[by Kris Mcclellan]

At the end of the Second World War, after being occupied by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at various points during the conflict, the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania remained under Soviet control. The interwar period and the war destroyed their republics, and they now faced Soviet attempts to shape their identities and futures. As in most of the territories gathered by the USSR in WWII, the Baltic peoples attempted to resist and dissent against Soviet domination. Baltic dissidents are generally neither as well-known or as active in post-Soviet societies as their counterparts in Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, but they did play an important role in preserving the memory of their national identity until it could be reasserted after independence. The most common forms of dissent in the Baltic republics involved the defence of national identity against Soviet culture and immigrants.

The 1960s were relatively uneventful for Baltic dissent. Some partisans from WWII remained in hiding in the forests and occasionally skirmished with the police even as late as the 1960s (Lieven, 103). A few others protested the building of new industries on ecological grounds, although the real concern was often the resultant influx of Russian workers for the factories (Lieven 103, 105). Sports victories and rock concerts provided outlets for mass demonstrations of national pride and relief of pressure, but a more active and conscious dissent/resistance campaign did not emerge until the 1968 Prague Spring stimulated intellectuals and ordinary people to stand up in their own ways (Lieven, 103, 105). In Lithuania, widespread church closings inspired a mass petition campaign in 1968, which led to the arrest of many priests between 1970 and 1972 (Richardson, 255). 1972 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Union, and it was on May 14, 1972 that 19 year-old Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in Kaunas, Lithuania to protest Soviet oppression (Richardson 2005, 255). His death inspired thousands to riot and demonstrate for days, until hundreds of arrests restored order (Lieven, 104).

In the 1970s, Lithuanians began to draw on ancient cultural practices in a quiet revolution against the Soviet regime. For centuries, small shrines were built for family and village religious purposes, and in the 19th century, this tradition had been adopted to commemorate the participants in the 1831 and 1863 uprisings against tsarist rule (Richardson 2005, 250). During the First Republic, Lithuanians protested the Polish occupation of Vilnius by reviving the shrine tradition and erecting numerous “Crosses of Vilnius” around the country (Richardson 2005, 250). Because of their national and religious significance, the Soviets banned the construction of these shrines and aggressively campaigned to destroy them (Richardson 2005, 254). In 1966, the Folk Art Society in Lithuania was established to promote and preserve folk art traditions as a means of asserting national identity without directly challenging the Soviet system (Richardson 2005, 256). This group decided in 1970 that the wayside shrine tradition could be adapted to new purposes, and by 1972 the first “ensemble” of totem pole-like sculptures was complete. The effort was led by Vytautus Majoras, a well-known dissident who had been imprisoned for nine years in the Soviet Gulag (Richardson 2005, 256). The first ensemble of thirty-six totems commemorated the village of Ablinga, the first town destroyed by the German invasion of Lithuania in 1941. The overtly anti-Fascist message made the ensemble palatable to the Soviets, but the implicit link between the two war-time invaders was surely felt by the thousands of Lithuanians who viewed the ensemble after it opened on July 23, 1972 (Richardson 2005, 256-257).

Over the next two decades, more than thirty ensembles and hundreds of individual totems were erected (Richardson 2005, 258). The striking contrast between mechanical “Socialist Realism” and the natural beauty of hand-carved timber placed in natural settings helped to emphasize the alien aspects of modern Soviet culture and ideology to the historical roots of Lithuanian culture and folk narratives (which were a popular subject for the totems) (Richardson 2005, 259). In 1986, Juozas Jakštas was awarded a Folk Art Prize by the Ministry of Culture for his carving dedicated to the UN Year of Peace. The oak tree he selected was riddled with bullets, physical reminders of a tragic past, and the carved figure of Dainius holding a dead warrior in his arms evokes “thoughts of desperate people that God has forsaken them during times of war” (Richardson 2001). In this and countless other examples, the wayside shrines fused religious and mythic imagery with the recent suffering of the people, demonstrating both the persistence of their histories and the nation that produced them. One of the more important ensembles opened just a few months before the declaration of Lithuania’s independence. “The Path of Remembrance” in Birštonas contains thirteen totems which are dedicated to Lithuanians who perished in Siberian exile, making it the first monument to the victims of the Soviet Union (Richardson 2005, 259).

The resurgence of wayside shrines in Lithuania is part of a broader trend in the dissident movements that Hank Johnston identifies as “religio-nationalist subculture,” which exalts cultural traditions, the national language, and often a national church as symbols of the nation and evidence of the illegitimacy of the new regime (Johnston, 238). In Lithuania, the strong link between the nation, the Catholic Church, and opposition to the Soviets grew in the 1970s with the publication of samizdat [self-published] journals (Johnston, 240). The Catholic Church was the only organized ideology outside Communist control, and its “Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church” was a mainstay of the opposition from its first publication in 1972 until independence in 1990 (Lieven, 104). The mix of religious and nationalist symbolism embodied by the wayside shrines and totems was epitomized by the “Hill of Crosses” display at Siauliai; it was destroyed numerous times by the Soviet authorities, but faithful pilgrims continued to come and rebuild it (Johnston, 241). Lithuanian youth were also taught the suppressed history of the First Republic through “ethnographic study groups,” which the Soviets prohibited in 1973 (Johnston, 243). In secret classrooms and rural totem ensembles, Lithuanians were reminded of their pre-Soviet history and identity. The preservation of national consciousness against the force of Soviet ideology and culture may not have produced massive street demonstrations or famous martyrs, but it did allow the nation to regroup after independence in a way that other republics (like those of Central Asia) could not.

In Latvia and Estonia, the less formal structure of the Lutheran church made it more submissive to Communist influence. Both of these states were more secularized at the time of Soviet occupation, and neither had a strong connection between the Lutheran church and their respective nations, so religious identity played a smaller role in shaping Estonian and Latvian dissent than it did in Lithuania. In the 1980s, however, the church began to play a more prominent role in resistance as ministers spoke at nationalist rallies, nationalist gatherings convened in church sanctuaries, and both the Latvian and Estonian Popular Fronts asserted the church’s role as a national symbol. Latvia and Estonia also had more articulate civil societies due to their relatively developed economies during the First Republic period; despite Soviet repression, the webs of social, political, and cultural organization preserved some degree of national cohesion (Johnston, 244). Estonian choral and theater societies also offered alternative forms of organization, comprising an underground “associative life where nationalist sentiments of members remained subliminal but nonetheless tacitly recognized” (Johnston, 245).

The 1980s were a period of growing confidence in resistance and dissent. On August 23, 1979 (the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), forty-five Balts (representing all three Republics) signed an Appeal to the United Nations denouncing the Pact and calling for the UN to similarly denounce the illegal Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. Following this example, in 1980, forty Estonian intellectuals sent an open letter to Pravda opposing Russification and widespread Russian settlement (Lieven 105).In January 1980, representatives from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania signed an anti-war protest letter against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, making one of the first joint Baltic statements for peace (Taagepera, 187). Still, there was no massive, public demonstration in the Baltic states, despite the powerful example of Solidarity (Solidarność) in Poland during this same period. Lieven argues that Balts typically dislike nonconformity; recalling the words of Mihkel Tarm, he writes that “Estonians [felt] that if you landed in prison, you must have been a bit crazy. You obviously just weren’t smart enough to manoeuvre properly in the face of the system”(Lieven, 106).

Today, very few of those who signed the Appeals of 1979 and 1980 are involved in politics, and none are national leaders. The dissidents are in general unknown; they have excluded themselves from the political mainstream, and the general public and politicians, perhaps embarrassed that they were not brave enough to stand up themselves, have done little to recognize their contributions during the Soviet period (Lieven, 105). Baltic dissent and resistance was less glamorous and public than in other areas of the Soviet Union, but if the relative success of the post-Soviet Baltic Republics is any indication, their form of resistance-through the quiet maintenance of national identity-better prepared them for independence by preserving the memory of the First Republics. Whether the model of the First Republics is necessarily “good” for today is another matter, but at least the ability to draw on the past helped to soften the transition to independence in the Baltics. Protest in its many forms, from “ethnographic education” to open Appeals to the international community to ancient folk craft traditions, helped the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to hold on to their unique national identities and the hope that they could one day be revived.


Works cited

  • Hank Johnston, “Religio-Nationalist Subcultures under the Communists: Comparisons from the Baltics, Transcaucasia, and Ukraine,” Sociology of Religion 54, No. 3 (1993), 237-255.
  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Rein Taagepera, “Citizens’ Peace Movement in the Soviet Baltic Republics,” Journal of Peace Research 23, no. 2 (1986), 183-192.
  • Milka Baksys Richardson, “Juozas Jakštas: A Lithuanian Carver Confronts the Venerable Oak,” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 47, no. 2 (2001). http://www.lituanus.org/2001/01_2_02.htm
  • ________, “Reverence and Resistance in Lithuanian Wayside Shrines,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 10 (2005), 249-267.