Generalissimus J.V. Stalin.

Reviews Pioneering work. The history of Soviet incorporations

+ Elena Zubkova Pribaltika i Kreml, 1940–1953 [The Baltic States and the Kremlin, 1940–1953], Moscow: Rosspen 2008. 351 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages, 45-46, Vol I:1, 2008
Published on on February 16, 2010

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RELATIVELY FEW PROFESSIONAL Russian historians have been interested in the history of the Baltic states during the period beginning in 1920 and running through the 1980s. To some degree, this is rooted in the Soviet tradition of preferring to have officially approved works on the Baltic Soviet republics written by people from said countries, as long as they respect the requirements of the ”party line” and the demands of censorship. During the Soviet era, the important research on the Baltic states was conducted in institutes of higher education in Western Europe and the United States, with whatever sources were available there. Of course, the language barrier means that few Russian historians can be expected to address Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian themes. But there are also problems that result from political controversies, which have overshadowed the academic debates. In the lead up to the official commemoration in Russia in 2005 of the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the Baltic and Eastern European countries’ interpretation of the significance of the events was accentuated. What for Russians and other peoples in the Soviet Union was the memory of the hard-won victory over Nazi Germany, brings back memories in the Baltic states and large parts of Eastern Europe of a long period of oppression via the Sovietization of these states. The same conflicting interpretations of the relevance of the past for today’s Estonia lay behind, on the one hand, the decision in 2007 to move the Bronze Soldier in the center of Tallinn, and, on the other hand, the violent protests that the decision aroused in some Russian circles. The official Russian perspective is that passages in the Latvian historical works taken out of context have been highlighted in a tendentious way. Russian writers and journalists have tried to provide explanations for the anti-Russian attitudes in the Baltic states in politicized, anti-Baltic terms.1

THE EFFORTS OF PROFESSIONAL historians have so far fallen flat in the face of these controversies. For this reason, Elena Zubkova’s new book can be described as an unparalleled pioneering work. It could pave the way for new research and new dialogues between interested parties in Russia and the Baltic countries, despite the political oppositions on both sides. In her appearances last year, Zubkova expressed her belief that the traumas of the respective peoples — for Russia, the Nazi German attack of 1941, for the Baltic states, the Sovietization of 1940–1941, which resumed in 1944 — will at some point become part of a common past. In the same way that other antagonisms in Europe between different peoples have been overcome, Russians will come to gain an understanding of the Baltic peoples’ perspective. But Zubkova emphasizes that this is actually not the task of a historian. The historian works with the documents of the time and carries on a conversation with the historically relevant people in order to create greater understanding of their actions. Zubkova also engages in a polemic against the many Russian journalists who have asked for her views on past conflicts.2 She therefore draws a sharp contrast between history as a science of past events, and, on the other hand, the memory of the past or the politicized use of historical events. This attitude is directed against both Russian and Baltic publishers. Historians of course have a moral responsibility to their own time. But, Zubkova emphasizes, it would be bad history, if not a flatly falsified history, to use the values and standards of our own time as a screen for representations of the past. Historians must, then, carry on a dialogue with the people of the past based on documents and other source materials emanating from other times.

ELENA ZUBKOVA IS A professor at the Institute of Russian History at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and teaches at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU). Her research in the 1990s revolved around Soviet social life in the period immediately following World War II.3 She has also edited a source volume on postwar Soviet society, which is used alongside her monograph in course instruction.4 Zubkova has compiled CD-ROM-based teaching materials on the Communist Party’s 20th Congress, which was presented at a conference at RGGU in March 2003 in connection with the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death.5

Zubkova’s new book about the history of the Baltic states from the 1930s to Stalin’s death in 1953 is primarily a study of the decisions, deliberations, and objectives of the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. Her research goal is clearly delineated and is focused on the areas where the Russian source material can supplement the already familiar picture of developments in the Baltic region. She makes exemplary use of some of the central Russian archives to survey and identify Stalin’s deliberations and the information sent out by the Politburo, as well as the reports by foreign, defense, and interior departments (the latter known, before 1946, as the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) on conditions in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

THE FIRST CHAPTER of the book (pp. 15–43) provides a lucid description of the authoritarian regimes that were established in the Baltic region during the interwar period. Under the heading The Long Year of 1940 (pp. 44–127), Zubkova describes how the Soviet leadership, with as much determination as what appears to have been improvisation, annexed the Baltic states, beginning with the small step of negotiating over military bases in September of 1939, and progressing to the deportations of tens of thousands of people from the elites in June of 1941. To shed light on the extensive repression that took place in 1940–1941 and during the postwar period, she bases her work here on the most recent Russian and Baltic research, at least that which has been translated into English or German. Chapter 3 of the book (pp. 128–190) describes how the Soviet leadership planned and carried out the construction of the Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania after World War II. In this context, she provides new data on the origins of the large deportations of 1949. Chapter 4 (pp. 191–256) contains a detailed review of the armed resistance in the Baltic republics that was led by the so-called Forest Brothers. Their story has been surrounded by legends and myths because of the lack, until the 1990s, of source material and research in the Baltic region. Zubkova supplements the latest Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian research with information from the archives of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in Moscow. The book concludes with an analysis of how Moscow sought to establish a new political elite, and how the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian cadres were recruited from the few communists that existed in these countries and in other parts of the Soviet Union. Zubkova’s tentative summary of the changes that the Soviet leadership sought to bring about during the year after Stalin’s death is that the Baltic Soviet republics should have an informal status that separated them from the other Soviet republics.

Zubkova criticizes what she takes to be a misleading application of the terms ”occupation” and ”genocide” to phenomena in the history of the Baltic region.

IN A MILITARY CONTEXT, the notion of occupation denotes the temporary possession of territory belonging to an enemy. But Stalin’s intentions, Zubkova stresses, in no way involved anything temporary. Before 1939, he had already focused his foreign policy on restoring as much of the empire as possible, in the west as well as in the east. Through blackmail, the Baltic regimes were forced to accept Soviet bases in the area. However, it was evident that the Kremlin lacked a detailed plan for how the area would be incorporated. Zubkova’s reluctance to use the customary term ”occupation” does not mean that she, like certain Russian writers and journalists, would deny the widespread repression that was directed against various groups within the Baltic elites. On the contrary, Zubkova believes that the concepts annexation, incorporation, and Sovietization more clearly show how thorough the Kremlin was in its efforts to rebuild the entire state apparatus, the political leadership, and in fact all areas of social life. In violation of international law and human rights, a hard, repressive policy was pursued against large segments of the populations of these countries. To speak of occupation would lead to misleading comparisons.

Zubkova also considers it wrong to apply the term ”genocide” to instances of deportation to work settlements or concentration camps in the interior of the Soviet Union. None of these actions were taken on the basis of ethnic criteria, nor were they intended to eliminate the possibility of the future existence of these peoples. From the Kremlin’s point of view, these were socially and politically motivated actions that once and for all would make it impossible for a bourgeois intelligentsia or a bourgeoisie or conservative regime to be reestablished in these states. Since 1937, similar steps had been taken on the basis of social, political, and military-strategic considerations against other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Such actions were taken in the annexed, western parts of Belarus and the Ukraine that had been parts of Poland during the interwar period.

ZUBKOVA CONDUCTS A THROUGH review of the categories of the population that were affected by the deportations to the interior of the Soviet Union. She also attempts, with the access to the various types of source material available today, to determine which of the estimates of the number of people affected are most reliable. From the late 1980s until the time when the relevant archives became available to independent researchers from Russia, the Baltic states, and the West, there have been inconsistent reports on how extensive these deportations were supposed to have been. In most cases, the estimates made previously have had to be lowered considerably.

The same applies to most of the information circulated in the West until the 1980s on how many Soviet citizens suffered under Stalin’s terror, how many prisoners toiled away in the gulags, and how many died of hardship during deportations from the Caucasus and Crimea at the end of World War II. It has been a tedious but important task for research on Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries to build up a solid data base to be used for analyses, regardless of the consequences that the new findings might have for the political use of history.6

ZUBKOVA’S BOOK is part of the new series, Istoriia stalinizma [The History of Stalinism], which the renowned publisher Rosspen (Rossiiskaia Politicheskaia Akademiia) has started. Timed to coincide with the launching of the series, a radio program is being broadcast with long interviews with the authors on the popular radio station ”Moscow’s Echo” (Echo Moskvy). Around a hundred volumes of both recent Russian research as well as translations into Russian are planned for the book series. Among the works so far published are the translations Der rote Terror: Geschichte des Stalinismus, by Jörg Baberowski, and Stalin und die Juden, by Arno Lustiger, on the tragic history of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. One of Russia’s most prominent agricultural historians, Viktor Kondrashin, has come out with a new book about the hunger catastrophe that struck large parts of Russia in 1932 and 1933. Together with Mark Jansen, Nikita Petrov has written an expanded Russian version of Stalin’s Loyal Executioner that was published by Hoover Institution Press a few years ago. The book uses extensive material from the archives of the security services and the Communist Party in order to explain and elucidate the great purges that took place under Nicholas Eshov, head of the Russian secret police, from 1937 to 1938. Tatiana Volokitina has, in line with Elena Zubkova’s pioneering work on the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, led several projects that, in a similar way — by delving into the Russian archives — have yielded new perspective on the Sovietization of the Eastern European states after World War II. ≈


  1. See for example Iu. V. Emelianov, Pribaltika. Potjemu oni ne ljubjat Bronzovogo soldata? [The Baltic States: Why Don’t They Like the Bronze Soldier?], Moscow 2007.
  2. See Elena Zubkova in ”Pribaltika i Kreml”, Argumenty i fakty, 2008.07.27, as well as the radio interview for Echo Moskvy on 2008.09.20.
  3. Elena Zubkova, Russia after the War: Hopes, Illusions, and Disappointments, 1945–1957, Armont, NY, 1998; idem, Poslevoennoe sovetskoe obshchestvo: Politika i povsednevnost’, 1945–1953 [The Post-War Soviet Society: Politics and Everyday Life], Moscow 1999.
  4. Elena Zubkova, ed., Sovetskaja zjizn’ 1945–1953 [Soviet Life, 1945–1953], Moscow 2003.
  5. XX S”ezd. Informatsionnyj-obrazovatel’nyj proekt, [20th Party Congress: Information and Teaching Project], Moscow 2003.
  6. Aleksandr Djukov, Mif o genotside, repressii Sovetskich vlastej v Estonii (1940–1953) [The Myth of Genocide: Soviet Repression in Estonia, 1940–1953)], Moscow 2007.

+ Elena Zubkova Pribaltika i Kreml, 1940–1953 [The Baltic States and the Kremlin, 1940–1953], Moscow: Rosspen 2008. 351 pages.