Sovietization of Baltic States 'Worse Than Any Occupation,' Russian Historian Says
by Paul Goble

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Vienna, January 13 - On the 18th anniversary of USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev's use of lethal force in Vilnius, a Russian portal has posted a recent lecture by a Russian historian who concludes that the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union in 1940 was "worse than any occupation" and created "a headache" for Moscow that continues to this day.

In that talk delivered last month, Elena Zubkova, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute and the author of "The Baltic Region and the Kremlin' (2008), argued that both Russians and citizens of the Baltic countries have incomplete and often distorted understandings of what happened in 1940

If one looks at Moscow's approach to the Baltic countries in 1939-40, Zubkova said, it is clear that "this was above all an imperial project of Stalin, a project for restoring the empire despite the fact that in its details, its realization was seriously affected by the current political arrangement and in the first instance was connected with the war."

As recent Russian scholarship has shown, she continued, Moscow during the 1920s largely ignored the Baltic countries after recognizing their independence. The Kremlin at that time, Zubkova says, "had neither the forces, nor the time, nor the opportunity to form and carry out a special 'Baltic policy.'"

(One curiosity, however, that is sometimes remarked upon, the Moscow historian said is that until 1925, the Soviet state did not transform its Western Front into a military district. "There was already no war, but there was a front." However, she pointed out, this had far more to do with Poland than with the Baltic countries.)

Only in the 1930s did Stalin begin to focus on the Baltic States as a region of particular interest. The first Politburo decision in the archives, Zubkova notes, dates from 1934, but even then, it reflected a general interest. Only in the spring of 1939, with the threat of war looming, did this interest take on a more precise focus.

In discussing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Zubkova says simply that it had "secret protocols," that these "were nowhere published at the time, but that "in the Baltic press the content of these secret agreements was reflected with surprising precision," something that forced the three governments to ask Moscow for guarantees that there had not been any.

Not surprisingly, Stalin and Molotov told the Balts that there had not been any agreement, statements that some Russian writers continue to accept as true and that informed Soviet commentary about this accord with Hitler and continues to be reflected in some Russian writing to this day.

As early as September 28, 1939, after the Nazi and Soviet division of Poland, Zubkova added there is documentary evidence that the USSR military commissariat had prepared a plan for military intervention in Estonia (and later in the other two Baltic countries), but even this does not prove that the Kremlin initially planned to "swallow up" the Baltic states.

The archival specialist continued that while that "impression" certainly was created, it cannot be confirmed by documents that "Stalin in the fall of 1939 had the intention of making the Baltic region part of the USSR." Instead, she suggested, he was interested only in taking control of them so as to defend the Soviet Union.

At that time, the Soviet dictator told Georgy Dimitrov that as a result of mutual assistance pacts like those he planned to have with the Baltic states, "we have found a form which will permit the drawing into the orbit of the interests of the USSR an entire group of countries. For the time being, we will preserve their state system and act without seeking Sovietization."

Stalin added, however, that "a time will come when [these countries] will do this themselves." That policy, Zubkova continued, "was then realized not in the Baltics but in the countries of Eastern Europe after the war." And she insisted that Stalin's fears of the reaction of the Western powers kept him from doing more in the Baltic region in 1939.

Indeed, there are documents in the archives which show that Moscow directed Soviet representatives in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not to "use the word 'sovietization'" or to maintain contacts with left-wing forces lest the peoples and governments of this region assume that was Moscow's intention.

Moreover, People's Commissar Voroshilov issued a special directive to his commanders saying that "the army would be going into a sovereign country and that [commanders] must not permit any contacts with the local population" or act in public in ways that local residents would find in any way threatening.

But when in the spring of 1940, Hitler occupied Norway, Denmark and France, Stalin decided to take total control of the Baltic countries. He exploited the case of two missing Red Army soldiers in Lithuania to provoke a crisis, and Molotov drew up an ultimatum which it appears Stalin softened somewhat before it was presented to the Lithuanian government

There is a widespread but mistaken view that the Baltic governments accepted Moscow's ultimatum without resistance, but that is not so, Zubkova said. And there is an equally incorrect view that the Kremlin had "in this case some sort of 'master plan'" of action, one that told its representatives there what to do.

In fact, Zhdanov in Estonia, Vyshinsky in Latvia and Dekanozov in Lithuania were frequently uncertain about how to act because they had been directed to form governments consisting not of Communists, people with whom they were familiar, but rather of academics and journalists they did not know but who were ready to cooperate with the Soviet Union.

The elections that Moscow demanded were a farce. There was no secret ballot, and there was also no mention in the Moscow-approved party platform of "unification with the Soviet Union," Zubkova pointed out, an arrangement that undercuts all claims by Russian historians and others that the Baltic states "petitioned" to join the USSR.

By forcing the Baltic countries into the USSR in the way that he did, Zubkova concluded, "Stalin created both for himself and for his heirs an enormous headache. [And] this is a problem which continues to manifest itself even now."

Had the Soviet leader simply occupied the three Baltic countries and left their independence in place, the Moscow historian said, the entire situation would have been different. But what began in 1940 in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was "not an occupation," but rather the "arrival of Soviet power."

And "the consequences of the introduction of a Soviet regime" and the suppression of the independent state existence of these three countries , Zubkova argued, "turned out to be worse [not only for them but for the USSR] than any occupation could have been." And she suggested that this was a lesson that Moscow had learned when it moved into Eastern Europe in 1945.

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