ramanauskas, born in Connecticut, was one of the last Lithuanian partisan commanders to be captured by the Soviets, in 1956. A rare autopsy record shows that before he was executed he was brutally tortured. There were marks from beatings all over his body, needles had repeatedly been stuck into his eyes, and he had been castrated. One wonders whether the KGB eventually made him talk. If so, it took them some time to do so.

When my wife and I flew out of Tallinn I had the conviction that the three Baltic republics would be a continuing success story, one which perhaps more Americans would come to appreciate. Until now the United States has not been a major trade partner of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, but one can hope that that will change, not least in the high-tech sector. The day before I left Tallinn the Estonian software firm Nortal announced that it had signed a sizable contract with one of the largest U.S. cell phone operators. It was, after all, three young Estonians who developed the software for Skype, over a decade ago. And it was, above all, Estonia's most recent President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who received degrees from two American universities after finishing high school in New Jersey, who during his decade in office pushed Estonia to the top of the high-tech world.

Estonia and its two neighboring republics are very hopeful places. They will always face the Russian bear across the border, but perhaps it will become a more peaceable bear. In any case one must hope that our government will continue to make crystal clear that we, as well as our other allies, will always live up to our NATO commitments to these three small and admirable countries.


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