Reviews Four on-the-spot accounts. The Baltic countries’ path to the future is paved with shadows of the past
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 53-55, Vol II:I, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 17, 2010
AFTER OVER A DECADE of the intoxication of freedom that followed liberation from the Soviet Union, and the steady economic growth of recent years, reality now seems to have caught up with our Baltic neighbors. The tensions are growing within these countries pari passu the accumulating clouds over these tiger economies. Antagonisms between ethnic groups, the urban and the rural, rich and poor, young and old, are deepening. At the same time, there is a growing distrust of politicians, who seem to lack the solutions to many of the problems that countries are grapp-ling with today. Populist movements are acquiring greater influence, and, on the foreign policy front, the relationship with the powerful neighbor to the east, Russia, is a permanent source of concern.
Freelance journalist Arne Bengtsson and author Peter Handberg have each written two books depicting the Baltic countries’ recent history. A recurring theme for both authors is the marked role that history and especially the interpretation of the past play when solutions to current social problems are discussed.
Taking as his point of departure the poisoned atmosphere resulting from the decision to move the Bronze Soldier, Bengtsson succeeds in presenting a sociopolitical analysis of post-Soviet developments in the Baltic countries, especially Estonia, that is as wide as it is deep. In a follow-up work, it is Latvia and Lithuania that are the focus. Both his books cover a broad spectrum of subjects and deal with many things: everything from Baltic domestic and foreign policy to social problems such as corruption, prostitution, trafficking, economic successes and setbacks, and environmental degradation.
THE BRONZE SOLDIER, a memorial to the Soviet Union’s victory in the war against Nazi Germany, which was erected in Tallinn a few years after the end of World War II, was moved in January of 2007 on the initiative of the Estonian authorities from a central location to an out of the way place in the city. The action provoked violent protests from parts of the Russian-speaking population, and also exposed a deep rift between the Estonian majority and the country’s Russian-speaking minority.
This rift, according to Bengtsson, is the result of a mutual distrust between the two populations concerning in no small part a diametrically opposed view of history. The Russians see the monument as a symbol of liberation from the fascists, while the Estonians consider the Bronze Soldier as an expression of a nearly fifty-year Soviet occupation of the country.
Most of the Russian-speaking population does not want to, or cannot, understand the suffering of Estonians during the occupation, or even realize that Estonia and the other Baltic states were not “liberated” but rather were re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944, which, by the way, Russia does not recognize either. The governments of Estonia and Latvia, for their part, shut out the Russian-speaking people from society by means of the citizenship laws introduced shortly after independence in 1991, says Bengtsson. To retain citizenship, knowledge of the respective national languages was demanded of the people who immigrated after the reestablishment of the Soviet empire in 1944.
IN LITHUANIA, RUSSIANS were given the same rights as the Lithuanians after independence in 1991. Here, the question of the Russian minority was resolved more easily, since the number of Russian speakers was significantly lower than in the neighboring countries.
These internal political problems in Estonia and Latvia also have a strong foreign policy dimension. The question of the position of the Russian speakers spills over to the relationship to Russia, a relationship which from time to time becomes highly strained. Moscow demands that the Russian-speaking population be granted suffrage and citizenship, and therewith interferes markedly in the internal affairs of the Baltic states. From the Russian side, there have been by no means infrequent attempts to dissolve Baltic
cohesion. After the battle over the Bronze Soldier, it was Estonia that had to sit in the dog house, while Latvia — which, unlike Estonia, signed a new border agreement with Russia in 2005 — has temporarily benefited.
The experiences of sharing a border with a superpower explain why the Balts so eagerly threw themselves into the arms of NATO in 2004, and why the yes side won so clearly on the issue of EU membership that same year, says Bengtsson. The vote came to involve taking stand against Russia at least as much as it involved a strong appreciation of the value of the EU, and therefore even strong Euro-skeptics ended up adding their votes to the yes side. The EU and NATO memberships have given the Baltic countries defense security, and most people there feel no military threat from Russia today.
BUT EU MEMBERSHIP has not been entirely problem-free. In the Baltic countries, there is concern that the EU lacks a unified policy towards Russia. The disappointment and consternation was obvious when, in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius, it became clear that an agreement between Germany and Russia to build a gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea had been concluded without first having been consulted by Berlin. Since energy supply had become a central component of European security policy, it is hardly surprising that the German-Russian agreement made the Balts, but also the Poles, feel once again squeezed between two European great powers. Memories of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 did not feel entirely distant, and once again, people were reminded in an obvious way of the arrogance of major powers in relation to small nations.
In the politics of the day, the past thus makes itself felt in many ways. It is thus of great value that the historical perspectives receive a prominent place in Bengtsson’s books. He writes, with an insider’s command of his material, on developments in the Baltic States during World War II, about the occupation, the deportation, and persecution of Jews. Particularly fascinating is the story of the Japanese Consul Sugihara in Kaunas, who, like an Eastern Raoul Wallenberg, saved thousands of Jews in Lithuania. The thoroughly honorable efforts of the consul could nonetheless not prevent about ninety percent of the country’s Jews from perishing in the Holocaust, and, with that, the country tops a particularly non-flattering European statistic.
Taken as a whole, the picture of the condition of the Baltic republics Bengtsson paints is in many ways quite depressing. But is there no hope for the future? A key to continued economic growth and peaceful coexistence with the neighbor to the east is strongly linked to the success of a domestic policy that is able to bring Balts and Baltic-Russians closer together. Bengtsson thinks that the only way forward is that Estonia and Latvia follow the example of Lithuania and give all inhabitants citizenship, and that, at the same time, the Baltic-Russians must come to terms with their view of history. Only then will one be able to speak of a real integration.
IN ADDITION, THE BALTIC countries must not only invest more in research and development, now that low pay is no longer a competitive advantage. Language skills in the population at large, not just in English but also in
Russian, must also be seen as an asset. The Russian-speaking population is therefore indirectly of great importance if these countries want to play the economically and politically significant role of a bridge between Western Europe and Russia, as well as a role in a future EU enlargement to the east, which many there are hoping for.
Both of Arne Bengtsson’s two books are extremely well-written and important reflections of our Baltic neighbors, bursting with important knowledge and insightful reflections. He analyzes the rapid social transformation of the Baltic countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union with great confidence and great sensitivity, and, in addition, provides valuable historical perspectives on this development. These are two extremely important books on the dilemma faced by small nations living in the immediate vicinity of a great power, with which there is an, at best, uncertain relationship, and which has often been, to say the least, threatening. Moreover, the books also provide Baltic perspectives on the altered post-1989 Europe that are very much worth considering.
In Peter Handberg’s books, the same Baltic annihilation theme depicted by Arne Bengtsson appears. In Undergångens skuggor, however, the focus is not on the events that took place during World War II, but rather on the very real threat of global obliteration during the Cold War.
In the Baltic countries, nuclear weapons bases began to be built in the 1950s and constituted an important part of the Soviet nuclear defense during the Cold War. With the help of modern GPS techno-logy, Handberg locates these now abandoned missile bases. In the search for traces of the destruction that never took place, he takes us to launching stations for planned human annihilation, which are often not far from places where real extermination had taken place a half-century earlier.
HERE, HANDBERG MEETS people who in various ways were involved in the work at the missile bases, from the commander in charge of firing the missiles, to others, who worked with the dangerous handling of rocket fuel.
There seems not to have been any doubt that an order to carry out one’s mission would have been followed if it actually had come, nor do these people seem to have lived under any illusion about what this would have meant for them. The likely scenario was that if you had managed to press the button first, the base where you were located would itself be exposed in short order to a nuclear attack from the opposing side.
These attitudes seem to be pervasive among the people Handberg encounters, but interestingly enough — and perhaps not surprisingly — he finds the same mentality in the opposing camp. On nuclear weapons bases in the U.S., Handberg talks with “rocketeers” who, like their Soviet colleagues, neither would hesitate to follow the order to launch nor imagined anything other than doom and destruction when the missile attacks had actually commenced.
What is also interesting is attitudes to the bases among the local population of the Baltic countries. Here, fear is mixed with a certain admiration for, or even pride in the lethal activity, and the past is not infrequently spoken of in elegiac terms: “Then, we had balls out in the country.” The image of a potent past is strengthened significantly by the contrast with the decline that characterizes the nuclear facilities today.
But the missile bases and the nuclear threat have not simply left impressions in people’s memories. More physical traces of the activities have continued to characterize the Baltic countries even after the dismantling of the bases and the retreat of the Soviet troops. Health problems such as cancer are common, especially among the personnel who worked with rocket fuel, caused by toxins that have given rise to a more real and palpable threat of death than the nuclear weapons themselves. Large amounts of toxins were dumped in the land around the missile bases, which has led to alarming environmental problems, and has been costly because of the need to decontaminate the area.
NOT UNEXPECTEDLY, YET presumably not known to most Swedes, one of the results of Handberg’s investigations is that the Baltic nuclear weapons, among many potential targets in Western Europe, were also intended for Sweden, which was seen by the Soviet military leadership as little more than a base of troop support for NATO. Swedish and Baltic history are therewith bound together in a chilling way during a period that otherwise was characterized by a discontinuance of contacts between the countries.
Undergångens skuggor is a piece of extremely fascinating and at the same time frightening recent history about our immediate surroundings. Handberg has proceeded very systematically and carefully in his efforts to locate the missile bases and map out their activities, which gives the book a much-needed documentary solidity, while the encounters with the people who were involved in the activities gives life to the story. With unerring formulations, and penetrating observations, Handberg captures the daily drama of the Cold War with great empathy.
I would also like to emphasize Handberg’s extraordinary ability to connect the nuclear build-up in the Baltic countries to the global arms race, in which local history is connected to world-historical events. This was particularly evident during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear missiles from the Baltic countries were transported all the way to the Caribbean.
In Peter Handberg’s follow-up book, we can also follow along on the author’s journeys through the Baltic countries. Here, however, it is not nuclear weapons bases that constitute the primary targets. The journey takes him to other places where he meets the figures and characters from the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One
moment he comes across an incarcerated murder suspect in Narva, or is participating in a theater production in Tartu, the next moment he is drinking coffee with a Senegalese professional association football player in Daugavpils.
BY ALLOWING the voices of people themselves to be heard, Handberg brings to life a piece of tumultuous recent history in the post-Soviet Baltic countries, where the changes on the surface, symbolically, in the form of the replacement of the hammer and sickle of the old system having been replaced by advertising signs for large multinational corporations, seem to take place significantly faster than the reshaping of people’s attitudes. He digs deep into many fascinating life stories and uncovers worldviews that have been shaped by experiences from World War II and the Soviet occupation that followed.
It is particularly captivating to examine the testimonies of people who in one way or another have stood by the occupying powers during World War II. What makes these stories valuable is that they are about ordinary people who, under pressure from the occupying forces, carried out deeds that had gruesome consequences. These are people who most often have not received the same attention as the executioners, but to the same extent as the executioners were themselves necessary cogs in the machinery of extermination.
The former railway official, Ojars, coupled railway cars that were carrying his countrymen to Siberia or were transporting Jews from different corners of Europe to more nearby locations for the Holocaust in Latvia. These events have plagued Ojars ever since, and he has often felt guilt, and ruminated over why he, without any resistance, served both the Soviet and the Nazi masters.
BUT NOT EVERYONE is as eager to share their experiences of the past. When Handberg meets Ojars’s childhood friend Janis, a police constable during the war, he meets with resistance. According to Handberg, Janis was most likely involved in the murder of Jews, but Handberg never manages to get answers to his questions about precisely how Janis was involved, whether he himself was one of the executioners or “only” stood guard at the place of execution. For Handberg, the total silence he encounters is oh so telling.
OJARS’S REMORSE AND Janis’s denial or active repression are two ways in which the unpleasant events of the past have been handled in the postwar Baltic countries. People speak of the outrages during the Nazi occupation only with great reluctance, and people definitely do not want to be associated with the Holocaust. The mere possibility of any suspected involvement means that questions about whether one was an informant or a sympathizer during the Soviet occupation are passed over in silence. There is also a clear sense of disappointment with the West, which is thought to have betrayed the Baltic states during Soviet occupation and which now — after the liberation — seems more intent on asking questions about the Balts’ involvement in the Holocaust than discussing these same people’s suffering during fifty years of Communist dictatorship.
A victim mentality is always present in the Baltic countries. It seems to turn into an absurd struggle, a contest over who has suffered most, Russians during Nazism, or Balts during Communism, and finally, Jews, under both regimes. Perhaps it is also this struggle to be the most oppressed which continues to create problems for the Baltic countries and is part of what makes a rapprochement between the Balts and Baltic-Russians so problematic.
Kärleksgraven is a very remarkable and interesting book, written with tremendous stylistic acuity and in a most diverse and expressive language. As in Undergångens skuggor, the author succeeds completely in connecting people’s everyday experiences to major international political events. In the quotidian, the greatest revolutionary period in the history of Europe since World War II is reflected.
Finally, to summarize Bengtsson’s and Handberg’s books, I would like to emphasize that in all four depictions, solid knowledge of the history and domestic conditions of the Baltic countries is combined with analytical accuracy. In encounters with people and memories, our neighbors’ dramatic past is brought to life in an extraordinarily captivating way. These books constitute excellent entry points for anyone looking for knowledge about the Baltic countries. Therefore, I must warmly recommend them. ≈