First Period of Independence (1918-40)

[by Vadim Shneyder]

Throughout the period of Soviet occupation (1940-1991), the first period of Baltic independence served as the ideal state of affairs to which Baltic nationalists and dissidents aspired to return. On achievement of Baltic independence from the Soviet Union, the governments of the new states looked to the traditions and policies of the pre-1940 states as the ideological and juridical status quo for their new nation-states.

The first declarations of Baltic independence came immediately prior to or during German occupation of the region following the collapse of the Russian regime in 1917 (Misiunas and Taagapera, 8-9). Following the retreat of German forces from the Baltics a year later, the new republics were able to organize rudimentary military resistance against the advancing Red Army. Consequently, the Estonians and Latvians were able to fight off Soviet invasion with the aid of White forces, Baltic and Scandinavian volunteers, and military aid from Great Britain (Lieven, 57-60). The Lithuanians defeated advancing Soviet forces, but lost Vilnius to the Poles, who would retain control of the city until Lithuania and Vilnius were reunited by the Soviet Union. At that point, the USSR ceded the city to Lithuania in return for military alliance just before annexing the entire Lithuanian territory in 1940 (ibid., 60, 80).

All three Baltic states established new republican governments with provisions for “universal male suffrage and full proportional representation (ibid., 64-65). All three political systems were characterized by a succession of short-lived coalition governments, and in all three cases coups led to the installation of authoritarian regimes, “albeit of a mild kind” by the mid 1930s (ibid., 64).

The Lithuanian government was the first to be overthrown, a military dictatorship under Antanas Smetona coming to power with the support of the Catholic Church (ibid., 66). The new regime exhibited nationalistic and militaristic tendencies reminiscent of contemporary fascist movements in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Eight years later, following “long political and economic crises resulting in part from the world economic depression,” the democratic governments of Latvia and Estonia were also overthrown by right-wing leaders, ostensibly to prevent the seizure of power by even more extreme fascist groups (ibid., 69-70). However, the leaders of the new regimes “developed nationalist authoritarian states with many of the characteristics envisaged by the Veterans and Pērkonkrusts [the extreme right-wing factions]” (Kasekamp, 598).

During the Soviet period, movements for Baltic independence derived much of their emotional resonance from the idea that Soviet/Russian demographic and cultural imperialism constituted an existential threat to the culturally unique and primordial Baltic nations. In accordance with much contemporary thought, Baltic nationalists held that the best way to secure the survival of their nations was to situate them within individual and ethnically homogeneous states. Consequently, Baltic political discourse in the early 1990s tended to coalesce around “attitudes to history, nationality and . . . culture.” At the same time, Baltic politicians returned to the first period of independence as the only extant model for Baltic nation-states, so that the contemporary “ideological division focuses on attitudes to the pre-1940 republics” (Lieven, 216).

The political precedent set by the right-wing authoritarian regimes of the 1930s found its way into post-Soviet Baltic politics by way of the Estonian and Latvian citizenship laws, adopted by the newly independent republics on the basis of the idea that the Soviet period had constituted an interruption in legitimate Baltic statehood (ibid., 310). Consequently, citizenship in both republics was extended automatically only to those members of the Russian minority who had resided within the present borders before 1940, and restrictive language requirements and quotas were imposed to limit the naturalization of the vast majority of Russians (ibid., 303, 310). Lithuania, with its much larger ethnic Lithuanian majority, constituted an exception to this trend, and granted citizenship to all people residing within its borders at the time of independence (ibid, 310). However, the continuity of pre-1940 political traditions in Lithuania was evidenced by the rhetoric of Vytautas Landsbergis, head of state from 1990 to 1992, who “referred to [Smetona] admiringly in his speeches, and adopted some of his symbolism” for his own political movement (ibid., 68).

The experience of the Baltic states during the first period of independence thus contributed several significant and potentially problematic tendencies to Baltic political thought. These included a political discourse infused with nationalist rhetoric and imagery; a tendency to look favorably upon nationalist paramilitary organizations (Kasekamp, 595); bitterness towards Russia, seen as the successor to, and main embodiment of, the Soviet Union; and a consequent contempt for the hundreds of thousands of Russians who entered the republics following Soviet annexation.

The pre-1940 republics which continue to serve as the point of reference for contemporary Baltic politics were much more ethnically homogeneous than the contemporary Baltic states (von Rauch, 82-83). Furthermore, the minority groups which resided in the Baltic republics before 1940 – that is, the Baltic German, Jewish, and early Russian communities – effectively ceased to exist as a result of war and genocide. Consequently, the predominantly Russian minority currently residing in the Baltics is, in the eyes of the Baltic nationalists, an obstacle to the return to 1940.

A return to the ethnic status quo of the 1930s means, in the absence of those minority populations which resided in the republics at the time, the realization of ethnically homogeneous nations hermetically separated from the Russians by the borders and policies of the newly formed states. The economic reorientation of the first republics from the former Russian Empire to the West also functions as an example for contemporary political and economic relations and contributes to the self-conscious distancing of the Baltic republics from the former Soviet Union.


Works cited

  • Andres Kasekamp, “Radical Right-Wing Movements in the North-East Baltic,” Journal of Contemporary History, 34:4 (1999).
  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Romuald J. Misiunas, Rein Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940-1980 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983).
  • Georg von Rauch, The Baltic States: The Years of Independence: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, 1917-1940, trans. Gerald Onn. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).