Deportations and denials

  • 2001-06-14
  • Paul Goble
Sixty years ago this week, Soviet forces began rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from their homelands, an event that continues to resonate in all three Baltic countries, in the Russian Federation and in the West as well.

Carried out as the attention of the world was riveted on the imminent fall of Paris to German forces, the deportation of thousands of men, women and children in the Baltic countries occupied by Moscow a year earlier destroyed much of the social fabric of these countries.

Many of those deported never returned. Their places in society and the economy either remained vacant or were assumed by pro-communist groups or by non-indigenous people brought in by the Soviet authorities to solidify Moscow's control of the three countries.

More than that, however, the deportation defined the way Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians viewed and continue to view Moscow. The deportations convinced the residents of the Baltic states that the Soviet Union could not be trusted and that they must seek not only to escape from Soviet occupation but seek security guarantees from the West to prevent any new threat from Moscow.

Over the past month, Estonian President Lennart Meri, who as a 12-year-old child was among the deportees in 1941, has been visiting survivors of the deportation around his country. This week, Latvia hosted an international conference on the deportations, a conference which identified this Soviet action as "a crime against humanity." And Lithuanians, too, have remembered the deportation this year just as they have on all past anniversaries.

And all three countries have set up commissions to examine these events, to ferret out the information that the Soviet authorities sought for so long to conceal.

Nonetheless, the Russian government as the successor to the Soviet state continues to insist that the inclusion of the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union was a voluntary event and that Moscow bears no responsibility for what happened there in 1940 and later. Even more, many Russian commentators argue that the Baltic countries should be grateful that the Soviet Union took them in because that helped to protect them against the Nazis.

There are serious problems with each of these claims. Stalin absorbed the Baltic countries in 1940 after he and Hitler divided up Eastern Europe through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It is true that the Baltic governments did not order armed resistance to the Soviet occupation that followed, but only because they believed such resistance would be bloody and futile.

And the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries did little or nothing to slow the Nazi advance through them and into the Soviet Union itself in 1941. If anything, the disorder the Soviet occupation created meant that some in these three countries initially viewed the Germans as liberators rather than invaders. That reality continues to color how citizens of the Baltic countries and Russia view these events.

But it is another Russian argument that is perhaps the most troubling. The Russian government continues to insist that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were legitimately part of the Soviet Union and that as a result the West must not consider including them in NATO.

That insistence represents a challenge to the Baltic countries, who are convinced that they need the guarantees of membership and to the West, most of whose governments never recognized the forcible inclusion of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union as legitimate.

The 60th anniversary of the deportations coincides with an upsurge of Baltic efforts to be among the next new members of the Western alliance, a coincidence that makes their political impact far greater than would otherwise have been the case.