reede, september 22, 2006

Learning about the Baltics

I recently borrowed three books through interlibrary loan about our beloved Baltic countries and I am have been tucking into them on my rides to and fro NYC via the Subway system. It's a nice change from the previous books I read this summer, which is sadly over. Over the summer I read a lot of Stephen King books - Bag of Bones, From a Buick 8, The Gunslinger, and (the most eerie) 'Salem's Lot. I also managed to finish a book by Sir Ernest Shackleton called South! about a group of Britisher explorers trapped on an ice flow in Antarctica.

But now it's back to the real books. Most were written in the post-1991 period and, I have to say, it's sad to see how few books have been published since on the Baltics. They seem trapped, in the Western reader's mind, in 1991, unless of course you are familiar with NATO and EU accession. The best books by far deal with the formation of the Baltics. What's cute is that even when the definition is narrowed to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, they can't manage to neatly clump these three countries together into a common narrative.

Despite the intentions to promote a common pan-Baltic history, Lithuania is nevertheless fished out of the mix from the start. Latvia and Estonia were both fiefdoms of the Teutonic Knights, and so it's easier to deal with their individual responses to common conditions in chapters, while separate sections must be devoted to explaining the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the great king of all Lithuanians Mindaugus. Lithuania really does seem like it is a central European country, not just because of its Polish connections, but because of the interest that France had in the region via the Franco-Polish alliance of 1918. In Lithuania, unlike Latvia and Estonia, the elite were Jewish, Polish, and Russians - not Germans.

The formation of Latvia is really interesting because it was more industrialized so there was a greater connection to Bolshevism. They also seemed to have more of an anti-German edge following the 1905 revolution- I guess the Baltic German elite was especially harsh towards the Latvian people during their rule. There are also documents supporting the grotesque plans of the Reich to colonize Latvia with Germans. And this was in the 1910s, when Hitler was an art student! It has echoes of Stalinist population transfer, especially in Kaliningrad.

At the same time Latvia was also the most important for the Bolshevik Russians and their Soviet government. From what I have read, it was their hope to retain Latvia as a Soviet country in 1918 so they could set it up as a model Western Soviet country and then export their ideology to Germany and Scandinavia. Lenin doesn't come across as an arch villain in the formation of the Baltic either, when compared to the Germans. He seems to have viewed them as a way of exporting Bolshevik ideals through Western conduits - a sort of ideological electrical adapter, before they had such things.

From this, you can see why Latvia is still seen as somehow "betraying" Russia in its current independence and Western orientation. [In current opinion polls, Latvia is seen as the greatest enemy of modern Russia]. Because there was genuine support for Bolshevism in Latvia and the Latvian Red Riflemen played a prominent role in the October Revolution, Latvia was seen in Moscow as a kindred nation. Latvia's current Western reorientation then, in the eyes of current Russia, is a total rebuff to their great civilization. It shows that they are suffering from intellectually bankruptcy. Ouch. You can see why the Russians are bitter about Latvia these days.

The big player that these books omit is Finland, which should be included as much as Lithuania should be included. So many Estonian decisions were based on Finnish decisions - the decision, for example, to pursue full independence rather than national autonomy - is attributed to the Finnish decisions to do the same.

So the books wind up discussing Finnish internal politics at length even though they categorically try to separate them for the sake of it being a "Baltic"-focused history. The biggest douche bag in the history books though is Konstantin Päts. Unlike some would claim he wasn't your garden variety fascist. He was more of a presidential despot. And he made some huge mistakes which cost Estonians their independence in 1940. He foolishly attempted to deny the Vaps - the paramilitary force active in the 30s - a seat at the table. He actively suppressed strong Estonian nationalists, like Jaan Tõnisson. And the Constitution of 1938 only prolongued the denial of democratic forces in the country.

If Päts had been wise enough to include his political adversaries in government, even at his own personal expense, then Estonia may have been strong enough to stand against Stalinist Russia. It just goes to show you that many heads are always better than one.

Kind of interesting.

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