Max Jakobson: The past, a burden on our shoulders
It was purely a coincidence that the international commission’s report on the occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940-1941 by the Soviet Union was finished just as the question of Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia was raised in the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement negotiations between the European Union and Russia. The EU negotiators remained determined and the agreement, which was signed at the end of April, did not mention Russian minorities. Reminders of the tragic past failed to lessen the joy of celebrations of Estonia’s secure future guaranteed by EU and NATO membership.
"The crimes of the Soviet Union are no news in Estonia. Everyone has had 15 years to read about them," wrote my friend from Estonia. Prime Minister Juhan Parts at a luncheon for members of the commission recognised that a report on the events of 1940-1941 is needed first and foremost to inform the citizens of other European nations of the sufferings of the Estonian people. Very few people are familiar with Estonia’s history.
I became familiar with Estonian history in 1998 after President Lennart Meri invited me to lead an international commission in investigating human rights violations in Estonia during and following World War II. Meri selected an American, a Brit, a German, a Dane and a Russian, but no Estonians to be members of the commission. This was a brilliant solution, which ensured that the commission bypassed the difference of opinions held by Estonians. Competent Estonian researchers shared copious amounts of information with the commission regarding the events that occurred in Estonia. However, the commission made the conclusions and thus the objectivity of the report cannot be questioned.
Estonia’s destiny was stamped on 23 August 1939, when the Soviet Foreign Minister Vjatšeslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the well-known pact. In the end of September, the Estonian leadership, President Konstantin Päts and commander-in-chief General Laidoner – the parliamentary government had been disregarded in governing for the past five years – gave into the demands of the Soviet Union for Estonia to allow Soviet troops to be deployed to military bases on Estonian territory. In their opinion resistance would have been futile and they believed that eventually Germany would turn towards the East and Estonia would be free again.
Estonians lived in peace for eight and a half months until Molotov presented an ultimatum on 16 June 1940. Estonia had to change its government (cabinet) and allow new troops into the country. Estonia was occupied by six infantry divisions, an armour brigade, and by navy and air force units.
That was only the beginning. Leningrad’s party boss Andrei Ždanov – who we became familiar with in Finland in the fall of 1944 as he acted as the chairman of the allied supervisory commission – arrived in Tallinn following the Red Army to fulfil Stalin’s plan. The plan was not to make a vassal state out of Estonia, but rather to transfer the entire nation – political structure, society, economy, education, media and cultural establishments – to the Soviet system. Estonia became a Republic of the Soviet Union in two months and was then united with the USSR. The same shock was felt by Latvia and Lithuania.
This was very costly for the Estonian people: thousands were executed; tens of thousands were deported to Soviet prison camps, where many perished. The victims were primarily those individuals and community groups that were not willing to adapt to the Soviet ideology. No ideology can justify the imprisonment and execution of thousands of innocent people, states the commission’s report. Primary responsibility for the crimes against humanity falls upon the leaders of the Soviet Union; consequently square on Stalin.
Why were the Soviet leaders in such a hurry to convert the Baltic States into Soviet Republics? One explanation is that the success of the German army in Western Europe worried Moscow. Fears arose that Hitler might annul the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and attack the Soviet Union.
However, the "Sovietisation" of the Baltic States was not only a means of security against a potential German attack. The Baltic States were provinces of the Russian Empire from the beginning of the 18th century until the end of World War I. In his memoirs, Molotov takes pride in the fact that along with Stalin, he brought the Baltic States “back to where they belonged”. In his mind that traditional Russian imperialism fused with the propagation of the communist ideologies.
The past still burdens Estonia’s relations with Russia. Moscow’s negative attitude towards Estonia and Latvia is disclosed by the fact that Russia has not ratified the negotiated and initialled border agreement. Russia demands the improvement of the situation of Russian minorities living Estonia and Latvia although EU experts have declared that there are no problems with the minorities.
I have met educated Russians who sincerely believe that the Baltic States joined the Soviet Union at their own volition. Hardly any contemporary Russians know of the atrocities that the Baltic nations had to live through.
In today’s conditions, the Estonians do not have to turn to NATO nor to the USA to secure their status. EU membership has already made the decision. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his foreign policy presumes "extensive rapprochement and realistic integration with Europe".
Max Jakobson, Security Analyst
Translated with permission from the author