Geographically, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) are in a tough spot. They’re sandwiched between Russia, Poland and Sweden, with Germany not too far off: great powers that have invaded each other again and again, often going through the Baltics on their way. Baltic land has been ripped up, their industries destroyed and the people killed or deported time and time again. They are basically the doormat of Eastern Europe.
Consider this: since the Renaissance, the Baltics have been independent countries for about 50 years: 1920 to 1939 and 1991 to the present. When the sides change, they’re the next battlefield, with the people having to take sides with one invader or the other.
Rarely has there been a clear choice of what side to be on. Take Latvia as an example. In Medieval times, much of modern Latvia was ruled by the pagan Livonian Order, which was riven by internal conflicts, wars with Lithuania, Viking raids, invaders from Russia and Crusaders from the Holy Roman Empire.
That went on until the late 16th century, when the Livonian order was defeated and became part of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth. The early 17th century saw thirty years of war between Sweden and Poland, the result of which was a Swedish victory, bringing Latvia under Swedish control. The 18th century started with twenty years of the Great Northern War, which made Russia the new rulers of Latvia. Russian rule established serfdom in Latvia, brought on Napoleon’s invasion (which Russia defended against with a scorched earth policy, burning farmland and wrecking cities), and sparked a series of often bloody peasant revolts.
The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, giving Latvia a chance to become free again. The Versailles treaty ended WWI in the West, but didn’t cover the countries on Germany’s Eastern front, leaving them to fight for their own independence. In the case of Latvia, that pitted the newly formed Latvian Guards Organization, or Aizsargi, against the remains of the German army, the Red (Communist) Russians, and the White (non-Communist) Russians. After three years of fighting, the foreign armies were expelled and Latvia was again independent, after nearly 400 years.
That brief period lasted until 1939, when the Russians invaded again. Tens of thousands of people were deported to Siberia, along with the industries they worked in. When the Nazis invaded a year later, Many Latvians fought on their side, as the best bet to oust the Russians and believing Nazi promises of self-determination. As the Russians retreated, they again used the scorched earth policy, so Latvia ws devastated again. Self determination was an empty promise; Latvia was absorbed into “Ostland” and subjected to the Holocaust, in which tens of thousands more Latvian Jews, gays and Gypsies were murdered. When the Russians advanced through Latvia in 1944, once again cities were bombed, infrastructure destroyed and people killed. Many Latvians took advantage of the chaos to flee to neutral Sweden, but most were not so lucky.
Latvia became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic; not a satellite country like Poland or East Germany, but under the direct rule of Moscow. In Latvia, Russification meant deportations of thousands of Latvia citizens to Siberia and the importation of tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants into Latvia. At its peak, about 50% of the Latvian population was from the Soviet Union. The Soviet system couldn’t keep up with the population increase, so two to three families were forced to share the same apartment. They would each have their own living room, but shared the single kitchen and bathroom.
That went on until 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachov’s policies of glasnost and perestroika resulted in a loosening of control. The Baltic countries tested the limits of freedom, declaring their independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army responded by crashing into Lithuania in January 1991. Fourteen people were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Fearing they were next, the Latvians built anti-tank barricades out of whatever they had: rows of dump trucks were parked on the major roads; concrete blocks were stacked and cemented together to form walls around public buildings, the Riga TV transmission tower and telephone exchange; construction debris was piled in other places. None of these would stop a column of tanks, but they would have to blasted down. On the other side would be rows and rows of Latvian citizens, sacrificing themselves for freedom. Their only protection was the cameras of the news agencies, broadcasting every minute. In the end, twenty people were killed by Soviet militia and unidentified supporters. When 100,000 people matched in Moscow, demanding freedom for the Baltics, the outcome was clear. The Soviet army withdrew and the defenders of the barricades went home. Latvia declared full independence in August 1991.
This convoluted history is hard for us to get used to. We of the Shining Light on the Hill, the Exceptional Americans are used to preaching to the rest of the world about How We Do It – but that wears thin quickly here. After all, we’re talking to people whose recent ancestors fought bloody wars for their independence; the defense of the barricades were mostly non-violent, but involved considerable risk. To their further credit, they forgave the West for abandoning them to the Soviets in the first place, and joined NATO and the EU as soon as they could. (Not that they had much choice, once again.)
This sounds like a story with a happy ending, but it’s not over yet. Russia continues to support anti-democratic groups all over the world, especially in the Europe and the U.S. Nothing would suit them better than to destroy people’s faith in democracy, so they could install Russia-friendly autocrats and re-establish a form of the old Russian Empire.