Baltic Independence from the Soviet Union

by James Graham

Under Joseph Stalin the USSR re-annexed the Baltic countries in 1940. The independence the Baltic states had enjoyed since the collapse of the Tsarist empire was over. The pretext for the invasion was the articles of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that acknowledged Nazi Germany's and the USSR's separate spheres of influence. Stalin promptly invaded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and deported or executed anyone who held nationalist beliefs. Without national elites the USSR gained complete control over the Baltic people and the articles formed the basis of the post Second World War Soviet state.

The greatest change glasnost made to Soviet culture was the people no longer feared the state. Lithuanian people not only demonstrated but enjoyed their new found liberty. Demonstrators were often punished severely in the USSR and throughout the late eighties there was widespread official warnings of violence. The Lithuanian people were not deterred and the writer estimated 200,000 people risked their lives on that day alone. The demonstration was in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and marked the founding congress of Sajudis. This demonstration and the dozens like it were as much a celebration of the Lithuanian peoples rebirth of nationalism and pride as a protest against Soviet domination. The two went hand in hand as part of the Soviet suppression was the banning of patriotic songs and poetry. Sajudis as Mr Cornwell states started "as a ginger group for reform" soon grew in popularity and became a national front. It gained support from "old and young", Russians and ethnic Lithuanians alike. The mention of "Stalin's crimes against Lithuania" is particularly interesting. Stalin's crimes were suppressed and officially denied up until Gorbachevs appointment. Only glasnost allowed the sorry tale of horror to become known and openly discussed. The account is one of jubilation and courage by the Lithuanian people and of their pride in finally starting to throw off the Soviet yoke.

Lithuania and the other Baltic states Latvia and Estonia set an example of rebellion for the rest of the USSR to follow. In 1988 while the rest of the USSR was relatively calm the Baltic states were in open defiance of the Kremlin. On 24 August 1989 half the adult population of the Baltics formed a human chain stretching the entire length of the three republics to protest against the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet rule. The Soviet authorities such was their loss of touch with the average person viewed the anniversary as a celebration. In the parliamentary elections Sajudis swept the board. They were elected to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow allowing their voices to be heard nationwide through televised coverage. On 11 March 1990 by 124 votes to zero with six abstentions the Lithuanian parliament passed the Act of the Supreme Council on the Restoration of the Independent Lithuanian State. This shocked the Kremlin who replied in the only way they knew how. Tanks were sent in on the 22 March and five days later Soviet troops occupied strategic buildings. Estonia and Latvia were not far behind declaring independence on 30 March and 4 May respectively. Economic sanctions were applied but had no effect just like the military actions before them.

The Baltic republics blew a hole in the walls of the Soviet state. They had achieved the unthinkable by use of mere people power, along the way setting an example for the other republics to follow. National fronts were quickly established in most Soviet republics. Lithuania brought into the USSR by force had proved it could leave through mass protests and popular support for independence.


Collapse of The Soviet Union Series:
Introduction | Glasnost | Perestroika | Democratisation
Ethnic Problems | The Conservative Coup