Baltic states under Soviet rule (1944–91)

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This Baltic states were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II in 1945, from sovietization onwards until independence was regained in 1991. The Baltic states were occupied and annexed, becoming the Soviet socialist republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. After the occupation by Nazi Germany, the USSR reoccupied the Baltic territories in 1944 and maintained control there until the Baltic states regained their independence nearly 50 years later in the aftermath of the Soviet coup of 1991.


Resistance and deportations

Between 1945 and 1985, the Soviet Union carried out a process of sovietization which aimed to weaken the national identities of the Baltic peoples. An important factor in the attempt to achieve this was large-scale industrialisation then direct attacks on culture, religion and freedom of expression.[1] For the Soviet authorities the elimination of opposition and the transformation of the economics went hand in hand. The Soviet used massive deportations to eliminate resistance to collectivisation and support for the partisans.[2] The Baltic partisans resisted Soviet rule by armed struggle for a number of years. The Estonian Forest brothers, as they were known, enjoyed material support among the local population.[3] The Soviets had already carried out deportations in 1940–41, but the deportations between 1944 and 1952 were much larger in number.[2] In March 1949, the top Soviet authorities organised a mass deportation of 90,000 Baltic nationals, whom they labelled as enemies of the people, to inhospitable areas of the Soviet Union.[4]

Soviet prison doors on display in the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn.

The total numbers of those deported between 1944 and 1955 has been estimated at 124,000 in Estonia, 136,000 in Latvia and 245,000 in Lithuania. The deportees were allowed to return after the secret speech of Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, however many did not survive in their years in Siberia.[2] Large numbers of the inhabitants of the Baltic countries fled westwards before the Soviet forces arrived in 1944. After the war, the Soviets established new borders for the Baltic republics. Lithuania gained the regions of Vilnius and Klaipeda, but Estonia and Latvia ceded some eastern territories to the Russian SSR. Estonia lost 5 percent and Latvia 2 percent of its prewar territory.[2]

Industrialization and immigration

The Soviets made large capital investments for energy resources and a manufacture of industrial and agricultural products. The purpose was to integrate the Baltic economics into the larger Soviet economic sphere. The industrial plans and a transport infrastructure were advanced by the Soviet standards.[5] In all three republics, manufacturing industry was developed at the expense of other sectors, notably agriculture and housing. The rural economy suffered from the lack of investments and the collectivization.[6] Baltic urban areas were damaged during wartime and it took ten years to make up for losses in housing. New constructions were often poor quality and ethnic Russian immigrants were favored in housing.[7]

Estonia and Latvia received large-scale migration of industrial workers from other parts of the Soviet Union that changed the demographics dramatically. Lithuania also received immigrants, but to a lesser degree.[5] Ethnic Estonians constituted 88 percent before the war, but in 1970 the figure dropped to 60 percent. Ethnic Latvians constituted 75 percent, but the figure dropped to 56.8 percent in 1970[8] and further down to 52 percent in 1989.[9] In contrast, in Lithuania the drop was only 4 percent. However, absence of Russian immigration was only a part of explanation as Lithuania gained the Vilnius area, fewer Lithuanians fled west and the state lost its Jewish minority.[7] There was a difference between ethnic Russians. People who moved from Russia before 1940 annexation and knew the local language were named as "local Russians", for they had better relations with locals than those who settled later.[10]

Baltic communists had supported and participated the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. However, many of them died during the Great Purge in the 1930s. The new regimes of 1944 were established native communists who had fought in the Red Army. However, the Soviets also imported ethnic Russians to fill political, administrative and managerial posts. For example, the important post of second secretary of local Communist party was almost always ethnic Russian or a member of another Slavic nationality.[11]

Everyday living

The Baltic republics were largely isolated from the outside world between the late 1940s and the mid-1980s. The Soviets were sensitive about the Baltic area not only because concerns about its loyalty, but also because of a number of military installations located there due to its proximity to several non Eastern Bloc states, including surveillance centres and a submarine base.[10] During the late 1960s, Soviet democratic movements found support amongst Baltic intellectuals. The Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords and the following year, a monitoring group was founded in Lithuania which produced dissident publications during the 1970s and 1980s.[12] Nationalism and religion inspired people to small-scale demonstrations and underground activities. The European Parliament passed a resolution supporting the Baltic cause in 1982.[13]

The Soviet Union maintained ethnic diversity, but on the other hand it made efforts to impose uniformity. A new wave of Russification of education system began in the late 1970s attempting to create a Soviet national identity. The education of Baltic children was conducted in their native languages, but the Russian language was compulsory. In addition, the Soviet authorities limited freedom of expression in literature and the visual arts. The song festivals remained a means of national self-expression. Nevertheless, intellectual life and scientific research were advanced by Soviet standards.[14] However, after 1975 there were increasing problems with shortages of consumer and food products, social problems, unchecked immigration and damage to the environment.[15] By the 1980s there was social and political tension both within the Baltic republics and between them and Moscow.[16]

Road to independence

Soviet reforms

The period of stagnation brought about the crisis of the Soviet system and reforms could not be long delayed. The new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and responded with glasnost and perestroika. They were attempts to reform the Soviet system from above to avoid revolution from below. The reforms occasioned the re-awakening of nationalism in the Baltic republics, in a development known as the Singing Revolution.[17] The first major demonstrations against the system were in Riga in November 1986 and the following spring in Tallinn. Small successful protests encouraged key individuals and by the end of 1988 the reform wing had gained a decisive position in the Baltic republics.[18]

At the same time, coalitions of reformists and populist forces assembled in Popular Fronts. They concentrated largely on calls for autonomy rather than independence.[19] The Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic made the Estonian language the state language again in January 1989, and similar legislation was passed in Latvia and Lithuania soon after. Next, the Baltic republics declared their sovereignty: in November 1988 in Estonia, in May 1989 in Lithuania and July 1989 in Latvia.[20] The Estonian Supreme Soviet reserved the right to veto laws of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. The Lithuanian Supreme Soviet even referred to Lithuania's independent past and its illegal annexation into the Soviet Union in 1940. The Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR was more cautious. The presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union condemned the Estonian legislation as unconstitutional.[21]

The first Supreme Soviet elections took place in March 1989. There was still only one legal communist party, but the availability of multi-candidate choice encouraged the popular fronts and other groups to spread their own electoral message.[21] The Communist Party in all three Baltic republics was divided along nationalist lines, and political leaders were increasingly responding to people rather than the party.[22] The biggest demonstration was the Baltic Way in August 1989, where people protested on the fiftieth anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop treaty by a human chain linking hands across the three republics.[23] Still, by 1990, there were not yet calls for political independence but demands for economic independence from Moscow.[22]

Restorations of independence

In February 1990, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet elections led to the Sąjūdis-backed nationalists achieving a two-thirds majority. On 11 March 1990, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet declared Lithuania's independence.[24] As a result, the Soviets imposed a blockade on 17 April.[25] Latvia and Estonia, with large Russian minorities, lagged behind.[24] At the same time, the Popular Fronts were in increasing the pressure in Latvia and Estonia, as the citizens committee movement prepared for wholly non-Soviet elections to take place at or near the time of the Supreme Soviet elections. They saw that independence could never be restored legally by organs of the occupying powers.[26] The pro-independence candidates received overwhelming majorities in the Supreme Soviet elections of March 1990.[27] On 30 March 1990, the Estonian Supreme Soviet declared independence. In particular, it declared the 1940 annexation illegal and began the transition towards an independent Republic of Estonia. On 4 May 1990, the Latvian Supreme Soviet made a similar declaration.[28]

On 12 May 1990 the leaders of the Baltic republics signed a joint declaration known as the Baltic Entente.[29] By mid-June the Soviets started negotiations with the Baltic republics on condition they agreed to freeze their declarations of independence. The Soviets had a bigger challenge elsewhere, in the form of the Russian Federal Republic proclaiming sovereignty in June.[29] Simultaneously the Baltic republics also started to negotiate directly with the Russian Federal Republic.[29] In Autumn 1990, they set up a customs border between the Baltic states, the Russian Federation and Belarus.[30] After the failed negotiations the Soviets made a dramatic attempt to break the deadlock and sent troops to Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991. The attempts failed, dozens of civilians were killed, and the Soviet troops decided to retreat.[31] In August 1991, the hard-line members of the Soviet government attempted to take control of the Soviet Union. One day after the coup on 21 August, the Estonians proclaimed independence. Shortly afterwards Soviet paratroops seized the Tallinn television tower. The Latvian parliament made similar a declaration at the same day. The coup failed but the Collapse of the Soviet Union became unavoidable. On 28 August, the European Community welcomed the restoration of the sovereignty and independence of the Baltic states.[32] The Soviet Union recognised the Baltic independence on 6 September 1991. The Russian troops stayed for an additional three years, as Boris Yeltsin linked the issue of Russian minorities with troop withdrawals. Lithuania was the first to have the Russian troops withdrawn from its territory in August 1993. On 26 July 1994 Russian troops withdrew from Estonia and on 31 August 1994, Russian troops withdrew from the Latvia.[33] The Russian Federation ended its military presence in Estonia after it relinquished control of the nuclear facilities in Paldiski on 26 September 1995 and in Latvia after Skrunda-1 suspended operations on 31 August 1998 and subsequently dismantled. The last Russian soldier left Skrunda-1 in October 1999, thus marking a symbolic end to the Russian military presence on the soil of the Baltic countries.[34][35]



  1. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 126.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 129.
  3. Petersen, Roger Dale. Resistance and rebellion: lessons from Eastern Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 206. ISBN 0-521-77000-9. 
  4. Strods, Heinrihs; Kott, Matthew (2002). "The File on Operation 'Priboi': A Re-Assessment of the Mass Deportations of 1949". Journal of Baltic Studies. 33 (1): 1–36. doi:10.1080/01629770100000191. Retrieved 2008-03-25.  "Erratum". Journal of Baltic Studies. 33 (2): 241. doi:10.1080/01629770200000071. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 130.
  6. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 131.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 132.
  8. Ethnic composition of population by USSR republics. 1970 census(Russian)
  9. Ethnic composition of population by USSR republics. 1989 census(Russian)
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 134.
  11. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 139.
  12. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 135.
  13. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 136.
  14. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 138.
  15. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 142.
  16. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 144.
  17. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 147.
  18. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 149.
  19. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 150.
  20. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 151.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 152.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 153.
  23. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 154.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 158.
  25. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 163.
  26. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 159.
  27. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 160.
  28. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 162.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 165. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Salmon_b25" defined multiple times with different content
  30. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 181.
  31. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 187.
  32. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 189.
  33. Hiden & Salmon (1994). p. 191.
  34. The Weekly Crier (1999/10) Baltics Worldwide.
  35. "Latvia takes over the territory of the Skrunda Radar Station". Embassy of the Republic of Latvia in Copenhagen. 21 October 1999. Retrieved 15 June 2013.