Swing Shift in the Baltics

The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence

by Anatol Lieven
Yale University Press, 454 pp., $29.95

Liberal thought of our time has often treated nationalism as a relic of an unenlightened tribal past. No wonder that many are now bewildered by the passions aroused by the question of national identity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. A much more nuanced approach was elaborated by Leninist doctrine, which was mindful of nationalism’s nineteenth-century origins. After all, the great expressions of revolutionary élan of that century blended democratic rhetoric and the national aspirations of peoples struggling against monarchies. That is why the Soviet rulers, instead of denying the existence of “the national question,” attempted to defuse it and make it serve their purposes. Colonialist in fact, they tolerated the republics’ traditional cultures, but only under the condition that they would be “national in form, socialist in content.” For some of the subject peoples, however, the slogan also lent itself to an interesting reversal—“socialist in form, national in content.” The failure of the Communists to govern from the center while also maintaining the trappings of local autonomy brought about the present explosion of the empire by national entities. It probably proves that the duplicity needed to play such a game is beyond the skill of even the most capable bureaucrats.

The Baltic states were the first to break with Moscow and recover the independence that they had lost as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed on August 23, 1939. A secret protocol assigned Estonia and Latvia to the Soviets and Lithuania to Germany; but a few weeks later an additional secret clause also gave the Soviets a free hand in Lithuania. Now, after half a century of foreign domination and nearly total integration into the Soviet system, the three small countries have been able to make their claim to independence after having set in motion the events that caused one of the two big powers in the world to disappear. To understand what pushed them to act as they did is of central importance to us all, and if their driving force was nationalism, nationalism deserves our attention.

Strange as it may appear, the foundation for recent conflicts on a continental scale was laid in the Baltics when Johann Gottfried Herder, a Lutheran pastor in Riga between 1764 and 1769, discovered Baltic folklore. Fascinated by the Latvian folksongs called dainas, he was the first to formulate a theory of the national soul, an irreducible core underlying the way of life, the customs, and the mores of every nation. He found followers especially among nations oppressed by foreign powers; and his sensitivity to those folk songs is to his credit. Of great antiquity, going back to pagan times, using many symbols of a forgotten religion, these strong and beautiful songs combined oral literature and music. Festivals of choral singing were allowed by the Soviet authorities in the Baltic countries as an innocent pastime—“national in form”—but they were in fact major events in which people felt they were sharing a magical spell and responding to a buried…

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