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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

The Politics of Uncertainty: the US, the Baltic Question, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

Author interview with Una Bergmane

Una Bergmane’s new book The Politics of Uncertainty: the US, the Baltic Question, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Oxford University Press, 2023) explores the complex interplay between international and domestic dynamics in the Soviet collapse. To mark the long-awaited book’s publication, Peripheral Histories? editor Siobhán Hearne spoke to Una about the remarkable story of the restoration of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence that occurred against the backdrop of the collapsing Soviet Union.

PH: Could you start by briefly describing for our readers what the Baltic question was and what motivated you to write about it?

The Baltic question is the eternal question of what happens to the countries and peoples that are perceived as the lands in between, the small states surrounded by big powers, and the territories between Moscow and Berlin, or Moscow and Washington. During the Cold War the Baltic question was actually a series of questions about international law, and about right over might. In 1940 when the Red Army entered Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the US or most European countries did not recognise Soviet annexation as legal. And thus, during the Cold War, in the eyes of the West, three of the fifteen Soviet republics were legally not part of the USSR. For Gorbachev, the Baltic question was the question of the deep tensions at the heart of the perestroika project: the one between the democratisation of Soviet society and the preservation of the Soviet empire. For the West, at the end of the Cold War the Baltic question was the question of principles vs realpolitik calculations. The question was whether to support the Baltic push for independence, and thus risk the deterioration of East-West relations and the destabilisation of Gorbachev’s power, or whether to support the integrity of the USSR and thus abandon the decades long non-recognition policy. I wanted to write about the Baltic push for independence because I wanted to tell the story of the Soviet collapse from a new perspective. And finally, because being born in Riga I knew what we all know now thanks to Ukrainians: countries in the eastern part of Europe are not just “lands in between”, they are actual states with their own agency and aspirations.

PH: The Politics of Uncertainty provides a welcome corrective to the many Moscow-centric accounts of the Soviet collapse by examining developments in the Baltic ‘periphery’ and exploring how ‘marginal actors defied their marginality and found strategies for gaining visibility on the international stage’. How does shifting focus onto perspectives that have thus far been deemed peripheral or marginal offer new and more nuanced perspectives on the disintegration of the Soviet Union?

Empires are built upon an asymmetric power relation between an imperial centre and the periphery. If we want to understand why empires collapse, we have to understand why and how that power relation changed. This is something that cannot be studied just by tracing what happened in Moscow. We have to take into account the agency of the people living in the so-called periphery and look at their motivations. Why did the Baltic republics reject Soviet rule? We can learn a lot about the failure of the Soviet imperial project if we look at Soviet nationalities and migration policies in the Baltic countries, and we can also see the importance of collective memory. The key driving forces of the Baltic independence movements were personal, family and collective memories about Stalin’s repressions and the loss of independence. This is something that Gorbachev (unlike Alexander Yakovlev, one of his key advisers) did not fully understand, as what mattered for him was the bright future that perestroika seemed to promise for Soviet citizens.

Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki, 1990

Source: Wikimedia Commons

PH: Your book uses uncertainty as an analytical framework. How do you define uncertainty in relation to Soviet and US Baltic policy, and how instrumental was uncertainty in this period of profound historical change?

My book shows how at a time of deep historical change the disruption of existing power structures causes uncertainty that limits the agency of the powerful (such as the decision makers in Moscow or Washington) and opens windows of opportunity for those seen as marginal. In the case of the US, there was general uncertainty about how to deal with the Soviet Union when the Cold War tensions that had long structured the international system faded away. The unexpected rise of a reformist leader in the USSR left Americans in uncharted waters, and they struggled to ascribe meaning to Gorbachev’s actions and untangle the complexity of Soviet Union’s internal struggles. For the Soviets, the problem was the question of how to deal with the Soviet republics when the imperial relations between the center and the periphery started to change. When the democratizing rationale of perestroika and actors in the periphery pushed for reform in center-republic relations, Moscow was caught unprepared, hesitant, and overwhelmed by other seemingly more urgent issues. The Baltic countries used these hesitations in Moscow and Washington to advance their independence projects, both domestically and internationally.

PH: In the context of the Cold War, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were referred to collectively as ‘the Baltic states’ or ‘the Baltic republics’ in both western contexts and within the Soviet Union. This tendency persists in the present day and often obscures the vastly different social, linguistic, ethnic, political, and economic contexts of each country. How did the Baltic independence movements differ both before and during perestroika?

Baltic independence movements did indeed differ from one another. The Estonian pro-independence forces were very creative and innovative but divided. They came up with the idea to give real sense to the line in the Soviet constitution about republican sovereignty by declaring the dominance of Estonian laws over all-Union laws. This move had a major impact upon the Soviet Union, as almost all Soviet republics followed the Estonian example, which created serious problems for the central power. At the same time there was real rivalry between Estonian Popular Front Rahvarinne and the Estonian National Independence Party (ERSP). The ERSP was more radical than Rahvarinne but similarly creative, as they pushed the idea that Estonians should register their pre-1940 citizens and elect alternative institutions.

Latvian pro-independence forces faced the most complicated situation. Latvia had seen the largest influx of Russian-speaking migrants from other Soviet republics, and Latvians were reduced to barely 52% of the population. At the same time, the Latvian Communist Party was purged in the late 1950s of its most progressive forces and Russified much more than the Lithuanian Communist Party. Thus, the Latvian Popular Front Tautas Fronte had to work with a very ethnically diverse population and a very dogmatic communist party. It also had to compete with a more right-wing force: the Latvian National Independence Movement, which never became as prominent as its Estonian homologue, the ERSP.

Finally, the Lithuanian Sąjūdis was the boldest of all three movements, declaring the independence of Lithuanian already on 11 March 1990. The political courage was matched by favourable circumstances: the Lithuanian population was the most ethnically homogenous among all three Baltic countries and the majority Lithuania Communist Party strongly supported the declaration of independence.

The Baltic Way demonstration, 23 August 1989.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

PH: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were regarded as exceptional Soviet republics, both in the eyes of the Soviet government, broader population, and western governments. Why were the Baltics seen as exceptional and how did this unique status influence Baltic experiences of Soviet collapse and the immediate decade thereafter?

As I mentioned before, in the eyes of the West the Baltic countries were legally not part of the Soviet Union and that marked a huge difference between them and the other Soviet republics. The Baltics’ geographical situation also played in their favour. Unlike, for example, Azerbaijan or Georgia, they were not just any periphery of the Soviet empire, they were the Western periphery of it. On the one hand, it enabled them to claim sameness with the West by affirming their Europeanness and in doing so, improve their position within the racialized hierarchies of national aspirations. On the other hand, the active interest that Nordic countries and Poland took in the Baltic situation increased their visibility on the international stage.

The image that the Baltic republics had in the Soviet collective imagination was shaped by the ethnic, racial, and economic hierarchies that structured the Soviet life. Imperial domination over Central Asian republics by the “Russian older brother” was justified through narratives of “backwardness” and “modernisation.” Meanwhile, Baltic countries were perceived as a “civilized” and “advanced” region were Soviet rule was officially legitimized by the liberation and Soviet victory during the Great Patriotic War. Consumer goods produced in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania became status symbols, and the quality of life in the Baltics attracted not just millions of tourists but also hundreds of thousands of migrants from other Soviet republics. For decades, the three countries were used to showcase Soviet success, and in the late 1980s Gorbachev hoped that they would become a testing ground for his economic reforms. Facing the Baltic determined push for independence, many Soviet actors such as Yeltsin or Gorbachev’s own liberal advisors started to argue that the Baltic states could be granted independence, while hoping to keep the rest of the Soviet Union together. This idea that the Baltic states were different to other Soviet republics had long term consequences. As we know today, the Baltic states have been able to join the EU and NATO, while this has been made impossible for other countries, like Georgia or Ukraine.

Una Bergmane, a native of Latvia, is Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute at Helsinki University and a Baltic Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the United States. You can find her on Twitter @UnaBergmane.

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