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The Baltic Way History and Culture in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania 1918–2018


1905–1920: Stirrings of Independence

Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians went through a period of national awakening in the second half of the nineteenth century. The awakening was first cultural in nature, emphasizing the creation of national literatures and the revival of old traditions. Later, this gave way to a more modern concern about social injustices and the need for profound change in Baltic societies. The next major event in the road to Baltic independence was explicitly political in nature. Having begun in Moscow, the 1905 Revolution swept through the Baltic provinces. Strikes and demonstrations took place, and manors belonging to the Baltic Germans were burned down. The revolt was savagely suppressed by the Imperial Russian Army, and this radicalized the Baltic populations. The movement against imperial rule intensified, and in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the aftermath of World War I, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania became independent states. They had to fight for their survival in a number of “wars after the war” against Soviet Russia and Poland.


After the War: Humanitarian Relief

The destruction of World War I had left Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania devastated. Urgently in need of food and medicine, the Baltic states appealed for help. The American Relief Administration, administered by Herbert Hoover, came to their aid. The ARA established feeding stations across the region, providing food for thousands of children daily, as well as medical and dental care. The people of the Baltic countries were deeply appreciative of this crucial assistance and expressed their gratitude with testimonials and festivities honoring ARA officials.


Recognition and Diplomacy

After 1919, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania sought international recognition as independent countries within Europe. Several treaties between the Baltic states, the Soviet Union, and Poland were successfully concluded in 1919–1920 and the Baltic countries joined the League of Nations the following year. During the interwar period, however, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania did not succeed in their efforts to create a strong Baltic or a Nordic-Baltic federation, leaving them weak in a dangerous neighborhood of larger states who sometimes harbored expansive intentions. Nonetheless, the Baltic states came to be seen as actors in their own right and their independence was acknowledged by many other countries.


The Interwar Era and the Rise of Authoritarian Regimes

In the first years of independence for the Baltic states, political parties were formed on the left and right and competed for power in elections. A group of politicians emerged—among them Kārlis Ulmanis in Latvia; Konstantin Päts in Estonia; and Antanas Smetona in Lithuania—who would play major roles in their countries for many years. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, as the political situation in Europe became more unstable and dictatorships were imposed in many countries, authoritarian regimes were established in all three Baltic countries. Led by Ulmanis, Päts, and Smetona, these were not totalitarian governments like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but they did curtail political liberties. Political parties like the Social Democrats were banned, and a small number of persons were imprisoned.


The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and World War II

The first period of independence for the Baltic republics came to an end in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler agreed on a non-aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign ministers of the two powers) that divided Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and assigned the Baltic states to the latter. Under Soviet rule in 1940–1941, thousands of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian officials, intellectuals, and others were deported to Siberia. When the Nazi German Army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Baltic states came under Nazi rule. The Baltic peoples suffered, and a terrible toll—the Holocaust—was exacted on the Jewish population of the region. As the Nazi German Army retreated before the Red Army in 1945, the Baltics were again annexed by the Soviet Union.

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Displaced Persons: Fleeing the Baltic States

At the end of the war, a wave of Baltic persons, fearing the return of Soviet rule, fled Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for Germany. Others relocated to Sweden and other European countries. When the Allies defeated the Germans, most of the refugees in Germany ended up in displaced persons camps. Although they did not have complete freedom, the Baltic displaced persons succeeded in preserving their national traditions, celebrating holidays and maintaining traditional arts and crafts. Many of these refugees would spend several years in the camps waiting to emigrate to other countries that would accept them.


Arrival and a New Life in the United States

Many displaced persons from the Baltic countries sought to go to the United States, which they saw as a land of freedom and great opportunity. When these refugees, many of whom were highly educated, were eventually given the right to emigrate, they often had to work at menial jobs until they found better work. While eventually finding a home in America, these immigrants thought of themselves as American Latvians, American Estonians, and American Lithuanians, and they continued to observe many Baltic traditions.

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Resistance and Diplomacy During the Cold War

Under Soviet rule from 1944 to 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania appeared to have literally disappeared from the political map. During the Cold War, the cause of Baltic independence was a marginal issue for everyone but Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians themselves. Their cause was aided, however, by the United States’ non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. Broadcasts by Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe reached the populations of the Baltic region, ensuring that these people knew that they were not forgotten by the West. During the last decades of the Cold War, young people in the occupied Baltic states / Soviet Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania participated in alternative forms of culture, and dissidents began to express themselves more openly.

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The Singing Revolution and the Drive for Renewed Independence

In the late 1980s, large cracks began to appear in the Soviet system in the Baltic area. Soviet security forces, notably the KGB, attempted to suppress all signs of dissidence and opposition. They did not succeed. During the late 1980s, the drive for renewed independence for the Baltic states gathered steam in all three occupied countries and could not be contained, despite continuing Soviet efforts to do so. Rallies were held, leaflets and texts were published, all with the same goal: to re-establish the sovereignty that had been lost in 1939. Slowly but surely, the police states in Soviet Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began to be openly challenged. Resistance often took shape within traditional culture. In the mass song festivals popular among Baltic people, banned and patriotic songs were sung in what came to be known as “The Singing Revolution.”

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Repression of the Independence Movement

Although the protests in the Baltic states were largely non-violent, the movements for independence eventually encountered violent repression by Soviet security forces. In January 1991, fourteen civilians were killed in Vilnius by these forces; on January 20, five people (including two policemen) lost their lives in Rīga. Despite the attempt by Soviet authorities to suppress the revolt in the Baltic states, opposition only intensified. After the so-called August Putsch or Soviet coup d’état attempt and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic states finally regained their independence. However distant the first period of independence might have seemed, it did provide an example for the Baltic countries to build institutions and foster the growth of civil society.


The Baltic States after 1991

Securing their independence did not end the problems of the Baltic countries. The Soviet system they had opposed had to be completely transformed, with the emergence of market economies and democratic practices. The Baltic states began their independence with low levels of income and Gross Domestic Product. They were at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the countries of Western Europe. There were other, more social problems. The presence of large Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia meant that issues of integration and language became important. By and large, however, the Baltic states made impressive progress in a very short number of years. In 2004, they joined both the European Union and NATO. Their return to Europe was complete.

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Shaping Collections—What’s Here at Stanford

The Baltic collections at Stanford date back to the first years of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence. Initially, this was due to Herbert Hoover’s decision to send the records of the American Relief Administration to his alma mater, Stanford. These became part of the founding collections of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. In the meantime, Stanford Libraries began to acquire publications from the Baltic states, in an ongoing process. Since the creation of the Baltic program in 2013, the library has added thousands of new books, periodicals and manuscript collections to its collection, now one of the largest in the United States, and launched a program of events, exhibits, and projects. Similarly, the Hoover Institution Archives continues to collect materials, including the microfilmed records of the Lithuanian KGB. These records include information on the methods of the KGB, its use of informers, and the repression of “anti-Soviet” opposition.

The Baltic Video Archive of Stanford Libraries consists of four oral history collections, each of which tells the story of the Baltic countries through personal video testimonies. The testimonies touch on the Second World War and the Nazi and Soviet occupations and repression in the Baltic region, as well as the stories of Baltic refugees. The archive also includes stories told by the more recent generation, the so-called “digital nomads,” who have migrated to and established enterprises in California’s Silicon Valley.

To learn more about Stanford's Baltic collections, visit Hoover Institution Library & Archives' Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian collections pages and Stanford Libraries' subject page for Baltic studies.

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