Swing Shift in the Baltics

In Lieven’s book I found a perfect understanding of our dilemma. I have said little here about his main subject, “The Baltic Revolution,” as seen day by day by a conscientious journalist. But readers who wish to explore the extraordinary spectacle of an empire falling apart will find in Lieven’s book an intelligent, perceptive, and solidly informative guide to recent Baltic history.

Czesław Miłosz, New York Review of Books

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About the Author

Anatol Lieven is a professor in Georgetown University in Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC and a member of the academic board of the Valdai discussion club in Russia. He also serves on the advisory committee of the South Asia Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He holds a BA and PhD from Cambridge University in England.

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In January 1990 I returned to London from Romania, where I had been covering the revolution there (still strapped into a surgical corset, because I fractured my spine in an accident while driving into Afghanistan the previous September). I went to see the foreign editor of The Times, and for my next assignment asked to go to the Baltic republics, because I was convinced that the inevitable consequence of the revolutions in eastern Europe would be the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself (though I expected this to take several years, not 18 months). 

He was deeply amused at the ridiculous idea that the USSR could possibly collapse, and wanted to send me back to the Balkans instead. When I insisted, he offered a compromise. I could go to the Baltic for three months, and if during that time nothing much had happened, I would have to go elsewhere for The Times. By the time three months had passed, Lithuania had declared independence and Gorbachev had imposed an economic semi-blockade on the republic. 

I ended up spending the next 18 months in the USSR, including visits to Moscow and the Caucasus, on two repeatedly extended fortnight-long visitor visas from Estonian state TV – itself a sign of just how chaotic the Soviet Union had become by that time. At one point in Lithuania together with colleagues I was briefly arrested by Soviet troops, and when they looked at my very odd documents was quite convinced that I would be put on a plane straight back to London. In fact, they grunted irritably and let us all go. They obviously had more important things on their minds than the dubious visa status of a junior Western journalist.

In January 1990 I was tempted to head for the Caucasus rather than the Baltic, because the conflict between Armenians and Azeris had already begun (barely held in check by Soviet troops), and it was obvious that the independence struggles of the Caucasian republics would be much more violent and dramatic than those of the Baltic peoples – which proved tragically to be the case.

I decided on the Baltic for both professional and personal reasons. I thought (opportunistically) that Western audiences would care much more about what happened in the Baltic, and news from there would get much bigger headlines. The personal reason was that my father’s family is from what is now Latvia: by ultimate origin Livonian (don’t ask – it’s complicated), then Baltic German, and successively in the service of the Teutonic Knights, Poland, Sweden and the Russian Empire. 

The book that emerged from my stay had a number of different goals. Firstly, at certain important moments I was the only regular Western journalist on the spot. There were a number of people from the Baltic emigrations in the USA and elsewhere, but they functioned largely (and quite rightly and honourably) as media representatives of the national movements. I thought therefore that my eyewitness account of the struggle for independence would be a useful historical document.

Secondly, I wanted to describe and celebrate the historical and cultural background of the Baltic peoples for Western audiences who in general knew almost nothing about them (it was not unusual at that time for copy-editors on Western publications to mistake “Balkan” for “Baltic”). In the process, I also tried to bring out how very different the Baltic nations are from each other.

I wanted to commemorate what I called the “Lost Atlantises” of the Baltic: the great vanished traditions of the Germans, Poles and (much more terribly) the Jews. This was a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and a way of connecting to my own ancestors. As to the Poles, my interest in them stemmed originally from my great love of the works of Czeslaw Milosz, whose memoirs accompanied me throughout my time in Lithuania, and who I am honoured to say wrote a very positive review of the book in the New York Review of Books.

Finally, the book portrayed that very little known and badly misunderstood people (or rather population, as they had not settled down into a real community), the Baltic Russians (or rather Russian-speakers, because they came from a whole range of Soviet nationalities). It also warned of the great dangers involved in their relationships with Latvia and Estonia, stemming from the very understandable but nonetheless troubling reaction of the Latvians and Estonians against the huge number of migrants to the region under Soviet rule, encouraged by the Soviet government in order to weaken and eventually destroy the possibility of future Baltic national revolt. 

In part, the book tries to set the historical record on this issue straight; because already when I sat down to write the book in the autumn of 1992 it was clear that the Baltic governments, assisted by ignorant and biased Western journalists and academics who arrived after August 1991, were determinedly obliterating some important facts: that a large minority of the Russian-speakers had voted for Baltic independence in the referenda of the spring of 1991; that Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia had recognized Baltic independence months before August 1991, and that the Russian liberal intelligentsia had expressed strong support for the Balts; and above all, that prior to independence the leaders of the Latvian and Estonia national movements had promised both to Yeltsin personally and in public that after independence the Russians in these states would enjoy full civic, political, cultural and linguistic rights. These promises were flagrantly broken by subsequent Latvian and Estonian governments, and the book warned of the dangers of this.

With hindsight, it is clear that I exaggerated the danger. Various factors were responsible for preventing a deep crisis over the rights of the Baltic Russians; some of which I mentioned in the book, others of which I failed to predict. Due to their (mostly) recent arrival, different origins, and above all the atomizing and depoliticizing effects of Soviet Communist rule (a theme I explore further in my work on Russia in the 1990s), the Baltic Russians turned out to have a very weak capacity for mass protest. 

The danger of violent ethnic clashes between Balts and Russians was reduced by two other things. First and most important was something that I emphasise and greatly praise in the book: the completely peaceful character of the Baltic independence movements and the complete lack of violence by the Latvian and Estonian states in their treatment of the Russian minorities – in stark contrast, alas, to the behavior of the national movements and independent states of the Caucasus.

Secondly, after independence and still more after the Baltic States joined the European Union, huge numbers of younger Balts and Baltic Russians left to work in Western Europe (Latvia and Estonia have experienced some of the steepest population declines of any countries in the world). This greatly reduced the chances of mass unrest on the streets. Subsequent protests often consisted quite literally of Russian grandmothers hitting Latvian and Estonian police over the head with umbrellas and walking sticks: farce averting tragedy.

In spite of considerable Russian anger at the Balts, Russia proved far more restrained in its dealing with the Baltic States than I had expected. I did not predict the full extent of Russian weakness and dependence on the West in the 1990s. I also however did not expect that the reaction against this in Russia would produce not an aggressive nationalist extremist, but a figure like Putin: entirely ruthless, but also a cold-blooded Realist. Especially after the Balts joined NATO and the EU, aggression against them was quite simply far too dangerous and not at all in Russia’s interest.

The last reason for the avoidance of crisis however is that under intense pressure from the European Union (and to a lesser extent NATO), Latvia and Estonia considerably modified their original laws on citizenship, that would not just have disenfranchised everyone who arrived (or whose parents or even grandparents arrived) under Soviet rule, but would have denied most of them any chance of ever gaining citizenship. The EU no doubt did much less than it should have done in this regard. Nonetheless, what it did achieve was very important; and if my book contributed in a tiny way to encouraging this, then it was worth writing.